Running A Planescape Campaign

Three Pillars in Planescape

It is useful to think about the three broad categories of activities in an adventure specifically as they relate to a Planescape adventure, as the focus tends to be a little different than in D&D adventures in other settings.

The most important feature of a Planescape adventure is usually the social interaction. The villains in Planescape aren't ravenous monsters or insane cultists, they are normal people with strong opinions that are different than yours, that don't allow yours to exist, and so a central element of that conflict is interacting with them. Most Planescape adventures should have a way to achieve the party's goals via talking and reasoning rather than simply beating in some skulls or skulking around in the darkness, and many unique rules in PS, from the factions to expanded Inspiration rules to "talking dungeons" to PC morale rules emphasize the fact that what one believes and convinces others of is of vital importance on the planes.

The next most important aspect in a Planescape adventure is typically exploration. You will visit strange and exotic places, often dangerous due to their conditions or their inhabitants, and you will be expected to survive there. You are a tiny snowflake born aloft on the winds of the planes, and you will need to land safely. This often involves doing extensive research. Planescape is a setting where it can be remarkably easy to get from Point A to Point B (just step through a portal!), so the adventure isn't in the grand transit or the months-long journey. Instead, it is in gathering information about portals, their locations, their keys, and their destinations, and in gathering supplies for survival in a place like the Elemental Plane of Fire or the third mount of Gehnna. Spell keys, survival items, even protective wards and gear, are often necessary to travel to other worlds. Exploration challenges are often challenges of a character's lore-gathering abilities more than their food-gathering abilities or their sheer toughness, because the environment you're heading into can require dramatically different solutions than the last one you headed into.

Finally, a vital part of any Planescape adventure is combat. There will be creatures for whom talk is pointless or cheap. Fanatics and monsters and unexpected threats loom, and the planes contain their share of bandits, beholders, and beasts as well as your more complex threats. Combat is something you do while exploring to remain safe, or something you do when social interaction fails. Combat will often end on terms other than the slaying of the enemy, of course — surrender or flight are more common than death. But Planescape is a world where beliefs are worth fighting and dying for, so there will inevitably be plenty of creatures who will not surrender or give up, but who demand that you face them with swords drawn.

Character Creation in Planescape

Most of the steps of character creation for a Planescape campaign are the same as they are for any other campaign, but there are some twists.

Faction Backgrounds & Inspiration

Every Planescape character must answer this question for themselves: "What belief do I want to transform reality with?" At the core of any PS character is a belief that inspires them to act, to go forth in the world and live their philosophy against all challenges. It's OK if this starts out kind of vague and high-level, as play will refine it further, but you should start out with an idea of why your character goes out to adventure in the world, and it should be in terms of what your character believes.

The presumed way to telegraph this is to choose a faction you'd like to be a member of. The factions are presented as backgrounds, representing the basic alliances and access you are granted if you join that faction, and they give you a unique way to gain and spend Inspiration.

If you'd prefer to go without a faction background, you should still choose one of the factions to be a member of, for the purposes of gaining and spending Inspiration. Your background might define your origin in the setting a bit more than your faction membership, but you still have a belief that you hold dear.

It is possible to run a character not connected to any faction, but in order to do this, you must craft your own belief that you want to transform reality with, your own circumstances under which you might earn Inspiration, and your own alternate way to spend Inspiration, essentially crafting a personalized faction from scratch.

PHB Backgrounds in Planescape

Acolyte Perhaps you were raised in the realm of your deity, surrounded by this truth, and you seek to assert your god to non-believers. Or perhaps you lost your faith in the ultimate promised paradise that you saw every day.
Charlatan Perhaps you make a living on the streets of Sigil as a cross-trader and a bluffer, bobbing rubes and living by your wits. Or perhaps you have reformed and now work to capture those who were once your cohorts
Criminal Perhaps you run a network of theives in the Hive Ward in Sigil. Or perhaps you free prisoners in Carceri.
Entertainer Perhaps you work as a singer or dancer at the Grand Festhall in Sigil. Or perhaps you sing dirges through the caverns of Plouton.
Folk Hero Maybe you are a poor orphan from the Hive Ward done good, or perhaps you are a merchant whose skill at finding obscure items is legendary.
Gladiator You might fight in the pits of the Hive, or entertain the spectators on Ysgard.
Guild Artisan Maybe you have trained at the dwarven heavens in your artisinal skill, or perhaps you produce unusual magical items that allow planar communication and survival.
Guild Merchant You might be a stall owner in the Great Bazaar, or perhaps you operate a caravan out of Tradegate.
Hermit Perhaps you seek truth in isolated planar locations, or maybe you travel as an itinerant monk.
Knight You may be a noble mercenary, a chosen of a merchant house or a loyal retainer to some god or sect.
Noble You might be a wealthy merchant with family holdings in the Lady's Ward, or you might be an agent of the gods.
Pirate You've raided travelers and transporters en route, robbing trains or fighting with a githyanki pirate ship or mugging rubes on the Oceanus.
Outlander Perhaps you are from a wild town on Ysgard, or maybe you're just an Indep from a small hamlet on the Outlands.
Sage You may be a gatherer of lore in a great planar library, or you might be a seeker of hidden truths
Sailor Perhaps you ply the River Styx in a fiendish vessel, or you may have sailed the astral sea in a spelljammer.
Soldier You are perhaps a mercenary from Acheron, or a patrol officer for the Harmonium
Spy You might work as an information-broker on the high-ups in Sigil, or as a faction agent, seeking to undermine your enemies.
Urchin You might be a Hive Ward orphan making a living on the edges, or a forgotten cast-off resident of some lower planar gate-town who dreams of wealth.

