Walk Between Worlds: DM's Guide to Running Planescape and Planar Adventures
It’s time to grab your portal keys and set out across time and space because you’ve found one of D&D’s most beloved settings and styles. Way back in the time of the ancients (1994) planescape amazed players with fantastic art and nigh infinite possibilities. It’s easy to get lost and confused along the planar pathways though, so follow the few tips within this simple guide as you planeswalk to your campaign’s next destination.
What do I Need for Planescape?
So, I’ve got some good news and bad news for DMs that aspire to run a planescape adventure. Firstly, the bad news is that there’s been no official planescape TTRPG material released since all the way back in 2nd edition. That mean's there's no 5e Planescape material.
The good news is that D&D didn’t abandon Planescape, it more sort of integrated it. The cosmology of the great wheel, the inner and outer planes, Sigil the city of doors, they’re all just part of D&D canon and how the universe works within the forgotten realms. Most of the concepts and places made the transition through the editions essentially unscathed.
This means that while there’s not a solid additional rule set to go add to your games, you also don’t have to do any extra work to make them fit, as they’re there already. If you want to just get some inspiration for your next game, The Planescape Campaign Setting, In the Cage: A Guide to Sigil, and The Factol's Manifesto are the “Core” books you’ll want for getting into the setting. They’re not “necessary” for a planar adventure, but for a Planescape adventure they’ll have all the settings, characters, and gorgeous art that you’ll need. If you can’t find paper copies (they are over 20 years old after all) you can still get PDF copies of them over on “The DM’s Guild”. Want creatures and foes from the planes, but made for 5e? Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes includes many planar monsters to include in your campaign.
The Great Wheel
If you’ve been scratching your head about “planes” in general, this will all be new to you. If, however, you’re a veteran player who knows all about the great wheel, there are a few minor changes that got made as the editions passed on.
What’s the Great Wheel?
The great wheel is the overarching cosmology of the Forgotten Realms universe, it encompasses all those “planes” you keep hearing about. Each one of these planes is a whole incredible setting in and of themselves, but let's do a quick rundown just to get us all on the same page.
At the very center of the great wheel is the prime material plane. That’s your standard adventuring setting that you’ve likely played all your games in so far.
Then you’ve got your two Transitive Planes, the Ethereal Plane and the Astral Plane. The ethereal plane is kind of like the nothingness that connects everything, and some common spells even allow you to go into the ethereal plane. Then you have the astral plane, which you can kind of think of as space, or an infinite void. The astral plane got combined with the dream realm a while back, so it’s also technically where your dreams happen! Generally, both transitive planes are empty, the ethereal plane usually only has things stepping temporarily through it, and the astral plane only has the rare chunk of something from another plane floating in it.
Then we have the Parallel Planes, the Feywild and the Shadowfell. These two are more reflections of the material plane, infused with some positive and negative energy, respectfully. They’re not THAT different from the material plane, but only in a cosmological sense.
Outside of those we have the Inner Planes, which includes the four prime elements (Earth, Water, Fire, and Air) the Positive and Negative Energy planes, and an absolute ton of para and quasi planes that exist where these planes meet (so like where the fire and water planes meet, you get the plane of steam).
Finally you get to the edge of the great wheel, the Outer Planes, one for each alignment and a few variations within those. These are all potential afterlives, so you get a few variations of heaven and hell, plus a whole slew of intriguing afterlives that are just as rich and complex as the material plane.
If you want to design your own planar campaign, I highly recommend you dig into at least a couple of these planes that interest you and figure out where you want your narrative to go. And of course, you should start in Sigil, City of Doors.
Sigil, City of Doors
Sigil was designed as a sort of hub world for the entire universe. It claims to be at the literal center of the universe (though this is disputed) and it is easy to see why. The entire city is a massive magical ring that floats above an infinitely tall spire. The only way in or out of Sigil is through interplanar portals, and without a magical portal key you have no way out, lending it the nickname “The Cage”. Sigil is like the Citadel from Mass Effect smashed together with the Mos Eisley Cantina. Literally anyone from the entire multiverse could show up there and you can expect to see a hundred different types of creatures just walking down the street and several of which have likely already picked your pockets.
Sigil is the central hub for literally countless portals governed by the enigmatic ruler of Sigil, the Lady of Pain. These portals lead to every plane in the multiverse and often open, close, or move according to the Lady of Pain’s will. Anything can be the “portal key” for these interplanar gateways, literally anything. Humming the right tune near the right wall, a stub of candle, a broken fragment of a sword. The cryptic methods of Sigil’s leader are confusing and ineffable and are also a perfect way to get players to Sigil no matter where they were and what they were doing.
Sigil (or other similar hubs) is a very large part of what sets a planescape adventure apart from one that merely hops between a couple of planes. There’s this feeling of being able to literally go anywhere and do anything that’s exhilarating and overwhelming. Even if you want to avoid established canons, if you’re planning on making a planar campaign, it’s that feeling of dimensional freedom and excitement that you’ll need to capture.
I could fill this article a hundred times over with things about sigil (and you should definitely read up on it) but for now here’s the cliff notes version:
- Functionally infinite mega-city, it can contain any crazy creature or character you can come up with.
- The city of Sigil is a cage unless you have a portal key, which can be anything you as a DM feel like making it.
- You can create adventures anywhere in the multiverse and still head back to the same hub world at the end of the adventure.
Infinity X Infinity
So you’ve got an endless variety of potential characters, in a setting that includes essentially infinite locations and adventures that can go essentially anywhere. This is both the allure of a planescape campaign and the biggest problem with it.
Planning a campaign with full planar freedom is HARD, especially if they know enough about the lore to know what to ask for and look for. I’ve seen quite a few planar campaigns go up in smoke because the DM burns out or gives up. You can’t plan for infinity, you just can’t.
There are a few ways to go about fixing that.
Firstly, if you’ve got just a one-shot planar campaign, go for it. There’s no need to figure out a great big branching narrative if you’re only there for a session or two. There’s something to be said for just dropping a party into Sigil and see what they do.
Secondly, if you’re the kind of DM that’s particularly adept at making adventures on the fly, go for it! Maybe have a few potential plotlines in your back pocket for the larger planes, a couple for Sigil, and just see where the adventure takes them. It takes a master to weave their plotline through multiple planes and with this level of player freedom, but man those adventures are memorable and fun.
Finally, the most likely solution, limit your player’s travel by constraining the portal keys. Planescape has a well built-in system of constraints for just this purpose. Want your players to go to the plane of fire? Guess what portal key they find. Don’t want them to go to the astral plane just yet? Whoops, that key to the astral plane sure is elusive today. I know this sounds a lot like railroading (and it sort of is), but if you’re trying to weave any sort of narrative, you’ll need these constraints to lead your party in at least a semblance of the right direction. I advise keeping some of that freedom, and giving your players options, but not more than you can have plans for. Give your players access to 2 or 3 portal keys at a time. Maybe only one continues your narrative thread, maybe they all will, but have at least something partially planned for each and let your players get that feeling of planar freedom.
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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