Lessons At the Dinner Table 2: Bundle Boogaloo

I’ve previously talked about my enjoyment of Knights of the Dinner Table and how the dysfunctional gaming depicted in its pages can offer a range of interesting lessons you can apply to real gaming – so why not continue that? This time around I am going to start going through the various Bundles of Trouble – the collections they do of the strips from the main Knights of the Dinner Table comic book (which has gone from being a thing which Jolly did as a fun tie-in to becoming the main focus of Knight-related creative efforts, particularly since Kenzer & Company stopped producing strips for other people’s magazines).

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This collects the first clutch of comics that Blackburn essentially wrote by himself and put out in 1994-1995 before he joined up with Kenzer & Company. It’s consequently a simple affair, with the characters not yet especially rounded out, but it does contain the classic Gazebo strip – in which the party of Bob, Dave and Brian (Sara having not been added to the strip yet) attack and “kill” a perfectly innocent bit of garden architecture because they don’t recognise the word and assume it refers to a monster.

It’s this strip that really encapsulates one of the key jokes which Knights of the Dinner Table keeps coming back to, which is also one of the key lessons it has to offer; namely, that tabletop RPGs are an exercise in communication, and if you miscommunicate as a result of assumptions, expectations, or life experiences you don’t share then your game session will descend into absurdity. That absurdity is great to observe from outside for comedy purposes, but frustrating to play through yourself.

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This has the first issues that came out through Kenzer & Company in 1997, and so benefits from Jolly getting a whole team of pals to help him tune up the scripts. The lesson from that is that a group on the ball will be able to think up stuff that no individual member would be able to come up with by themselves – which is part of why we play RPGs as a group activity, I suppose.

Noteworthy strips include a jaunt into Spacehack (a parody of Traveller with perhaps a pinch of Prime Directive), in which B.A. regularly falls foul both of his shoddy command of the setting’s invented technology and of actual science. (He isn’t aware that water has hydrogen in it, for instance.) This is actually an interesting illustration of a contrast between fantasy and SF: in a fantasy context people are generally much more willing to say “your world, your rules”, whereas in a science fiction context you really want to make a call on the “hardness” of the science – and if you go for a hard SF approach (as Traveller shows tendencies to), then your capacity as a GM to just ignore reality in order to come up with imaginative fun is going to be curtailed by the implied agreement that you’re trying for scientific accuracy and plausibility.

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Sara’s characterisation here starts being fleshed out more when she starts being less of a passive spectator to the horrible things the other players get up to in the game – there’s multiple times this issue where she not only speaks up for but actively helps out NPCs instead of the player characters. By the end of the compilation she even seems to have succeeded at shifting the group’s culture a little – Brian playing a Cattlepunk character whose schemes, whilst they involve OOC cheating in the form of using knowledge his PC couldn’t possibly possess, do at least require him to engage constructively with NPCs. (In another story, even Bob and Dave come around to the idea of having hirelings and servants around if it means they can zerg rush the opposition.)

There’s several lessons to learn here. The first is that you know you’ve really excelled at presenting a sympathetic NPC when players start seriously considering siding with them against the party. The second is that you can’t change a gaming group culture’s overnight – and whatever new approach you contribute to it is likely to be coloured by the group’s existing prejudices. The third and greatest one is that B.A. is an absolutely terrible referee – any GM worth their salt would have flat-out declared that Brian’s PC couldn’t take the actions he took because it required him to have knowledge he didn’t possess in-character – or invoke a referee’s right to amend the secrets and mysteries of a campaign setting and change up where all the gold deposits are, so that Brian’s land purchases become worthless. As it stands, lying down and allowing Brian to act in a way fundamentally against the basic social contract of traditional RPGs is the worst possible option.

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This includes a story that has Sara taking on GM duties to playtest an adventure she’s written, and assigning a set of female pregenerated characters to the players. The end result is a disaster, with the players turning tricks for experience points in defiance of character alignment or rebelling against the concept altogether until they are able to find a way to switch their character’s gender.

It’s an ugly picture it paints, but given the eruption of gamer misogyny surrounding Gamergate it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a subset of gamer guys who have really odd ideas about women, and for the most part I’m willing to read the story as a biting satire. When writing a comic for a subculture about that subculture, the temptation to slide into flattery and pandering is probably always there – look at how many gamer webcomics descend into Ctrl-Alt-Del-esque smug self-congratulation. One of the things that’s laudable about Knights of the Dinner Table is that it’s always balanced its celebration of gamer culture with a certain amount of cutting insight and criticism.

