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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Elemental Chaos awaits in D&D 4E's The Plane Below

by Ken Newquist / January 25, 2010

  • The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos
  • by Ari Marmell, Bruce R. Cordell and Luke Johnson
  • Published by Wizards of the Coast
  • MSRP: $29.95
  • Buy it from Amazon.com
  • Note: This review is based on a review copy of the supplement

When I ran my 4E D&D playtest campaign, I decided to make it larger than life. That meant going planer. The churning unpredictability of the planes, the potential for exotic locations, the alienness of its inhabitants calls to my imagination. The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos, which details 4E's churning elemental wastes, is just my cup of tea. Or it would be if it had retained more of the 3E cosmology. As is it's more like a cup of chia; worth a sip, but not as satisfying as I'd hoped.

Arthur Dent beverage metaphors aside, The Plane Below is a 159-page source book that builds on the foundation laid down by last year's The Manual of the Planes. The Elemental Chaos is 4th Edition's catch-all planar setting for D&D's traditional elemental planes, as well as the Nine Hells, the Abyss, and the rest of the rest of the D&D cosmology that isn't the Astral Plane or Ravenloft.

The book is essentially a planar safari, starting off with an introduction to the challenges and dangers of the Elemental Chaos, including magical weather, fantastic terrain, and planar hazards. It offers ideas on running planar skill challenges -- I particularly liked "Reasoning with a Slaad" and "Sailing the Sea of Fire" -- as well as adventure hooks and example campaign arcs.

There are potential patrons, such as the effret Shah Abdul-Azim Abassi and a council of stone giants, as well as adversaries, including the old Greyhawk favorite the Cult of the Elder Elemental Eye and the Planescape holdovers the Speakers of Xaox. These touchbacks to earlier editions are nice, but at the same time they served as a reminder of what we lost with 4th Edition.

While the intricacies of a Planescape campaign might be overwhelming for new players, I loved the expansive nature of the old D&D cosmology, with its Inner and Outer Planes, its Elemental Planes, its alignment paradises and its myriad demiplanes. The 4E equivalent feels diminished, as though there's just not as much "there" there. Yes, you can say that the Elemental Chaos is infinite, and can easily encompass everything that 3E's cosmology had to offer ... and yet, that still leaves me unsatisfied.

Strange New Realities

The Plane Below tries address my hunger for strange new realities and alien races. The Races of Chaos chapter offers two page summaries Elemental Chaos' major races, including Archons, Djinns, Efreets, Genasi, Giants and Tiants, Githzerai and Slaads. Each offers some insights into their histories, their preferences and prejiduces, and three or so notable cities or planar locations associated with them.

The Elemental Locales chapter presents the Brazen Bazaar, a wandering caravan of efreet traders who travel the planes selling their wares at unreasonable prices, the archon fortress of Irdoc Morda, and the dark and seemingly cursed city of Gloamnull, and the githzerai monastery of Sanzerathasd. They're all "plug-and-play" and are easily dropped into any campaign, and I would certainly have welcomed them into my 4E Planetorn campaign back in the day.

The chapter also includes three dungeon-delve style locations:

  • The Glittering Mine: an island of rock riddled with diamonds and other precious gems) which contains an overview map of the mine as well as two EL 9 encounter maps.
  • The Body Luminous: A comet-like collection of thunderstorms that serves as an adventure location for 15th level characters, again with two encounter maps.
  • The Mountain Builder's Barrow: An epic-level tomb of Tziphal the Mountain Builder, a primordial slain in the Dawn War ... whom many elementals wish to see raised.

These encounter areas should work well as one-shot encounters, but I think they're more likely use is for inspiration in designing your own heroic, paragon and epic tier fights.

The Abyss gets its own chapter, which is a little sad given that the Abyss is capable of filling entire source books all on its own. It's content serves merely as a tease for that realm, detailing a handful of its layers, introducing four Abyss-specific skill challenges. Of these, I liked the Spires of Rajzak, which is home to a beautiful demon lord who was transformed into a hulking monstrocity and Mal Arundak, the bastion of confusion (and home to a mystery involving an ancient artifact). I also liked the skill challenges, particularly "Abyssal Madness" (in which our heroes have to fight off the ever-looming thread of insanity) and destroying a demongate (something we did in my 3rd Edition D&D campaign). It's good stuff, but there's just not enough of it.

Monstrous Encounters

The book ends with a chapter on elemental monsters, providing some much needed planar horrors for 4th Edition. Almost all are paragon and epic tier creatures with some sort of elemental connection. Primeval Ooze and The Storm That Walks are epic abominations created by primoridials at the dawn of time; iron archons are aggressive, battle-ready warriors inspired by the weapons of angels while the blight-born are elemental creatures tainted by the Abyss.

There's also a host of new slaads, one for each of the traditional colors (blue, green, red, gray and red) but my favorite has to be the white slaad. Known as the Chronos Slaad, this monster has an exceedingly cool trick: It can disappear into the timestream, causing six replicas to appear in its place. This replicas are minions, and when the last of them are defeated, the original slaad reappears in the time stream to finish the fight. Cool idea, cool mechanics.

Cool mechanics also reign in the final "Masters of the Elements" section of the monsters chapter. Ehkahk the Smoldering Duke, is a throwback to a throwaway line in the 1st edition D&D's Manual of the Planes. The creature is able to summon smoke hounds to aid him in a fight. These creatures are minions, and I think they're an excellent example of how minions can be put to good use in the epic tier.

Sirrajadt the Vengeful Storm is another interesting creation; this djinn can assume an alternate "storm form" which slows any enemies caught in the tempest, grants allies a bonus to their attacks, and prevents him from being attacked. It's not something we've seen a lot of, and it'd be nice to spring that kind of surprise on Level 27 characters.

Final Analysis

If you're running a 4E campaign set in the planes, The Plane Below would be a useful, but not essential, book. The book paints the Elemental Chaos in broad strokes, never offering too many details, but providing ample adventure seeds. That said, I was disappointed by the undersized section of the Abyss, and wished they'd simply cut it in favor of more elemental content. More Dungeon Delve style encounter maps would have been nice, as would have another page or three on the different Elemental Chaos species.

At the same time, the book makes me nostalgic for D&D's previous cosmology, which felt so much more expansive and complex than the Plane Below (no matter how infinite its supposed to be). If you prefer the more streamlined cosmology of 4th Edition, then this may be a good book for you.

 

 

Comments

One of the great aspects about the "old cosmology" that really grabbed me is, after considerable reflection, it had a level of detail and complexity on a "quantum mechanics" scale. That is, how the various planes (ethereal, astral, etc) interacted with each other was not necessarily linear. I would be disappointed to see that bit of flavor disappear.

Damon.

I agree, and that's a big reason why I've found the 4E cosmology lacking. I wish they'd nuked the whole thing and come up with something radically different than kept the condensed version they've got now. But I realize that's likely the minority opinion.

There are aspects of 4E's cosmology I'd like to see more of, namely the Feywild, but then again, that's something new and different (at least for D&D).