Walking The Planes 4: Philosophers With Clubs

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.
Xaosmen embrace discord, 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.

  1. That’s an Irish sport, in case you were won­der­ing; I’m not talk­ing about vomit. []
  2. Remember that it is a con­ceit of the set­ting that pow­er­ful thoughts can lit­er­al­ly change real­i­ty on the Outer Planes. []
  3. 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. []
  4. 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’. []
  5. http://​mimir​.net/​f​a​c​t​i​o​n​s​/​i​n​d​e​x​.​h​tml []

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.