Planar Handbook

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 95: Planar Handbook




In third edition proper, I could count the number of truly worthwhile planar D&D releases on one hand. Sadly, this did not include the Manual of the Planes, a book that despite its attractive artwork and a few nifty ideas simply tried to do too much. As a result, it didn’t have enough room to do anything interesting with the game’s cosmology as it stood, and the book instead focused on rehashing what was already known. If you skipped it entirely, instead using the core books for information on what had changed and combined this with knowledge from previous editions, you wouldn’t be missing much. 

When the game went through its awkward half-generational jump, not only were the core rulebooks greatly revised (and in nearly all respects vastly improved), several books were published as essentially 3.5 updates to prior works. From this swath we received the Expanded Psionics Handbook, the Player’s Guide to Faerûn, and most importantly the Planar Handbook. But the title here implies there’s something else at work as well, and there’s a reason why this book’s title rhymes with the Player’s Handbook. While the volume doesn’t entirely focus upon players, including a full chapter devoted to new monsters for instance, it’s far more about useful player resources than the Manual of the Planes was, and as a result ends up the superior book. All of those generalities from its predecessor are removed in favor of specifics made to be useful for actually playing the game. This isn’t a great book as far as expanding the multiverse is concerned—although the final chapter does do this in a somewhat disorganized fashion—but it is wonderful for running or playing in an actual planar campaign. 

The mephling artwork is one of the book’s absolute best drawings, but the actual race is pretty lame. I feel like they should’ve just stuck with the genasi here.

The good stuff starts from its very first chapter, which focuses on character races. A handful of these are updates from older editions—the aasimar, tieflings, and bariaurs—but everything else is new to this book. These races are both entirely new in the cases of the buommans, shadowswyfts, and wildren, and kinda hacky variants on already existent planar races in the cases of the mephlings, neraphim, and spikers. My favorite of the whole bunch are the buommans, a unique race from the Astral Plane who universally take a vow against speech and instead communicate with a sort of Tuvan throat singing-esque form of song. They feel entirely fresh, and as such properly planar. They’re the only new race that feels like it would fit in perfectly well with Planescape, and that’s no small achievement. The other two new races aren’t quite up to their standard. Shadowswyfts are vaguely planetouched (but not quite?) from the Plane of Shadows, and the wildren are “beings descended from the union of partially transformed dwarf petitioners and celestial badgers” from the Beastlands. Why this particular combination? That’s never explained, but at least they’re not like anything we’ve seen before. Conversely, mephlings, neraphim, and spikers exist so as to allow players the ability to play as mephits, slaad, and bladelings, but without the pile of level adjustments that make these creatures a pain in the ass to add to a campaign. Probably because of their unoriginality, none of them ever made a real splash (I think mephlings may have cropped up a tiny bit in Eberron?), and were soon forgotten. Not every addition is going to be a winner, and while I’m lukewarm at best about this trio, I do get why they were made.


In addition, complete progressions for avoral guardinals, chain devils, hound archons, janni, and lillends are added as an option for people who find the usual monster progression clunky and want to use these races for players. Frankly, these work far better than the usual method of equivalent character levels, and were an obviously superior way of doing things compared with the spin-off races included earlier—too bad that nothing like this was included for a slaad proper. I love how different it makes playing as these monsters feel, and wish this was something we’d seen more of since then. As with a lot of chapters in the Planar Handbook, the player races aren’t perfect, but there should be something here for pretty much everyone, after all that’s 14 races (or more if you separate the mephling variants). Maybe you don’t let your PCs play as spikers or neraphim because they’re dumb and better left out of the multiverse, but at the same time the ability to play as a lillend and the creation of a new, interesting Astral race more than makes up for the dopey parts of this that we all forgot about as soon as we closed the book. 

Wildren are such a weird and random race. It feels like they could’ve gone interesting places, but I don’t think anyone knew what the hell to do with them.

As you can see, this is all about offering players options, which means making a version of the planes that they’ll be excited about exploring. The second chapter continues in this thrust by introducing the idea of planar substitution levels. At certain levels a character can take a planar level of their class and with this gain abilities far more suited to adventuring in other dimensions. These are included for every class, and while their quality vary wildly, that’s also true of the classes’ suitability for the planes, and this does a great job of shoring up weaknesses. This is a wonderful option that worked great, and so I’m a little disappointed we haven’t seen anything similar to this since then. The chapter closes out with new feats, which are fine, and in the case of the planar touchstone feat important for the rest of the book, but really it’s the substitution levels that are the highlight here. If you are running a 3.5 game in the planes, you should offer these to players, period.

