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  • Writer's pictureShannon Rampe

DM Tips: Getting Started with Planescape

Planescape, the latest campaign setting published for Dungeons & Dragons, is the strangest, most boundary-stretching campaign setting ever produced for D&D. Maybe you are interested in running a campaign in the setting, maybe you just want to blend Planescape into your current setting, or maybe you just want to know a little bit about what this new setting is all about. if so, this blog is for you.


Fair use for educational purposes only. Planescape and the Planescape logo are copyright Wizards of the Coast.

What in the Nine Hells is Planescape?

(Hint: you can visit the Nine Hells in Planescape)


Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse is a reboot of the 1990's Planescape setting setting originally published by TSR for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) second edition. The weirdpunk fantasy setting was created as an attempt to codify D&D's bizarre, fantastic cosmology from its various settings stretching back to first edition AD&D's excellent Manual of the Planes. Written by David "Zeb" Cook and heavily influenced by the raw, frenetic sketches and paintings of Tony DiTerlizzi, Planescape became a cult phenomenon. Forget about fighting dragons for piles of treasure, crawling through underground catacombs, or stealing jewels from the king (all adventures you might experience in a traditional AD&D adventure), in Planescape, characters grapple with gods, demons, and philosophical extremists in a setting where belief has the power to literally shape reality. It was, in many ways, D&D's most experimental setting, delving into philosophical concepts that were being explored in games at the time like Ars Magica or Nobilis while still standing firmly in D&D's roots of hit dice and THAC0s.


The 2023 re-release of Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse brings the Planescape setting up to date with the 5th edition rules and expands setting of the Outer Planes presented in the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG). The 3-book slipcase includes a campaign setting book covering the city of Sigil and the Outlands, a monster book, a two-sided map, a DM screen, and a full-length campaign called Turn of Fortune's Wheel that takes players from Level 3 to Level 17. (The purpose of this blog isn't a full review of these books, but I will touch more on why I think it's worth considering if you want to run Planescape in 2024 and beyond.)


The Outer Planes are philosophically aligned infinite realms where the gods live. Evil gods live in the evil planes (the aforementioned Nine Hells), good gods live in good planes, lawful in lawful, and chaotic in chaos planes. There are sixteen such Outer Planes based on that planes' philosophical alignment to the intersecting law/chaos/good/evil alignment axis from D&D. But the important part is at the intersection of those planes sits the purely neutral plane known as the Outlands. And in the center of the Outlands rises an impossibly tall spire. At the top of that spire sits a torus, and on the inside of that torus is a city: Sigil, the City of Doors. Sigil is a meeting ground for creatures from every plane and every world; portals located throughout the city allow you to travel to anywhere in the multiverse if you have the right key. The city is overseen by the enigmatic and godlike Lady of Pain, but it is the philosophical factions that vie for control of the city.


D&D Planescape campaigns may involve politics and faction war in Sigil, planehopping to truly wild places (like the City of Brass in the Elemental Plane of Fire), confronting the very gods in the Outer Planes, or going on quests for the strange beings that dwell in the Outlands where a philosophically-aligned gate-town connects to each Outer Plane. Or they may involve planar beings visiting the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or some other "Prime Material Plane" campaign setting.


Planescape is the "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once" of D&D, and as such, anything is possible. That makes it one of those most exciting campaign settings, but it can also make it one of the most daunting for a DM who wants to run it.



Planescape Campaign Theme and Touchstones

When planning a D&D campaign, one of the things that make it successful is to establish for yourself and for the players what type of game you're running. Is it going to be filled with political intrigue and personal betrayals, like Game of Thrones? Is it going to be a gritty, low-magic campaign in the guts of a city like the Gentlemen Bastards books? Or maybe it's an epic quest to save the world from the forces of darkness, like Lord of the Rings? In each of these cases, we can point towards clear, recognizable cultural touchstones that will resonate with you and your players. This helps the players build characters that fit in the campaign you want to run and helps to limit the scope and tone of the campaign.


Themes

You can run so many different types of campaigns in Planescape that it can get a bit overwhelming.


One approach is to take an existing theme you're familiar with, like the "jobs for a patron" format and simply port the model into the weird setting of Planescape. Examples might include:

  • Jobs for a patron: Set in Sigil, the characters are agents for one of the Factions and take up missions against the other Factions or go on quests to the outer planes

  • Take out a cult: More than one Planescape campaign is centered around taking down an evil cult bent on returning a god from the dead.

  • Search for a legendary artifact: This has an opportunity to take the character from the sprawling libraries of Sigil to the deepest and deadliest layers of the Outer Planes where the party can face strange and terrifying foes.


A second approach is to incorporate Planescape into your existing campaign. Sending the characters on a side quest to Sigil or another planar location is an easy way to bring the strange into the familiar without starting an entirely new campaign.