There’s also a more general lesson to take from the story in question: if someone plays a character with aspects of identity or personality they don’t personally possess, and they haven’t been provided with a really detailed set of guidance on how to handle that angle, then to the extent they engage with that characteristic they will do so based on their assumptions about what people with that characteristic are like. They might not engage at all, of course – but if they do address that aspect of their character, odds are you’re going to see any prejudices or baggage they’ve got on the subject aired for all to see.

That said, the story isn’t perfect by modern standards. At the end of the story the other Knights get freaked out when Bob decides he likes his female character as she is and doesn’t want to turn her into a man; in a bonus strip in this Bundle Sara kills off “Bobarello” because she’s disturbed by how Bob talks about the character’s fashion accessories.

If you’re feeling very, very generous, you could read this as a magical realm thing – the idea being that Bob is getting off on this to an extent that the other people at the table aren’t comfortable with being dragged into; certainly, having a tabletop game get hijacked to pander to someone’s fetish without the mutual consent of all participants is a shitty thing to happen.

However, in context it reads as being simply transphobic, or maybe just dudes-showing-an-interest-in-feminine-things-phobic. The mention of Gordo’s pixie-fairy character – the first time the subject comes up in the comic – only emphasises this in context. Again, when we actually see Gordo in action with the Black Hands in later issues we’ll see that he plays pixie-fairies in exclusion to all other character types and runs campaigns focused around them, so you could read it as an odd obsession verging on magical realm situation – but those stories hadn’t been written yet.

I have reason to believe that if the story were written today, some two decades and change later, Jolly would handle these punchlines with much more care. Even here, he does have Sara mention that Gary Jackson sees nothing wrong with people playing characters of genders other than their own, and more recently when revising strips for enhanced standalone publications he’s changed up at least one transphobic punchline to remove that implication, so I’m as sure as I can be that his heart’s in the right place on the subject.

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This includes the Barringer’s Rebellion story, which was continued in the Bundle-exclusive bonus material in this and subsequent Bundles of Trouble as the Bag War Four plot arc. This was eventually successful enough that a separate Bag War Saga volume was published, collecting together expanded versions of the original strips to offer the definitive version of the storyline, and the Bag War cosmology would have knock-on effects on the series for years to come beyond that.

The whole Bag War business is based on a great joke – one which, like much of the best Knights of the Dinner Table material, is based on a real gaming anecdote – and also offers a really nice extended example of a particular lesson, especially when you set them alongside the anecdote. Both the joke and the anecdote are based around the idea of a player deciding to put a group of their hirelings in a Bag of Holding as a cheap method of magical travel – one of those fun bits of lateral thinking which you can do when magic items and the like are provided with broad, simple descriptions in natural language, rather than over-precise descriptions which strangle the life out of them and rule out creative uses of them.

In both the anecdote and the Knights story, the player in question forgets that the hirelings are in there until several sessions of real time and several months of in-character time have passed. Here they diverge; in the anecdote, they open the bag to find that most of the hirelings are dead except for one very upset survivor of a “Donner Party”-type situation. In the strip, though, the greatly put-upon Sgt. Barringer and his fellow hirelings use the materials stored in the bag to feed themselves and construct themselves a fortress, which they use to control access to the region inside the bag; after losing a war with him over it, the Knights are forced to pay Barringer whenever they want to retrieve stuff from the bag.

This is an example of the difference between “failing forwards”, as RPG theory circles call it, and whatever the opposite is. In the anecdote that wasn’t much of a failing forwards situation – an accident happened, the PCs lost resources and a bunch of employees, the game moved on. In the comic, however – thanks to B.A. employing a bit of lateral thinking and making sensible use of the materials stored in the Bag – the situation became a source of ongoing plot which eventually filled years’ worth of comic strips, as well as presumably filling a similar amount of campaign time.

Now, I tend not to think “failing forwards” should happen in relation to every single failure in a game – it can become a bit of a burden on the referee (or the group as a whole) to think up an interesting way for something to fail forwards, and if it happens too often the game can ultimately feel a bit aimless, with the player characters so caught up in handling the consequences of past fail-forwards that they never get to proactively chase their own agenda. But particularly exciting fuck-ups demand especially exciting consequences, and here that’s very much the case.

