My Problem with Planes

(This article is about extraplanar adventures in roleplaying games, not flying machines.)

“We’re about to hit the next story arc of our campaign,” I said to my players, visibly very excited, “Does anyone want to suggest a theme?”

Now, for those of you who don’t know, this is a dangerous proposition.  This is how you end up running a thousand campaigns centered around the Blood War or the undead, or whatever you might think is the least interesting part of a fantasy setting.  Regardless, I was excited enough about my campaign’s success that I was pretty much down for anything.

“Oh! We should do a plane hopping adventure!”  So… let’s talk about why that’s not nearly as fun as it sounds.

First off, when you say plane hopping, you imagine a sweeping adventure where you jump from alternate world to alternate world, sort of like Sliders.  The problem is that a plane hopping adventure rarely actually works out that way for a few reasons.  Let’s start with the biggest one:

Most of the Planes Are One-Note Gimmicks

Now, keep in mind, this isn’t talking about jumping into alternate versions of the same world (again with a nod to Sliders.)  That might actually have some meat to it.  We’re talking about visiting the planes in your RPG of choice’s cosmology.  Where the Prime Material Plane has diverse biomes and societies, every plane functions less like a world and more like a city.  At best, you’ll have a selection of regions, each one different from the other but with no variation in between.

Mechanus, for example, has the cog place with the weird shape people, the cog place with the ant people, the giant living cog, the factory place, and the home of the Celestial Bureaucracy, which is where any adventure more complex than fetching a MacGuffin probably needs to happen.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I’m sure that with some research and a deep enough dive into any given plane you can make a great adventure in it.  There’s probably a lot of nuance beneath the surface that I don’t see, unfortunately, that runs us into our second problem…

Multiple Planes Means Less Focus

So, the adventure I jumped into wasn’t “let’s go into the Abyss” or any other one specific plane.  The adventure was “let’s go plane hopping.”  I suppose I could have picked a single plane and had a full adventure there, and in retrospect I could have done that with any of the planes I ended up using but instead I decided to hop.  This meant spending two-to-four sessions in each place having a fairly episodic adventure.

It was fun, sure, but by the time I had developed a plane at all or set up whatever its rules were the party was getting ready to move on.  Even if I wanted to develop a plane as a whole place, there wasn’t time to so I ended up having to make a snapshot of it.  It turned out ok, but I found myself quietly wishing that I was simply running these locations as areas of a single, larger world.  Especially since that would have given me more room to use the bestiaries more interesting enemies.  Which brings me around to my next point:

Outsiders Are Meant to be Uncommon

Using outsiders, or extraplanar creatures in general, as the bulk of your encounters is going to get really monotonous really quickly.  Similar to how the planes themselves usually have four or five distinct regions on the generous end, there are usually maybe two or three enemies that are appropriate for any given plane at any given CR, and that is also on the generous end.  Now at higher levels, you can work around this with large groups of smaller enemies, but that still means that if you travel through the Abyss I hope you’re ready to deal with dretches, quasits and schir demons everywhere.

Now, if we’re being fair, plane hopping really is something that’s meant to be a high level endeavor.  This is especially true if you’re going into places like the Abyss, and being level 14 or so gives you a pretty wide range of enemies even if they’re all the same type, but at ten or lower you’re going to end up having to repeat a few encounters.  And having your players at such a high level opens up a whole other slew of problems because…

High Level Magic Makes Plot Hooks Difficult

My players started plane-hopping around level six, and this was fine.  It meant that I could build entire plot hooks out of trying to get them to their next destination, with one ultimate goal in mind.  They were looking for an Ifrit who had corrupted someone’s wish, which required them to go an extraplanar region called the Brass Empire.  It was part of a larger plane of elemental-themed genie empires, each home to a different brand of genie (the others, for reference, were the Ivory Empire of the Djinn, the Gemstone Empire of the Shaitan, and the Sapphire Empire of the Marids.  To get there, they had to traverse the cosmology, getting more than a little bit sidetracked along the way and ending up in at least one form of hell, the Abyss, a lawful neutral demiplane, and a segment of the elemental plane of fire that was hospital enough to the adventurers to not burn to death.  They finished the adventure around, I want to say, level eleven or twelve, if not higher.

Now, imagine they had been level ten at the start.  Imagine the cleric casts Plane Shift.  There are no complex or difficult to acquire components, the casting time is a standard action, and BAM.  They’re in the Brass Empire.  I might could have justified making them go through the other parts of that one plane, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to justify the entire adventure.  At that point, planar adventures become something you do for a session or two rather than the actual campaign.

To close off, I should clarify that I’m not saying you can’t have a fun campaign that centers around extraplanar adventures.  These are just some obstacles that make it difficult and that you, as a GM, may find yourself needing to work around.  I don’t think I’ll be endeavoring to do any more plane-jumping, but I’m not a fan of a lot of things that turn out really popular.

 

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