Friday, October 22, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, pp. 57–58

At the bottom of page 57 of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, there's a section entitled "Travel in the Known Planes of Existence." The section continues onto page 58, but, even so, it's relatively brief, occupying only five paragraphs in total. Nevertheless, it's Gary Gygax's lengthiest discussion of this topic in the DMG and is thus worthy of some attention.

He begins:

The Known Planes of Existence, as depicted in APPENDIX IV of the PLAYERS HANDBOOK, offer nearly endless possibilities for AD&D play, although some of these new realms will no longer be fantasy as found in swords & sorcery or myth but verge on that of science fiction, horror, or just about anything else desired.

Gygax says something here I'd like to comment upon. Significantly, I think, he notes that the Planes "offer nearly endless possibilities for AD&D play." Over the course of his time overseeing AD&D, he regularly said similar things, often adding that he saw the Planes as the next logical step in the progression of a campaign beyond domain-level play. Yet – much like domain-level play, actually – Gygaxian AD&D provided almost no real guidance on how to run adventures in these otherworldly realms. Nearly everything written about the Planes in 1e was penned by someone else, starting with 1980's Queen of the Demonweb Pits, the first AD&D adventure set beyond the Prime Material Plane.  

Now, I understand the historical reasons why Gygax likely did not do so. The demands of running TSR during the height of the D&D fad, not to mention his later sojourn to California, no doubt distracted him. Even so, I can't help but feel that if, as he repeatedly said, he considered the Planes to be the locales of D&D's ultimate adventures, he should have prioritized discussion of the matter. It's especially puzzling that he didn't given that we know that he refereed adventures of this sort in his own Greyhawk campaign. It's a pity we don't know more about them, as they'd probably have given us some insight into his view of high-level campaigns and scenarios.

The known planes are a part of the "multiverse". In the Prime Material Plane are countless suns, planets, galaxies, universes. So too there are endless parallel worlds. What then of the Outer Planes? Certainly, they can be differently populated if not substantially different in form.

As a younger person, I found it quite fascinating the Prime Material Plane, as conceived by Gygax, is so vast in scope. If it is so then surely the Outer Planes are similarly vast.

Spells, magic devices, artifacts, and relics are known ways to travel to the planes. You can add machines or creatures which will also allow such travel. As far as the universe around your campaign world goes, who is to say that it is not possible to mount a roc and fly to the moon(s)? or perhaps to another planet? Again, are the stars actually suns at a distance? or are they the tiny lights of some vast dome? The hows and wherefores are yours to handle, but more important is what is on the other end of the route?

Re-reading this paragraph still inspires wonder in me. The idea of mounting a giant bird and flying into space, for example, is delightful and in keeping with very expansive notion of fantasy that once reigned supreme, before the crabbed demands of marketing contracted it. 

For those of you who haven't really thought about it, the so-called planes are your ticket to creativity, and I mean that with a capital C! Everything can be absolutely different, save for those common denominators necessary to the existence of the player characters coming to the plane. Movement and scale can be different; so can combat and morale. Creatures can have more or different attributes. As long as the player characters can somehow relate to it all, then it will work.

Have we ever seen a conception of the planes like this in any version of Dungeons & Dragons? If so, I cannot recall it. For example, Roger E. Moore's article on the Astral Plane, which appeared in the pages of Dragon, could have and indeed should have been a step in this direction, but instead it was interminably dull, saved only by the accompanying adventure, Fedifensor by Robert Allen, which takes some advantage of the weird "geography" of the place. It's a pity, because, as Gygax rightly notes, the planes are indeed the referee's ticket to creativity.

This is not to say that you are expected to actually make each and every plane a totally new experience – an impossibly tall order. It does mean that you can put your imagination to work on devising a single extraordinary plane. For the rest, simply use AD&D with minor quirks, petty differences, and so forth. 
While I am sympathetic to Gygax's larger point, I nevertheless feel that he did referees a disservice by not exhorting them to greater heights of creativity and providing examples of how he did this in his own campaign. I can't help but imagine that the subsequent history not just of D&D but of the pop cultural fantasy descended from or influenced by it might have been different if he had – a less earthbound and more fantastical "vanilla" fantasy perhaps!

