Friday, 14 September 2012

Planescape Next: Sort of, kind of

Since our last Spelljammery session set it up, I felt obliged to do a Planescapey session too. But I didn't want to be bound to Sigil and the Outer Planes, which take a lot of plot and character setup to really appreciate, nor did I want to risk the insanely adverse conditions of the Inner Planes. I wanted to just make up some interesting and unusual shit more or less on the fly, which is exactly what the Planescape setting is for.

As I see it, nobody at TSR ever expected us to use their philosophy-riddled setting to really achieve serious answers to deep philosophical questions on a routine basis, and it's better viewed as just a tool for provoking thought-provoking thoughts. So while the extensive set of books written to support this setting is full of excellent, interesting stuff, sticking narrowly to it all like dogma kind of misses the point, I think. If the fantasy genre is about exploring fantastic imaginary things, rather than automatically being about elves and wizards and dudes with swords running around forests and mountains, à la Tolkien, then Planescape is the most fantasiest of all the D&D settings. And so it's totally ok that I made up half of tonight's adventure in 2 minutes before work and the other half while we were busy playing it.

My original thought for last session's portal destination, at the time, was some sort of reverse Stargate scenario, where the players get pressed into helping the animal-headed followers of some god, as a militant branch of the Athar tries to kill it with a series of raids through the local portal. For some reason, I didn't go through with that, possibly because it felt too cheesey. Instead, I slapped something together at the last minute, which is not recommended as a routine method, but can occasionally produce wonders.

I began with a vague notion that it should be a thief-friendly adventure. If you know my regular players, nothing could make more sense. The philosophical 'hook-question' for the scenario that Planescape games depend on was "What is worth stealing?", so I knew I'd force the players to choose between several enticing options. And with the planes I'd already excluded, there weren't too many interesting places left to host this. The Astral and Ethereal on their own aren't much to work with, and the Prime Material Plane was where they'd just come from. Somehow, my brain finally got to Ravenloft's Demiplane of Dread as a useful model, with its apparently mundane, conventional appearance twisted by unusual, genre-focused local rules. But where Ravenloft is geared towards the horror genre, I wanted something made for common criminals, which a mid-game synonym search on my phone lead to be named the Demiplane of Delinquency.
The entire map of the Demiplane of Delinquency so far, plus combat notes from a previous session.

Before the game, all I really had was squeazed in at the top end of a page that already had some stuff on it left over from the previous week, on which I scribbled a very crude map of the four principle locations I wanted to cover: Don Quattro's Mansion, the Abandoned Werehouse District, the Kleptomancer's Tower, and the Maze. The first would be where they'd arrive and get their quest, the second two would be places to go to get McGuffins needed for the final bit, which would be the Maze, where treasure awaited. You'll note from the map above that these were hardly detailed locations, thoroughly prepared and intelligently populated.

And that's as far as I got before leaving for work, and didn't get time for another thought about it until I was at the roleplaying venue, unpacking my notes. While unpacking, I added a couple details: The whole plane would be permanently nocturnal and rainy/overcast, with architecture that wouldn't be out of place in Thief's city, the ability to travel between different parts of the city would have more to do with style and intent (being sneaky, in this case) than with effort or geography, and that there were sufficient appropriate pre-generated NPCs and monsters in the D&D Next playtest pack that I could keep the antagonists varied. I did end up borrowing the Dire Rat stats to simulate Were-rats, though, as the whole point of the Abandoned Werehouse District was the 'were' pun, and were-rats are surely the thiefiest of all lycanthropes. (Abandoned warehouse districts are a default part of all our roleplaying cities, have been for years and years, and I can't even remember where that joke came from.)

Then there were mob threats from the Don, ninja-versus-thief battles with the were-rats, an improvised cloak thing that I'd like to develop properly as a "thief demi-elemental", a cursed necklace of lycanthropy that one of the players stupidly put on in spite of the wizard PC's warnings AND which the key they needed from the Werehouse had stupidly become locked onto, beating the shit out of a lonely kobold guard, side-switching with the Kleptomancer (who I added very little detail to, but who could be an interesting NPC to expand) and then a near-lethal yet surprisingly anti-climatic fight against the Maze minotaur. Halfway through, I decided (and fed them this decision through the Kleptomancer) that the portal they'd arrived through was a one-way job, complicating their goals. I forget what all else I made up as we played, but I had a bunch of other thoughts for fleshing out this demiplane more thoroughly, which might come in handy in future. Stuff like the opposite sort of crime city, where everyone's a law-enforcer in a sort of Noir gumshoe setting (not a lawful-good utopia, just a place where everyone's focused on detection, the opposite of the first city's focus on evasion), and the 'neutral' brigandy woods acting as a filter between the two cities, imperfectly keeping criminals out of law city and cops out of crime city. That'd be the main source of conflict in this setting in longer stories, I think. I'll admit the Demiplane of Delinquency may not be the absolute most original idea ever, but I'm sure there are more interesting things that can be done with it than I did.

The final treasure came as a complete surprise to me, being one of those great ideas stolen from the players and fed back to them as the GM's own idea. I'd said there would be several treasures to choose from, but only one could be claimed, and I knew I wanted one to be enormous wealth, as the obvious thief-trap. I'd also stumbled into making the Kleptomancer say he wanted the super-duper magic treasure for himself. But, not wanting to reveal either of those too soon, I tentatively started off with a pair of other things I made up on the spot: A super-duper combat treasure and a romance treasure. As luck had it, I'd randomly claimed there were 6 treasure boxes in the final room, and the players leap on these clues as meaning that there was one treasure for each of the 6 basic attributes (combat for strength, romance for charisma, wealth for dexterity, magic for intelligence, and two others), so I ran with that and added invulnerability for constitution and a perfectly contented life for wisdom. They picked the magic and became more powerful than the system currently allows for, effectively retiring their characters and ending this test mini-campaign on a slightly odd note.

So maybe we didn't make a dramatically awesome new addition to the Planescape multiverse map, but we did get to test the D&D Next rules in a more urban setting, and they still seem to work well. We also tried something a bit new, which is what Planescape is all about, and which may be turned into something more serious and compelling with a bit more effort later on. And most important, I believe fun was had by all, which is not a bad way to start my birthday.