Review: “The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos”

plane_belowThe Plane Below is the first of several 4th Edition D&D books that delve into a bit more detail on specific planes and the kinds of adventures that can be found within them. As the title indicates, this one focuses on the Elemental Chaos and everything pertaining to it. This book is packed full of content, from cover to cover, and unless your game has absolutely nothing to do with the chaotic plane below you will want to give it a look. If your game strongly favors demons, elementals, the city of brass, or githzerai then this book is a must have.

The Plane Below is about 160 pages deep and contains just under 50 new types of monsters for you to throw at adventurers to murder and startle them. The book is very clearly, and logically, organized starting with the general features of the Elemental Chaos including at-will rules for mentally influencing the plane’s instability to attack creatures with motes of earth or fiery energy. This section reads exactly like the Elemental Chaos chapter from the Manual of the Planes but magnified by four, including various vehicles used to travel the plane from other sources and a few new ones, various weather effects, fantastical terrain features like acidic mires and flowing rivers of earth, and a handful of new hazards that can be found on the plane below. Next the chapter presents a handful of new skill challenges such as how to bargain with an efreet, reasoning with a Slaad (it’s not easy!), and repairing a lightning skiff.

reasoningwithslaad

My favorite part of all of the 4E supplemental books has been the Campaign Arcs section where ideas are presented that take you from the heroic tier through paragon and finishing in epic, nearly every single one I read gives me a handful of new ideas to apply to my own game. This book is no exception, presenting a variety of arcs to include elemental creatures and even one that focuses on planar characters that start their adventuring lives in the Elemental Chaos. Next they present a handful of varying level adventure ideas building on the same themes as the campaign arcs. Several potential patron NPCs are detailed as well as some “Orders out of Chaos” like the Cult of the Elemental Eye which are just as interesting to me as the full campaign arcs because they provide lore the players can learn, information just for the DM, organization of the orders, history, goals and methods, and adventure ideas for each of the groups. The chapter ends with three new artifacts for paragon and epic characters that can bring even more elemental themes into your game and directly into a player’s hands.

The next chapter provides at least one or two pages on several of the Races of Chaos, including archons, djinns, efreets, genasi, giants and titans, githzerai, and slaads. I found this chapter to be one of the highlights of the book, making me feel like I was reading an encyclopedia about an actual place and all of the denizens within. Each entry lists several major sites or locations that relate directly to each race that give a DM plenty of fodder for creating a lot of interesting adventures. The chapter is also riff with sidebars detailing things such as the debated origins of the genasi and the fact that despite conventional belief there are some primordials that still roam free. The third chapter devotes two pages each to a selection of specific Elemental Locales that give you even more interesting places to set the scenes of your game. Some of them are specific locations like a bog, a palace, or a city while others are closer to features like the Pillars of Creation that descend to the unreachable foundations of existence and up to the foundation of the material world. The Riverweb is a series of floating and intersecting rivers that allow normal seafairing vessels to reach different locations within the Elemental Chaos. There are several pieces of this book that really stood out to me because they present an element that is not fully explained or left completely mysterious, such as the Pandemonium Stone which is a giant rocky spire that randomly appears and disappears through the plane below, slaads flock to it and two cities of permanent residents somehow always reside on it but the details of its true purpose or where it goes to are not given. The next piece like this that caught my attention is one of the few adventures in the book, The Body Luminous which involves a roving lightning storm that travels through the Elemental Chaos and has a fossil and relic encrusted core that is unexplained and mysteriously sought by many people and types of creatures. A lot of the fluff presented for these elements is truly inspiring and causes me to think about potential tie ins for my own campaign.

skiff

The next chapter is titled Into the Abyss, so you can pretty easily guess what it is about. This section, much like the rest of The Plane Below book in relation to the Elemental Chaos, goes into great detail on the Abyss itself. I was thrilled to see a few more campaign arcs presented specifically for Abyssal adventures detailing only the paragon and epic tiers. Along with some adventure ideas for several levels, there are four skill challenges in the book specifically geared towards the Abyss and the types of challenges players will face there like how to navigate the dangers of the demonweb. Several truly terrifying abyssal locations are detailed like Molor, the Stinking Realm and the Plains of Rust which both sound like nice places for any character to vacation. A very nice touch on Wizard’s part was to include a couple of encounter groups of various levels that might be found in each location, giving DMs an easy start at adding these locations into their adventures.