Planewalking Races

The five planewalking races — bariaur, githzerai, planetouched, outcaste modron, and human — are the races most likely to become actual Planewalkers. These races all have a distinct need or desire to explore outside of their home base, and so they have a reason to go forth into the planes and shape them. Adaptable and driven humans push into every world, curious outcaste modrons seek to understand all realities, studious githzerai are free to roam and want to understand others' perspectives, wandering bariaur are nomadic and accepting of difference, and the isolation of the planetouched calls out for establishing your own place on the planes.

That said, these five races are hardly the only planewalkers. Plenty of elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes suffuse the planes, along with half-elves and the occasional half-orc. Any of the races in the Player's Handbook might be found as planewalkers. They are a little more rare, however, as there is nothing specifically encouraging them to go out and explore. A halfling that finds itself able to go anywhere on the planes often goes to Yondalla's realm and settles there for the rest of its life. It is literally steps from paradise, so it goes to paradise, and lives in paradise forever-after. Among these mortal races, planewalkers are exceptional people, malcontent with simply settling into their homeland and living a life of joy and ease. Rather, something drives them to explore beyond their bounds. Perhaps a dwarf is siezed with wanderlust, or an elf with curiosity about the other people of the world. A dragonborn might seek something more than peace in Bahamut's realm, while a PH-style tiefling might crave more than independence from their bloodline. So while these races are more uncommon, unique individuals will still be seen, and many more inhabit the various realms of the various deities dedicated to them.

Of course, this kind of exceptional character isn't just limited to the races presented in the Player's Handbook. Any race might exhibit these exceptional individuals, from thri-kreen to warforged to minotaurs to whatever else might exist on any plane or any world in any setting. Even monstrous races like beholders or unicorns or blink dogs might become planewalkers like this. Heck, things that aren't even races might take to planewalking under similar circumstances — intelligent items or sentient patches of ooze or animated suits of armor or literally anything else might become a planewalker. These unusual or unique beings still need to justify their planewalking tendencies — why is your blink dog a planewalker and not just a blink dog? — but with the proper context, there is no character race that is off-limits.

PHB Races in Planescape

Hill Dwarf Hill Dwarves are considered some of the planes' greatest crafters, with some of the most wonderful metallurgy on the planes coming from the realms of the Hill Dwarf gods.
Mountain Dwarf Mountain Dwarves are known as strong, resolute warriors, and make good money as mercenaries.
High Elf High Elves are great mages, dwelling apart from others in the thick forests of their gods' realms.
Wood Elf Wood Elves are reclusive naturalists, sought for their forest-lore
Dark Elf With few of the prejudices of other worlds, dark elves are welcomed as charismatic, independent adventurers, but are also feared as forces of cruelty on the lower planes.
Lightfoot Halfling The lightfoots are urban halflings, present in the poverty of Sigil and on the more chaotic side of the Upper Planes.
Stout Halfling A hardy halfling that enjoys pastoral bliss. They make good food. Dwell largely in Arcadia and Celestia.
Dragonborn Known as hardy mercenaries, the dragonborn may be scattered among many dragon realms.
Forest Gnome Clever illusionists, and friendly with wild animals, these gnomes live in reclusive solitude in the realms of their gods.
Rock Gnome Miners, tinkers, and artificers, rock gnomes are known as toy-makers and jewelers.
Half-Elf These creatures find many cosmopolitan towns on the planes to be quite welcoming, and their fey nature often just indicates that they are one of the planetouched as well.
Half-Orc These powerful warriors are welcomed into the large planar metropoli, but they must work hard to cast off the savagery of their ancestry.
Asmodean Tiefling These creatures are known as one particular breed of planetouched, a lineage from the Prime that is kept pure. They're largely seen as any other tiefling is — a sign of something wicked in the world.

