A Walk Through the Planes – Part 49: Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix III




It came as a surprise to me when Monte Cook responded about which release he was disappointed with by answering that it was the Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix III. “Basically, I had just a few days to take a manuscript that was already underwritten,” he said,  “Written by someone who didn’t even really like Planescape let alone know anything about it, and make it a Planescape release.” To his credit, and the credit of the book’s editors, who were the setting’s usual on that front Michele Carter and Ray Vallese, this behind-the-scenes struggle hardly shows in the resulting product, which is polished and a largely enjoyable read. On the other hand, he’s not wrong that it’s been largely forgotten, and one of the weirdnesses of Planescape remains that while it had more bestiaries and creatures than any other second edition setting except for perhaps Forgotten Realms (given TSR’s decision to kinda make everything into Forgotten Realms this was hard to avoid), all three of the its Monstrous Compendium appendices were varying levels of disappointment.

As covered before, the setting’s first Monstrous Compendium Appendix was for the most part a slightly rewritten, slightly expanded version of Jamie LaFountain’s Outer Planes Appendix. The editor and “compilers” improved on the original’s prose and added Planescape flavor to everything, plus we were given a heaping dose of Tony DiTerlizzi art, but the result was still underwhelming. Nevertheless, it’s also the only of the appendices that feels truly necessary. The second appendix was designed by Rich Baker, who never contributed otherwise to Planescape, and wasn’t quite as strong a writer as the original’s. Some of his additions became quite important to our conception of the outer planes, but just as many were forgotten, and overall the book has a feeling of not-quite-finished. To egregiously quote myself, “Appendix II has far fewer iconic monsters, and with this a fair amount of ‘filler’ entries, by which I mean basic wildlife encounters that aren’t terribly interesting.”

Adam Rex’s vacuous remains one of my favorite pieces of D&D art. Just a masterpiece of horror.

Appendix III has the same issue as its predecessor, though with stronger writing and much more focus. Here, the spotlight finally shines on creatures from the inner and transitory planes (Astral and Ethereal), with the catch being that pretty much anything you’d actually heard of before isn’t going to be covered. Normal elementals and efreets had already popped up, which means that the beings here are going to be more esoteric and strange. Very few of these monsters have been seen since its release, and likewise few had been seen before. Relatedly, there’s a lot of strain to add at least a couple of entries for every single inner plane despite there being 18 of them to hurdle through, but the book is only 128 pages and more than a bit of that page count is more or less filler at the book’s beginning and end. What’s worse, Cook and whoever came before him didn’t have books focused on most of these planes to build from. Essentially, Appendix III seeks to populate planes that are still only defined in extremely vague terms otherwise. Suffice to say, there are a lot of obvious ways this whole project could’ve been better devised.


Still, given everything going against it, I still think Appendix III is a rather impressive book. While I agree with Cook that it’s his weakest release for the setting, that’s not to say it’s by any means bad, and while the price today for original hardcopies is extravagant, it’s well worth the PDF. Hell, as well as all of these new monsters, they still managed to jam in a pair of new sects, which is surprising because there’s a lot of grid-filling going on here, which is to say the creation of creatures simply because they logically might need to exist for “parallelism” to work, an idea discussed early in the book in which the inner planes are defined by their similarities. The frost salamander, the fire bat, the quasielementals and paraelementals and shocker—none of these are going to blow anyone’s mind. It’s not bad for them to be included, but making them interesting is a bit of a challenge, and one that this book is only intermittently able to succeed at.

Brian Despain did some of his best work in this book, and his psurlon looks a bit like an off-brand mind flayer.

Despite how many middling ideas this book necessitated, there are also plenty of legitimately creative and interesting concepts in here that I’d like to highlight. The chososion is a creature possibly not even from this multiverse, and seems like a small-time Lovecraftian horror, tentacles and all. The devourer imprisons people’s souls and uses their life force to cast spells and abilities, ultimately sucking them dry such that they can’t even be resurrected. I’m rather fond of the entrope, a being who creates vortices between the inner planes in order to help the Doomguards with their entropic goals, and love the meta-plot of the facets waging infinitely-scaling war against the Plane of Water. And hell, we could all use more truly horrifying beings like the garmorm, who ingests beings with a strange song in the Astral Plane. 


