Manual of the Planes
Manual of the Planes Capsule Review by Robert Donoghue on 27/08/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
An excellent product that provides all the tools a DM could need to build their own multiverse, while providing a rich background to run out of the box (4/5)
Product: Manual of the Planes
Author: Jeff Grubb, Bruce Cordell & David Noonan
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Line: Third Edition D&D
Page count: 224
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Robert Donoghue on 27/08/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Other
The Manual of the Planes is an both an admirable attempt to provide cosmology for D&D and a well-stocked toolkit for DMs looking to shape their own cosmology. While WOTCs previous planar product, Planescape, is clearly a strong influence upon it, TMotP is very much its own creature. In many ways, it is an ideal supplemental book - it is certainly not a product every DM is going to need, but it provides plenty of information for those DMs looking to take things beyond the pale.
Ostensibly the book is entirely dedicated to providing a DM with the tools necessary to create their own cosmos according to a few general rules. To help in this, the book provides a very detailed overview of the default D&D cosmology, The Great Wheel. The upshot of this balancing act is that DMs looking to run a planar game more or less out of the box can use MotP entirely as a sourcebook, while DMs looking to design their own planes with find plenty of material to work with.
AppearanceTMotP is remarkably reminiscent of the DMG in appearance. The basic design is the same blue and silver, but the frontispiece bears one of the Da Vinci style drawings that decorate the first page of each chapter of the core books. At first I thought the drawing was of some bizarre mechanical creatures, but it turns out it's a Dimensional Sextant.
The interior is similarly identical in layout to the DMG, meaning double columns of dense text, well-done drawings at the start of each chapter and illustrations where a point may need clarification. The diagrams in TMotP are particularly well done, and are used to good effect throughout the book. Despite some occasional overuse of kewl Photoshop tricks for the coloring, they look good.
Building the World(s)
At its core, the model used in TMotP rotates around 4 different types of planes, Material, Transitive, Inner and Outer. The Material Plane includes worlds like Oerth or Faerun, and are basically where D&D is assumed to happen. Transitive planes are planes which connect planes with each other (Astral, Ethereal and Shadow); Inner Planes are those tied strongly to elements or energy (Fire, Earth, Positive Energy etc.) and the Outer Planes are based upon ideology (Good, Evil, Law, Chaos & Neutrality). Additionally, there are planar places not quite big enough to be considered Planes, which are called Demiplanes.
Planes are described in terms of a standardized set of planar traits. These include physical aspects (size, shape, gravity), Elemental and Energy Traits (for planes bathed in fire and the like), Alignment Traits (what alignments the Plane favors) and Magic traits (how the plane effects spells). Each of these traits has a list of standard possibilities, with straightforward rules for handling them. On one hand, this allows DMs to handle the vagaries of the planes with a minimum of bookkeeping, but it is not so rigid a system that DMs cannot throw in odd and unique environments - they simply require a bit more work.
The overall shape of the planes is addressed in a chapter dedicated to how the various planes are connected. This consists of a handful of simple concepts that can be built upon easily. In general, any 2 planes are either coexistent, coterminous or separate. Coexistent planes occupy the same "Space", which means that someone moving from Plane A to Plane B can do so from either plane. A good example of this is the Ethereal Plane, used by creatures like Ghosts or Ethereal Filchers, who can step between the Ethereal and Material Planes at will because the two planes are considered to be "touching" everywhere. In contrast, Coterminous planes only touch in specific areas. This is a flexible idea, and could represent an actual physical border, or specific areas where the veil separating realities is thin or any other of a number of possibilities. A good illustration of this is The Great Ring of Outer Planes, where each plane is coterminous to the two planes it is between, thus forming a complete circle. Separate Planes are, simply enough, planes which do not connect, and barring things like magical gates, the only way to get from one to the other is by going through somewhere else, such as a transitive plane. The elemental planes of Earth and Air are usually separate planes, and to get from one to the other, one must do something like enter the Astral Plane from one, then depart it into the other one. (Note to Planescape Purists: That sounds wrong, I know - Read on)
Between those three concepts: Plane Types, Planar Traits and Planar Relationships, The DM is given a set of tools that can be used to build a pretty solid cosmology. In fact, to illustrate that very point, a simple alternative cosmology (The Omniverse) is detailed as an illustration of how all these things hang together. Naturally, these elements also help in defining the Great Wheel cosmology, which is detailed over subsequent chapters.
