27 September 2023

Review: Planescape Core Set (AD&D, 1994)

tl:dr; talking Planescape, the 800lb gorilla of planar settings on the eve of its re-issue. Factions are pitched hard but there is so much more in here.

Planescape is coming back this October and I wanted to take a look at what we got before to refresh our memories before that. So credentials - I was known as a Planescape GM for most of my 2e/3e time. This box set was bought on holiday in Italy, I saw it in a shop after having read about it in Dragon and persuaded my parents to get it for me. I was riveted from that point on.

What actually lives in my Planescape box after ~ 25 years

The books themselves are gorgeous, filled with DiTerlizzi art in its slightly fiercer whimsical incarnation. I think a major part of the setting appeal was the world portrayed through the art.

I picked up most of the major Planescape releases bar the adventures and as you can see the bestiaries from all the sets together with the Guide to the Outlands migrated into the main box over time. All the maps ended up in the Outlands box - I am sure I had good reasons at the time. That box has moved ~ eight cities., five countries, two continents. The saddle stitching used has gotten a bit ragged in places but mostly has held - I think only one sheet has come off in all this time.

Cards on the table, I got a ton of use out of this. I was known for most of the 90's/00's as a Planescape DM. I had a home game, then I got this box and it became a Planescape game. I ran Planescape in college, I ran a play-by-text campaign shortly afterward. I got a *lot* of use from the setting. Let us come back to this after a cold eyes review of what was *actually* in the box.

So what actually came in the box?
A Player's Guide to the Planes: A 32-page primer that introduces DMs and players alike to the grand design of the multiverse.
A DM's Guide to the Planes: A 64-page book of valuable information solely for the Dungeon Master.
Sigil and Beyond: A 96-page gazetteer that introduces Sigil and its surrounding plane as the starting point for planar adventures. From Sigil all the Outer Planes may be sampled by novice and veteran explorers alike.
Monstrous Supplement: a 32-page, full-color Monstrous Compendium booklet.
Four poster-size maps depicting the planes.
A four-panel DM screen designed especially for planar campaigns.

You can get decent photos of all the above on Waynes Books if you want.

Starting through it chunk by chunk we have A Player's Guide to the Planes A 32-page primer that introduces DMs and players alike to the grand design of the multiverse. We get 6 pages of a mini-planar gazetteer, covering the truisms of the multiverse, the planes and paths between them. Another 6 pages covers 'denizens of the planes' introducing 3 new (at the time) races - Githzerai, Tieflings and Bariaur. Half the book covers all the factions, each with their philosophy, benefits, restrictions and eligibility.

The factions are held up as the core of the setting, the must-do element which I never quite got. They do get a good chunk of page-count in the Player's Guide and a touch more on their roles in Sigil but I did not find them lighting my world on fire back in the 90's and I left them out more or less entirely. I guess my key point was why use these philosophical visions as your core hook for an organisation as opposed to, say, Blood War factions or classic guilds and trading costers with a planar twist. I felt membership lacked a 'why bother' for the vast majority of the peoples of the planes.

Next A DM's Guide to the Planes: a 64-page book of valuable information solely for the Dungeon Master. We get 4 pages on scope and tone of the planes, then 10 pages on how magic gets weird on the planes. Travel between planes gets 8 pages, the inner planes get 14 and the outer planes get 24 pages.

Scope and tone, keeping control in travelling get across the house view on how Planescape campaigns ought to be run. The vast wonder and majesty of the planes and how to deal with infinite possibility are handled sensibly by analogy to wilderness adventuring and the council to listen to what your players say they want to do and be prepared for them to do that. Refreshingly sensible.

I guess the pages of fiddly magical weirdness also expresses a view on how campaigns should go and while I see the kernel of what is being aimed for, I never used this stuff. Tracking what spells get affected where with a classic AD&D 2e look-up table - forget it. The reductions in pluses depending on how far you travelled is also the worst of book-keeping nonsense.

The place where Planescape either comes into its own or loses you forever is in the gazetteer sections - where planar travel and locations are described in a "by planeswalkers, for planeswalkers" manner. This ground-level view of these places, how a traveller experiences them and what the hazards are, are great for inspiration for adventure and helping to capture the distinct flavour of the place. The victorian scamp dialect that runs through the flavour text for all this is a bit of an acquired taste, one I did not adore myself but it is confined to intro pieces and in-world descriptors. Most of the book is written in 'clear' text. This is the practical DM assistance that elevates Planescape over the planar guides of previous (and following) editions.

Sigil and Beyond: A 96-page gazetteer that introduces Sigil and its surrounding plane as the starting point for planar adventures. From Sigil all the Outer Planes may be sampled by novice and veteran explorers alike.