Classes in Planescape

Classes are understood on the planes as one of four general kinds of skill sets: skill with weapons and combat (warriors), skill with spells and lore (mages), skill with healing and intuition (priests), and skill with subterfuge and trickery (rogues). These aren't "hard" categories, and there's plenty of grey area between the boundaries, but these four categories are helpful generalizations about how one wants to contribute to an adventuring party.

Beyond these four general skill sets, however, the actual class of a character matters very, very little. Classes are not seen as archetypes or organizations, but merely as bits of specialized knowledge. Planescape is largely "classless" as a setting in this respect. All wizards are not one thing in Planescape, but rather vary depending upon the purpose, intent, and style of their wizardry. An arcane caster with the right skill set and spells might be more of a priest or warrrior or rogue than a mage, and a scholar of warfare is more likely to be a mage than a warrior.

Because these are seen as bits of specialized knowledge, Planescape characters must be trained in any new ability they want to acquire. Levels and abilities are not gained automatically, but rather gained by interacting with NPC's who can educate the PC on the next rung of ability. As the PC gets higher level, the NPC's who can teach them things might run low, but because there's always somebody bigger, there's always somebody to go to for training in a specific arena. Training can take the form of treasure and reward as well — the search for a rare spell or a manual of combat training or the relic of a god or an intelligent cloak that teaches you secret techniques…all may be sources of training for you.

PHB Classes in Planescape

Berserkers These wild, reckless warriors hail most often from the planes of Chaos…or the streets of the Hive.
Totem Warriors Seekers of naturalistic spirits, these warriors often hail from in the Beastlands and in the Outlands.
College of Lore These sages are very popular in Sigil as guides and information-brokers, and also occur frequently among the more sagacious circles on the Planes of Law.
College of Valour These magical warriors are popular on the Chaotic side of the Great Ring, where individual glory and triumph are seen as worthy goals.
Knowledge Domain Priests who follow the principles of Knowledge are especially popular on the Lawful Planes, and see a lot of traction in Sigil.
Life Domain Priests dedicated to the concept of Life are common on the Upper Planes, and anywhere an adventurer needs a healing spell.
Light Domain Priests of Light are common on the Upper Planes, but tend to stay away from the darkness of the Lower Planes.
Nature Domain Common on the Chaotic Good planes and in the Outlands, nature-priests are familiar with some of the odder forms of planar wildlife.
Tempest Domain On the Chaotic side of the Great Ring, Tempest Priests revel in storms and disasters. They're also not entirely uncommon on the Inner Planes.
Trickery Domain A priest of Trickery finds a lot of acceptance in Sigil, and in may of the Chaos planes and Lower Planes.
War Domain Gods of War are popular almost everywhere, except on the Upper Planes. Acheron is one place where war finds a special sanctitiy.
Circle of the Land These priests of the Old Faith are rife throughout the Outlands, and are in some ways the keepers of this land, and they are also frequently present on the Inner Planes.
Circle of the Moon This moon is more a metaphorical moon of changes and transformations, as these druids live in may places that have no moons. The Beastlands is especially welcoming to this Circle, though they exist throughout the Outlands as well.
Champion These masters of physical prowess cleave into every corner of the multiverse as the principle hired mercenaries. They seem to be more popular on the Planes of Chaos than elsewhere, centering as they do on personal development.
Battle Master These generals and strategists are common the Planes of Law, seeing battle as an orchestrated movement of discrete units.
Eldritch Knight The blend of blade and spell, of protection and assault, is most often present on the various transitive planes — the Shadowplane, the Ethereal Plane, and the Astral Plane all blend these arts together admirably.
Way of the Open Hand This monastic tradition is studied on many of the more Lawful planes as discipline and enlightenment.
Way of Shadow This tradition is popular in the Lower Planes, where Way of Shadow monks may serve as assassins.
Way of the Four Elements This tradition finds many adherents on the Inner Planes, of course, and it is also popular among the githzerai of Limbo, who are intrigued by its balance.
Oath of Devotion Those who take this oath are common the planes of Law, as society is about giving to those who have none.
Oath of the Ancients This oath is popular in the Outlands and in Arborea, places that the fey adore.
Oath of Vengeance Especially popular among the Mercykillers, this Oath finds many on the Planes of Law who respect it, especially lower down on the alignment spectrum.
Hunter Common on the Outlands and in various other isolated planar locations, Hunters make great scouts and guides.
Beastmaster These rangers tame a variety of native planar creatures, though they are most prevalent on the Outlands and in various Lawful planes.
Thief These experts at access and stealth are common throughout the planes, especially in Sigil, and in many of the more Chaotic planes.
Assassin More common on the Planes of Law, especially the Lower Planes, these paid murderers are useful tools for advancement among the devils.
Arcane Trickster Blending tricks with spellcraft is a common motif on many of the Chaotic Planes, especially on the Upper side - the fey love a good magical prank.
Draconic Bloodline Sorcerers who descend from dragons are not especially common on the planes, outside of the realms of the dragon-gods, but many do find the Inner Planes a good refuge.
Wild Magic Sorcerers that channel wild magic are found on the most Chaotic of planes, but also on the most Lawful, taking different approaches to the magic (understanding it, or reveling in it).
Fiendish Patron Those sworn to the fiends are, of course, common on the Lower Planes, and are very unwelcome on the Upper.
Archfey Patron Arborea and the Outlands have much in the way of Archfey-pact warlocks, as this is where most archfey who make these pacts reside
Great Old One Patron The twilight realms of the transitive planes have the best chance of conjuring up a warlock dedicated to a Great Old One. The dreamy realms of the Ethereal, the cold stars of the Astral, and the terrifying nightmares of the Shadow all might provide solace to these warlocks.
Abjuration Tradition Those who study Abjuration find the Lawful planes best suited to their control of access.
Conjuration Tradition The Conjurers are common on the transitive planes, living in the highways of the Astral, Ethereal, and Shadow through which their conjured allies pass.
Divination Tradition The Lawful planes have a lot of interest in predicting the destined future, and so Diviners find a ready home on many of them.
Enchantment Tradition The manipulation of the individual mind is something the Lawful planes have a lot of insterest in, but Arborea also manifests a delight in playing with the emotions of a victim.
Evocation Tradition The elemental energies here are popular on the Lower Chaos planes, as weapons of mass destruction. There's also a lot of curious evokers on the Inner Planes, where those energies are the strongest.
Illusion Tradition Illusions are exceptionally useful on the Lower Lawful planes as tools of deception, and the Upper Chaos planes delight in them as artful trickery.
Necromancy Tradition Necromancers are present mostly on the Lower Planes, but are fairly evenly distributed. They're also common on the Inner Planes, where the Negative Energy plane is close, and on the Shadowplane, where they can find many of the tools of their trade.

