Walking the Planes is a series of articles in which I explore the philosophy of the planes of existence in Dungeons & Dragons from a personal (retro-)perspective. Most of it will focus on the Planescape campaign setting, which was published between 1994 and 1998 and which is to date still the most detailed exploration of the planes in the game.
I was ten years old when a classmate introduced me to Magic: the Gathering in 1995, and six months later I was sitting at his table playing my first game of AD&D. Over the next few years, little Oscar became engrossed in fantasy games (and literature), becoming part of a small group of similarly inclined boys in my provincial town in the Southwest of the Netherlands. I suppose it’s a testament to the power of M:tG that it had managed to reach our little corner of the universe in the first place; despite the gradual advent of the internet in those days, kids discovered these things through word-of-mouth. There were no billboards or TV-ads for geeky card games either.
From an earlier age, I had been introduced to computer games. My dad brought home floppies from work with all sorts of shareware games on them, and later on such games were also swapped and traded with people in school. I remember being really excited about SimCity 2000 at one point, and going to a classmate’s house so I could play it. He later accused me of merely wanting to be ‘computer friends’. I think he was right; I could be pretty selfish at times. With advancing age came more spending power and a clearer vision of what I wanted to play. The first game I ever bought with my own money was Whale’s Voyage, a science fiction RPG, though I barely knew what an RPG was at the time. A few years later, having been increasingly enthusiastic about D&D and roleplaying, you can imagine I completely devoured Baldur’s Gate when it came out in 1998. There was something in me that relished the possibility of living these adventures without the hassle of getting together a flesh-and-blood roleplaying group. The boys club that had coalesced around the fantasy hobby was sort of passive-aggressive at times, a collection of geeky kids held together more by a shared interest than compatible personalities. Baldur’s Gate allowed me to still jump into an elaborate fantasy world even when I didn’t feel like hanging out.
But this isn’t about Baldur’s Gate, really—bear with me. Back in the day, game discs came with trailers on them, and when you finished installing your game, an unskippable video or two would take over your screen. Kind of like trailers on your movie DVD—remember those, kids? One of the trailers on the Baldur’s Gate discs—or maybe it was the expansion Tales of the Sword Coast?—was for a game called Planescape: Torment.
It’s an estranging, slightly abstract affair: outlandish creatures, alien architecture, little to suggest it’s a D&D or even a fantasy game. There was no gameplay footage, no voice-over, no text. And the music! I only recently found out that it was made by Brian Williams (a.k.a. Lustmord), who was originally hired to create soundtrack to the game. Shortly before release, he was replaced by Mark Morgan, who also did an excellent job, but I can’t help imagining now how Torment would have sounded with the dark industrial soundtrack that is hinted at in the trailer. Needless to say, the video hooked me completely, even if I didn’t have a clue what Planescape was.
Looking back, it surprises me that I didn’t bother to ask around—or better yet, search online—for more information about this mysterious and enticing Planescape thing, such as what it was, when it would come out, etc. I just thought ‘cool trailer’, and filed that thought away somewhere. I was busy anyway… with school, Baldur’s Gate, Tolkien, growing up, the first illness and death of a grandparent that I really consciously registered. But somewhere in 1999 my gaze fell on a particular box while browsing my local computer store: ‘hey, it’s that Planescape thing.’ As I read the box, I found out that it was actually an AD&D game, just like my beloved Baldur’s Gate, and made by the same studio (Black Isle) no less. It was an instant buy that would influence my life. It’s why I’m writing this, fifteen years later.
Planescape: Torment opened a door for me: the door to Sigil, the grimy, sharp, beating heart of the Planescape setting. It is also a door to new possibilities: the realisation that a fantasy setting could be so much more than what has become ‘the standard’ over the last few decades. When you set foot in the game, everything is different. The visual architecture of the game’s UI, the Mortuary, even all the people walking around in the first areas of the game. It’s got an edge, a sharp edge, and that’s just the exterior. The Sigil depicted in Planescape: Torment emphasises the setting’s differentness on many levels.
Besides its colourful setting, Torment drew me in with its intricate story, which takes you through the city and to vastly different planes of being, ruled by fallen angels, ancient hags, and atoning devils, all in search of your true self. Playing such a rich game early in your life sets some high standards for games you encounter later in life. What the game also did was kindle my enthusiasm for the setting itself; it probably wasn’t long after finishing Torment that I ordered a copy of the Planescape setting online.
While some of the fantasy clichés are present in the game, they are relegated to the sidelines. Elves and dwarves do exist in Planescape, for example, but none of the companions you can meet in Torment belong to any of the ‘standard’ fantasy races. The population of Sigil itself looks different as well: vaguely reptilian devils and floating goatmen (the Dabus) are a common sight—though oddly enough, humans are still the standard in Torment, unlike in the setting as a whole.