We get another block of campaign running (10 pages). Most of this is the Outlands - 10 pages of an overview (including how magic gets weird) then 28 pages of specific sites on the Outlands, 22 pages introducing Sigil then finally 26 pages of sites and services of Sigil. The sites and locations of the Outlands are more goodness dripping with ideas. The 'Doorway to Sigil' section was the first introduction for this planar hub - we get its nature and strangeness, the Lady of Pain arrives, the factions all have their roles running the place and we get the wards amd services of the city; a good amount of detail and hooks to roll with - plenty on the factions, their headquarters and activities. There is a great page (77) on how to make standard locations (taverns, inns, stables, marketplaces) uniquely Sigilian and different from whatever non-Planescape campaign players may have played previously. We close out with our section on the cant - the slang of the arrogant, cynical Sigilite that is the lingua franca of Planescape. You either love it or hate it.

Why not have 'Home on the Planes' in the DM's Guide? This 10 page section "describes just what a Planescape campaign can be and how to get one set up and running" - and here is where we get 'Planescape is all about the factions'. Campaign theme is held up as the glue that will hold a bunch of disparate adventures together - so far so good - and then factions and their theme of 'what you believe can change the nature of the planes' is held up as *the* theme to run Planescape with. We get a heavy pitch on why to do a faction-based campaign, the 'battle of ideas' by 'philosophers with clubs' including some good stuff in starting and structuring a campaign. Low level, we get advised to stick to Sigil, mid-level adventures can be found on the Outlands and then high level is directed to the more distant planes - outer and inner. By high level gods may have noticed the party and they may well be interested in taking charge of factions themselves.

In campaign trouble-shooting there is a really interesting piece on the 'feel' of Planescape that pretty much says roleplaying is required and if players aren't getting into character the DM should guide them until they figure out how to live the character. There is another part addressing what if players go 'mega-monster bashing' - fighting everything basically - and the guidance is put foes they cannot hurt in front of them because "players need to learn that their characters can't just kill everything in sight" - which is deliciously Viking hat DM. I had completely memory-holed this section. I read it originally and 'factions, nah' and carried merrily along. Re-reading it now I see where the assertions were coming from.

Monstrous Supplement: a 32-page, full-color Monstrous Compendium booklet. This is an odd mix of monsters, with the largest block in here being the Modrons. As signature monsters of the planes, sure, they make good foils for parties across all levels and playstyles as they can be awkward or hostile as you wish. Otherwise, this was a somewhat light block of foes for the whole of the planes. At the time, if you only had the AD&D 2e Monstrous Manual you were missing angels, demons, devils and the other groups you ought to have been tripping over out on the planes. I would say this is a decent selection of 'highlight the weird corners' monsters like the cranium rat and dabus but does not feel like it gives you the minimum viable selection to really get a campaign rolling.

The four poster-size maps are:
Great Wheel (all outer and inner planes) - this was the core map for me, tacked up on my wall throughout my first ~ decade of gaming. You get a vibrant representation of the outer planes in the Great Wheel configuration and the inner planes in their spherical arrangement, with icons for the outer planes. Great to look at and plot. The reverse has a list of sites across the planes.
Outlands - a map with the Gatetowns and major sites - pretty good for an exploration game if you wanted. Backed with art.
Sigil - useful map of the city, splitting the toroid into two strips. Backed with art also.
Faction Icons - all the 16 faction icons. Decorative maybe, not as useful as the others. The back is more helpful with a list of what deities dwell on which plane.

The four-panel DM screen designed especially for planar campaigns. This was my standard DM screen pretty much from getting it - it has stood up pretty well to use but I rarely used what was on the inside of it for reference. The high contrast verdigris green with the Lady of Pain front and center is iconic.

To wrap - I came to write this because of people throwing rocks about how Planescape was edgelord faction nonsense and I wanted to actually read what was in the book and see had I completely gotten it wrong all that time ago. Had I missed something or was that just coming from osmosis from the World of Darkness books next to it on the shelves back in the '90s. From going through it all again I see the factions are present but while the majority of the material talks about the planes themselves, their denizens and sites of interest, the section on Sigil and the template campaign strongly foreground the factions. The faction-driven 'battle of ideas' campaign is held up as the way to do Planescape and the strong guidance on 'RP heavy, combat only sometimes' is something I had completely forgotten. There *was* a specific way to play Planescape which, hilariously, wasn't what I did.

I have always been a 'wonder and majesty of the planes' exploration pillar led Planescape DM. We get a ton of fascinating and interesting places to explore and a whole bunch of power groups that are so much larger than the Sigilite Factions. I always thought of Sigil as having a New York, London or Paris type perspective - in the city they think their local politics are the only show in town but outside the city there is so much more going on. I guess if you want to do a Sigil only campaign then sure, the Factions matter a lot but the Factions are not Planescape, do not let your thoughts on them turn you away from everything else that is great about Planescape.

One could ask if one were to look past the Factions why not just go with the older or newer Manual of the Planes? The Planescape set - starting with this box but also in general - goes into a lot more detail on useable sites and adventure hooks than any of the other editions. Later editions give a bit more mechanical crunch but you get the most expansion of each of the planes here and in the later box sets. This gives you the planes as a setting for low-mid characters, where as the others are more "planes as high level dungeon".

Other Reviews are a little scarce on the ground after all this time but see Planescape by Sir Phoebos.

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