Tiers in Planescape

Just as Planescape's setting affects the kinds of adventures and skills that are important, it also affects the way heroes rise through the ranks and gain power. Rather than a great, world-ending force of evil, planescape characters face off against ideas and concepts. Instead of a great evil demon at the center of your game, there might be a central question the party is asking or a central revelation they seek, and this drives the action just as much as an evil central villain. For instance, the campaign may ask What Is The Perfect Society?, and the party's adventures revolve around them defining and realizing their version of a perfect society.

Apprentice Tier (levels 1-4) are generally levels of Establishing Your Belief. Characters at this level are defining their beliefs and acting on them in play for the first time, determining for themselves what adhering to a faction philosophy or following a god means to them. They are deciding what their belief will inspire them to do, and the limits of what they truly believe. Adventures focus on giving the PC's a chance to demonstrate their beliefs, and on refining their original character statement.

Heroic Tier (levels 5-10) are the levels of Defending Your Belief. Having stated it and determined what it is, you now face challenges to realizing that, those who oppose your belief or those who act on contrary beliefs. You will cling to your belief as you confront its opposites. If you believe in the organization of the multiverse, you will face enemies who believe in its inherent chaos. If you believe in helping others, you will face enemies who discount that pointless altruism. These enemies might have valid points, but Heroic Tier is about refuting those points, about defending what is truly important to you.

Paragon Tier (levels 11-16) are the levels of Questioning Your Belief. You have defended your belief against its opposites, but often, getting what you want is a bigger problem than fighting against its opposite. Your belief has traction, which means that people will use it for purposes it was not intended for, and will pervert and corrupt its tenents for their own end. It is up to you to ensure that your belief remains true, and remains relevant. If you believe in the ultimate chaos of the multiverse, you will see the harm and trouble that chaos can wreak. If you believe in enlightened self-interest, you will see that philosophy destroy societies and ruin lives — including your own. These limits of your philosophy challenge your core concepts, and Paragon Tier is about testing those limits, and finding out if your philosophy can survive at the edge.

