Dragonmeet Hoard: A Metamorphosis From Alpha To Gamma

After five months of distraction with other things, it’s time to turn my attention back to the remaining treasures I obtained at last year’s Dragonmeet.

Goodman Games, as one of the larger OSR publishers out there, occasionally gets to land a grognard’s dream project here and there. Witness Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition, an expanded reprint of the original 1976 version of Jim Ward’s science fiction RPG. Set on the Starship Warden, the game casts players as mutants and mainstream humans who must explore this vast generation ship – huge enough to contain entire ecosystems whose inhabitants have no idea they’re on a spaceship – and perhaps uncover the mysteries of why its colonisation mission went wrong and how it can be put right again.

Now, Jim Ward had regained the rights to the game and had been selling a facsimile copy of the slim 32-page 1976 booklet via PDF and POD for a while when Goodman proposed this project – but here’s where the “expanded” bit of “expanded reprint” comes in. You see, rather than just reprinting the original text, this edition also comes with a brace of articles covering the history of the game’s development, some errata and new ideas, and perhaps most importantly a clutch of magazine articles from around the time of the game’s original run.

Continue reading “Dragonmeet Hoard: A Metamorphosis From Alpha To Gamma”

Old School Foundations, New School Tools

Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures is not a game whose core system will amaze or overly confuse anyone. It’s one of a plethora of fantasy RPGs out there riffing on Basic D&D; Ascending AC is the order of the day, a simple skill system based on ability score throws is presented, and there’s an option for using 3E-style saving throws, but we’re still dealing with a riff on Basic D&D here.

However, it’s quite an interesting riff, and a lot of that comes not from the foundations of the system but from the trappings offered around it. Beyond the Wall purports to offer a framework for running fantasy adventures based on the young adult/older kids’ fantasy of Ursula le Guin or Lloyd Alexander – stories of young people on the verge of coming into adulthood being called on to defend their communities, in which the roots they have with their home and their emotional connections to each other are of significant importance. On top of that, it provides an incredibly good framework for running games on a pick-up-and-play basis.

It accomplishes this latter goal with three different, interconnected design decisions:

  1. As noted above, it’s based off Basic D&D. This is a system most people with RPG experience will, even if they don’t know it exceptionally well, be able to tackle with a minimum of explanation, and is simple enough that those with no prior experience can get up to speed quickly.
  2. It utilises robust scenario generation tools of the sort used in OSR games like Stars Without Number and the like.
  3. It uses the decidedly modern concept of “playbooks” for character generation.

Continue reading “Old School Foundations, New School Tools”

Turns Out Zak S. Is Worse Than We Thought

If you’ve been around RPG online discussion for a while – a somewhat different field from simply writing, playing and enjoying tabletop RPGs, with less overlap between the two than you might expect – you’ll probably be aware of one Zak Sabbath – AKA Zak S., AKA Zak Smith. He’s an artist, a porn actor, and a game writer and publisher. In terms of his RPG writing credentials, he first gained visibility through his blog Playing D&D With Porn Stars, which at least in its early phases came across as an entirely wholesome account of his fun home campaigns played, as the title implies, primarily with friends and colleagues he met through the porn world. The blog would later spawn a spin-off off video series on The Escapist, entitled I Hit It With My Axe.

On the back of this initial exposure, Zak has built an audience within the tabletop RPG community. He’s produced some well-received OSR-flavoured gaming materials, such as Vornheim (published through the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game line). He was one of several figures named as having been “consultants” on 5E Dungeons & Dragons; he also wrote a text-based mobile game for the new Paradox-controlled White Wolf as one of the first releases in their new Vampire: the Masquerade game line.

If you’re not the sort of person who keeps a weather eye on online forum culture or Internet RPG discussion, odds are that you’d only be aware of the above – if, indeed, you are one of the people who actually care about what name appears on an RPG supplement in the first place. (I greatly suspect that those people account for much less of the hobby than you may think.) In RPG discussion circles, however, for years Zak has had a vastly more controversial reputation.

Zak is persona non grata at a wide selection of RPG forums and platforms. Typically, he’ll get banned because of his posting style. Zak’s rhetorical style can best be described as take-no-prisoners; he charges in, asserts his point vigorously, has no qualms about demonising or belittling his opponents – suggest that there’s too much chainmail bikini cheesecake material and too little sensible armour in RPG artwork and he’ll compare you to Tipper Gore (because he’s stick in the mid-1990s for some weird reason) – and basically charges into a debate like a bull in a china shop. He has very developed and specific opinions and rules as to how debate should go, and if he spots somebody not following those rules he will try to present them as participating in bad faith.

