This is a tough book for me to review, mainly because I have never, ever, in my years of playing D&D have had any sort of interest in planar campaigns. My PC’s have never been to Sigil, City of Brass, nor the Happy Hunting Grounds. The DM’s I’ve played with never took us for a spin around the cosmology of D&D, mainly because all our campaigns mostly hovered around the lower levels of play, where local troubles are what get PC’s on the path to adventure.
As a DM, planar adventures are not really my thing either, it has just always been a “meh” type of thing in my D&D’ing, on both sides of the screen. I know that in the Paragon tier, planar hopping is expected, so I’m sure I’ll have to adapt… As far as this book goes, I’m surprised that this book was published so early on the 4e run, rather than a book on say, The Shadowfell, or The Feywild, considering how prevalent those locales are in the core assumptions of the 4e world. In my opinion, a book on The Elemental Chaos could have probably waited a little bit longer to be published, but who am I to judge. This book very much feels like a companion piece to the Manual of the Planes, and in some sections, there are assumptions of ownership of that book.
Having said that, I still think the book deserves a review, regardless of whether or not it’ll get much use at my table, so let’s take a look at what we have. The book chimes in at 159 pages, and is divided into 5 chapters.
Chapter 1: Chaos Incarnate
This is the obligatory first chapter describing what the Elemental Chaos is, environmental hazards and fantastic terrain are also included, along with some campaign arcs and artifacts. This may be the best chapter you’ll get out of the book if you are looking for ideas as to how to use the Elemental Chaos in your game, because it has plenty of hooks divided by level as well. The chapter also introduces Elemental Patrons that the pc’s may meet as they interact with the plane. These include Efreets, Titans, and Githzerai. This is probably my favorite chapter, since it makes some sense out of what the plane exactly is, and how to use it. I don’t like the fact that we are introduced to a cult, The Cult of the Elder Elemental Eye, and its holiest site, the famous Temple of Elemental Evil. We are described the cult, its goals, and are given adventure ideas… Unfortunately some of these ideas include using the Temple itself, yet we aren’t given a description of it, nor are we told if it’s coming in a future supplement or whatever. So if you are planning in designing a temple, you never know if your hard work will be negated by an official version of it. A “to be detailed in a future supplement” sidebar would have been nice.
Chapter 2: Races of Chaos
In this chapter you get the descriptions of the major races you can find as you head into the plane below: Archons, Djinns, Efreets, Genasi, Giants and Titans, Githzerai, Slaads. First complaint: where’s the artwork? Not even a picture of each race. We get a Frost Giant, and Efreet, and the script that the Efreets use, Barazhad. Hmm. I would would have liked at least one image of each. I know I can go look at the monster manual, but I’d like to avoid as much book flipping as possible. There is no crunch in the chapter, but there are plenty of references to pages in the Manual of the Planes and Monster Manual 2, further reinforcing my view of this book as a companion piece to the Manual of the Planes.
There are plenty of sidebars as well in this chapter, filled with fluff about battles, origins, and other fluff that add to the history of the 4e default setting. It’s good stuff and the level of detail in the assumed setting continues to impress me. It’s not that generic at all. There’s a lot of history behind it.
Chapter 3: Elemental Locales
Here you get 10 different locations in which you can place adventures, from bazaars, to bogs, to a locale called The Riverweb, where dozens of rivers and hundreds of streams meet. This is a great chapter, as these locales are all interesting and varied enough to provide ample time exploring the plane. There are encounter groups sorted by level included for each location, and some actual mini adventures with maps and monster stat blocks. If you are going to run a planar adventure out of the book, this is the chapter that will see the most use.
Chapter 4: Into the Abyss
Here we get a chapter on the Abyss, which is described as part of the Elemental Chaos, but also a plane of its own. Here we get campaign and adventure ideas, skill challenges, and locations of the abyss. As an aside: The fact that the first set of published adventures dealt with Orcus, H1-E3, yet the fact that we have very little in the books of Orcus and his domain bothers me. I don’t know, I feel like I’m missing info. This again feels like an extension of Manual of the Planes, and then in the future we’ll get an extension of this extension, through books on the Abyss for example. Something feels a bit incomplete. I’ll give an example, there’s a skill challenge called “Navigating the Demonweb”, but if I were a complete D&D newbie who had no idea what the heck the Demonweb was, and was presented that, I’d scratch my head in confusion. I’m not a fan of publishing stuff with the expectation that people will know what you are talking about because D&D has been around a while. (There are also tons of “See Manual of the Planes pg. XX) in this chapter.
Chapter 5: Creatures of Chaos
Here you get a bunch of creatures, (45 stat blocks in total!) some like Archons, that are variants on existing creatures. It’s a great blend of creatures to use as you adventure in the plane. The highest level creature here is a 34 level solo controller, Solkara the Crushing Wave. A gargantuan elemental water beast. Fun.
So again, I’m not planning on sending my PC’s in any plane hopping adventures to the plane below anytime soon, so this book will yield little value to me right now. A book on the Shadowfell, or Feywild would have certainly come in more handy for me as a DM, and I’m surprised they weren’t released before this one. This book feels like a companion piece to Manual of the Planes, an extension of Chapter 4 of that book, to be precise. An incomplete extension, to be even more precise, which means you can expect books on The Abyss and other locales that were touched on but not fleshed out. I’m not a fan of referencing things (like the demonweb and temple of elemental evil examples) that aren’t described. There certainly was space in the book to touch on the demonweb in this book, yet it was left out, leading me to expect more material spread out into other books that could have certainly fit in this one. If you are going to give me “The Plane Below” then give it to me, rather than “The Plane Below minus some other stuff we are going to spread out later”.
The book does have its pluses, there are cool encounters, creatures, organizations and locations. I don’t want to make it sound like a completely negative review, because it’s not. But does “The Plane Below” feel incomplete to me? Yes it does.