Designer Interview with Bruce Cordell, Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel, J. D. Wiker, and Stan! Brown
In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of the Planar Handbook discuss new ways for players to jet across the planes . . . voluntarily, or perhaps through no intention of their own.
Wizards of the Coast: With just four designers and the entire scope of the planes to document, where do you begin?
Bruce Cordell: It's true that the Planar Handbook is ambitiously titled, which means we had to be selective in covering only those things we believed would be most useful to plane-venturing players. Essentially, after a few concept meetings involving the designers, as well as other Wizards staff members, the lead designer for the project (me) put together an outline of topics and divvied up the work among all the assigned designers.
Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel: This meant that we were able to play to our interests and strengths. Two of the topics that most interested me were the planar metropolises and prestige classes. Instead of having one default city as the base from which players operate, the book offers three very different choices: The City of Brass, Sigil, and Tu'narath. The prestige classes I wrote picked up much of the essence of Planescape factions, but with a wider appeal.
Stan! Brown: I, on the other hand, have always found the best part of working with the planes to be the ability to fit adventures to wildly different settings that add thematically to the stories. When you're dealing with a finite setting, you have to make nods to things like geography, gravity, and the laws of physics. If the burning quest for knowledge is your theme, you might be able to add fiery elements to a planet-bound adventure. But in a planar adventure, you can place the action in a site where the world is made from fire or where volcanic rifts erupt all around the characters. I reveled in the chance to switch back and forth between various extreme settings and design sites that fit with them philosophically and thematically.
Wizards: For players new to the idea of multiplanar campaigns, what are the concepts behind them?
Bruce: We tried to come up with a few additional concepts beyond the tried-and-true plane-hopping campaign in the Planar Handbook. Traditionally, plane-hopping is a mid- to high-level campaign experience. While this can still remain true, we wanted to bring the planes a little closer to regular levels of play. One way we attempted to do this was through the concept of planar breaches: If you can't go to the planes, perhaps the planes will come to you.
Still another concept we incorporated was the idea of class substitution levels -- these are levels you take in your regular core class instead of a regular level, which are tuned more toward planar experience than the core class benefits of that level. Level substitutions are not multiclassing -- you stay within your core class, and once you substitute a given level, you can't gain the original benefits back.
Finally, we envisioned the concept of planar touchstones, which I'll talk about more in a minute.
Wizards: The dozen or so new races are intriguing -- they seem to cover a wide range of favored classes, bonuses in languages, level adjustments, and ability adjustments (though some of those can seem harsh, like the earth mephling that gains strength and charisma but loses dex and intelligence). Do you have favorites among the new races?
Bruce: I designed the neraph, the Limbo-dwelling nomads who hunt the chaos motes using their special ability of motion camouflage (based on how a dragonfly hunts) and who are expert flingers of their deadly thin hunting weapon, the annulat.
Gwendolyn: The mephlings (+1 LA) and spikers (+0 LA) are low-level adjustment races that play off of critters of much higher level adjustments: mephits and bladelings. They retain much of the flavor of their cousin race, but have much more of a player character slant. The shadowswyfts (+1 LA) are a totally new race from the Plane of Shadow.
The powerful races I wrote up, the chain devil and the lillend, have much smoother, incremental gains in power than previous presentations. For instance, the chain devil begins with resistance to cold 5 at 1st level, becoming more and more resistant until he's finally immune at 14th level.
Stan!: I didn't actually design any of them, but I have to say that I am really looking forward to getting a chance to play a shadowswyft character. I mean, being a creature from the Plane of Shadow -- how cool is that?
J. D. Wiker: I designed the buomman and wildren, and I have to say that I like the buomman the best. Because they communicate in a kind of Tibetan-monk-throat-song, they make for an unusual roleplaying opportunity -- which I think really makes them stand out.
Wizards: The organizations and prestige classes associated with some of them are rife with potential campaign arcs. (The Doomguard, and its citadels and doomlords, stands out in particular.) What are some of your favorites here?