Geography Of All Things
Material Plane The Material Plane receives the shortest treatment of the Planes, which is reasonable enough, since it is assumed that it is the plane that DMs and Players are already familiar with. The treatment is interesting in that it addresses the Material Plane the same way it treats any more remote plane, which is potentially useful from the perspective of a game based in the planes. A brief treatment is given for alternate Material Planes, with some sinple guidelines, such as terrain based Planes (IceWorld!), Doppelganger Planes (Goatees!) or other published settings. These are painted in such broad strokes that some of the ideas feel like the basis for Star Trek episodes, but it's a solid primer.
Transitive Planes The Transitive Planes are detailed much more thoroughly. The general idea of the Transitive Planes is that they are planes you go through to get places. This can be both in the direct sense of planeswalking, but also in the more indirect sense of spell use. Teleportation spells, for example, are presumed to go through the Astral Plane. The roles of the three Transitive Planes; Astral, Ethereal and Shadow, are somewhat similar, but they are very distinct planes.
The Astral Plane is probably the most important to planeswalkers, because it touches every single plane. From a certain perspective, it is the medium that everything else is suspended in. It's worth noting that this is a change from previous versions of things: The Astral Plane used to only connect to the Outer Planes, while the Ethereal connected to the Inner Planes: The Astral Plane now serves both those purposes. The impact of removing the Astral Plane from a cosmology is outlined, with attention paid to the spells that would have to be altered or removed.
In contrast, the Ethereal Plane is much more of a place for things to go to, rather than through. It's superimposed on the Material Plane and is the home for ghosts and other intangible things which occasionally materialize in the world. Additionally, its role as a place to put things has occasionally been expanded to include a place to put entire worlds - the Ethereal is probably the single biggest route to demiplanes. The potential impact of the plane's removal from a cosmology is well detailed.
Finally, the Plane of Shadow is the newest addition to the mix. In previous incarnations, this was a Demiplane, but now it is a transitive plane, mechanically very similar to the Ethereal. Practically, it is a dark reflection of the material plane, not evil, but certainly dangerous. In addition to being the source of shadow magic and many illusions, it is also the plane which connects the various alternate material planes. Again, the impact of the plane's removal from a particular cosmology is detailed.
Inner Planes The Inner Planes are probably the simplest to describe, because their nature is so primal. The default Planes include the four elemental planes (Earth, Air, Fire and Water) as well as the positive and negative energy planes. The elemental planes are the home of the elementals of their respective elements, as well as associated creatures, like Genies. These provide some of the most interesting and dangerous environments in the planes. In general, they are hostile to outsiders to one extent or another (the perpetual fires of the Plane of Fire probably providing the most obvious threat) but they also can be navigated with appropriate preparations and protections.
The energy planes have a few natives, but are much less populated than their elemental equivalents. The Negative Energy Plane is the source of power for most Undead, while the Positive Energy Plane provides energy for many "holy" things. Neither Plane is safe to visit - The Negative Plane will suck away a visitor's life, while The Positive Plane can potentially heal a visitor to death, as odd as that sounds. Despite the obvious connotations, neither plane is truly good or evil. They are simply power sources.
While these are all separate planes in the default cosmology, some attention is given to the possibility of them being coterminous, with paraplanes (between two elemental planes) or quasiplanes (Between an elemental plane and an energy plane) existing between them. These pseudoplanes include elements of both planes, so a paraplane between earth and fire might be full of magma, while a quasiplane between Fire and Negative Energy might be filled with nothing but ash.
Outer Planes This is the most detailed section of the book because while the idea of the Outer Planes is straightforward enough, a lot of detail is provided for the specific details in the Great Wheel cosmology.
Outer Planes are based around ideas. The simplest example might be planes of good and evil (say, Heaven and Hell) with the world somewhere between them. Gods tend to live in planes that suit their alignment, the dead go to the appropriate plane when they die and receive whatever reward is appropriate.