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Multiplanar Monster Mash

For the purposes of filling out coverage of the Planescape line, I’ll just briefly cover here the various monster-oriented supplements put out for the line. Most 2nd edition settings got a bunch of these, but those for Planescape might have had the biggest job of any outside Ravenloft. Whilst Ravenloft‘s monster material needed to create creatures which could be viable gothic adversaries, rather than mere “slay me and take my treasure” gribblies, Planescape needed to provide suites of monsters to suit the schticks of each of the dozens of planes involved in the game.

The first Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix was largely there to do two jobs: replace the long out of print Outer Planes Monstrous Compendium Appendix, and put all the devils and demons (and modrons and slaad!) back into AD&D which the more controversy-averse approach by TSR management had caused to be left on the shelf in preparing 2E. It’s pretty solid, not least because a lot of the creatures outlined here are tried and true iconic entities from 1E. The second appendix concentrates on filling out the Outer Planes roster, including a stab at detailing the Rilmani, who are to the true Neutral Outlands what celestial are to the good planes or fiends to the evil planes or modrons to Mechanus or Slaad to limbo. This was an easy enough job to do because ultimately the Outer Planes are the fun, characterful ones.

The third Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix was put together by Monte Cook, and my heart goes out to the guy because he had the thankless task of trying to make the monsters of the Inner Planes (plus some Astral and Ethereal critters) interesting. (To that extent, it parallels the long slog he had to do on the official Inner Planes supplement.) To be fair, with the vast numbers of paraelemental and quasielemental planes cluttering things up, he had a better pallete to work with than just “fire stuff”, “water stuff”, “air stuff” and “earth stuff”, and he makes some headway with the idea of “Parallelism” (the concept that anything on one elemental plane will tend to have its equivalents on the other), and most of the individual monster entries are decent, but it’s a bit of a samey concept for a supplement and I suspect few Planescape games spend enough time in the Inner Planes to use most of these anyway.

Another monster-focused book from the line is Colin McComb’s Faces of Evil: the Fiends. This is a sort of extended meditation on the organisation and social structure of the fiends, presented as a collection of in-character essays (and, annoyingly, assumes a particular outcome to one of the adventures in Hellbound: the Blood War as canon – fuck off, metaplots, nobody likes you). It isn’t quite a Van Richten’s Guide to Fiends – notably because the Ravenloft line already did one – but it’s very helpful for fleshing out the internal structure of the infernal realms and could therefore also be very useful for any non-Planescape campaign in which the machinations of demons and devils and their cousins are significant elements.

The Overlooked Planes

Though the Outer Planes enjoyed a lavish boxed set presentation in the Planescape setting, the Inner Planes (and the planar highways of the Ethereal and Astral) had to settle for being detailed in more conventional books. Part of this probably comes from the fact that the relevant supplements came from later on in the game line’s lifespan – when TSR’s financial woes were biting or after the Wizards of the Coast buyout enforced a more grounded approach. But part of it also comes from the fact that the Outer Planes are, simply put, more interesting – especially from the perspective of the purported “philosophers with clubs” approach of Planescape.

The Outer Planes are planes of ideology, the Inner Planes are planes of materialism; as such, the Outer Planes fit Planescape‘s declared aims much better than the Outer Planes do. In some respect, even the Prime Material Plane feels like it can back up the ideas of the setting better than the Inner Planes; you can have a sort of “as above, so below” thing going on in which developments in the Outer Planes have subtle and pervasive effect on Prime Material worlds. It doesn’t quite feel possible to do that in a universe made entirely of water. I know for a fact that every Planescape campaign I have participated in gave way more attention to the Outer Planes than the Inner, and to be honest it feels like the core setting was written with the Outer Planes very much in mind and support for the Inner being nothing more than a mere afterthought.

However, the idea of such guides isn’t entirely useless. Even if they are sidelined in Planescape, they’re still part of the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, and as such the line would feel incomplete without detailing them. On top of that, support for these planes is of at least some use to non-Planescape campaigns, provided they’re at a level where characters are making significant extraplanar excursions or if the referee wants to have an incursion from the Planes in question hit their campaign world.

A Guide to the Astral Plane

Monte Cook’s approach to the Astral Plane, which underlies the philosophically-driven Outer Planes plus the Prime Material, is to take the idea of it as a place of abstract mental concepts and run with it, pushing the idea that it’s not so much a plane as a Platonic realm of ideas, a nonplanar nonspace that exists in the conceptual gaps between things that’s only called a “Plane” because that’s a convenient way to think of it, inaccurate though it is.

