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Manual of the Planes
D&D Alumni
Bart Carroll & Steve Winter

"There exist an infinite number of parallel universes and planes of existence in the fantastic "multiverse" of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. All of these "worlds" co-exist, but how "real" each is depends entirely upon the development of each by the campaign referee."
--1st Edition Player's Handbook

In this episode of D&D Alumni, we look back at previous incarnations of the planes and how the game's cosmology changed throughout the editions -- particularly between 1st Edition's original Manual of the Planes and 4th Edition's version coming out this month.

The Known Planes of Existence

1st Edition's Manual of the Planes, released back in 1987, states in its introduction: "The concept of the planes has evolved in the time since the creation of the AD&D game; it will continue to evolve long after this book goes to print." Truer words were never spoken. As explained in Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters, the Great Wheel model of past edition cosmology was slain, in effect, in order to better achieve two fundamental goals of 4th Edition:

  • Don't bow to needless symmetry!
  • Make the planes fun for adventure!

One of my mantras throughout the design of 4th Edition has been, "Down with needless symmetry!" The cosmology that has defined the planes of the D&D multiverse for thirty years is a good example of symmetry that ultimately creates more problems than it solves. Not only is there a plane for every alignment, there's a plane between each alignment -- seventeen Outer Planes that are supposed to reflect the characteristics of fine shades of alignment. There's not only a plane for each of the four classic elements, there's a Positive Energy Plane, a Negative Energy Plane, and a plane where each other plane meets -- an unfortunate circumstance that has resulted in creatures such as ooze mephits.

The planes were there, so we had to invent creatures to fill them. Worse than the needless symmetry of it all, though, is the fact that many of those planes are virtually impossible to adventure in. Traversing a plane that's supposed to be an infinite three-dimensional space completely filled with elemental fire takes a lot of magical protection and fundamentally just doesn't sound fun. How do you reconcile that with the idea of the City of Brass, legendary home of the efreet? Why is there air in that city?

--James Wyatt, Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters

Jeff Grubb, author of the 1E Manual of the Planes, shared some thoughts on his design process, starting with the following disclaimer:

"I would like to state, for the record, that I organized the arrangement of the planes without the use of recreational pharmaceuticals.

With that out of the way, "the big thing I loved about the first Manual of the Planes is that we had to pull together a wide variety of source material -- articles by Ed (Greenwood) and Roger (Moore), Jim (Ward)'s addition of Concordant Opposition, notes from various monsters, the original picture of the Great Wheel, and were challenged to make things cool and other-worldly -- stuff you would not see in your standard campaign."

Early Introductions to Strange Entities

And there certainly was a huge variety of source material to organize, including from the earliest issues of Dragon Magazine. The Known Planes of Existence later appeared in the appendix of the 1st Edition Player's Handbook (itself a strange collection), wedged in after the bard class and the character alignment graph, and just before "Suggested Agreements of the Division of Treasure."

This was expanded somewhat in the 1E DMG, where all of five paragraphs were devoted to "Travel in the Known Planes of Existence." This brief section explained that "in the Prime Material are countless suns, planets, galaxies, universes. So too are there endless parallel worlds." In other words, the Prime Material itself was infinite, it contained similarly infinite parallel worlds, and surrounding them all were an immense number of other planes which were also infinite and could contain their own infinite, subordinate planes. Is it any wonder that DMs could feel overwhelmed? They were also told, "the so-called planes are your ticket to creativity, and I mean that with a capital C! Everything can be absolutely different," up to and including the stats that define a character and the way the game's rules work. In fact, if you wanted to switch to a different game entirely upon reaching a certain plane -- Boot Hill (Wild West roleplaying), Gamma World (post-apocalypse roleplaying), or even Tractics (WW2 tactical miniatures) -- then by all means, do so! But note that all of the alternative games mentioned were published by TSR, Inc.

Prophetically, the DMG also noted that, "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."

As predicted, various sourcebooks brought further details of the planes; new demons and devils, of course, but also (in the 1st Edition Fiend Folio) the Elemental Princes of Evil: Cryonax (prince of evil cold creatures, with cold somehow elevated to the state of a new Greek classical element that the others were based upon), Imix (fire), the holiday-weight packing Ogremoch (earth), Olhydra (water), and Yan-C-Bin (prince of evil aerial creatures). Kevin Baase and Eric Jansing updated the princes for 3.5 Edition back in Dragon #347 -- with much improved art. Even that was a difficult challenge when the original princes had such descriptions as: "Cryonax appears as a 15' tall yeti with tentacles covered with suction cups in place of arms." Loved by many, puzzling to many more, 1st Edition's Monster Manual II then brought us the modrons of Nirvana -- from the monodrones on up to Primus (The One), and their "society (where) all beings are classified, all actions regulated, and all procedures delineated. Obedience to the laws is immediate and unquestioned" (all very loosely inspired by the tale of Flatland, a 19th-century mathematical satire).