At this point in time, prestige classes pretty much never excite me. There are simply too many of them, and as a result their balancing tends to be… questionable at best. Nonetheless, Planar Handbook‘s prestige classes chapter was the biggest surprise of the whole book, and also the reason why I had to say “pretty much never excite me” rather than “I’m completely bored of them.” Of the nine included here, seven are faction-specific prestige classes—as in Planescape factions. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Cordell was more-or-less the last remaining Wizards designer who worked on the setting (give or take Bill Slaviscek, who’d been promoted, and Chris Perkins, who only contributed in Dungeon), and much to my surprise this book was edited by the great Ray Vallese. Likewise, while Dawn Murin’s work as art director was a given after she’d taken over this position for all of third edition until moving onto Magic, Dana Knutson was even brought back as an artist (though unfortunately I believe it was only for a single drawing of Sigil). It’s not quite as much of a Planescape reunion as we’ll see in a couple of books later in this edition, but more of that setting’s DNA feels present here than in anything we’ve seen since the end of second edition. 

The faction-themed prestige classes are for the Athar, the Doomguard, the Fated, the Mind’s Eye, the Society of Sensation, the Transcendent Order, and the Xaositects. With the exception of the Mind’s Eye—who were formed from the remnants of the Believers of the Source and the Sign of One—versions of all of these appeared in Dragon #287, but what appears here is much more fleshed out and balanced. Essentially, if you’re playing in 3.5 (which you should be doing, 3.0 is just plain worse…), there’s no reason to go back to the Dragon ones, instead you should use these. Since the Harmonium and Anarchists received new 3.5 prestige classes from Paizo in our last entry, that means that 10-ish of the 15 original factions now have one (the Mind’s Eye makes this a bit complicated), which is surprisingly excellent support considering that Planescape itself never quite worked with third edition’s cosmology changes. 

I didn’t much care for the faction artwork, but the Astral dancer looks pretty sweet.

As a result of these new prestige classes, this chapter is the one that feels most like Planescape. Each faction’s class is given one or two tidbits of lore—frequently entirely new to the game—and elements that no longer work such as the locations of the Doomguard fortresses are retconned into the altered cosmology. As with last week’s Dragon article, it’s just refreshing to learn new things about these factions for the first time since Faction War, a nice reminder that their stories are still incomplete. It’s a bit odd to suggest reading through the prestige class chapter for the best lore of a book, but that’s just how it works here. It’s almost like they stuck a Planescape chapter in the middle of a general planar book, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Also, before we move on, I should note that while the elemental warrior prestige class is pretty much what you’d think it is from the title, the other random addition, the Astral dancer, is an awesome concept based upon becoming adept at fighting in environments with subjective gravity. 


The next two chapters on equipment, magic items, and spells are perfectly fine, though I don’t have too much to say about them. Like the rest of the book, they walk the line between basic additions you’d expect and cool bits of creativity. I particularly like the gravity tent and the differential hourglass as new items, and the Astral Hospice as a spell, but these are simply not the type of thing that really interests me. There’s also a sly reference to modrons with the Mechanus Eye, which notes, “These eyes are purportedly salvaged from secret graveyard cogs on Mechanus, where a demolished race who once claimed the plane now lies forgotten.” Ouch. Conversely, players will probably find these pages some of the most useful in the book, I just rarely care whether my summoning spell is now able to summon a celestial animal or not. It’s a good pair of chapters for useful mechanics, perhaps the most vital in the whole book, it’s just not what I’m here for.

An Astral hospice looking utterly lovely.