In particular, I really like the way Cook talks it up as a backstage area which people were never meant to peep into, and which was largely uninhabited until people went exploring there – that both ties into the concept of interplanar conduits and portals passing through there and into the idea that it’s where dead gods are to be found. (The gods, of course, do not need a physical form – but they certainly represent enormous intellectual concepts, thus their corpses litter the Astral Plane as giant floating conceptual islands.)

A big advantage Cook has as far as filling out the page count goes is the fact that the Astral Plane is home to the Githyanki, who’ve consistently been one of the most entertaining and interesting monster races in Dungeons & Dragons ever since their introduction in the 1E Fiend Folio. Somehow, despite occasionally unfortunate tendencies in the artwork towards making them look like racist caricatures of Chinese people rather than the withered clearly-not-any-sort-of-human weirdos their better depictions make them out to be, their essential awesomeness has never been diluted. The likes of the drow have had to deal with femdom fetishists, Drizzt fans, and a depiction bordering on blackface over the years, but somehow there’s something about “Interplanar badasses who live on the Astral, are ruled by a lich queen and fight genocidal wars against the illithids who once enslaved them and the Githzerai who split from them during their revolution against the mind flayers” which proves impossible to screw up. Cook’s take on them is no exception.

A Guide to the Ethereal Plane

Bruce R. Cordell tackles the Ethereal Plane which connects the Prime to the Inner Planes here. For the most part he struggles because he doesn’t quite have as strong a hook to hang it on as Monte has with the Astral, but the fact that the Ethereal is the home to the Demiplanes is of some help. The diverse nature of them (you’ve got the Demiplane of Dread where Ravenloft happens, the Demiplane of Time, various realms of dream and so on and so forth) does mean that the Ethereal ends up being a bit of a conceptual dustbin, but at least allows Cordell to fill the page count.

I am altogether unconvinced that there’s a meaningful conceptual difference between the Astral and the Ethereal Planes; certainly, in the various folkloric and fictional sources drawn on in devising the planar cosmology of D&D, “the astral plane” and “the ethereal plane” would seem to me to have been basically synonymous. Cordell does a decent job here of filling a book about the Ethereal, but it’s mostly clarifications of material already known plus some notes on things like the monsters that can be encountered there and some sample locales.

The Inner Planes

Monte Cook and William W. Connors have the truly thankless task here of making the various elemental, energy, paraelemental and quasielemental planes interesting. Here they have the advantage that the absurd number of paraelemental and quasielemental planes means they can fill the page count of the book without necessarily having to develop any of these specific planes very much – whilst the core elemental planes get fairly chunky writeups, the paraelemental and quasielemental planes only get 4-6 pages each, which means that once Cook and Connors cover the very basics they’ve already covered most of the space allocated.

The basic problem here is that in a campaign setting whose elevator pitch is “philosophers with clubs”, the Inner Planes don’t really lend themselves to philosophy very much at all, since each one just consists of a particular type of matter dominating the realm in question. The book more or less acknowledges this; whilst it talks about some ideas underpinning its treatment of the Inner Planes – like “Parallelism”, the idea that things which arise on one Inner Plane will tend to have their equivalents on the other Inner Planes, it still has to admit that there just isn’t much grist for the philosophical mill here.

This is largely a consequence of the legacy Planescape inherited from older treatments of the planes, but The Inner Planes, whilst it does offer a few interesting places in the elemental realms to visit, still ultimately doesn’t do much to change the fact that it’s the Outer Planes which tend to be where much of the action is. As A Guide to the Astral Plane established, you can do some interesting philosophical stuff with the Astral too, and A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, whilst it didn’t find an interesting philosophy to hang the Ethereal Plane on, at least established it as an interesting sandbox to cook up demiplanes and the like. The Inner Planes, though, leaves the elemental realms as being decidedly secondary in the wider action of Planescape, perhaps inevitably.

