It’s interesting to me that whilst Gary Gygax gets ample credit for his custodianship of 1E AD&D, Dave “Zeb” Cook isn’t similarly celebrated by 2E fans – despite the fact that Cook was arguably the game’s “show-runner” in the early 2E period much as Gary was for the early period of the game’s existence and Mike Mearls seems to have become for 5E. As well as writing the 2E core books, Cook was also the primary author of Oriental Adventures (despite Gary being given the credit), which as well as being one of the more beloved of the post-Unearthed Arcana 1E hardbacks was also the book which introduced the idea of nonweapon proficiencies to the game – a system feature which would underpin a bunch of other distinctively 2E mechanics, like the “kits” offered in the line of brown splatbooks (ew) that acted like a fiddly, class-specific, not-really-very-balanced set of forerunners to 5E Backgrounds. Moreover, between the release of the 2E core and his departure from TSR in 1994, Cook helmed two out of the three major hardback additions to the system – the Tome of Magic and the Book of Artifacts. (Legends & Lore was penned by Jim Ward and Troy Denning, building on Ward and Rob Kuntz’ previous work on Deities & Demigods).
His last major contribution to the game was Planescape. In the 1E era Jeff Grubb had produced the Manual of the Planes, taking the Great Wheel cosmology as outline by Gary in previous works (notably the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide) and stacking a whole bunch of dry rules detail on it. Interesting in principle, it was felt that it didn’t really support much in the way of adventure on the planes, and when 2E rolled around the idea started brewing of giving it an update with an eye to using the planes as a basis for campaigning in their own right.
That, however, got shunted to the back burner when the Spelljammer campaign setting was mooted. Management liked the idea of a setting which allowed for a canonical means for characters in other D&D settings to go have wacky crossover adventures – however, they were really keen on this including a bunch of “D&D in space” stuff, and weren’t keen on having angels and demons be a prominent feature of the setting. The latter was presumably due to TSR’s (craven, ridiculous, profit-spurning) reaction to the Satanic Panic; I kind of suspect that the “D&D in space” thing was angled to possibly develop cross-promotional capability with the Buck Rogers RPG, since Lorraine Williams infamously pushed that hard because her family received royalties from TSR on all Buck Rogers products sold.
Whatever the motivation, it was clear that the planes needed to go to the back burner for a while, and the end result was Spelljammer, a setting that so far as I can tell is loved by a few, loathed by a few, and pretty much forgotten by many – an impression which the recent Wizards of the Coast setting survey seems to have bourne out, and having launched in 1989 the line was quietly put to sleep in 1993. Planescape’s time had come, particularly since the demons, daemons and devils had slipped back into 2E under assumed names like tanar’ri, yugoloths and baatezu (silly, maybe, but actually better for distinguishing them than their classic names), an upshot of the content restrictions TSR had self-imposed quietly being taken away again once it became apparent that the Christian right had lost interest. Also, by this point White Wolf was a big deal, and TSR probably realised that if White Wolf could make big bucks producing material that so directly and unambiguously spat in the eye of evangelical fundamentalist culture warriors’ 1950s social mores, TSR themselves could probably get away with undoing some of the previous whitewashing of the game. (The success of the Ravenloft line probably helped in this respect.)
Planescape, then, would be Zeb Cook’s last major contribution to D&D as an employee of TSR, and as such can almost be seen as the culmination of the game’s development under his watch.
Planescape Campaign Setting
The first thing that hits you about Planescape is the aesthetic – indeed, the artistic presentation of the core set won a well-deserved Origins award. The art by the likes of Tony DiTerlizzi and Dana Knutson gives the product a unique look which I would argue finally brought the aesthetic of D&D into the 1990s. Other product lines were stuffed with Larry Elmore-esque generic fantasy art of the sort which D&D had been wed to since the mid-1980s; the major exceptions were the Ravenloft line, where the artwork was deliberately trying to evoke old-timey gothic horror through a Hammer lens, and Dark Sun, which in some respects offered a precursor to this but took a lot of aesthetic inspiration from planetary romance (a subgenre of sword & sorcery) and thus still had a nostalgic spin to it.
