Non-Digital: The Visionary Worldbuilding of 2nd Edition AD&D

I started roleplaying with the Finnish edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and graduated to playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition as soon as I learned enough English to read the books.

While there’s been good and interesting stuff done in the 3rd, 4th and 5th editions of the game, for me the one true D&D will always be the 2nd edition. Not because of the rules, but because of the world.

TSR published a number of campaign settings in which the game could be played. Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Birthright, and so on. However, they were not content with just creating different fantasy worlds. They also created a unified superstructure into which all those worlds fit.

A thief hiding from a beholder in an asteroid belt. A typical scenario in the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

A thief hiding from a beholder in an asteroid belt. A typical scenario in the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

Crystal Spheres

In addition to the normal campaign settings published for AD&D 2nd Edition, TSR published two “meta-settings”. The first was Spelljammer, and the second Planescape.

Spelljammer is D&D in space. It presents a universe where solar systems are held in vast crystal spheres floating in a combustible substance called Phlogiston. Ships (I mean wooden sailing ships) could be fitted with a magical device called “The Spelljamming Helm” and used to travel to other planets as well as between the crystal spheres.

Best of all, all the normal campaign worlds were seen as parts of this overarching vision: You could fly your spaceship from the world of Forgotten Realms to the world of Dragonlance.

From this perspective, all the worlds of D&D were in fact the same world, sort of like the Marvel Universe of D&D. From the perspective of an individual campaign, it didn’t matter too much, but for a D&D geek like me, it was heady stuff.

A simplified diagram explaining the organization of the planes. This came with the Planescape Campaign Setting box.

A simplified diagram explaining the organization of the planes. This came with the Planescape Campaign Setting box.

Infinity

Other planes of existence had been a part of D&D from a pretty early stage, but they didn’t really come into their own until the introduction of Planescape. Like Spelljammer, Planescape connected existing worlds, this time through a structure of infinite planes composed of various moral or physical ideas.

The planar cosmology was pretty complicated. The crystal spheres composed a Prime Material Plane, which contained normal worlds. It was connected to the Inner Planes through the Ethereal Plane and the Outer Planes through the Astral Plane. The Inner Planes were organized around elemental ideas: fire, water, earth, air, life and death, as well as connecting planes, such as radiance or ash. The Outer Planes were moral, with Lawful Evil Baator and the Chaotic Neutral Limbo. The Outer Planes naturally had sublevels, which were also infinite.

In the center of the Outer Planes stood an infinitely tall mountain, and on top of the mountain floated the donut-shaped Sigil, City of Doors.

So by this point you could safely say that the world of D&D had grown pretty complicated.

A small smaple of the books you have to read to understand the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

A small sample of the books you have to read to understand the world of 2nd Edition AD&D.

Back to Earth

In the Wizards of the Coast versions of D&D there’s been a clear shift away from all this towards a more grounded vision of the game. Published books have been more about stuff you can use in a normal fantasy campaign. Other planes of existence have been stunted and sheared into something like a spice or a topping you can use to flavor a game. They’re no longer the place where it all happens.

I understand why. All that stuff was crazy complicated, and appealed mostly to hardcore fans, at least if the sales numbers for Spelljammer and Planescape are anything to go by. The world had floated far beyond anything resembling the basic fantasy roots of D&D.

Still, I’ve never lost my love for the various infinities of the planes. When I first read Planescape, I thought it was the coolest thing ever published. Now, years later, I still appreciate the worldbuilding vision the designers of the 2nd edition had, where every place, from the Asteroid Belt to the City of Brass on the Plane of Fire, was a possible place of adventure.

Non-Digital: Becoming a Perfect Human

An in-game photo from the larp Täydellinen ihminen, by Tuomas Puikkonen

An in-game photo from the larp Täydellinen ihminen, by Tuomas Puikkonen

Recently, me, Jaakko Stenros and Tuomas Puikkonen did a larp called Täydellinen ihminen (The Perfect Human). The idea was to delve deep into the clean, bright world of office stock photos. For a few hours, our participants would become these happy, smiling, efficient and joyful people. They would embody a certain type of corporate dream.

Me and Jaakko did the design, and Tuomas handled the photography. It was an unusual larp project in the sense that the photos were an integral part of the experience, instead of just documentation. After being a perfect human, the participants could then see themselves in actual photos, permanently part of that world.

The game was played in Helsinki on the 20th of September, 2015. Jaakko wrote a few personal reflections about the game here, and the full set of Tuomas’s wonderful photos is here.

That's me sitting in the center left, playing a client. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

That’s me sitting in the center left, playing a client. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The game was about an ordinary Monday at the consulting firm Creative Solutions. The characters all worked there, and were thrilled to be back at work after the weekend. During the day, they met three clients (one about bottled water, the city of Salo and the Guggenheim) and had several internal meetings. That was it: No twist, no surprises, no drama.

One of the ideas behind the game was the concept of “the Soviet man”, the perfect communist citizen. A popular idea in the Soviet Union, this ideal also revealed the problems inherent in the system. The ideal human is not what we have. We just have ordinary humans.

For Täydellinen ihminen, corporate stock photos replace the paintings and statues of Socialist Realism. Instead of the noble, strong factory worker, we have the happy, innovative consultant. The perfect human of the larp is just one of the ideals we live with in today’s society. Another ideal of capitalism is a super-competitive individualist motivated by greed, but we chose to focus on creating the world as it appears in the photos. A place where teamwork and positivity are the most important qualities. This meant that in the workplace of Creative Solutions, everyone collaborated on everything, and always gave positive feedback. Meetings made the characters happy. The team was everything.

This is the magic of innovation in action! Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

This is the magic of innovation in action! Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

I understood the idea of using larp to generate a certain kind of visual surface after I participated in the Brody Condon larp and video project The Zeigarnik Effect in June 2015. In this, as well as earlier pieces by the same artist, larp and video have complemented each other. A larp has certain qualities that are hard to achieve otherwise, and those qualities can be captured on video, or in photos. I knew the idea, but really only realized the potential after having experienced it myself.

In Täydellinen ihminen, game design and visual design came together in the physical play style we workshopped together before the start of the game. In office stock photos, people are happy. They smile. They stand very close to each other. They touch.

In stock photos, people are close, and they're physical. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

In stock photos, people are close, and they’re physical. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The idea was that practising these modes of being beforehand would produce the right kind of images, but also generate a certain atmosphere for the game. We forbade all subtext, hidden agendas, sex, and other distractions to focus on the game’s dream of happy, corporate efficiency and teamwork. This also made it easier for the participants to be casually physical.

Tuomas didn’t play a character and the participants were instructed to ignore the photographer, but it’s clear his presence had an impact on the in-game dynamics. When I was in the game playing a supportive character, I noticed myself and others behaving as if they were on camera even when Tuomas was not in the room. It became part of the physical, bodily language of the game.

The smile has to reach the eyes. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

The smile has to reach the eyes. Photo: Tuomas Puikkonen

So what does it mean to play a larp and become one of the perfect humans? I played a few supporting roles, so I’m perhaps the wrong person to explain what the experience was all about. That’s best left to actual participants.

At one point, I played a normal, non-perfect municipal representative, and it felt overwhelming to be subjected to the team’s energy. I felt like a hick who had come to the big town.