Tell me about your Planescape games

edited September 2011 in Story Games
One of my friends is playing through Planescape: Torment for the first time (while I'm replaying in for the umptenth) and needless to say he fell in love with the setting.

I think in a way Torment doesn't reflect the setting because so much of Torment's awesome comes from the specific characters and specific stories and quests that aren't directly reliant on the setting. Sure, the setting is cool, but it's what you do with it. In other words, a great DM's home game does not necessarily reflect your own attempt if you pick up the books and try it yourself. But hey, it's always about making it your own, right?

So yesterday we were talking about starting a Planescape campaign. We discussed systems a bit, but then I turned the focus to the campaign itself. Let's first figure out what we'll be doing before we pick a system. What do the players do, what do the characters do?

And I'm skeptical. Planescape is this pool full of odd and strange and wonderful ideas, but I'm not sure what to do with them. Yes, it's ripe with possibility, but I don't know how to harness it. I'm also a DM that gets very impatient with official settings. I abhor canon and take it far too seriously at the same time (my own fault).

My friend is extremely enthusiastic to either play or run a game in the setting and I don't want to disappoint him. I bailed out on the role of the DM (something I literally never do) and I can't even figure out how I could play in this possible campaign without it feeling a failure. I'm honestly thinking of saying "play this without me" (which I think is another unprecedented thing in our group).

So, if you've ever played in the setting, tell me about your Planescape games. Tell me how you made it work. Help me figure it out. I'd love to hear very practical, ground up social contract, premise, agenda, DM techniques sort of stuff.


  • The beauty of Planescape is, it's infinite. Anything can happen. So fuck canon - that's point a).

    Planescape strikes me as the ultimate "sandbox", but that requires players who have a lot of ambition. The way I used to DM it was to say to the players at the outset: tell me your beliefs and tell me your ambition. Don't make that ambition something vague like "achieve self-actualisation" or something rulesy like "get to 20th level". Tell me something else: I want to become a proxy of Set; I want to be a pirate captain in Ysgard; I want to rule my own realm.

    This makes the players drive their trek through the planes forward, in search of fame, wealth, disciples, whatever. It requires you as the DM to really be able to wing things on the fly, but it's very rewarding.

    The other way of running it is the "strangers in a strange land" motif. The players are primes. They end up accidentally winding up in Sigil, or (better) the Abyss. They don't have a clue what's going on. What do they do?
  • My group has a Planescape-fixation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. We're still working it out.

    I think our best/most coherent approach was when we did round-robin GMing with each GM setting it in a new Plane. It's impossible to keep the entire Planescape cosmology in your head and jump around anywhere on the fly if you want to give each place a good tone - but if the GM can take some time to read up/prepare where the next adventure will be, that works. You need to be ready to spin out a lot of colour, because without catching glimpses of weird insignificant things it's not Planescape - but every Plane (and layer as well...) has a different style, so you need to be geared up for it to make it distinct. Each new location has its own conflicts - just make sure the characters have a reason to get involved, I guess (that often was a problem for us - when we got somewhere new and interesting it turned out character's main goal was to leave as soon as possible to no particular destination - but I'm sure that's fixable. Get goals out of them beforehand, or something).

    We also played a game where we were living in one particular place and events caused us to branch out slowly. This worked well, but it was less a full-on Planescape game than an Outlands/Abyss game with occasional visits to The Grey Waste. The focus wasn't on adventure at all (in fact, it turned into a full-blown romance story, which was quite odd). So, you can go that way - it's essentially an infinite number of differently flavoured settings in one, so you can just pick a place that takes your fancy and do stuff there without the whole 'Planewalker' baggage. Short stabs into new places each session/episode is probably better for getting the feel of the setting as a whole though.

    An appropriate system for Planescape is really hard. Let me know if you find one. We've tried a lot of things and none of them really help reinforce the feeling or themes of Planescape. Also, it needs to be something that doesn't put any restrictions on character concept (unless you're doing a prime game ... but that takes out half the fun). If you're not free to make your character a pit fiend or a demigod, I think something's gone wrong. In one of our games, I played a self-absorbed shape-changing blob of chaos matter with no fixed appearance, which she changed by giving orders to the shrunken severed head of her old master (an Anarch, of Limbo) held under a domination spell. The nice thing about Planescape - and something that Torment demonstrates very well - is that contradictions to the setting are a key part of it, especially when it comes to characters. And, of course, characters created on the basis of a contradiction have in-built conflict.