Planescape, conversely, looked like nothing that had come before – it was very defiantly its own, distinct style of fantasy marching to the beat of a different drummer. In fact, I would argue that between its unique aesthetic and the centrality to the setting of a surreal city, Planescape is an early example of the New Weird style, and one comfortably predating many foundational works in that model like Perdido Street Station or much of the work of Jeff Vandermeer. It’s also the first wholly D&D-derived aesthetic: that is, an aesthetic which isn’t trying to look a bit like Lord of the Rings or a bit like Conan or a bit like a Fritz Leiber Lankhmar deal or a bit like an Edgar Rice Burroughs thing, but one which looks to D&D cosmology itself for its primary inspiration. (Even Spelljammer ended up looking a bit like Dragonlance In Space… which effectively meant it looked like Tolkien or Terry Brooks In Space.) To my eye, it looks like a precursor to the “dungeonpunk” aesthetic that ended up becoming a big deal in 3E and held over to 4E a bit before 5E shifted gear back to more diverse aesthetic styles; whilst I think applying one single aesthetic to D&D as a whole (rather than just a specific setting) is a mistake because it hurts the “Big Tent” approach the game has always done best with, I can see why they’d make the mistake because having this distinctive style really made Planescape stand out.
The other thing that jumps out at you when you read the boxed set is the liberal use of slang derived from actual real-world thieves’ cant. Personally, I don’t mind it at all, but lots of people express distaste for it, a position I’d have more sympathy for if it weren’t perfectly evident from context what the slang means most of the time. (Seriously, you’re happy to talk about how THAC0 interfaces with your AC and which NWPs you need to build a boat and how your level 6 mage cast a level 1 spell on level 3 of the dungeon but you flip out at “berk” or “cutter” or “the dark of it”? Get in the sea.)
Look beyond the visual and textual aesthetic, though, and what you find in the core set is a well-supported model for planar play that doesn’t exclude low-level characters, joined at the hip with a presentation of the planes that throws in a range of interesting game mechanical challenges. The lynchpin of the setting is Sigil, city of Doors; this is the only really major feature that Cook adds to the Great Wheel cosmology in terms of its structure, but it’s a spectacularly important one. Not only does it provide a suitable home base for planar adventurers and, through its various doors into the multiverse, a mechnaism for getting them to where the adventure is, but it’s also a fascinating and evocative adventure location in its own right that gives lower-level characters somewhere to go do stuff and earn their spurs.
Cook recognises that the neutrality of Sigil needs to be rigidly enforced if a Planescape campaign is to be viable in the long term, which gives rise to the enigma of the Lady of Pain, whose nature is never explained and whose power over Sigil is total. She is saved from becoming an infuriating metaplot character only because there are only a very few things a character could do to earn her wrath in the first place, more or less all of which are clearly signposted.
Irritatingly, the Planescape line ended up baking in a metaplot anyway, introducing the two major characters therein in this set – Erin Darkflame, frontwoman for the status quo, and Rowan Darkwood, a newcomer who has rapidly risen to power as a Faction leader and whose political ambitions would culminate in the Faction War adventure that blew up the setting at the end of 2E’s run – at the conclusion of the adventure a bunch of Factions are outright destroyed and the survivors are banned from Sigil, pretty much neutering the campaign setting.
(In our current campaign Darkwood is presently heading up the council of the Factions and seems to be in charge, with Darkflame as an important ally – or at least, an ally for the purposes of facing the threat to all Factions our PCs are battling. This is probably because our Dungeon Master is sensible enough to ignore the Faction War metaplot.)
The reason that the Factions – groups of people with similar philosophies who run the day-to-day business of Sigil and contend against one another to promote their ideology – are so central to Planescape is its avowed “philosophers with clubs” theme. It presents a cosmos where belief can shape things to the extent where towns at the perimeter of planes can tip over into neighbouring planes as a result of a communal alignment shift, and where the Factions pose questions and advance theories which, for the most part, aren’t amenable to being proved or disproved via standard D&D magic and aren’t necessarily tied to the ideologies of particular planes.
Some may argue that the fact that the Factions seem largely divorced from the Great Wheel (you can sort of identify Lawful-leaning and Chaotic-leaning ones, but it’s very hard to assess them on a Good/Evil axis) is a weakness of the design, but I actually think it is a feature, not a bug. Without the Factions the major conflicts on the planes would be the old Law-vs.-Chaos and Good-vs.-Evil standards, with the PCs rather predictably siding with whichever side in a struggle matches their alignment. The Factions on the one hand allow you to have a way for PCs to have distinctive viewpoints without having disruptively opposing alignments, or alternatively allow you to bring together PCs of wildly varying alignments over a broadly compatible philosophical banner. (In our group we’ve ended up having members of wildly different Factions and massively varying alignments, but it has worked mostly because Faction politics has largely faded into the background in the face of the threat we are facing and our Good-aligned party members are unworldly enough not to fully grasp just how bad the Evil-leaning ones are.)
Yes, they are an extremely 1990s idea – an implementation of White Wolf-style splats in D&D – but they kind of work really well as 2E prototypes of 5E-style backgrounds and help motivate players to invest in the setting via their Faction’s stance.
