Review of The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos by Wizards of the Coast

Money is a terrible master, but an excellent servant.” ~ P.T. Barnum

I felt pretty fortunate this past Christmas, since I got a lot of things I asked “Santa” for.  In addition to getting a copy of Dragon Age: Origins – which, by the way, I am still playing through – I got a gift card for 20 bucks to Borders, which allowed me to purchase almost my entire copy of The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos.
The Plane Below Cover
After using the gift card, and tacking on the dreaded shipping and handling fees, I ended up paying about $12 out of my own pocket.  Sadly, Borders charges the cover price, with no discount like Amazon offers on D&D 4e books – but I still paid less of my own money than if I had bought it at the A-store, so all was right with the world.

Well, at least that’s how I felt until I got the book:  Let’s just say I was a bit disappointed by the size of the package.

I guess I let the huge, sword-wielding, hulking Balor on the cover fool me into thinking this was a huge, hulking book.  At only 160 pages, the book felt pretty wimpy in my hands as I tore it from its cardboard carton.  So that got me rummaging through my bookshelves, to do some comparisons to previous sourcebooks I bought.

So first on my shelf is the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons, a whopping beast-of-a-book that lives up to the scaly behemoths lurking between its 255 pages, and retails for $39.95 (or on that A-store for only $26.37).  Egads!  One-hundred pages more source material than The Plane Below for only an additional 10 bucks?!  Seems like a way better deal.  Well, maybe the Draconomicon was a tad under-priced?

And here’s something creepy on my shelf.  The supplement, Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, is packed with all manner of vile undeath for $29.95 retail ($19.77 from that A-place), just like The Plane Below:SoEC.  But wait, this one is 225 pages and feels pretty hefty – probably because it has got sixty-five more pages for the same price.  Why are my thumbs pricking?

Ok, how about the Monster Manual II?  It’s big, bad, and kinda expensive, but it is one of those essential books needed for long term Dungeon Mastering.  It’s 225 pages at a retail price of $34.95 ($23.07 from the ‘zon store), so it’s only really 5 bucks more than the TPB:SoEC, and still got 65 pages more material.

Hmmm, I am beginning to sense a pattern here, and I am not sure I like it too much.

(By the way, if you’re done reading my rant about the price and page length issue, feel free to skip down a bit to heart of the review.  I’m kinda on a roll…)

Alrighty, here we go with Manual of the Planes, which is 160 pages, retails for $29.95 ($19.77 at the discount big A).  So same price, same size as TPB:SoEC.  Hey!  Now that I look at it, Manual of the Planes seems pretty light too.  I am definitely not getting any warm fuzzies over this trend.

Alright then, time to fire up the laptop, pop a browser, and let’s look at books on my “wish list” and see how they are shaping up.

Well first on my “wish list” is the Draconomicon: Metallic Dragons, which is only fair to balance my shelf with against the Chromatics at the other end.  Ok, same price as the other Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons, but wait, the supplement is only 224 pages this time.

Same price, less pages.  Why are my books suddenly “less filling”?

And here’s another “wish lister” – the new and upcoming Underdark supplement.  It’s got 160 pages, and priced at $29.95 (19.77 from A’zon), just like MotP and TPB:SoEC.

So the pattern is there, for all to see – the prices remain the same, but the page counts are diminishing.  And sadly, I have to consider that an important factor in reviewing:

The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos
  • Designer:  Ari Marmell (lead), Bruce R. Cordell, Luke Johnson
  • Illustrations: Jesper Ejsing (cover), Julie Dillon (back), Dave Allsop, Zoltan Boros & Gabor Szikszai, Julie Dillon, Jason A. Engle, Jake Masbruch, Jim Nelson, Franz Vohwinkel, Eva Widermann, Eric L. Williams (interior)
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2009
  • Media: PDF (160 pages)
  • Price: $29.95 ($19.77 from Amazon)

The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos is a supplement detailing the roiling expanse of the Elemental Planes, the Abyss, and all manner of Primordial locales befitting the new cosmology of D&D 4e.  Within the supplement are descriptions of fantastical terrain, elemental hazards, and new means of conveyance within the Elemental Chaos expanse, as well as adventure arcs, quests, and artifacts.  The various races that dwell in the Elemental Chaos are described in some detail, giving additional adventure material for creatures such as djinn, efreet, salad, demons, and elementals of all kinds.  An entire chapter of The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos is devoted to regions and adventures within the Abyss, and the final chapter details over 40 new monsters, including some unique and very powerful “Masters” of the Elements.

As one would expect from Wizards of the Coast, the production quality is superb, with material presented in a reasonable fashion, although I felt that the section on Elemental Locales (Chapter 3) would have been better placed after the main description of the Elemental Chaos (Chapter 1).  The second Chapter, Races of Chaos, presented a bit of a break in the flow of the information, but admittedly it’s a minor quibble.  Readers will find that the illustrations in supplement are frankly stunning, and the artists deserve major kudos for creating images of Elemental realms that are almost too shocking to behold.