The incorporation of clichés into the setting was a particularly strong decision. Rather than just creating a setting that feels different—which was one of selling points of Dark Sun, for example—Planescape took the standards and made them non-standard. When characters from a Prime Material world (like ours!) make it to Sigil, they are greeted as clueless Outsiders, and they quickly discover that a lot of the things they took for granted about existence are simply not true out on the Planes and on other material worlds: the laws of time and matter, climate, magic, and perhaps most importantly, the people on the streets.
Planescape takes the ‘normal’ and makes it provincial. It takes plurality and makes it the norm.
More than anything else, this is why I currently value the setting and its design philosophy. And I believe that, twenty years onward, many other fantasy settings and worlds have failed to learn from this example. I get that the familiarity of many fantasy tropes is comforting and gratifying in its own way, but I feel that the wonder has drained from it all. Even just reading back through the various Planescape books is such a refreshing experience: the sense of possibility is huge, the horizon wide open.
Within the setting, Sigil expresses a lot of its pluralism through a localised cosmopolitan atmosphere. In fact, the word cosmo-polis is never more apt than when it describes a city that is literally connected to the rest of the cosmos. Sigil wears this diversity on its sleeves: it is filled with shops where items from everywhere and nowhere are sold. By the same coin, the people themselves are from all over the place, and they all have their own reasons for passing through, visiting, or living in Sigil.
It’s probably not too much of a spoiler when I say that some of the companion characters in Planescape: Torment are in Sigil because of personal ties to the protagonist, and another—the tiefling Anna—just happens to be born there. But a character like Fall-from-Grace could probably not be at home anywhere else. A succubus, on the run from her demonic heritage, she has set up a brothel that caters to intellectual desires rather than carnal ones. For her, Sigil is the place where she can be an individual, someone who defies the stereotype that succubi are mortal-seducing temptresses—though of course most of them are. In the end, D&D as a game is often rather essentialist, even within the Planescape setting.
In many cases, it is the existing cosmopolitanism itself that draws beings from all over the planes to Sigil, for where people gather, there is money, power, and much more to be gained. It is also a place where outcasts might be the norm.
Planescape doesn’t just represent people and things from all over the place, you also get to go to all those places, and meet the people who didn’t travel (or run off) to Sigil, to boot. The setting being what it is, the possibilities are literally endless, and its standard locales offer a lot of different experiences in themselves. Want to travel somewhere nice? The pastoral dual world of Bytopia might be to your liking, or the islands of the blessed in Elysium. Like orderliness? The neat landscapes of Arcadia might be more your thing.
On the other hand, you might be a more adventurous type, and prefer the epic mountains and deep forests of Ysgard, where everything is a challenge. The truly daring might visit one of the evil lower planes: the howling madness of Pandemonium, or the ashen desolation of The Gray Waste, for example.
Or you could go to the other end of the spectrum and travel inward, to the elemental planes. They’re not the most hospitable places, but there you can find endless oceans, infinite earth, burning landscapes as far as the eye can see. Or a realm of crystals and minerals, an expanse of ooze and mud, or the endless void of Vacuum. Or…
As a setting that has the potential to encompass all fantasy worlds, the pluralistic perspective is the best fit. There is no other way to integrate an infinity of places and peoples, and approach it from the position that some world or culture is the most important, the most real, the most good, etc. Sure, Sigil is important—and a pretty special place—but it’s still just a city. It’s a stop along the way from somewhere to somewhere else. Your home might be anywhere or nowhere. That said, the cosmopolitan plurality that is the voice of the setting—made concrete in Sigil—is hardly neutral in itself. It favours individualism, the right of individuals to deviate from norms and, if needed, move to place where the individuality is respected, or at least tolerated.
At the time, around the turn of the millennium, it wasn’t the plurality as such that drew me to Planescape, it was the individualism. The setting was not afraid to be different. I was 15, and I myself had begun to feel different, and wasn’t afraid to express it. It’s perhaps a natural part of teenage development, when you find out that maybe you disagree with other people about lots of things, even some of the givens of your culture. You channel that difference by dressing different, talking different, listening to different music, or just acting different. Planescape reinforced the feeling that the abnormal could be good, or even better than the normal.
Now, fifteen years later, it’s not so much the differentness that strikes me, but the way in which being different is radically normalised. From a paradoxically detached observer’s perspective, the Planescape setting seems to say: all these differences are there, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. There is no one perspective that is true, even if some of them believe they are—I’m looking at you, Harmonium! We’ll have a chat about that later—that, too, is part of the grand scheme. On a personal level, that strikes me as true, as well. Sure, I may be different from other people in certain respects, but that individual perspective isn’t as important as teenage me liked to think. It’s the plurality of differences that’s important—and the things we all have in common, too. Once you accept this plurality, and the basic provincial-ness of your own privileged cultural background, you can start to question that upbringing in a more fundamental way.
And that is one of the things that Planescape taught me.