The Great Wheel cosmology is based around the twin axes of good-evil and law-chaos. At its center is the plane of neutrality (The Outlands) with 16 planes in a circle around it, like spokes on a (gasp) wheel. The cardinal points are occupied by the plane of purest good (Elysium) opposite the plane of purest evil (The Grey Wastes), and the plane of purest law (Mechanus) opposite the plane of purest chaos (Limbo). Between each of these are a trio of planes moving in ideology between them. Overall, they are arrayed as follows:
Each of these planes (and The Outlands) have a 2-3 page writeup, detailing its inhabitants, geography and places of interest. These are almost universally meaty, with at least one nice dangling plot hook each. Much of the material provided will be familiar to Planescape fans, but its nicely summarized and there are a few new twists.
It's interesting to note that while the Outer Planes are supposed to be home to the gods, very few gods beyond those in the Player's Handbook are mentioned. Presumably this will be at least partly addressed in the upcoming Deities and Demigods book, but it produces some odd moments, like the absence of Norse gods from Ysgard.
Demiplanes The Demiplanes are something of an interesting add-on. Tables are provided for generating Demiplanes on the fly, and a few interesting samples are provided. It's a short section (6 pages), which seems about right for the material.
Alternate CosmologiesThe appendix of the book is dedicated to other ways a GM could set up their universe, ranging from additional planes (like the elemental Plane of Wood or the Mirror Plane as a transitive plane), to entirely new configurations (like the Myriad Planes or Orrery cosmologies) to oddball things (like the Realm of Dreams, or the Far Realm).
While I cannot imagine all of these appealing to any given DM, there is more than enough variety that it should not be hard to find something interesting, either to use or to draw inspiration from.
RulesThere are a few new rules added to the mix by this book, primarily in the form of new spells, prestige classes and monsters.
The new spells primarily revolve around traveling and surviving in the planes. As a group, they seem a solid addition to the mix. A few of the spells, like Xorn Movement or Shadowblast may be useful outside of a planar game, but the vast majority will see little use otherwise, concentrating on portals, elemental effects and the like.
Prestige Classes TMotP introduces four new prestige classes, the Divine Agent, the Gatecrasher, the Planar Champion and the Planeshifter. Effectively, these are planar-oriented versions of the Cleric, Rogue, Fighter and Wizard. As a group, they seem well handled, though there are some potential concerns.
The Divine Agent is probably the most straightforward of the four. The basic idea is for a divine spellcaster who serves their god more directly than the average priest throughout the planes. Advancement is similar to the base Cleric, with spellcasting ability reduced to half speed in exchange for numerous special abilities granted by the deity, including eventual transformation into an outsider of appropriate alignment. The requirements are such that it's an easy class for Clerics and Paladins to qualify for, but rather more difficult for Druids or Rangers, and due to logical requirement for divine spellcasting it's basically unavailable to other classes.
The Gatecrasher emphasizes getting into places throughout the planes that she really shouldn't go. The overall progression is very similar to the bard, while the class abilities emphasize messing around with portals and include some neat abilities like Silver Tongue and an ability to interfere with summoning spells. The requirements for the class leave it open to Rogues and Bards but due to a requirement of multiple ranks of Use Magic Device, it's more or less unavailable to any other class.
The Planar Champion is, simply enough, a fighter who does her business among the planes. Advancement is as a Fighter, with numerous special abilities for travel and survival among the planes replacing the usual bonus feats. The requirements are fairly strict, as they require weapon specialization (which effectively limits the class to fighters) as well as a certain amount of Knowledge (The Planes), which is not an easy skill for fighters to purchase. As such, it's probably best suited for the multi-classed. There's an interesting flavor to this class which strikes me as something out of Moorcock.
The Planeshifter is an arcane spellcaster, who trades off some spell advancement for planar powers, including the eventual ability to construct personal demiplanes. This is a hard class to qualify for, with high skill ranks and the ability to cast 5th level spells required. It's not unreasonable for a Wizard to be able to qualify with their extra skill points from a high Intelligence, but Sorcerers will have a tough time of it, and Bards would not be able to qualify until 13th level, which is problematic for taking advantage of a 10 level Prestige class.