The one chapter that disappointed me was “Creatures of the Planes.” It mostly consists of templates or planar-adjusted creatures like fire gnomes and frost dwarves. Nearly all of the interesting critters are just updates from old editions like the dharculus and the ur’epona. And while I thought the elemental swarms were a good idea long past due, a selection of five new energons grated on me so much that I’m dearly hoping they go completely forgotten after this. Yes, there are elsewhales, unravelers, and Astral krakens here, too, which feel properly planar, but while they seem like fine inclusions for the game they’re also far from revelatory. Had this chapter been left out, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, and few of these monsters would ever crop up again. Plus, now I have to find monsters in yet another book, which is getting more than a bit annoying in terms of remembering where anything is listed. I do wish there’d been a massive monster compendium at the end of the edition, because for a while new ones appeared in just about every splatbook Wizards published. 


The book’s final chapter does something that we’ve rarely seen happen since the end of Planescape: it adds new locations to the game’s official cosmology. These come in the form of planar touchstones, which are places that can be used (with the proper feat) to offer new powers to characters. Visiting one of these locations means supercharging this ability and offers a power akin to a spell with a certain number of charges, at which point it takes a return visit to charge the power up again. The whole touchstone idea stemmed from the designers trying to think of a reason for why players would want to visit the planes, a question I find rather ridiculous considering that it can be asked about literally any location in the game, ever. The whole touchstone concept feels awkward to me and is something I would completely ignore as a result. However, this also meant the creation of dozens of locations for these touchstones to exist, most of which are entirely new. 

This vivacious dire tiger is about to partake in a delicious meal.

The touchstones are unfortunately organized by encounter level, which makes them a bit hard to parse through quickly, but once you get to reading them there are wonderful new sites to explore. Every plane, even oft-neglected locations like the Plane of Shadows and the Ethereal Plane, receives at least one touchstone site, which means at least a couple paragraphs of lore, and perhaps more depending on how much there is to do there. New locations include an empty library devoted to ignorance at the center of Carceri and a were-glade that grants lycanthropy on the Beastlands. The Inner Planes locations should often be scooted around a bit if you’re using the Planescape cosmology, but otherwise everything here feels ready to insert into any planar campaign. Even Sigil itself receives a planar touchstone, and you get the sense that these are pretty much anywhere in the multiverse that is unique or otherwise worth visiting. You’re going to need to flesh these sites out in order to do more than just a simple encounter at any of them, but they often feel like they’d make great stop-over sites or perhaps single session locations in the midst of a campaign. 

For anyone really interested in these touchstones, Skip Williams even wrote a few more up for the book’s web supplement, though they’re not as good as the ones from the book proper. Likewise, they’re not worth an article on their own, but, well, they do exist, so here’s a link


Admittedly, I also skipped over the other half of this final chapter on planar locations, largely because despite containing almost entirely lore, nothing here is new. We get profiles of Sigil, the City of Brass, and Tu’Narath as possible locations to base a planar campaign, and all of them have been covered in far more length elsewhere in the game (in the case of Tu’Narath only a few months back). And while it makes sense to include more than one option for a planar setting, two of these are lawful evil locations with extremely particular rules. The City of Glass would’ve made more sense as a planar base, and also would’ve probably been easier to convert than the City of Brass, which goes through a ton of changes between now and when it was profiled in second edition. I have nothing against this half of the chapter, I just find it a bit lacking. While much of this book seems directed towards planar veterans, these listings all feel made for new entrants, and so they’re just not as deep as what we’ve seen before.

The Life Molds of Neumannus is an intriguing location that seems ripe for exploding into an entire adventure. That’s true for many touchstone locations.

Artwork throughout the Planar Handbook is nearly as good as the writing. It’s not the most distinctive depiction of the planes, but like most of third edition’s books this is an attractive volume. While I’m not terribly into Todd Gamble’s cartography, as it’s the type of computer-generated stuff that was popular at the time, it’s not bad. I do miss the hand drawn work from Rob Lazzaretti, but what’s here works well enough. None of the graphics are up to Planescape’s standards, but it’s professional and well made for what it is, and the sameness of third edition’s look can hardly be counted against it. Really, there’s less artwork and maps than you might expect, but that’s simply because this book is so filled with mechanics and descriptions and doesn’t have room for filler.

As we’ve already seen, the standard for planar content in edition 3.5 was much higher than for 3.0, and the Planar Handbook set an excellent benchmark for future work. Very little of what was contained here was ever followed up with future releases, which is unfortunate, but does nothing to lessen this book’s accomplishment. In 2023, there’s no real need to play a planar game in 3.5, but if for some reason you want to then this book is the first thing I would get a copy of

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.