A Walk Through the Planes – Part 33: The Planewalker’s Handbook




Planescape wasn’t introduced until 1994, but the amount of material published for the setting during its first couple of years is immense, almost unfathomable by D&D’s publishing schedule as of 2021. At this point there’s been six(!) box sets of varying quality and content, two monstrous compendiums, nearly a dozen adventures (not counting the micro ones in Well of Worlds and boxed sets), plus three full-length books detailing Sigil. None of this is even considering the additions from a smattering of Dragon Magazine articles, plus a few tie-in novels that we’re not going to talk about because I have something approaching taste. All of this makes it so that even though the setting only recently began as of this release, jumping into it certainly looks intimidating. Monte Cook’s first solo release for the setting The Planewalker’s Handbook feels like an attempt at fixing this issue, both updating the setting from its initial boxed set and making for an easier transition to playing there. In this attempt, and pretty much everything else it tries, the book is a complete success. 

In essence, I consider Planewalker’s Handbook to be the start of Planescape’s second (and, unfortunately, final) wave of products. Aside from this release, the books are no longer introductory, and for the most part they feel more interested in showing new ideas for the setting and the great wheel. You can always go back and read through these original boxed sets and adventures to see a more static version of the planes, but one thing I appreciate a lot about 90s TSR was that their settings stayed in motion. Time passed within them, which meant DMs had options for how they wanted things to appear. According to the Handbook, planar kids no longer use the word “berk” anymore, for instance, which seems both like a cute message at those complain about the cant and a recognition that even in two years the planes have changed. It’s time for some refinement.

DiTerlizzi’s back, and he brought his A game this time out.

One of the true marvels of The Planewalker’s Handbook is that it manages to do so much of what that first Planescape Campaign Setting boxed set did but in a much shorter space. The first 32 pages of the book are almost fully a recap, giving basic information about the planes including a rundown of the entire great wheel, most of the inner planes, and even the transitives between them. Given that this is book largely intended for players and not DMs, this is fine, and in fact almost elegant. Plus, this information is far more reflective of how these places appeared in the setting so far, not the generalisms from that original set which resulted from so much of the Great Ring still being undefined. Actually running a Planescape adventure is going to require more information than this, or at least an incredibly creative DM, but that’s not an issue. As an introduction, this is excellent. 


This first section is followed by a couple of other introductions, focusing on how people actually get around the planes, and the rules (when they’re not being broken) for portals, gates, vortices, and all other planar paths. This information is also key in setting the tone for what adventures here usually look like. As I said, one of the main purposes of this book is to be a cheaper, cleaner, more-inviting introduction for players to the setting, and this information taking up most of the book makes sense. At the same time, this is information that was for the most part sorely missing from earlier books. One of Cook’s other primary purposes was to gather the material from all these earlier books and put it into one place, while also streamlining the rules and terminology. The idea, for instance, that portals only means, uhh, portals to-and-from Sigil goes out the window here. If people within the universe would find this sort of distinction, then so would players, so this sort of simplification feels completely natural. There are quite a few of these, most of which are very small but the overall result is making for a much more inviting multiverse. 

I have little to say about this piece except that it’s lovely.

The Factions receive less information than within the boxed set, and this section contains my only real annoyance with the book, which is that I think the descriptions contained here aren’t as useful as they should be. They’re all written in-universe, which is nice for someone like me who’s familiar with these groups, but I’d guess isn’t so useful for newcomers to the setting. Then again, it’s not like players should necessarily know the dark about the these groups, it’s just that this feels a bit off. Unlike the little words of advice from Tarsheva interspersed within entries earlier, these in-universe blurbs feel like they weren’t the best approach. It feels more like Cook wanted to have fun writing here than anything else, and while so much of the book is good as a resource compendium, this section not so much.


The Handbook‘s biggest addition appears in its next section, “Races and Archetypes,” with the inclusion of Aasimar as a playable race (pulled from the second monstrous compendium), as well as the invention of planetouched genasi and my particular favorite planar race, rogue modrons. The setting felt incomplete without the ability to play as them, and while I still find Planescape’s racial restrictions too limiting for my own purposes, I do appreciate the expansion (dumb racial restrictions are just a normal part of pre-3.0 D&D). I very much disagree with this book and the setting-as-a-whole’s assertion that races should be so limited, as to me a planar campaign should be open to playing as a minotaur or a lizard person or whatever else—infinite means infinite, c’mon—but these additions at least make the place feel more full and diverse. And while I find the archetypes not at all useful, their inclusion seems fine and perhaps may trigger some people’s imaginations. 

There aren’t enough dark-skinned folks in Planescape, but at least this planar thief is suitably kick-ass.

The kits that take up the next dozen or so pages aren’t terribly useful for me considering that like most people I have no interest in actually playing a Second Edition campaign, but they work in tandem with the next section on magic in making this setting more accessible. One of the issues the planes have always had is that basic survivability there is difficult. The kits don’t fix this, but they do smooth things over, as do a plethora of new spells that make visiting places like the inner planes more possible. The lack of kits, items, spells, etc. was something I always felt from previous Planescape supplements, even if they have little use for me personally. In general, these are quite adjustable for future editions, and at the very least offer up easily adaptable ideas. Sure, the magic items featured here might need changes, same with the spells and abilities, to fit varying power levels in Pathfinder or Fifth Edition or however else you want to use this setting, but that’s rarely difficult to do. 


The final chapter focuses on the shape of Planescape campaigns, and with this comes a new system for incentivizing roleplaying beliefs. I’m a big fan of what Cook came up with here, and let’s be honest, it’s not far-removed from the inspiration point system that became canon with Fifth Edition. What I do like here, and something that may be useful regardless of Planescape or whatever setting you’re using, is asking players to come up with their characters’ core beliefs as part of the character creation process. One of the things that D&D  has never been great at is centering the roleplaying part of RPGs, and this should help with that. I like to ideally have an entire multi-hour session devoted to character creation, and adding this to that feels natural. The rest of this chapter, on running a planar campaign, isn’t nearly so interesting, but at the same time I do recognize that new DMs need all the help they can get, so if this inspires people and makes that process easier than I’m all for it. 

I think the bird is a planar beast I always forget about, but in my head it’s a chocobo from a Final Fantasy-prime material world.

All of that is packed into this book, and for what it is the work feels both useful and comprehensive. I would’ve loved a more full DM guide to the planes along the same lines as this was for players, but at least this exists. Alongside Cook’s voluminous writing is a ton of new artwork by DiTerlizzi, which is both much better than his drawings for Hellbound, and also proves me wrong in thinking that Uncaged was the last release he fully illustrated (the terrible color plates reused from previous works don’t count). Some really great stuff here, and though it’s not omnipresent in order to make room for so many words, what’s there is pitch perfect. For intensive details about the planes you’ll have to look elsewhere, but that’s not the point here, and Cook’s clean, precise prose combines with some maps focused on readability and DiTerlizzi’s evocative art all makes this strange fantasy world feel surprisingly accessible.


The Planewalker’s Handbook is the best introduction to the setting for players, by a wide margin. It’s still an introduction, of course, but as a starting place for players interested in the setting everyone involved hit this out of the park. I don’t think it really worked to reinvigorate the setting as hoped, but that was probably more due to TSR’s publishing woes than anything else. From here, things are only going to get more niche, but at least this book makes the entirety of the multiverse briefly seem like something everyone can enjoy. 

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