Travel the multiverse with the Planescape setting
What is Planescape?
You may have been watching Wizards of the Coast’s latest presentation in which they revealed several new books coming to D&D 5e over the coming year. The final, and perhaps most significant of these was a setting book called Planescape, releasing towards the end of 2023. Nothing else has been revealed about the book but fortunately, the Planescape isn’t an unknown quantity in D&D, especially if you’ve been around for the original release of Planescape during 2nd edition or its subsequent releases in 3e and 3.5e. Unfortunately, if you came into D&D later than that, you’ve probably missed out on what Planescape is.
First and foremost, Planescape is a unifying explanation of the D&D universe. It ties all the many planes of existence together and explains how they operate between each other in something known as the Great Wheel Cosmology which acts like a map of the different planes. While there are many planes of existence, they can be broken down into a few different groups of planes:
- The Material Planes – These include the Prime Material Plane (such as that of the Forgotten Realms or Eberron), the Feywilds and the Shadowfell (which includes the Domains of Dread of Ravenloft)
- The Transitive Planes – Which includes the Astral and the Ethereal Planes
- The Elemental Planes – Also known as the Inner Planes, these include planes for the different elements
- The Outer Planes – This includes those planes that embody different alignments such as Mount Celestia (lawful good), The Nine Hells (lawful evil) and the Abyss (chaotic evil)
- The Positive and Negative Energy Planes – These planes surround the entire cosmos, being the very building blocks of life and death
What the Planescape setting does, is make all these planes accessible through a single setting with the Outer Plane known as the Outlands acting as a hub through the city of Sigil. Sigil itself is the primary location of the Planescape setting and is filled with political infighting, intrigue and adventures galore to embark on. But Sigil is more than just the city itself as it is a gateway to the other planes of existence with portals ensconced within the walls of the city meaning anyone with a portal key can travel to any other plane and back again. This makes Sigil both difficult to get into, but also ideally placed for adventures landing players in whatever plane with the DM might want to create their adventure.
Of all the settings, Planescape is particularly important as it helps players understand not only the relationship between the realms, but other aspects of what happens in the D&D universe from how death works to what happens when a player casts a spell and walks in the Ethereal Plane.
How does the Great Wheel Cosmology Work?
The Great Wheel Cosmology explains how the different planes of existence interact with one another. The planes of existence are different from planets in a solar system where each planet exists in a different space and can be seen while stood on a different planet (as long as circumstances allow), instead, the planes exist in different dimensions from one another.
In some instances, planes will be mirrors of the prime material plane and entering the plane from one location on the prime material plane, might cause you to arrive in a corresponding part of another plane. This is the case for places like the feywilds and the Shadowfell which are mirrors of the prime material plane and often have similar geographical features (even if they are altered or twisted versions of the prime material plane, adapted to the plane upon which you live).
While the D&D universe is vast and filled with many systems of planets within realmspace, because the planes of existence exist not in a different physical location, but a different dimension, as long as you have the right portal or magic, you can access the different planes from any planet. Whether you find yourself on Toril (the planet of the Forgotten Realms), Oerth (the planet of Greyhawk) or Eberron, he various planes of existence are within your grasp.
What is Sigil?
Sigil is the primary city of the Planescape setting. Found in the Outlands (and Outer Plane) and the self-proclaimed centre of the Great Wheel Cosmology (though this isn’t physically true), Sigil acts as kind of hub between different planes with gateways to any plane you might want to visit.
Despite it being a place through which so many other places can be accessed, it’s ironic that Sigil is often considered a cage. This is because portal access to other planes can be difficult requiring both knowledge of the place of the portal and they key to access it. Not only this, but Sigil is impossible to get in or out of via any other means than these portals. In and of itself, it is a demi-plane, visible from the Outlands, but floating high in the sky above a huge spire. Even teleportation into the city is impossible.
