The Astral Plane. The Elemental Plane of Fire. The Nine Hells of Baator. The various planes of existence have a long tradition in D&D: a tradition of grandeur, of mystery, of opportunity ... and in the minds of many players, of sheer terror.
Unfortunate? Sure -- the planes offer a lot of neat environments to explore. Unreasonable? Not so much. After all, many players' first introduction to the concept of "the planes" comes in the form of horrifically powerful monsters trying to kill them. When all you know about the Astral Plane is that githyanki live there, it's understandable that you wouldn't be too excited to visit.
So what do players do when the DM announces that the adventure is headed "off the beaten path," as it were? Let's see what our siblings have to say on the matter...
Andy: You've defeated the fire giant army and followed the trail of the mysterious dark elves through the underdark. You've overcome hordes of savage trolls, squadrons of murderous kuo-toas, and the occasional mind flayer or purple worm on your way to the drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu. You've cut a swathe through the dark elf cultists only to discover a greater power behind the drow's surface invasion. In order to tackle that greater power directly, you'll be stepping through a portal leading to the 66th layer of the Abyss -- the Demonweb of Lolth, Queen of Spiders. Everybody ready?
Greg: Demon-where? Queen of the what? No way, no how. This body was born on the Material Plane, and that's where it's going to die. I ain't going to no Outer Plane, Hannibal!
... is how your gaming group might respond. Or should respond, when you think about it. For many players (especially the old-school ones), your first glimpse of planar life was from the Monster Manual -- the D's, to be precise. They go up to Type VI? And what does that Ruby Rod do again?
But it doesn't need to be the end of the world, even though that's often what it seems like you're trying to stop when you set foot in the Lower Planes.
Andy: As a DM, it's easy to forget how possessive players are of their characters and even easier to forget how fragile those characters seem when the players aren't sure what's going on. The DM has near-perfect information as to what's coming -- he knows how tough the monsters in the next room are, what tactics the characters will need to defeat the mastermind at the end of the adventure, and so on.
On the other hand, under-informed players always expect the worst possible scenario, which is a natural survival instinct. After all, it doesn't do much good to prepare for the third-worst possibility.
In the case of planar adventuring, the perfect information the DM has (and the worst-case scenario that the players conjure in their minds) are the various challenges and obstacles the planar visit may hold.
Greg: You think that you're leaving the world of simple manticores, hill giants, and an occasional dragon for foul creatures with endless resistances, spell resistance, high ACs, and the ability to teleport at will. But just as the DM won't (or shouldn't) throw you into a dungeon you can't survive, he won't drop you on a plane that has poison for air and a floor of acid and CR 20 monsters piling out of every door.
Andy: Or at least, not more than once, unless he appreciates broken chairs and bruised ribs.
Greg: The first step is finding out what you need to know before you go. If you can visit a sage, do it. Ask your local magic shop about things you might need -- if it's a high-adventure campaign world, there's a good chance the merchants know as much as anyone about the survival gear you'll want.
If you're in a rush, those options might not be available, but hey -- that's what skill points are for. Turn to Stannis the wizard and ask him. Those ranks in Knowledge (the Planes) can be useful. If you don't have those ranks, turn to your handy (not necessarily dandy) bard and see if he knows a tale or two about the plane in question (hopefully said story doesn't hinge on the rhyming of "exsanguinate"). If your group has neither of those options, turn to higher powers via divination or commune. If you don't have those, well, who's in your party? The Marx Brothers?
Andy: Nah -- too many rogue/bards to make a good adventuring party. Except Gummo, who seems more like a paladin/bard. But I digress ...
This is when the DM gets to share some of that perfect information with the players. Ideally, you shouldn't wait for them to ask the right questions. Instead, leave some clues lying around that they can discover and decipher.
Assuming they've already fought a few demons before heading to the Demonweb, the characters probably have some sense of the foes they're going up against. Go the extra mile by spelling out the most common resistances or immunities they can expect to face, plus a few of the signature powers of the likely denizens as well as the environmental hindrances they'll have to endure. You don't need to hand out a laundry list of everything that's coming, but a little info or resources goes a long way.
- If you're about to throw the PCs into the Abyss, it's worth mentioning that the wizard shouldn't bother packing chain lightning (because demons are immune to electricity) but that the cleric and paladin should have align weapon as a top priority.
- A handy tome on the drow high priestess's shelf should mention the swarms of enormous, fiendish spiders that plague the Demonweb (hint: delay poison & neutralize poison might be handy).
- A fragment of an escaped prisoner's tale could describe the effects of the plane's mild chaotic and evil-aligned nature. Yes, the cleric won't be as effective at turning undead, and the paladin won't be as effective at calming angry natives, but on the plus side, their spells should work fine.
Greg: And really, what more does a player want to know other than "how can I kill it?" It's not Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom here -- no bringing back the babau for careful study in the lab. Figure out the key energy types to use, and look for spells that can be effective without needing to overcome spell resistance. If you're looking for direct damage, that's conjuration all the way. Manipulating the battlefield to your advantage is an oft-overlooked task for spellcasters, but you'll need all the help you can get in unfamiliar terrain. When in doubt, buffing your own party members always pays dividends. Demons are a crafty lot, so be prepared to occasionally lose control of your actions. A few protection from evil spells can save the party's bacon.
Along with knowing what to expect once you get there, you should have a plan to get out. Planar doors aren't always two-way. Even though you can't control exactly where you end up with a plane shift, just about anywhere on the Material Plane is better than Lolth's throne room staring down an army of half-fiend drow priestesses and monstrous fiendish spiders.
Andy: The planes can and should be an interesting, exciting new arena in which the PCs can compete and succeed. It's true that historically, they've often been more onerous than enjoyable (again, your old-school players remember when armor and weapon bonuses were reduced on other planes, and then there was that laundry list of spells that didn't work as well or maybe didn't even work at all, and for God's sake don't even bother coming if you're not at least 10th or 15th level), but the current edition of the game presents most planes as remarkably friendly to visitors -- at least environmentally ... the locals are just as nasty as ever.
As the DM, the planes give you the unparalleled excuse to haul out all the fantastic terrain, alien vistas, bizarre monstrosities, and unexplainable effects that you've been too shy to use in your until-now "mundane" campaign. (And shame on us for feeling that way, DMs -- D&D has plenty of room for the fantastic even on the Material Plane, but that's a rant for another day.) Rivers of flame populated by shark-shaped fire elementals? Check. Glass-bubbled cities floating on an infinite ocean? No problem. Mile-high towers formed from the fossilized spines of city-sized dragons? You betcha. Endless web tunnels suspended over an infinite chasm of darkness? Sign me up!
But even if you know full well that's the reason you're leading the characters off-world, don't ask them to make the leap without first giving them an idea of where they're landing. Ultimately, most players are more than willing to launch themselves headlong into the great unknown as long as they know a little bit about it first.
About the Author
By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?
As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D, Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.