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.