Sigil is a cramped city with a roughly 20 mile circumference. This in spite of the fact that the ruler of Sigil, The Lady of Pain, has the ability to change the size of the city at will, choosing to maintain the cramped conditions of the city. While Sigil exists physically in the Outlands, it does touch the other planes of existence meaning that inter-planar portals could pop-up in unusual locations such as pictures or doors, appearing and disappearing just as inexplicably as each other. Some portals are maintained and highly restricted for travel but provide a consistent means to transport between planes.
Sigil itself is built in the shape of a torus; a ring that curves at the rim. Buildings are built on this curvature while nothing exists in the centre of the city. Windows do not look outwards to the skies of Sigil, and the empty centre shows no sky, only empty blackness. If a person were to jump into this black void, they would find themselves transported to some random plane. Because there is no sky, there is also no sun visible in Sigil, instead, light comes from the luminescence of the air which waxes and wains to form periods of day and night.
With such a confined space, Sigil often has a thick smog overshadowing it. At its worst, visibility might only be about 10 feet ahead. When it does rain, the rain mixes with the smoggy air, turning it brown, but also cleansing the air and creating a more pleasant atmosphere.
The city is split into 6 wards, each with a distinct purpose and types of buildings. These wards are:
- The Lady’s Ward – This is the richest and most affluent part of the city. Not only is it home to the Lady of Pain, but all of the wealthiest aristocrats and beaurocrats in the city
- Market Ward – The Market Ward is where all the shops and markets can be found. Sigil is a huge hub for trade and commerce for planeswalkers as a central point in which things can be bought and sold. Because Sigil can’t grow crops, even the most basic of resources must be imported into the city making trade a hugely important aspect of life in Sigil.
- Guildhall Ward – This ward is home to the middle-class of Sigil, the tradesmen such as artisans, merchants, blacksmiths, craftsmen and other skilled labourers.
- Clerk’s Ward – An affluent portion of the city, home to lesser government officials, bankers and similar professionals.
- Hive Ward – The most dangerous part of the city is the Hive, A place where the poor and wretched live. It’s filled with criminals, brothels, taverns, slave traders and the like.
- Lower Ward – An industrial sector containing factories that billow smoke profusely as well as portals to the lower planes.
Politics in Sigil
The Lady of Pain
Sigil is ruled by the Lady of Pain, an inscrutable being who is believed to have built the city through her servants, the dabus. She rules from the Throne of Blades, though is involved very little in the day to day running of the city, leaving that to others. She is believe to be incredibly powerful, not just because she built Sigil and controls its portals, but also because she prevents access to the city by any demons or devils who would seek to take the city if they could as through it, they could invade all the other planes of existence.
While the Lady of Pain doesn’t deal directly in the day to day running of the city, she has eyes and ears everywhere through her servants, the dabus. They enact her will and are constantly reshaping the city to her will. They also report on all the goings on within the city making true discretion difficult to come by. She will also, occasionally, visit the city, floating above the streets and may even involve herself directly with problems if they break one of her unforgivable rules which amount to not threatening the city and not worshiping her. If someone does do one of these things, she will either flay them alive, burn them to death, or being imprisoned in one of the Lady’s Mazes; impossibly large mazes that very few escape, and if they do, it might take them 100 years and their sanity.
Factions of Sigil
Within Sigil’s political structure are 15 factions (the Lady of Pain will allow no more to be created), that operate as a governing body. Each faction is dedicated to a certain belief of the multiverse centered around concepts such as why we are here, the purpose of the multiverse and what happens when we die. These beliefs extend into how these factions act and attempt to govern. As you can imagine, with so many varied beliefs, most factions are normally at odds with one another, though some similarly minded factions do ally together on certain matters.
There was a point when dozens of factions existed, with new factions being created and disbanded constantly. Such circumstances led to chaos in the city so the Lady of Pain gave an ultimatum; within a fortnight, only 15 factions would be able to exist in the city. Within that fortnight, many factions disbanded, others left the city while others merged creating the existing set of 15 factions. Most people kept the orders of the Lady of Pain with “only” 17,000″ receiving a flaying for disobedience!