This pattern has happened over and over again, over a wide range of fora, including his own blog. In general, he treats every disagreement or debate like it’s a full-on battle of crucial importance. It makes him very, very exhausting to discuss anything with, and I long ago gave up any attempt to engage him. (He tried to comment here once – a one word comment, “Ew”, in response to some article I wrote; I forget which because the comment was long since binned and purged, but I think it might have been this one. The only way to “win” at Zak is not to play his game, or let him into your playground in the first place.)

In short, Zak’s approach to online discussion is not conducive to a chill, relaxed space where people chat about their hobby in an essentially friendly manner. Rather, it’s the sort of rhetorical tactic which will turn a forum into a screeching hellhole of divisiveness, and under the circumstances it’s no surprise that many forum owners and moderators find it easier to do without Zak’s presence. The last I was aware, he was still welcome at therpgsite – I suspect because it’s run by the RPGPundit, who’s got a similar reputation for off-the-hook aggressive debating tactics.

The Pundit connection is significant. Back when 5E D&D was being released, a clutch of “consultants” were named in the Basic Rules PDF – Rob Monroe gives a fairly neutral accounting of them here. As I understand it, their role was mostly to act as sounding boards for Mike Mearls and his team to bounce ideas off of, so the concept of getting people with a wide range of outlooks on RPGs for that sort of consultancy is a good one. It’s a pity that none of the people listed are women, and an extra double pity with cream that the folk listed included RPGPundit or Zak S., neither of whom really rate on the same level as a Jeff Grubb, a Robin Laws or a Ken Hite, and both of whom took a substantial ego boost out of being named in that exalted company.

It was around this time that I became aware that a number of people had accused Zak of either directly harassing them himself, or mobilising fans through various platforms to do that. A number of people wrote in-depth posts about Zak and the issues surrounding him (and Pundit), such as this one from Fail Forward, and others such as the Problematic Tabletop blog have tried to bring together various evidences of the behaviour of Zak along with other toxic elements of the community. (Unfortunately, Problematic Tabletop used donotlink for a lot of their links – which now don’t redirect anywhere except a French domain squatter’s advertising page about folding touchscreens.) “Consultantgate” was underway, as folk decried Wizards for legitimising Pundit and Zak to that extent.

The tricky thing is that the nature of a lot of the harassment involved meant that – particularly before Problematic Tabletop and others did a lot of the legwork – actually recognising the pattern involved wasn’t all that easy for folk who hadn’t already been at least partially aware of Zak’s recurrent online behaviours. Shawn Struck hit the nail on the head when he outlined how Zak operates to give himself some form of plausible deniability. Since then, Problematic Tabletop has gathered some much more direct evidence – such as screencaps of Zak posting a link to some article he disagreed with, along with the on-word command “destroy” – and people have given cogent accounts of their own experiences with Zak, but at the time much of the evidence readily available was either far more indirect, or had been deleted and not archived.

So, Zak plead innocence and claimed that people were making mountains out of rhetorical molehills; depressingly, Wizards of the Coast seemed to believe him – and the Paradox-controlled White Wolf seemed to believe him later on, when objections were raised after they hired him to make that Vampire text game. I won’t go into all the complaints about that game, but I will note that it was one of the first signs that the Paradox-controlled White Wolf were going down the edgelord route real hard, taking the worst excesses of 1990s White Wolf and cranking them up to 11 – to the stage where Paradox has recently had to step in, dissolve White Wolf, and reconstitute it as a carefully managed and supervised subsidiary which no longer has that much independence and exists solely to licence out work and handle the approvals process with licencees, much as it was in the latter days of its ownership by CCP. (There’s a quote about a severed ass which goes around which reveals the absolutely risible writing standards the game is lumbered with.)

Controversy rumbled on from Consultantgate onwards, with new outbreaks occasionally happening (such as when Zak’s Vampire: the Masquerade game was announced.) Around the time of Consultantgate, Zak’s partner Mandy Morbid – despite being quite ill at the time – put out an impassioned defence of him; Zak would extensively link back to this, particularly when defending himself against allegations that women and/or LGBT+ folk tended to be recurring targets of his ire. Those opting to defend Zak would tend to link Mandy’s post on the subject, because of course why wouldn’t they? This is someone in Zak’s life who knows him extremely well, giving another perspective on the situation, and who was finding the whole situation distressing at a time when she was dealing with an ongoing chronic illness.

Time rolled on. More incidents happened. Bit by bit people who had defended Zak previously started backing away from him, as it became more and more difficult to deny that there was a problem there. (After all, if even 90% of the accusations against him are false, the remaining 10% are pretty fucked.) At one point Zak was caught red-handed impersonating Shannon Appelcine, owner of RPG.net, on Reddit, and pulled out the old “oh, my friend was using my computer as a joke” excuse, which seemed to nudge a few people out of his corner.

