The Plane Below

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 140: The Plane Below – Secrets of Elemental Chaos




I’ve tried to be as fair as I can to Fourth Edition, despite my well-known distaste for both its game mechanics and world. After all, there were plenty of excellent game designers working for Wizards of the Coast, and there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater—good ideas are edition agnostic and should be celebrated wherever they’re found. Still, there wasn’t a single release I wanted to unequivocally recommend… until now. With lead design by Ari Marmell, The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos is everything that the edition’s disappointing Manual of the Planes wasn’t. It’s filled with exciting ideas, most of which are easily adaptable to any cosmology, and what’s more it succeeds at making this mess of a plane feel far more real than it was before—like some place characters might actually want to visit. It’s the first time I’ve felt like this cosmology has some genuine potential, and that this was primarily done by a freelancer rather than Wizards of the Coast itself also amuses me to no end. 

The primary issue with the Manual of the Planes was that it needed to be so broad that it had difficulty making anywhere actually seem unique; this wasn’t helped by the typically abbreviated Fourth Edition page count, where half of the thickness for so many books was just the cardboard of its cover. But The Plane Below is specific and detailed. It’s still constrained by the edition’s refusal to map anything besides battle locations, and so picturing locations remains an issue, but at the same time descriptions are clear enough that this is largely overcome, and for once there’s even more than just a few illustrations. Wondering what exactly you’ll find in this plane? Then enjoy more than a dozen pages about the generalized features. Want to get around, or understand how gravity (nonsensically) works, or what happens when a couple of the plane’s earthbergs smack each other? All of that and much more is covered. I can’t help but feel like in earlier editions this would’ve been included in the original Manual, but at least we have it here, and what’s included feels well-thought out and even, occasionally, playtested. 

My favorite piece of art in the entire book is James Masbruch’s illustration for “Reasoning with a Slaad.” I feel like Xanxost would approve.

Also included in the first chapter is advice about how to structure a campaign around this plane. Normally this sort of section completely bores me, but it’s strengthened here by concrete examples. For each of the four typical varieties of planar campaign they recommend the book includes a storyline that could be used at heroic, paragon, and epic tiers. Not all of these are hits, but enough are intriguing that you can get a sense of how to make this world feel exciting. A vast majority of these sample campaigns are in fact far more interesting than anything contained in the HPE adventure path we recently covered in this series. This section is followed by one with sample adventures rather than campaigns, and these are just as well-developed. I can’t say that anyone actually used these sample ideas, but they are almost universally strong and often easy to insert into an ongoing campaign. I found myself surprised to read through this entire section noting ideas I’d want to use for my own campaigns when this is usually the type of material I’ve skimmed past since before I was in high school. It’s good shit. I’m less enamored of the section focused on patrons, i.e. quest-givers, but I think that largely derives from running my campaigns in a way where this type of individual is rarely featured. As NPCs, these are all highly developed, especially for Fourth Edition, and give a great sense of the type of individual who might be found in this world. 


The next part of Chapter 1 is “Orders out of Chaos,” which focuses on organizations who might be found in the Plane Below. First is the Cult of the Elemental Eye, and the authors make a valiant attempt at trying to make sense of how the infamous Temple of Elemental Evil (and its slightly less famous Return) might make sense in this world. After all, Fourth Edition loooooves Tharizdun. This attempt doesn’t quite work, because Tharizdun’s role in Return conflicts with Zuggtmoy’s in Temple in ways that never made much sense… but I can’t blame the designers for trying. I also enjoy the detail that, “The Cult of Elemental Evil arose multiple times, and the temple was destroyed and rebuilt at least twice,” which is a great way of lampshading the weird history of the Temple and Tharizdun within the game. If I were to run something having to do with the Temple I would almost certainly crib from these pages. 

The second organization, The Grave-Minders, is also weirdly good considering that it concerns primordials and usually that business gets terrible fast due to primordials having no complexity or motivations besides murder, but the biggest surprise by far was the Speakers of Xaos. This group is theoretically an offshoot of the Xaositects, who within this continuity merged with a new group called the  Lyceum Elemental, “a combination cabal and social club for researchers

investigating all matters elemental and primordial.” This combination makes no sense, and as a result almost everything about the Xaositects is now missing from this new group except for in its name. Given that the Xaositects also failed to reappear in Fifth Edition’s Planescape reboot, I can’t help but feel like Wizards of the Coast really hates the group for some reason. A small sidebar notes that the original group may still be hanging about in Sigil, which I appreciate, but on the whole it seems like they just liked the spelling of Xaos and decided to toss group in because of this—the Speakers of Xaos bear no relationship to the Xaositects, and no attempt is really made to bring their philosophy into this edition. 

A follower of the Elder Elemental Eye? Of course not, what made you think he could possibly be one of those?