The 15 factions now existing in Sigil are:
|Athar (The Defiers)||Terrance||The gods are frauds, but there is a higher power||Believers of the Source||None|
|Believers of the Source (Godsmen)||Ambar Vergrove||Ascending to godhood is available to all mortals, granted by the divine source||Athar, Doomguard||Bleak Cabal, Dustmen|
|Bleak Cabal (Madmen)||Lhar||There is no purpose int he universe, meaning can only be found from within||Doomguard, Dustmen, Revolutionary League||Fraternity of Order, Harmonium, Mercykillers|
|Doomguard (Sinkers)||Pentar||The purpose of the universe is for it to decay||Bleak cabal, Dustmen||Fraternity of Order, Harmonium|
|Dustmen (The Dead)||Skall||We’re already dead, purpose is to ascend to the true death||Bleak Cabal, Doomguard||Sign of One, Society of Sensations|
|Fated (Takers)||Duke Rowan Darkwood||Power comes to those that seize it (and deserve it)||Free League, mercykillers||Harmonium|
|Fraternity of Order (Guvners)||Hashkar||Everything has laws, understanding the laws brings power||Harmonium, Mercykillers||Revolutionary League, Xaositects|
|Free League (Indeps)||None||Nobody knows the truth, just act on your instincts||Fated||Harmonium|
|Harmonium (Hardheads)||Sarin||Peace can only be achieved if everyone believes the same thing – What we believe||Fraternity of Order, Mercykillers||Free League, Revolutionary League Xaositects|
|Mercykillers (Red Death)||Alisohn Nilesia||Justice must be exacted without mercy||Fraternity of Order, Harmonium||Revolutionary League, Sign of One, Society of Sensations|
|Revolutionary League (Anarchists)||None||Society is built on lies and greed and must be torn down||Doomguard, Xaositects||Fraternity of Order, Harmonium|
|Sign of One (Signers)||Darius||A signer somewhere created the multiverse through the power thought, but no one knows which one||Society of Sensation||Bleak Cabal, harmonium|
|Society of Sensation (Sensates)||Erin Montgomery||Only that which can be sensed can exist||Fraternity of Order, Free League, Sign of One||Doomguard, Dustmen, Mercykillers|
|Transcendent Order (Cipher)||Rhys||Action without thought is the purest response||Most Factions||Harmonium|
|Xaositects (Chaosmen)||Karan||Order is delusion, embracing chaos will reveal the universe’s secrets||Bleak Cabal, Doomguard||Fraternity of Order, Harmonium|
The Athar believe that the gods are frauds. While they accept the existence of the deities of the multiverse, they simply consider them to be extremely powerful mortals, but not all-knowing and all powerful beings that deserve the reverence that mortals give them. They also believe that no mortal should be subject to the “gods” as they are not true gods.
Despite these beliefs, the Athar, do believe in gods, beings even more powerful than the known pantheons that are capable of passing judgement upon mortals. The Athar also have clerics that seem to channel their powers from the “Great Unknown”, a realm of unknown divine force. The Athar consider this part of the evidence that there is a greater being out there, though some believe these powers may be tied to the positive and negative energy planes.
Despite their denial of the divinity of the “gods”, it seems the Athar are afraid of the gods, choosing to stay within the city or the spire below the city on the Outlands where the gods have no power. While they don’t believe in the divinity of the “gods”, they’re not stupid and do recognise the great power they wield.
The Athar tend to be found in the Shattered Temple in the lower wards and typically find themselves aligning with the Believers of the Source due to their similar outlooks.
Believers of the Source (Godsmen)
The Believers of the Source believe that anyone can become a god and that a divine source is simply throwing challenges at mortals to determine whether they’re ready to ascend. Those that fail these challenges simply aren’t ready to ascend yet. These beliefs mean they share much in common with the Athar who also consider the gods to be very powerful mortals and that there is a higher power above the gods.
