A Nerd Dad’s Review of Planescape in Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons

Recently, my kids have gotten sucked into a lengthy Dungeons and Dragons adventure at home (with me as the DM, of course) that started in the plane of Limbo, the chaotic-neutral plane, before the next phase of the story came to a place called Sigil, the City of Doors.

The City of Doors, and the plane that surrounds it, the Outlands (sometimes called Borderlands), are originally from an old D&D adventure setting called Planescape which provided a unique framework outside of the usual high-fantasy setting. I never played it as a teenager, but I spent some time delving into the lore recently. Instead of staying in what’s called the “Prime Material Plane” (e.g. the default setting), the adventuring party hops across many of the outer planes with Sigil as the “hub”. Each of these Outer Planes reflects a particular moral “alignment”, and each one has a “bastion city” in the Outlands surrounding Sigil.

If each of the Outer Planes reflects a moral alignment, the Outlands are the closest thing to a truly “neutral” plane. In older editions, the oppressive neutrality of the plane causes such effects as minimal damage inflicted in combat, as well as minimal healing. Magic is suppressed more and more as you get closer to the center of the Outlands to the point that it stops working. Even deities cannot approach. At the very center of the Outlands is a needle-like mountain with a ring over it. The ring itself is Sigil, the City of Doors.

Sigil is the focus of the Planescape setting, and is the most cosmopolitan city in the multiverse. Because the floating, ring-shaped city (not unlike a mini version of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or the ring worlds in the Halo series) is a universal hub, it is rife with portals to the Outer Planes, and thus the city is comprised of denizens from these planes who all co-exist in an uneasy balance. Celestial angels from the “good” planes will often be seen interacting with infernal demons and other such beings. The various player-character races from any and all settings, humans, elves, dwarves, etc, can also be found here. Plus, as a DM, you can also introduce all kinds of character races that are more obscure, like Gith, Eberron races such as Warforged and Shifters, and Thri-Kreen from Dark Sun. The point is that just about anything you can imagine from the Multiverse has some presence at Sigil, presumably.

Further, Planescape the setting was defined by some basic principles such as the Rule of Three: (e.g. things tend to happen in 3’s), the circular nature of planes (e.g. everything tends to come back around) and that, theoretically at least, wherever you are standing is the center of the Universe. For a fantasy adventure module, it does delve into some interesting philosophical ideas too.

Sigil, the city, is a powder-keg of conflicting interests, with little oversight from the authorities. The ruler of Sigil, the enigmatic Lady of Pain, rules the city in a hands-off-or-wrath-of-god style approach, and to even look upon her is to erupt in terrible pain and physical injury. To oppose her in any way meant that beings disappeared. However, the Lady of Pain seems to really only care about a few things:

  1. Threats to Sigil itself
  2. Threats to herself
  3. Maintaining the delicate balances of forces in the city
  4. No external deities, who by their presence would probably upset the balance above.

Outside of this, there is little authority in the city. The city is overcrowded, constantly undergoing renovation, and so long as you’re not caught, you can get away with anything.

Getting back to my kids’ campaign, I gleaned what I could from older sources, and spent some time filling in the blanks. I had to make some encounter tables for Sigil, mainly thanks to the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Xanather’s Guide to Everything (plus some personal improvisation), and some tables for random planar portal encounters (the 16 outer planes, plus 4 elemental planes, plus the Feywild, Shadowfell and various places in the Material Plane) as well as a random enconter for denizens to Sigil. I tried to include just about every player race from every book I had (including Eberron and the Theros crossover books).

The kids love the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of Sigil, as well as the wide variety of weird encounters. Lately they have almost totally forgotten the main story-line just so they can play around and get into trouble at Sigil, including pit fights and shady jobs. They also enjoy the intrigue of opposing a certain arcanoloth who tricked them at one point, but still needs their help to recover an artifact.

As for the city layout (which isn’t covered in detail online), I divided it up into 48 “sectors” so when they go around to meet this person or that, they’re orienting themselves by sector. Their home “base” is in sector 7, but the person they were originally looking for is in sector 42. I also made up some “embassies” from various planes including an embassy from Mount Celestia (the lawful good plane), in sector 21, which has free marshmallows for anyone who stops by. My kids love the free marshmallows.

