Planescape – Well of the Worlds

DM’s Note: This was written in 2019 prior to the release of Descent into Avernus.

One thing I want to do is adapt some adventures from other campaign settings.  This way if my home game has a night where the DM can’t make it they can see some of the other campaign settings outside the Forgotten Realms.  I decided I would find some low level adventures from Eberron, Dark Sun, and Planescape, and work from there.  Eberron’s the easiest.  Closest to traditional fantasy and I know the adventures well already.  I figured if we ever try it I’d start with the Forgotten Forge although Curtain Call is pretty damn good.  Dark Sun is tougher because the adventures are higher level.  “Freedom” and “A Little Knowledge” aren’t great.  There is one I liked for 4E called the Vault of Darom Madar but because it’s 4E there are a lot of fights.  I think it would take the most work to adapt into 5E.

For Planescape I wanted to do something different and find an adventure that doesn’t start in the setting proper.  And as luck would have it, there is a set of adventures called “Well of the Worlds.”  It has ten adventures in it and the first of them assumes your characters are not setting natives.  This makes it the perfect starting point.  Planescape is a little harder to get a handle on than Eberron or Dark Sun.  Eberron has a fusion of post war, noir, punk, magitech, and pulp influences but it is still D&D Fantasy at its core.  Dark Sun is the easiest to grasp: post-apocalyptic sandals and sorcery.  Planescape is so different though.  It reminds me of an episodic TV show like Star Trek.  Nothing is too weird, any kind of situation can be written into the story.  You can go to hell, have traditional D&D fantasy adventures, chat with angels, debate philosophy, and anything can be a portal to anywhere.

The first adventure in Well of the Worlds is “To Baator and Back.”  The PCs go from their traditional fantasy setting through a portal into Baator.  Which is the Nine Hells of the D&D setting.  Specifically they’re in Avernus, the first level of Hell.  You may be familiar with this from the currently recent announcement for D&D’s next hardcover adventure, “Descent Into Avernus,” which sounds like a Mad Max style romp through Hell that includes Baldur’s Gate for some reason.  

The synopsis is straightforward, the PCs accidentally stumble into Hell.  They encounter strange and evil things as they make their way to a portal out of Hell.  They leave Hell and enter Sigil, the City of Doors.  Welcome to Planescape!

When you get to the specifics this is a cool adventure.  It makes Planar travel accessible to the average Level 2 scrub adventurer.  It has a few points where the PCs need to make a certain choice, or they will die.  It also is a bit weird combat wise.  Yes there is combat but I get the sense reading it that the story is obviously pulling its punches.  This a low-level adventure.  Unless the PCs make a dumb choice, they fight some low-level threats.  But there are clearly much much MUCH more powerful foes all around them that they have no chance of touching.  You can feel the author’s thumb on the scales that the PCs just happened to come to Hell on a day when everyone was busy.  The entire point of Planescape was to make the Planes accessible to adventurers.  A 5E caster gets Plane Shift at 13th level.  The Point of Planescape is to make all this real estate someplace lowly adventurers can visit.  By necessity that means the adventures must be less combat focused.  

The adventure points this out a few times.  The PCs are basically creeping around praying not to be noticed.  If the PCs try to start shit, then the Devils will finish it.  If PCs forget their place in the grand scheme of things and act stupidly or draw attention to themselves, they should die.  That can be a hard message to get across to PCs “in game” and it isn’t a tone you want to keep in an adventure all the time.  It’s a hard line to walk between a tense situation where mistakes cause character death and a fun game where the PCs get to feel like heroes.  It’s the essence of a railroad.  The premise of the adventure is that you have railroaded the PCs into Hell.  Obviously they want to get out and there’s one path given to achieve that objective.

All right let’s get into the specifics of this adventure.  Like many Planescape Adventures there is a lengthy bit of backstory with a good conversational tone.  There is also a good summary of the adventure.  I wish it was just the more concise and specific summary with a focus on what the characters will experience.  The language is charming but tough to remember on first read.  The text wants to steep you in the unique idioms and phrases of Planescape, the famous “planar cant.”

Because this adventure is about getting characters into Planescape it starts in some random small town.  There’s a rumor about an abandoned Wizard’s house, maybe someone went missing, maybe there are strange noises coming from the place.  The Text is nonchalant on this point.  The adventure is in that house. If your players don’t want to go there there’s no adventure.  There’s a random fight with an owlbear that goes nowhere so probably cut that.  Maybe it belonged to the wizard and got loose after his death?

