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Planar Adventures Month—Week One
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Planar Adventures Month—Week One

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Four Horsemen Blog

Planar Adventures Month Week One

Welcome back to the Four Horsemen Blog! We really love our new home here at DrivethruRPG.com and have a lot of neat advice, new rules, and other content to share with you through the end of the year. I hope you'll keep coming back and also visit our web page at fourhorsemenofficial.com and our Facebook page at facebook.com/fourhorsemenofficial. At the end of this article we're going to ask a brief question and provide our fans a chance to shape the themes that will highlight next year's blog!

Plane-touched Adventures

There's no question that I came into my own as a GM during my extended Planescape campaigns. When I started running them, I think I was eager to tell my own Planescape story, and I was willing to be the primary GM in my local group. Terre Haute, Indiana had an amazing gaming environment in many ways, and I had lots of interested, devoted players. While the first game was smaller and more intimate, I went from a mediocre game master to someone players wanted to sit for. As I would find later, there was still a lot to learn, but I loved running games for active players.

Since my formative years as a GM were spent running published planar adventures, I maintained a fascination with the outer planes. Heroes and villains in the grandest plots, seeking to control or destroy something larger than a mere prime material world. Creatures older than the mortal races represented by my players. There were strange metals, powerful spells, ancient artifacts, and even the avatars of gods visible (sometimes from less than a minimum safe distance). For a guy who loves deep plots and powerful characters, adventuring on the planes is where it's at for me.

This month on the Four Horsemen Blog we're going to talk about plane-touched campaigns and how to bring them to life. Keep an eye out for some plane-touched products from our partners at Rogue Genius Games, too.

Plane-touched Play

It's one thing to play a cleric who prays at temple, casts divine magic, and battles villains with her mortal companions. It is quite another to pass through a portal into another realm where gravity, magic, and time all work differently. Games just take on a different atmosphere when the party sees a summoning circle or the king's consort turns out to be a succubus. While most fantasy campaigns include elements of the divine, structuring a game that crosses planar boundaries benefits from a few tips I have learned over the years.

Start Small

Most campaigns begin at lower levels, where fairly green adventurers take up a cause with a tiny glimpse as to what's really at stake. The progress from, for example, idyllic halfling village to terrifying volcano guarded by 10,000 orcs and the powerful undead servitors of evil itself allows characters to undergo multiple test of their character and valor. They may fight a demon from a lower world or receive help from emissaries of heaven sent specifically to oppose certain evils. Starting a plane-touched campaign full of plane-specific challenges removes the wonder and danger from otherworldly encounters and makes the world beyond the mortal vale seem less mysterious and exciting. Incorporate gradual elements over time until the fate of heaven, hell, and everything between may hang in the balance. You'll appreciate an epic game with humble beginnings a lot more than a game where every plane, portal, and race is on the menu from the beginning.

Starting small might seem really difficult if the campaign is set on the planes themselves. If you're playing a table full of hound archons tasked with retrieving a holy relic (and who wouldn't want to play a hound archon), it might seem silly to pretend that there's only one world and the mortal plane is vast or unknowable. In this case, remember that living as a celestial creature for a hundred years enforces a certain lifestyle. Begin the game on the upper planes and add a mysterious element. Warn the PCs of the dangers of following their leads to the lower planes, or even the mortal world, which offers danger and temptation. What matters is securing a novel experience for the PCs wherever they begin.

Know Alignment

It's not just a spell, it's very crucial advice. Every table needs to be on the same page as regards alignment and alignment rules. This is doubly important for a campaign or character build with planar implications. A creature with the evil subtype isn't a frustrated individual who learned violence solves problems over time. It's an evil creature by definition. This is of course, not true if your campaign decides to dispense with alignment subtypes or allows an outsider more individual choice in its behavior. Players and GMs should agree on how alignment is treated in a game, whether because the culture emphasizes different standards for good and evil, or because the power of mortal rationalization convinces us players that intent matters more than a spell being considered ineffably evil.

Remember that Pathfinder, 5e, and their predecessors all have rules based on alignment. A spell might be evil because it embodies unbridled hate or taps into the power of unwilling souls. Be careful when deciding that alignment isn't important or that any act can be good. Again, this is important in every game, but doubly so in plane-touched games. Changing standards for alignment play when good outsiders are a tangible reality should be done carefully. I strongly encourage embracing alignment as a mechanism and keeping most of its rules and effects untouched. But if you depart from that in your gaming group, try to begin a campaign with everyone on the same page. Players should know whether it's virtually impossible for a an astral deva to commit an evil act of betrayal, or whether such a thing is not unheard of. Be clear on how detect evil works and on which spells keep or acquire the evil descriptor. Are coup de grace attacks always murder? Does a war footing change things for mortals? How about outsiders? Prevent frustration by agreeing on alignment play before the questions arise.

