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.
In a central guidebook of the 1994 Planescape campaign setting, one of the most important concepts of the setting is succinctly described as “philosophers with clubs”. As a teen, interpreting the phrase within the context of a fantasy game, I assumed the word club was used in the sense meaning ‘cudgel’. Picture, if you will, Socrates and Foucault whacking away at each other, or knocking around a ball in a game of philosopher’s hurling.1 Meanwhile, Nietzsche is somewhere in the background, crying and hugging a flogged horse, because Nietzsche. But yes, what if these philosophers carried around clubs, just in case there was any trouble? Or maybe some of them were big bullies and they actually did use them to whack sense into other people whenever they felt like it.
Of course, there’s another, possibly less violent sense of the word club: an organised group of people. In a way, this seems a bit more likely. There’s nothing weird about philosophers getting together for a drink and a bit of an old tongue-wag. The same would go, presumably, for philosophers in a weird fantasy campaign setting.
Recently, though, reflecting on Planescape and its various facets, I’m inclined to say that both senses are actually extremely appropriate. On the Outer Planes, where everything is organised according to ideologies and thought holds physical sway over existence,2 the various inhabitants are often organised along philosophical lines as well. On most of these worlds, the Dungeons & Dragons concept of alignment is the framework along which things are distinguished, with beings inclining towards order or chaos, evil or good. A particular place or village can shift to another plane of existence if its local character deviates too much from the rest of the plane. A town on Mount Celestia (lawful good) in which the people are more focused on being orderly than being good, might shift to Arcadia (between lawful good and lawful neutral) at one point, since that plane would be a better fit for the general mental inclination of those people.
In the hub city of Sigil, the place connected to pretty much everywhere else through its myriad portals, things are a bit different. Here, the citizens are almost all divided between 15 factions, which are best described as — you guessed it — philosophers’ clubs. Each has a particular viewpoint on existence, ethics, politics, the nature of the gods, and so forth. Most often, all these elements tie into each other.
To appreciate the originality of this concept, it’s good to realise that the vast majority of fantasy settings buy into what I what call the ‘polytheistic cliché’. It seems almost unavoidable that a fantasy world with a variety of races (elves, dwarves, orcs, and so forth) would have one or more pantheons of gods, who are divided according to their spheres of influence: fertility, war, death, weather, etc. The origins of this cliché and its various branches in fantasy fiction are very much worth exploring, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice to say that Tolkien’s particular approach to the fantastic might have had something to do with it, along with that of other early fantasy writers.
To a certain degree, Planescape actually does buy into this cliché. Since the setting in part functions as a network connecting all other conceivable Dungeons & Dragons universes, the gods of those other settings all have a place in Planescape: most gods have their home realm on one of the Outer Planes. But the fact that this overarching framework exists already indicates that the setting takes a somewhat longer view. In Sigil, then, a neutral ground if there is any to be found on the planes, the gods do not hold sway. Again, this is a topic for another day, but Sigil’s ruler, The Lady of Pain, somehow manages to keep the influence of the gods out of her city. Because of this, it is the various factions that organise the philosophies of most of Sigil’s inhabitants, as well as those of people elsewhere on the planes, to a certain degree.
Factions, religions, what’s the big deal? In most D&D settings, you have gods that are good, evil, neutral, etc. — all neatly organised according to the alignment schema outlined above, and each presiding over its own domain of influence. A priest of Tyr is dedicated to the concept of justice, and their disposition will tend to be compatible with that of their god and the rest of the priesthood: their interests are aligned, in other words. Most importantly, priests in D&D depend on their gods for their power to perform spells and miracles. Therefore, in addition to everything else, the relationship between a priest and their god is quite pragmatic: service in exchange for granted power. No matter the specific kind of faith or religion that a player might imbue their character with, this game-based power relation always undergirds the rest.
What makes the Planescape factions different and more interesting is that they de-emphasise that pragmatic aspect. First of all, practically everyone has a faction in Planescape, not just priests.3 Furthermore, there is not that much power involved, in game terms. Each faction has a small perk, and a small drawback, but a character is not dependent upon a faction for the ability to cast spells in the game world. Instead, the significance of the factions lies almost entirely on a role-playing level. You choose a faction because it matches how your character views the nature of the universe, and where it’s supposed to be headed. You choose a faction because the way it tries to further order, justice, or decay is a good fit for how your character would do it. Factions provide narrative enrichment, plot hooks, and an ideological structure to the game world that goes beyond the basics of good and evil, law and chaos, and whether your god prefers the sun or nighttime, mountains or trees.
So, what are these philosophers and their clubs actually about? I should mention here that I plan on dedicating whole future columns to at least some of the 15 individual factions in the Planescape setting, since their ideologies really inspired me in the past. That said, it wouldn’t do to leave you today without a brief impression of the diversity of what the setting’s designers came up with to infuse a bit of philosophical depth into a fantasy setting.
To start with, I’d like to quote a rhyme that was posted on Mimir.net, one of the most important Planescape fan sites to set up kip throughout the years:4
Anarchists love fire and blade, They pull down those who’ve got it made.
Athar spit in the preacher’s eye, While false powers bleed and die.
Bleakers laugh and go insane, There’s no point and life is pain.
Ciphers act on whim and hunch, Weird and mystic are that bunch.
Dustmen’re nought but cold hard death, Life is so much wasted breath.
