Tuesday, April 19, 2011

P is for Planes of Existence

No one except sages speaks of "planes of existence," but few deny that there are "worlds," "realms," or "spaces" beyond the material world. The nature and number of these other worlds is, as with so many things, debated by pedants, but the most commonly acknowledge planes of existence are the following:
  • The four Elemental Planes: These realms are completely inhospitable to non-elemental life without the aid of powerful magic, which is why so little is known about them. Nevertheless, magicians and druids alike attest to their existence, as do powerful elemental beings summoned from them.
  • The Astral Plane: This space exists between the material and other worlds, such as Areon and Kythirea. Suffused with ether, it can be traversed either by magic or by means of flying vessels, though the craft of constructing them is now rare. The Astral Plane is also home to numerous creatures, both malevolent and benign.
  • The Ethereal Plane: Also called the Dreamlands or the Ghostlands, the Ethereal Plane exists between the spaces of material things and is accessible through magic. Some mystics claim that the Ethereal Plane is also accessible in sleep, while others, whose theological opinions are decidedly heterodox, state that the spirits of the dead are somehow "trapped" within the Ethereal Plane. There may be creatures native to this plane, but evidence of their existence is scanty.
  • The Abyss: Also called the Great Void, the Abyss is said to exist outside -- outside where depends on the cosmological model one accepts for the cosmos. Regardless, the Abyss is the abode of demons and, as such, is wholly inimical to Man. Naturally occurring portals to the Abyss are a common source of the Chaotic radiation that is slowly corrupting the material world and its inhabitants.
In addition, many of the gods are said to have extra-planar realms that serve as their abodes and the abodes of the honored dead who serve them in the afterlife.


  1. A fairly simple and vague structure like this is something I can accept, but I was never a fan of the highly schematized, nicely ordered arrangement of planes in AD&D. It all seemed "too regular." I prefer something like Moorcock's "Million Spheres," an infinity that may have some sort of order, but it's simply too vast and complex for men to truly comprehend.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Anthony. This vague structure lends itself to the mystery and horror of the 'otherside.' I despised Planescape for it's carefully defined and illustrated view of the planes. I always preferred imagining what existed beyond by looking at a painting, drawing, or reading a spell description such as Contact Other Plane, Cacodemon, Astral Spell, or even Rope Trick! Weird and scary stuff.

  3. Simple and very evoking... especially your take on the Ethereal Plane. I reall miss a Dreamlands (and/or a Spirit World) in D&D cosmologies.

  4. The Ethereal Plane sounds interesting, and quite different from how it was presented in AD&D; it makes me very curious to know more about what it's like.

    I recently read/re-read Gygax's initial article on the Planes (my copy is in Best of the Dragon I, so the original would have been written c. 1975-78). You can definitely see the birth of what would become the very elaborate AD&D cosmology in this thought experiment.

    Some of Gygax's early ideas are truly byzantine in their complexity: he posits that weapons with pluses or special abilities exist in multiple planes simultaneously (e.g., a +4 sword would exist in at least 4 planes simultaneously). Similarly creatures with resistances would also exist in multiple planes.

    On the one hand it provides some rationale for why it might take a +3 weapon to harm a certain creature, but it would probably be a nightmare to really work out in detail. As one example, Gygax posits the existence of subplanes for each type of creature in existence (i.e., humans, giants, dwarves, demons, etc.); as I read it, the creatures don't "live" there (because if they did it really wouldn't mesh with the rest of the proposed cosmology) but creatures of that type must draw some of their existence from the subplane because weapons effective vs. a certain race have their "special existence" on that plane (so a hammer +2 vs. elves has it's special existence on the subplane of elves, as well as existing on the Prime Material plane). Almost enough to make my brain bleed, .