The last time I posted about how much I was enjoying a game I was running, things went kerplooey with it. But I’m not a superstitious man, so I think I’ll write about another game I’m enjoying running at the moment. The game is 13th Age, and I’m running it in the Planescape setting.
So what is 13th Age? It’s a variant of D&D. Of any of the D&D editions it feels closest to D&D 4e. The major part of the abilities of the various character classes is what they can do in combat, and combat is unashamedly itself a game. The funny thing about this description is that it really makes it sound like 13th Age is not my thing.
But it works. Combat is quick (I don’t think any fight has lasted longer than 20 or so minutes, and some have been faster yet), and feels dangerous. The funky abilities mean that characters don’t just do the same thing every round. And there’s more to the game than that.
Outside of combat, there’s a light narrative game. A Player Character has One Unique Thing which places them in the world- it’s something about them, big or small, that is true of literally nobody else. The other big deal is Icons- Icons are the movers and shakers of the setting and characters have a connection with them. At the start of a session, players roll dice related to the Icons, to see how they come into play in the scenario, granting advantages and complications.
The other nice thing about the player character abilities, is that they’re in the player’s hands- as one running the game, I don’t need to know them. Monster special abilities are much easier. It’s an easy game to run.
When I read 13th Age I realised I wanted to try it. To make this happen, I ran it. And this led to me dusting off my all-time favourite setting, namely Planescape.
Planescape is world-hopping metaphysical fantasy, revolving around the Outer Planes of the Great Wheel Cosmology of 3e and earlier editions of D&D. These Outer Planes are based around a combination of alignment and metaphysical concepts. It’s not just my favourite D&D setting, it’s my favourite fantasy setting of them all. It’s got the right sort of magic and strangeness and variety for me. It even blends in bits of real world mythology, mangled through a D&D lens.
One thing I needed in the setting was Icons- what are the movers and shakers of the setting? Well, there were two ways to go- big players in the Outer Planes, and the Factions. Factions are groups of people with sharing a philosophy, based in the city of Sigil, a city in the “centre” of the Planes. So I went for a mixture.
For reference, here’s the handout I gave to the players.
Planescape 13th Age: Setting Primer
A plane is an infinite expanse of space with its own physical laws. There are three real categories of plane.
A Prime World is an “ordinary” fantasy world, where mortals dwell. Think Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, etc.
On the elemental planes, one particular element, such as earth, air, fire, water is dominant, as are creatures made of or comfortable in that element.
When people in the Planescape setting talk about the Planes they really mean the Outer Planes. These are the domains of the gods and the dead, featuring geography impossible under Prime World laws. They are the native domain of creatures embodying philosophical concepts such as law (the robotic Modrons), chaos (various), good (the Celestials) and evil (the Fiends). Ordinary mortals also dwell in the Planes, doing their best to get by somewhere they’re not really, one suspects, meant to be.
Some Outer Planes are further seperated into infinitely large layers, each embodying a different philosophy. If the elemental planes are made of particular elements, the Outer Planes are made out of beliefs and philosophies, and layers or even entire planes can shift under their influence.
A Power is another word for god, used by Planars when conveying healthy respect, but not worship. It is possible to visit the domain of a Power in the planes. Once there, the Power is nearly omnipotent. It is not possible to make them do anything, even appear if they don’t want to be seen. Do not mess with the Powers.
The souls of the dead from Prime Worlds make their way to the Outer Planes where they are reformed as Petitioners, gravitating to the domains of the gods they served in life, or the plane which best reflects their belief. Petitioners cannot remember their old lives, and do not age or learn, unless a Power transforms them into something else, such as a Celestial or Fiend.
Portals and Keys
Travel from Plane to Plane (or even layer to layer) is through a Portal– a magical doorway linking different places. Most Portals need to be activated with a Key, otherwise they act as ordinary doorways. A key is usually carrying a particular object, but is sometimes a particular action or phrase. Keys tend to be unusual enough that accidentally activating a Portal is rare (though not unheard of), but not uniquely valuable items.
