Grading the planes: the Great Wheel

February 20th, 2012 by paul
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series planes

My rubric for judging the D&D planes of existence is "If you wandered into it by accident, could you have a good adventure there?" Since the 5e developers say they're planning to return to the Great Wheel cosmology, let's see how rich each Great Wheel plane is for adventuring possibilities.

As a 3e player, I never adventured in the planes, so I'll supplement my memory with the descriptions in the 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide.

Ethereal Plane: A "collection of swirling mists and colorful fogs" through which you can see the Material Plane as through a window on the girl's locker room. It's primarily used to skip over walls in the dungeon, until the DM rules that every dungeon is in a no-ethereal-travel zone.

The Ethereal Plane is "mostly empty of structures and impediments." The example location is "Misty Cemetery" and is identical to any misty cemetery. Boy, I can't figure out why the 4e designers got rid of this. Grade: D

Plane of Shadow: "Landmarks from the Material Plane are recognizable in the Plane of Shadow, but they are twisted, warped things." Like a Tim Burton movie! There are a lot of possibilities for horror adventures: it can contain the weird and unexplained, and terrifying versions of familiar places and people. here The 4e designers call this plane the Shadowfell, but it's otherwise identical. Grade: A

The Astral Plane: Unlike the 4e Astral Sea, which is vivid with imagery of silver seas and floating islands, the Astral Plane is "a great, endless sphere of clear silvery sky". So, a lot like the Plane of Air. Great. Can't have too many featureless planes.

I guess you can have fun on a featureless plane, but if you do, it's fun you brought with you.

The DMG's example site for the Astral Plane is called, I kid you not, "Silver Sky". So that's what this plane has going on.

The only thing that saves the Astral Plane from an F is its interesting history featuring the Kabbalah and Madame Blatavsky. Grade: F+

Plane of Air: "The Plane of Air is an empty plane, consisting of sky above and sky below." I guess you go here if you want to have a lot of encounters with birds. Grade: D

Plane of Earth: "An unwary and unprepared traveler may find himself entombed within this vast solidity of material and have his life crushed into nothingness." Lots of adventures to be had here! All of the sample encounters are with earth elementals and xorn.

You know, this and the Plane of Air are really pointing up the fact that elements on their own are boring. They're like eating only one color of m&m, but worse, because when you eat m&m,s you are rarely entombed within their vast solidity and crushed into nothingness. Grade: F

Plane of Fire: This is the elemental plane with the best visuals. However, I can't see how you can adventure here. Even if you have fire resistance, there's nothing to do but kill efreet, fire elementals, and salamanders.

The sample location is the City of Brass, which has definite possibilities. The Grand Sultan of All the Efreet rules from the Charcoal Throne! "It is said that within the great palace are wonders beyond belief and treasure beyond counting. But here also is found death for any uninvited guest who seeks to wrest even a single coin or bauble from the treasure rooms of the grand sultan." Thus warned, shall ye enter? Grade: C

Plane of Water: The Plane of Water is at least traversible, unlike Earth and Fire, but I don't see what benefit you get out of using it instead of the ocean. The ocean is already vast and deep and unknown, and a lot closer, and most players are still not interested in exploring it.

For maximum fun, I'd have a Plane of Water adventure include a mer-people kingdom beset by a navy of killer intelligent sharks, throw in a Cthulhu or two, and visit the ruined palace of a dead sea god wherein the players might be enslaved by emerald-eyed sirens. Then I'd take that adventure and put it back in the Material Plane ocean. Grade: D+

Quasi elemental planes: These come together at the borders of the elemental planes: like the border between the planes of Water and Earth is the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Mud. Gary Gygax came up with these for an early Dragon Magazine article, and I suspect he put about as much thought into it as I usually put into blog posts. No one has ever adventured in any of them. Grade: F

Negative Energy Plane: You die if you spend too long on the Negative Plane. There are no random encounters because it is "virtually devoid of life". It seems to exist merely to provide an energy source for negative-energy spells. Grade: F

Positive Energy Plane: This plane "is akin to the Elemental Plane of Air with its wide-open nature." Ooh, another featureless plane! But this one is different because you die if you spend time there. Like the Negative Energy Plane, it is "virtually devoid of creatures" and only exists to power spells.