Fated count the jinx they make, Never give if you can take.
Godsmen tumble end o’er end, Seeking always to ascend.
Guvners order realms of dreams, Making rules and counting beans.
Hardheads are an ordered lot, March left, march right, no time for thought.
Indeps are a motley crew, Bloods and berks and shouters too.
Red Death saw your dirty deed, They’ll make you pay until you bleed.
Sensates reach to feel it all, True bloods stand, while bubbers fall.
Signers think we’re in their head, But we’ll remain when they’re all dead.
Sinkers revel in decay, By entropy we’ll pass away.
embracediscord, Random chaos is their word.*
Sigil’s guarded by She Who Flays, The Lady rules, now and always.
[* Alternatively, “Bow-wow you puce wombat running Bob fence.”]
–Chris Nichols, “Sixteen Secrets”5
So, following the rhyme, there is The Revolutionary League (a.k.a. Anarchists), who are always seeking to tear down power structures and the people who balance on top of them, so that the people at the bottom can take their fair share. Until they climb too high, etc. etc. ad infinitum.
The Athar believe that the gods are fake. Oh, they exist — that’s a given in D&D, after all — but they’re not so different from you or I. Just a lot more powerful, and not worthy of sublime worship simply by virtue of that power.
The Bleak Cabal denies that there is any purpose to anything. Seeking for meaning is a waste of time and energy. Instead, we could look at the world right in front of us, try to do some good. Or not. Or go mad. The Bleakers are unlikely to care.
The Transcendent Order (a.k.a. Ciphers) believe in meditation and exercise to bring one’s being in sync with the cadence that pervades all existence. By acting instead of thinking and then acting, they seek to always be perfectly in the moment.
The Dustmen are a gloomy bunch, who believe we’re already dead. Our existence is a (cruel) afterlife, and we should all strive to relinquish all connections to it, in order to attain true death.
The Fated think that everything worth having is worth working and/or fighting for. Might and effort makes right, and if you’re not tough enough to hold on to something: sucks to be you.
The Godsmen believe that each life is a trial: overcome the challenges you face in life, and you will reincarnate as a higher being, one step up the ladder that ends in godhood.
The Fraternity of Order (a.k.a. Guvners) seek to discover the rules behind everything, and they’re quite convinced those exist. Wouldn’t make sense, otherwise. Some of them also like imposing rules.
The Harmonium (a.k.a. Hardheads) believe there is one right way: their way. See, if everyone in existence would follow that one simple principle, there’d be a whole lot more peace and… harmony.
The Free League (a.k.a. Indeps) generally refuse to be seen as a faction at all. They’re the people who don’t want to be tied up in anything, and simply left alone in freedom. They tend to help each other out, just like the other factions, though.
The Mercykillers (a.k.a. Red Death) believe that no deed should go unpunished. The are rules for a reason, and whenever one gets broken, someone — anyone, really — should pay to set things right. The Mercykillers will make sure someone does.
The Society of Sensation (a.k.a. Sensates) thinks that the key to profound knowledge, and to actually existing, lies in the senses. To understand and live life to the fullest, we must experience things. Many things. Different things.
The Sign of One (a.k.a. Signers) believe that the entirety of existence all just takes place in one being’s imagination. Could be me, could be you, could be Barry who lives around the corner, though that seems a bit unlikely.
The Doomguard (a.k.a. Sinkers) believe entropy is the natural state of the multiverse: everything decays and that’s how it should be. They’re not fond of those who try to hold back what is inevitable.
Finally, the Xaositects (a.k.a. Chaosmen) fully embrace chaos. What that means? You’re not likely to meet two Chaosmen who agree on that. Although you might. Nothing’s certain.
And then there’s the Lady of Pain who keeps them all in check, more or less. I wrote about how diversity is an integral part of the Planescape setting last time, and it’s clear that the Lady plays a crucial role here. For whatever inscrutable reason, she seems to believe that there should be all these different philosophical clubs and organisations in her city, because she tends to intervene whenever one of the factions threatens to get much more powerful than the others. Why this would be is never made explicit, since the Lady is shrouded in intentional mystery. But it’s worth speculating about, at least. This I’ll do in some future piece, because she does deserve at least one all to herself.
For now, I hope you’ve gained a good introduction to one of the ways in which Planescape tried to put some philosophical weight into the fantasy genre, which by the mid-90s had become quite crystallised and… traditional, in many ways. It put a spin on things, again, not by imagining existing fantasy tropes — such as pantheons of gods — out of existence, but by incorporating them into a larger whole, thereby marginalising them and reminding us as players, game masters, and writers that fantasy need not be about following a script, but about imagining a myriad of possible worlds of thought.
- That’s an Irish sport, in case you were wondering; I’m not talking about vomit. [↩]
- Remember that it is a conceit of the setting that powerful thoughts can literally change reality on the Outer Planes. [↩]
- While it’s safe to say that most people will also have a religion, not a lot of people are actually part of a religious organisation, which is where the difference lies. [↩]
- What?! “Set up kip”? Um yes. I’ve forgotten to mention all this time that Planescape incorporates a small vocabulary of ‘cant’ to liven up the language of the setting. You’d think that being a linguist, I’d have mentioned this earlier, and not in the fourth column of the series. Which I didn’t. Anyhow, ‘set up kip’ means ‘find a place to stay’. [↩]
- http://mimir.net/factions/index.html [↩]