Creatures of Chaos is the fifth chapter which provides DMs with a slew of new baddies to use and characters a lot of new things to be truly scared of. The Primeval Ooze and aptly named Storm That Walks begin the chapter as two new kinds of abominations, followed by some new archons, demons, and elementals as you would expect to see. The new varities of Slaad are incredibly cool and in all likelihood absolutely evil for players to deal with. Afte rthat are the Masters of the Elements characters that include an incredibly enlightened githzerai monk named Liricosa that is hard to find and often doesn’t even pay attention when you talk to him. Sirrajadt, the vengeful storm, is a djinn that is hellbent on getting revenge for the death of most of his kin. His target? Why the gods and all of their followers of course! This leads me to another theme that is present throughout this book, that of war with the gods. Many of the patron NPCs and plot ideas in this book involve combating the astral beings and their followers, which no doubt includes a large majority of adventurers out there. I hadn’t really considered it before, but this book turned me on to the idea of how cool it would be to run a game where the characters are actually out to directly combat divine beings and those they influence.

ooze

I just can’t leave out the last two characters presented in this book, the first of which is Solkara, The Crushing Wave, a gargantuan fish-like primoridal of water (level 34 solo controller) that seems absolutely devastating. While bloodied he gains an aura 10 that causes creatures to treat those squares as if they were underwater. That should sum it up quite a bit for you, but The Plane Below also gives us stats for some of his preist and cultist followers so he can be used as a continuing theme throughout your campaign. The last character is Ygorl, lord of entropy, a medium slaad composed of black smoke that is the best known of the slaad lords and he is also known as the “Bringer of Endings”. Guess what he wants to do! This crazy bugger actually has an aura that gives enemies a bonus to attack rolls but it does make them vulnerable 5 to all damage. Isn’t that nice? Several lower level lackeys are also presented for Ygorl, meaning he too can be a continuing presence (and no doubt nuisance) in your campaign.

The best way to describe my overall feelings on The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos is that so far every time I’ve picked it up read through one part or another I’ve come away with at least one new idea for my own game. The icing on the cake is that it acts as a go-to reference for whenever you or another player has a question about anything that relates to the Elemental Chaos. For me, both of those make the book a must have!

Comments

  1. I’m definitely going to pick this up. I’m curious, does it have any detailed info on the City of Brass? Was thinking of taking my group there between Heroic and Paragon tier and would love a good detailed write-up.

  2. Excellent review! You’ve sparked my interest. Now I’m gonna have to go and get it just for the locales alone. Everything else is icing. Thanks.

  3. I wrote this up on Enworld and thought I’d post it here as well:

    I have a copy of Planes Below next to me right now. I like it a lot but there’s room for improvement.

    It’s pretty small, at 160 pages, and expands on the Manual of the Planes, which is probably one of my complaints. It has a fair bit of crunch, with an excellent set of tiered terrain, environmental effects, monsters, skill challenges, items, and a set of delve-style adventures for level 8, 15, and 25.

    I think I’ll end up using this book more at my table than I have with the Manual of the Planes, but there are a few things I’d love to see in future books.

    First, I really really want flavor-text I can read out loud to my players instead of long descriptions of places that I have to then paraphrase into something. Even a paragraph of italicized text at the beginning of each section would make me a lot more likely to use it.

    Second, I wish the three delve-style encounters used terrain from the Dungeon Tiles. It never ceases to amaze me when WOTC products don’t support other WOTC products like adventures that don’t use Dungeon Tiles or existing D&D minis. I’m one of those DMs who likes to have the right mini at the table and I didn’t bother to buy two sets of every dungeon tile set only to whip out the dry-erase mat.

    I think books like Planes Below would be a lot more table-usable if they included these two features.

    I also feel like WOTC is covering the same ground over and over, getting closer each time to more detail. The Abyss is covered in at least three books now, each one spending more time and attention on it but none of them dedicating themselves to it directly. I think I liked the idea of the Fiendish Codexes back in the 3.5 days a bit more since they had more focus. I think if you’re going to have an Elemental Chaos book, focus it on the Elemental Chaos totally and write a separate book just on the Abyss. As it stands now, we get 20 pages on the Abyss, a limitless world of stuff for my epic-tiered PCs to carve through.

    I’m guessing we’ll see another Abyss book in the future and then it’s up to us to deconflict having four books of Abyssal stuff to contend with.

    I also would have liked a lot more detail on the City of Brass. According to this book it was “explained in detail” in MotP but I don’t remember it being that detailed. I want what we got with Sigil in the DMG2 with a couple of pages of notable NPCs, a sample adventure or some sample hooks I can use, some ongoing plots in the city that the PCs might get involved with – all that stuff. Oh yeah, and more flavor text.

    Still, I’m being overly hard on the book. I actually find this book far more useful with a lot of the crunch I want as a DM. I’m just hoping for more with future books like this.

    Thanks,

    Mike Shea
    .-= Mike Shea´s last blog ..Giving 4e an Old School Feel =-.

  4. As a fan of Planescape I have to say WOTC seems to care less and less about the veteran fans of the campaign with each new edition of D&D. Mashing an Inner Plane and Outer Plane because it looks “cool” is just a big ephyew to continuity and the supporting logic of the entire setting. The product may be great on its own, but does it support the setting? Sure does not look like it…

Trackbacks

  1. […] can read it aloud to my players without having to re-write it. Books like Manual of the Planes and The Plane Below would be a lot more useful to me if I could whip it out and read aloud a description of the City of […]

  2. […] fleshed out details on the entire realm for which it is named. This book is along the same vein as The Plane Below book on the Elemental Chaos, but the Underdark is a subterranean realm just beneath the surface of […]

  3. […] monsters that can be found in the Astral Sea. While I initially thought this book fell short of the The Plane Below and Underdark books, after reading further into it I begin to really enjoy the more free-form, epic […]