Walking The Planes 2: A History of the Planes in Dungeons & Dragons

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.

Before prop­er­ly set­ting out on our pla­nar adven­ture, it is worth explor­ing what sig­nif­i­cance the con­cept of the planes has had in the his­to­ry of Dungeons & Dragons through­out the years. As we’ll see, the planes have been present almost from the very start of the game, and have remained part of it ever since. The inter­pre­ta­tion and the posi­tion of the planes with­in the game and its play­worlds, how­ev­er, has changed ever so slight­ly over the years.

In the ear­li­est his­to­ry of the game, D&D adven­tures took place with­in a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple locale: the area of an adven­ture was described more or less in detail (by the dun­geon mas­ter, not the rule­book), and a world was assumed to exist around it that play­ers could have their char­ac­ters wan­der around in. In fact, as the name of the game sug­gests, the set­ting of an adven­ture was imag­ined to be one of the tit­u­lar dun­geons (Gygax & Arneson 1974). The broad­er world of the game was left unspec­i­fied, and up to imag­i­na­tion of each indi­vid­ual dun­geon mas­ter. However, this ini­tial vague­ness did not mean that the game’s design­ers didn’t have any ideas about the set­ting of D&D’s adven­tures beyond the imme­di­ate areas of play. Parts of this shim­mer through in sup­ple­ments like Blackmoor (Arneson 1975), where ready-made loca­tions are pre­sent­ed in the book for use in adven­tures.

More impor­tant­ly, the exis­tence of planes beyond the material—and there­fore some­thing of an over­ar­ch­ing D&D cosmology—was hint­ed at in early pub­li­ca­tions. The descrip­tion of the Astral Spell (for both magic-users and cler­ics) in the Greyhawk sup­ple­ment is prob­a­bly the best illus­tra­tion:

Astral Spell: A spell which allows the user to send his astral form, undetectable to all but others on the astral plane, from his body to other places. Note that a Power Word Blind would not prevent this spell and would not blind the astral form. The magic-user may employ spells while in his astral body, but there is a 5% chance per spell level that the spell will fail. In failing the spell there is also a 2% chance per spell level that he will then be forced to return to his body. Example: An 18th level Wizard in astral form attempts to cast a 6th level spell. There is a 30% chance that the spell will fail, and if it does fail there is a 12% chance that he will have to return to his body. If while the magic-user has left his body and is in the astral plane his body is moved beyond the spell range or destroyed the magic-user’s astral form is immediately sent to jibber and sh[r]iek on the floor of the lowest hell. Duration: Subterranean — 12 turns; Outdoors — 8 game hours. Range: Subterranean — 24″; Outdoors — 100 miles/level from 18th upwards. Movement of Astral Body: Subterranean — 12″/turn; Outdoors — 100 miles per game hour/level from 18th upwards.
(Gygax & Kuntz 197428)

The exis­tence and nature of the “astral plane” is not fur­ther spec­i­fied, but it is clear that the design­ers imag­ined it to be an exis­tence par­al­lel to the mate­r­i­al plane, yet sep­a­rate. That the astral state was imag­ined as some­thing sim­i­lar to mag­i­cal invis­i­bil­i­ty is illus­trat­ed by the fact that magic items like the Dust of Appearance and Gem of Seeing could reveal astral trav­ellers (Gygax & Kuntz 1974: 5468).

The big reveal came in the July 1977 issue of The Dragon, where Gygax pub­lished a 1.5 page design paper called “Planes. The Concepts of Spatial, Temporal and Physical Relationships in D&D” (Gygax 1977b). In it, he sketched a model of the D&D uni­verse:

For game purposes the DM is to assume the existence of an infinite number of co-existing planes. The normal plane for human-type life forms is the Prime Material Plane. A number of planes actually touch this one and are reached with relative ease. These planes are the Negative and Positive Material Planes, the Elemental Planes (air, earth, fire, water), the Etherial [sic] Plane (which co-exists in exactly the same space as the Prime Material Plane), and the Astral Plane (which warps the dimension we know as length [distance]).
Typical higher planes are the Seven Heavens, the Twin Paradises, and Elysium. The plane of ultimate Law is Nirvana, while the plane of ultimate Chaos (entropy) is Limbo. Typical lower planes are the Nine Hells, Hades’ three glooms, and the 666 layers of the Abyss.
(Gygax 1977b: 4)

This cos­mol­o­gy was repeat­ed in the first Player’s Handbook (Gygax 1978), and car­ried through with only minor alter­ations up until and includ­ing the 3rd edi­tion of D&D, decades later. At the moment of pub­li­ca­tion, it seemed more of a flight of fancy on the part of Gygax than some­thing actu­al­ly required to run a game of D&D. However, the neces­si­ty of a con­sis­tent pla­nar cos­mol­o­gy would grad­u­al­ly grow over the years.