Now, however, we have a bombshell. Yesterday, Mandy Morbid re-emerged – having gone quiet for a good while – to reveal that she had split up from Zak, and that throughout their relationship Zak had been abusive towards her.

Mandy’s words are difficult to read – there’s violence in there, there’s lack of consent, there’s threats, there’s all sorts of shit, so I am not going to copy-paste them to here for the time being and will instead link them. (If you are Facebook-averse here is an archive.is link.)

It’s entirely possible that Mandy will come under attack from Zak’s defenders for posting this. I hope the support network around her will do what it can for her during that; she does at least seem to have a lot of support on the Facebook post itself. In particular, it’s heartening to see people saying that they had defended Zak previously but now felt differently, or that they were going to decline opportunities to work with him in the light of all this.

Whilst it is a shame that they didn’t see through Zak previously, I do applaud them for changing their minds with the emergence of new evidence. It is difficult to abandon an entrenched position when you have held it this long, and whilst we can carp on them for deciding to take that position in the first place, I feel that the “nyah, I told you so” angle is unhelpful and unimportant next to the community doing right by Mandy by supporting her – and doing right by itself by not giving an abuser the free run he’s had so far.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that it’s Mandy’s words that have nudged people into definitively breaking with Zak – or convinced them that their previous decision to break with him was the right call. That essay that Mandy put out in defence of Zak that I mentioned earlier? I was careful to say “put out” and not “wrote” because, whilst it was published through her blogging platforms and presented as coming from her, Mandy now says that Zak wrote the entire dang thing and had her publish it under her name, and that one of the major fault lines in their relationship was how he dragged her into his “online gaming arguments nonsense”.

This is far from the worst thing that Mandy reports, but it’s surely the one which sticks in the mind of many of Zak’s former supporters, since “Mandy’s” defence of Zak seems to have played no small part in persuading them of Zak’s good character. Mandy speaking out certainly has made Rob Monroe disavow his previous stance on Zak.

Another story worth looking at is that of Patrick Stuart from the False Machine blog, who over the past five years has gone on quote a journey in his interactions with Zak. At first he was an emphatic Zak supporter. Then he attempted to put together a timeline of all the facts which, whilst I think it tends to come at things from a Zak-believer’s perspective (it puts a lot of weight on people +1’ing a Google Plus post about James Desborough which Zak chose to kick off a crusade about, for instance), does end up highlighting how Zak clearly isn’t wholly innocent in all this; it’s pretty hard to correlate all the information together and not come away with questions about what Zak’s been playing at.

Then, despite clearly still wanting to be a pal with Zak on some level, seems to have decided that this simply wasn’t possible given how Zak behaves all the time; here Patrick finally snaps at Zak and says “People call you a dick because you act like a dick.” As Patrick notes in his latest post, responding to Mandy’s revelations, the connection to Zak in and of itself seems to have had a poor effect on his mental health; Zak seems to be a very, very difficult person to be online friends with (which should give you some idea of just how difficult people find it to be his enemy). I am going to quote Patrick here because I suspect these words of his may resonate with those who have been trying to reconcile their own interactions with Zak with what Mandy has said:

Its the dual-vision of being friends with Zak. There’s this person who’s such a great guy, and so interested in you personally, so talented, intelligent, charming and funny, with rare good taste.

And then there is this other guy. The one that comes out in text form usually. In arguments about nerd stuff. This guy is condescending, aggressive, clever and manipulative. This guy will say anything to win some fucking internet argument and never, ever, ever admits wrong, backs down or recognises the humanity in his opponents.

The first guy has friends who like him. They second guy has tools, things he uses, doling them out like playing cards or little army men.

At first it seems like the vituperative shit online is just a flaw in the larger person. Something you will have to put up with, a manageable flaw in an otherwise good man.

It takes a long fucking time to work out that the second guy is the real actual guy. That is the person making the decisions and for whom the decisions are made. The first person, the good guy, is just a set of behaviours he puts on like clothes.

Certainly, between the material that Problematic Tabletop has amassed since this controversy first kicked off, what Mandy has been brave enough to say now, and the way others who have previously been close to Zak have said “Yeah, actually, that kind of is how it is to be friends with him”, it feels like if you aren’t already persuaded that Zak has engaged in entirely inappropriate actions, you’ll never be persuaded of it.

Update: This situation has blown up and I would not blame anyone if they find it impossible to keep up with more than a fraction of what is being said about it. But there’s something which shouldn’t get lost in the hustle, and that’s Viv’s story as another one of Zak’s ex-partners.

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.