The Manual of the Planes is a cosmological toolbox detailing the heavens, hells and strange places in between for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition role-playing game.
Written by Jeff Grubb, Bruce R. Cordell, and David Noonan , the book is heir to two planar traditions: the minimalist 1st edition Manual of the Planes, which detailed the realms of D&D’s gods and infamous demons and the behemoth 2nd edition campaign setting known as Planescape. Wizards choose to ditch most of the too-cool-for-this-universe slang and copious development of the later in favor of a well-crafted and traditional (if somewhat boring) view of the D&D universe.
Long-time players and Dungeon Masters will feel instantly at home with the Manual, which represents a universe founded on the same basic structure as that which appeared in its namesake publication.
There is a Material Plane, which serves as the core reality of D&D. This is where adventurers slay merciless dragons, rescue helpless damsels, and drink themselves into a well-deserved stupor. The word “plane” refers to a self-contained cosmological place, like Terra, Heaven and Hell in traditional Christian mythology.
Connecting to the Material Plane are what are known as Transitive Planes — the Astral, the Ethereal and the Shadow – which provide the means of reaching the Inner Planes (those associated with elemental forces, like Fire, Earth, Air, and Water) and the Outer Planes (such as the Happy Hunting Grounds, Limbo, and the Abyss).
Not surprisingly, the bulk of the book is given over to describing D&D’s myriad planes. The information is like an encyclopedia entry: detailed enough to answer basic questions, but not so long that the reader gets bogged down in details.
Each planar write-up in the book describes the plane’s characteristics – how easy or hard it is for characters to survive there, what gods might be found there, whether the place is associated with good (positive) or evil (negative) energies, and what the “rules” of its particular reality are (is gravity strong, or does it not exist? Where does the light come from, what the climate is like, etc.) There are a few paragraphs describing the plane in general, and usually a few short write-ups about any sub-planes it might have (such as one of the 666 levels of the Abyss). Locations of note – such as fortresses of deities – are also included in each write-up.
Many of the write-ups are accompanied by “option” boxes which describe alternate rules for a given plane that DM’s can choose to use in their game. Some changes are minor – an Etheral Plane with “border” and “deep” Ethereal regions that hold varying dangers for travelers – while others are more significant, such as cosmologies with no Plane of Shadow (and thus do not allow illusionists to cast “shadow magic” spells creating quasi-real beings).
The “Characters and Magic” chapter offers a handful of prestige classes, some notes on magic use in the planes, and a handful of new spells. The monsters section has almost two dozen monsters as well as a few planar templates that can be used to enhance existing creatures. Rounding out the book is an appendix detailing alternate cosmologies in the D&D universe.
A New-Old Multiverse
As a DM I’ve run a handful of planar adventures, mostly brief forays off of the Prime Material Plane to recover lost party members or launch a strike against some powerful extraplanar enemy. Since one of my players had almost all of the Planescape material from 2E, I had a chance to read a good percentage of what 2E had to say about the subject.
I found 2E’s Planescape slang to be forced at times, but overall its writers succeeded in creating a setting that was radically different from the reality where characters spent so much of their time adventuring. It was strange, it was different and it was fun … but I could never have afforded all of those books on my own.
Flash forward to D&D 3rd Edition. Wizards knows it needs a cosmology book, and decides to ditch all that Planescape lingo in favor of a basic, easy-to-read book that any DM could use. And they succeeded: the Manual of the Planes is like a simple Swiss army knife, one with two or three blades, a cork screw, and some tweezers: useful to have around, but not awe-inspiring.
It works. It’s enough for a DM to flesh out his campaign’s cosmology, figure out where he wants to put his gods, and plan a few extraplanar adventures. There are adventure hooks and interesting locals scattered throughout the book, providing a DM with quick-and-easy references to throw at his players. That said, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with this book once I finished reading it. While I wasn’t expecting a major overhaul of the D&D cosmology, I was hoping for a few new twists of the familiar themes, mostly in the form of what 3E does best: new prestige classes, new spells, new feats, and new monsters. And almost all of the edginess of the earlier Planescape setting has been scrubbed from the new cosmology.
But this is exactly where the new book falls flat. Oh, it has some of these things, but the seem like the bare minimum needed to create a working source book. Another 20 or 30 pages worth of content would have made me a much happier camper. I’d also hoped that there would be more information about demi-planes – small pocket dimensions scattered throughout the cosmos — but again, there was the bare minimum: a mere three miniature realities.
I’m not sorry I bought the book – it serves its purpose as a tool, but it’s only that – a tool. It’s great for beginners and adequate for veterans, but those looking for lots of cool new D&D 3E tricks to throw at their players are going to be disappointed.
- The Manual of the Planes
- By Jeff Grubb, Bruce R. Cordell, and David Noonan
- Wizards of the Coast
- ISBN: 0786918500
- MSRP: $29.95
- Buy it from Amazon