The other system offerings here mostly come down to a repackaging of the rules first aired in the Manual of the Planes for special effects persisting on each plane and how each plane affects magic. These rules are more fiddly than they look in this truncated presentation – they are manageable in practice mostly because you’re only going to be casting on one plane at a time. Wizards generally have to keep track of what extradimensional synergies their spells need to function, whilst clerics end up suffering when they are far from their deities, presumably to counterbalance the fact that they get to really shine when they are on their patron’s turf.
The plane writeups offered here are necessarily terse; inevitably, the inner planes end up looking far more boring than the outer because “infinite expanse of (Element)” doesn’t really offer much variety. In this respect I think 5E’s adoption of some 4E ideas really helps – in 5E, elemental planes start off resembling Prime Material Planes with a particular element more prominent than the others when you are in the portion bordering the Prime, then end up much like the classic depictions of the elemental planes found here, then end up in the Elemental Chaos when they blend together to become a spurt of primal matter. 5E also gives more evocative names to the Paraelemental Planes, where the elemental planes border each other, but excises the Quasielemental planes where they border the Postive and Negative Energy planes due to those being relocated to just outside the Outer Planes (Positive Energy being associated with the Upper Planes, Negative being associated with the Lower), though since Faerie and the Shadowfell offer Ethereal echoes of the Positive and Negative despite the Ethereal plane generally not being held to touch the Outer Planes you could conceivably get the Quasielemental planes back in via a similar mechanic.
The deepest setting writeup offered here is, naturally, that of Sigil, along with a full description of the Outlands (a good choice since in including this Cook not only includes an interesting setting to explore outside of Sigil but before you hit the true extremes of the multiverse but also provided later developers with a handy model for doing full writeups of planes). It also finds Cook doing a good job of taking a plane whose original brief was deeply dull – it’s the True Neutral plane – and making it rich and interesting and genuinely exciting to the extent that he can.
The major criticism I have seen in some quarters of Planescape is that it demystifies the planes and makes surreal, impossible cities and plane-hopping seem almost mundane. Again, I actually kind of think this is its strength. Ultimately, the best way to keep the planes profound, mysterious, mystical and transcendent is to make them rare – have them be brief glimpses of a higher world that takes place at crucial moments of a longer-term campaign, during moments of great mystical import. (In a non-D&D context the Gloranthan RPGs kind of do this with the whole Heroquesting thing, in which visits to the Hero Plane are part of a ritualistic process in which worshippers enact, re-enact, and perhaps even alter the deeds of great heroes.) This obviously wouldn’t work for a campaign set entirely in the planes – however, by providing the setup it does, Planescape presents a fantasy in which grand ideas of sweeping philosophical and cosmological import as embodied by the planes and their inhabitants are accessible to and engaged by the PCs all the time from level 1 onwards.
When so much fantasy is dedicated to presenting these things as vast, untouchable forces that the “little people” had best be ecstatic they even get an opportunity to witness, Planescape puts these things out for scuzzy city-rat PCs to stab, steal, and otherwise mistreat from the get-go. This in itself is such a refreshing antidote to cosmological elitism that it makes my heart sing to think of it.
The Planewalker’s Handbook
Another interesting thing about Planescape is that just as it represents Zeb Cook’s last major contribution to D&D, it also is where Monte Cook cut his teeth, turning out much of the latter-day products in the line such as the Planewalker’s Handbook. This is basically another core book for Planescape, providing a handy player-facing summary of most of the information in the boxed set along with a few additional options. If you are into using kits, actual planar kits are presented, and there’s a range of new character races added; the Aasimar I can do without because frankly I find the idea of playing an overprivileged angel-spawn who will be adored by most good people who discover your heritage to be vastly less interesting than the prospect of playing a tiefling, but on the other hand I really like the genasi as a means of adding some Inner Plane flavour to an otherwise very Outer Plane-heavy mix. Plus there’s rules for githzerai PCs and rogue modron PCs, so if you liked those party members in Planescape: Torment I guess you have Monte to thank.
Tucked towards the back, in a quite useful examination of all the stuff you can actually do with a planar campaign (much needed, even with the strong concepts offered by the core box), Monte even tosses in a Belief Points system. This is essentially a very basic take on hero points or Inspiration or whatever other else you want to call a game mechanic which allows you to spend a point to get an auto-success or some tailored inside information, with a Planescape spin: you earn a point whenever you do something to advance your character’s firmly-held beliefs (particularly if this is at a disadvantage to yourself), which is a nice way to provide some much-needed system support for the idea that in Planescape belief shapes reality. It’s a simple little addition, but it’s an effective one.