The Alphastream Game Design Blog
25 years since the end of the 2E Planescape line, the setting returns in a three-book 5E slipcase! It is a good, but not fantastic, product. Here is how to make it even better!
The product is a slipcase containing three books, a DM screen, and a folded poster map of the Outlands on one side and Sigil on the other.
Book one is the setting book, focusing on the major aspects of the city of Sigil and the Outlands. It doesn’t provide a guide to the inner or outer planes, so you will want to look to either older 2E materials or the 5E DMG’s section on the planes.
Alex Kamer joins us for a very fun episode 160 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). There are only 2 backgrounds, Gate Warden and Planar Philosopher. To save page count, these cover a lot of ground. We recommend providing a player that chooses these some additional information on the specific gate town or faction. If you are so inclined, you might also want to customize the feature to something that truly reflects the gate or faction.
The new spells see almost no applicable use in the provided adventure, but the magic items all play a role or can play one.
Chapter 2 is covered in episode 161 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). It is the city of doors, and it is up to you as DM how the Sigil gates compare to spells or magic the characters can use to travel the multiverse. A city portal can provide a direct route to a plane, but you may prefer to require travel through a gate town. If the characters have their own means for travel, you will need strong hooks to convince them to follow the lead instead of just transporting themselves to their final destination.
Familiarize yourself with the few changes to spells, such as summoning or banishment. Having a fun plan for a summoning spell (such as later meeting the outraged creature at a bar in Sigil) is worth it!
Sigil can provide many types of experiences, from serious faction rivalries and politics to whimsical multiversal “Star Wars cantina” moments and mind-bending circumstances (having to help a devil or buying food from a mind flayer). Think through the tone you want to achieve and create scenarios to provide those experiences. Do Angels and Devils have coffee together like palls? Or do they do so like spies in a cold war?
We recorded live from the Gamehole convention in episode 162 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). We didn’t review the book, instead discussing settings in general and sharing how we spoke to Monte Cook, Zeb Cook, and current 5E designers to ask them how to pronounce Sigil!
In Episode 163 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes) we review the Lady of Pain, her dabus, and the Mazes. She is meant to be out of sight, so you can plan any appearances of her or her dabus to be big important indicators that the characters have done something truly notable.
We review the factions, and how their fate shapes Sigil. This is a reason to consider older 2E materials or simply web searches to flesh out factions. Pick a couple of fun ones that would be angling with and against each other and give them goals that intersect those of the PCs to create interesting situations. The 5E material is sound but limited. There are stat blocks for faction agents in the Planar Parade book. And, on the D&D Beyond site, you can download free Faction recruitment posters to use as fun handouts.
Finally, we review the Wards. There are some great locations here, so it is worth picking a couple of wards that would figure in the characters and/or villain goals and pick some great locations to bring the city and relevant ward to life. There are some encounter ideas, but you will likely want to create your own that will reinforce themes more heavily and bring those factions into focus. You may also enjoy this blog with Thirteen Tips for Running Planescape, which we discussed in episode 170.
In episode 164 we leave Sigil and enter the Outlands (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). Like Sigil, the Outlands is a place of overall neutrality, but it achieves this through all the gate towns being in opposition. Each gate town is a preview of the plane to which it leads. We found the 5E version to feel a bit immutable. Consider how your players can gain a sense of agency beyond “if you change this place enough, it either resets or gets absorbed into the plane and resets.”
You might also want to lean into religion more heavily. Who do the characters and villains worship? And, what factions might be here, opposing or aligning with the interests of the PCs? The encounters here can be a bit threadbare, so plan on creating interesting situations more relevant to your larger plots and themes. This article by Ian Brockbank, Ten Reasons Why Your TTRPG Campaign Needs Religion, can provide inspiration.
The Outlands is much more than gate towns, but that space in between receives just a few pages. Use the material as examples of the fantastic and compelling places, entities, and situations you can add to create interesting experiences. This is a place where you can drop in monsters and locations from almost any product, from classic adventures to the latest third-party products.