Be Wary of Travel Magic

Few things can short-circuit a GM's plans than the ability to simply teleport to another time and place. In my current home game, I developed a neat story about a mausoleum filled with souls who died without ever having shed blood. These spirits are angry at a recent conflict which brought suffering near their resting place, so they will attack the PCs and the samurai who follow them into their shrine. Instead of shelter they find conflict from the spirit realm. Unfortunately, we might never see this encounter play out. My PCs include multiple skalds with different bonuses, and it turns out they can make a month long journey in a matter of days without risking fatigue. How much worse is it when the party has access to dimension door or plane shift? Suddenly they can travel literally infinite distances without the need for rest or the dangers of local flora and fauna.

This works against players, too. When a devil can summon help or circumvent your wall of force with a standard action, or a xill takes your cleric to the ethereal for, uh....dinner, the inclusion of planes-hopping encounters requires you to reconsider plot points, spell selection, tactics and other facets of the game. GMs don't want it to become impossible to retrieve a xill's victim, thought it's pretty close to impossible at their CR. Players don't want the crown they are guarding stolen by two uses of an at will spell-like ability. Consider not just the power level, but the specific abilities that are required of planar adventures, but that also significantly complicate them.

Give Backgrounds to Planar Creatures

Any encountered creature benefits from a name and quick background story. It's always good form to add depth to NPCs, or PC companions. But not every lizardfolk scout needs a name. An owlbear doesn't have generations of experience to look back on or principles dictated by a past life and a subtype. Planar encounters feature uniquely experienced and detailed characters. That ceustodaemon guarding a forgotten treasure is literally defined by its loyalty to its mission. It's been in the sorcerer's tomb for hundreds of years. An astral deva prisoner may have spent decades in un-interrupted prayer or tireless worship is her deity. It's her experience and nature. When a CR 8-10 outsider gets hit by the party fighter, it's probably the most damage it's taken in several lifetimes. Planar creatures are special, whether truly ancient or singularly devoted to an ideal. Their experiences, tactics, and nature serve to give them additional (ahem) dimension.

Reflect on Mortal Experience

Plane-touched adventures make fascinating reality plays and can even teach us about our own beliefs. I went to India for a trip and saw first-hand the impact of polytheism and belief in reincarnation. Land sales, business practices—every aspect of culture displayed some variation because of the traditional prevalence of Hinduism, and then saw some modification when other religions became more popular. Each of those religions remarks on a higher or lower state of being, an afterlife, and a world beyond our world. Those difference directly influence mortal culture.

So it is with a campaign setting and the experiences of the PCs. As long as there is divine magic, the questions of the planes and life after death deserves some time. Those questions dramatically impact the flavor of the cultures the players exhibit or experience.

But that's just about immersion and campaign background. Remember also that as players we are all mortal, and even plane-touched characters rely on our perspectives. Matters of honor or eternal destiny loom large to our PCs and NPCs, but may be difficult to grapple with for players and GMs. In my weekly game, the players sometimes struggle with the morality of lawful good samurai following evil orders. Of course, belief that each soul reincarnates according to its honor and ethics has a huge impact on how moral an action is. As players and GMs, remember that the existence of angels, devils, elementals, and undead should change how we see the world when we're acting. Perhaps religious characters are more motivated by the presence of provable miracles. Maybe arcane casters tapping into elemental fire view the outer planes as just more forces to be studied and manipulated. How we mortals view trans-mortal realms says a lot about us as people and players, and can be responsibly used to make gaming more interesting. 

Understand Your Cosmology

Plane-touched adventures should include every bit of whatever cosmology you intend to use in your game. If there are elemental planes, don't ignore them and only focus on upper or lower realms. If my cleric can travel to the third layer of the Abyss, why can't he purchase a flaming sword on the Plane of Fire? The best approach to planar campaigns is to set up a cosmology beforehand and allow characters to utilize Knowledge (planes or religion) to understand it. Once a game introduces planar themes, the entire cosmology should be available to explore so long as the players can find a way to cross from one world to another. It's far better for there to be no elemental planes at all, than to suggest there might be elemental planes and deny curious adventurers the chance to go there. Know your cosmology out-of-character from the beginning of your game so everyone can explore and enjoy it in-character.

These general bits of advice will help create a plane-touched environment for the GM and PCs. By having clear fences in terms of cosmology, and realizing the impact that divine magic and  inter-planar travel have on mortal cultures, your gaming group can share common expectations that make for a better game. Over the next couple of weeks we'll talk more about plane-touched characters and the plots of plane-touched adventures. We hope to see you here each week!

Speaking of being here every week, September concludes our first full year on the Four Horseman Blog. We have had a great time and appreciate your continued support. Believe me, the four of us can write about roleplaying games every week for the rest of our lives with little trouble. But we also want to know what thoughts on mechanics or principles you'd like to read about. In the next year we'll repeat some themes we're fond of and explore brand new ones.  I'm hoping each of you will add a comment below about what you enjoyed seeing from us this last year, or what you'd like to see us talk about in coming months. We love feedback and enjoy talking about gaming with each of you, so we definitely covet your thoughts as we maintain and improve the blog here at our new home.

We'll collect some comments for the next few blog entries and announce the most exciting new themes in October. Until then, have good times with great games, and may every monster attack the cleric first!

 
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