Then there is Sigil, the City of Doors. It’s a vast closed ring (think of the inner surface of a rotating space station), and the only way to enter or leave is through a Portal. Fortunately, Sigil has thousands of Portals, some under control of various groups, some not. Sometimes temporary Portals appear, and sometimes Portals appear and disappear on a cycle.
Sigil has no ruler, but its emblem is the Lady of Pain. Nobody talks to her, but she can flay with a touch, can banish those who threaten the city as a whole, and prevents any Power from exerting direct influence in Sigil, or entering the city.
Factions of Sigil
The Factions have headquarters both in the city of Sigil and elsewhere in the planes, and the purpose of furthering a particular philosophical belief, as well as a role to play in the “rule” of the city of Sigil.
There are other Factions not described here, but in the game only these Factions will be represented as Icons.
The Powers are frauds, not gods. They need mortal worship; mortals don’t need them. Indeed, the Powers and their worshippers are responsible for much wrong. We study religions and the Powers and would-be Powers, combat their lies, and help their victims.
There is no purpose or structure to the multiverse, just misery and pain. Why? Because there’s no life- not just the petitioners, but all of us, both on the Planes and on the Prime, are dead, and we dwell in the shadow of another existence. The one release from the wheel of suffering and reincarnation, and gateway to actual life is the True Death, but that’s hard. To understand and hope to attain it, we study and respect death in all forms.
The multiverse belongs to those who can take and hold it. Those who work for it get what they deserve, and there’s no use blaming others or whining about bad luck. There’s no point in feeling sorry for those who don’t make it- that’s just making excuses for weakness. Respect and compassion have to be earned and deserved, and debts must be repaid.
Sigil and much of the multiverse is a place of war, chaos and misery. For the good of all, it is our duty to impose law and order. With order comes peace and harmony, the wrongdoer can be punished, and all can live better lives. We’ve taken charge of this process, in Sigil and elsewhere. Someone has to do it.
The Mind’s Eye
Existence for me is a series of challenges, and everything I encounter is part of these tests. I seek to pass these challenges, gaining enlightenment, ascending to a higher state of being, in this life or the next. This quest is unique to me, but others have similar quests, and all beings who want to prove their worth can try. We are there as an organisation to help each-other, and to see what can be done with our enlightened wills.
The Society of Sensation
What is real? What your senses tell you, what you experience- and life is the sum of experiences. To truly live life is to seek out new experiences, both “good” and “bad”, relishing and learning from each one.
The Dark Prince
Graz’zt, the Dark Prince, is the most powerful ruler of the chaotic demons- the Tanar’ri. He rules over three entire layers of the infinite Abyss, but he wants more. He has worshippers, and is close to being a Power, but Graz’zt seeks actual godhood. Graz’zt has several half-mortal children in positions of influence, both in his realm and elsewhere.
Few, even amongst the Celestials, are willing to take the fight to the Fiends. But we, the Desderain, made up of both mortals and Celestials, believe in taking direct action, not just in defending our own territory.
The Luminiferous Aether
The Luminiferous Aether is a group of powerful wizards and sorcerers who share information and resources. Individual members work towards their individual goals. The cost of joining the Aether is extortionate, but the prestige is immense, and members of the Aether willing to work as mercenaries command extraordinarily high fees.
The Nine are the rulers of the Nine Hells of Baator, and some are close to being Powers in their own right. All Baatezu- the lawful devils- serve them. The Nine have many goals, but are most dedicated to increasing their personal power in Baator and prosecuting the eternal Blood War against the Tanar’ri- the chaotic demons of the Abyss.
Primus, the One and the Prime, is the supreme Modron, and embodies order and logic. As well as Modrons, Primus has mortals who follow the philosophy he embodies, the Fraternity of Order. The Fraternity of Order are a Sigil-based Faction who know there are laws of nature as well as society, which hold throughout the multiverse, and those who know these laws have power.
Most Powers don’t involve themselves with the affairs of the Outer Planes, having more to do with their believers on various Prime Worlds. The thief god, Sung Chiang, is different. His Teardrop Palace in Gehenna- made up, it is said, from territories stolen from other Powers- is the centre of a multiversal network of thieves, thugs, assassins and informants. He even has allies amongst the Yugoloths.