Also, I used the opportunity to bring back an old NPC from the city of Waterdeep who had appeared much earlier in the campaign as a friendly constable. The backstory I made was that at some point, this character was killed in the line of duty after last encountering the adventurers, and his soul went to Mount Celestia where he was dispatched to the embassy Sigil. He was a good NPC, and it was nice to give him some closure, even if it is a bit poignant. That was all before Loki (yes, the Marvel villain / antihero ) showed up at one point, avoiding detection from the Lady of Pain, but willing to work with the characters again after he betrayed them at an earlier point in time. This contradicts the design of Sigil a bit as written, but since the kids liked Loki and had encountered him in past adventures, it was a fun way to mix things up even further.

The sheer weirdness of Planescape, coupled with the relative openness gives the kids an opportunity to really mess around and explore without a heavy story to digest. As a parent, I also try to keep it as kid-friendly and lighthearted as I can, so even the infernal creatures are on the one hand scary, but on the other hand somewhat predictable and easy to overcome.

I hope someday Wizards of the Coast prints more 5th-edition friendly material for Planescape someday, but even if not, there’s just enough out there to get started on a campaign, and with a bit of ingenuity, you can keep players happy and entertained for weeks on end. 😆

Spring On Its Way

Some wildflowers sprouting in the yard yesterday…

It is mid-January, deep in “small cold and big cold”, but already signs of life are returning to the yard, and the world around us. Inspired, I found this old Japanese waka poem (originally posted in my other blog) composed by a female poet named kunaikyō (宮内卿), also called wakakusa no kunaikyō (若草の宮内卿). This poem, number 76 in the Japanese Imperial anthology named the Shin Kokin Wakashū, has young grass (wakakusa, 若草) as the topic.

薄く濃きUsuku kokiLight and dark:
野辺のみどりのNobe no midori nothe green of the field’s
若草のWakakusa noyoung herbs
あとまで見ゆるAto made miyurudistinct in
雪のむら消えYuki no muragiepatches of fading snow.
Translation by Professor Joshua Mostow

Happy Belated New Year!

Hello Readers!

Although the first couple weeks of 2021 have been kind of lousy for us all, I wanted to take a moment to say “happy new year!” to you all.

In Japanese, people greet one another the first time they meet after the new year with a special greeting. First, people say to one another akemashite omedetō (gozaimasu) which means “congratulations on the conclusion of the (old) year”. This is then followed by kotoshi mo yoroshiku (onegaishimasu). This is literally means “please be kind to me this year, too”. The words in parentheses are for polite conversation (drop them when speaking among friends).

This year with lockdown and such, we couldn’t do much for New Years. We didn’t risk going to our usual Buddhist temple for hatsumōde, the first temple visit of the year. Maybe we’ll make up for it later in the year, but we’ll see.

Instead, I celebrated as much as I could online.

My humble abode in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Besides the kagami-mochi on the table is a small “cow” since this year is the Year of the Ox.

There is one additional tradition that happens on the 11th of January called kagami-biraki (鏡開き), which means “breaking the mirror (mochi). Originally this was observed on the 20th day of the new year, but at some point moved to the 11th. After breaking open the kagami-mochi (more on that here) you then cook the rice cakes with sweet red beans (azuki) in a kind of red bean “stew” desert.

Our real kagami-mochi is a bit simpler, but I still like it.

Since our kagamimochi is plastic, it opens at the bottom revealing the real mochi rice cake inside. I tend to keep the little plastic daidai (bitter orange) too just because they are cute.

In any case after crazy holidays and a crazy end of the year in genera, we are hoping things will gradually calm down in the following days, weeks. I hope you all have a better year ahead too. 🎍

akemashite omedetō gozaimasu!kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

That Which Arises…

From the first sermon of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) :

That is what the Blessed One said. The bhikkhus of the group of five were glad, and they approved his words.

Now during this utterance, there arose in the venerable Kondañña the spotless, immaculate vision of the True Idea: “Whatever is subject to arising is all subject to cessation.”

translation by Ñanamoli Thera

Buddhism as a religion likes to focus on the impermanence of all things. The idea is that anything that arises, both physical and conceptual, are inherently unstable because they arise through other external causes and conditions. Their existence isn’t static; it’s tenuous and subject to change when the external causes and conditions that sustain it also change.