Bruce: We wanted to cover a wide range of possibilities, while at the same time providing some congruity with concepts of previous planar campaigns. Thus, several of the prestige classes are "soldiers" of planar groups who follow strict plane-inspired philosophies. Many of those who live beyond the Material Plane feel they have a wider view of the way things actually work. To this end, various organizations, groups, and factions exist that teach ways of coping with the mind-boggling immensity of the multiverse. My favorite is the Bleak Cabal, which is a group that believes that "there is no higher purpose." They sponsor a prestige class with the title of "bleaker."
Gwendolyn: My first Planescape character had been a sensate, and I've always had a strong affection for the Society of Sensation; so, I must say that the ardent dilletant is my favorite. It's a prestige class that almost anyone can dabble in, but to seriously pursue it, you need to multiclass and acquire a wide diversity of skills and abilities.
Stan!: I really enjoyed working on the prestige classes. It was an interesting challenge to create a level progression for characters based as much on philosophy as they were on activity. The defiant prestige class (associated with the Athar faction) was particularly fun. Their main shtick is that they want to prove that the "gods" are not really deities at all, merely ultra-powerful mortals. So the defiant's abilities center around denying or defying divine powers. It appeals to the rebel in me.
J. D.: Ever since the Manual of the Planes came out, I've been fascinated with the "relative physics" aspect of the Astral Plane. So, for my money, the astral dancer was a great opportunity to explore the possibilities. I think fans of the fight choreography from The Matrix will really get a charge out of playing an astral dancer. Of the material written by the other designers, the chaotician almost immediately caught my eye; I could easily see using this prestige class in my own campaign.
Wizards: The equipment and magic items seem to have the strongest immediate use for players who are still ramping up in a multiplanar campaign, as PCs can find some of these items on the Material Plane right away. What's new in this section that players familiar with planar treasures might not have seen before? (The planar deck of illusions seems destined to be a hot item!)
Bruce: Because this a Planar Handbook and therefore aimed at players, we wanted to be sure to include a robust section on mounts, vehicles, and even services that would provide access between planes. Therefore players will find prices for elsewhales, astral skiffs, ethereal tunnelers, and more.
Gwendolyn: The planes offer such interesting environments and challenges to players. Magic items that emphasize or compensate for them just make so much good sense.
J.D.: I have to agree about the planar deck of illusions --I'd certainly want one. But I also like the simplicity of the rope of crossing (which lets a character travel easily between layers of a given Outer Plane) and the boots of gravity (another application of that relative physics concept).
Wizards: Of the wide variety of new spells now available, which would you consider among the most powerful? And what's the general principle behind how planar spells work on the Material Plane -- does it differ much from how other spells work?
Bruce: Those familiar with older iterations of planar magic may recall cumbersome limits to divine spellcasting. Of course, with the 3rd Edition D&DManual of the Planes, we revealed a much simpler method of spell interaction (and divine spellcasters were happy not to receive the shaft). In a nutshell, particular planes may have one or more traits that have the possibility of modifying certain classes of spells. Essentially, a plane has either normal magic, dead magic, wild magic, impeded magic, or enhanced magic --that's covered in the Manual of the Planes, though. For the most part, plane-hopping adventurers will find that their spells work fairly normally.
Gwendolyn: A new spellcasting feature in the book is the concept of planar domains. The granted powers and spell selection are better than standard domains because these more powerful domains count as both of a cleric's domain selections.
Wizards: The astral kraken and the gaspar are just two examples of monsters that have guaranteed freak-out encounters written all over them. You must have favorites from among all these very, very cool new creatures. Which would you advise players to keep a sharp eye out for while traveling the planes?
Bruce: Characters need not even leave the Material Plane to fear an encounter with a dharculus, a creature which exists mostly in the Ethereal Plane, but who extends its many feeding mouths into the Material. There, it appears to the corporeal eye as a swarm of blind, eel-like creatures wriggling through open air.
