Last Updated on January 22, 2023
From the city of Sigil and its ruler, the Lady of Pain, to the farthest (weirdest) reaches of the great wheel, today we’re going to be taking you on a journey through time and space. Welcome, adventurers, to Planescape.
What Is Planescape?
Planescape is a campaign setting created in 1994 by David “Zeb” Cook. Originally released as a boxed set for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Planescape dramatically expanded the lore surrounding D&D’s “great wheel” cosmology and provided advice for dungeon masters looking to run adventures set outside the prime material plane.
Planescape expanded the Manual of the Planes released in 1987, turning the universe beyond the mundane material world into an entire setting for extensive campaigns.
As a setting, Planescape was defined by fantastical locations, strange new creatures, detailed and unique factions, and a new style of play that focused more on philosophical discourse and negotiation than hack-and-slash dungeon crawling.
Its influences ranged widely from classical Japanese poetry, historical fiction about Albert Einstein’s dreams, Invisible Cities by Italio Calvino, and the 1980s Taiwanese horror film Wolf Devil Woman to the movie adaptation of William Burroughs’ psychedelic insect-infested paranoid conspiracy fever dream The Naked Lunch. This was a level of high weirdness, scale, and over-philosophical discourse never before seen in a D&D product. Arguably, it’s a level of art-punk, experimental weirdness that hasn’t been seen since.
How Does Planescape Relate to D&D 5e?
Dungeons & Dragons 5e takes place almost exclusively in a setting known as the Forgotten Realms, a “vanilla” fantasy setting complete with dragons, giants, elves, and other classic fantasy tropes.
Fun fact: The Forgotten Realms setting is actually older than D&D itself. Ed Greenwood, the Forgotten Realms’ creator, started developing it as early as the mid-1960s as a potential setting for a series of children’s books. He later pivoted his lore into an official setting for D&D when he started working for TSR, when The Forgotten Realms became one of the central settings for AD&D, alongside Greyhawk and Mystara.
Comprising famous locations like Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Phandalin, the Sword Coast, the Jungles of Chult, and more, this vast shared world has been the backdrop for just about every official D&D adventure released since 2014. It’s also going to be the setting for the new Dungeons & Dragons movie coming out next year.
With the exception of the semi-canonical Critical Role setting of Tal’Dorei, excursions into the demiplanes of dread via Curse of Strahd and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, and the upcoming supplement for Spelljammer (which will be folded into the Forgotten Realms as a series of locations rather than rebooted as its own thing), D&D 5e has pretty much exclusively focused on the Forgotten Realms.
While some settings, like Mystara, the Hollow World, Greyhawk, and Dark Sun, have pretty much disappeared from modern D&D as we know it, elements of Planescape’s cosmology ended up becoming a part of the Forgotten Realms setting favored by 5e.
The very idea of a central Prime Material Plane surrounded by elemental planes, planes of good, evil, negative, and positive energy — all stemmed from the Planescape setting and remain a part of D&D’s planar cosmology to this day.
Welcome to Planescape
Planescape was a major D&D setting throughout the heyday of 2e D&D and saw multiple setting, mechanical, and adventure books published between the launch of the first boxed set in 1994 and the setting’s demise in 1998.
While it would be folly to try and break down all the information included in the Planescape box set and the subsequent releases for the setting, we’re going to give you the highlights — especially regarding the things about pre-existing settings that Planescape changed and the ways in which the setting affected subsequent editions of the game, including 5e today.
Expanding the Great Wheel
The “Great Wheel” cosmology (a prime material plane surrounded by concentric rings of elemental, good and evil, and other types of planes) was originally developed by Jeff Grubb in the 1987 sourcebook Manual of the Planes.
Largely, this sourcebook provided detailed descriptions of the inner planes, treating them as a place for higher-level adventuring parties to visit, usually to battle a powerful foe or retrieve some potent artifact. When creating Planescape, Cook was tasked with turning the planes beyond the Prime Material into more than a place to visit; they needed to be somewhere you could have a whole campaign.
To do this, he largely left the more fleshed-out inner planes untouched, but he expanded the outer ones, in addition to renaming a number of planes that had previously been borrowed directly from existing religions or Greek mythology.
