The description of Carceri is very brief in the 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), but it was enough to pique my interest:
The model for all other prisons in existence, Carceri is a plane of desolation and despair. Its six layers hold vast bogs, fetid jungles, windswept deserts, jagged mountains, and black ice. All form a miserable home for the traitors and backstabbers that are trapped on this prison plane.DMG, p. 63
It seems though, that the lore of this plane runs a lot deeper than what the DMG shows, and so we have to look back at the three existing editions of Manual of the Planes to get a better understanding of this plane. That, and the art work that may have inspired Carceri in the first place.
I can’t find any source that says that Giovanni Batista Piranesi’s Carceri d’invezione (Imaginary Prisons) was an inspiration for the D&D Carceri, but after looking through the plates, I have a hard time believing it wasn’t. I highly recommend checking them out through the link to the Wikipedia article above. This is some high-test RPG fuel.
What Previous Editions Say
As for the D&D lore, the Carceri originated as a plane called “Tarterus” in the first edition of Manual of the Planes. It’s not until the 3rd edition that it gets the name “Tarterian Depths of the Carceri”. The consistent through line is the mention of six layers being a specific feature of the plane. By the time Carceri is mentioned in the current edition, all references to Tartarus are dropped. That could change if another edition of Manual of the Planes is published. I’m not holding my breath, but a DM can hope.
Of course the original name Tarterus is a reference to Greek mythology:
And indeed, in the first edition of the Manual of Planes , the makes direct reference to the Titans:
The sixfold layers of Terterus are a fell region inhabited by great evil beasts. It is the home of many evil powers in exile, such as the greater titans, who were driven out of Olympus…-Manual of the Plane – 1st Edition
I’d guess this was an attempt to shift D&D lore to being less directly derivative of mythology, folklore and religion, but I don’t have a source for that either, so your guess is as good as mine.
A Carceri of My Very Own
The part I find most interesting is the quote from the 5e DMG, stating that Carceri is “the model for all other prisons in existence. To me, that suggests an incredible place, with features that range from ordinary prison cells, to whole worlds imprisoned for crimes against the gods. Prisoners may be subject to the grimmest tortures as punishment, or live in a luxury designed to keep them from trying to leave. It also suggests the possibility that, like any other prison, the innocent could be imprisoned there, either accidentally, or because they crossed the wrong divine being with there heroism.
You can find the maps and encounters inspired by the Carceri categorized under Everdown Maps.
- Jeff Grubb (July 1987). Manual of the Planes 1st edition. (TSR), p. 104. ISBN 0880383992.
- Jeff Grubb, Bruce R. Cordell, David Noonan (September 2001). Manual of the Planes 3rd edition. (Wizards of the Coast), p. 49. ISBN 0-7869-1850-8.
- Richard Baker, John Rogers, Robert J. Schwalb, James Wyatt (December 2008). Manual of the Planes 4th edition. (Wizards of the Coast), p. 16. ISBN 978-0-7869-5002-7.
- Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford, Christopher Perkins, James Wyatt (2014). Dungeon Master’s Guide 5th edition. (Wizards of the Coast), p. 47. ISBN 978-0786965622.