Planescape, Gonzo Gaming, and Being Totally Rad

Cold eyelids that hide like a jewel
     Hard eyes that grow soft for an hour;
The heavy white limbs, and the cruel
     Red mouth like a venomous flower;
When these are gone by with their glories,
     What shall rest of thee then, what remain,
O mystic and sombre Dolores,
     Our Lady of Pain?

-Dolores (Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs), Algernon Charles Swinburne


Sometimes you want to have a serious, down-to-earth game. You want to experience a gritty world where scars are plentiful, combat is frightening, and magic is the stuff of legend and nightmares. You want to scrape by for your food, track every ounce of weight, and know the perils of dying of thirst while traversing an untamed sea. When you see a goblin, you want to stop and think, “Oh hell, she has a spiked club. This might get messy.” You want to feel the filth and smell the stink off of every inch of the environment.

Then sometimes you want to be a cyberpunk ninja fighting robot communists and ride around on a laser hawk. Maybe you want to be a loinclothed barbarian named Ax Battler wielding a two-handed sword, in order to one day square off against Death Adder, an evil magician who killed your parents and has enslaved the kingdom. You might even want to be a wizard marked by the ancient devil who killed your master, and you have to slaughter the evils arising in the kingdom as a result. An angel might or might not know how to eat food, in this last scenario.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this second approach, and it is every bit as valid of a playstyle as any other game you might play. There is also nothing wrong with a more serious approach. I love Ravenloft, and I am glad to see it back in action. However, what I’d kill for is some Planescape love.

As I am sure you already know, this typing of bombastic and hyper-real play is often referred to as “gonzo.” Here we don’t mean the type of journalism spearheaded by Hunter S. Thompson, but the other two definitions of the word as supplied by Merriam-Webster, “bizarre” or “freewheeling or unconventional, especially to the point of outrageousness.” With everyone focused on Ravenloft and its dark, haunting fantasy, it’s worth discussing my favorite setting from 2e, and one absolutely considered gonzo: Planescape.

The City of Doors

Planescape is a setting from the mid-90s created by David ‘Zeb’ Cook. In a weird series of small-world coincidences, Mr. Cook currently works in an office next door to a good buddy of mine. Mr. Cook, if you are reading this, you should invest in gummy centipedes to place in Greg’s office whenever you want a laugh. You can also discuss mega-damage any time you want to see the vein in his forehead throb. These are all for free, just because Planescape is so amazing.

Anyway. Planescape is the connective tissue binding the D&D skeleton together. As the name suggests, Planescape provides detailed planar settings for adventuring. It is also a fantastic way to allow characters to swap campaign worlds at a moment’s notice in a fairly organic manner. Planescape is divided into three rough structures: the inner planes, the outer planes, and the prime material planes. The prime material planes are all of the core D&D campaign settings, such as Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Eberron, and Dragonlance. You want to start your campaign in Icewind Dale and end up in Solamnia? No problem, Planescape is here for you! A quick walk through Sigil, the City of Doors, and you are wherever you need to be.

The aesthetic of Sigil is bizarre and special in its own right. Not only is the city a torus, but it adopts a Victorian aesthetic, leaning hard on parallels with the Industrial Revolution. It’s steampunk in the early days of the genre, as the term really popped up in the mid to late 80’s. Even beyond this, the nature of the city itself turns the classical D&D divides on their ears. Sigil is ruled over by the Lady of Pain, heavily inspired by the 1866 poem Dolores by A.C. Swinburne. She is an ancient and powerful being who has outlived and destroyed gods, yet destroys those who would worship her as a god. She is brutal, without emotion, never speaks, and has the singular goal of maintaining the neutrality and balance of Sigil. When she appears, it is as a gargantuan floating woman in plain clothing, usually red, with a mantle of horrific blades. When she doesn’t kill anyone causing disruption, she tosses them into the Maze, a place of madness and terror.

As noted before, the Lady of Pain doesn’t speak. She communicates through beings called dabus. Dabus are the custodians of the great city of Sigil, and people know not to mess with dabus – doing so invites the retribution of the Lady of Pain. Dabus simply build, rebuild, clean, and follow the orders of the Lady of Pain. They are yellow-skinned humanoids with white hair and goat horns, who move around by levitation and communicate through magical golden rebuses, images imparting meaning. These are the least of the people of Sigil, the anonymous, faceless workers, and they are extraordinarily magical.


