There are planes you just can’t get rid of. The Nine Hells. The Abyss.
That might be it.
Maybe I’m being a little bit draconian, but hear me out. If you look at the planes as a marketing exercise, let’s say you have limited funds and can only create detailed supplements for a handful of planes, which ones are you going to pick? It’s going to be those two. These are the planes the players are going to want to visit. They’re dramatic, chocked full of danger, brimming with unwavering evil enemies—they are the dungeon expanded.
While nerds like me (and probably you) see the game as this patchwork of works and ideas, most people play D&D as a means to an end—t o blow off some steam, to beat down evil creatures, and make off with the booty. Of course the motivations of individual players vary, but most clerics players could give a crap about where or how they became conduits of a deity’s power. Just point to the undead, and they will provide radiant firepower.
And there is nothing wrong with this. In fact you want a large number of people playing your game (or participating in your entertainment exercise no matter what it is) who simply just enjoy it. They don’t need to know the grand history of the Forgotten Realms. They don’t even need to know about the Blood War…at least not until it pops up as a justification for adventure.
But this is the funny thing about the planes. They aren’t there for those players…at least not directly. RPGs are complicated because they actually have at least two different interfaces and two different users. There are the products for players. Those books are primarily toy catalogs. New things that spark the imagination in the ever elusive goal of making every type of character anyone would want to make. Those products expand as, in the case of D&D, the fantasy genre expands. Want to play Gandalf? Tim? Legolas? Galahad? King Leonidas? Ned Stark? Bill the Vampire? D&D can handle it.
The trap is that these books, when successful, sell a bunch more copies than any other product in RPGs. And copies like to sell a bunch of copies of stuff. I mean who wouldn’t. This only becomes a problem when you look at those poor DM centric products and someone asks the question, how can we make these things sell like the player books?
And then it all just fucking burns.
A bit dramatic? Maybe. But the real problem is that not only do DM-Centric products garner fewer sales, they are harder to get “right.” Why, well there are at least two different groups of DMs.
The first group that crunch center of hardcore D&D DMing nerds. I’ll stand up; I’m one. There are some days that D&D annoys the living crap out of me. Why couldn’t have I taken up gardening? Bah! D&D is awesome. It’s creative, it’s social, it’s engaging. Video games are neat, but give me my old fashion RPG any day.
The second group consists of those reluctant DMs. DMs who do it because it is their turn in the round-robin. The DM who is running D&D Encounters or Living Forgotten Realms, the DM who does it because they have to do it; because if they don’t other people don’t have fun.
There’s overlap between these two groups. Often those hardcore DMs become reluctant DMs for an event or two, or twenty. Reluctant DMs may actually become motivated to be those hardcore DMs.
Often the hardcore DM and the reluctant DM want different things from their DM-Centric product. Both enjoy tools for their game table, and there has always been a market for good tools for D&D; from dice, to minis, to DM screens, to initiative trackers, to tiles and mats. But the reluctant DM is not interested in books on setting material (at least not most of the time). That’s the stuff for the hardcore DM and his wayfaring cousin the reader. And that’s why we see so few of it these days. Not only does it serve only a fraction of potential sales, it’s actually harder for that group to get on board with a single product. That’s why you had a proliferation of settings in 2e. I think they were always looking for right combination to get as many of those people on board. I also think there was some aggravation that Forgotten Realms came closest.
But I think you can still make hardcore game products for hardcore DMs. I think Pathfinder is actually doing it (and will continue to do it with the success of Paizo’s player-centric books), but I actually think there is room in the market for at least two or three other world-building companies. They’ll never get huge, but I think you can squeak by a geeky good living as long you manage it correctly.
The more I play with the current 4e planes, the more I think they were designed for the wrong D&D user… I think they are a player and reluctant DM solution to a hardcore DM problem—creating a fun and coherent setting that they can uses or steal from. Heck if Warhammer 40,000 can do it (and that’s got orcs in space) D&D can do it. In fact it has done it in the past.
So what is my all time favorite DM-centric story project? Planescape. Though sometime silly (the cant can be a bit much at time) and obviously a reaction to Vampire: The Masquerade, it Battlestar Galactica’d the planes before Battlestar Galactica did it to itself.
And now that you know my biases, here’s a question for all you hardcore DMs there. What would the best planar supplement look like? What do you desperately want from the D&D multiverse? Which version hits the spot?