Post Play Note: I did use that as a classic Mike Shea style strong start.  There’s an owlbear loose in the village but it clearly has a collar.  Who did it belong to?  Well follow the trail and find out.  If you don’t want to start at level 1 and are feeling a little sadistic, maybe throw three owlbears at the party and number them 1, 2, and 8

The Abandoned House has a great map.  If you ever need a house map, this is a good one.  But there’s nothing in the house.  This is a scene to build tension.  You don’t want to keep telling the PCs “You find nothing” for 6 rooms.  There is a green slime in the kitchen.  There are some potions to find which hints that maybe the scavengers who’ve been over this house haven’t found everything.  Then in the Bedroom the drama strikes.  The PCs get attacked by Lemures, the absolute weakest of weak devils. 

The portal is in a secret room somewhere in the house that obviously needs to be not too secret.  The trick here is that the dangerous magic circle in the center of the room is not the portal, the entire room is the portal.  I would like to have something here to draw the PCs to this room, maybe like an Apprentice Wizard or one of the Lemures to draw them here.  The point here is that the PCs should treat the magic circle like the danger not knowing that just entering the room is the danger.

There’s some backstory here that the PCs don’t have access to.  The Lemures were drawn to this house for its powerful planar energy but don’t want to go back to Hell.  And the magic circle in the basement is what is keeping the portal open.  So theoretically anyone who enters the room gets transported.  Meaning it is entirely possible in the story that one player enters the room, disappears, and the party abandons them to their fate.  I almost want to play this like Wizard of Oz where the entire house is suddenly moved.  I think the aesthetic you want to get across to your players is definitely Wizard of Oz.

Now your PCs are in Hell.

The next encounter happens immediately upon being transported.  The PCs are still in the room but now there is a Spined Devil there.  These are low CR monsters that fly and shoot with their spikes.  This Devil immediately freaks out, smacks their head on the wall, and throws itself at the PCs feat.  This is a comic encounter but the danger is real.  The text here is sharp and gives the Devil a motivation.  This is not just potential interrogation time, this Devil really wants to get out of here to warn their superiors.  It’s only job is to watch this portal and it was bored.  Now it sees a chance for advancement.  Your goal here is to provide the PCs flavor of where they are, what’s going on, and what to do next.  The next step for the PCs is to visit the local witch who might know how to escape hell.  The text says the Devil doesn’t offer this information unless directly asked but this is your goal for the scene.  Otherwise the adventure stops here.

I think the highlight of this adventure might be this moment where the PCs step out of the basement.  They entered through a house.  Now they step out onto a literal hellscape.  You want that “not in Kansas” feel.  The next scene is supposed to be flavor as the PCs make their way from the portal to this witch’s shack.  One important thing is that the PCs are supposed to cross a literal river of blood here.  This is supposed to foreshadow a second crossing later in the adventure.

Like the Spined Devil, the Witch encounter starts as Combat and then moves to being a Social Encounter.  She comes out of her shack swinging a mace, throwing holy water, and casting web.  She calms down a bit when she realizes the PCs aren’t devils although she does hit them with a Gem of Seeing.  This is another good encounter.  The PCs should be asking themselves why would this random half-elf be living in Hell.  The entire thing screams Hag but she’s really not, she’s just an evil woman who spies for the forces of evil.  Lower case h hag.  There are two things a DM needs to get across in this encounter.  Number 1, the next stop in this tour of hell.  Number 2, something called a spell key.  The idea is that magic doesn’t work unless you have a spell key.  This is tricky because this doesn’t exist in 5E.  It is in the original 2E campaign setting.  On different planes, magic works differently.  On a plane of water, you can’t use fire spells as effectively.  Healing doesn’t work on the plane of negative energy.  For Hell, this is the plane of Lawful Evil.  So “wild magic” doesn’t work.  I don’t know exactly what this meant in 2E.  In 5E it refers specifically to the Wild Magic Subclass of the Sorcerer.  I think you would want to adapt this so it is relevant to SOMEONE in your group, even if you don’t have a wild sorcerer.

