My first encounter with a setting that wasn’t featured on the inside front cover of my PHB came in May 1995, a few days after my birthday. I had money to spend, so of course I headed to the mall to grab some CDs at Sam Goody and browse the FLGS. Sitting there on a shelf in the D&D section was something that looked like no D&D product I had ever seen — even the Dark Sun box set seemed more like familiar fantasy, given that 80s cartoons had their share of post-apocalyptic sword and sorcery. At first glance, Planescape looked like the bastard child of a D&D box and a Nine Inch Nails album cover. Given that I was freshly 16 and it was 1995, that meant I grabbed it and bought it without a second thought.
Planescape, for all that I loved it and frankly still do, certainly does reek of TSR desperately grabbing at the stylistic flourishes of 90s culture, both within and without the gaming world. There’s a certain proto-steampunk vibe to the City of Doors, and the Factions are essentially D&D’s version of World of Darkness Clans or Tribes.
Still, as silly and tacked-on as the D&D multiverse cosmology can sometimes feel, Planescape turned into something awesomely fun. These games were wild dashes across realities, full of colorful characters and and insane backdrops. Planescape is one of the few settings that I probably spent more time playing than running after 1994, so that may also be a factor in my fond recollection.
The other thing that Planescape seriously had going for it was Tony DiTerlizzi. His distinctive style combined with some Brian Froud-influenced design made the setting look like the most kickass Jim Henson movie never made. Any time I bought a Planescape book that wasn’t dominated by DiTerlizzi illustrations, I was severely disappointed. Fortunately, he did the bulk of the monster work, along with a good amount of work for Dragon Magazine and various other mid-90s TSR publications. To this day he remains one of my absolute favorite fantasy artists.
This will probably be the final post in this particular series, so here are my quick thoughts on the other TSR-published settings of AD&D 2nd Edition:
- Spelljammer: A cool concept with some flaws in execution. The Planejammer site is a very cool take on the D&D multiverse philosophy.
- Dragonlance: I read the first few books; I’m not a hater, but I’m not exactly a fan either. As far as the box set was concerned, I thought it was one of the worst presented products I had ever encountered.
- Birthright: I’m more impressed now with the setting than I was at the time, though not so much for the world but the good design for domain-level play. The world is a bit cooler than I originally gave it credit for, though.
- Kara-Tur, The Horde, and Maztica: None of these semi-independent settings that were added to the Forgotten Realms world hit the sweet spot of Al-Qadim, though I like the principal behind them all. Oriental Adventures for 3E and Legend of the Five Rings are much better takes on Asian fantasy. I still don’t know if I’ve seen a good Mesoamerican fantasy setting.
- Greyhawk: Outside of the flavor of the setting present in spell names and the Book of Artifacts, I never actually played or read anything Greyhawk-related until the very late 90s, when WoTC did a few Greyhawk things during the dying days of 2E, and then did some 3E Greyhawk gaming when the new rules first dropped. Having read up a lot on the setting in the past couple years, I’m glad I never engaged with the 2nd Ed version, though I’ve been really tempted to purchase the original World of Greyhawk box (published when I was 15 months old) off of ebay. I’m holding off, though; $40-$50 for a D&D box I’d mostly just ogle doesn’t seem like the wisest investment.