The example location is the "Burst Cluster", where there are occasional explosions. I guess that conveys a sense of place, as in "a place I want to leave." Grade: F

The Outer Planes: From the Heroic Domains of Ysgard to the Windswept Depths of Pandemonium, the Outer Planes are the realms of the gods and demons, the homes of each alignment. There are 17 of them and they are too boring to tackle individually.

The good-aligned outer planes are generally pastoral and contain nice happy people who have no possible use for adventurers. Grade: D

The neutral-aligned planes are generally boring. The best of them is Limbo, which is mostly a featureless plane but has some areas that are irregular mixes of earth, water, fire, and air. In other words, the best part of Limbo is a lot like the 4e Elemental Chaos, which is among my least favorite 4e planes. My favorite thing about Limbo, though, is that it is an area of "wild magic" where you must make a saving throw or roll on a table for a random hilarious effect. If you must adventure here, this will spice it up. Grade: C

The evil-aligned planes are chock full of demons and devils. You have to have room for this in your cosmology, but the most interesting thing about them, to me, is that they inspired the epic picture "A Paladin In Hell". Clearly, this paladin just went to hell so that he could kill an endless stream of devils until he was overwhelmed. That's pretty badass, but that's the only sort of adventure the evil planes suggest to me: a suicide mission, the object of which is to pile up demon corpses. That and trying to snipe Asmodeus for the XP. Grade: C

Sigil: The ultimate urban adventure location, Sigil connects to all the other planes, but why would you want to go to any of them? They're all worse than Sigil. Sigil has interesting politics, people to fight, and badass goth NPCs like the Lady of Pain. With its distinct neighborhoods, its commerce, and its superiority to all other travel destinations, it's a lot like a New Yorker's idea of New York. Grade: A

Overall Grade of the Great Wheel Planes: D-

Obviously I don't understand the fun that can be had with the Great Wheel. Someone tell me anecdotes about the great times they had doing planar adventures - besides Sigil, which I agree is awesome.

Series Navigationgrading the planes: 4e cosmology >>

16 Responses to “Grading the planes: the Great Wheel”

  1. james bryant says:

    You make some excellent points particularly about the astral plane and the elemental planes. The true fun in the great wheel for me was in the power of belief and philosophy. Also I enjoyed.taking a cruise through the lower planes along the river stix

  2. Noumenon says:

    I liked Li Po’s writeup of Ysgard, presentation notwithstanding.

  3. spotmarkedx says:

    Noumenon, you may want to give a warning about the website you linked. I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a minute or two after clicking that link.

    I think the only plane that held any interest for any length of time for my first gaming group (back in 2e during high school, for what it is worth) was actually the plane of air. There were little pockets of other elements (such as Earth), and we practiced a little world building on a small pocket of land. In effect, it was our floating castle in the sky. The fact that even the fighters could practice the Ender’s Gate theory of “the enemy gate/base is down” and fall towards whatever enemy threat we faced was amusing for a while as well.

    Still, would have been cooler if we had a floating island to build a castle on in the Prime Material plane.

  4. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    My reaction to the whole planar thing was always “eh.”

  5. Laura says:

    when you eat M&Ms you are rarely entombed within their vast solidity and crushed into nothingness

    Did you ever know that you’re my hero,
    and everything I would like to be?

  6. [...] of 3 in the series planesI don't know if Gary Gygax's players did a lot of planar adventures in the D&D Great Wheel (which I grade here), but I do know that they frequently traveled to other dimensions – in other words, alternate genres [...]

  7. [...] This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series planesFeatureless expanses of earth, air, fire, and water are just not that interesting, even liberally sprinkled with elementals. That's a core problem with most of the D&D planes [...]

  8. John says:

    We actually did once have an adventure on the paraelemental plane of ice. But yeah, it could just as easily have been some earthly tundra. Also, the Land of Nod’s Hellcrawl suggests that suicide missions might not be the only mode of infernal play…

  9. OK, so the Astral Plane is kind of boring and featureless because it’s primarily used as a stepping stone to further adventures – kind of like how corridors are generally less interesting than rooms. Only this corridor also has the bodies of dead gods, the Githyanki and the flotsam of destroyed worlds. There is fun to be had on the Astral and I’ve seen it (the mechanics of flying around based on intelligence and enhanced spellcasting also makes for some interesting encounters).

  10. Someone says:

    I’ll be running an adventure in Acheron soon – kinda like a trip to Nazi Germany.