The Godsmen are typically found in the lower wards in the Great Foundry, tending to align themselves with the Athar and Doomguard. Their ideals also tend to conflict heavily with those of the Bleak Cabal and the Dustmen.
Bleak cabal (Bleakers)
The Bleak Cabal challenge those that seek meaning in the universe and existence. They simply believe that the universe is and that there is no purpose to it, it just happens to exist. Instead of worrying about such pointless philosophies like the meaning of life, the Bleak Cabal seek to find meaning in themselves. This thinking has often led them to be more charitable than other factions, running soup kitchens, orphanages, asylums and other places where the poor and needy might need their help.
The bleakers are a gloomy lot and though they do find some optimism in the helping of others and that this brings meaning to those individuals, there’s also a pervasive sense that very little of what is done really matters in the grander scheme of things.
The Bleakers tend to find themselves in the Hive Ward where they’re happy to help even the most vile and evil as well as the pure and virtuous. Outside of Sigil, they tend to make their home in Pandemonium where the howling of madness tends to mean little to them and perhaps even gives them some comfort through the meaningless madness. Typically, the Bleak Cabal will align themselves with the Doomguard, Dustmen and Revolutionary League while often finding themselves at odds with the Fraternity of Order, Harmonium and the Mercykillers.
The Doomguard believe that the purpose of the universe is to eventually decay into nothingness. Entropy and destruction are absolutes and the Doomguard are here to ensure that this decay happens. This doesn’t mean that they go about destroying everyone and everything, on the contrary, they believe that life has a purpose to aid in the decay. A lumberer will destroy trees, even if it’s to create a home; a miner digs the earth, even if it’s to create jewellery; parents raise children that must then feed off of the land.
Though they do not seek to kill life, the Doomguard are comfortable taking life if it means protecting what they see as the natural order of decay. They often find themselves aligning with the Bleak Cabal and the Dustmen and at odds with the Fraternity of Order and the Harmonium.
Dustmen (The Dead)
The Dustmen believe that life should be full of joy and happiness, but note the contrast in beliefs to how everyone actually is. The world around them is full of pain and misery. The only conclusion they can draw from this contradiction is that they are already dead and living (or not living) out their wretched existence in the afterlife. Of course, this portion of the afterlife is just one step along a journey to true death, the peace that comes from absolute oblivion.
The Dustmen believe it is up to them to help people attain true death and that is why they are there to share this understanding. They make it their responsibility to care for the dead in the city, helping them pass on their way. They tend to find allies in the Bleak Cabal and the Doomguard while having rivalries with the Sign of One and the Society of Sensations.
The Fated believe that everything a person has is earned by their hard graft and effort. They believe those that have in abundance, have earned that by overcoming challenges and that anyone in any circumstances can attain power if they’ll simply grasp the opportunities that come their way.
Most consider the Fated to be heartless though that isn’t entirely true (though they’re certainly not gentle, compassionate people either). Love and affection can be earned by one’s own efforts as much as power, wealth and respect. The fated don’t necessarily state what is worthwhile working for, just that it takes effort to achieve what you might desire. Having said that, the Fated are often drawn to accomplishments of wealth and power.
Most of the Fated can be found in the clerk’s ward working as tax collectors and under similar functions. They tend to ally themselves with the Free League and the Mercykillers and tend to oppose the Harmonium.
Fraternity of Order (Guvners)
The Fraternity of Order believe that laws govern everything, not only governments and societies, but also the very nature of the universe, from magic to physics. If one can understand these laws, then they can manipulate them to their own benefit. Consider a mage, learning powerful spells with their magic, a scientist creating great technological works or a politician, working the system in his favour to earn large sums of money. Each can use the laws of the universe to their benefit and this is how the Fraternity of Order think. They’re much less concerned about the purpose of the universe and more about what they can get from the universe.
As masters of law, the Fraternity of Order often operate as Sigil’s judges and lawyers. They tend to find common ground with the Harmonium and the Mercykillers and are often at odds with the Revolutionary League and the Xaositects.