Later Buddhism uses the model of a wave and water to illustrate this. A wave arises when the sea and wind come together, or the sea comes in contact with the shore, but the wave has no separate “waveness”. Its existence depends entirely on the sea, wind and land to sustain it, but they can only sustain it for so long: the wind stops, the wave hits the shore and collapses, etc.

Thus, the famous Diamond Sutra ends with these verses:

All conditioned phenomena
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
Like dew or a flash of lightning;
Thus we shall perceive them.”

Chung Tai Translation Committee

A good reminder from time to time.


Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Hi Folks!

What started as yet-another-pet-project of mine has grown enough that I decided to finally upgrade my account with the good folks at WordPress. That means no more ad banners on the site, and I finally get a proper URL:


If you have this page bookmarked, feel free to update your bookmarks to this one. If not, that’s fine too as the old address isn’t going away; I just have an easier one to use now.

It’s been a crazy, stressful week for us all, but may you have a restful weekend.

P.S. I had a recent checkup at the doctor’s and it turns out my blood pressure was significantly higher than the last time I had it measured months ago. Thankfully, I don’t need medication, but it’s a reminder that recent events may be doing us more harm and stress than we realize.

Cicero and Catiline: A Big Political Mess

“Cicero denouncing Catiline in the Roman Senate”, by Cesare Maccari (and painted many centuries after the real incident). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In light of the terrible events this past week, I felt like looking to the past for similar events in history, and the Catiline Conspiracy came to mind. This was an attempt by Lucius Sergius Catilina, who lost the consular election that year, to (quite literally) overthrow the Republican government. One fo the two consuls that year, Marcus Tullius Cicero (a.k.a. “Cicero”), was given legal authority to snuff out the conspiracy by any means necessary.

The awesome Youtube channel Historia Civilis, does a really nice video on this, so rather than hear me rehash this (poorly), I recommend the video instead:

It’s important to point out that just because recent events might have similarities to ancient Roman politics, that doesn’t mean they are always the same, nor should the same solution necessarily be applied. But it is fascinating how human history tends to fall into certain patterns across the centuries.

Nanakusa: Holiday of Seven Herbs

As readers may have noticed from past posts, I have posted about certain traditional Japanese holidays, called sekku (節句). Examples included Girls Day (March 3rd), Children’s Day (May 5th), Tanabata (July 7th) and Day of the Chrysanthemum (September 9th). The last holiday on my list is actually the first on the calendar: Nanakusa (七草) which literally just means “seven grasses / herbs”.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

This holiday is surprisingly old, with origins in ancient custom in southern China whereby people would cook seven herbs as a porridge on the 7th day after the Chinese new year. Elsewhere, I heard that the holiday was also associated with an Imperial tradition in old times to pardon criminals on this date as an act of compassion, though I can’t confirm that now.

The custom has persisted in Japan though in some households more than others. I had it one time many years ago when we visited my wife’s family home in December-January. I saw a bunch of roots and herbs in the kitchen, like the ones shown above, but didn’t give it much thought. The next day, we were served a rice and herbal porridge, pretty bland in taste, for breakfast. That was how I learned about Nanakusa.

Also courtesy of Wikipedia

According to the Wikipedia article, the seven herbs are:

Modern Japanese NameEnglish
Seri (セリ)Water dropwort, specifically a non-toxic variant Oenanthe javanica
Nazuna (ナズナ)Shepherd’s purse
Hahakogusa (母子草)Cudweed
Kohako (繁縷)Chickweed
Kabu (蕪)Turnip
Daikon (大根)Japanese radish

Of these seven herbs, I’ve eaten turnips and Japanese daikon radish regularly, but the other five are pretty obscure to me. I doubt most Japanese would easily remember them off-hand either. Supposedly there is a song that’s is sometimes sung while facing the auspicious direction that year (same direction as for Setsubun, I suspect), but no one in my wife’s house sang it, or at least while I wasn’t around.

Anyhow, that’s a look at Nanakusa. I joked with my wife if she’d make it this year, and she flatly refused. While it is a very traditional holiday, the porridge takes a lot of work, especially here in the US where the herbs might be hard to find, and frankly isn’t great tasting. It’s a medicinal porridge more than comfort food. That said, it is a fascinating window into some very old Chinese traditions that still persist in Japan.