    I think the outer planes at least are all interesting places, the inner planes, less so, but I guess cities of djinni and efreet and whatever could be interesting. It’d probably be more interesting to adventure in the City of Dis in Hell, though…

  11. [...] too long ago, paul reviewed and graded the planes as presented in D&D.  Many were deemed pretty uninteresting.  Here he presents some ideas to make the elemental [...]

  12. psychopanda says:

    You touched on this in another blog post, but I think with any of the elemental planes they must have pockets of other elements to make them interesting or some form of settlements such as the City of Brass.

    To survive or at least travel throughout the Plane of Earth, a character would likely need some sort of phasing ability and x-ray vision. And you might ask “Why might an adventurer want to travel to the very dangerous Plane of Earth?!”. Why, for the rare gems and metals that are likely fairly abundant there! DM’ing such an expedition…I would make sure finding a large pocket of gold a task much like finding a needle in a haystack. Also, it would likely be heavily guarded by dangerous inhabitants.

    So, I would make each of the planes interesting in their own regards (not another ‘a lot like the Plane of Air’….except the Plane of Limbo, which should be full of boredom and dullness.

  13. Richard says:

    I can say that the Temple of Elemental Evil was probably the best module I ever went though. I think the adventures into the 4 elemental planes to find the four gems was a great time. One difference in being in the elemental plane of water was that if you got in trouble there was no rising to the surface to escape.

    Another adventure that was a huge challenge was Queen of the Demonweb Pits. One the the best aspects of the module was the limitations involved on magic and spells from being in the Abyss.

  14. Runic says:

    Wow, you really know nothing about the Outer Planes, are you? They’re just as interesting as Sigil, if not more.

    I suggest you go read the various Planescape books about them.

    Oh, and Lady of Pain is overrated, IMHO.

  15. Arasiel says:

    Adventuring in the planes of 3e and 3.5 does take a little bit of creativity. The corebooks make the planes sound very boring, but that’s largely because there is another book for them: the Planar Handbook. This has a great deal more information in it about each plane (and the denizens thereof) as does the various Monster Manuals. But still, the planes exist as a canvas for the DM’s imagination. As such, yes, they are somewhat featureless. The Astral Plane would be not worth adventuring in, except oh wait, it contains citadels of marauding githyanki, long-lost artifacts, random portals to everywhere, and cities of slave-traders, cosmic criminals, and other practicioners of forbidden arts. i.e. it’s the miscelaneous stuff plane, anything and everything can be on the astral plane at any time. Then there’s the Nine Hells, with nine layers of all sorts of bad shit for players to kill and bad guys to summon. You’re right, it exists mostly to provide a home base for creatures who answer the summon planar ally spell, but still, worth having even if not exactly worth going to. You know what else lives on the Elemental Planes? dragons. lots of them. And dragon turtles, and salamanders, and rocs, and all sorts of interesting other creatures, which one could kill, or talk to. See the thing about planar creatures is that they tend to be intelligent, which means they talk, do politics, make plans (or evil schemes) and so forth. Their alignments tend to restrict their usage, but that of course makes it all the more surprising when the party finds that a scheming lammasu is undermining their plans. Are they really as good as they thought they were? maybe in the Outer Planes, a simple atonement spell isn’t good enough: maybe you need to go on a quest…Finally: you know who else lives on the Outer Planes? the Gods. They are what really make planar adventures fun, especially the ones in the good-aligned realms (where otherwise the PCs would have nothing to do if they were good). What happens when the party cleric comes face to face with his deity? all these years he’s been casting these spells, and praying to this idea, but now he’s face to face with the flesh and blood being. How does he react? what happens? How does the deity react to meeting his stalwart follower? does he care about the cleric’s heroic deeds? or does he think the cleric needs to atone for something? Does the deity need something, but can’t get it because another deity is blocking his way? does he have an enemy that he needs eliminated, but can’t do it himself because of some divine rule or other? Maybe the party shows up just in the nick of time to keep him from getting clobbered by his eternal foe. Or maybe they are too late…adventuring in the planes can tend towards the metaphysical, but it can also, when done right, tend towards the awesome. It gives players a sense that the things they do are changing the universe, yes, even that paladin in Hell.

  16. Thanks for finally writing about > Grading the planes: the Great

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