Free League (Indeps)
The Free League are a faction that would practically deny being a faction at all. They’re more a faction borne of the necessity to have some group to call your own and watch your back in Sigil. The Free League are free thinkers and state that no-one knows the truth of the universe and the other important questions and anyone acting like they do is wrong. Instead, they embrace the fact that their members may have different opinions, as long as those beliefs aren’t forced on others.
The Free League do work together to look out for one another and will occasionally meet to provide this support but they don’t have a unified set of beliefs other than that people need to find the beliefs that they find right for them. An open mind allow the Free League’s members to keep their options open, assimilating new ideas and beliefs into their own understanding of the universe.
The Indeps are mainly found in the Bazaar of the Market Ward as they are often merchants and tradesmen. They often find themselves allied to the Fated and rivaling the Harmonium.
The Harmonium are a contradiction of concepts. Ultimately, they believe in attaining complete peace in the universe, by any means necessary. They also believe that those with different ideals will create conflict with one another. They are also convinced that they have ultimate truth. When you combine these concepts together, it means that the Harmonium want to achieve peace by ensuring everyone else believes what they believe, even if it requires violence to make it that way.
The Harmonium can often be found at the barrack’s in the Lady’s Ward. While the Lady of Pain does keep her subjects in line, including the Harmonium, for the most part preventing serious conflict, the Harmonium will often try to get the members of other factions arrested and imprisoned on bogus charges. The Harmonium particularly dislike the Free League, the Revolutionary League and the Xaositects while often finding allies in the Fraternity of Order and the Mercykillers.
Mercy Killers (Red Death)
For the Mrcykillers, perfection is achieved through ultimate justice. A perfect society can only be created when evil and wrongdoing is eradicated from it. Mercy, on the other hand, is the fabrication of criminal, designed to excuse them from their evil acts. While justice discourages criminal acts (for fear of retribution), mercy encourages them as not only can the criminal do what they want, they can do so without fear of repercussions.
The Mercykillers do not believe in extenuating circumstances, all are able to keep the law and survive, these are just more excuses to do what one wants. The destitute and the wealthy are equally guilty for stealing a loaf of bread and will both be equally punished according to the law. Of course, in the pursuit of justice, all actions are justified for the mercykillers. Murder is a crime, but is an acceptable action in the pursuit of justice and as such, the Mercykillers operate outside of the law to enforce the law. This is, of course, to achieve perfection through the exaction of justice.
Mercykillers typically work in the justice and prison systems, ensuring that criminals are punished correctly and accordingly for their misconduct. They tend to work well with the Fraternity of Order and the Harmonium and often rival the Revolutionary League, Sign of One and Society of Sensations.
Revolutionary League (Anarchists)
The Revolutionary League believe that the factions have been created, not to discover truth and promote and honest version of what they believe, but rather to subjugate others in the pursuit of wealth and power. For this reason, the Revolutionary League believe that the only way to find truth is to break down the walls of the factions so that people can think and believe for themselves.
The problem for the Revolutionary League is that while they believe they know how to find truth, they do not have a concept of what that truth is… yet. Of course, this is the fault of the other factions oppressing everyone and preventing them from discovering the truth with their lies. The big challenge is once they’ve torn down the institutions that subjugate everyone, how will they unite them to the true truth…
The Revolutionary League do not have a primary base of operations in Sigil but when they’re not arguing with one another over what the truth is and how to guide the people, they tend to be trying to breakdown the existing social structure, opposing new ways they believe the other factions are trying to control people. They tend to work well in this regard with the Doomguard and the Xaositects and particularly rival the Fraternity of Order and the Harmonium.
Sign of One (Signers)
The Sign of One believe that the truth of the universe is that it only exists because people believe it exists and if no one believed it existed, then the multiverse wouldn’t exist. The evidence for this is simple as everyone around them clearly believes in the multiverse therefore that must be why it’s here.
