It struck me the other day that Planescape is another of those tabletop settings that bitter-sweetly is both well loved and little played. Well...that is except for it's popular computer alter ego, Planescape Torment. Not only was that game played widely in the years around its 1999 release, it's considered a cult hit to this day.
Why the disconnect? Why didn't the tabletop version rocket into cult status too?
Undoubtedly there are many reasons: the rising primacy of computer games over face-to-face, the runaway popularity of the Bioware games of that era, Planescape's appearance at the end of the 2e setting smorgasbord, etc. But it occurred to me that part of it is that Torment managed to hit some deep D&D elements that the tabletop material glossed over in its drive to play toward being a rival with that White Wolf hooha of the time (thanks Robert and other readers for that particular insight).
Namely it made good on the megadungeon lurking under the streets of the setting's literal hub city, Sigil. Enamored by its original bits, most gameplay in the setting revolved around adventure around the planes and less successfully around political intrigue amongst the factions.
Hints at a undercity play arena were only vaguely hinted at. The original Sigil booklet has the haziest of mentions and it's only later with In the Cage: a Guide to Sigil supplement do you even get a peak at what a massively missed opportunity there was:
"The homes of the dabus [the weirdo, rebus-speaking floating worker drones of the city] are deep underground; some Cagers [Sigil citizen] say that the entire torus is a warren of dabus, and that the part of Sigil on the surface is only the face the city shows to the Ring, to travelers. The actual city is a maze of deep tunnels, storehouses, dungeons and corridors...”
That's a hell of a tease. The booklet goes on to continue to tease about the possibility throughout the book, detailing places like the Twelve Factols, an underground tavern where drunken obnoxious diners will on occasion force the serving staff to let them traipse into the deep passages that lead into the Catacombs behind warded doors. You hear a lot about the tavern in that passage but nothing about what lies beyond.
According to the Planewalker wiki this massive underground is only called “UnderSigil” by the Clueless (outworld newbies according to that annoying PS in-game cant), it is mostly known as "down below," "the Catacombs," "the Realm Below," or "the Labyrinths" according to the locals. The mention of it immediately makes me think of the romance of the giant undercities of Tekumel, where the ritual half-millennial clearing and rubbling over of the cities create layer over layer of rich adventure.
Whatever the name it is called (and I am partial to all of them as evocative titles) Torment was the only large-scale exploration of that play area in the setting. Play down underneath in the game simply rocks. Each sub-map of down below just drips with unique flavor and seem ready made for the sub-level punctuation of the sheer mass of a megadungeon.
You have a Buried Village under the heaps of the Trash Warrens. You have an entire underworld realm of sentient skeletons, zombies, and ghouls with a unique civilization, the Dead Nations. Another subrealm, the Warren of Thought, dominated by a collective rodent brain with its cranium rat and wererat minions. An animate skull library, the Bones of the Night, lorded over by a kooky wizard. Weird tombs and catacombs a plenty with talking carved heads and unique critters.
Great stuff in other words.
Play in D&D doesn't have revolve around the eponymous dungeon, but it's often at it's best as a game when the agoraphobia is kept under wraps by the comfort of a tight mortared ceiling. It's a shame that UnderSigil wasn't explored further, but I suppose that's what makes Gygax's famous parting words from OD&D ring so true yet again: “why have us do any more imaging for you?”
Indeed. Go forth and build your own undercity.