This whopper of a first chapter ends with four and a half pages devoted to artifacts, which have a surprising amount of decent lore associated with them. While they’d have to be altered to fit any other edition, as usual what’s included isn’t bad, even if two of them revolve around freeing primordials, a plotline I sure wish was banned at this point given that we’re only a couple years into the edition and it’s already been overused to the point of ridiculousness.


Chapter 2, “Races of Chaos,” covers archons, djinns, efreets, genasi, giants and titans, githzerai, and slaads in detail, plus a quick rundown of the roles played by dao, demons, dwarves, elementals, humans, primordials, and whatever the hell phoelarchs are within the Elemental Chaos. Archons are just as boring as before, and I still resent reusing this name for such a dull group of humanoids. What’s been done to the genasi is almost as bad, but the big surprise here is the return of djinn to the game. We learn that the entire race is imprisoned/enslaved to various objects in gods’ retaliation for their role in the Dawn War. And while dao are only given three paragraphs of coverage, their Great Dismal Delve is even mentioned. In general, I don’t much like the Fourth Edition’s Elemental Chaos races, but I do feel like the book does a fine job with what is required and tries its best to make the lore consistent. 

There are also locations detailed with the planar races, but they’re often repeats from before or barely detailed. Still worth a read, though.

The highlight of Elemental Chaos arrives with chapter 3, “Elemental Locales.” It consists of 10 two-page location profiles followed by three mini-adventures. That may not sound like a ton of detail, but as much as I love Planescape, that’s usually about as much as we ever received from it regarding particular locations in the planes. It feels a bit ridiculous that none of these locations are mapped, and several aren’t accompanied by images of any sort, but that does nothing to make these places less worthwhile. 

  • The Brazen Bazaar – “A traveling marketplace and carnival originating from the City of Brass.” An excellent addition to the planes—easily adapted to most any cosmology—though the idea that how much of it manifests depends on the importance of a location never makes a lick of sense and winds up feeling contrived.
  •  Canaughlin Bog – A deadly swamp, which is mostly notable because that’s not an environment you’d expect in this plane. Fey and genasi hang out here, apparently because they’re too dumb to remember that you don’t have to live in a literal fucking swamp just because it’s there. 
  • The Choking Palace – Abode of Ehkahk, the Smoldering Duke, who prior to this edition was just a marginal lord of the paralemental plane of smoke. He’s developed further at the end of the book, and he’s sure had a glow-up since the days when he was thought to be nothing more than an unusually intelligent smoke mephit. The Plane Below tries to make its confusion as to why he’s hanging around and occasionally getting into conflicts into something compelling, which it somehow mostly succeeds at.
  • Gloamnull, City of Rain – A genasi city where it always rains. In order to stay in existence, the inhabitants have turned to worshiping Dagon, though this isn’t exactly something they advertise to outsiders. A wonderful location that feels like something pulled from Beyond Countless Doorways
  • Irdoc Morda – An outpost for archons and where iron archons originally came from. Only seems terribly interesting if you want to punch a lot of dudes in the face, since archons are essentially mindlessly evil soldiers in Fourth Edition. 
  • The Moteswarm – An elemental jumble being fought over by three factions in order to gain ownership of an archon forge. Essentially a spot for endless battles or rather dull politics—one of the less impressive new locations. 
  • Pandemonium Stone – Another location that feels like something from a third party publisher (I mean this in a good way), this is a giant spire that appears at random and has a couple settlements on either end. It’s also tied into slaad mythology and seems like a good place for investigation. There’s a lot going on here, and I would’ve happily read a dozen more pages about the stone. 
  • Pillars of Creation – “Immense pillars … scattered throughout the Elemental Chaos.” So yeah, pretty much what the name makes you think. Each has its own elemental theme, and their purpose is unknown. I’m less fond of this mystery since it seems so undeveloped.
  • The Riverweb – “Several thousand miles from the City of Brass, more than a dozen major rivers and a hundred streams converge in a network called the Riverweb. This nexus of forks, convergences, and other watery features stretches hundreds of miles.” I miss the River Styx, and while this isn’t much of a replacement, at least it brings nautical adventuring back into the planar game. This feels like it’d make a great hub area, though it requires a lot of DM development because the two pages included are too rough of a sketch to use without addition. 
  • Sanzerathad  – A githzerai monastery always on the verge of destruction, constructed in order to protect “The Room Without Doors” at its center. They’re trying a little too hard to create a cool mystery here, and at a certain point it feels like a cop out that the book repeatedly refuses to give a DM all of the information. That’s intentional, but is still lazy. Leaving information out once or twice works, but this happens far too often both in this book and the rest of Fourth Edition.
The Brazen Bazaar in all of its brazen glory.

