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 (1994–1998), 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.