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. 😆

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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