The Sourcebook That Never Was

The one sourcebook which I think the original Planescape line most needed, and yet never received, is one for the Prime Material Plane(s). Whilst, of course, any non-Planescape and non-Ravenloft D&D setting (or any setting suitable for adaptation on the fly to D&D) can be found there, at the same time it would have been nice to have a supplement offering tools for coming up with especially bizarre parallel material planes, perhaps with a suitable set of worked examples. It would also have been a good chance to have the philosophical struggles of the Planescape setting reflected interestingly in the lives of the Primes. Let’s say the Athar get the upper hand in the cross-multiverse struggle… what does that mean for Anytown, Faerun?

Planar Boxes

The massive proliferation of boxed sets from TSR in the mid-1990s might not be the primary contributor to their financial downfall, but they certainly posed dilemmas for shops and customers alike. From a consumer perspective – particularly for those of us who were too young to really have much discretionary income at the time – such products were incredibly visually tempting but also rather expensive to keep up with, and it didn’t help that in some product lines there seemed to be little rhyme or reason as to which boxes were truly important which were not.

Nonetheless, there’s no question that the best TSR boxed sets are absolutely gorgeous items, TSR using its status as industry leader to produce some downright beautiful work. The real question comes in as to how much of it actually represented useful, game-worthy material. To that extent, the major boxed sets around which the Planescape line was built stand at the head of the pack. I’ve previously covered the core box, but now it’s time to take a look at the rest of the rabble.

Planes of Chaos

The first boxed set supplement sets the pattern for the rest of the Planes of… series. You have a booklet of player-facing information, you have a DM-facing description of the planes in question (in this case the five Outer Planes whose natures range from Chaotic Good to Chaotic Evil on the Great Wheel), you have a set of adventure ideas, some additional monsters, and some really beautiful poster maps.

This time around the DM information is offered in a single thick booklet, and by and large does a good job of injecting extra depth and flavour and detail and adventure-worthy stuff into each of the planes in question. The player’s guide offers decent pointers on how to go and do adventures in the planes in question, and also usefully introduces the concept of “sects” – planar groups powerful enough to be of note, especially in the planes especially compatible with their philosophy, and who may even have a presence in Sigil, but who do not have enough influence there to be a full-blown faction controlling some aspect of Sigil’s governance.

The introduction of this feature to the setting is a great help in ensuring that Sigil politics does not become too ossified; not only can a great campaign be played around the elevation of a sect to faction status (most probably coinciding with the fall of an existing faction to sect status), but it also points to a way you can customise Sigil to your own taste by swapping out factions that don’t work for your campaign with sects that are a better fit.

The adventures booklet is actually much more useful than I remember it being; rather than presenting a fully-developed adventure or two, it instead offers a series of substantial one-page adventure notes – one set for each plane in the box – each giving you plenty of scope to adapt it to your campaign and not overwriting it to the extent that it becomes a railroad but giving you enough support and pointers that it’s more helpful than a mere adventure seed.

Developed by Lester Smith and Wolfgang Baur, Planes of Chaos adds important flesh to the bones of Planescape, and whilst it may have been more economical to present it as a single book, the poster maps and other aspects of the boxed set presentation are gorgeous enough that I am inclined to forgive that.

Planes of Law

The second box in the series gives a similar treatment to the Lawfully-inclined planes, with the major difference in presentation being that rather than having a single thick GM book, you instead get a sheath of little booklets, one for each plane. Whilst this does make for gorgeous presentation (the more of that super-1990s Sandman-style cover art I see the better as far as I’m concerned), it also makes the boxed set rather more cluttered – and I can’t help but suspect it probably drove up the manufacturing cost substantially.

Beyond that, I really don’t have much to say about it – it sticks close enough to the Planes of Chaos game plan that if you liked that, you’d probably want this too.

Planes of Conflict

The third box in the trilogy tackles the Neutrally-inclined planes except for the Outlands, which are detailed perfectly well in the core Planescape set. Hence the title – for whereas the other boxes each respectively detailed a set of planes that formed a continuous arc on the Great Wheel, the six planes here consist of three Neutral Good sorts and three Neutral Evil sorts, and as such are radically opposed to each other.

Once again the presentation of Dungeon Master-focused information is tweaked – as a compromise position between the “one thick book” approach of Planes of Chaos and “every plane gets a booklet!” one of Planes of Law, there are two separate booklets here – one for the good-aligned planes, one for the evil-aligned one.

Unfortunately, the presented adventures shift from the useful adventure seeds from the previous two boxes into more developed efforts. This is a problem for two reasons: the first is that the adventures are developed just a shade past the point where it’s trivially easy to repurpose them, necessitating more work to make them fit the action of your campaign and the approach of your player characters than the briefer seeds of the previous boxes.

