Beyond the Six Lands

There’s probably some great, witty title for this, but I can’t think of any right now.

One of the lesser known, but really common effects of ADD that isn’t much talked about, is a significantly delayed development in people becoming functioning, independent adults, even if they don’t show any other apparent mental development issues. From what I’ve heard from other people, it is widely seen as something that will eventually work itself out, it just takes noticeably longer than for other people. (I think I recently saw a study that some 60% of university students with ADD drop out at least once.) I finally started my first regular, full-time and full-pay job, that isn’t some kind of occupation training or work integration measure, at the start of this year, now being in charge of quality control and inventory maintenance at a major online retailer or pond and garden plants.

Last Thursday, at the end of my fourth week, I was quietly working away on some regular busywork, when I had the sensation of having arrived at my destination, after wandering aimless in the wilderness for some 15 years. And to me surprise, the place where I arrived looks just like where I originally started. Having recently combed through my whole music collection to fill my phone with as much stuff as I can fit on it for my car rides to work, I rediscovered a lot of old music that I’ve been playing up and down back when I had finished school but hadn’t listened to in years, and I’ve also been playing a lot of my old favorite videogames from back in the day. And just in the last two months, since I started working on my new Shattered Empire setting, I’ve been rereading various old D&D books that hugely inspired me back when I first started learning the game in the early 2000s. It really feels a lot like my life is just like it was back when I set out to see where life would take me, except that now I got a much better grasp of my life, I’m a trained professional in a field with severe labor shortage, and got a decent income.

This man knows where it’s at.

It currently feel a lot like picking up back where I left off all those years ago. Turns out you can go home again!

Which finally brings me to my actual point. This book.

Somehow this completely slipped my mind when I made the list of reference sources to use as inspirations for the Shattered Empire. The Manual of the Planes is the only 3rd edition book that isn’t a setting book that I still own in print. This book came out very early in 3rd edition’s run, only a year after the three rulebooks, and was hugely influential to me. I had played some Planescape: Torment before, which certainly was a very memorable experience for me, but also a game that’s really hard to get into. (I still have not completed it to this day.) The Manual of the Planes was my first comprehensive introduction to the planes of D&D. While it shows all the planes and describes many of the locations from the Planescape setting, its version of the planes is deliberately made much more generic, to easily plug into any campaign and appear more streamlined with the other 3rd edition supplements. For example, Sigil is only mentioned in a short paragraph, and the Factions aren’t covered at all. Which back then I found somewhat frustrating, but I now think really made this book, and the concept of planar adventures as a whole, much more accessible.

I think it’s quite fair to say that together with the Monsters of Faerûn, the Manual of the Planes is my favorite D&D book that I ever read. I was young and impressionable, and there is something about this book that really made it stick in my mind ever since. The whole art direction and presentation is an advanced glimpse at what would become the dungeon punk style that really takes off in the revised 3rd edition a few years later, and in my opinion had a huge impact on the perception of what D&D is ever since, but I think in this book it feels very appropriate and really works.

While the Great Wheel arrangement of the planes from Planescape is of course a classic, the Shattered Empire is very much meant to be just another generic D&D setting. Informed and inspired by D&D, but not a representation of D&D. And I’ve been on record that the alignment symmetry of the Great Wheel actually leads to it being crammed full with really boring stuff. (Whose ever been on adventures to Bytopia or Arcadia in a non-Planescape campaign?) I played around in the past with the idea to run a campaign that only uses some of the less popular planes that I find the most compelling, but nothing ever actually came of that. But now that I need to figure something out to do with the other realms of reality from which warlocks gain their powers, this feels like another great opportunity to take out that old idea again.

The Shadows

One thing that has always bugged me about the planes in 3rd and 5th edition is that the Ethereal Plane is just so damn boring. The concept is interesting, but by it’s very nature, the plane is completely empty. There’s been some attempts over the years to at least populate it with monsters, but those bizarre weirdos never got any traction, being just too weird while also being too bland. In contrast, the Plane of Shadows is a much more interesting place, that has actual terrain in it. For the Shattered Empire, I made the decision to combine the two planes into one, called for simplicity The Shadows.