This of course means that the multiverse is made up of the things that each person in it believes and if you can just master your imagination, you can manipulate the universe into whatever you want it to be. This means often telling outsiders that they’d better watch themselves among the Signers or they might just imagine them out of existence. The evidence for this is clear as so many people clearly go missing every day, likely just imagined out of existence by an imagination master.
Of course, this begs the question, if 2 equally masterful Signers attempt to imagine each other out of existence, what then happens. The answer is simple, there is one individual at the centre of everything imagining the whole multiverse and we are really just created from their own imagination. Whatever feelings you may or may not have are simply what that individual has imagined them to be.
The Sign of One tend to be found in the Clerk’s Ward where they act as legislatures. They find allies among the Society of Sensationa and often conflict with the Black Cabal and the Harmonium
Society of Sensation (Sensates)
The Society of Sensation believes that we can only know that which we experience. ANything that cannot be sensed or experienced cannot be proven. They do not believe in just being told of something, they believe they must experience it themselves to know of it though touch, taste, sight, smell or taste. To this end, Sensates believe that they must experience as much of the multiverse as they possibly can. In doing this, they come ever closer to the truth of all things.
Sensates are typically found in the Civic Festhalls in the Clerk’s Ward. Here they provide and enjoy non-stop entertainment from art, performances and as many new experiences as they can discover which they share willing with others. They regularly find themselves aligned with the Fraternity of Order, Free League and Sign of One while are often opposed to the Doomsguard, Dustmen and Mercykillers.
Transcendant Order (Ciphers)
The Transcendent Order believe that over thinking takes people away from the truth that we hold innately within us. If people could simply act upon instinct, they’d find pure, unadulterated truth, mastering who they are and innately acting accordingly, rather than changing our actions based on things like society’s concept of what we should do for instance.
This means that the Transcendent Order don’t plan their next steps, but this doesn’t mean that they simply act thoughtlessly, instead they seek to understand themselves and act instinctively accordingly. Such instinctiveness takes great training though, to act in truth and impulse only, but if one could attain such a way of life, then they would attain to a complete form of enlightenment.
The Transcendent Order are usually found in the Great Gymnasium where they engage in relaxation and training as well as utilising this space as a neutral ground for opposing sides to discuss and debate. The Transcendent Order find it easy to align with all the other factions other than the Harmonium whose draconian rules are at odds with the Transcendent Order.
The Xaositects believe that the multiverse has no patterns or natural order, instead, they see chaos all around them and believe the real truth of the multiverse is that of chaos. They deride all those that seek to force order on the chaotic universe believing that they steer away from truth.
Due to their chaotic nature, the faction is barely held together with few agreements being made within the faction, and even if they did agree, perhaps that would be contrary to their own beliefs anyway. But perhaps int he chaos of their faction, the Xaositects have found true enlightenment…
The Xaositects tend to find themselves in the slums of the Hive Ward. Here, they make allegiances with the Bleak Cabal and the Doomguard and tend to be at odds with those that try to enforce order more rigidly such as the Fraternity of Order and the Harmonium.
Back in 1999, A Planescape game was made to hugely critical acclaim called Planescape: Torment. It was developed by Black Isle Studios (the creators of the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale games) but taking place far from the Forgotten Realms and in the setting of Planescape.
While Planescape: Torment failed to achieve the commercial success of Baldur’s Gate, it did receive similar critical acclaim for its highly story-focused approach. It follows the Nameless One who is somehow immortal, having led many lives previously and being reborn each time he dies with no memory of his previous life. He finds himself in the city of Sigil, seeking to understand why he has been made immortal, meeting potential companions along the way, many of whom he has met in his previous lives.
In 2017, Beamdog upgraded the game to an enhanced edition. The enhanced edition was originally released for Windows, macOS and Linux PCs as well as for IOS and Android devices. It was later released on PS4, XBox One and Nintendo Switch in 2019 as part of a package with the original Icewind Dale game.