A third approach is to invoke something that feels very different from classic D&D tropes. This can be the most challenging since you're trying different themes in a different setting. But if any setting will reward it, it will be Planescape. This is your opportunity to lean hard into the weird and philosophical. What happens if the campaign is about fighting beliefs instead of fighting monsters? How can memory be a powerful weapon? Does causality work the same way on all planes? Maybe not. What happens when you introduce time travel? What does death mean when dead people simply re-appear on an outer plane? What happens with alignments when pushed to extremes?



Touchstones

Having touchstones you can reference and that you can point your players towards will make it easier to wrap your head around what Planescape is supposed to feel like. But because Planescape is so "out there," we have to stretch a little more to find relevant cultural touchstones. Here are a few that I find interesting:


Planescape: Torment - The 1999 CRPG is the best media touchstone for obvious reasons. It's also an excellent game and a classic for a reason. Well worth the time if you can adjust to the dated gameplay of a game released 25 years ago. If you don't want to play through it, consider watching a streamed playthrough on YouTube or, better yet, listed to the fully-voiced retelling in the Planescape: Torment Unofficial Audio Series.


Torment: Tides of Numenara - A more recent CRPG that is inspired by Planescape Torment but is set in the Numenera "Ninth World" setting. This is a very different setting than Planescape - it's a science fantasy dying earth setting based on Monte Cook's Numenara ttrpg setting (note that Monte Cook was the author of many of the original 2nd edition Planescape source books).


The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny - The Nebula and Hugo Award-winning sci-fi and fantasy master, Roger Zelazny's 10-volume Chronicles of Amber series is all about world-hopping adventures in a philosophical multiverse where all realities are shadows of Amber and the the shifting allegiances of the protagonist and his family bring ruin and rebirth to Amber and many of the other worlds. The strange metaphysics and world-hopping of these short adventurous novels feels very in the realm of Planescape.


Marvel's "Cosmic" Storylines in the 1970s and 1980s - Technically starting as early as 1966, Marvel comics began experimenting with stories that stretched beyond Earth, with villains such as Galactus and Thanos that could threaten reality itself. Many of these characters were created and written about by the legendary Jim Starlin, who would go on to write the Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity War series. The films were enjoyable, of course, but to see how weird these stories got, go back and read Jim Starlin's run of Warlock or the original Infinity Gauntlet series. The cosmic, reality-bending events of these stories always had a Planescape sort of feel to me.


Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples - More world-hopping weirdness, Saga feels like an alternate-reality Planescape, one filled with beautifully-written family drama on multiple worlds. Definitely worth the read and will give you inspiration for your Planescape setting.


Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock - Moorcock's Elric novels were one of the original influences on D&D, but they stretched into strange realms of demigods and demons. Their more combat-heavy, adventure-story nature makes them a good source of inspiration for Planescape games.


Without going into detail on all of them, other great influences include:

  • Exalted (TTRPG) published by White Wolf

  • Nobilis (TTRPG) by Jenna K. Moran

  • Everything Everywhere All at Once (film)

  • Heavy Metal (film, 1981)

  • Stargate (film)

  • The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (graphic novels)

  • The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker (novel)

  • Perdido Street Station by China Mieville (novel)

  • If On a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (novel)


There are many more, but hopefully you've found something here you're familiar with that can give you and your players a cultural touchstone or two.


Reviewing Source Material

There is a lot of source material out there on Planescape once you start looking around. Here are my recommendations on what to pick up and read:


The 5th Edition Campaign Setting, Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse makes for a solid entry point into the campaign setting. While you will find far more detail in the 2nd Edition resources, the new campaign set presents a decent overview of the main themes and locations of the setting and gives you plenty of adventure hooks to get started. The artwork is also beautiful and evocative. Some themes and details have been adjusted since the 2nd Edition release, but for the most part, this set is narratively compatible with the setting, factions, and characters presented in 2nd Edition. The setting guide, Sigil and the Outlands, is the star in this set. At 96 pages, it provides enough detail to give an overview of the key locations, leaving out the other Outer Planes (which are described in the DMG). I would have liked this book to contain even more detail, but this does give a nice overview at 96 pages is easier to digest than trying to read hundreds of pages. For me, one miss in this book was the choice to leave out "the cant," a planar slang that appeared throughout the 2nd Edition materials and which for me lent a lot of flavor to Sigil. The second book, Morte's Planar Parade, is a 64 page volume offering new planar monsters as well as faction agents. I quite like the additional options presented in here, but for me this is in many ways just another monster book. The third volume is a campaign-length adventure, called Turn of Fortune's Wheel. There are some excellent adventures in the campaign, some compelling and unique hooks, and the adventure does take the characters all through Sigil and the Outlands, making it a solid introduction to the setting. However, for me, the overarching plot didn't feel compelling or coherent enough. For my current campaign, I have elected to lift many of the NPCs and locations from the campaign book while wrapping it in a story I developed for the PCs in my campaign.