    So, yeah - don't worry about canon. It's useful to know, so you know when to contradict it to get that wonderful Planescapey feeling - but it's hardly going to get in your way.
  • To me, Planescape is about changing the planes, the universe, the whatever/everything through the characters' beliefs and they do this through adventuring.

    Here's a TSoY Planescape hack.

    I'd futz with the Shadow of Yesterday/Solar System mechanics just a touch so that when a character reaches enlightenment (isn't that what its called when a character hits that magic roll and retires) they leave a mark on the planes.

    So, upon reading over the old boxed set and playing again decades later, I found that the factions were kind of weak, especially the factions that didn't have a concrete task to do within Sigil. Still, a fun setting with neat ideas, a neat way to take all of the D&D toys out of the box and arranging them in a nifty way.
  • Each to his own, but I couldn't disagree more with Aik about restricting character concept. I think restricting character concepts is really important, because it gives something concrete to the experience. The setting is gonzo and weird and vast, and if you introduce weird, gonzo character concepts into the mix I think there's a danger it can all dissolve into something incoherent, ephemeral, or difficult to believe.

    I also think the motif of human beings, or things that are similar to human beings, making their way in a very fucked-up universe just makes for good role playing. If you're a shape-changing blob of chaos, where is the sense of awe, wonder and terror at being "out there" in the multiverse?

    Your mileage my vary, obviously.

    I'm also going to speak up for using D&D for it, specifically 2nd edition AD&D. The rules are there, and this is a mythos that arises out of some core assumptions stemming from the "D&D reality". Failing that, I'd probably use something quite rules-lite, like Risus.
  • I've been giving this some thought recently - if I were to run a Planescape campaign now, what system would I use?

    The singlemost important concept in a Planescape campaign, for me, is the idea of entire planes of reality forged from ethical concepts, planes which are embodiments of moral alignments (in the literal and figurative sense) and cultural beliefs. This emerges in Sigil in the form of Factions, each based around a particular belief system or philosophy. In my mind, the ideal system to run Planescape would have rules to adjudicate rhetorical conflict - to allow members of various Factions to cross words as easily as they do swords.

    I don't think I'll ever run it, but I think it would be interesting to use Burning Wheel to run a Planescape game - the Duel of Wits mechanic would be a really cool way to allow for the kind of verbal sparring I was describing above. Creating custom lifepaths for the various races would be a chore (Modron lifepaths? Yeesh...), but I don't see all the plane-hopping stuff being a big deal. I'd love to see the kind of beliefs and instincts that emerge from someone playing a hardcore Xaositect, or a Dustman.

    Crap, the more I think about this now the more I want to run it.
  • Planescape ala BW has come up a few times on the BW forum. If a player really had to play a Modron (really?) I'd sit down with them and use the Monster Burner and not go with Modron lifepaths.

    There is something alluring about using BW to play a game where Beliefs alter reality.
  • I had more than one player demand to play a Modron, especially after Torment came out. Nordom was such a cool little NPC :)
  • We loosely ran through Paladin in Hell, Hellbound, The Great Modron March, then Dead Gods, and finally Faction War.

    In all of the above, we stripped out the railroady elements, the parts where the authors told the GM awesome stories about their favorite NPCs that had little to do with the players, and skipped past 50% of the repetitive encounters. We found the books were useful as guides, rather than running them step by step.

    Paladin in Hell isn't an official Planescape book but it introduced us to the idea of adventuring in the other planes.

    Hellbound is mainly a campaign guide but has several mini adventures that were short and fun. Most of the Planescape box sets included fun side adventures (although Hellbound isn't a box set).

    The Great Modron March is a little railroady and may assume the players do things their characters probably wouldn't agree to. We had to skip a lot of railroady parts here. But this module feeds directly into...

    Dead Gods is excellent from what I remember.