One of the first pub­lished adven­tures to involve pla­nar trav­el was Queen of the Demonweb Pits (Sutherland & Gygax 1980), in which the adven­tur­ers enter The Abyss (the plane of chaot­ic evil) to con­front the spi­der god­dess Lolth in her demon­ic realm. Earlier and later ref­er­ences to the planes were often made through the intro­duc­tion of crea­tures and ene­mies of non-material ori­gin. The first Monster Manual (Gygax 1977a) con­tained entries for demons and dev­ils, and these cat­e­gories were expand­ed upon in the sec­ond vol­ume (Monster Manual II, Gygax 1983), and sup­ple­ment­ed with other pla­nar being such as devas, djinn, and efreet. In 1982, Roger E. Moore wrote the most detailed descrip­tion (Moore 1982) of the Astral Plane then avail­able, for Dragon mag­a­zine. Ed Greenwood, the cre­ator of the pop­u­lar Forgotten Realms cam­paign set­ting, also delved into the pla­nar mate­r­i­al by detail­ing the realms and lords of the The Nine Hells in a dip­tych of arti­cles, again pub­lished in Dragon (Greenwood 1983a, 1983b). Specific men­tion should also go to Fiend Folio (Turnbull 1981), the first major British con­tri­bu­tion to D&D, which con­tains addi­tion­al entries for pla­nar mon­sters, includ­ing the first appear­ances of the githyan­ki and githz­erai, designed by author Charles Stross.

Much of the mate­r­i­al above bor­rows from exist­ing reli­gious, mytho­log­i­cal, and lit­er­ary tra­di­tions. Many of the dev­ils and demons described in D&D are direct­ly derived from Christian demonolo­gy, and many of the celes­tial beings have Christian res­o­nances as well. In addi­tion, sup­ple­ments for the game—starting with Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes (Kuntz & Ward 1976)—compiled lists of deities from var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal mytholo­gies around the world (Celtic, Greek, Chinese, Indic, etc.) as well as a fic­tion­al ones (Robert E. Howard’s Hyborea), all of which could be given a role in D&D adven­tures. In the cos­mol­o­gy of the game, these gods and spir­its had to have their home on a non-material plane of exis­tence.

At this point, there was a lot of scat­tered mate­r­i­al out there, and TSR decid­ed it would be a good idea to gath­er it all up and sys­tem­a­tise it accord­ing to Gygax’ orig­i­nal model. The result was Jeff Grubb’s Manual of the Planes (Grubb 1987), a hard­cov­er expan­sion for AD&D that was the first detailed descrip­tion of all the non-material planes of exis­tence in the game. With Grubb’s book, it became clear­er than ever that the planes had, over the course of a lit­tle more than a decade of D&D his­to­ry, grown to be more than mere­ly the myth­i­cal homes of strange beings. It had became a place—or rather, infi­nite array of places—that could be the set­ting of adven­tures for par­tic­u­lar­ly dar­ing DMs and play­ers.

In the years imme­di­ate­ly after the pub­li­ca­tion of this Manual, there wasn’t a great deal to do about the planes. They were sim­ply there, described in more detail than ever, and they were made use of in var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions, and of course could be incor­po­rat­ed in home-brewed cam­paigns all over the world. At the time, TSR was busy solid­i­fy­ing the Forgotten Realms cam­paign set­ting, as well as work­ing on the upcom­ing sec­ond edi­tion of AD&D, so there was lit­tle time for specif­i­cal­ly planes-related mate­r­i­al.

All this changed in 1994, with the release of the Planescape cam­paign set­ting boxed set (Cook 1994). It came at the heels of a whole series of cam­paign set­tings, a com­mer­cial area that TSR were invest­ing heav­i­ly in at the time. Planescape was pre­ced­ed by the above­men­tioned Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Spelljammer, the lat­ter of which also pro­vid­ed a way of tying the dif­fer­ent mate­r­i­al worlds of D&D togeth­er, through space trav­el. Since Planescape will be our main haunt dur­ing this arti­cle series, I won’t say too much about it just yet, but it’s worth men­tion­ing here that Cook ran with Grubb’s lay­out of the planes in Manual of the Planes, but added to it two cru­cial ele­ments. The first is Sigil, an immense­ly evoca­tive cen­tral loca­tion that made the planes even more suit­able as a set­ting for D&D adven­tures, rather than some­thing to sprin­kle into other set­tings. The other addi­tion is the philo­soph­i­cal fac­tions, the major nar­ra­tive force that takes Planescape beyond being a set­ting about meet­ing (and/or killing) exot­ic crea­tures, and into the realm of ideas.

The main line of pub­li­ca­tions for the Planescape set­ting ran until 1998, after which only indi­vid­ual arti­cles appeared now and then in offi­cial D&D mag­a­zines. More sig­nif­i­cant­ly, 1999 saw the release of the com­put­er game Planescape: Torment, which cap­i­talised on the ground­break­ing CRPG sys­tem intro­duced a year ear­li­er in Baldur’s Gate, and added to it the flavour of Planescape, not to men­tion a prac­ti­cal­ly uni­ver­sal­ly hailed story that makes use of the many of the setting’s strong points. It seems like­ly that Torment intro­duced many new peo­ple to the set­ting that per­haps already knew of and played D&D, but not Planescape. I was cer­tain­ly one of them.