The Shadows behave mostly just like the Plane of Shadows does. (Or the Shadowfell, exactly the same thing.) It’s a dark world without color whose terrain almost mirrors the world of the Material Plane, but not quite. It’s subtly distorted and not a completely perfect match in where everything is and how its shaped. It’s an imperfect reflection that can slowly and gradually morph into slightly different shapes and arrangements. One cool idea, that I’ve never actually seen much done with, is that there is only a single Plane of Shadows that connects to all Material Planes, not just the one the PCs are from, and that you can simply keep walking through the shadowy landscape and eventually come out in areas that correspond to completely different worlds.

To this baseline, I am adding the trait of the Ethereal Plane that you can actually see from the Shadows into the Material Plane and observe the living creatures moving around in the other world. Looking through the Player’s Handbook for 5th edition, it seems like any magical effects that target the Ethereal Plane can simply be redirected  to the Shadowfell without causing any meaningful changes or complications. The aspect of the Ethereal Plane that you lose with this setup is that the Shadows have a ground and gravity, so you can’t simply fly around by the force of your will. Having buildings exist in corresponding locations in the Shadows also means that you can’t use the Ethereal Plane as a means to move through walls or doors. However, if the Shadows are only an imperfect and warped reflection of the Material Plane, there can still be large enough gaps and holes in the Shadows that allow passage through barriers that are impenetrable in the Material Plane. And I believe this only really becomes a factor with etherealness spell, which is at a level way beyond the scope of the Shattered Empire setting.

The Void

The Ethereal Plane also happens to be divided into the Border Ethereal, from where you can see into the Material Plane, and the Deep Ethereal, which is just a vast void of nothingness. This actually corresponds very well with the concept that you can travel through the Plane of Shadow to reach other Material Planes. This Shadow version of the Deep Ethereal is called The Void in the Shattered Empire. Though without the ability to float through the emptiness, things get a bit more wonky. My idea is that there are patches of darkness found throughout the Shadows where the reflected environment of the Material Plane fades away rapidly, and as you keep moving forward into the blackness, the whole concept of a ground beneath your feet becomes increasingly abstract, until you eventually find your feet no longer making contact with anything solid and you no longer need to even move your leg to continue moving forward. With no more visible landmarks to follow, finding your way in the Void by ordinary means becomes effectively impossible. It’s easy to become lost in the Void forever, and even if you happen to eventually reach the Shadows again, it might very likely not be the Shadow of your own world. And even if it is, there is no way of telling which area of the Material Plane your new position corresponds to.

Other Worlds

The number of other worlds that can be found by traveling through the Void could potentially be limitless. But a few of them are known, which are the homes of aberrations and fiends. I don’t think I’ll be using the concept of layers for planes. Instead every such other plane is only a single layer, just like the Material Planes. I’m not even sure if the distinction between material plans ad outer planes has any meaning in this kind of planar setup. I’m also not sure what really becomes the difference between aberrations and fiends, and what’s the difference between supernatural creatures from the Material Plane, such as lamias or unicorns. Maybe there won’t be any. Before 3rd edition, there really weren’t any such distinctions and classifications to begin with, and that worked just fine for decades.

The worlds of fiends and aberrations are a great place to finally make use of some of my favorite places from the Great Wheel. Gehenna, Carceri, and Pandemonium all fit quite perfectly with the kinds of horrific hellscapes that I have in mind. But Ysgard and the Beastlands also make for good places that could be found by traveling through the Shadows and passing through the Void, which are not quite as hostile but still home to strange beings not normally found in the Material Plane.

What I think this setup really doesn’t need is either an Astral Plane, as this function is already well covered by the Void, and any elemental planes. I like the four elementals as monsters, but creating a whole new class of planes just to justify their existence really doesn’t seem necessary. I like this basic setup quite well as it already is.

Maybe there will be a more detailed update on this in the future. But I see it as very possible that the future parties exploring the Six Lands will never make it any further than short diversions into the Shadows of their own world, and as such these things might never actually need to be made more specific.

Call of the Planes

When I wrapped up my 5th edition campaign last year, I was pretty fed up with the system for it just not being the kind of game that works for the kind of campaigns that I had created my setting for. It also made me throw a small pile of notes into the corner that I had scribbled down for a Planescape campaign. Last week I came across a discussions about planned campaigns we never got around to run, which reminded me of those ideas. And here I am now, picking up right where I left a year ago.

