Thoughts on Manual of the Planes

January 12, 2009 at 6:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
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All right, so let’s talk about Manual of the Planes.

As I explained in my previous post, Planescape is my favorite of the old settings, with Dark Sun as a runner up. I was (am?) a huge fan of Mage: the Ascension.  For me, Mage: the Ascension : old World of Darkness :: Planescape : Dungeons and Dragons.

I talked about the changes to D&D cosmology in my previous post and none of that was particularly new if you’ve read the DMG. So what’s in the Manual of the Planes that’s not in the DMG?

What’s old is new again

There’s one thing I have to get out of the way: the Manual of the Planes makes explicit a few things that might’ve been implied before, which is that there’s room for many of the old 2nd Edition settings in the 4th Edition cosomology.

As I mentioned before, Sigil, the City of Doors gets a write-up. It consists of about four and a half pages, which includes a run-down of the various wards, a bit about portals, and some key characters. There’s next to nothing on the factions or anything like that; it’s more of a thumbnail sketch of Sigil. If you have access to the old Planescape stuff, this isn’t going to offer you much that’s new. Personally, while I’m sad that there isn’t more, in the end I’m just pleased to see it get a treatment. Apparently, there’ll be a more detailed write-up of Sigil in the DMG2 (DDI sub req.).

Two other classic settings get a nod. Ravenloft lives in on in Domains of Dread the Shadowfell. They’re essentially pocket dimensions within the realm, meaning you can run all kinds of messed up Ravenloft stuff should you so desire. They don’t have any specific ones; they just mention ’em and give a sketch of roughly how they work. Also included are vehicle rules for Astral Skiffs and, er, Spelljammers, designed for sailing the Astral Sea.

Manuel de los Planos

That said, I’m sort of at a loss how to describe the book, if only because you can get a pretty good idea of what’s in it by looking at the table of contents. I’ll see what I can do, though. Each chapter in the book pretty much follows a pattern: a page or two on physics and exploration; a few pages on various denizens and why they’re there; and eight or so pages’ worth of notable features.

Two exceptions are the first and last couple of chapters. The first chapter is an overview. It explains the concept of planes (incl. things like planar physics), the ins and outs of planar travel, some basic dynamics for how you can involve the planes in your game, and so on. It’s worth pointing out that they provide a one page or so rundown of the Great Wheel, which is nice to see.

The last two chapters are more crunchy than the rest, as you might guess from the TOC. I haven’t read either of them in much depth except for the big name monsters like Grazzt, Dispater, and Baphomet. I will say that the monster chapter has a slight bias towards the paragon and epic tiers, which should come as no surprise.

The Shadowfell and the Feywild each get their own chapter, which includes a rundown of the denizens and a few notable features (e.g. a city) for each. () If you plan on using either of them at all, these sections will give you some ideas on how to use and populate each realm for your campaigns as well as providing enough flavor for you to create your own features.

After reading these sections, I am much more inclined to give them a whirl in any future campaigns. These are the planes that heroic tier characters are most plausibly able to handle. At low levels, when it’s unlikely they’ll have means of getting there on their own, you can simply provide a static portal or a number of other phenomena to get your players there. It seems like they scale pretty well to paragon tier, too, when you take into account the various nasties that live in the deeper reaches of either place.

A number of the old planes have made it into the Astral Sea, and they get a write-up in that chapter. There’s typically a page or so for each, though of course the Nine Hells each get a half a page or so worth of text. Typically these are broad strokes, with extra wordcount for particularly notable features (e.g. the city of Dis). Of all the sections in the book, I’d say I find these the most interesting: they’re bite-sized, enough for inspiration, and each one is fairly distinct. Most planes have some interesting feature or denizen or another, so it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a reason to involve any of these planes, especially if you’re used to Planescape.

The Elemental Chaos has a similar treatment, with some notable features and a more lengthy write-up for the Abyss. I don’t have much to say except that I think the Elemental Chaos is much cooler than the old Elemental planes, from a conceptual standpoint. The elemental planes were too workmanlike, in the sense that they’re just sort of there, you expect them to be there, but there’s not a whole lot you can do with most of them. You can get the same flavor with the Elemental Chaos, with the added coolness that comes with it essentially being a forge of creation.

Final word

On a personal note, I think this is my favorite supplement so far. The majority of Manual of the Planes is devoted to fluff and setting, which means it’s a much more engaging read than lists of powers or magic items both from a player’s and DM’s perspective. Each section has enough specific places to give you ideas for all sorts of planar exploits, but has a light enough touch that there’s plenty for any Dungeon Master to fill in. The cosmology is also much more useful in a practical sense. You should be able to come up with a reason for a campaign that involves any plane.

Perhaps the only criticism I could really offer is that the amount of material here pales in comparison to the totality of the old Planescape setting. If you have access to all of that old stuff, I would argue that this is still useful, if only because it gives you a 4th Edition lens through which you can view the old stuff. In other words, you might want to look at this as a supplement to all of the old stuff rather than the other away around.

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