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It's Elementary
D&D Alumni
James Maliszewski

I n recent days, players have been immersed in the elements—as stated in February’s Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, "one doesn’t have to look hard to understand the energy emanating from the Plane Below, filtering into the other planes through the magic of mortals and immortals alike. A fireball spell harnesses elemental flame, and the evocations of druids and shamans tap into a power even greater than the primal magic that controls it."

Since then, elemental powers continued their prominence in the most recent season of D&D Encounters: Elder Elemental Eye. Currently underway, players are working their way through the Sunset Shrine—and deeper in, to the hidden Temple of the Eye.

While the elements are very much on hand, this is D&D Alumni! And we'd be remiss not to look back at the game's earlier versions—and mythical origins—of the elemental planes and their denizens. This month’s instalment comes to us courtesy of a writer who can certainly speak to the game's illustrious history: Grognardia's James Maliszewski.


A Primer on Elemental Literature and Alchemy

Elementals have been a part of the monstrous menagerie of Dungeons & Dragons since the game's premier in 1974. As with many things in the original release, elementals are presented matter of factly and without any explanation on the assumption that gamers already knew what they were. As it turns out, this was probably a pretty good assumption, since—at the time of D&D's appearance—one of the biggest names in fantasy literature was Michael Moorcock. His stories of the doomed albino emperor of Melniboné, Elric, prominently featured elementals and their rulers, such as Kakatal the Fire Lord and Grome the Lord of Earth.

Of course, the idea of elementals is far older than D&D's immediate literary antecedents. They have their genesis in the works of an alchemist born in 16th century Switzerland named Phillip von Hohenheim—better known to history by his pen name, Paracelsus. Basing his ideas on the elements of classical Greek philosophy—earth, air, fire, and water—Paracelsus postulated beings composed of and exemplifying these elements. Earth elementals he called “gnomes,” meaning “earth-dweller.” Water elementals he called “undines,” from the Latin word for “wave.” Fire elementals he called “salamanders,” because of a longstanding legend that these amphibians had an affinity for fire. Air elementals he called “sylphs,” a word whose origin is unclear.

While Moorcock more or less adopted the nomenclature of Paracelsus without much modification, Dungeons & Dragons created its own take on elementals—a process of borrowing and reinventing ideas from mythology, legend, and folklore that's long been a hallmark of D&D… and that's continued as the game has grown and expanded. (A good example of this can be seen in the association of genies and genie-like creatures such as the djinn and efreet with specific elements—a development with only a thin basis in the real world tales from which they were drawn.) Thus over the years, D&D has used Paracelsus' names associated with each type of elemental to describe different creatures, though ones somehow connected to their element of origin. Gnomes became not earth elementals but an “earthy” demihuman race (with mining knowledge and the ability to communicate with burrowing mammals). Sylphs were not air elementals but fey creatures dwelling in aerial places (and who could summon actual air elementals 1/week). Salamanders and undines were more closely associated with the elements, but, even then, they were distinguished from “pure” elementals.

In early Dungeons & Dragons, such "pure" elementals (earth, air, fire, and water) were rated according the means used to summon them, with those conjured by spells far more powerful than those called by staffs, for example. The one commonality was that all elementals were summoned… but from where? Once again, the game expanded to answer this question, introducing the concept of elemental planes: otherworldly realms inimical (or at least very dangerous) to non-elemental life. For this reason, the elemental planes initially remained mysterious in D&D. But if there's one thing D&D players like it's a good mystery, and so speculation about the elemental planes, their nature, and geography became a regular feature of adventure modules, fanzines, and periodicals such as Dragon Magazine, each offering another piece to the puzzle.

To Enter the Elemental Planes

A noteworthy early bit of speculation about the elemental planes appeared in issue #27 of Dragon (July 1979) by Jefferson Swycaffer, where he postulated the existence of not four elemental planes but sixteen! The additional twelve planes arose from interactions between the original four (plus the planes of good and evil). Thus, where the elemental plane of water met the planes of air and earth, one finds another elemental plane, a plane of “moisture.” There were also planes of heat, cold, pleasure, pain, fertility, barrenness… a truly expansive definition of “elemental.” Interestingly, Swycaffer suggested that demons were the elementals of evil and angels the elementals of goodness—ideas then without any basis in the game.

Gary Gygax, D&D's co-creator, wrote in a subsequent issue (#32, December 1979) that he liked many of Swycaffer's broad ideas but disliked their specific implementation. In particular, Gygax felt that ethical/moral concepts such as good and evil do not belong to any treatment of the elemental planes, which, as a whole, were neutral in their disposition. Consequently, he rejected the notion of demons and angels as "elementals" of evil and goodness, respectively, while endorsing the idea of “para-elemental” and “quasi-elemental” planes formed by the interaction of the four primary elemental planes. Indeed, he proposed an extensive re-imagining of all such planes three years later in issue #73, complete with a three-dimensional model readers could build to get a better handle on how it all hung together (which, to give credit where due, was something Swycaffer had done in his own article).

Additional articles by Gygax and others, notably Lenard Lakofka, filled in a few more details about the elemental planes so as to make them more suitable for play rather than leaving them utterly mysterious. It was this concern—suitability for play—that drove subsequent development of the elemental planes. Dungeons & Dragons is a game, after all, and its concepts—no matter how outlandish—should serve the purpose of play. The elemental planes as wholly inhospitable didn't serve this purpose very well, and so those original conceptions were modified or clarified in order to make these planes better suited to adventuring (just look at the 1st Edition Unearthed Arcana's druid, able to enter these planes at will).

Certainly the elemental planes remained challenging, as they still operated under different rules than standard D&D worlds; everything, from magic to class abilities to even orienting oneself, worked somewhat awry. To enter an elemental plane was, literally, to enter a new reality, and only the cleverest and most resourceful characters could hope to survive such a journey. Yet that new reality could nevertheless be quantified, and its rules—however bizarre—could be made understandable for the benefit of DMs wanting to introduce these places into their campaigns. Some of their initial mystery may have been lost, it's true, but was replaced by the opportunity to use the elemental planes in ways that weren't possible before.

Gary Gygax himself agreed with this perspective, noting that Dungeons & Dragons “is an ongoing game. It offers variety of play and development of characters in a linear direction. Unquestionably, the addition of other planes for adventuring purposes will certainly excite participants, offering them new areas to explore and new challenges.”

About the Author

James Maliszewski started roleplaying in the late fall of 1979, when he opened up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which was edited by Dr. J. Eric Holmes and originally purchased for his father. More than thirty years later, he’s still playing. He works as a freelance writer and blogs about old school gaming at http://grognardia.blogspot.com.

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