The first thing to say about it is its cosmology and how that sheds light on a big problem that Planescape encountered and which I discussed here. This is that, in an infinite setting, with infinite possibility, it is difficult to imbue events with any meaning. Instead, as I put it in that post, everything comes across as 'intangible, airy, ineffectual'. I might better have used the word 'inert'.
The cosmology of The Wizard Knight is something akin to that presented in Planescape. We have a series of infinite planes which have a kind of alignment-based composition (in this case, Elysion, at the top, is the most pure and good, home of the Most High God, and Niflheim, at the bottom, is the most base and profane, home of the Most Low God; the planes in the middle are shades between them). The central plane, Mythgarthr, is akin to the Prime Material Plane, where human beings live.
The relationship between the planes is also Planescape-esque, with characters being able to move from one to the other to a certain extent. There are no portals exactly between the planes; rather, one simply travels literally upwards or downwards from one to the other. (If one is in Aelfrice, one's sky is literally Mythgarthr - so unless one is below Mythgarthr's sea, one lives in shadow; one can also descend to Muspel, home of dragons, by going down tunnels far enough.) But the basic idea - of travellers from the most 'human' plane going to other ones on adventures - is roughly similar.
But this is also where things start to diverge. Planescape was very much a product of the 1990s, in which 'edginess' and being the anti-hero was in vogue. This meant that all of the planes were conceptualised as being essentially equal. There was no real hierarchy between them. Yes, the 'Upper Planes' were the ones of good alignment and the 'Lower Planes' bad, but this had absolutely no in-game consequence. This was in keeping with the orthodox TSR position of the day on alignments - that good and evil, law and chaos had to be 'in balance'. This was even depicted as a known quality of the multiverse in-game; in 2nd edition AD&D characters of True Neutral alignment were actually presented as seeking to consciously preserve the balance between the alignments through their actions.
(Incidentally, the text of Planescape is strangely coy about the relationship between the good and evil planes - the only real conflict that gets any 'air time' is the Blood War, fought between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil respectively.)
The Wizard Knight, however, assumes a hierarchy, and this actually matters. It is easier to go down than up - almost anyone can accidentally wander into Aelfrice, and going to Muspel and Niflheim is a relatively simply matter of physically descending into the bowels of the Earth. But it is very hard for Aelf to go to Mythgarthr, and almost no human beings are permitted to go to Skai, let alone Kleos. Time also flows differently in the different planes, so that what seems like an hour in Aelfrice may be weeks or months in Mythgarthr, and the main character disappears to Skai for what seems like a very brief period (I think from memory it is just a few hours, though I might be wrong about that) but comes back as a comparatively old man, having spent decades in the upper plane.
In addition to this, there is supposed to be a relationship of veneration between the inhabitants of lower planes vis-a-vis those in the upper ones. Humans, on Mythgarthr, are supposed to worship the Overcyns, who are the gods of Skai. And the Aelf of Aelfrice are supposed to worship humans. At the same time, humans and Overcyns are supposed to set a good example to those in the plane below and model for them the right behaviour; again from memory, I think it is implied that this is so that ultimately everybody in the hierarchy can eventually ascend all the way up to Elysion, but, again, I could be wrong about that. (The book is over 1000 pages long and written by Gene Wolfe, so don't expect me to get every detail right!)
This, however, in practice often gets perverted - most notably by the Aelf, who come up to Mythgarthr when they can. Their magical prowess ensures that humans, particularly those who have lost their moorings by being badly ruled or falling on hard times, start to worship them instead. Similarly, although Skai is objectively better than Mythgarthr, it is riven by conflict between good and evil, and the malformed spawn of the evil gods comes falling down to Mythgarthr in the form of hideous giants - the Angrborn. This throws everything into disorder, and (without spoiling the plot), righting it is one of the things the story is about. (I say one of the things - I think what it is mostly about is a boy growing up into a man, but that's a subject for a future post.)
What Wolfe provides, in The Wizard Knight, is therefore a cosmology that feels dynamic. There is something for its inhabitants to strive for, and a wider telos, if you will, in which they can become integrated. There is a way for their actions to really matter.
Why Planescape doesn't feel dynamic in the same way is something of a mystery, because of course the authors of the setting actually tried their damnedest to imbue it with the kinds of themes that are infused through The Wizard Knight. In Planescape, one of the idealised things that PCs are supposed to be doing - it is suggested - is reshaping the planes through their actions: by ridding, for example, a chunk of the Outlands of chaos and evil, they can actually tip its geography into Mount Olympus or Arcadia. Or, by acting in the name of a God (although the writers called these 'Powers') of one kind or another, they can literally physically enlarge his or her sphere of influence. And, of course, the PCs can themselves aspire to ascend to Godhood and carve out a realm of their own, individually or collectively.