The second sourcebook in the slipcase is the 64-page monster book, reviewed in episode 165 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). We suggest using Petitioners more prominently, showing how they represent mortals trying to reach the gate towns and earn their eternal place in the domain of their deity. They can make phenomenal NPCs and story hooks when fleshed out (pun intended).
The book provides monster features, based on the idea that a plane will slowly influence those in a gate town. So, you can make a bugbear regiment influenced by Mechanus or devils changed by Celestia and have great fun with that. We note that the features could at times be more tangible in play, and I can’t help but point to Forge of Foes as being an excellent source of flavorful monster powers!
The monsters themselves are nice ways to add depth to the setting. Their CRs feel a bit low (which can again be easily recalibrated with Forge of Foes). Monsters often come in groups, with several stat blocks for a type of creature such as demodands or modrons. On the podcast we review our favorites.
We cover the first two chapters in episode 166 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). This is just 96 pages (compared to Storm King’s Thunder with 230 or even Dragonlance with 150 adventure-specific pages), so there is a lot of content packed densely, meaning you often have work to do as DM.
SPOILERS! This and all the remaining episodes are full of spoilers, as is the rest of this blog post. Here we get into specific changes to understand the adventure and run it better.
This is a really cool idea, digging into Planescape as a setting of unexpected experiences. The level 3 characters wake up in a morgue in Sigil, and they should be dead? And they don’t remember who they are. When a character dies, which could easily happen in the first session of play, they can play an alternate character who has some resemblance to the first character, perhaps representing different choices. Each player has three glitch characters in total.
The book vacillates on whether to have the players make all three characters up front but not tell them why, or tell them only after a death. We would suggest you tell the players that this campaign can be deadly and that they should make a backup character in case of character death. When that death happens, at that moment ask them to create a connection between the two characters. Present them with the three questions in the book and have them use that and the Nexus feature to join them. At the end of the session where this has happened, then you can tell all players to make a total of 3 characters for the next session. This lets them really lean into the idea for that third character.
As DM, you will want to keep an eye on how deadly play is, and whether glitches are popping in at the right rate. You may need to increase encounter deadliness as the characters gain levels to keep glitches relevant and give players chances to swap characters. You want them to get to know all three of their glitches and ponder why they exist and why they are connected.
Chapter 1 is a really fun experience. Chapter 2 has a hook that for many players will feel forced, wanting the characters and their players to not care too much about the glitch and later follow an NPC they may not trust.
We recommend adjusting the experience to play off of the PCs, who will likely want answers. Lean into their glitch nature and reward them for being interested in this. They have escaped the morgue, where should they go? This can be a great time to select a PC and have them see a vision. Choose a location you want to introduce, but link it to a PC. Parisa the tout (guide) can facilitate this, acting as your voice. She can provide uncertain answers. “That might be the food stalls of the Hive ward you are describing. I can take you there!”
When they go there, try to get them to reveal what they like or dislike about it. “You see a maze of food stalls with an impossibly diverse array of offerings, customers, and chefs. How does your character react to this?” The answer they give, you lean into. “As you say that, you see a vision of yourself, here, an unknown time ago. Most of the stalls are the same. And you are speaking to someone you do not see about these exact feelings. Do you have any idea who you might be speaking with?” And so on. Try to trade off your ideas with theirs, weaving them together in a way that speaks to them but offers no true answer as to why they are glitches but lets them slowly build their personality or personalities. Each place visited can add some details, so there is reward, but the big answers remain a goal that seems just out of reach for now.
Along the way, introduce the suggested encounters but use them as ways to provide visions and memories for the PCs that take the most interest. When it feels like a good time to move on from Sigil, introduce the Harmonium encounter and let them look for options and then have Farrow reinforce their goal.