The second is that, because they take up more space, there simply isn’t space for an adventure corresponding to each of the planes detailed, which I think is a huge mistake: part of the point of these boxed sets is to establish the planes as viable locales for adventure, and the fact that the developers don’t seem to have been able to think up an adventure for each and every plane covered here sends precisely the wrong message. Whilst it is nice that the trilogy of boxes was completed, it’s a shame that they didn’t take the same adventure seed approach across all three.

Hellbound: the Blood War

Written primarily by Colin McComb and Monte Cook, this final major boxed set for Planescape doesn’t describe the planes as such – instead, it details the most prominent interplanar conflict in the game, the Blood War between the demons and devils.

To be honest, this is the point where TSR should really have stepped back and considered whether it would be best to just put this stuff out as a single book. You have your player booklet, your DM booklet (which proposes an interesting “truth” behind the Blood War for those who feel like it particularly needs one), and an adventure booklet of three reasonably developed adventures; beyond that you don’t get a whole lot to justify making this a boxed set. There’s no poster maps or anything like that; there’s a brief comic book, The Bargain, written by Jeff Grubb and stuffed with gorgeous Tony DiTerlizzi art, but the story is nothing to get too excited about and it feels like an excuse to stuff in more DiTerlizzi art, as is Visions of War, a booklet of illustrations you are supposed to show your players at certain points in the prewritten adventures. To be honest, it feels like at this stage they were grasping at straws to justify making this a boxed set.

Still, the actual information here is really good. The player booklet offers just enough to justify why player characters may want to stick their nose in this infernal business in the first place, whilst the DM booklet really helps unpack why the Blood War is not merely the fiends’ business but is in effect a microcosm of the wider multiverse-wide conflict of Law and Chaos: precisely because the fiends are such bad neighbours and nobody wants the the wrong flavour of fiend to win, you have stuff like the major powers of Mechanus and Limbo using it as a proxy war, and the various flavours of angel trying to keep the fiends fighting each other as much as possible and keeping innocents out of harm’s way to the extent that they can. It’s therefore a conflict which could conceivably have ramifications anywhere, which is really useful because it helps stop the setting feel as static as it can do if you just look over the prior boxed sets. The developed adventures I might not run as written, but they seem to be reasonably open to wildly variant outcomes, and there’s a good spread offered between mercenary errand work and stuff that could extensively change the direction of the War. The “all evil all the time” backdrop of the lower planes can tend to get wearing, but on the whole Hellbound is a great addition to Planescape lore.

The Sigil Trilogy

So my Roll20 group’s very long-running 5E Planescape campaign is over, which seems like a good time to have a look at my old Planescape material one last time and review it before we move on to our next game. (It’s going to be some Victorian-era Mage: the Awakening business.) I’ve previously looked over the core Planescape materials, so now it’s time to drill into the various supplements.

I would actually argue that the most useful supplements for a Planescape campaign are not, in fact, the legendary big fat boxed sets of planar information that followed the core boxed set. Of course they are useful for any extended visit to the planes in question – but equally, the planes in question a) have their basic principles already outlined in the core box, so you have all the tools you need to improvise your own locations and adventures there if you have to, b) are infinite, so you have little need to worry about your own inventions crowding out the “canon” material, and c) almost certainly aren’t the home base of the campaign, and therefore will be under correspondingly less of a microscope than that home base.

Odds are, if you’re playing Planescape your home base is going to be Sigil – and that’s why the trilogy of supplements giving further detail on the City of Doors is so useful for a Planescape campaign. If your characters are regularly spending time there, then your players are correspondingly going to be giving it much closer scrutiny, and therefore the more help you have in making it feel like a rich, real location with actual people with actual agendas living in it, the better off you are.

In the Cage: a Guide to Sigil

Its title comes from an old Genesis song; its subtitle explains what it is perfectly. This is an absolutely stuffed-to-the-gills, information-dense sourcebook on Sigil. No time is wasted on any sort of introduction or prefacing guidance on how to use this stuff in-game, to a large extent because the guide to Sigil in the core box already covers the sort of stuff an introduction would have covered; instead, the book leaps straight into the action, offering a tidal wave of locations (many of which have associated maps), significant NPCs, bits of trivia and information about life in Sigil, in-character advertisements, flyers, and declarations and more besides. There’s some especially useful notes on where to find the most well-known portals to particular planes too.

