by Mike Shea on 1 January 2009
After my happiness with the Draconomicon, I looked forward quite a bit to the Manual of the Planes. Who doesn't want to read about the powerful and dangerous outer worlds? Who doesn't want to find out what it is really like in the Shadowfell or the Elemental Chaos? Who wouldn't want to throw their players into the deepest depths of the Abyss to face beings of terrifying evil in their home world?
Unfortunately, where Draconomicon made itself clearly usable at the game table, the Manual of the Planes was little more than an extension of the chapter on the outer planes found in the Dungeon Master's guide. There are no encounters, no introductory adventures, no notable NPC stats, and a very sparse monster section that doesn't seem to know what sort of monsters it should have. There aren't even maps of the Shadowfell or Feywild.
Maybe it was a matter of having too much possible material that kept this book so vague. There are a lot of major places we would come to expect including details of the Astral Sea, the Elemental Chaos, the Shadowfell, the Faywild, the Abyss, and the Nine Hells. Unfortunately the book never gets into enough detail in any of these areas. Perhaps Wizards would have been better picking two at a time and focusing on them as they did with the Fiendish Codex series. A single book on the Shadowfell, for example, could be a lot more focused and a lot more usable.
Chapter one covers the basics of the planes including their structure, organization, travel, and other such things. This section also includes an all-too-brief section on Planar Hazards that includes only five hazards from level 11 to 26. I could have used about five hazards in each of the major areas - Astral, Elemental, Shadowfell, and Feywild.
Sigil is detailed quite a bit, the strange hold-out city that sits between worlds. Here we have some NPC personalities though without stats, without DM tips for running these NPCs, and without any artwork. There are also brief descriptions of the Far Realm and the Plane of Dreams.
Chapter's 2 and 3 cover the Feywild and Shadowfell. These chapters are packed with lengthy descriptions of travel, inhabitants, and locations. Again, there are no maps, no stat blocks, no sample encounters, no DM tips for describing these bizarre worlds to the players, and no hazards. The Shadowfell section, for example, has a five paragraph, 3/4 page description of a being known as the Dread Emperor without any stat block to be found. How useful is that if I have to write up my own stat block?
Chapter 4 covers the Elemental Chaos and actually does have two hazards of level 14 and 16. It describes Primordials for 2/3 of a page but again without a single stat block. Even the Forgotten Realms campaign book includes a Primordial. This chapter also describes the City of Brass, this time without even NPC descriptions.
The Abyss is crammed into this chapter as well with six pages of general descriptions of huge areas such as the Demonweb, Thanatos, and Azzagrat. Again no sample encounters, no abyssal hazards, no DM tips for building atmosphere for players, nothing I can actually use at the table.
Chapter 5 covers the Astral Sea with more piles of words describing various worlds. There are pages upon pages of descriptions of places my players will likely never go including Arvandor, Celestia, Chernoggar, Hestivar, and Kalandurren. The Nine Hells, an area that received an entire book in 3.5, is down to eight and a half pages. This is one of the few areas where I don't like the planar design. I can't get my head around the idea that all of the nine hells are really one big planet. Why not nine interlinked planets? I preferred the pancake hells, myself, given that it was more like Dante's Inferno. This is hell, after all,? Again, no stat blocks, sample encounters, or hazards.
Chapter 6 includes the Monsters of the Planes. There are a total of nineteen different types of monsters (a few more if you break them all out to their different tier versions). These monsters are spread from all over the planes. There's Astral Constructs, devils, demons, Shadowfell beasts, and fox thingies from the elemental chaos. With such a wide coverage of areas, there was clearly no focus for the few monsters included. We get two demon princes but what about the others? We get one devil lord but what about the other eight? There just aren't enough creatures for such a vast topic.
Chapter 7 is where the book really loses focus. Most of the other 4th edition books had clear designs for either the player or the DM. This is the only book I know if that includes ten pages of character material - mostly paragon paths. I would much have preferred WOTC to publish these paragon paths as part of D&D insider and use the extra pages for more hazards, maps, or sample encounters. How will this section be of any use to players if the book is held by the DM? I can't imagine a player would ever bother to buy this book just for those paragon paths. This is the first time a 4e book wasn't clearly focused for either the player or the DM.
Chapter 7 also includes a brief section on rituals and another on equipment. The equipment section isn't bad. WOTC has learned how to pack in a lot of items into a little bit of space and there are a lot of items here. For this part, I have few complaints. I only wish the rest of the book was as useful as this section.
In conclusion, the Manual of the Planes disappointed me. This is a book that could have been far longer, as long as the Forgotten Realms Campaign Sourcebook, and included a lot more table-usable material than it did. Instead of useful sample encounters, DM tips, NPC statistics, and overland maps, we get piles of general description text that offers little actual use. The book seemed scattered, too brief, and unsure of its intent.
I love the planes and I love most of the 4e design philosophy behind them, but I need a lot more as a DM in order to run it well at the table. I'm hoping this isn't the only book on the planes that we see. I, for one, would love an entire sourcebook on just the Shadowfell, for example. As it stands, now, the Manual of the Planes can be easily skipped. Unless you're looking for an encyclopedia-style book on the lore of the planes, not an actual gaming rulebook, save your money.