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.

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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.

Theological Tomes of TSR-era D&D

Collections of deities have been a part of the D&D game line ever since Gods, Demigods and Heroes emerged for OD&D. Whereas that was a brief booklet containing extremely simple god descriptions, subsequent books have been more lavish affairs, and whilst the finer details of the religions described have been altered for game purposes I still have fond memories of the old 2E Legends & Lore hardcover giving me basic introductions to various bits of world mythology. Here, then, is a quick overview of TSR’s major compilations of gods, as well as a notable OSR product that harkens back to them.

Deities & Demigods

The first AD&D hardback to come out after Gygax completed the big three, Gary’s introduction to this tome and the preface by the authors (Jim Ward and Rob Kuntz) try to make out that it’s a core book for 1E – and to be fair, under a certain light it is. After all, AD&D was constructed as a synthesis of all the major material put out for OD&D in its core set, its supplement series, and in the better-received articles in sources like The Strategic Review and Dragon, and Deities & Demigods is effectively an expanded and revised version of Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes by the same writers.

As explained in the fourth volume of Hawk & Moor, the intent behind Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes – a motivation still evident here – was to define an “upper limit” for D&D. Perturbed by reports of campaigns of absurdly inflated power levels, amused by stories of PCs strolling into Valhalla to mug Thor and take his stuff, and pestered by fans for ever-more powerful spells and monsters and character abilities, it seems that Ward and Kuntz decided to try and defuse this strange gaming arms race by setting a particular standard as the maximum power level that could possibly be encountered in the game. The idea seems to have been that if Zeus himself only has 400 hit points and stats in the mid-twenties and the equivalent of 20th level in a few classes, your 40th level warrior-wizard who casts 20th level spells and has a million hit points ceases to look like an unbeatable god and just ends up looking like a childish exaggeration.

This idea is alright in theory, but of course it does run into the pitfall that by providing game stats for this stuff, you inherently quantify what the player characters need to do to take down a god. It doesn’t help that the book leads off with some expansions to the ability score tables to show what marvellous abilities are unlocked for ability scores between 19 and 25 – though I am fairly sure the intention is that only gods actually get some of these capabilities, so that no matter (for instance) how high a mortal’s Charisma score is they’ll never be able to exert the awe effect that a high-Charisma deity can. Another problem – and one which the introduction to Deities & Demigods freely admits – is that it is very possible to look at the book, see a bunch of stat blocks, and decide that it’s a high-level Monster Manual and treat it as such. (To be fair, a lot of the deity descriptions end up being quite terse – to the point where aside from a statblock and a description of the god’s appearance and behaviour in combat you aren’t really given much to work with, so I can see how people could make that mistake.)

Another motivation is, of course, providing some cultural context for D&D campaigns, and in particular to give some much-needed flavour to the religious practices of clerics. As Deities & Demigods notes, a campaign world would have to be extraordinarily diverse to incorporate all the different pantheons incorporated therein – well, to be fair Earth itself is more diverse, but then again making and running a campaign world that has even a shadow of the sheer range of cultures and ideas that Earth has is a mammoth undertaking. However, if you pick out just one pantheon, or a subset of related ones, and declare that these are the ruling principles of your campaign world, then instantly you give your particular cosmos a distinctive flavour of its own. To this end, the entries in Deities are divided up by pantheon, and there’s actually an impressive number of different cultures provided here, including a bunch which didn’t make the cut for the 2nd Edition equivalent of this book. (Plus, of course, some versions have Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stats – pulled not because Chaosium were unhappy with them being there, but because TSR decided that promoting Chaosium’s games by namedropping them in connection with these chapters was bad for business.)

Some of these summaries inevitably end up being a bit problematic; for instance, European pantheons are finely divided, whilst all North American tribal religions are lumped together in the “American Indian” chapter. This is a shame, particularly since it’s quite obvious that Ward and Kuntz did in fact do a whole bunch of research to begin with to select and detail different deities and cultural heroes; the book ends up in this awkward place where its authors were evidently trying not to be excessively Eurocentric and do their homework, but at the same time they end up with the sort of blind spots you’d expect someone to end up having if they were reliant on late-1970s Midwestern public libraries and book shops to get their information. If you were writing this thing today, you could almost certainly do a better job thanks to the preponderance of information and people to discuss these things with on the Internet; as it stands, particularly when it comes to those pantheons which touch on actual real-life religions practiced by large numbers of people in the modern world, a Dungeon Master would do well to do a healthy amount of their own research when bringing these gods to bear – particularly since, though the introductions to each pantheon are actually quite good, the specific deity and hero descriptions can be a bit brief.

