Sigil, the City of Doors, in D&D 5e

On Thursday night last week I ran a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Adventure using the Planescape setting for the second time. During the first adventure, the players didn’t arrive in Sigil, the City of Doors, until right at the end of the adventure, so I didn’t need a lot prepared. This time, however, the adventure was set almost entirely in Sigil. If the adventure had played out differently, we might not have actually left Sigil. I think this time I felt much more stretched, because Sigil is quite complex. Here’s a list of things I’d like to remember next time I run an adventure in Sigil:

  1. Get familiar with the the Cant, berk! Characters from Sigil use a very distinctive dialect of urban slang called the Cant. Having non-player character use this vocabulary really helps get across the feel of the city. I was able to slip in a bit of Cant, but would like to be more familiar before running another adventure in Sigil.
  2. Use lots of random encounters. I prepared a short table of random encounters that I could use while the adventurers were travelling between locations in the city. I used this once, early in the adventure. I wish I’d used it a couple more times, in order to give the sense that there are crowds of people everywhere and that there’s always stuff going on in the street.
  3. Get clear on how day and night works. Since the city is on the inside of a giant ring, it’s artificially lit. I needed to look into more detail about how this works.
  4. Get a good idea of where things are in relation to each other. The adventure only took part in one ward of Sigil (the Hive Ward), so I didn’t need to have a precise idea of where the Hive was in relation to other parts of the city, but I think it would have been helpful to have a map handy.
  5. Prepare some incidental NPCs – during the adventure I needed a few incidental non-player characters, because players asked who was around in the street, or because they decided to go and knock on the doors of neighbouring hovels. I managed to make stuff up okay on the fly, but it probably would have been helpful to have some prepared.

That said, there were also some things I was pretty happy about:

  1. Factions were an important part of the story. The adventurers came into conflict with representatives of three of Sigil’s factions, and I think the players got the idea of what those factions were on about.
  2. As I said, I had to make up some incidental nonplayer characters on the fly and they worked well. I mentioned that some of the adventurers decided to go knocking on doors in the Hive Ward. One of the people they met was a rather zealous worshipper of the god Pelor, and one of his co-religionists became important in the story later on – something I hadn’t expected.
  3. I was able to turn around a mistake to advance the plot. At one stage an adventurer asked if another character seemed to be telling the truth, and I said they did, when I should have said they didn’t. The adventurer who asked the question then wondered about whether the other character thought they were telling the truth but were mistaken. I ended up going with that, and their mistake gave the adventurers an opportunity to bargain for a solution to their quest.
  4. I was able to use my mistake to advance the setting. A lot of the early travel around the city went on across the rooves of buildings, so later on when I wanted a rival character to ambush the adventurers, I described him jumping out from behind a chimney. However, most of the adventurers were under the impression that they were now travelling at street level – so what was a chimney doing in the street? I was able to think quickly and said that there was a chimney coming up out of the pavement, suggesting that the houses and streets of the Hive Ward are simply build over the top of previous buildings. I decided to repeat this idea when some of the adventurers went door-knocking, by having a chimney coming out of the floor inside the house, making the occupants unhealthy.
  5. Using my dungeon master’s screen to show who the important non-player characters were. I attached my drawings of the main non-player characters to my screen, to remind the adventurers of who I wanted them to keep in mind. I also included Tony DiTerlizzi’s illustration of the Lady of Pain, in order to remind the players of her tyrannical power over the city – which nevertheless brings a certain level of stability.

I’m running another Planescape adventure this week, but I’m planning that this time we’ll spend more time on the Outer Planes again, but I’m also looking forward to running more adventures in Sigil.

A foot in each world

On Sundays I’ve been posting some illustrations I’ve made for use in Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games, based on what folks on Twitter choose for me. This week tieflings were chosen, so here are three I’ve drawn, representing three of the factions (Dustmen, Athar and Anarchists) from the Planescape setting:

3 tieflings

Tieflings have become a staple of D&D, but when they first appeared in the Planescape Boxed Set they were a fair bit different to the current 5th edition. Some of them have goat legs or spikes or scaly skin. In The Planewalker’s Handbook there is a one-page table to generate random tiefling features. It gives more of a sense that a tiefling could have any kind of bizarre planar heritage. In contrast, 5th Edition tieflings seem to all be pretty similar. (To be fair, Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide explains why they all look similar in the world of Faerun, and also allows for more diverse tieflings.)

Back to what I like about Planescape is that the diverse appearances suggest to me that although tieflings are often distrusted because of their fiendish heritage and appearances, they can’t all be put in the same box. A neat stereotype can’t be so easily applied. This line of though got me wondering about how the fiends see tieflings – do they see them as suspicious, just like humans do?

Running Planescape in D&D 5e

Illustration by Tony DiTerlizzi

As I mentioned yesterday in my post about OneNote, I’ve been reading Planescape content and taking note of stuff I’d like to use in adventures. I’m hesitant to start a campaign unless I know that there are players enough who are interested in persisting with a campaign. I also want to make sure I’m confident that I have a handle on the setting. So during the week I ran a short Planescape one-shot using 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. (Planescape material was originally published in 2nd Edition.)

