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Manual of the Planes is a luxury but it is a luxury in the same sense that a car or a television might be. If you can afford to buy it, can you afford to do without it? It’s also surprisingly easy to come up with arguments as to why you definitely need to have a copy. The book is mainly designed as a supplement for the Dungeon Master but I suspect there will be plenty of players out there who will enjoy flicking through the richly detailed pages.
The Manual is a supplement for Wizards of the Coast’s third edition of Dungeons and Dragons. As an additional book and not a set of core rules there is no discussion whatsoever in the text of how to apply the game mechanics and stats presented. The back of the book suggests that any Dungeon Master attempting to use the Manual requires the full set of Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual. I think that if you’ve managed to run your game without the Monster Manual that you’ll find no extra reason to buy it in the Manual of the Planes.
What’s a Plane? That’s a good question given that its highly unlikely that people would pay nearly £20 for a book about rolling expanses of grasslands. A Plane is, perhaps, best thought of as a different dimension. Heaven or Hell might be (in game terms) different Planes. If there is a place where spirits and legends live on then that might be a different plane. The aircraft that have gone missing while flying over the Bermuda Triangle might very well have found their way into a different Plane. In the Dungeons and Dragons world (as created by the previous second edition of the game) there is an established cosmology of interesting Planes. Places like Abyss, Hades or the Nine Hells are covered in this book. Remember the dragon Tiamat? If you’ve ever watched the awful and fantastic (at the same time – at least when I was 13) Dungeons and Dragons cartoon you’ll remember Tiamat. She lives, according to the Manual of the Planes, on the first of the Nine Hells. There’s even a map.
If you know nothing or care nothing about the previously established Dungeons and Dragons cosmology then do not worry. The book starts with examples of how Planes might be different from one another. Physical aspects might be different: gravity for example. Meta-Physical aspects might be different: time or magic, for example. The Planes might overlap in certain places (perhaps the Bermuda Triangle is where a different Plane overlaps with ours) or be so distinctly apart that you need something like a StarGate ™ to travel from one to the other. I think the mix between generic Planes and published Planes (like the Abyss, the Nine Hells, etc) is just right. The authors take you through just enough information and common sense basics to whet your appetite and imagination. If you want to create your own Planes for your own campaign setting then you’ll find that you’ve not been short-changed. If you would rather stick with familiar names then you’ll be content with what the Manual has to offer as well. The book goes on to list through all the main Planes of the established cosmology, providing simple but atmospheric maps for each – a general idea of the shape of the Plane and how it might relate to others. There is also information on what sort of thing you might encounter in the sample planes; floating castles, mechanical towers on legs, demonic lizard creatures.
I think the authors struck true when they decided to spend some time detailing the various ways in which Player Characters could end up being involved in Planar Travel. After all, what’s the point in having the book and doing all the work on your Planes if the game never moves off to one? There are a number of possibilities, ranging from simply walking through a mysterious bank of fog at the edge of the woods to active and deliberate spell invocation.
There are additional spells in the book. A good collection of spells in terms of numbers but not so much that you begin to suspect that the authors are slyly filling up space. The spells that I particularly liked are the ones that cover the whole area of Planar transport. If you’re going to introduce the idea of great big magical Planes that exist above and beyond the world that the characters are currently familiar with then it makes sense that those characters who are knowledgeable in matters arcane are going to want to know about them. Does it make sense to have a wise and experienced wizard, a man who has spent years studying the scrolls of knowledge, has absolutely know spells that impact on the Planar system? No. It wouldn’t. These additional spells help to offset that. The spells, on the other hand, that pretty much duplicated standard effects but that effect creatures from different Planes to different degrees, I found, were less helpful.
Here be monsters. There’s a small bestiary of creatures and demons that you might be unfortunate enough to encounter while travelling on the Planes. Of course, not all the creatures are wicked and powerful, there are a few weaklings and a few lawful and/or good natured beasts as well. However, I get the feeling that the monster section in the Manual of the Planes is best used to scare the wits out of your players. Again, I think the mix is just about right. There are enough creatures in the book to make their inclusion more than just a token effort and there are enough of them to give you a good idea of just what you might expect from the different flavours of Planes. On the other hand, there aren’t so many creatures that you discover you’ve bought an additional Monster Manual specialising entirely in beasts that you’re highly unlikely ever to use in your game.
The Prestige Classes in the book must be considered. The Manual of the Planes was one of the first additional books published for the third edition Dungeons and Dragons game and the d20 system. It is possible that at the time it was thought that some more Prestige Classes would be a good idea. These days, of course, you must have plenty of money to spend if you find it necessary to go out and buy information on Prestige Classes. I think every Tom, Dick and Harry has created and web-published his own idea for a Prestige Class by now.
I think it is worth spending some time just dwelling on the physical quality of the book. It is a lovely hard cover edition. The design is clever, the front cover does a good job of making the book look like some old tome. I love the artwork. The colour is clear and crisp. You soon pick up the semi-mechanical theme that runs through all the art and maps of the Planes. If you can imagine some Copernicus-like astrological simulator where some mechanical contraption busies itself in wheeling around a vast array of miniature planets and looking glasses on stalks so you could track and examine all sorts of astral alignments and eclipses then you can imagine the sort of machine theme used to draw the Planar maps. It’s all done in an olde worlde style – to the point where the maps are presented on aged coloured paper and not just on dull white. There is no skimping on the layout or ink either. The paragraphs are clear and easy to follow, headings and conclusions are in place and easy to pick out. There are pictures where you would expect and where you want to find pictures. Almost every creature mentioned in it has a picture.
I wasn’t expecting much from the book. I had horrid fears of nothing but cheap tables of stats and even cheaper attempts at converting the authors own campaign worlds into a rules supplement. I was pleasantly surprised. The Manual of the Planes is much better than I thought it would be.
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