As far as working out stats goes, Deities & Demigods is extremely useful and provides a bunch of information on incorporating the tropes of specific cultural legends into D&D, so it’s decidedly worth it; you just have to make sure you don’t treat it as a one-stop shop for all you need to know about a particular religion when it comes to bringing it alive for gaming purposes (and, as with any supplement like this, corroborate facts with proper sources assiduously before you kid yourself into thinking this reflects real-life religious practices!).

Legends & Lore (2E Version)

Midway through 1E’s run, when the hardcovers got reprints with snazzy orange spines, Deities & Demigods got retitled Legends & Lore in what I suspect was a crafty rebranding exercise – the Satanic Panic propagandists had tended to cite Deities & Demigods as being the most objectionable of the AD&D rulebooks (“it encourages kids to worship pagan gods!”), so retiring the title may have seemed like a crafty way to deflect their complaints. The rebranding carried over to 2E, the new volume being prepared by Troy Denning and a returning Jim Ward and bearing with it a brief disclaimer that the book neither encouraged nor discouraged the worship of the gods presented therein, but merely depicted them for the purposes of inspiration for Dungeon Masters (a clever way of disavowing Satanic Panicers’ complaints without kowtowing to the extent of retiring the volume and without buying into their assertion that these religions were inherently evil… OK, a lot of the Aztec pantheon gets branded as evil here, but when you’re dealing with a state religion that mandates human sacrifice it’s hard to wriggle out of that one).

The 2nd Ediiton version of Legends & Lore increases the page count by 50% but presents markedly less pantheons, even when you account for the loss of the Elric and Cthulhu Mythos stuff. Part of this comes down to the book not being printed in teeny-tiny text and having more artwork, but not all of it is solely down to the layout bloat; it also comes down to 2E being the edition where context was king, and the authors went the extra mile to provide more substantive notes on cultural background and the specific role in the pantheon of each god and hero depicted; although it is still not a substitute for doing proper research if you want an actual historical or cultural insight into the religions involved, the gods presented here are at least much more fleshed-out than in the previous book and in general you don’t have entries where it’s like “This god shows up with this sort of costume and generally carries this sort of weapon, usually reacts favourably to blah and unfavourably to blah blah” and so on.

NPC stats are still provided, but this time around they are presented as stats not of the gods themselves but as avatars thereof – mere projections of the deity into the mortal realm, as opposed to the sum total of the god’s majesty. As well as providing an alternate take on cosmology that Dungeon Masters can adopt if they think it is suitable for their campaigns, this also finally provides a way to resolve the thorny problem of providing truly epic opponents on the one hand whilst on the other making sure that the gods aren’t diminished or made to seem puny when high-level mortals take them to the cleaners: simply say that those high-level characters simply fought and bested a mere fraction of the god’s true power, and provided that taking down that fraction is hard enough the god remains impressive.

That’s handy, but the expanded god descriptions remain the major benefit Legends & Lore has over its predecessor. Whilst it can’t be emphasised enough that this isn’t a one-stop resource for mythology or religion for any real-world application, and whilst it does cover less pantheons than Deities & Demigods, I feel like I could do every god described in Legends & Lore justice in terms of presenting them as a feature of an RPG world’s universe just working from here, whereas with Deities I feel I’d need to have the manual in one hand and another resource in the other to get a handle on some of the less well-described gods.

Monster Mythology

This part of the blue softcover Dungeon Master’s Guide supplemental series for 2E is rooted in a particular take on monsters in D&D – namely, that they are part of the ecology, that they are living creatures like the PCs with their own cultures, and therefore their own gods (provided here). This is a perfectly legitimate way to do worldbuilding, but is far from the only one – for instance, in a setting based around ancient Greece it would make no sense for the satyrs and pegasi and whatnot to have their own distinct pantheons of gods – they worship the same gods that humans worship, because they are not distinct and separate from the humans’ cultures but a part of those cultures’ mythologies in their own right.