Gwendolyn: I wrote the gaspar with the intention of making a creature that would provide an interesting tool for the DM. The creature has a plane-shifting defensive ability that causes everyone within a 10-foot radius of the gaspar to make a Will save or be transported to a random plane (all creatures go to the same plane). As an alternate use for the monster, rules are given on how to train it so that it can act as a plane-traveling mount.
Stan!: My favorite new monster is the elsewhale -- a Gargantuan cetacean that swims from plane to plane. I just love the image of being in a boat chasing this tremendous creature that suddenly disappears completely. What I love even more is the idea that these beasts can be trained to carry passengers. Just picture a group of heroes arriving on a planar shore by stepping out of the mouth of this behemoth.
J. D.: The astral kraken seemed to me like a perfect "nightmare creature" to have wandering about the Astral Plane. But, really, the creature that's liable to catch players off-guard is the Elysian thrush. After all, who notices the sound of birds singing, even when it's increasing your healing rate? The thrush's song is beneficial, though only up to a point. After eight hours, the character becomes too content to leave.
Wizards: The Planar Sites chapter offers a wide variety of adventure opportunities. Planar breaches, for instance, seem like a wonderful opportunity to throw any campaign for blindsiding loop. Did you come away with some that you liked (or disliked, for the right reasons, of course) more than others?
Bruce: Of particular interest in the Planar Sites chapter is the large section on Touchstone Sites. When we first starting concepting this book, one of the themes that came up was "why do players want to go to the planes?" The answer we came up with was this: Perhaps they'd like to form a link with an extra-planar power source that provides them with both a constant, feat-like ability, as well as a rechargeable uber-ability associated with each particular planar location!
Planar touchstones are places in the cosmos that resonate with unique forms of energy. Those able to form a linkage with these special locations are rewarded with a heady charge of supernatural power, which they can use up quickly or ration for later use. Once used up, the supernatural power recharges with another visit to the touchstone site, while the base ability associated with the site always remains available.
Stan!: What I really liked about working on this section was the ability to match a location or encounter with a site that fit it thematically. One of my favorites is the Library of Ignorance, a nearly empty building located on a vast icy plane in Carceri. I also like the Cavern of the Self in windswept Pandemonium, a place where a creature can literally see reflections of every facet of his personality. But my favorite is probably the Lip of Purity on Arcadia, where you can sit in a tranquil patch of a river and watch the water flow off the layer of Abellio down to the layer of Buxenus below -- from the edge of one infinite plane to the center of another. Now that's just mind blowing.
Wizards: What didn't make it into the Planar Handbook that you hoped would?
Stan!: There were a few ideas that we tossed around that, while interesting, didn't have enough meatiness. They were cool concepts that we just couldn't figure out how to attach to game material.
Wizards: Is there more material for a second volume? Are there more planar-related products planned?
Bruce: None appear currently in the catalogue, but the planes are infinite, and I'd like to believe that given such a source, there is always the possibility for more planar-related products.
Gwendolyn: The planes offer such possibilities. I hope that we do another book focused on them.
Stan!: With the planes being infinite and all, we're always imagining new and interesting corners of them to explore. Of course, finding a corner in an infinite space can be a challenge in and of itself, but I hope we get the chance to try again.
Wizards: What is each of you working on now?
Bruce: A book that everyone will want because it focuses on those things that every player pores through the back of the Dungeon Master's Guide to covet, long for, and slaver over.
Gwendolyn: I'm currently a managing editor for the Monster Manual III, which contains a whole bunch of very cool monsters, more than a few of which I've also designed.
Stan!: I just finished working with a group of really talented people on a book called Modern Magic that will be released by The Game Mechanics and Green Ronin in June (available now in PDF form. Later in the summer you'll be able to see some of my work in d20 Future. I'm also working on an as-yet-unannounced young adult novel for the Wizards of the Coast book department.
J. D.: In addition to my work with The Game Mechanics (www.thegamemechanics.com), I'm currently writing Ultimate Missions: Rebel Storm, for the Star Wars Miniatures Game.