Walking The Planes 1: Introduction

Walking the Planes is a series of articles in which I explore the philosophy of the planes of existence in Dungeons & Dragons from a personal (retro-)perspective. Most of it will focus on the Planescape campaign setting, which was published between 1994 and 1998 and which is to date still the most detailed exploration of the planes in the game.

I’ve always had a thing for the planes, dif­fer­ent places and worlds beyond and above our own, hid­den behind por­tals. The metaphor­i­cal speech is strong here. A plane is a level sur­face; some­thing that hap­pens on anoth­er plane is sit­u­at­ed on a dif­fer­ent ‘level’ of exis­tence from ours, usu­al­ly high­er or lower, with all the con­no­ta­tions that ele­va­tion brings along with it.

In fan­ta­sy games, and par­tic­u­lar­ly in Dungeons & Dragons, planes are gen­er­al­ly con­crete places, dif­fi­cult to reach, but def­i­nite­ly some­where your char­ac­ter can hang out—though not always very comfortably—talk to peo­ple, bash mon­sters, or what­ev­er their cup of tea is.

Most impor­tant­ly, planes are worlds that are usu­al­ly very dif­fer­ent from what we and/or our char­ac­ters are used to. The land­scape is alien or even ‘impos­si­ble’ accord­ing to our under­stand­ing of physics, and it may be quite hos­tile. Time some­times flows dif­fer­ent­ly, strange crea­tures dwell there, and even the Gods them­selves make their home on the planes.

From the per­spec­tive of game design, there is an obvi­ous use for planes, as they allow a game mas­ter to set adven­tures in places that are exot­ic and over­whelm­ing in their impres­sions. They are what hap­pens when you want to expand the power of imag­i­na­tion from beings (crea­tures, ‘mon­sters’) and localised events (magic) to entire locales. Instinctively, a game mas­ter wants to keep in place bound­aries between such worlds and the default or home world of what­ev­er story they are telling, which is why planes are on anoth­er… well, plane, and can only be reached through pow­er­ful magic or sheer (bad) luck.

The default set­tings for Dungeons & Dragons, includ­ing clas­sic cam­paign set­tings such as Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, are sit­u­at­ed on what is called the (Prime) Material Plane. Such a plane is a bound­ed world or plan­et, with its own outer space, its own real­i­ty and phys­i­cal laws. However, from early on beings from other realms made appear­ances in these worlds and in D&D adven­tures in gen­er­al. Eventually the design­ers of the game felt that these beings need­ed a home as well, and thus the planes were born. I will look at this evo­lu­tion of the planes in D&D in depth in an upcom­ing piece.

Planes are far more than just exot­ic back­drops for adven­tures, though. Particularly in the Planescape cam­paign set­ting (19941998), the planes became realms where phi­los­o­phy, belief, and thought shaped real­i­ty. They intro­duced a level of cos­mol­o­gy and myth to D&D that had some­times seems to have more to do with world-building (geopoiesis) for its own sake than for the cause of being host to a suc­cess­ful game.

The set­ting turned ideas and thought into the phys­i­cal mate­r­i­al of its worlds. The gods of var­i­ous mytholo­gies were given homes, the moral align­ments of the D&D game (law–chaos, evil–good) were embod­ied in the var­i­ous planes that made up The Great Wheel, and many dif­fer­ent philoso­phies were rep­re­sent­ed on the planes by groups called fac­tions, which strug­gled for influ­ence in Sigil, the great City of Doors, hub of the planes.

When I came into con­tact with the set­ting in my early teens—first through the clas­sic videogame Planescape: Torment, quick­ly fol­lowed by the pen-and-paper cam­paign setting—it stirred some­thing with­in me. The dif­fer­ent philoso­phies pre­sent­ed side-by-side as alter­na­tives got me think­ing about moral and polit­i­cal issues in ways that I hadn’t before. The cos­mol­o­gy of the planes made me con­sid­er the nature of our own uni­verse. Looking back, I’d have thought that per­haps my upbring­ing and edu­ca­tion should have played a big part in mak­ing me think about such impor­tant top­ics, but instead it was a game that left the most pow­er­ful impres­sion on me.

In the instal­ments that fol­low, I’ll reflect on pre­cise­ly what the planes loos­ened in me, and what role they played in my per­son­al devel­op­ment. As a teen, I was drawn to par­tic­u­lar philosophies—as rep­re­sent­ed by the Planescape factions—and which ones those were changed over time. Perhaps I’ll dis­cov­er, tak­ing a fresh look at the sub­ject, that my pref­er­ences have shift­ed even more.

I won­der if I’m still as drawn towards tran­scen­dence as I was back then, and maybe I’ll find out why that con­cept was such an obses­sion of mine. Do I still think I’m neutral/chaotic good? Is there a rela­tion­ship between grow­ing up sec­u­lar and get­ting your big teenage ideas from a role­play­ing game? Do I under­stand the Doomguard and their quest for entropy bet­ter than I did half a life­time ago? What about the Bleak Cabal and their embrace of mean­ing­less­ness? And why was I so enam­oured with the rigid­ly sym­met­ri­cal model of the ele­men­tal planes, where air oppos­es earth, and fire oppos­es water?

This year, it’s the 40th anniver­sary of D&D, the 20th anniver­sary of Planescape, and 15 years since I came back from the store with Planescape: Torment and my own pla­nar jour­ney start­ed. I feel it’s time to look back, and you, dear read­er, are cor­dial­ly invit­ed to come along as I take a por­tal back to Sigil and Beyond.

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.