If your players wish to spend most of their time visiting other planes (and this could come to pass after a year or more of play) then you will be hard pressed unless you rely upon other game systems to fill the gaps. Herein I have recommended that BOOT HILL and GAMMA WORLD be used in campaigns. There is also METAMORPHOSIS ALPHA, TRACTICS, and all sorts of other offerings which can be converted to man-to-man role-playing scenarios. While as of this particular writing there are no commercially available "other planes" modules, I am certain that there will be soon – it is simply too big an opportunity to pass up, and the need is great.

Would that there had been more such modules! Regardless, I do find Gygax's suggestions regarding to use other RPG rules compelling, as they go some way toward demonstrating just how different another plane might be. Instead, most commercially available treatments of the planes have reduced them to, say, modifying how magic spells work rather than something much more ambitious and genuinely wondrous.

Astral and ethereal travel are not difficult, as the systems for encounters and the chance for the hazards of the psychic wind and ether cyclone are but brief sections of APPENDIX C: RANDOM MONSTERS ENCOUNTERS, easily and quickly handled. Other forms of travel, the risks and hazards thereof, you must handle as you see fit. For instance, suppose that you decide that there is a breathable atmosphere that extends from the earth to the moon, and that any winged steed capable of flying fast and far can carry its rider to that orb. Furthermore, once beyond the normal limits of earth's atmosphere, gravity and resistance are such that speed increases dramatically, and the whole journey will take but a few days. You must then decide what will be encountered during the course of the trip – perhaps a few new creatures in addition to the standard ones which you deem likely to be between earth and moon. 

That's exactly what I'd have liked to see more of!

Then comes what conditions will be like upon Luna, and what will be found there, why, and so on. Perhaps here is where you place the gateways to yet other worlds. In short, you devise the whole schema just as you did the campaign, beginning from the dungeon and environs outward into the broad world – in this case the universe, and then the multiverse. 

This is excellent. I only wish he had teased this out just a little bit more – not to mention produced a fuller example of such a setting.

You need do no more than your participants desire, however. If your players are quite satisfied with the normal campaign setting, with occasional side trips to the Layers of the Abyss or whatever, then there is no need to do more than make sketchy plans for the eventuality that their interests will expand. In short, the planes are there to offer whatever is needed in the campaign. Use them as you will. 

I am perhaps greedy (and ungrateful) in wanting a much longer section devoted to this and related topics from the pen of Gygax. It is clear he had ideas for the planes that he was prevented from ever publishing and I would very much like to have seen what he had in mind. If this small section of the Dungeon Masters Guide is any indication, I think his conceptions of the planes would have been quite inspiring and very different from what other authors would produce later.


  1. In the Legends of The Five Rings RPG (3rd Edition D&D), you could enter a different plane of existence simply by walking into the Shadowlands. I like the idea of idea of that, it harkens back to Celtic stories of taking a boat to an island where the rules are different. We need more of that in D&D!

    1. ^ This.

      It's pretty much where 4E (and 13th Age) went with planar structure/cosmology- Like Greek Mythology- there are many "breaks' in the planar fabric and you can find yourself somewhere else if you travel too far or the wrong way. I mush prefer this over (A)D&D's codified Great Wheel planar structure and cosmology as set forth by Gygax and expanded upon by others into the 2E and 3E era.

    2. And yet people hated it when 4e deliberately set up a planar model where you could do exactly that. First level characters could walk to the Shadowfell or Feywild and expect to survive the experience and get back home. The Elemental Chaos didn't require magic just to survive the environment, although it was a little dangerous for really low-level types to do well in and you sure didn't want to visit the bad part of town, aka the Abyss. The Astral Sea was still kind of out-of-bounds for low-tier PCs, but it was also aimed at the same kind of high-level play the Great Wheel cosmology was supposed to facilitate.