Factions and Actions

This is to say nothing of the way factions work within Planescape. Sure, they got blown up in the Faction War, but let’s pretend none of it happened, because I’m pretty sure it would end up being redacted if Planescape were ever released for 5e. Anyway, factions are the default rulers of Sigil, because of the aloofness of the Lady of Pain. There are fifteen total factions, all with bases of operation within Sigil, but the factions also control the various gate cities around the planes. These gate cities are the entry and exit points to travel the planes through pedestrian means, like walking the Great Wheel. This creates a pretty cool dynamic, with a sense of uniformity across the planes from the factions, but the planes themselves still feel unique and can be a little looser. In short, it’s great design.

The factions do another weird thing: they put together strange bedfellows. A member of the Harmonium, #teamhardhead, might be a devil or an angel. Each would be equally likely to enforce law and order, though their means might differ. The important thing is the lawful portion of the alignment, not the good or evil portion. Similarly, a member of the Athar might be a rogue modron or a fallen angel. In fact, this is a pretty common motif in the Planescape setting. Causes are more important than one’s birth or pre-disposition. Governance and control of the planes and of Sigil is the defining interest.

This is in part due to the nature of the setting itself. Planescape encourages conflict and risk-taking by following the standard rules of planar creatures. When you die, you aren’t necessarily dead. You might just be banished back to your plane of origin, you might end up as a parishioner and have to discuss your next steps with your chosen Power, or you might just wake up in the cart of the Dustmen. While any and all of these things might derail or alter your adventure, they afford a greater opportunity for exploration, while still taking risks that make sense for your character. Yes, it might still be a life-ending decision, but in Planescape, it is hardly a character-ending decision. This is to say nothing of places like the Field of Nettles, where the Blood War wages eternal.

What is the Blood War, you ask? It’s a constant war between devils and demons for control of the Lower Planes. This is a great illustration of the Law vs. Chaos concern going on, rather than Good vs. Evil. The devils claim they were created as angels to wage war against the demons. In order to better fight them, they took on traits of the demons. The devils were now shunned by angels and gods for their hideous nature. Yet they could not be cast out, due to their strict adherence to their lawful natures. This resulted in the Pact Primeval and the creation of the Nine Hells, a place away from the realms of pure Law where the Blood War might be waged. This is all pretty rad stuff, and it is definitely in a different arena than “cursed due to obsession” and the other internal struggles of gothic horror.


Gith Me a Break

Another great example of the totally bitchin’ nature of Planescape is the entire story of the Gith. As an aside, did you know the Gith owe their name to George R.R. Martin’s 1977 novel Dying of the Light? Anyway. Gith was an ancient hero of a race once enslaved to the illithid empire. Her race was originally from the planet Pharagos, or the Zarum Empire, depending on the source, and their struggles against the illithids was so great as to create the River of Angry Souls, a living river filled with the bodies and souls of the dead. A strong psychic warrior, Gith led the slaves of the illithids in rebellion, destroying the empire so thoroughly that it has not yet been reformed. Instead of being content in victory, Gith prepared to hunt down and exterminate every last illithid, which rubbed many the wrong way. A warrior named Zerthimon opposed Gith, and thus began a civil war. The entire planet was destroyed in the ensuing conflict. It is unclear what resulted from the war, as neither side was truly a winner. The githzerai, those who spurn Gith, retreated to Limbo, and the githyanki turned to the Astral Plane, unable to continue their crusade.

Gith then appointed Vlaakith, a wizard, as adviser, and sought out extraplanar aid for her people. The result was Gith brokering a deal with Ephelomon, the red dragon consort of Tiamat, to allow the githyanki to ride around on red dragons in exchange for the githyanki serving Tiamat when it was needed. As this deal was initially suggested by the archdevil Dispater, Dispater proposed keeping a hostage to seal the deal for both sides. Gith offered herself, unwilling to sacrifice any githyanki life. Vlaakith received a red dragon scepter as a symbol of her rulership.

