For complicated and not entirely explicable reasons (which include the most small 'c' conservative PC in the group voting whimsically to go through a known interplanar portal along with the party's confirmed nutcases), the PCs in my regular campaign ended up in the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning in last week's session.
Needing to actually now devote a level of thought to the contents of this plane where previously there was a very brief sketch, I turned to the old Planescape splatbook, The Inner Planes, to see what it might have to offer.
I was disappointed. But this is not an unfamiliar feeling where Planescape is concerned. I loved the setting as a 12-year old, because it was so genuinely different to anything else that I had previously encountered, because of Diterlizzi's wonderful art, and because at the level of broad brushtrokes it was indisputably highly imaginative: an infinite plane of radiance! An infinite plane of the natural world, writ large! An infinite plane of technological pursuit of war! An infinite prison! The ambition that is hinted at, and the larger-than-life scale of what is depicted, is still inspiring to me as an exercise in demonstrating what 'fantasy' can be thought to mean. And I treasure the original boxed set that I have in my possession accordingly.
But the reality is that Planescape is a tease. At the level of implementation, it is not imaginative at all: it is humdrum and dull - inspiring only by accident. Lacking the creative tools to do anything with the setting, the authors only ever seemed to come up with practical results that were barren and inert, leaving the individual DM to do all the imaginative heavy lifting. For all that the line presents itself as the apotheosis of TSR's imaginative flair, in truth it is in its own way as banal as the Forgotten Realms.
The Inner Planes and its treatment of the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning is a case in point. Here we have something that could be mindblowing: an infinite plane of pure storms. What could live in such a place? What could happen within it? What would its politics, its economy, its society resemble?
In the hands of Monte Cook and William W Connors, though, the answer is: we don't know, except insofar as it is not very interesting. The lack of intellectual energy and commitment in the prose is itself striking:
'In appearance, this quasiplane resembles the Elemental Plane of Air that sired it, but rather than endless blue skies, it holds nothing but black storm clouds that rumble with thunder and flash with inner fires (heat lightning). Janison's treatise Planar Energies descibes "bolts of lightning and balls of energy dancing amid the billowing, threatening clouds".' You don't say. 'The Grand Archives of the Fraternity of Order list a total of 143 portals leading to and from [the plane]...' it goes on. 'Rumours speak of individuals struck by powerful discharges of lightning - whether from a storm, a magical item or spell, or the breath of a dreagon - who were transported [there] as a result. This seems highly unlikely to the scientific mind, but as we all know, each rule has exceptions and loopholes, so it could be possible.' Later on, we learn that 'Although the quasiplane...is not without life, most of it is difficult to discern, since it resembles the lightning of the realm itself. Some theorists have speculated, in fact, that all lightning in the quasiplane is alive somehow...This is far from being proved true, however, and most still assume that the majority of the lightning seen here is nothing more than it seems (which makes it no less incredible or worthy of study).' Later still, the ghost is given up entirely: 'For all their somewhat chaotic nature, the creatures that populate Lightning do not seem to value individuality, as few single beings stand out from the proverbial crowd...The vast majority of the quasiplane is little but one storm-cloud after another...For some reason, the natives of the Thundering Realm rarely conflict at all....Records of travelers journeying to the quasielemental plane of Lightning are extensive, but they provide little consistent explanation as to the nature of their stay.'
What on earth is this? The text should be fizzing with ideas that the DM can use for adventure hooks and weird and wonderful content for him to riff on. Instead, the laziness on display is almost palpable. It is phoned-in. It is padded out. It is verbiage for the sake of it. It is words written to fill space. Its tone is almost insultingly flat.
And the substance itself gives one nothing to work with. It's not that there are no ideas in the text at all - some of them are even quite good. It seems, for example, that near the neighbouring plane of Ice, there exist floating icebergs made from frozen stormclouds, and imbued with inner radiance; another interesting idea is the existence of beings which live and reproduce inside lightning bolts. The problem is that what ideas there are are simply cast before the reader like chaff, without any help with implementation - mere fluff, with nothing to crunchify it.
It should hardly be surprising that if I had been writing the book I would have approached it from entirely the other direction, producing a method by which, through the use of random tables and the like, the DM could actually build up a campaign region within his or her chose plane: in this hex is a stormcloud-berg, and here are a set of tables to generate its inhabitants and some adventure hooks; in that hex is a floating chunk of earth that has strayed in from the respective plane, and here is a way to find out what lives on it; and so on. But the book advances no such method. It is the lightest of salads.
The broader problem is that, wedded to their broad brushstrokes-project and therefore wishing therefore to always be innovative, the authors of products like The Inner Planes neglected the vast back catalogue of TSR lore, to the great detriment of the usability of their products. It should be plainly evident to anyone, for example, that the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning would be the abode of storm giants, blue dragons, tempests, and all the other existing D&D monsters who would naturally call such a place home. Thinking how standard D&D races such as humans, orcs, elves, etc. would make their homes in such a place would also be in itself an interesting creative endeavour and produce vastly more usable content. But, wishing to be fresh, the authors ended up producing something that is only ephemeral and insipid; this could indeed, sadly, be Planescape's motto.