Originally announced and funded via Kickstarter last October, Path of the Planebreaker is the latest foray into the fifth edition set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons from Monte Cook Games. This time, veteran D&D designers Bruce R. Cordell, Sean K. Reynolds, and Mr. Cook himself treat players and game masters to the wonders of traversing across different planes of existence, where time and reality may warp and bend into unexpected outcomes. Broken up into seven parts and just under 250 pages, twenty distinct planar locations join the titular Planebreaker itself to provide material that’ll let you launch a new campaign or insert these extradimensional spaces into an ongoing one as a nice paradigm shift. And solid fifth edition rules frameworks are embedded naturally into the locations introduced here. These work well with the core of D&D, and it feels like a very natural fit with how many are likely to play the game.
As one of the architects behind the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Cook is no stranger to either classic d20 fantasy or planar adventures. He was the author of 1996’s planar-themed Planeswalker’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as well as many other supplements for the enigmatic Planescape setting (which D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast announced is returning in its most recent presentation). Cook launched his own company in 2012 with the much-loved science fantasy futurescape of Numenera, and Monte Cook Games has made a name for itself with mind-bending titles like The Strange, Invisible Sun, and a suite of excellent settings and source material for its own set of RPG rules, the Cypher System.
Fans of the company’s games may have been skeptical about MCG creating yet another fifth edition book. But if this entry is anything to go by, the team has the right minds for the system and should certainly consider creating more for it. And I say that as a Cypher System fan.
The company has jumped into fifth edition before, with a set of books that help translate Numenera to D&D’s d20 formula, and the return of Ptolus, a home setting that served as the testbed for the third edition of the classic RPG. Path of the Planebreaker is also expected to get a Cypher System treatment sometime next year for those of you who like multiplying by three.
This is MCG’s best 5e book yet. Though it’s far slimmer in its narrative offerings than the colossal reissue of Ptolus it released in 2021, I found it inlaid 5e’s mechanics into its prose far better than what was in earlier MCG offerings Arcana of the Ancients and Beneath the Monolith. It’s a supplement that’s a bit more valuable for a dungeon master than it is for a player, and it’s more of a source of settings and locations, adventure hooks, and characters than it is a collection of stat blocks and player mechanics.
The differences between MCG’s Cypher System and the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons mirror the differences between free jazz and classical music. One favors improvisation with genre-soaked concepts that don’t always have a clear expectation or outcome, while the other has more rigid rules and steps to follow with more expectations of tradition. The beauty of a tabletop roleplaying game, though, is that these aren’t strict definitions, and they run on the hardware of the human mind. There are always ways to add more structure to a rules-light system and free up more rigid frameworks where it makes sense. That said, MCG has chosen to bring Path of the Planebreaker to gamers in the form of the fifth edition first. So, how does it stack up?
There are some areas of this book I think could’ve stood to include a bit more rules frameworks given the system this version is aiming for. If you want to stretch out what’s in here over the course of a long campaign, you might reach for a few more monsters than what’s on offer here. I also would like to have seen more NPC stat blocks. This book will pair nicely with the three core books of D&D, The Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, but you could get by with just the 5e SRD, or systems reference document, if you had to. This is firmly a supplement to other core rules for fifth edition, and a potent one at that.
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Though it might’ve been outside the scope of the product MCG wanted to design, I found the fiction, which centers around the comet-sized Planebreaker smashing through different planar realms, leaving a traversable path in its wake for players and NPCs to follow, to be intriguing enough to be even larger in scope, perhaps something closer to the scale of the company’s Ptolus. That said, the collection of unique spells, items, and feats really help bill this as a worthwhile 5e book. Also, the fact that it includes subclasses as opposed to new classes really makes this feel like it’s most appropriate for an existing campaign where players have already made progress down different class-based progression paths.
But for a book where the premise is focused on offering new locations and settings to an existing campaign, it excels. Solid 5e rules are sharply integrated into the presentation. Bold fonts are used to indicate answers to critical questions 5e players are likely to ask. This is where Path of the Planebreaker, before we even get to the narrative content, really shines.
In Dungeons & Dragons, players are likely to engage with the world through its systems. Requests for Arcana and Perception checks, casting detect magic or other spells, and feats and functions are likely to happen before freeform narrative description that aims for rhetorical style over mechanical substance. And Path of the Planebreaker, as a setting book, gets this. The fiction here is really awesome, but this book excels as a remarkably helpful supplement that laces the answers to what happens when players cast a spell to learn more information or roll Arcana checks right into prose itself.
Each of the 20 meatier, planar locations in Part Two of the book give DMs what they need to tell players pestering them with knowledge checks. You won’t be caught flat-footed while running the game. And if you enjoy getting more rhetorical and narrative in your style, those helpful DCs will give you the foundation needed for when dice hit the table. The end of each planar location also contains player-based adventure hooks to consider.
Part Three has more than two dozen additional planes, though these don’t have the pages of details that the showcase ones do in the previous section. Fret not, while these are mostly narrative frameworks to let you imagine possible worlds on top of, you will also find some standard 5e rules suggestions for when it seems most necessary to resort to them.
Overall, Path of the Planebreaker begs to break its way into ongoing 5e campaigns that desire to shred the walls of the world and offer new horizons with wonderful intrigue and well-laid out maps for dungeon crawls that can be finished in perhaps two sessions of a game. New options can help players expand existing characters with details you won’t get anywhere else. This book is excellent to theme and support a solid, planar-themed campaign arc that has a lasting impact in the saga of your heroes and villains.