    Faction War is controversial as it makes drastic changes to Planescape. It feels like an end followed by a new beginning. There are parts where we follow the backstory of an awesome NPC that has nothing to do with the players. We skipped most of these parts. We purposefully stretched out Faction War as long as possible. It was fun to avoid reaching the end and rather keep creating new situations that kept the Faction War going.
  • In a semi-related note, I've been thinking about actually picking up some of the older D&D adventures for various settings and running them with Dungeon World. Ptolus is somewhere on my list, but also Planescape, Eberron, Dark Sun, or Birthright. Since all those settings are vaguely based on D&D tropes, I'm thinking that I could probably get by with just writing a custom move or two for each PC, to give the chars more of a vibe particular to whatever the setting is, and just go from there. Like John says, you'd probably have to strip out or transform some of the more railroady parts of adventures or just reserve them for hard moves ("Okay, you get captured by slavers and sold to the arena..."), but that shouldn't be too much work.
  • edited September 2011
    A month or so ago I started a Planescape inspired game of Arcana Evolved with one of my regular groups. They are a plane-traveling circus, with each of the PCs having a role in the circus (from animal trainer to accountant) and a place in the politics of the group. To kick things up a notch one of the families in the circus has a daughter who is the Chosen One. What exactly that means remains unclear with apparently conflicting prophecies and such. Although since one PC is the chosen one's older sister, and the other PCs are taking sides around her and the circus, there is a wealth of potential there as well.

    Setting-wise this is sort of Carnivale meets Planescape. I decided instead of using a predetermined cosmology to build a series of random plane generation tables and to spin off the planes along the circus' route from there. So far sharing the tables have been a blast, as two of the PCs have built their own home planes using them. So far we have an underground portal plane aligned with Nature and Progress, a living gold chaos plane which is home to surprisingly mortal the dragon gods, an ironic afterlife for Giants and their enemies on the back of a giant turtle, to describe a few.

    Considering I've run two 2-3 year campaigns with this group in the past, I'm hopeful that this will be a good campaign game too.

    - Mendel
  • My other friend Jonathan has been doing the same thing. Every week he grabs a random D&D module and runs it with Dungeon World!

    The only downside he's found so far are magical weapons and items that increase effectiveness. Too many +1 bonuses and the DW system seems to shake loose. He's been replacing magic weapons bonuses with custom moves but that involves more work (although is worth it).

    Some of the worst examples of railroading in these books is being forced to play stupid. Like introducing an NPC who is clearly betraying you but for the sake of the module, it assumes you play along for several adventures and only act when the NPC blatantly attacks you. Less blatant examples are where you are supposed to work with the Modrons but then they start doing things many players disagree with. That makes for great conflict but to act on it means ignoring 70% of the book. What helps is building Bonds / Relationships with the key NPCs so that you have more investment to keep it all together.
  • For all of you talking about system, I have no idea if our game will happen or not, but I've been kit-bashing together a custom ruleset for it. It's just what I do. I'll post it when I have something more solid.

    But keep on talking, I think it's an interesting conversation, I'd love to hear more.
  • John, yeah, +1 weapons are super lame in DW. Custom moves are definitely the way to go. In general, I worry a bit about the accumulation of magical loot over time, but the game may be lethal enough that it wouldn't be as much of a concern ("Oh, his magic sword is melted to his corpse now..." "No, her magic gear was in her pack when she fell into the abyss..."). But you could also just strip most of that stuff out and just keep a couple of cool items with attached custom moves per adventure, and not necessarily even assume that the PCs will end up with them.

    Honestly, I'm expecting that the sandbox style of DW will be great with some of the old railroad-y adventures. You just take the key NPCs and monsters and then let the PCs totally wreck whatever plan the original module had. Should be great fun, but I've yet to try it out except for the demo game I ran at PAX.
  • Posted By: jenskotWe had to skip a lot of railroady parts here.
    Was there anything left of the module?
    Posted By: TeatainePlanescape is this pool full of odd and strange and wonderful ideas, but I'm not sure what to do with them. Yes, it's ripe with possibility, but I don't know how to harness it. I'm also a DM that gets very impatient with official settings. I abhor canon and take it far too seriously at the same time (my own fault).
    The closest I came to a Planescape game was a D&D campaign I GMed set in the City of Brass (you know, giant city in the Plane of fire, ruled by Efreets). I liberally stole Planescape material and flavor (The City of Brass came to resemble Sigil in various ways). At the same time, I didn't stick with canon at all. I stole the best bits of 4th edition's cosmology, the best details of 2nd ed Planescape (and Al-Qadim) and anything else that seemed to fit (a murder mystery stolen from the Arabian Nights? Cool).