The mini-adventures are on the whole less worthwhile, though they do bring us to even more new locations. “The Glittering Mine,” for instance, has the PCs exploring a… glittering mine. Umm, yeah, cool, I guess. “The Body Luminous” is a quick look at “a vestige of a future apocalypse that materializes in the present” (what???), i.e. ruins hidden by a big stormcloud and guarded by a bunch of slaads. Lastly, “The Mountain Builder’s Barrow” has PCs trying to prevent yet another primordial from being resurrected. *yawn* All things considered, these three adventures are the most forgettable part of the entire book and the first thing I’d cut if there were an issue with page count. 


Chapter 4, “Into the Abyss,” tries its best at covering this sorta plane, which is a big, weird task. First off, the designers set out to do a better job of defining how the Abyss fits into the Elemental Chaos, and on this point they… did the best they could: “The Abyss is both a part of the Elemental Chaos and a separate plane.” What a dumb explanation, but I suppose it’s a useful one? Maybe? To the book’s credit, it doesn’t repeat much from what’s already included in the Manual of the Planes, but this also makes the chapter feel incomplete since major layers and characters are nowhere to be found. That the Abyss has a shape despite layers being traditionally thought of as worlds is also explained as best as possible without ever actually making sense, but what can you do? I also give a few demerits for saying, “Legends claim that it spirals downward to a final heart of evil, but none can prove that assertion.” Umm, I can do that just by lending you a copy of Prince of Undeath. It feels very dumb for things to pretend at a mystery (or at an infinity) when the answer to that mystery is well-established elsewhere, and we know that the place is finite because a recent adventure went right to its conclusion. 


Two more campaign arcs are offered as samples (with no heroic tier ones, based upon the assumption that characters of those levels can’t deal with the Abyss). Neither is interesting as the sample campaigns for the general Elemental Chaos, with both relying a ton on demon prince machinations, but neither is bad. I’m not really sure why really quick and basic sample adventures are also included, but I’d forgotten about them entirely until right now, and upon reread they’re all… fine. I also have nothing to say about the four pages spent on Abyssal skill checks except to say that this seems like a pretty poor use of space to me. 

The Riverweb. I recall an area from One Piece looking a lot like this, which I suppose is a recommendation for the concept.

Fortunately, the Abyss chapter ends with four more new locations:

  • Mal Arundak, The Bastion of Confusion – Another very clever location. Here former angels guard over “what they believe is the trapped essence of the Chained God, Tharizdun. They are wrong.” Unfortunately, what they’re actually guarding is as usual undefined, but this refuge of seeming-normalcy with a horrible twist is a perfect Abyssal location. 
  • Molor, The Stinking Realm (note: a typo calls it the Sinking Realm, which is a much better name….) – This is Juiblex’s realm, except not. Now, we all know that Juiblex shares a layer with  Zuggtmoy, so you’d think that maybe this is a decision to split that up, right? Nope. Instead, he still has half of that layer, plus this one, and their relationship is messy and dumb. “Molor, though part of the Faceless Lord’s realm, is not its home domain.” Everything else about this layer is actually pretty compelling, though, so I can see skipping all of the Juiblex nonsense and just featuring this as another layer of the Abyss with its own unique horrors, or even moving its only two real features onto Shedaklah. As things stand, though, I ended up baffled about what they were thinking when writing this.
  • The Plains of Rust – A layer where an old Blood War encampment became swallowed by the horrors of the Abyss. Generally miserable, and easy to use with other cosmologies, though as with most Abyssal locations it can be hard to figure out why PCs would end up there (I’m ignoring all of the portal to Hell business, as I find it underwhelming and also largely incompatible with the Great Wheel. Making it so much more difficult for demons and devils to fight was a weird cosmological choice.). 
  • The Spires of Rajzak – The realm of a demon lord who the book refuses to call a demon lord because he’s too dumb. It’s essentially a survival-based realm for players to be stuck within, and while not the most creative Abyssal layer would still not be a bad place to use if, say, your players jumped down a random hole in the Plain of Infinite Portals. As a side-note, why are none of the new layers numbered?
Canaughlin Bog, which never mentions strange crystal formations in its profile. Maybe these are supposed to be the “elemental moss” that hang about the area?

The final chapter is “Creatures of Chaos,” which is to say a brief bestiary and then a series of profiles for noteworthy individuals. 