Blade Runner
Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3
Fury Road
Fury Road
Hellblade
Hellblade
Hellblade
Metro: Exodus
Metro: Exodus
Metro: Exodus

And yes, I am super pumped for Carceri. (But also Ysgard and Pandemonium.) And the factions I want to include in important roles are the Bleak Cabal, the Doomguard, the Dustmen, and the Revolutionary League.

With references like these, keeping the thing from going all grimmdark will be one of the priorities, but I think with the quirkiness of Planescape it shouldn’t be too hard to find a good balance. If everything breaks, a Solaire and Siegmeyer duo should always be able to save the say. With jolly cooperation

Dusts of Minethys

The petitioners of Minethys are miserable; they’re greedy sods, and they won’t share anything with anyone unless they’re paid for it. Since there’s not much use for jink here, they barter for services and rags for protection against the wind. The strong are those who manage to gain the services of many: their sand-built huts offer the best shelter from the wind, though this means nothing in the path of the tornados. They’re a hard lot, and they’ll bob a body for all he’s worth, if he lets ’em.

The Realms of Reality

Two months ago I wrote about an idea of one day running a campaign in a downsized Planescape setting that has only 8 outer planes and 4 inner planes. Planescape has been a major influence on the Green Sun setting in general, and my ideas for the Spiritworld in particular. And so soon after writing that post, I went ahead to try out combining the two ideas for a campaign. While I had some good idea what I want the realms of the spirits to look like for a long time, I never actually got around to nailing them down into something tangible and specific. The planar system that resulted from toiling in the dark for many nights takes ideas and concepts from the planes of the Outlands, the Beastlands, Arborea, Pandemonium, Carceri, and Gehenna, and is tied together by a combination of the Plane of Shadow and the Ethereal Plane with several influences from the Gray Wastes of Hades. There are no dedicated elemental planes and no Astral Plane. Perhaps most curiously, there is no dedicated Material Plane either. As a result, the arrangement of the different realms is quite different from the way they work in Planescape.

Nature of the Realms

The world consists of an indeterminate number of realms that fall into two primary categories. The Spectral Realm and all the other realms. The other realms can be thought of as Corporeal Realms and people often divided them into Wild Realms and Underworld Realms, though that distinction is a subjective judgement and not based on specific distinguishing traits. The Wild Realms tend to be more similar to the Realm of Mortals, while the Underworld Realms are generally more inhospitable and their creatures more alien.

While the Corporeal Realms are generally separate from each other, all of them overlap with the Spectral Realm and are inseparetely tied to it. Mortal beings are native to the Corporeal Planes, while all spirits, which includes fey, elementals, and fiends, are native to the Spectral Realm. Mortal creatures can physically leave the Corporeal Realms and travel into the Spectral Realm. For spirits it is quite different. Spirits have the ability to project themselves into a Corporeal Realm without leaving the Spectral Realm. In fact, it is impossible for spirits to leave the Spectral Realm.

The Spectral Realm

The Spectral Realm mirrors all the Corporeal Realms, though there is a perpetual gloom and all colors are faded to almost gray, with the landscape appearing more like shadows than actual physical matter. It mirrors all the Corporeal Realms at the same time, resulting in a landscape as if someone had cut the maps of the Corporeal Realms into countless pieces and assembled them together into a single giant map at random. By travelling through the Spectral Realm one can reach any place in any Corporeal Realm. The difficult part is to find it. Fortunately for spectral travelers, the nature of time and distance seem to be very different in the Spectral Realm and if the right path is known seemingly every destination can be reached in just a few days.

However, keeping track of time in the Spectral Realm is difficult and its hard to determine how much time one has actually spend there. While staying in the Spectral Realm, mortal creatures are unable to fully fall asleep and gain no nourishment from food, making it impossible to take a long rest. They soon start to feel slightly tired and hungry but it never becomes unbearable, though for every day spend in the Spectral Realm they gain one level of exhaustion. If the exhaustion kills them, their physical forms fade away and they turn into shadows.

Spirits

Spirits come in three types. Fey, elementals, and fiends. Celestials and intelligent plants have their creature type changed to fey, while aberrations have their creature type change to fiends. Generally speaking, fey are only encountered in Wild Realms and fiends only in Underworld Realms, as well as in areas of the Spectral Realms that correspond to them. But since there is no hard distinction between the two there are some of the Corporeal Realms where one might encounter representatives of both. Elementals are neither fey nor fiends and they can be encountered in all the Corporeal Realms and anywhere in the Spectral Realm.