      4e planes were far more accessible to low-level PCs than the Great Wheel model ever was, even in Planescape - and they weren't innately tied to an alignment system that many groups abandoned back when Gygax was still at TSR.

    3. "And yet people hated it when 4e...."

      People are silly. ;)

      I'm all over an approach like Castle Amber, early Ravenloft, 4E, etc. I've no use for Planescape and the like. It's just a preference thing,

    4. How about cribbing from the actual Amber? As in the Zelazny version, where people with the right ancestry can stroll between planes just through an act of will, and can lead others along the way? The different worlds in those books get very far out there, the way Gygax seems to be suggesting GMs should do. And there's even still a structure to the cosmology, with Chaos and Amber being the opposite ends of the stable/chaotic spectrum - and IIRC didn't the second set of books discuss the idea of a third power entering the mix and setting up ripples of its own?

      Yeah, looking to Zelazny for inspiration on a "soft" planar cosmology seems like a really good idea now that i think about it.

    5. Whatever floats your boat. To me, the 1e idea of a plane where humans literally die in seconds if they set foot on it without magical help is much cooler — more alien and capital-c Cosmic — than 4e’s more pedestrian-friendly conception of the planes. I guess they both have their own appeal, but I like the more hostile environments.

  2. Tying together this post and your last post... Perhaps the Master Rules set should have gone all-in on planar travel? Would have offered levels 26-36 the perfect adventuring locale on their way to Immortals.

    1. I had to look it up but the modules released for the Master set seem to focus on planar adventure elements. Including one by Tom Moldvay that teases several Demi-planes.

  3. Re: Moore's Astral Plane article, I don't envy him the task of trying to make that non-place interesting. Both the Astral and equally-tedious Ethereal were created as "transit planes" that let you go someplace more interesting. They're both nearly featureless voids in the earliest stuff I've seen, with the Astral at least having the occasional planar exit point and the Ethereal (at least the "Near" part of it) maybe having more traffic. Yeah, you might run in to someone or something interesting to interact with on your way through the plane, but you could say the same thing about an airport waiting lounge - the novelty comes form your other travelers, not the place itself.

    Turning either of them into something interesting to adventure in is a big ask, although Fedifensor was a decent effort at it. MotP and Planescape didn't do much better, even if it did add a few neat ideas and some native inhabitants.

  4. Consider the practical infinity of the observable universe with its 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (one septillion) stars grouped into 2,000,000,000,000 (two trillion) galaxies, themselves only dots in the unimaginable vastness of outer space.

    Space travel in D&D to other planets, stars, and galaxies is sooooo much more interesting to me than planar travel.

    In short: I like planes only when you add the "t".

    1. Well, I certainly wouldn't say no to more Spelljammer-ish stuff in the broader RPG spectrum. Apparently the latest Unearthed Arcana teaser/playtest upload from WotC had a bunch of the SJ races written up for 5e, including the giff and two of the three renamed Star Frontiers races. Seems to be causing some buzz. I'm not a 5e fan but if they do drop a new Spelljammer book of some kind it'll probably spawn some imitators both in and out of the OSR community - which seems weirdly reticent about embracing SJ. 1989 is Old School enough for me, even if I'd graduated college by then.

  5. I'm on the same wavelength as you on this - at the time I first read the DMG these words stimulated visions of fantastical places, but I was unable to translate them into adventures.

    I was aware of the idea of different planes (although they weren't called as such) through children's books such as Alice in Wonderland (& through the looking glass), and the Narnia books (though I never read any of them and still haven't), but as an 8yo was fascinated by Enid Blyton's "The Enchanted Wood".

    In this book and its sequel, "The magic of the faraway tree", the characters ascend the magic tree and pass into the clouds at its top to find a ladder. At the top of the ladder there is another world (plane) which has its own inhabitants, societies and physical rules. There are good worlds and bad worlds and some neutral ones.

    While the physics of it all are never touched upon, it is the only multiple dimensional fantasy novel that I've read.