I chose an adventure for low level characters, ‘To Baator and Back’, from the book Well of the Worlds. I didn’t find that it was a lot of trouble to run the adventure in 5th Edition. Most of the monsters I needed were in the 5th Edition Monster Manual, and I was able to find homebrew stats online for the mosnters that weren’t. I had to work out some details for the environmental hazards (eg. random fireballs and rivers of blood) on the plane of Baator. Neither of these hazards are really ‘traps’, but I was able to use the trap table on page 121 of the Dungeons Master’s Guide to make sure the difficulty and damage of the hazards was approrpriate for low-level characters.

I also found it was relatively easy to get into the feel of the setting. While I enjoy playing games set in the Forgotten Realms, I haven’t felt as well equipped to improvise on the fly when I’m running the game. My hunch is that I may have found my favored setting. I’m planning to run some more one-shots over the next couple of weeks, and then consider starting a campaign.

Slaadi and hybrididity

On Sundays I’ve been posting illustrations I’ve made to use in RPGs like D&D. I’ve started determining what I draw using a Twitter poll, and this week slaadi have been chosen. Here is my illustration of a red slaad, a blue slaad and a green slaad:
3 slaad

(I expect I’ll come back to these, and add the grey slaad and death slaad at some stage.)

The slaadi are beings from the plane of limbo, which is a chaotic mess of different elements. The look like bipedal, reptilian toads with sharp teeth and claws. One of the things I find most interesting about them is their origin story. They were actually created by Primus, the god of the lawful neutral modron race, in an attempt to bring order to Limbo. instead of bringing order to the chaotic plane, Primus’ intervention created rigidly hierarchical of chaotic neutral beings: the slaadi.

I think it’s often tempting to think we know what is best, and to think we can improve things by recreating others in our own image – seeing them as a blank slate for ourselves to work with. i don’t think this normally goes to plan. folks might take on some of what we direct at them, but merge it with their own identity. in postcolonial studies, Homi Bhabha talks about this as ‘hybridity’ – colonised people will take on the culture of the colonisers, but also find ways of subverting it by mixing it with their own culture. Something like this is has happened in the creation of the slaadi – Primus thought he would bring order to a foreign plane, but instead his intervention created a new chaotic neutral race, who nevertheless reflected the modrons’ rigid hierarchy.


Abrahamic faith in D&D is problematic

For a while I’ve been reading though old Planescape material for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I’m interested in running a 5E Planescape campaign, so if you’re in Melbourne and interested let me know.) Planescape is a setting that incorporates the various planes of the multiverse, meaning that adventurers are likely to come across representatives of various gods (called ‘powers’). I find it interesting that the god(s) of the Abrahamic traditions is not represented in Planescape and is generally avoided in D&D, especially since Christianity and Islam are the two most widespread religions. I think there are some good reasons for this. It would be problematic to portray Abrahamic conceptions of God in this context.

It seems that people of the Abrahamic faiths are often offended by representations of their god. I think this is particulalry because of the Jewish tradition of holding the name ‘YHWH’ with reverance and because of the Jewish and Muslim instructions against making images of God. I also think it would be problematic to include Abrahamic concepts of God, because the Abrahamic faiths believe there is only one true god. Monotheists aren’t likely to appreciate a setting where their one true god is actually one amongst many. These might not seem like a big deal for those of us who don’t have a faith or who hold our faith loosely, but for many people it’s very serious to portray the divine incorrectly or disrespectfully. A couple of weeks ago I posted about treating Aboriginal culture with respect, and I think most people who read that article understood this. I think for the same reason we might hesitate to portray Aboriginal culture and religion in a game, we should also hesitate to portray other faiths and cultures, and seek to be respectful.

My personal opinion is that the Biblical concept of God is pretty messy. (I’m not familiar with the Quran, so I can’t comment on that.) I don’t think the Bible has a consistent way of portraying God, but brings together various complementary and contrasting portrayals from different communities in different eras. I don’t personally find this very bothering, but I do think it is a reason why there is so much scope for conflict – some people will focus on one idea of God that they find in the scripture, and others will focus on a contrastic idea about the same, one God. If one were to include an Abrahamic depiction of God in Planescape, creative decisions would have to be made about which Abrahamic ideas to emphasise, and those decisions would be bound to offend some people who emphasise other parts of the tradition. Of course, I don’t people who are happy to explore these ideas playfully and creatively (which is what I prefer) would have a problem with this.

I was talking with one of my friends about this topic and he suggested that another problem might be that it’s hard to portray a god who is understood to be transcendent. I don’t really buy into the idea of God being transcendent myself – I think it has become commonplace in the Abrahamic tradiitons because of Platonic philosphy. That’s why I like what Neil Gaiman does with Jesus in his novel American Gods. Jesus doesn’t directly appear in the novel, but it’s mentioned that he’s been seen hitchhiking in Afghanistan, where he’s not so well recognised. It seems not so transcendent, and more like the itinerant rabbi found in the gospels. My understanding is that in the TV show there’ll be different depictions of Jesus, recognising that different cultures at different moments reshape their images of the divine.

If I was going to include Jesus as a power in the Planescape setting, I think I’d be most likely to portray him as a wandering stranger.