Review: Manual of the Planes 4E

Posted on September 7, 2011

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Manual of the Planes is a perplexing book, by that I don’t mean confusing, simply that it fairly closely follows the format of the 1st Edition version of the same book, yet it just doesn’t satisfy anywhere near as well as its predecessor(s). Hopefully through the course of this review we’ll understand why exactly that is. I must admit that even while writing this review I am in two minds about the book.

In a nutshell, Manual of the Planes is a 160 page book with typical font size (58 lines per page), graphics and layout similar to every other 4th Edition book. The main authors listed are Richard Baker, John Rogers, Robert J. Schwalb and James Wyatt – so pretty much the creme’ de la creme’ of WotC’s 4th Edition talent.

The book is divided into seven chapters:

  1. Exploring the Planes (28 pages)
  2. The Feywild (16 pages)
  3. The Shadowfell (14 pages)
  4. The Elemental Chaos (22 pages…6 of those devoted to the Abyss)
  5. The Astral Sea (28 pages…10 devoted to the Nine Hells)
  6. Monsters of the Planes (24 pages)
  7. Planar Characters (22 pages)

First Impressions

The cover is an homage to the 1st Edition version of the book that features one of the all time iconic covers by Jeff Easley. By comparison this new cover is, I’m sorry to say, rubbish. It features an adventuring party on an astral skiff being chased by an Astral Dreadnought – but there is no drama to the piece, no menace. The two characters at the front of the skiff don’t even acknowledge the presence of the dreadnought chasing them! Compare that to the original where the monster is a hulking ‘alien’ menace almost reaching out of the cover towards the reader, its a brilliant cover in everyway the update is not…although at least its better than the utter rubbish of the 3E cover.

…Make your own mind up which cover is better.

Small Piece of Trivia: id Software copied the head of the Astral Dreadnought from the 1E Manual of the Planes cover for the Cacodemon enemies in the videogame Doom.

The Good

Copycat: It copies the format of the 1st Edition book, in that each plane is given its own chapter, with notable places, races and faces (yes I enjoyed typing that) detailed for each plane. I mean if you are going to copy, do so from the best…and they do. The main four chapters (each detailing one of the planes) present enough information to get you interested in the location; each detailing maybe a dozen key races/inhabitants and another dozen key locations. Its a great place to hunt for adventure seeds and ideas.

Epic Content: Okay, so its the planes and thus you expect to see some epic content and there is a smattering of it here where we get Baphomet, Dispater and Graz’zt detailed. For those starved of epic content that probably constitutes ‘a lot’, certainly compared to recent WotC releases. Throw in the Astral Dreadnought, Brazen Devil and Storm Devil and its a veritable epic bestiary you might say.😉

Player Characters: The final chapter of the book adds something for PC’s (a clever idea making the book a potential purchase for DMs and Players alike). Its a small inoffensive chapter featuring 8 Paragon Paths (no Epic Destinies just to confirm), a few new rituals and some new magic items (no Artifacts). 

The Bad

The Art: Probably some of the weakest I have seen in a WotC release. Not only does the art seem fairly spartan but the pieces themselves were pretty uninspiring and a few others recycled from previous material. Bad art direction (Kate Irwin and Kevin Smith on those duties) in my opinion. There is one fantastic piece of a Goristro battling two gnolls, and the illustration of Baphomet is very nice, but much of the rest is pretty lacklustre. In terms of art and layout the Pathfinder books are definately much better looking in general.

Monster Mash: The book has a short 24 page monster section, nothing bad about that, many 4E books have such chapters. Here though, it really does seem like the monsters have been cobbled together from leftover scraps from other books. The book tries to cover four different planes (Astral, Elemental, Feywild and Shadowfell) but the coverage is totally lopsided. There is one monster for the Feywild, one for the Shadowfell and the rest are almost exclusively demons and devils. Any new monsters in the book I hear you ask…I’m afraid not, simply updates from past editions. It just smacks of lazy, uninspired design.

Here is the exact page breakdown for the 22 pages of the monster chapter: Astral Plane (9 pages worth and 6 of those are to do with the Nine hells); Elemental Plane (12 pages worth and 10 of those are to do with creatures from the Abyss); Feywild (1 page worth); Shadowfell (1 page worth). So basically 50% of the monsters detailed in the book are from the Abyss and 25% are from the Nine Hells. Not really what you would call diverse is it. I mean its Manual of the Planes but looking at the monster chapter you would think its Manual of the Abyss.

I mean here’s an idea, why not give each of the detailed planes equal coverage in the monster chapter…say 6 pages each. Instead of giving us some 50% of the content devoted to the Abyss (which is further explored in both the Plane Below AND the Demonomicon) how about picking out four themes/entities/personalities and really fleshing those out.

Nothing New to See Here: The 3rd Edition version of the Manual of the Planes wasn’t a great book, but what it did do was add something new to the planes by introducing both the Far Realm and some very interesting Demiplanes. In this book there is little new at all, in fact it even omits the Far Realm (okay its got 1 page) and the demiplane (1/4 page) elements from the 3E book!

This isn’t totally fair as you could say that the Feywild and the Shadowfell are both new to this edition of the game (and those were probably my favourite chapters of the book as a result). But they are also the shortest chapters AND the least well supported in the Monster chapter.

Conclusions

I think one of the problems with 4E is that it doesn’t gel well with the ‘jack of all trades’ approach. Its notable that (in my opinion) the books that have a strong focus (like Draconomicon or Open Grave) are often much better executed. This is undoubtedly because 4E encounters require more enemies and thus you need more space to flesh out various groups and themes.

On the one hand this book does the basic stuff pretty well. The overviews of the different planes are just the right length to get you interested and many of the areas seem very cool. But, by the same token there is no real support for any of the planes in the book beyond the overviews themselves. They could have easily taken one of the major ideas per plane and really fleshed that out, like the Archfey, the Dread Emperor, one of the Primordials, even Dispater who, while he IS detailed in the book, really doesn’t have enough support to make encounters leading up to such an encounter memorable. Flesh these elements out with a few Delves (like Draconomicon…like Open Grave) and you really increase the immediacy of the book in that DM’s can just pick-up and run stuff out of the book with little (or no?) preparation.

I’m at the end of the review and I’m still not sure what to score this so I will cheat and give it two different scores. The average score is for those people new to D&D who have never read a Manual of the Planes before from a past edition – because they will gain a good overview of the planes and take away some great adventure ideas. The low score is for those, like me, who have read past incarnations of Manual of the Planes – because we will have seen much of the basics before and the monster chapter just annoys the hell out of me.

Overall (if you have read a past edition of Manual of the Planes): 3 (out of 10)

Overall (if this is your first ever Manual of the Planes): 6 (out of 10)

Aftermath

I think they need to retire the Manual of the Planes format or really overhaul such books in favour of stronger themed supplements. Assuming we kept the formula from the book I personally would have retained the basic overview (adding the Far Realm as well) but then included a 3-4 encounter delve for each plane based on a specific theme/location/entity etc. I would have removed all the Abyss stuff because it gets so much coverage in other books that it was just overkill here. I would have made sure each plane gets an equal amount of content within the Monster Chapter. I also would have added something new, whether a new plane or interdimensional space or whatever.

Its notable that the recent Shadowfell boxed set supplement (which I may review in the future) has its own encounters book. While that product has its own criticisms (being wholly Paragon Tier was one of my pet peeves), it is much better focused, much better constructed, has that immediacy factor thats great for DMs, plus it adds a new dimension to play with the accompanying deck of cards.