    This is what I'd suggest that you do. Take Planescape as an inspiration, not as a hard defined setting. Use the material provided when it hits the proper tone and ignore it when it doesn't. Find other sources outside of Planescape per se that also feel appropriate and run with those too. Trample all over canon in one significant way right away and then run from there. Murder the Lady of Pain! Explode Sigil! Have the Blood War resolve peaceably, and the good aligned powers break into civil war!
  • Posted By: AlexMayo
    In my mind, the ideal system to run Planescape would have rules to adjudicate rhetorical conflict - to allow members of various Factions to cross words as easily as they do swords.
    Burning Wheel seems like the thing, then.

    Although, having played some Planescape games, both old-school and new-school, I agree with Judd's comment that the factions, as cool as they seemed to my 15-year-old brain, are actually kind of weak and hazy in play. It's really hard to play embodiments of philosophical concepts.
  • My Planescape projects have all foundered on the shoals of "you can do aaaaaanything". The original thoughts in Planescape was that your normal D&D characters would end up there. So actually that kind of limitation helps out a lot when making plans for what might happen.
  • edited September 2011
    Okay, this is probably totally insane - but yesterday I was pondering if it would be possible to do Planescape as a Freemarket hack. I have no idea how that would work, exactly - but Freemarket (the station) always seemed like a sci-fi version of Sigil to me, with all the MRCZ's representative of the various factions and the Aggregate as the Lady of Pain and the dabus that go around maintaining the station. It would probably break down the second anyone tried to leave Sigil (which is a deal-breaker right there), and I'm struggling to see how it would handle armed conflict. Probably doomed to failure, since Planescape is fundamentally about adventure, while Freemarket is (mostly) about making nice. Still fun to ponder, though.
  • Alex,

    I suspect Freemarket doesn't match as much as you'd like, its close to Planescape, but:

    Planescape values what you know - Freemarket values who you know.
    Planescape is about experiencing wonder - Freemarket is about making wonder.
    Ultimately, Planescape cares most about your beliefs - Freemarket cares about your dreams.

    - Mendel
  • True enough, wyrmwood. The mechanics of Freemarket are so tightly bound to the setting I have a hard time seeing how it could be used to run anything other than Freemarket.
  • Posted By: AlexMayoTrue enough, wyrmwood. The mechanics of Freemarket are so tightly bound to the setting I have a hard time seeing how it could be used to run anything other than Freemarket.
    I could see it (maybe) running a Pantheon in Planescape. If you felt you had to try hacking it.
  • One day I'll run a long-term Hellbound campaign where the characters start out as low-level grunts for either the Baatezu or Tanar'ri and eventually work their way up to becoming major players in the Blood War. One day.
  • edited September 2011
    The Queen of Chaos stirs in her slumber, and unleashes that which was once imprisoned!

    Apep the Serpent rises from the Wells of Darkness to once again trouble the pharaonic gods! The Titans are released from Carceri to reclaim what is rightfully theirs from those troublesome Olympians! Fenrisulfr slouches off the ribbon which binds him, and looks hungrily towards both Ysgard and the sun (Which also convinces the Jotun that ragnarok is on, which has a whole mess of implications). And of course, the Mazes disgorge their contents, psychotic serial killers and charismatic political dissidents alike, back into the streets of Sigil.

    Against this backdrop of multiversal upheaval the PCs must seek to reunite the Rod of Seven Parts, ancient weapon of law, to defeat the Queen once and for all! Their quest will take them from the Jangling Hiter deep in the Nine Hells to the Githyanki city of Tu'narath to the fiery City of Brass and even stranger places besides. Of course, they're not the only ones interested in the Rod of Seven Parts...
  • My fondest memory of Planescape was my character. I forgot his name but he was a Dustman Bard. He would sing depressing songs of the parties enemies demise and it would dishearten them so badly that they practically begged for death. Well, at least that is how I always imagined it. ;)
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