From the first chapter of the book, the Authors do an excellent job of describing the awe and sheer terror that any Hero should feel the first time he or she sets foot (or paw) into the Elemental Chaos:

A riotous realm, the Elemental Chaos is incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it firsthand.  Here flames speak and lightning dreams, iron hates and seas hunger

Islands of earth, ash, mud, salt, or semi-solid smoke and flame, some as vast as continents, float amid an endless sky.  Rivers of water, lava, or liquid air flow from oceans bounded by nothing solid, cross landscapes of broken crystal, and spill over cliff faces made of tangible lightning.

As one can imagine, travel here is constantly perilous, even while using the new conveyances, such as chaos ships and lightning skiffs.  The supplement details these vehicles, and several more new modes of travel, as well as the dangers one might face in a place where the elements themselves can come alive, with a vengeance.

Honestly, there is some amazing ideas offered up here, that any Dungeon Master can use in their campaigns to let Heroes experience a truly unique realm, where Primordials, Demons, and all manner of other creatures dwell in an ever changing landscape.  When one of my Players began leafing through the book, (before I could snatch it away, of course), all I heard for a week after was “my gnome really, really, really needs a lightning skiff!”  The book seeds the imagination with some truly great possibilities for adventures and quests.

But, due to the “shrinkage factor” I discussed in my introduction, I do have a couple of complaints about The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos.

First, I was not really impressed with the 18 pages that were devoted to three short, one-shot adventures, each one designed for one of the Tiers of play.  There was nothing wrong with the adventures and encounters designed for the Heroic, Paragon, and Epic Tiers, and the maps and descriptions were, admittedly, quite nifty.  But if you’re going to reduce the size of the sourcebook, and keep the price the same, then don’t turn it into an Adventure Module.  If I have good source material, I have no doubt that I can come up with my own adventures.   I would have rather seen those 18 pages spent on greater descriptions of locations like the City of Brass or of specific Abyssal planes, or even new realms to explore, hazards to navigate around, or things of that ilk.  The bottom line is that if I never get my Characters to the Paragon or Epic tiers, those 18 pages of the book are wasted on material that would have been better left for an Adventure Arc release.

And while more new monsters are always exciting to have, spending 28 pages out of a 160 page supplement is overly generous.  This is supposed to be a sourcebook about the Elemental Chaos, not a monster manual.  And while it’s true, that some of the monsters in the supplement fill some gaps in the “ecology” of the Elemental Chaos, does anyone really need to have 9 more types of Slaad stacked onto the pile that already exist from the Monster Manuals?

Again, if the page count is shrinking, then Readers deserve to not have nearly a third of the book devoted to material that is better suited to other types of supplements, such as Adventure modules and Monster Manuals.  I’d hate to think what was left out of this 160 page supplement to make room for those 46 pages.

So, am I saying that The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos is a bad product?  No, absolutely not – it is, in fact, a great product overall.  The supplement is well written, and contains a lot of mind-blowing source material that can be of use for all three Tiers of play.  Admittedly, the majority of the content is written for the Paragon and Epic Tier Characters, as they are best equipped and powered to handle the challenges out there in the Elemental Chaos.  But there is still something in this supplement that can be used in almost any Dungeon Masters’ campaign, regardless of level or tier.

But I would be remiss as a Reviewer not to be concerned over the Price vs. Page Length issue, and how that affects my tolerance for non-essential material.  WotC has consistently released great material, and we look to them as the leader of our favorite hobby to give us excellent content for our money.  Given the shrinking page length, and the percentage of non-essential material, $29.95 is too much to ask for the product.  This is a book that can add a lot of adventure material, in campaign after campaign, but I definitely recommend that you buy it at the best discount you can find.

I’m not insensitive to the fact that we’re in a world-wide recession, and that production costs are probably higher for WotC and Hasbro.  But we, the D&D Players, have to deal with the same financial issues that a publishing company does, and all anyone wants is just a good product at a fair price.

So until next time… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


2 Responses to “Review of The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos by Wizards of the Coast”

  1. beej! says:

    An excellent review as always, Neuroglyph.

    I want to add in my own views, though. In my mind, this book actually doesn’t have enough monsters in them. I kind of expected to see more slaad lords, but we only get to see Ygorl. Also, they used to be on par in power level with the demon lords before, but now Ygorl is just a level 26 (and an elite to boot).

    I agree with you, however, in that the proportion just isn’t right. For a book of this size, the monster entries are indeed overwhelming.
    .-= beej!´s last blog ..We Are Listening! =-.

  2. I have to agree with you there, beej. I would have liked to see more monsters myself, but given the shrinking page counts, it felt like there was not enough room.

    Personally, I think WotC would do well to option a Monster Manual specific to the “outer planes”, and explore creatures of the Elemental Chaos, Astral Sea, and various other realms in greater detail, especially since plane-hopping is supposed to be such a big part of the Paragon and Epic Tiers!

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