Which comes down to the main issue I have with the deities outlined in this book – they’re all a little bland, in part because they seem to be developed to just generically care about the particular monsters they are the patrons of and aren’t really integrated into the wider cosmology of any particular campaign world. On the one hand, that makes it easier to drop them into your campaign world, but on the other hand it will also mean it feels a little obvious that they’ve been dragged and dropped in. Let’s say that your campaign world has had major events in its past in which the gods as a whole took an active part (like DragonlanceForgotten Realms, Mystara… in other words, a good majority of the campaign worlds made by TSR themselves). What role did these monsters’ gods play in that event? The book offers no help, and nor can it. My inclination in running D&D these days is to bite the bullet and say that there’s a single pantheon for everyone (because those are the objectively real deities of that campaign world), and the gods appear humanlike to humans and elflike to elves and horselike to horses and so on. Different cultures might worship the pantheon in strikingly different ways, or worship a different subset of the pantheon, but a god that’s real for anyone is real for everyone in a D&D world and therefore I don’t think it makes sense to assume that any god will exclusively be worshipped by one species or another.

On Hallowed Ground

Penned by Colin McComb, this Planescape supplement is largely taken up with an extensive listing of gods – some from Legends & Lore, plus some additional pantheons (like the Sumerian and Finnish, which had appeared in Deities & Demigods but not the 2nd edition Legends & Lore), plus some D&D originals like the monster gods from Monster Mythology or the deities of the Birthright, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk campaign settings.

This makes it useful straight off the bat as a one-stop source, provided that you bear in mind that the book is offering a Planescape take on the deities in question -a bit more jaded and much less easily awed than the traditional high fantasy take on such subject matter, and working on the premise that even if you aren’t going to regularly stroll up to Thor and punch him on the nose, the realms of the gods are viable places for the player characters to go visit. This is a gear shift away from the 2E Legends & Lore approach, but that’s no bad thing – if you don’t like it you can correct for it, and if you do like it then bam, you’re in luck.

In addition to the god listings there’s a bunch of useful Planescape-specific stuff here. Chapters are providing expanding on the roles of gods and priests in the context of the setting, which is decent enough, but McComb also goes the extra mile and finally fleshes out the whole deal with petitioners (dead people reborn in the realms of the gods they were aligned to in life) and proxies (agents of the gods), which is long overdue, since I always felt those concepts weren’t outlined well enough in the core set to be especially useful.

My one criticism would be that in discussing the possibility of PCs becoming proxies, McComb is sufficiently hostile to the idea that he neglects to cover a particularly entertaining option: what about an all-proxy campaign, in which the PCs are all agents of the same god (or a set of gods sufficiently closely aligned to ensure party unity)? That sounds to me like a particularly interesting premise for a Planescape campaign, but he never even considers it.

Petty Gods

Petty Gods is a project with a long and troubled history. The original idea was to provide a supplement along the lines of the old Judges Guild Unknown Gods release, dedicated to presenting a number of deities with portfolios somewhat more small-scale and niche than the greater deities that usually get the lion’s share of the attention when campaign settings are cooked up – to take an ancient Roman example, think the household gods of the family hearth, as opposed to mighty Jupiter.

The intention behind the project was that it would be a community affair, with submissions solicited from anyone interested and collated into a single volume, with some editing for system consistency and proofreading. Originally, the plan was for it to be edited and laid out by James Maliszewski – however, when James abruptly dropped off the radar during the debacle surrounding his Dwimmermount Kickstarter, the project was left orphaned. Eventually, Greg “this is probably a pseudonym” Gorgonmilk decided to revive the project, calling for anyone who had submitted work for it to resend it to him and opening up the floodgates for further submissions on top of that. Gorgonmilk succeeded in whipping up a renewed wave of enthusiasm for the project, and at one point even seemed on the verge of obtaining submissions from Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Charles Saunders (though these sadly fell through), but found it difficult to actually finish the job of editing. Luckily, he was able to pass the concluding stages of the project over to Richard J. LeBlanc Jr., who whipped it into shape and got it out of the door.

Although in design it is deliberately reminiscent of Deities & Demigods – the back cover is in the same style as the original release of that book, and the spine is in the same distinctive orange style as late 1E hardbacks – this is statted up not for 1E, but for Labyrinth Lord. That means that it’s entirely compatible with B/X, needs only a momentary sanity check to use with BECMI, needs a touch more care to use with other TSR incarnations of D&D, and can be used with 3E and 5E with somewhat more work. The interior design is actually very reminiscent of the B/X rulebooks, which is a nice touch; the sense that this could have been a lost classic TSR supplement is only heightened by the inclusion of some work by old stars of 1970s TSR – Jim Ward pens an introduction, Erol Otus provides some characteristically tripped-out artwork, and the appendices include a welcome reprint of an extensive M.A.R. Barker essay on penning religions for RPG purposes, in which he makes a strong case that if you want a fantasy game which is genuinely immersive and where the PCs are deeply engaged with the gameworld’s culture, you can’t neglect the design of religions – and also provides his insights into how to craft a religion which fits a culture. (In essence, you work out the basics of a culture first, and then consider what sort of religion would thrive in such a culture.) As well as a massive number of petty gods, the book also includes chunky chapters cataloguing related material – including a bunch of servitors of the gods, a brace of new spells and items, and ideas for developing cults.