All subsequent rulers took the name Vlaakith, including the current ruler, Vlaakith CLVII. Vlaakith CLVII, stay with me now, is actually a powerful wizard and lich, in addition to being a rockin’ psychic. Anytime a githyanki reaches a certain level of power or skill, Vlaakith summons them to the palace to consume their souls. Most githyanki are totally cool with this, though some flee and end up as undead servants. Vlaakith also hands out powerful magical silver swords. In addition to a bunch of other properties, these swords can sever the silver threads of astral travelers, killing them instantly. These swords are so powerful that when someone holding one dies, a group known as the Sword Stalkers are sent out to retrieve them. As if this wasn’t rad enough, Vlaakith makes her home on Tu’narath, which is the corpse of a dead god in the Astral Plane known as “The One in the Void.” Vlaakith siphons power from the god-island.

When you travel around the Astral Plane, or the Astral Sea, a place of raw psychic energy containing memory and thought, you are likely to encounter githyanki pirates, sailing ships capable of sailing in the Astral Sea. So you battle them there, in a place where gods go when they are dead or forgotten. Those githyanki might be riding on the back of red dragons sent from the queen of evil dragons, as part of a deal brokered by an archdevil. You might say this is some pretty over-the-top, high-powered stuff.


Modroning On and On

Yet this is the canonical backbone of the D&D cosmos. It is the place where it all comes together. If you look at it one way, you are playing around in the database while other tales take place on the front end. Both are valid ways to manipulate data, but very different. The important thing to remember about this style of adventure and campaign is that absolutely everything should be treated as subject matter completely meshing with the rest of the world. A great example of this is one of the first arcs of one of the best modules ever published, The Great Modron March.

The first arc of The Great Modron March has the players, who might not even need to know each other, getting splitting headaches that only lessen once the players begin to move in a certain direction. After a while, they find themselves at a place called Jysson’s. It turns out to be a clerk’s office, with a cat wandering around in it. A meek voice apologizes for injuring them in the contact, but the cat speaks up to announce it wasn’t him. It turns out a book is asking to be returned to its owner, and the cat is actually Jysson. Up until a few days ago, Jysson was happy and dead and a parishioner on the Beastlands. However, his deity asked he perform some duties as a messenger, and here he is now. Jysson needs to return the book so he can go back to the Beastlands, but is a housecat, and needs the PC’s assistance. The book also wants to go home, and be returned to Automata and the hands of Heiron, the wizard who created it. Long story short, the PC’s travel to Automata, a gate city for Mechanus, where they engage in convoluted modron (sentient robot) bureaucracy for as long as you can get away with inflicting it upon them. It’s weird, it’s outlandish, but it totally fits and represents with the themes and setting being presented. This is, without a doubt, supporting the D&D mythos.

To me, this is one the best things about D&D, and one of the reasons I keep returning to the game despite playing and enjoying myriad other roleplaying games. The variance of not only the settings, but the themes and playstyles are tremendous. Even better, at no point do I feel as if I am having to hack the game to make a setting work, though you can certainly do so. It’s all officially supported within the context of the published world. This might not mean a lot to many people, but the parent company embracing both the gonzo and the serious is huge. It’s an example of inclusivity barely acknowledged by so many other games and properties.


We Support You

It’s important to hear “there is no wrong way to play and have fun” and know that it is truly meant. You want to struggle against a vampire in a dark world where everyone is atoning for something, and the dark powers examine the nature of morality and humanity? Awesome, that setting exists and it’s also really cool and has a lot of support. You want to play a traditional fantasy setting with stalwart tropes you know and love, but also supports a lot of twists? No problem, they have that in spades! You want to play a game where you start a mining company to dig inside the bodies of gods floating in an eternal sea of thought and memory and have to fight bugs and psychic warriors riding red dragons? Planescape is here for you.

This is why Planescape is near and dear to my heart, to say nothing of Planescape: Torment, one of the best computer games of all time. Planescape says, “Oh yeah? Hold my ale. Check THIS out.”


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Colin McLaughlin

Colin McLaughlin plays a lot of games: board, card, live-action, tabletop, video, whatever really. He will argue vehemently if you suggest that Ghostbusters isn't the best movie of all time. He blogs about this stuff at