Tuesday, August 24, 2010

4E Manual of the Planes: A Review

Since I noted I was reading this I decided to post a review. The newest Manual of the Planes is a 160 pg hardback published in 2008, making it one of the earlier books in the 4th edition line. This is basically a setting book - it describes the D&D cosmology as revised for 4E. There is an overview chapter, a chapter each on the Feywild, the Shadowfell, the Elemental Chaos, and the Astral Sea. Major locations within these areas are described over a page or two such as Sigil (from Planescape), The Abyss, The Nine Hells, and the realms of the gods. This section of the book takes up the first 110 pages and is 99% mechanics-free, so it would be usable in any game if you wanted to follow the 4E cosmology under different rules for some reason. The rest of the book has a chapter on monsters, one on paragon paths, one on rituals, and one on magic items - this 50-page section is about 99% crunch and is the mechanical meat of the book.

Overall I like the way the book is laid out, moving from the general to the specific and from the fluff to the crunch. It is almost an old school presentation as the description are mostly large-scale noting some interesting locations here and there and leaving the majority of the detail to the DM. Nailing down the general characteristics of a plane  - gravity, layers, who's in charge -ensures that players will have a common baseline but it avoids the trap of detailing every single floating rock in the Astral Plane. It's exactly the right approach in my opinion. The more recent books on the Elemental Chaos (The Plane Below) and the Astral Sea (The Plane Above) may fall into this trap - I don't know for sure, I haven't read them - but I'm not sure how much more detail is needed  after reading this book - it covers what I needed to know just fine. I could see a book on "Sigil" to give those running a Planescape-type campaign more to work with, or a "Secrets of the Abyss" book to cover both more demons and some sample lairs (and the recent Demonomicon may do just that) but more planar overview books seem redundant.

Things I didn't like...well, not a whole lot. Some of the changes for 4E don't mean a whole lot to me as I haven't kept up with planar politics and events during 3rd edition or 2E's Planescape days. I know who went where back in 1E and I now know who is where in 4E and they are somewhat different but demons are called "demons" and live in the Abyss and devils are called "devils" and live in the Nine Hells and I've seen other editions that couldn't get that right so there's not a lot to complain about here. The good counterparts of demons and devils were Devas at one time, now 4E just goes ahead and calls them "angels" which is fine.The only things lost are the Ethereal Plane and the separate elemental and para-elemental planes have been combined into the Elemental Chaos and I am fine with both changes. My players always seemed to be a little fuzzy on the difference between Ethereal and Astral anyway so this at least avoids that confusion.

Old School Note: Page 15 has an entire page devoted to using the Great Wheel cosmology in 4E. Big tip of the hat to the writers here as even as they make some major changes to things, they at least take the time to cover how to handle NOT changing it - very nice.

So overall this is a good, useful book. Could I run campaign here?  Sure, there is at least as much info as we had in the Greyhawk Folio way back in the old days. Would I? Hmmm...probably not an entire campaign. Heroic Tier characters are going to be in over their heads much of the time. This whole thing feels more like a Paragon to Epic level setting. I would probably use it as an interesting place to visit rather than the main setting, kind of like it was in older editions. I could see spending a lot of time during the 10-20 range on a spelljamming quest to collect say the Rod of Seven parts or spending chunks of the Epic tier interfering in the affairs of some of the deities or demon lords, certainly.

I'll do some more of these reviews as I catch up on books I have missed or as I re-read books relevant to the campaign at the moment so look for more in the future.

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