Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Retrospective: Manual of the Planes

One of my favorite parts of the AD&D Players Handbook has always been Appendix IV: The Known Planes of Existence. Though it provides very little information – it's mostly just a listing of the twenty-five inner and outer planes – I spent untold hours reading and re-reading it as a young person, not to mention staring with awe at Figure 1, which offered a visual representation of the interrelations of all these weird places. To say I was "enraptured" might be a bit strong, but there's no question that Gary Gygax's glorious-mad, which married AD&D's alignment system to a cosmology straight out of de Camp and Pratt. Heady stuff to an eleven year-old!

As the years wore on, AD&D's planes acquired a little more solidity, starting with 1980's Queen of the Demonweb Pits, which gave us a glimpse into what a layer of the Abyss might be like (answer: a lot weirder than I expected it would be). Then came Roger E. Moore's magisterial article on the Astral Plane in Dragon #67 (November 1982), followed by an equally impressive one about Gladsheim in issue #90 (October 1984) a couple of years later. In between these, Gygax got in on the act, penning an article in issue #73 (May 1983) that tackled the Inner Planes, including the previously-unknown quasi-elemental planes (and came with a nifty multi-colored cut-out cube intended to represent the relationships between them). And who can forget Ed Greenwood's two-part treatement of the Nine Hells in issues #75 (July 1983) and #76 (August 1983)?

I gobbled up each of these expansions of Gygax's original scheme from the PHB – and more! – and frankly longed for a definitive treatment of these mysterious otherworldly realms. My wish was finally granted in 1987, when Jeff Grubb's Manual of the Planes first appeared. Unsurprisingly, I bought it as soon as I was able and devoured its contents immediately. This book was exactly what I had wanted, collecting together all the details scattered across multiple books, modules, and articles and adding to them, in order to create a more complete picture of the cosmos of AD&D. 

What I particularly liked was the way that Grubb does his best to make each plane unique, particularly with regard to way that magic works. This is something that Queen of the Demonweb Pits did first and that Moore picked up and developed further in his articles. Yes, it was a little frustrating at times to have to consult a list every time someone cast a spell to see if its effects were in any way changed, but the sense that "we're not in Kansas anymore" gained through its use more than made up for the extra effort, or so I thought. The planes were, from the beginning, intended as stomping grounds only for experienced characters – and players – so it only made sense that the very rules of the game might be changed there.

That said, most of the planar descriptions are short, singling out only a few key locales and only briefly touching on their inhabitants. I know people who were disappointed by this, hoping that the book would provide exhaustive information on each of the planes. Even I, who liked the book a great deal, half-expected that there'd be, if not a map, something akin to one that gave a better sense of how all the various planar landmarks related to one another. Despite that, I was fine with the relatively light level of detail, because it left plenty to the individual referee's imagination. If I had a serious criticism of the book, it's how few new monsters were included in the book, something I would have expected, especially after the wondrous details the Monster Manual II provided us about the inhabitants of the lower planes. I suspect the limits of the 128-page limit are responsible for this, but I was disappointed nonetheless.

Ultimately, I judge the Manual of the Planes a success, one of the better books of post-Gygaxian AD&D and one with a fairly long reach. Many of its planar conceptions were taken up by later authors and expanded upon, especially once the Planescape setting appeared in 1994. Unlike Planescape, which opted for its own rather idiosyncratic tone and style, Manual of the Planes is still broadly within the framework established by Gygax in the 1970s, which might explain my continued fondness for it. No book is perfect, of course, but I still think a pretty good one.


  1. Definitely one of the better books of the era, especially in terms of inspiring crazy mid-to-high level quests. I liked Planescape's take on the Great Wheel cosmology as well, but you're right, it wound up feeling much more like its own setting than a part of a more "normal" campaign - much like Spelljammer, which I also liked quite a lot.

    All that said, I really prefer the radically different cosmology in 4E to the Great Wheel. It's got just as much of the "weird and unearthly" feel but it's much more accessible (and survivable) for low-level characters, so you can integrate a bit of plane-hopping earlier in your games and it feels more natural when you start transitioning to more and more extraplanar adventuring in Paragon and Epic tiers.

  2. Manual of the planes is one of the AD&D books I didn't buy at the time, but is also the only one I bought later on.
    Like you, I prefer its campaign-neutral tone to Planescape's more encumbering lore (although I really love DiTerlizzi's art and played the hell out of Torment).