For many players, their first foray into the planes may have come from Q1: The Demonweb Pits, climax of the massive adventure series which began with a raid against the steading of a certain hill giant chief. (Side note: When it comes to the Battle in Seattle, I graciously concede defeat, with Against the Giants now firmly ahead of Tomb of Horrors 43% to 37%.) The series concluded in Q1 with an attack against Lolth's very layer of the Abyss, where the environment itself proved an extreme hazard and magic spells and items did not function as expected -- such as wish, for just one example (as if 1st Edition wish was not already risky enough to cast: it aged a caster 3 years, required 2-8 days of bed rest, and tempted humorously literal interpretations by the DM):

Wish: Any wishes made must be acceptable to and granted by the ruler of the plane (i.e. Lolth herself) to take effect. If the wish upsets the spider queen, she not only refuses to grant it but also sends four demons (two each of Types III and IV) to attack the party. Prior to attacking, the demons announce that Lolth does not grant the wish, and sends punishment instead. Note, however, that wishes that do not offend Lolth directly nor upset her realm will be granted, as the refusal of such powerful magic is far more strenuous than simply granting the request.

High-level characters could also access several planes via the 7th-level cleric/9th-level magic-user astral spell allowing them to: "project his or her astral body into the Astral Plane, leaving his or her physical body and material possessions behind on the Prime Material Plane. Only certain magic items which have multi-planed existence can be brought into the Astral Plane … At all times the astral body is connected to the material by a silvery cord. If the cord is broken, the affected person is killed, astrally and materially, but generally only the psychic wind can normally cause the cord to break."

Early planar material from Dragon Magazine included an alternate version of a silver sword, designed by Ed Greenwood back in issue #47. Syrar's silver sword was a +1 weapon that allowed users to see into, and attack creatures within, the astral and ethereal planes ("in much the same way as a cockatrice and similar creatures do").

Syrar might not have advanced into later editions, as certainly not everything in those early issues found their way into the Manual of the Planes. Other castaways from the island of misfit planar toys include the flard: towering pillars of white marble of infinite height that could be awoken to answer questions, and kept its treasure within a cache treated as a secret door.

Generally, normally, but not always. Danger came in the Fiend Folio, when the githyanki were introduced (originated by Charles Stross within the pages of White Dwarf magazine) along with their silver swords: +3 weapons which, if used astrally, had a 20% chance per melee round of cutting one's silver cord. In 3rd Edition, both silver swords and silver cords remained. In 4th Edition, silver swords appeared within the powers of the githyanki and most recently as a new magic item in the Manual of the Planes -- causing psychic damage and the potential to teleport opponents away to a demiplane.

Actually owning one of these swords is a questionable tactic, however, thanks to the githyanki's fierce connection to their weapons. "It is rumored that each githyanki warrior has but one silver sword, and if the weapon is lost or stolen, the githyanki must seek it out at all costs or be killed by its superiors. That may only be a legend, but githyanki have been known to exact terrible revenge against those who steal their silver swords or win them in battle."

A cornered James Wyatt has since confessed that the Astral Plane always came with a fair bit of baggage. In 4th Edition, the intent was to strip some of that away, including New Age-style notions of astral projection per se; thus, the absence of the silver cord. The designers wanted more emphasis on portals to reach astral dominions and less time spent in the astral sea. Keeping to the goal of making the planes more fun for adventure, a silver cord that, if severed, results in the immediate death of the adventurer seems a fitting sacred cow to lead into the slaughter chute.

Dangerous Territory

When it came to further "stuff you would not see in your standard campaign," Jeff Grubb explained this also meant "the very hostile inner planes and the strange-terrained outer planes." The often-complete hostility of these planes also ran counter to 4th Edition design goals. In his recent Design & Development article, Rich Baker further elaborated: "There were many things we loved about the cosmology of earlier editions, but we definitely saw some difficult friction points that we wanted to work on. These points included the elemental planes … . With the exception of the plane of Air, they were pretty much instantly lethal to unprotected characters. Most of the relatively few adventures set in these places actually took place in air pockets in the otherwise hostile planes. Places you can't go aren't very useful for the game."