Gladsheim became Ysgard, Hades became The Gray Waste, Happy Hunting Grounds became Beastlands, Nine Hells became Baator, Nirvana became Mechanus, Olympus became Arborea, Seven Heavens became Mount Celestia, Tarterus became Carceri, and Twin Paradises became Bytopia.
Cook has also been quoted in interviews as citing the Satanic Panic (largely subdued after its peak in the 1980s but still very much alive in 1994) as the reason why the words “Devil” and “Demon” were completely scrubbed from Planescape. This is the origin of the term “fiend,” which has become a catch-all for both demons and devils in 5e, at the time serving as a way for Cook to avoid the ire of groups like BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) and other reactionaries.
Ironically, Planescape ended up being one of the settings that expanded D&D’s lore surrounding devils and demons the most. Two years later, in 1996, TSR released the Planescape supplement Hellbound: The Blood War, which was the origin of the brutal conflict between the lawful evil devils of Baator (later renamed The Nine Hells) and the chaotic evil demons of the Abyss.
Perhaps most importantly, Planescape also gave us one of the eight iconic fantasy races in the 5e Player’s Handbook: The Tiefling, although, to be fair, in the original Planescape boxed set, tieflings are simply said to be a mixture of human and “something else” — but the implication that the other element of a tiefling’s parentage is a denizen of the lower planes is strong.
From tieflings and the githzerai to much of the planar cosmology that 5e uses today, Planescape has undeniably left its mark on D&D as a whole. This is perhaps most apparent when we look at the “home base” of any Planescape campaign…
Sigil: The City of Doors
While much of the rest of the planar multiverse was already more or less established by the time Cook started work on Planescape, the most famous and pivotal piece of his design was an all-new creation.
At the center of the outlands, a nexus between all other planes and places in the multiverse, on the inside of a giant floating ring, there lies Sigil, City of Doors and the greatest metropolis in the multiverse. Essentially, Sigil was set up to serve as a hub from which anyone could get anywhere in the planar universe — a city where you could have a million adventures and just as easily use its many portals as a jumping-off point to have a million more in the planes beyond.
From its multiple factions (a first for a D&D setting) that players could join to its extensively researched dialect (based on a heavily adapted version of late Victorian street slang), Cook turned Sigil into one of the most fleshed-out, well-realized locations in all of D&D. In fact, probably only Waterdeep (and maybe Neverwinter) have garnered more attention and fame throughout the history of D&D.
Factions of Sigil
Inspired by the success of darker roleplaying games like White Wolf’s Vampyre: The Masquerade, 1990s D&D is famous for its darker, weirder tone, not to mention borrowing things from those world-of-darkness games like metaplots and factions.
Cook has described the many, multi-faceted factions in Sigil as being like “the bad philosophy ideas that we used to argue about in college after a few too many beers.” Each one is organized around a particular philosophical attitude toward the multiverse, from the god-denying Athar (also known as Delifers and The Lost) to the anarchist Revolutionary League (who agree that the oppressive laws of society must be torn down but are more or less incapable of agreeing how to go about it or what to put in their place).
The Lady of Pain
One of the biggest design issues that needed solving when Cook created Sigil was how to ensure that a city that was connected to every point in the multiverse wouldn’t be a perpetual bloodbath as gods, mind flayers, demons, and every other terrifying thing out there tried to conquer it in order to launch an assault on the rest of reality. Additionally, how would the city function as a home base for 1st-level adventurers and high-level characters alike?
The answer: The Lady of Pain.
A being of intense power, the Lady of Pain is the ruler of Sigil. She is the one who creates the mazes, doorways, and gates through which travelers pass in and out of the city. She is the one who bars gods and goddesses from entering Sigil and the one who maintains relative order and peace within its concentric walls.
While echoes of Planescape remain throughout modern D&D, there’s a whole lot about this iconic and truly unique campaign setting that’s faded away as 5e has become a more homogenous beast.
I’d recommend every dungeon master looking to add a mixture of weirdness and awe-inspiring majesty to their next campaign check out a copy of 2e Planescape.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.