  • Abomination – This includes primeval oozes and the storm that walks, both of which are super high level and neither of which is terribly interesting. I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise since abominations were made by primordials and nearly everything that touches primoridals turns into boredom.
  • Archon – Iron archons are added, as are mud archons. Both are just as dull as every other archon—making an entire race of beings mindless warriors was certainly a choice.
  • Demon, Blightborn – Four new demons, all of whom are essentially demonic versions of elementals. Dust demons are demonic djinns, ash-wrought soulburners (wtf?) are demonic efreets, consumptive swarms are demonic slaads, and writhing crags are demonic… ropers and xorns for some reason. All four new demons are much more interesting than I’m giving them credit for here, perhaps the coolest new demons in Fourth Edition and each one with weird and surprising traits, but I still suspect we’ll never see or hear from any of them again.
  • Eisk Jaat – Ice dwarves. No seriously, that’s a thing that someone thought the game needed, and that’s their super dumb name.
The primordial blot looks dumb as fuck, but I never much cared for Second Edition’s composite elemental artwork either.
  • Elemental – Five new elementals, four of which are completely forgettable to the point that even the designers forgot to give them any lore. The final type, primordial blots, have a ton of lore, but all of it is couched in the usual “it could be this, but it could also be this, or maybe it’s this” language that suffuses so much of this goddamn edition. They’re a combination of “all” elements, and have the potential to be cool despite their artwork, if only the designers could decide what the hell they actually are.
  • Slaad – Some new slaad types, which I think I’ve come around to as a concept? I’m not sure yet, but having more types of slaads sure does feel nice and chaotic to me. At the same time, though, if they’re being limited a la Tales from the Infinite Staircase, then why only create a few more, why not infinite types (think second edition’s hordelings)? Anyhow, all six new slaads are unique and fun, including their own weirdo philosophies, like blue slaad digesters who “believe that if they can eat enough of reality, the true nature of the wider multiverse will finally show through.” And while I tend to dislike time travel, the white slaads’ ability to use their belief that time is an illusion as a weapon is just too cool. So yeah, I guess I ended up hoping to see more of these concepts again in the future, because more weirdo slaads is only ever a positive.
I’m not sure which version of Ygorl is the lamest. Apparently he’s the big bad in a D&D video game I haven’t played, too, though I’ll probably be covering that at some point in the future….

That’s it for new monster types, here’s our “Masters of the Elements” (really?) who receive profiles:

  • Ehkahk – I have little to add about  him here that I didn’t say earlier about his castle, but I like seeing the dude reappear in the game. There’s even a cute joke about how “Nobody is certain of Ehkahk’s true nature” that references his lore from previous editions. No matter what he or anyone else claims, he’ll still always be a smoke mephit to me.
  • Liricosa – A githzerai legend because he is said to have achieved true enlightenment. What does this mean? I have no idea, and neither do the authors, but it’s still a cool concept, and there’s some hints about him having plans against demons. There have been surprisingly few fleshed-out githzerai over the years, and I’m happy to see one more added to the game. 
  • Sirrajadt, The Vengeful Storm – A djinn looking to get revenge for his entire race being fucked over. I like the guy and wish to help him out on his quest. 
  • Solkara, the Crushing Wave – Sadly, Solkara is just another goddamn primordial, and as such the usual plot as to whether or not she’s going to escape her prison is the main business of her lore. On the plus side, there’s at least a little politicking going on in this regard, and Solkara herself looks, uhh, like this:
I’d love to hear if this was the prompt given to the artist for Solkara: “A scaled tail extends from a body supported by a pair of reptilian legs and made up of two humanoid torsos joined at the shoulders, sprouting three multijointed arms. Rising from these torsos, two sinuous necks connect to a single head resembling that of a ferocious predator of the deep. Water flows constantly over the whole without apparent source.”
  • Ygorl, Lord of Entropy – I’m entertained that they decided to bring back the least-slaad-y of the slaad lords. Even Ygorl seems to think his slaad connection is pretty lame and doesn’t give two shits about the rest of what is supposedly his race. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since some of the other slaadi lords are people you’d want to chat with more than punch, which would go against the Fourth Edition ethos, and Ygorl is just another adversary with a lot of flavor and backstory. A cool one, sure, but in terms of a campaign it’d be hard to use him as anything besides another stat block. 

As you can tell, there’s a whole lot packed into this book. More lore is explained here than anywhere else so far in the edition, and it’s done so clearly and concisely, or at least as much as the messiness of this cosmology will allow. Even if you, like me, are uninterested in this particular idea of the multiverse, there’s a lot to enjoy here, and for once it feels like the authors are really giving everywhere a true planar feeling. This conception of the Elemental Chaos doesn’t feel like the Prime Material Plane, i.e. the world (now it’s often not even called the “natural world” anymore, making things even dumber and more confusing…), instead it feels weird and wonderful, if far from coherent. I don’t love this plane, and I never will, but you can see potential for adventures here and get the sense that within this cosmology it just might be possible to have as interesting planar stories as before. Sure, all of the primordial and Dawn War stuff is still as boring as ever, but most of the locations and individuals profiled have little to do with this, and so the book is strong throughout regardless of its mediocre setting. 

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