Another point included the staggering complexity of infinite planes: "We wondered if it was really necessary for everything to be infinite when most D&D games visited just a few specific points of interest in each plane."

That said, Jeff did manage to work out linking the infiniteness of his initial Nine Hells in a fairly poetic manner. "The other thing I really am proud of was figuring out how the Nine Hells worked. We had supposedly infinite levels which descended. I ended up putting the gates from the upper levels on the high points and the gates to the lower levels at the bottom, so we could create a continual feel of descending into the pit."

Creatures of the Planes

Other changes to the planes (as James relates in the same Design & Development article) were made to avoid bypassing the adventure altogether -- such as by going ethereal. This strategy has been a notorious thorn in editions past. Bruce Cordell, for example, stocked his 2nd Edition Return to the Tomb of Horrors and 3.5 Edition Tomb of Horrors conversion with demons (owing their allegiance to the balor Tarnhem) who not only attacked ethereal intruders trying to bypass challenges but also to reset traps and repair any damage caused by explorers … thus explaining the tomb's pristine condition despite years of adventurers finding their untimely ends within!

(Acererak himself had an unusual link to the planes -- his soul "roamed strange planes unknown to even the wisest of sages." For that reason -- presumably -- one of the few ways to destroy him was to utter a power word: kill while in astral or ethereal form. Did anyone ever think to actually try that?)

Another creature guarding unwelcome forays into the Ethereal Plane included the cover model: 1st Edition's ethereal dreadnought, later morphing into the astral dreadnought. Although the dreadnought was never statted out in the 1st Manual itself, the 4th Edition version has been detailed in a preview.

"We also engaged in an early version of templating," Jeff has said, about the 1st edition Manual, "as we tailored creatures for their planar analogs … way back in 1st edition. Oh, and the marut … I create few monsters, but it's nice to see this one growing over the years into the inevitables."

As with the cosmology itself, its inhabitants have likewise evolved throughout the editions, including the maruts. The 1st Edition Manual of the Planes described them as servants of Rudra, "a violent, compassionless death-god (from the Indian mythos) whose realm, though no less thick than the others, opens into a huge chasm. Within this chasm Rudra is said to fire his arrows into the Prime Material, culling the weak and leaving the worthy. He is served in this plane by the maruts, unliving creatures similar to storm giants in demeanor and power. These creatures appear as great, red-eyed, unloving giants carved from polished black stone. They are dressed in gold armor with wide plates on the shoulders and armbands."

By 3rd Edition, the maruts had indeed joined the ranks of Dave Noonan's inevitables, constructs whose sole aim was to enforce the natural laws of the universe. "A marut appears as an onyx statue garbed in golden armor. Disdaining weapons or other equipment, maruts walk surely and implacably toward their foes, never resting."

While the inevitables also included zelekhuts (hunting down those who would deny justice, especially those who flee to escape punishment) and kolyruts (meting out punishment to those who break bargains and oaths), as well as quaruts and varakhuts, only maruts survived to 4th Edition. Will the others return? Unknown for now, but if they do, this author suggests (based on message board discussion) the need for even further inevitables, perhaps tasked with upholding minor though no less important laws -- an inevitable that hunts down those who would steal other people's lunches from company fridges, for example, or ding someone's car and drive off without leaving a note. The world, in any edition, could benefit from such noble enforcers. Meanwhile, in honor of Jeff Grubb's original maruts, able to cast an earthquake or hurl a lightning bolt, we offer the following alternative power:

A marut can have this power instead of fortune's chain.

Area Burst Earthquake (standard; recharge 456) Thunder
Area burst 5 within 20; enemies in the area suffer the effects of a wildly twisting, crushing landscape; +20 vs. Reflex; 2d10 +6 thunder damage, and the target is knocked prone. Squares within the area are considered difficult terrain for the remainder of the encounter.

Any game element as massive, diverse, and rich in material as D&D's cosmology would be impossible to cover in a single article. The above does not even touch upon, for example, 2nd Edition's Planescape -- an essential setting when it comes to the history of the planes. That said, we hope you've enjoyed this cursory jaunt through the 1st and 4th Edition Manual of the Planes. If you have any thoughts on your own favorite planar experiences, or perhaps a suggestion for a new inevitable, please send your feedback to