October 2023 saw the release of the latest D&D box set, Planescape, a return to a much-beloved setting within the Dungeons & Dragons universe nearly thirty years on from its first appearance at gaming tables across the world. The original setting itself was published in 1994, designed by David “Zeb” Cook for TSR (creators, and then-owners of D&D). Cook was fascinated with exploring the different facets and dimensions of the cosmos within the game’s universe, a topic that was only briefly discussed in the game’s First Edition in texts such as Manual of the Planes in 1987. It was Cook’s creation of the Planescape setting that essentially expanded on these premises, just as the 2023 box set wishes to explore and expand on the setting for today’s gaming audience.
Within the original 1994 box set, there was a guide for players, a guide for Dungeon Masters, a supplement of the setting’s monsters, a guide detailing the setting itself, a collection of maps, and a Dungeon Master’s Screen, all ready for play right out of the box. The 2023 set takes a similar approach, revisiting the format of the “box set”, a format D&D’s owners Wizards of the Coast first adopted for a non-starter set 5th edition module with Spelljammer back in August 2022. Contained within the 2023 set are three books and a DM’s screen, with the books being Sigil and the Outlands (the campaign setting/guide), Turn of Fortune’s Wheel (the adventure module), and Morte’s Planar Parade (the bestiary/supplement of monsters for the setting).
The set isn’t short of player options for character builds, boasting 2 new player backgrounds, 7 new feats, new spells, 12 factions to explore, and 50 new creatures (my personal favourite being the “Time Dragon”, because what the everloving heck is a Time Dragon?).
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The setting itself of the Outlands, the city of Sigil (pronounced like Wiggle) the “City of Doors” acts as a neutral hub-like space within the D&D cosmos, linking many settings within D&D through interdimensional portals and magical gates. Renowned Dungeon Master, Brennan Lee Mulligan, touted the setting as “the most ‘not-in-world’ you can get”; it is the setting between settings, as it were. Mulligan, in an interview with D&DBeyond, would elaborate on his love for the setting and its wider appeal, recalling memories of receiving the original box set for Christmas, stating “What could bring an 11-year-old more joy than a book about ideological factions in a floating city!? That’s what the kids want!”
Planescape is a setting that places you as the player in the physical environs of different ideologies and philosophies, it’s a large-scale fantastical metaphor for the broad world of philosophy and teaches you the difference between different schools of thinking. As I said before, the city of Sigil (on the inside of the ‘stone doughnut’, or “torus”, if you are so geometrically inclined) is the cosmological neutral ground for all creatures in the D&D universe - think the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars. The setting turns the fantasy premise of “the world is in danger, how are you going to save it?” on its head; in Planescape, the world isn’t in danger because it’s expanding in all directions, it’s a world of chaos that “danger” in the classical sense cannot threaten. It instead asks you what you believe in, and what you want to see more of in the world, inviting you into the inter-factional dynamic of the city.
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There are many possible reasons why WotC decided to release an updated Planescape setting in 2023 of all years - not only because of the setting’s 30th anniversary approaching but also the approaching 50th anniversary of the game altogether. Another possible reason for the setting’s revival is WotC wanting to capitalise on the success of “multiversal” narratives in the pop-culture world in the last few years, most notably with the MCU’s delving into time-travel/dimension-hopping narratives as part of establishing their new “Big-Bad-Evil-Guy” (to borrow a term from D&D), Kang the Conqueror.
D&D’s principal story designer, Chris Perkins, stated in a deep dive interview with D&D Beyond in March 2023 that “we’re having so much fun thinking about the multiverse, and the corners of the multiverse we have already visited and the corners of the multiverse we have yet to visit [...] and that lets us bring back some classic villains.” The villain in question Perkins highlighted was Vecna, God of Secrets. Now, if that name sounds familiar to you, you may recall Vecna from previous editions of D&D, or him being the villain in Critical Role’s first campaign. For others, you may recall the name from season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things. His return to D&D, alongside classic villains like the Red Wizards of Thay spells an interesting narrative threat to come for future modules, one I am greatly anticipating as a lover of the villains from the original 80s cartoon and previous editions.
2024 is shaping up to be a momentous year for the D&D world, but time will tell if WotC can roll a Natural 20 to deliver on the years of promise and hype they have been building up.
Edited by Gio Eldred Mitre, Gaming Editor