Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Contact Higher Plane

I was perusing Men & Magic the other day and my eyes fell upon the 5th-level magic-user spell, contact higher plane. The funny thing is that, while I remembered the existence of the spell, I had misremembered its name. I had mistakenly believed that it was called contact other plane, a perfect example of what I have called the long shadow of AD&D – the way that AD&D's prominence has skewed perceptions of OD&D. Now, to be fair, AD&D isn't wholly to blame for my misremembering; it's also due to the fact that I can't recall ever using this spell in any game in which I've taken part. Granted, I'm old and my recollections are often spotty, but, even so, contact higher plane has never been a staple of my D&D experience. 

As I was looking at the OD&D version of the spell, several things stood out. First, there's the name, that is, its original name. Why "higher plane?" This is where genuine research will need to be done, something for which I don't have the time right now. My guess is that it's "higher" rather than "outer" plane because, at this stage in D&D's development, its cosmology is vague. For example, Gygax had not yet come up with the idea of "inner" and "outer" planes. Instead, he (likely) cribbed a more common notion, popularized by Theosophy and its offshoots, of "higher planes of existence." 

Second, the spell states that it allows the "magical-type" – now there's an odd turn of phrase – to "seek advice and gain knowledge from creatures inhabiting higher planes of existence (the referee)." Just who (or what) these creatures are is not defined, either in this spell or its AD&D descendant. What is most notable to me is that the spell does not declare that these "creatures" are gods or divine in any way. In fact, OD&D does not include the words "god" or "deity" anywhere in its text.

This might tie into my third observation about the spell: whatever the nature of the creatures contacted, they are neither omniscient nor omnibenevolent. Even those dwelling on the "highest" plane contacted (about which I'll say more below) have a chance of not knowing the information requested and all but those dwelling on the highest plane has a chance of lying about their knowledge. Furthermore, the higher the plane contacted, the more likely it is that the magic-user will go insane. That last bit is suggestive, in that it implies, at the very least, that the creatures contacted are so unlike mortal minds that mere contact with them is enough to end one's mental stability. 

Finally, the spell connects the number of questions the magic-user can ask of these creatures to the plane on which they dwell. Thus, a creature of the eighth plane can answer eight questions, which makes some sense, I suppose. Why is it that the planar numbering system starts at three rather than one? Is this purely an artifact of game logic? Did Gygax believe any fewer than three questions would be insufficient for a 5th-level spell or was there some other factor at work here? 

Spells like this, whatever one thinks of their in-game utility, please me greatly, because they raise questions for me to ponder. That's one of the main attractions of OD&D for me: it's filled with mechanical and "philosophical" lacunae that demand the referee fill. 


  1. It almost sounds like "(the referee)" is what populates those higher planes. Seems like a much more fickle source of information than whatever it is the cleric Communes with!

    1. That was my first thought as well. Sounds like a metagame mechanic to me: ask the GM three questions, he has to answer them truthfully. "Creatures inhabiting a higher plane" sounds like a play on all that fourth-wall-breaking stuff where a bunch of hardy adventurers realize that they're being controlled by a bunch of kids sitting around a dining room table in the late 20th century.

    2. It's definitely asking the referee, but I like the idea of residents of Planescape's Sigil being randomly pestered by material plane magic users with questions.

      Reminds me of the Sparks song "What the Hell is It This Time?"

      Historically, historically, we make an appeal
      To something greater than we are when we need to heal
      But don't concern him with your little band-aid affair
      His temper will flare
      He'll rise from his chair

      What the hell is it this time?

      My God is great, my God is good
      He loves every man
      But show consideration when you pray in demands
      His plate is filled with famine and with clean wholesome air
      If Arsenal wins
      He really don't care

      What the hell is it this time?
      What the hell is it this time?

      You've asked him for redemption twenty times in the past
      And twenty times he's granted it, and again you have asked
      But twenty is the limit and he's now getting peeved
      And when he gets peeved
      It's not to be believed

      What the hell is it this time?
      What the hell is it this time?…

  2. It could be that the first and second planes are mundane ones, not suitable for contact by the spell. The first plane might be plant spirits, for example, and the second animals, including mortals like humans. So the first and second planes aren't 'higher,' only at the third or greater planes of existence do we really get into something that could be considered 'Higher'

    1. I like that idea a lot. Also opens up a weaker version of the spell.

  3. Perhaps this plane is the second plane, so only 3+ are higher.

  4. Over on the blog Delta's D&D Hotspot back on July 21, 2014 there is a post tracing the history of this spell from the OD&D version, to the BX version, to AD&D 1st, 2nd, to finally D&D 3rd edition. He does some interesting analysis of the differences the spell under goes from edition to edition.

  5. Perhaps you might substitute "dimension" for "plane."

  6. I believe the Elric novels make reference to the Higher Planes, if I recall.

  7. The higher planes have higher beings, who will know the answers to our questions.

  8. Actually it's heavily based in modern (late 19th/early-20th century) magical theory, especially those magical orders that focus heavily on degrees of initiation such as Thelema. As the candidate proceeds through different initiations they get access to higher and higher astral planes where greater Truths may be found.

    [Golden Dawn, which more people are familiar with as it was a English arcane [secret] magical traditions that wasn't exactly secret, tended to concentrate more on their own version of the Kabbalah and progression through the Tree of Life [Sepiroth] for much the same effect (until you access Kether [The Crown] and contact divinity).]

    In some of these traditions there are also lower planes which are more unformed and unfinished and where demons can be found. the lower planes are more Falsehoods than Truths as a result. I believe. From a comment in an article somewhere that the original OD&D universe in Arneson's campaign had three lower planes (hells), which fits in well with Thelemic beliefs.

    It disappeared probably for the same reason that overt mentions of Christianity were removed from the book. besides it didn't fit in with the alignment-based cosmology Gygax wanted for his campaign.

    In my campaigns I actually have stacked layers of astral planes that get increasingly weird and contain more powerful entities, because I prefer this original OD&D concept. One of the big advantages of this is that I can then use contact higher plane as the primary spell research system, with the magic user attempting to contact the astral entity that knows the secret to the "new" magic. With the madness element included (and permanent rather than a temporary derangement). Research wizards are always a few belfries shy of a bat.

    How this new spell manifests depends on the campaign. In my standard campaign it is the knowledge of how to cast the spell. In my "Vancian" magic system it is discovering the entity that can produce the magic that you desire (and how to summon and bind it to a contract). [Spells aren't forgotten - you can only manifest these creatures a limited time each day depending on how many slots you assign to them.]

    [IMG astral projection is not travel to higher astral planes but rather the projection of the immaterial astral body to another point in the material world (like Dr Strange comics).]

  9. I always figured that the 1st plane was the Prime, while the 2nd plane was the Astral, hence "higher" planes begin with the 3rd (I posted my thoughts on this, a while back).

    Delta suggests that L. Sprague de Camp's "The Fallible Fiend" was the original inspiration for the upper limit of a 12th plane, (a demon is summoned to the Prime from the 12th).

  10. Perhaps the reference to the third plane is related to Paul's experience with the "third heaven," where he "heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter."
    (2 Corinthians 12:2,4). It's an interesting question that I've never before considered. Whatever its origin, I suspect his thoughts about alignment and the planes were still evolving.

  11. For what it's worth Google's ngram viewer shows a peak around 1900 for "higher planes"