Walking The Planes 3: Pluralities

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.

bytopiaOn 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.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.