If you like Sigil and the Planescape house style – and you probably aren’t even thinking about Planescape supplements if you don’t – this is gold. Any Planescape campaign which includes any significant adventuring in Sigil would be enriched by this book, and since 99% of Planescape campaigns qualify as that this makes it near-essential.

The Factol’s Manifesto

Where In the Cage provided a simple enough breakdown of locations, this book provides a deeper look at the various Factions. Despite having kind-of invented the splatbook with their line of Complete (Insert Class/Race Here)’s Handbook products, TSR didn’t go for the Vampire: the Masquerade route of having a splatbook for each and every Faction in the game; instead, The Factol’s Manifesto condenses the sort of information that would have been in there into a single slim volume, and it works great.

Each Faction is given a player-facing look at their philosophy, their leader, their headquarters, and some significant NPCs and other snippets. There’s also a DM-facing section in each chapter which offers ideas for stuff which may be going on behind the scenes, though the authors emphasise that these are just ideas and aren’t necessarily canon for the purposes of your home campaign. (Already, the contrast with White Wolf from the same era is refreshing.) Special powers are given for Faction members which go beyond the abilities everyone gets for joining, giving players a strong incentive to try and seek advancement with their Faction in order to gain additional abilities.

Although it came out in 1995, a mere year after the campaign setting premiered, the book already shows some striking developments over the original core setting. Aside from the new D&D logo at the top which was phased in when the new, tweaked 2E core books got brought out (removing the iconic dragon-ampersand, an unforgivable omission which wouldn’t return until 5E), there are also some new amendments and additions to the overall settings in here. For instance, the leader of the Sensates is given a new surname – she’s now Erin Montgomery, with “Darkflame” being her middle name – presumably because they realised that in actual play having a “Factol Darkwood” and a “Factol Darkflame” as the leader of very different Factions ended up being confusing. (It certainly was in our campaign; killing them off was probably the best thing we could do to bring clarity to Sigil politics.)

More substantively, there’s hints that there used to be many more Factions in Sigil – dozens of the things! – but the Lady of Pain imposed a strict limit of 15, which prompted a brief civil war-cum-purge which the Factions of today are the survivors of. This is a nice development which answers a whole bunch of significant questions about the setting, including (off the top of my head):

  • “Why aren’t there Factions for every goofy philosophy?” Answer: there’s a strict limit, so if you can make your personal philosophy fit the broad church of one Faction or another you are better off doing that.
  • “Why don’t the Revolutionary League/Sign of One/Xaositects/Free League/any other Faction whose members are likely to have sharp disagreements with each other to the point of not being able to work together schism?” Answer: they’d lose massive amounts of power by doing so, and nobody is entirely clear which side of the schism – if any – would get the vacated Faction spot, so unless you simply don’t believe in the major underlying principles of the Faction it is always better to try and change minds within the Faction than to quit.
  • “Why can’t we start our own Faction?” Answer: in principle you can, in practice if you wanted it to be an actual Faction you would need to knock down one of the other Factions, which would make a great goal for a long-term campaign.

There’s also a shift in emphasis noticeable, with the book referring the reader not to the Planescape boxed set to get the basic rundown on the Factions, but The Planewalker’s Handbook, which is already spoken of here as though it is the core book of the setting. That may simply because it’s a player-facing book, and had come out that year to boot so it was an opportune moment to give it a plug and push its sales a bit, but I suspect that there is also an aspect here of TSR realising that the big boxed set approach they had been taking was beginning to become commercially unviable and wanting to reposition The Planewalker’s Handbook as the core book of the setting so as to ease the need to stock lots of copies of the core box, which could be marketed more exclusively to DMs.

In short, the Manifesto is a supplement which finds the Planescape setting evolving, but evolving in a way which for the most part makes sense and feels like a natural embellishment of what had gone before.

Uncaged: Faces of Sigil

Uncaged is a big collection of NPCs which makes good use of the fact that all the NPCs live in the same town. Whilst they can be treated entirely atomistically if you wish, each of the NPC descriptions also includes links between the NPC in question and at least one other NPC in the book – sometimes a minor connection, sometimes something more significant. Thus, the book describes not only a series of NPCs to enrich Sigil with, but also a network of connections between them which helps the GM find the answer to questions like “Are there any rumours of X having enemies?”