The Wild Realms

The Wild Realms are Corporeal Realms with environments quite similar to that of the Mortal Realm. Most are dominated by forests, mountains, and oceans and are full of life in many forms, much of which appearing very familiar to mortals. For some reason the Mortal Realm is rarely visited by physical manifestions of spirits, which many scholars believe to be in some way connected to intelligent humanoid mortals being native to it. In the other Wild Realms, fey and elementals are much more frequent and the forces of nature appear to be even more powerful and unpredictable. People have told tales of realms where it is always night or where the sun never sets, where it is snowing all year or the mists never dissipate. While many of the Wild Realms are majestic to behold, all of them are considerably more dangerous than the wilderness of the Mortal Realm.

The Underworld Realms

Compared the the Wild Realms, the Underworld Realms tend to be much more barren and desolate. Many of them appear to exist entirely underground without any surface, which gives them their name, though there are also numerous realms that appear as barren hills or deserts. Most tend to be dark or gloomy, but again this is not a universal rule. Storms are just as common as in the Wild Realms, often driving before them clouds of dust or ash from constantly errupting volcanoes.

Borders between Realms

While the Corporeal Realms are generally separate from each other, they do occasionally touch and form border regions between them, through which creatures can travel from one realm to the other without going through the Spectral Realm. Border regions are not really in one realm or the other, and the environment blends traits of both of them. Often these regions are difficult to notice and the change in environment only becomes fully apparent once travellers have crossed fully into the other realm. Border regions generally have two edges that allow passage to the two realms they connect. Often these edges are found at the entrances of mountain passes, cave mouths, or at different points along a river that runs between two realms. But in many cases they just exist in completely unremarkable spots in the forest. Some known edges have been marked by either mortals or fey, which can take the form of lines of unusual trees, thickets of brambles, or carved posts made from wood or stone. Border regions also exist out at sea, but these are particularly difficult to locate and map.

While many border regions stay in place for a very long time, they are not entirely permanent. Some might in fact be quite short lived, but are never discovered or their locations shared among scholars and hunters. Other border regions are only accessible during specific times. These could be specific months of the year for example, or only during night at a full moon. There are stories of islands of the mainland coast that can be reached only for a single night every year, or ships disappearing without a trace along routes where no signs of a border had ever been noticed.

Planescape/2

Planescape has always been hugely fascinating. But everyone will agree that it is very big. And I think many will admit that perhaps it might be too big. 17 outer planes, most with three or four layers, some with much more than that; and 18 inner planes. It does get a bit overwhelming.

While I was working on my Green Sun setting, I was drawing inspirations for the Otherworlds very heavily from Planescape. However, only from a small number of planes, all of which I would consider to be among the somewhat more obscure ones. You know which ones are the famous and popular ones: The Abyss, Baator, Limbo, Mechanus, and Celestia, with Hades, Elysium, and Arborea also having some claim to minor fame. These happen to be the “even numbered” planes; the ones that correspond directly to the nine alignments. It’s the “odd numbered” ones between them that very rarely seem to be given any attention. And I have to say, after 20-something years, the primary planes have started to feel a bit stale and overdone, while the secondary ones still hold much more fascination for me.

This got me the idea: How about running a Planescape campaign in which the outer planes only conist of the secondary planes? And only having four elemental inner planes should also be enough.

I admit, Bytopia and Arcadia still look pretty bland and boring in the Lawful Good corner. But then, I don’t think Celestia and Elysium ever did any better. But I do think that you could do something interesting with players having to do errands in Arcadia and the place feeling slightly too lawful for being balanced in its lawful goodness. After all, this is where the Harmonium has its main base, and these berks aren’t quite known for their politeness and ompassion.

I’ve never been thinking much of either Bytopia or Archeron, but their crazy landscape should be able to provide some short term fun. I think the odd one out is actually Ysgard. I can’t really imagine it as anything other than Viking Land.

I fully admit that Gehenna, Carceri, and Pandemonium are where my real love lies. These are the more desolate hells, which I really like. Very Dark Souls, I might say.

I’ve put so much work into my Green Sun setting that is finally turning into something really playable, so my next campaign just has to be set there. But the idea of using only half of Planescape without the worn out standard planes makes me once more quite exited to jump into that setting as well.