Not much was done to bring pla­nar con­tent to the third edi­tion of D&D, which appeared in 2000, three years after TSR was pur­chased by Wizards of the Coast. Eventually a new Manual of the Planes was released (Grubb et al. 2001), which sum­marised the major pla­nar con­tent that had come before, updat­ed for the new D20 rules of the game. It remained faith­ful to the cos­mol­o­gy of Planescape in many respects, although it does shift the roles of the Astral and Ethereal planes slight­ly, which is not all that sur­pris­ing, since the pre­cise rela­tion of those tran­si­to­ry planes to the rest of the mul­ti­verse was never par­tic­u­lar­ly clear. The third edi­tion cos­mol­o­gy also adds ref­er­ences to the Plane of Shadow, a realm that had been used in ear­li­er D&D pub­li­ca­tions, but hadn’t been given a place in the cos­mol­o­gy. The authors stress in this general-purpose man­u­al that this cos­mol­o­gy is only one of infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties, and that DMs are encour­aged to use it as they see fit. In addi­tion, the book ded­i­cates some of its pages detail­ing alter­na­tive cos­molo­gies, which is an inter­est­ing way of stim­u­lat­ing thought on cos­mol­o­gy itself.

The D20 sys­tem was avail­able for design­ers out­side Wizards of the Coast as well, through its own license and through the Open Game License, and this led to some planes-related mate­r­i­al. Since there were no plans to offi­cial­ly update the Planescape set­ting for third edi­tion D&D, indi­vid­ual play­ers and DMs were free to come up with their own ver­sions. The most elab­o­rate project known to me was led by Ken Marable and Gabriel Sorrel, who put togeth­er a com­plete cam­paign set­ting for 3.0÷3.5 D&D rules (Marable and Sorrel).

Some of the design­ers who worked on the orig­i­nal Planescape set­ting were brought togeth­er by Monte Cook in what was offi­cial­ly hailed as a Planescape reunion. Published by Cook’s own Malhavoc Press, Beyond Countless Doorways (Cook et al. 2004) intro­duces a whole range of new planes for use in cam­paigns. Rather than rehash­ing their Planescape mate­r­i­al, the authors let their imag­i­na­tion run wild and came up with colour­ful new locales for the pla­nar adven­tur­er. In addi­tion, a the­o­ret­i­cal sec­tion explores the var­i­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties of dif­fer­ent real­i­ties and pla­nar con­nec­tions, and fur­ther stim­u­lates DMs to think about how to design strange worlds them­selves.

The fourth edi­tion Manual of the Planes (Baker et al. 2008) intro­duces more sig­nif­i­cant depar­tures from the ‘stan­dard’ D&D cos­mol­o­gy. While the city of Sigil is retained as a hub loca­tion for pla­nar trav­el, the con­cept of the inner planes and outer planes is relin­quished in favour of indi­vid­ual planes con­tained with­in Elemental Chaos and the Astral Sea, respec­tive­ly. In addi­tion, The Shadowfell and The Feywild are intro­duced as worlds par­al­lel to and over­lap­ping with the mate­r­i­al plane, slight­ly anal­o­gous to the Ethereal Plane in Planescape cos­mol­o­gy. These planes are alter­nate real­i­ties of the mate­r­i­al.

Since then, there have been no major pla­nar releas­es in D&D. The lat­est, fifth, edi­tion of the game was just released this year, and per­haps a new Manual of the Planes will be on the agen­da. If the brand new Player’s Handbook (Mearls & Crawford 2014), is any indi­ca­tion of what might be to come, the fifth edi­tion pla­nar mul­ti­verse is, again, a syn­the­sis of what came before. It rein­states the con­cepts of the inner and outer planes in favour of the cos­mol­o­gy put for­ward in the fourth edi­tion Manual of the Planes, while retain­ing the Shadowfell and Feywild as alter­nate realms to the mate­r­i­al plane. And Sigil is still there, with its count­less door­ways to the rest of the mul­ti­verse.

Throughout the 40-year his­to­ry of Dungeons & Dragons, the planes have evolved from thinly-described realms that serve as alter­nate real­i­ties for magic spells and the hard-to-reach homes of myth­i­cal crea­tures, to full-fledged places of their own that could form the basis of entire cam­paigns. And, in a way, they have devolved back again, since the planes have never been as cen­tral to the the many worlds of D&D as they were dur­ing the days of Planescape.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, then, the ‘old’ Sigil will be our next des­ti­na­tion, sit­u­at­ed twen­ty years after the birth of D&D and twen­ty years before the present day, perched awk­ward­ly atop an infi­nite spire. If you want to go any­where, you can prob­a­bly get there via that city, lov­ing­ly referred to by its inhab­i­tants as The Cage. See you there soon!

This overview has ben­e­fit­ed great­ly from the his­tor­i­cal writ­ings of Shannon Appelcline, in par­tic­u­lar the first vol­ume of the new edi­tion of Designers & Dragons, and the prod­uct entry for the first Manual of the Planes on DriveThruRPG.


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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.