In fact, some of these connections amount to larger plots, with useful diagrams in the appendix at the back of the book giving extremely clear overviews of how the plots in question are structured. You could, in fact, very happily run a sandbox Planescape campaign using this book as the primary reference, simply by having the player characters bounce off the NPCs in question. Used in conjunction with In the Cage and the Factol’s Manifesto, it makes Sigil a city setting as rich as any described in the citybook-happy days of the 1990s, with books like the excellent original version of Chicago By Night for Vampire appearing almost shallow in comparison.

Pendragon (Sort of) Comes Home

So Chaosium have just announced that they’re partnering with Nocturnal Media, in order to provide assistance in marketing and distributing Pendragon and helping them with the fulfillment of various Kickstarters. The press release does not specify which Nocturnal Kickstarters are involved, but it seems a fair bet that one of them is Paladin, an adaptation of Pendragon to focus on the legends of Charlemagne.

This is a bit of a homecoming for Pendragon. Its first four editions were published through Chaosium – it was Greg Stafford’s pet project, Chaosium was Greg’s company, no-brainer, right? Right – until, that is, the late 1990s, when the collapse of the Mythos card game and associated tensions meant that Chaosium needed to trim the fat and Greg found himself wanting to disengage from the company and see about working with other publishers. (This is in part how we ended up with Mongoose and Design Mechanism publishing editions of RuneQuest before its return to Chaosium.)

As it happened, former West End Games designer Peter Corless, who had largely left the games industry to work at Cisco, fancied playing publisher as a bit of a side gig (and, presumably, was a big Pendragon fan). Corless had given Chaosium a substantial loan at one point to keep operating, which they had defaulted on; in order to make good, Corless accepted instead of payment on the loan the full rights to Pendragon. Setting up Green Knight Publishing, Corless kept the Pendragon flame alive when Chaosium might have otherwise neglected it, until in 2004 he sold the rights to White Wolf, who put the fifth edition (and the mighty, magnificent Great Pendragon Campaign) via their ArtHaus imprint.

Fast forward a bit to the end of White Wolf as we formerly knew it, with CCP buying out the company. Stewart Wieck eventually decided to leave White Wolf, the company he’d co-founded with Steve Wieck and Mark Rein-Hagen, to go it alone, so he made his farewells, picked up the rights to Pendragon (which White Wolf was at this point more or less no longer interested in), and set up Nocturnal Media to keep the flame alive, with Greg issuing further 5th Edition material through Nocturnal.

Som years later, Stewart undertook a brace of ambitious Kickstarters – ranging from revivals old Lion Rampant/early White Wolf ideas like Whimsy Cards and Storypath Cards to new variants of existing properties like Paladin to English translations of highly-regarded Spanish or French games like Aquelarre or Wurm. Unfortunately, before completing these projects Wieck died incredibly suddenly and unexpectedly.

That’s how we get to this current pass. As a backer of several of those projects, I can confirm that whilst progress has been happening, it’s been agonisingly slow. Why this is the case isn’t always particularly visible, but it’s become evident that Stewart didn’t exactly leave behind an especially clear and unambiguous action plan for getting the Kickstarters sorted. Things which had been believed to have been in hand weren’t, and stuff which had been promised ended up getting overlooked, and in general it’s been a bit of an awkward slog.

Chaosium getting involved sounds like a really positive step to me. Kickstarters which overrun have a way of becoming financial millstones around a publisher’s neck (because they budget for X amount of work and it turned out to take X+Y amount of work to actually get the job done), and when multiple projects are in place there’s a dangerous temptation to rob Peter to pay Paul, using the funds of one to get a different one finish in the hopes that the income stream from selling the project might cover the gap. I don’t know whether that’s the case here or how healthy Nocturnal’s finances are in general, but the aid of Chaosium in distributing and marketing Pendragon and associated materials is surely going to be a big help.

On top of that, it’s worth bearing in mind that the new regime at Chaosium – made up of the key players at Moon Design publications, one of the various producers of Glorantha material during Greg Stafford’s sojourn away from Chaosium – were brought in by Greg and Sandy Petersen in part to act as a crack team of Kickstarter troubleshooters. The major problem they were facing was taking the mess that the old Charlie Krank-led regime had made of the Horror On the Orient Express and Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarters and untangling it, and they did a pretty fine job. If anyone has a track record of giving a troubled Kickstarter delivery process a much-needed shot in the arm, it’s them.