Out in the blogosphere, Tristan and Dan are posting about what truly makes their setting work at its core. I’ve decided to do the same. Below you will find the six primary themes that make up The Planarch Cantos – the omniversal, reality hoping, infinite spanning setting I try real hard to run games in.
I don’t think I do a good job of expressing these things in play, so I’m hoping writing this will give me a focus to think back on during the game.
1. Everything Ends
Every Canto in the omniverse is a unique song in the void. Except Rivage, for the City is the antithesis, the end of these songs.
When Rivage consumes another world, it ends. The places, the cultures, the peoples. Even for those that survive as refugees in the City itself, nothing will ever be the same – what has come before is no more.
This is true of everyone and everything. Nothing lasts forever.
2. Each End Creates A Beginning
As the City consumes and destroys, it also builds itself – new places, different places, amalgams of many things. And the refugees that come to the City for safety? Their cultures, their bloodlines, too become changed. They begin something new.
Though everything ends, these endings give space for new growth, new creation. Death begets life.
3. No One Is Really In Charge
When folk search for meaning, they often find it. When they search for power, they find that, too. Every block, every district in the City has some little warlord or savior or bastion that controls and organizes it. Often they bend the knee to someone greater.
But no one, no matter how big, is truly in charge of everything they think they’re in charge of. There are always those more powerful, always those who seek their weakness.
Many may think they’re in charge, but no one truly is.
4. There Is No Black And White, Just Grey
The thousands of cultures and philosophies in Rivage may be enough to clue you in, but if not, take it to heart: there is no such thing as “good” and “evil” here. It’s all a matter of degrees. Everyone thinks they’re in the right – you think a villain sees themselves as villainous?
Sure, the Rulekeepers’ll try to tell everyone how to be, and how to live, but the rules of the streets don’t often listen to what those in power want. Even the staunchest defender of life will kill when necessary; even the most crooked thief will give when needed.
5. Life Follows A Pattern
There is great variety in the realities of the omniverse, but for some reason, there’s not as much among her peoples.
Nearly every worldsphere ever recorded has Humans. They are like a fungus – hardy, tough to get rid of, and spread everywhere.
Most worlds have Alfar – beings with a connection to the natural world. While they often present as smaller Humans, there is always some tell to set them apart – small horns, cloven hooves, pointy ears, furry feet, or what have you.
There’s others that show up on multiple worldspheres, to lesser degrees – the Trolls, ugly hulking creatures with an affinity for dark, hidden places; the Yokai, small furry shapeshifters with a penchant for trickery; the Scarabae, deadly brutes who hide philosophers’ minds beneath thick exoskeletons; and the Strigi, the feathered nobles, selfish and disloyal.
There’s an unlimited number of other folks, but they’re few. Last of their kind, usually. All the rest come from one worldsphere, and if they’re in the City, their world is long gone.
6. There Are Things Outside Of What We Know
The void between worldspheres is not empty. There are things out there. Places, entities, and other strangeness that doesn’t fit inside what we view as real and truthful.
Celestials and Infernals are known by many, even outside the City – they are the creators and destroyers, the things outside reality, either worshiped or reviled. They live in the void, come from the void, but are obsessed with the real. Their motives are opaque, but those in the know categorize them by their schemes – Infernals take, and Celestials give.
Constructs are not from the void – they are created life. Powerful magic, faith, or any number of things can create them. But by all accounts, these creations should not be. Whatever power animates them and gives them purpose is beyond mortal comprehension.
Then there’s the Astrals – a collective word for all the folk from various worldspheres who have chosen or adapted to live within the void itself. Most travel in great ships or live on worldshards – crumbs left in Rivage’s wake. There are whole societies, great and small, among the Astrals.
Setting Inspirations and Touchstones
There are many things I can point to that inspire me. Here’s everything I can think of (Drivethru links are affiliate links).
- David Lewis Johnson’s gonzo science-fantasy Gathox Vertical Slum presents us with a city on the back of a god that crawls across worlds. Includes minimal Sword & Wizardy rules (which I actually like).
- Jack Shear’s wonderful Umberwell is a fantasy city after my own heart – full of dirty and grime and fiends and moral grey areas.
- The Planarch Codex is where I got the name and the idea of a consuming city. Very light supplement for Dungeon World that can be used almost anywhere.
- The Planescape Campaign Setting will always be in my heart. This is the original D&D I grew up with. Two additional books stand out even if you don’t want to use the whole campaign setting – In The Cage covers Sigil, “The Cage”, the great city at the center of the cosmos; and Uncaged covers NPCs and locations in Sigil.
- Spelljammer is another setting from the Planescape era with ships that sailed the space between worlds on the Prime Material plane. That concept has been plucked wholesale into The Planarch Cantos.
But there’s more than just RPGs, there’s also…
- The world of Throne from Kill Six Billion Demons is a massive inspiration for visualizations in my head.
- That also makes me think if Prophet which isn’t an urban based setting, but has amazing visuals, and just the right level of weird to fit perfectly.
- The Fifth Element for all of the same reasons.
- The GSV ships in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series are usually on my mind – when we get to voidships in play, I intend to give them personalities because of these books.
- And probably tons more…