Consider creating a stat block for Farrow that conceals her secrets but represents the capabilities she would use. If a character dies, they can play Farrow until their glitch shows up. Have Farrow act in combats, proving her value. Have Farrow ask the characters whether to eat the cake, and let them have the emotional burden of that choice. Shemeska can find a cure for Farrow, though the characters don’t know that. You may also want to provide a bit more information from Farrow. She has a powerful friend who has taken interest in them and can provide help. This friend is an information broker, and if anyone knows how to find out who they are, her friend is the one.
In Episode 167 we delve into Chapter 3 and 4. (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). Shemeska’s Casino can be a bit jarring – the characters want answers and they should play games? Here it can help to refocus the scene a bit. Consider having some of the characters recall a dim memory that they have been here before. Not as a party, but at some point in the past. And consider having Shemeska meet with them first and tell them something about the mission she has with R04M. Consider her asking them to find a clue here as to where R04M can be found. There is said to be a person here who may be wearing a disguise, dressed in white, or have silver hair. This covers at least three NPCs/creatures there and lets them interact with them and the casino events. One of them can have the portal stone to the Outlands, as they helped R04M escape. If you go with events as written instead, consider how to make Shemeska more believable. At the very least, to be up front with exchanging the service of finding out their history with them finding the modron.
We recommend having the walking castle come right up on them to take the guesswork out of what they should do. In the castle, you might give the fiends a goal. It could be tied to the backstory of one of the characters, or link to one of the gate towns they will visit. Maybe they are planning to take the castle and attack Rigus?
Please note the information below on Outlands Explorations. It appears in the book after the gate towns. You want to periodically insert these moments, spread out the dragon encounters, and use similar ones of your own creation, all in between the gate towns.
We review a few of the gate towns in episode 168 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes). Seven gate towns are visited, and we hope the ones we cover help provide a few approaches to make them more interesting. We provide specific recommendations for Automata, Curst, Excelsior, and Faunel in our show and show notes.
At a broad level, we recommend having at least one glitch scene in each town, where one of the PCs remembers a detail or has an insight. You may also wish in the last few towns to indicate that something else is wrong. Perhaps an NPC insists a door has moved several inches to the left, or a creature such as a modron acted very differently from its nature. Start establishing the stakes of the multiverse being off, beyond their glitches.
We start episode 169 (Podcast) (YouTube) (Show Notes) with the discovery that the book places some Outlands encounters after the gate towns. As I mention above, you want to run these in between gate towns.
We recommend adjusting the Planar Glitches to resonate with the characters and be clear indications of the escalating importance of their actions. One way to do this, which we didn’t discuss in the show, is the Nexus each character has. What if there is something like the glitch with sunflies dead in the field… but the bodies are arranged in the shape of one of their Nexus marks? Or the exact Nexus hue is the color of the spire for a moment? Link the glitches to the characters and make this meaningful!
Angels in the Outflield: This encounter is a lot more fun if the glitch suddenly kicks in, swapping the characters for angels and devils. Shawn has great ideas here.
Mausoleum of Chronepsis: Intersperse the short encounters in between gate towns, so it plays out over time.
Semuanya’s Bog: Shawn again has fun ideas for this one. And, lean into the deity being able to provide an answer. Maybe he gives them a cryptic comment suggesting they can’t trust their employer, or that they have worked for their employer many times. The line from the Matrix, “Do you think that’s air your breathing,” can be “Do you think this is the first time we are speaking? The first time you work for your boss?” Perhaps he tells them, “I see you are but a splinter. You think of three. What if I say four?” Give the characters something interesting to ponder.
With all seven gate towns visited, their Mimir finally reveals what it knows… and it is underwhelming background information about the modron march. At the very least, make it more exciting by leaning into the information regarding Denradis as being something no one knows. A secret stop, now revealed.
Denradis itself has an unusual mechanic for finding clues about R04M. Be prepared to try to make this scene more interesting. One option is to have a glitch take place, literally letting the characters make a reroll as time resets and the characters can try a different approach with the same person. That could be fun!