The 5th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide is a key resource, simply for its descriptions of the Inner and Outer Planes. While it mentions these only briefly, it will at least help you grasp an overview. However, if you plan to send the PCs on adventures into the Outer Planes beyond the Outlands (using one of Sigil's many portals or by passing through an Outlands Gate Town), you're going to want further detail. For that, I'll recommend the other resources below.


The Planescape Campaign Setting for 2nd Edition is the next logical place to start. If you can find a physical copy at a used book store, it's definitely worth having, particularly for the four poster-sized maps featuring various elements of the planes and also the evocative DM screen featuring the Lady of Pain. Throughout these materials, the setting-defining artwork by Tony DiTerlizzi sets it apart from other D&D settings from the period. The Campaign Setting includes separate player's and DM's books (32 and 64 pages), a book on Sigil and the Outlands (96 pages), and a 32 page monster book. Thanks to the overall larger page count and smaller print, the original campaign setting packs about twice the amount of information as the newer 5e setting. It does not, however, contain any published adventures. And it comes with some of the baggage from legacy D&D, such as the notion that the DM's book shouldn't be seen by players and that the DM should keep certain things a big secret.


Of note, in 2nd Edition, TSR attempted to scrub "demons" and "devils" from the game, likely in a response to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. These beings are restored in 5th Edition but the 2nd Edition materials change some of these creatures names and the names of their planes of origin.


Other 2nd Edition resources worth considering:

  • Planes of Law, Planes of Chaos, Planes of Conflict: TSR released three separate box sets covering the 16 Outer Planes. Planes of Law covers Acheron, Arcadia, Baator (the Nine Hells in 5th Edition), Mechanus, and Mount Celestia. Planes of Chaos covers The Abyss, Pandemonium, Limbo, Arboria, and Ysgard. And Planes of Conflict covers the Beastlands, Bytopia, Carceri, Elysium, Gehenna, and the Gray Wastes (Hades in 5th Edition). If you want to expand your campaign to include adventures on the Outer Planes themselves, you will likely want to pick these up. They are available as reasonably-priced PDFs on the Dungeon Masters Guild.

  • If you want a very Sigil-focused campaign, there are several books that significantly expand this location: In the Cage: a Guide to Sigil is an deeper dive into locations in the city. Uncaged: Faces of Sigil provides 40 pre-written, detailed NPCs for use in Sigil-based games. And The Factol's Manifesto provides a deep-dive on Sigil's philosophical factions. Some of these factions have changed in the 5e setting materials, so this last one may be of limited utility. Of these, I quite liked Uncaged: Faces of Sigil for some good drag-and-drop NPCs.

  • There were a variety of interesting adventures published for Planescape. Dead Gods is a truly epic campaign, featuring, of course, dead gods. The Great Modron March is an interesting one, serving as a prequel to the events of Dead Gods and also presaging some of the events in Turn of Fortune's Wheel. There are also several volumes of one-shot adventures. I quite like Tales from the Infinite Staircase which showcases a lot of the weirdness of the setting. Other fans will have their own preferred campaigns and adventures published from this era.


Several indie designers have also recently released some excellent materials on the Dungeon Master's Guild. The Manual of the Planes from QL Games is one I'm fond of. It attempts to recreate the 1st Edition Manual of the Planes, updating it for 5th Edition. It provides a more detailed dive into each of the Inner and Outer Planes (moreso than the Dungeon Master's Guide, but not as detailed as the Planes of Law/Chaos/Conflict box sets), as well as a lot of new player options and monsters. Encounters Enhanced: Sigil by Greg Wright provides a selection of really excellent Sigil-specific encounters broken down by each ward in the city. There are more volumes that I haven't yet had a chance to pick up, but I'm planning to look into The Planescape Archive and Factions of Sigil.


There are also plenty of great resources on the web for researching specific factions, NPCs, or locations. I Am the Mimir (mimir.net) is full of great artwork and is presented from the point of view of one of the eponymous planar google artifacts. The Mirrored Library of Timaresh (rilmani.org) has some very detailed information on some of the factions as well as a lot of planar history. The Forgotten Realms Wiki (forgottenrealms.fandom.com) is an encyclopedia for Planescape, which is surprising given it is largely FR-focused. Finally, for advice on running games set in Planescape, check out The Planar DM (theplanardm.com), a site more focused on how to run the setting than on particular lore. It was that site, along with recent reddit posts on /r/planescapesetting that inspired this blog.


 

Hopefully this post helped you get an idea of what Planescape is all about and gives you some starting points on how to run it and where to learn more.


What do you think? Have you run Planescape in the past? What advice would you share with Planar DMs? Any favorite resources I missed that you think are critical? Let us know in the comments below.


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