Best of all, I tend to find the creation of new cultures, like the phirblas and then psurlons, the most interesting additions of all, and a surprising number of these entries are for intelligent creatures. This is particularly important for a Planescape campaign given that it’s not all supposed to be about bashing everyone you meet over the head with a stick. The addition of the shad, shocker, ruvkova, and many other beings greatly add to the possibilities for roleplaying while also radically altering our perception of what these inner planes are actually like. These creatures all have ecologies and beliefs in a way that should appeal to any fan of the setting. I don’t particularly love the xill, for instance, but I do see adventuring possibilities from them in a way I don’t really from, say, the fundamentals, who are just going to either be ignored or fought. 

The garmorm is a wonderful new monstrosity to haunt your nightmares.

That being said, it is extremely hard to keep all of these new creatures in mind, and while there’s a list of planar beings in the index at the appendix’s end, it’s not organized by plane in a way that’s useful. The paragraph-or-so long blurbs about each of these multitudinous inner planes read as almost complete gibberish, and aren’t really indexed with what’s come before. This is probably my main gripe about this book, which is that while some of its content is actually quite strong, with additions worth exploring for any Planescape campaign, its usability is absolutely terrible. If players visit a plane, actually figuring out how to populate it from the five boxed sets and three appendices, plus the normal Monster Manual and random additions from elsewhere, has turned this typically simple DM requirement into a monumental and frustrating challenge. 


I’ve noted my disappointment for many recent releases in their lack of art by Tony Diterlizzi, and while his contribution here is minimal (I believe he drew the art for only four creatures), the book is nevertheless stunning. Regular contributors like Adam Rex and Brian Despain did some of their best work here, while a string of new contributors also perfectly fit the setting’s tone. Again, though, I found myself frustrated because actually telling who drew what was a difficult and exasperating experience. Credits on these things are far too vague, and some of the artists’ signatures are completely unreadable so that I couldn’t puzzle out who’d drawn what. It’s still a beautiful book, and certainly the best-looking thing we’ve seen since Uncaged, but does the artists who provided such consistently impressive work a great disservice.

DiTerlizzi is back. Ok, only slightly, but still, his work remains strong.

As Cook noted, Appendix III has mostly been forgotten, which is a shame. It’s not one of the absolute top tier releases for the series, but still features plenty of strange ideas, radical new takes on fantasy tropes, and plot hooks both plane-spanning and small that never got touched upon again. I can’t help but wish there was a remotely convenient way to tell which monsters actually wound up reappearing in later editions, but even if there were I suspect it would only depress me by showing just how little any of these monsters have ever been used. The paraelemental/quasielemental part of the D&D cosmography didn’t last much longer, and when it was removed the need for all of these creatures disappeared with it, consigning them to become lost even to fans of the planes.


To end this on a personal note, I believe this was the first Planescape book I ever came across, or at least the first one I opened up and read. I was 13 when it was released, and was wandering my favorite local bookstore, where I spent a huge amount of my childhood. The RPG books were right next to the comics, and I pulled this one out, intrigued by the cover art by RK Post. All of these monsters seemed bizarre compared with the dragons and orcs I was used to from D&D, with civilizations and horrors unlike any I’d encountered. Thus it was this book that stuck with me when I thought of this setting later, and so perhaps I remain a bit soft on it, as it started my appreciation for Planescape. No, it’s not the most polished book, or the most creative, but it still has that special spark of throwing out dozens of intriguing ideas in a way that normal fantasy never did. Many of the ideas were only half-baked, but they were there, and they pointed at the limitless possibility of non-Tolkien-inspired fantasy in a way that opened the eyes of at least one thirteen-year-old kid. I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten it off my shelf when running an actual D&D campaign, but I have opened it up and read it, even if just for a minute or two, more than perhaps any other Planescape book.

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