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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 1974: 28)
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: 54, 68).
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.
Appelcline, Shannon. 2013. Designers & Dragons. The 70s. Silver Spring, MD: Evil Hat.
Appelcline, Shannon. “Manual of the Planes (1e)”. http://rpg.drivethrustuff.com/product/17009/Manual-of-the-Planes-1e?it=1
Arneson, Dave. 1975 . Blackmoor [9th printing]. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Baker, Richard, John Rogers, Robert J. Schwalb, and James Wyatt. 2008. Manual of the Planes. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.
Cook, David “Zeb”. 1994. Planescape Campaign Setting. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Cook, Monte, Wolfgang Baur, Colin McComb, and Ray Vallese. 2004. Beyond Countless Doorways. A d20 Book of Planes.
Greenwood, Ed. 1983. “The Nine Hells. Part I.” Dragon 8:1 (July 1983). 16–33.
Greenwood, Ed. 1983. “The Nine Hells. Part II.” Dragon 8:2 (August 1983). 22–44.
Grubb, Jeff. 1987. Manual of the Planes. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Grubb, Jeff, Bruce R. Cordell, and David Noonan. 2001. Manual of the Planes. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.
Gygax, Gary and Dave Arneson. 1974 . Dungeons & Dragons. Rules for Fantastic Medieval Role Playing Adventure Game Campaigns [2nd printing]. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Gygax, Gary and Rob Kuntz. 1975 . Greyhawk [9th printing]. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Gygax, Gary. 1977a. Monster Manual. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Gygax, Gary. 1977b. “Planes. The Concepts of Spatial, Temporal and Physical Relationships in D&D”. The Dragon 1:8. 4, 28.
Gygax, Gary. 1978. Player’s Handbook. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Gygax, Gary. 1983. Monster Manual II. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Kuntz, Rob and James Ward. 1976 . Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes [7th printing]. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Marable, Ken and Gabriel Sorrel. Planescape Campaign Setting. http://mimir.planewalker.com/sections/30–35-pscs
Mearls, Mike and Jeremy Crawford. 2014. Player’s Handbook. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.
Moore, Roger E. 1982. “The Astral Plane”. Dragon 7:6 (November 1982). 27–36, 43–45.
Sutherland III, David C. and Gary Gygax. 1980. Queen of the Demonweb Pits. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
Turnbull, Don (ed.). 1981. Fiend Folio. Tome of Creatures Malevolent and Benign. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.