The mystery is at least partly solved by reflecting on how awkwardly the engine of D&D fit into that thematic chassis. Without wishing once more to channel Ron Edwards, there is a basic incoherence that results from using the mechanics of AD&D, which were originally designed for dungeon/hexmap exploration games on a sandbox model (as we all surely now accept), to run campaigns that are orthogonal to that theme. By the time Planescape was being written, that incoherence had become intolerable and unsatisfying - AD&D 2nd edition was being ripped apart at the seams by trying to stay true to the game's mechanics while insisting on grand narrative and plot arcs, to which those mechanics were not at all suited. (This is strongly evident in Planescape's bizarre and half-arsed introduction of a Belief Point economy.)
To do Planescape justice, one really needed a system that was something like Pendragon's, in which the game is to a certain extent about the PCs forging themselves into paradigms of knighthood, and the most important stats are those concerning values and personality. There is an unwritten but much better version of Planescape out there in the ether, in which PCs' stats are largely to do with belief and values, and they roll against these stats in order to effect change in their surroundings. This would be a game worth playing and an exercise worth doing. And in making the relationship between setting and mechanics more coherent, it would give Planescape campaigns a sense of being about something more than simply wandering about in an infinite multiverse. It would, like The Wizard Knight, thereby present its cosmology with more seriousness and weight.
This is an amazing meditation. I love The Wizard Knight, and while I haven't played Pendragon, I would love to see a setting guide for The Wizard Knight in an appropriate system!ReplyDelete
I have toyed with trying to find out if The Wizard Knight is licensable for an RPG.Delete
I really wonder what Gene Wolfe thought of RPGs; I know that Michael Andre-Driussi made a GURPS book for Book of the New Sun some time ago. I wonder who manages the estate; I imagine that a lot is still being sorted out following his passing. That said, I would back that KS in a heartbeat!Delete
Planescape would definitely benefit from a Pendragon- or QuestWorlds-like system.ReplyDelete
Yep, without doubt. I'll add it to my to-do list. ;)Delete
Interesting - would Spire/Heart perhaps be a chassis to start from? There Dark Elfs start a revolution with all the different stats like wealth, blood, magic to stress to get things done, for ether-Planescape it could be belief (strength thereof), alignment, might, whatever - a bunch of stats to stress/flex.ReplyDelete
Playing Spire for me it took a lot to get away from 'I hit it' to 'stress silver to just pay the guy to look the other way' but once I got into the groove it gave a much better sense of getting things done without going blades drawn all the time.
Tough one. I have a real problem with abstract mechanics sometimes, especially when it comes to wealth. Pendragon's kind of mixture of abstract and crunchy mechanics seems about right to me. I'll have to dig out my copy and revisit it (it's ages since I ran a Pendragon campaign).Delete
I really liked this observation and comparison. I've always loved the *idea* of Planescape, but it's no doubt that AD&D2 is a very bad fit for it.ReplyDelete
Yeah, that's the conclusion I came to in the end. It's a project that needs somebody to do it justice. I had vague pretentions of that...but kind of got sidetracked.Delete
Did you get as far as thoughts on what were to be the forces in play - what strings were people trying to pluck with their stats?Delete
Immediate thoughts of mine would be I guess strength of belief would be one, arcane cunning to shape the world to your will, and maybe something along a 'real/dream' axis that spans from the astral to the elemental planes.
I actually like the idea of having a Pendragon-esque list of traits, and people from different alignments (or members of different factions?) start with them weighted in different ways, just like in Pendragon you get the Pagans, Roman Christians and Celtic Christians. You could use them as the basis for acting in the world/changing the world somehow, too. Need to think it through a bit more.Delete
I had a bit of a think based on my last comment - thinking along mind/matter and dominating/persuasive as axes. I think with a little work the classic Planescape factions could fit within it - some more obviously than others.Still not sure how the *effect* would work, not sure it is exhaustive but wrote it up anyway.Delete
TORG, although the setting was very cheesy in hindsight, could conceivably fit the mechanical play you described for Planescape. I played both back in the 90s and could see this mashup working well.ReplyDelete
This is just a minor aside, but my understanding is that Planescape was "coy about the relationship between the good and evil planes" for the same reason they couldn't call them demons and devils anymore: the social climate was such that they weren't able to countenance the possibility of evil having a chance against good (IIRC, all the "angelic" beings have a few more hit dice than their demon and devil equivalents for the same reason) and so those potential conflicts are glossed over because they're a foregone conclusion. Effectively the opposite of the quasi-Taoist neutrality-and-balance thing, in other words, but with a weirdly anodyne end result all the same.ReplyDelete
Interesting point and seems plausible.Delete