Thursday, March 6, 2014

What Planescape Means to Me

Last week Andy Kitkowski, translator for Tenra Bansho Zero and Ryuutama, posted a contest on G+. Since he's moving back to Japan he has been divesting himself of rpgs and other books. This time he would be giving away the prize of his collection, a diverse set of Planescape books. He invited anyone who wanted them to write why they wanted them and what they'd use them for. I love Planescape; it remains my favorite TSR setting and one of my favorite rpg settings. I quickly sat down and wrote out a rambling entry/response. I wasn't chosen, but I thought I'd share what I submitted. I've left it unedited so you can see how rough it is. 

I saw your post on the Planescape items. I'm interested and here's why and what I'd like to do...

To explain this I have to go back to Barry dying.

We’d finished a three GURPS fantasy campaign and had moved on to a superhero mini-campaign using Mutants & Masterminds. I’d intended that short series as a filler between stories in the shared world we’d been playing in since ’86. The superhero game went well and we ramped up to the final session. Kenny came by about three in the morning. Barry had been bouncing at a club; he’d taken on extra hours to buy Xmas gifts for his daughter. Normally he did freelance art- he’d done work for Hero and R Talsorian, but he wasn’t great at schedules and companies weren’t great at paying. Barry was a big guy who worked out, half-Thai and frequently mistaken for a Hispanic weight-lifter. He had a hereditary heart problem, as it turned out. He collapsed in the middle of breaking up a brawl.

We kept going, thrown by everything, but we kept playing. Which brought us to Planescape.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to our shared campaign world. Barry had been with us since nearly the beginning of that. He’d been at the heart of multiple campaigns. So I decided to go with something else I loved- a game & setting Barry (and others) had wanted to play in. I would run a Planescape campaign, but one with a twist. The group would be cross-dimensional mercenaries. I would use The Black Company sourcebook from Green Ronin. Everyone would have two characters just in case. Life would be cheap. They would blaze a trail across worlds. It would be gritty and tough.

Tough I got.

I ran it using D&D 3.5, with just about everything available at the table. I hadn’t run 3.5 before. I’d been a GURPs, Storyteller, Rolemaster, Champions, and Homebrew guy. At first I considered using True20, but at that point only pre-core rules had come out for that. Plus I wanted to see what it was like. So much had been published for it, most of my players had tried some flavor of it, and I knew AD&D- how hard could it be? Hard, really hard. I have real admiration for those GMs who gained system mastery of D&D 3.5. The system seemed to fight me every step of the way. Every session required more prep, mapping, and stat calculation than anything I’d done in years.

Somehow it managed to be a delight. Planescape itself pulled us through. The players loved the setting and the chaos of it. They loved both their primary and secondary characters in the mercenary company- requiring me to switch back and forth between stories. They loved Sigil and the tensions between the factions. They loved the weird planar trips and over-the-top effects. I had all the books and a massive collection of Bloodwars cards to use for illustrations. Despite my terror at the mechanics, it somehow gelled- the wild combats to fight, mysteries to explore, and places to see.

More importantly, they saved Barry. Or rather they saved his character, Basho. See at the end of the fantasy campaign, Barry’s character had sacrificed himself. He leapt into a demon gate to shut it down and kept back the forces of darkness from the world. In the Planescape campaign they found him and brought him to safety. It felt good and something like closure.


When I wrapped the campaign’s story after thirteen sessions, I felt pleased. I’d tried to extend my repertoire with 3.5, I’d run a mercenary game, and they’d brought a measure of satisfaction out of tragedy. It was all good, wasn’t it? Yes and no. I was happy with the campaign, but it wasn’t exactly the Planescape game I wanted. For one thing we only saw Sigil in bits and pieces. I love that city and wanted to really play around with the people and personalities there. For another it had been more high fantasy and less the noir tone I wanted- more Invincible Overlord than Lankhmar. Finally the game engine had fought against what I wanted rather than supporting it. That’s likely a matter of my inexperience with it, but it undercut what I wanted.

The strange bit is that we had a perfectly serviceable homebrew we’d begun using by that point. I was just too much of a coward to commit to that. I made a decision- we’d come back to Planescape at some point in the future. I would explore the city, I’d have the tools to make people and organizations come alive, I’d make the setting matter, and I’d show everyone what I loved about it. In the future I’d run the Planescape game in my head.

Then we had the fire.

It started in the basement from old-house wiring. That took out the game room first and then most of the first floor. We lost most of the game books, about half the campaign notes, all of the scenic, and a chunk of the miniatures. Smoke and water destroyed what the fire didn’t actually hit. We survived and thanks to insurance managed to get back into the house about six months later. Some things survived- stuff stored upstairs, minis which had to be cleaned using sonics, and soaked campaign journals that I managed to scan. Most of the next year I spent replacing what game books I could- things I knew we would play first and then other bits & bobs. But not Planescape. The prices were crazy. I tried the pdfs, but they weren’t a fair substitute for the actual products. I hunted for a time, but eventually put that aside in favor of other games.

So what do I want to do?

I want to run a game which explores Sigil, with occasional detours the the Outlands and mysterious trips to dangerous planes to uncover details, rescue lost souls, or loot a precious relic. I want the players tied to the pulse of the city- playing off the battles between factions and organizations. It should be part Fritz Leiber, part Leverage, part Thief, and part multiversal insanity…maybe something more like Grimjack’s Cynosure.

I want to do this using our homebrew this time. We’ve been playing and tinkering with it for the last decade and a half. Essentially it is a card-based rpg, with a strong dash of Fate powering it. A player’s deck acts more as a set of personalized dice more than anything else. When I ran before, big scale objects- like the company, neighborhoods, organizations- were static fixtures. I want to use the tools Fate and other newer rpgs offer to connect players to the setting and those groups. I want to monetize the background- allowing players to buy into plot hooks, political causes, and structures. I plan to use aspects and plot stress to model that. I also want to give the players useful character-facing material- like Robin Laws’ Kaiin Players Guide so that they can select rumors, stories, and places they want to explore.

What would that require? First, some thinking about specific adaptations of the system for the Planescape setting. We’ve done a couple of fantasy campaigns with it before, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Second, outlining how I want to handle interactions and descriptions of groups (i.e. sketched as characters with aspects, etc). Putting together a useful brief shopping list of interesting things players could connect to. In some ways this would echo the background mechanics from Weapons of the Gods. Third, figuring out some interesting ways for players to do some collaborative building. Obviously they can do that for character creation, but can I use the same tools to do a neighborhood or larger relationship network. Fourth, and probably most involved, creating an accessible, interactive, and light set of player-facing materials for the group. I think that can be done in the window given. I’d likely run that for the group I’m running the wuxia game for right now or else online. 

Anyway, I'd forgotten how much I dug that setting until I wrote that out. I'll continue looking around. Maybe if I get regular employment again I'll be able to start hunting things down. Perhaps in the future WotC will do Print on demand for the D&D Classics pdfs- that would be great. More than anything, writing this out reminded me of some good times we'd had- in the face of a tragedy. Last night when I was running M&M online, Carl reminded me that this year in December will be ten years since Barry died.