Epic Tier (levels 17-20) are the levels of Realizing Your Belief, of finally establishing it to last long after your death and to define all of the planes in relation to it. Your belief is powerful and resonant enough to shape reality, and you will be confronting the forces of reality as it currently exists. It falls to you to establish your belief as your legacy. If you believe in the independence of all souls, you will overthrow those who claim control of them. If you believe that all people are ultimately dead, you will obliterate the lie that we are alive. Epic Tier is about establishing this belief as a reality, undoing those who would stop it.

Magic in Planescape

The Planescape setting has a distinct "spellpunk" vibe to it. Magic suffuses the everyday life of characters in Planescape at a fairly deep level. It is literally the thing that allows a lot of planar adventures, simply because of the nature of the environments — a bubble of air or a shield from the elements or an illusion cloaking your alignment are often necessary to simply go to a place and come back.

This is because adventurers in PS are fairly common. Planewalkers (as they tend to be called) are called upon to guard caravans, find lost items, deal with locals, and otherwise handle the hazards of simply living on the planes. Not all of them rise to the level of heroic champion of their beliefs, but however powerful a given PC is, there's always someone stronger out there. Due to this heavy use of adventuring magic, a lot of normal folks know a lot about magic that they might not otherwise. To simply get business done on the planes requires that you know your illusions and your abjurations, your prayers and your cantrips, and often at a significantly high level since creating a survivable environment is hardly a minor alteration of the environment.

In addition to this common use of magic, Planescape characters tend to be jaded and practical. Conjuring a sphere of fire might be enough to make some Clueless folks ooh and aah, but here on the planes they're just as likely to see that, shrug, and say "Better not try that on a balor, berk." A lot of these characters can experience an entire world made of fire if they just step through the right doorway. While they might recognize that such a spellslinger is probably pretty potent, capable of more than they are, the great equalizing force on the planes is knowledge to use these powers correctly, and any urchin on the street might know more about that than the grandest grand high poobah wizard from some elvish island.

So the common folk aren't easily impressed by shows of magical force. It's also worth noting that the "weave" mentioned in the core rules isn't how planars understand their magical effects. Rather than a web of magical underpinning, in Planescape, magic is considered to basically be energy channeled from some location. To cast a fire spell, you are channeling energy from the Plane of Fire, to cast a healing spell, the Positive Energy plane must be accessible, to divine the future, you must be able to see into the cracks in time in the Astral, etc. Magical effects are specifically geographical in this way, and that means that traveling around the planes changes how you can channel this distant energy. If you're hanging out on the Elemental Plane of Earth, it matters that it's hard to reach the Astral plane or the Elemental Plane of Air in that such spells become difficult or impossible to cast. The nature of Carceri as a prison plane interacts with conjurations and abjurations. The raw chaos of Limbo is likely to screw with any spell. And if your god lives in Arborea while you're trying to cast divine magic in Hell, well…your gods cannot help you there.

This is why an important part of any planar adventure is magical keys — things added to spellcasting that allow you to use and access distant planar energies, despite your location. These are manifold and varied components, but those who know how to use them can defy their geography and tap into powers that the plane would rather shut down.

Adventurers in Planescape

As stated above, in Planescape, there's always something bigger and stronger and tougher than the PC's. Demon lords and celestial scions and the gods themselves inhabit the setting, and they are not generally creatures that are fought directly. The party may save villages and slay evil, but in Planescape, this won't be enough to make them heroes. There's hundreds of paladins who crusade into Hell and who meet an untimely end every day. Those individual villages and innocents will certainly be appreciative, but this won't fundamentally change the planes, as there is always something bigger and more powerful out there waiting to fill the void.

This is why something like belief is so important. Changing the planes isn't about being stronger or wielding more powerful magic, it is about being influential, wielding a stronger belief, and convincing people to follow your ideas, not your sword-arm (though a sword-arm is undoubtedly useful for convincing people to follow your ideas!).

So an adventurer in Planescape might never slay a god or end a lord of the nine, at least not directly. But they might convince a god or a lord of the nine to join their cause (and thus defeat the gods and devil lords that stand against them!), and THAT is how PS adventurers change the world. Not through personal strength, but from ideological strength, from the power of persuasion and the ability to recruit others to their cause. A lone powerful spellcaster might do a lot of damage, but an alliance of hundreds of spellcasters from around the planes, all masters of their schools and elements, joined by the finest knights and sellswords, united in a common cause….well, they can rally around even the ideas of a dead merchant or carpenter or scholar, and transform reality.