The Prestige Classes presented are quite nice, very stylish and well suited to a Planar game. It is a pity that they are so uniformly limited in their availability. Woe be to the plane-wandering Barbarian or Ranger looking for an appropriate path.
Monsters The monsters are well handled, populated by 3rd edition version of numerous familiar planar favorites, including Githyanki and Githzerai, Genies, Demons, Devils and Paraelementals. Much to the chagrin of some, Modrons are not included, though their role as representatives of law is filled by intelligent constructs called Inevitables. The presentation of the monsters is identical to the Monster Manual, with very nice art, and no clean page breaks.
The real strength of the monster section is in the templates, 7 of them to be precise, covering everything from half elementals to axiomatic creatures (Perfect representations of the type). Like much in the book, the variety is such that there should be something here to appeal to most GMs.
Overall, nothing in this really struck me as something that should have been in the main Monster Manual, so there is no sense of really arbitrary inclusions. All of the creatures listed have strong planar ties, and are of unquestionable utility for a planar game. An interesting bonus can also be found for GMs willing to put in a little time looking over the templates and applying them to the various Summon Monster spells - Templates like Elemental provide a great alternative for things like Abyssal Dire Rats. I wish they had included a section on expanding the Summon lists, but it should not be hard to mock up.
An interesting side note - The Githyanki & Githzerai in TMotP are slightly different than their entries in the Psionics Handbook, in that they are written up in such a way as to not require psionics. While I'm sure this will offend some purists, I was pleased to see that WOTC found a way to include these very neat races without mandating the purchase of another book.
Also on the topic of monsters, I got a delightful 1st edition thrill when I came upon the statistics for both Tiamat and Bahamut, the Chromatic and Platinum dragons. Normally, I'm not a big fan of giving creatures of that scale any kind of stats, for fear of inspiring munchkins to hunt them, but I couldn't help but make an exception in this case. They are so mind numbingly terrifying that they are almost a joy to read, and will allow anyone to look at anyone who talks about having a character taking on one of these bad boys head on to be branded with the mark of "Great Big Cheater" (Or, I suppose, "Forgotten Realms NPC").
Note to Planescape FansHonestly, even if you've got a complete set of the Planscape material, TMotP is still useful, both for the new rules and for the nicely summed up descriptions of the planes. The new rules are flexible enough that you could easily enough continue to run Planescape unchanged by keeping the cosmology the same as it was in 2nd edition. However, a number of changes have been made and are worth noting. I've mentioned many of these over the course of the review , but I'll summarize here.
ImpressionsAs a die-hard Planescape fan, I could hardly not get this book. I admit to being somewhat pleased to discover, however, that this was very much not Planescape 3E. As much as I enjoyed Planescape, it had a strong theme and tone which did not suit everyone. While a part of me regrets that loss of tone in TMotP, I recognize that the change will help make it a much more useful book for DMs looking to make a Planar Game of their own.
My sole serious complaint to make about this book is that it carries forward an old idea of the Planes being the most exotic dungeon of them all. The game offers a lot of information for DMs who want to take an existing game into the Planes, but there is precious little guidance for starting a game in the planes. An offshoot of that is the sense that the Planes are not safe to travel unless one is reasonably high level. While this is not as much of an issue as it was in the days before Planescape (remembering the original MotP), it's still a bit off putting to me. In fairness though, I am obliged to attribute that to many of the expectations that come out of being a Planescape fan.
Honestly, I'm tremendously pleased with this book, probably more pleased than I have been with any other WOTC release so far (Though Monsters Of Faerun may give it a run for sheer utility). Upon finishing it, I immediately started planning a planar game, and that's one of the highest pieces of praise I can give.
ConclusionsTMotP does a good job with what could be a thorny problem. It provides enough familiar material that Planescape loyalists should be more pleased than not, yet it is sufficiently self-contained that a DM who has never even heard of Planescape can use it to great effect. It suffers slightly from the scope of the job it tries to tackle - there is almost no area where more information would not be appreciated. Practical limitations on creating a human readable (and liftable) book have to be recognized however, and the authors do a great job with what they present, but they do not just leave it there. The book is also sufficiently full of ideas, suggestions, tools and examples that any DM should be able to expand the core book in whatever direction they see fit.