The reason you might want to give them the spell key even if they don’t ask is because it is relevant to point #1, the next scene.  After a hike through more hellscape you arrive to “The Pillar of Skulls.”  This is similar to something you might’ve seen in the film, “What Dreams May Come.”  It is literally a giant column of various heads.  This is very weird and thematic.  I dig it.  This is a great encounter.  A bunch of heads shouting over each other.  The various heads will give different qualities of advice for different advice.  There is one head that is giving advice that is completely wrong.  The adventure is silent on what happens if the PCs follow this advice.  I guess they just die or have to walk away and come back?  You probably don’t want to emphasize this one but I wish they’d included some idea as far as what to do.  One thing the adventure does note is that if the PCs attack the pillar it attracts attention of nearby fiends.  This would be bad for level 2 pcs.  

From here the adventure goes a bit confusing.  The PCs have the potential to learn from the pillar what they need to escape Hell.  There is a portal a ways away.  In order to activate it they need to have A Brick from the Great Avernus Road.  Again more Wizard of Oz vibes.  However the path there is fraught with peril.  First, they have to cross the River of Blood again.  The first time they crossed the blood was ankle deep.  This time it is waist deep and the River is twice as long.  And it’s full of vampiric worms.  I think reskinning Stirges would be the best course here.

This next part is where it gets weird.  The PCs encounter the Fortress of Bel, who controls Avernus (this is before Zariel, who entered the canon in 2006).  They must sneak around the Hell Fortress and wait several hours for the Armies of Hell to march out.  That sentence is doing a lot of work.  This could be an entire campaign and I half expect that is the entirety of Descent into Avernus.  Here it is a lot of description and nothing else.  No specific skills or tactics are called out.  The PCs are expected to realize they should sneak around the fortress and wait for the literal Army of Hell to roll out.  This would be a good chance for the PCs to have a long rest.  You should not even request a skill check here because the result of any failure is death.  This entire bit is a cutscene.

When the Army of Hell leaves the PCs can get to the road to claim a brick to open the portal out of Hell.  But when they do that, 50 flying devils come out of the fortress to chase them.  Why does the adventure bother including stats?  The PCs cannot win this.  What follows is a chase to the portal.  I’m on record as hating the chase rules.  Dash and roll to not die. *jerk off motion*  There’s no opportunity for smart play here, either you roll and succeed or you roll and fail.  I’m not sure how to sell chases.

After this scene you come to the end boss.  The Portal Out of Hell.  Here waits the devil (not The Devil) who discovered the wizard’s portal and has been waiting with the patience of an immortal for someone to come through.  Like the rest of the adventure this is not a combat encounter, at least not right away.  The devil offers to allow the PCs through the portal if they do him a favor.  They need to carry a mysterious ass orb through the portal.  The devil threatens and cajoles the PCs if they refuse.  While the devil hints that the horde of devils chasing the PCs will kill them if they refuse this is a lie.  If they refuse then they have to fight this one devil.  I don’t know how to read 2E stats so I can’t tell if this devil is supposed to be a badass.  What I can say is that it is worth less XP than the Spined Devil which in 5E is a CR 2 monster.  But it’s worth seven times more than the earlier witch who is a level 7 wizard.  Go figure.  I’d say this cat should be a CR 3-5 for a level 2 party.  Fighting him should be a bad fucking idea but not completely impossible.

Problem with this devil’s plan is that its bullshit either way.  The backstory is that this orb will herald this invasion of Sigil but it doesn’t work.  The orb crumbles when the PCs step through the portal and the devil horde descends on their leader.  The PCs don’t really have any way of knowing this in the text.

That’s it, that’s the adventure.  When the PCs step through the portal they’re in the bustling city of Sigil free to pursue their own course.  They’re not home but they are in Planescape.  The epilogue points out that by this point the PCs are likely covered from head to toe in dirt and blood which is an unusual sight in a Sigil marketplace.  I would end this adventure end by having a passerby offer them some money for the genuine River of Blood blood on their clothes.  The epilogue also points out that any of the NPC devils in this adventure could come back as bigger threats later.

My limited experience with Planescape adventures has told me that they are weird.  I’m not just talking about encounters with squirrel people, trips to Hell, or ancient chalices that poison the Good.  The adventures are written more like novels.  When I look at a passage in the middle of a book like Dragon Heist I get tight declarative sentences about what’s in the room.

Here’s what a passage from the middle in Well of the Worlds looks like:

Notice that Dragon Heist (levels 1-5) calls for the Level 9 spell Greater Restoration to cure an NPC which is a personal peeve of mine.  Writers, stop doing that shit.  The content of a Planescape adventure is just bizarre.  I’m not complaining too hard, after years of Forgotten Realms I love some bizarre.  But it does take some time and effort to read and get used to.

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