Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Uncaged: Faces of Sigil is exactly the kind of RPG rulebook I love to read

While most of the art in Uncaged is incorporated with the text, there are some full-page illustrations
Wizards of the Coast recently launched www.dndclassics.com, a site that allows players to purchase PDF versions of classic D&D rulebooks. I immediately fell in love with Uncaged: Faces of Sigil, and bought it for ten dollars. Though I have no chance of actually playing in a D&D campaign in the Planescape setting, I don't regret that purchase for a moment. The book is packed with colorful descriptions of a host of interesting characters, topped off with some great illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi.

DiTerlizzi did all the interior art, but they had someone else do the cover. I'm not thrilled with that decision.
I love reading rulebooks to roleplaying games. As I have described before, I may not play in as many pen-and-paper RPG campaigns as I would like, but I believe that RPG rulebooks make for fascinating reading, since they are designed to help players tell stories in imaginary worlds.

I love Tony DiTerlizzi, and I am fascinated by the Planescape setting, so I ate up this rulebook. It presents profiles for over 40 characters who live in Sigil, the City of Doors. Sigil is the central location of the Planescape setting, one of the stranger D&D game lines from the 90's. The city is home to all manner of people, from the monstrous to the celestial and everywhere in between. They all mostly get along under the watchful gaze of the mysterious Lady of Pain.

Uncaged does not describe the most important people in Sigil. The factols, rulers of the city's factions, are detailed in another book, The Factol's Manifesto (currently still unavailable on dndclassics.com, but I'll keep checking back). Instead, Uncaged focuses more on "color" characters who can be anything from street musicians to shopkeepers to spymasters. There are several plots going on, with various characters either competing or working together to accomplish certain goals.

 One of the things that makes the book so readable is the way the characters' stories all interrelate. Each character's entry mentions several other characters in the book, and then at the end of the entry, the reader is given page numbers for those related characters. This makes the book easy to browse, as you go from character and character. Along the way, you build an increasingly detailed understanding of what's going on in Sigil.

The book is heavy on the fluff, light on crunch. The vast majority of the pages are taken up by descriptions of the characters. Each character has a column after his or her entry giving the character's stats, items, and abilities, but these are mostly included for form's sake. You won't find any new items, spells, or abilities here, and much of what you do get is simply a reference to material found in other books.
This is AD&D 2nd Edition, so the lower your THAC0 and AC, the better. Kids, ask your parents.
That's fine for me, since I was reading the book for the stories anyway. I found most of the characters interesting in his or her own way, though of course they can't all be winners. My favorites included A'kin, a demon shopkeeper who is suspiciously friendly to his patrons, Xideous, a gehreleth (a type of demon) who hates yugoloths (another type of demons) because they are harder to summon than gehreleths and therefore seen as superior; and Ylem, a modron who merged with a slaad and became a little confused (no pun intended).

Some of the characters were a little too stock, others too weird. Kylie, the tough-talking tiefling girl, was the same character you get in half the fantasy stories set in urban settings, and I just didn't know what to make of Rule-of-Three and Unity-of-Rings, who both represent two of the three ruling concepts of Sigil. Even if some characters didn't catch my imagination, the fact that they all tied together with other characters meant that there was something interesting about each entry.
While most of the characters are presented in a fairly straightforward way, with text describing their personality, appearance, and activities, some of them are described more creatively. There are interviews with a few, some excerpts from written works either by the characters themselves or others, and in one memorable instance, a conversation held between two minds trapped in gemstones. I also enjoyed that there are some supplemental pages scattered throughout, such as advertisements for shops, that would make interesting handouts for players. The fact that the book is now available as a PDF would make it even easier for DMs to print out these pages for their players.

If the book has a weakness, it's that some of the descriptions are rather vague. For instance, we learn that Shemeshka the Marauder hates A'kin, but we never learn why. There are several rumors presented, but none of them are put forward as more plausible than the next. This might actually serve two benefits, however: first, as there is no answer given, the DM does not feel compelled to answer the question, but can instead leave it always up in the air to add some mystery to the game. And second, the DM can, if necessary, come up with his own explanation, and elaborate on whichever rumor is most compelling to the DM and the players.
Ten dollars may seem kind of pricey for a rulebook for a game I'll never play, but I consider Uncaged: Faces of Sigil to be more like a collection of related short stories. It has full-color art throughout, and at the end of the day, I'm just the kind of guy who enjoys reading about strange characters living in a magical ring-shaped city. If I also find out what those characters' THAC0 and AC are, I consider that a bonus.

3 comments:

  1. Sir, you are precisely the kind of player a DM would be lucky to have in a game: creative, involved, and interested. I only hope one day you find a DM who can capture your imagination as well as these books have. :)

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  2. Aw, shucks! You know you're the best DM I've ever played with.

    Someday I really need to throw my hat in the ring and start running my own game. I figure if I've got all this enthusiasm, I should channel it into a campaign.

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