The interior of the Spire is generally fun and interesting. Keep leaning into the glitches and find ways to make the baernaloth’s truths relevant and worthwhile for the characters. You can always add to a truth later by having a character recall additional information due to one of their glitches having a vision or recollection.
The encounter with R04M can be a bit underwhelming and confusing. It’s worth being clearer on what R04M calculates the characters should do, which is to confront Shemeska because she likely knows something that can prevent the multiverse glitching further or even that Shemeska can perhaps fix them.
Chapter 14 takes us back to the casino and into the platinum rooms. The biggest change we suggest is to allow the characters agency in finding a way to reach Shemeska. A clever disturbance, tampering with a game, you name it. You may or may not wish to tweak the three games based on the recommendations we made on the show, so as to improve the math and experience. In particular, the aging effect is unlikely to be fun and seems very illogical.
After the battle with Shemeska, give the players time to think through which character they want to make their primary. This is a good time to end the session and let players have time to think and refine their character, plus select their magic items.
Have R04M make it clear that he has recalculated the odds, and now sees other options. Or, have a glitch strike. R04M is suddenly a different color, and now has new information and can lead them to the portal to Gzemnid.
Check out our review of Gzemnid’s domain. The encounters are tricky to run well such that they are interesting and fulfilling experiences. The characters are level 17, so you want to make sure they get to show off their tricks. Lean into what they want to do and make it happen. If fights are too easy, use the options presented to elevate the danger so those level 17 capabilities shine! If possible, provide ways for the PCs to roleplay their characters as being now whole and no longer glitched. It’s the world that needs saving now!
The big moment is getting to X01. Be flexible and adjust the battle on the fly as needed. You can bring in countless modrons or even beholders and location features to make the battle feel like a desperate dash to get to X01. This will work only if you make it clear, via checks or having them ask questions, that reaching X01 and interacting with them is the key. The planar incarnate is hopefully a fun surprise, while the characters hold back the modrons (high level spells could easily intimidate or delay the modrons long enough).
As we discuss on the show, give some thought in advance to how accurate or skewed the Mimir and X01 will be. Tailor the experience to the players so they understand that outcome and feel it is worthy. The point is fun, so you don’t want a result they will feel is unfair or that they didn’t understand would happen. One way to do this is to have any chaotic elements be about the characters. Yes, some modrons are attacking Avernus… but they are wearing T-shirts with the paladin PC’s face on them!
The choice of portal’s ramifications may not be clear. Provide clues and let them cast divinations or otherwise make an informed choice.
The encounter with the Dabus is a nice end, but we might recommend after that a classic approach where you tell the characters time passes. Ask them to visualize and share what their characters are doing 10, 20, and even what their actions mean 100 or more years from now. What is their multiversal legacy? It can be a fun ending to an epic campaign, as I discuss in this post about my Numenera campaign.
Adventure in the Multiverse and Turn of Fortune’s Wheel try to do a lot in very few pages. The slipcase format is a high price for fewer pages overall. I would rather they sell the DM Screen separately and give me more pages of setting and adventure. Adventures like 5E’s Tomb of Annihilation actually do a better job providing a deep setting and adventure than this much more costly slipcase format.
The adventure has some strong moments and aims to deliver a multiplanar experience with many surprises. Along the way, it seems to forget how those experiences will land with the players and how much work the DM is being asked to do. We hope future adventures will spend a bit more development and playtesting to get that player experience to be more satisfying and to cover the DM’s basic needs. A DM can always have fun changing or adding to the adventure, but should not feel they have to do work for the run to be fun. Overall, this was not an adventure we found compelling enough that we would run it. For all that our review at times is negative, we vastly prefer this adventure to older Planescape adventures such as The Great Modron March, which we reviewed here and here. Our hobby continues to improve over time. We are glad to see Planescape return and hope for more Planescape experiences in the future!