But the stars of this nearly 400 page tome are the gods themselves, and they do not disappoint. Not all will be to everyone’s taste, since that is the nature of such community-written supplements; some will fall flat, won’t be to your tastes, or be actively annoying and/or offensive. That doesn’t really hurt, though, because nobody would make a serious attempt to implement all these gods in the same campaign; anyone trying to use this work is going to need to be selective and pick out those gods which suit the tone of their campaign world.

What’s nice is that there is a genuine diversity here in terms of the type of god presented as well as the concept. Which gods you choose will say something about the nature of your campaign world and the cultures that appear therein. Some are gods of particular locales – sometimes extremely specific locales (there’s a patron deity of a pub, for instance) – others are petty less because of the extent of their influence than the fringe nature of their interests, either because their sphere of influence is very narrow or because it is extremely obscure. There’s even some gods which can fill in aesthetic niches in previously-described pantheons; in particular, there’s some lesser Cthulhu Mythos entities which would let you throw in a bit of Lovecraftian action in your games without being so dickish as to bring your PCs face to face with Cthulhu himself.

Choosing to incorporate the idea of little godlings into your campaign world will set it in a certain light; choosing a particular subset of these petty gods to include will cast it in an even more specific light and lend a particular flavour to it. Go for the more serious-but-esoteric sorts, and your world will be one where mysterious powers lurk in dark corners pondering problems which would seem entirely irrelevant until such time as it becomes very important to the player characters to get some divine intervention in a matter. Go for more of the genius loci sorts, and you have a game world where locations themselves can make their feelings known through their manifest spirits. Go for the more whimsical and wacky sorts, and you add a little Vancian flair to your world. You can even treat this like the sort of high-powered Monster Manual that Deities & Demigods was used at by more combat-happy groups, and it’d make perfect sense: whilst it may be risible for a mere mortal to best Thor in a fight, it makes absolute sense for a high-level character in D&D to kick the ass of a decidedly minor god of the sort explained here. (In particular, eyeballing it it seems like if you use the statlines as-is in BECMI player characters will end up having better saves than most petty gods once they get to high levels – but since high-level PCs in BECMI are on the verge of becoming gods themselves that works just fine.)

In fact, what browsing the pages of Petty Gods reminds me of is strolling down the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar, where a host of minor religions bicker and compete for attention (as evoked perhaps most memorably in Lean Times In Lankhmar). You are wasting your time supremely if you bother to listen to them all, but given the vast number of submissions presented you’re sure to find some gems in here, and for my part I found the ratio of hits to misses admirably high.

From Cook to Cook (or Planescape Revisited)

It’s interesting to me that whilst Gary Gygax gets ample credit for his custodianship of 1E AD&D, Dave “Zeb” Cook isn’t similarly celebrated by 2E fans – despite the fact that Cook was arguably the game’s “show-runner” in the early 2E period much as Gary was for the early period of the game’s existence and Mike Mearls seems to have become for 5E. As well as writing the 2E core books, Cook was also the primary author of Oriental Adventures (despite Gary being given the credit), which as well as being one of the more beloved of the post-Unearthed Arcana 1E hardbacks was also the book which introduced the idea of nonweapon proficiencies to the game – a system feature which would underpin a bunch of other distinctively 2E mechanics, like the “kits” offered in the line of brown splatbooks (ew) that acted like a fiddly, class-specific, not-really-very-balanced set of forerunners to 5E Backgrounds. Moreover, between the release of the 2E core and his departure from TSR in 1994, Cook helmed two out of the three major hardback additions to the system – the Tome of Magic and the Book of Artifacts. (Legends & Lore was penned by Jim Ward and Troy Denning, building on Ward and Rob Kuntz’ previous work on Deities & Demigods).

His last major contribution to the game was Planescape. In the 1E era Jeff Grubb had produced the Manual of the Planes, taking the Great Wheel cosmology as outline by Gary in previous works (notably the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide) and stacking a whole bunch of dry rules detail on it. Interesting in principle, it was felt that it didn’t really support much in the way of adventure on the planes, and when 2E rolled around the idea started brewing of giving it an update with an eye to using the planes as a basis for campaigning in their own right.

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