1 The 12 year in old in me giggles whenever I read this plant name. 😂


Photo by Sunyu Kim on Pexels.com

From the 14th century Japanese text, “Essays in Idleness” (tsurezuregusa 徒然草) composed by Buddhist monk Kenkō:

The moment during the ceremony of abdication of the throne when the Sword, Jewels, and Mirror [the Imperial regalia, which still exist, btw] are offered to the new emperor is heartbreaking in the extreme. When the newly retired emperor abdicated in the spring [of 1318] he wrote this poem, I understand:

Translation by Professor Donald Keene
Original JapaneseRomanizationTranslation by Donald Keene
殿守のtonomori noEven menials
とものみやつこtomo no miyakkoOf the palace staff treat me
よそにしてyoso ni shiteAs a stranger now;
はらはぬ庭にharawanu niwa niIn my unswept garden lie
花ぞ散りしくhana zo chirishikuThe scattered cherry blossoms.

Then Kenkō writes in the same passage:

What a lonely feeling the poem seems to convey — people are too distracted by all the festivities of the new reign for anyone to wait on the retired emperor. This is precisely the kind of occasion when a man’s true feelings are apt to be revealed.

Bōnenkai: Forgetting the Old Year

Taken a couple days ago at Richmond Beach in north Seattle.

As my last post for 2020, I wanted to share a small feature of Japanese culture called the bōnenkai (忘年会) which are parties meant to say goodbye (lit. “to forget”) to the old year.

The last week or two may be filled with bōnenkai: work parties, parties with circles of friends, associates, etc. Such parties are really just drinking parties, a nice chance to get sloshed and get all the stresses of the last year out.

Obviously, this year was shittier than usual. Even before COVID, I had suffered a significant personal injury in January after slipping on some ice, had a major personal emergency in February and in March lost my job (not due to COVID, just crappy timing).

Thankfully, all these issues eventually got resolved and my family has been safe and sound since, and although I don’t drink at all,1 I understand the sentiment very much. Even if it’s just an arbitrary date on the Gregorian calendar, I would really like to put this year behind.

Our kagami-mochi this year (more explanation here) is a smaller version than what we normally get (the large one was sold out, unusually), but I am hoping that the Shinto kami, Toshigami-sama, might cut us a break this year. 😏

As for readers everywhere, happy 2021!!

1 I’ve chosen to undertake the Buddhist Five Precepts, and apart from a few fits and starts over the years, I’ve really tried to uphold them.

Japanese Christmas Wrap-Up

Hi folks,

The week between Christmas and New Years is always a whirlwind of events as we prepare for Japanese New Year (oshōgatsu お正月), kids birthdays and other things. I didn’t get to this as soon as I would like, but I finally had time to post photos from Christmas.

We did not participate in a family gatherings due to COVID so we stayed at home, played Animal Crossing. For Xmas gifts, I got a compilation of Roger Zelazny stories which I was happy about. I surprised the family with Pringles sour cream and onion cans in their stockings (family joke).

Speaking of food, we also enjoyed Japanese-style Christmas food which includes Kentucky Fried Chicken (which, amazingly was open on the 25th):

The relationship between Japan, Christmas and KFC goes back to a clever marketing campaign some decades ago and has taken root since. Since in years past we celebrated with my family, we didn’t really do KFC so this year we got to finally do things “our way”. 😉

The Colonel and I go way back. I took this photo at a local KFC in Japan in summer 2019.

Since I haven’t actually eaten KFC in many years, I wasn’t sure what to order and got a big family pack. It was way more than we needed but it was super good. Those 11 herbs and spices are nothing to sneeze at.

Also, my teenage daughter has been taking up pastry cooking since COVID lockdown first started and made us a Christmas cake, complete with marshmallows:

Christmas cakes are another feature in Japanese culture that isn’t really found in the US. My theory is that it’s based on European, not American tradition, as Buche de Noel are popular there too. I don’t know about readers, but my family never had any kind of Christmas cake, so I was surprised when I saw how popular they were in Japan.

It was a pretty low-key Christmas, but it was nice to celebrate it according to my wife’s culture for a change, rather than always hanging out with the extended family.

P.S. in years past, after getting tired of eating Christmas food we’d usually find a Chinese or Indian restaurant that was open that night to satisfy our cravings. We have the same habit after Thanksgiving too.