A Walk Through the Planes – Part 1: Gary Gygax’s Goofy Proposition




The original Dungeons & Dragons may be the progenitor of modern roleplaying games, but it has very little actual roleplaying in it. Which isn’t to claim that I was alive back when it came out, but from reading through the original books you get the sense that it’s closer to Heroquest than, say, Fiasco. Not that there’s anything wrong with this—I like dungeon crawls too, when in the right mood, but the focus here wasn’t so much on the world or even the characters as it was the rules. How fast can a person walk in a turn? What is the difference between a 16 strength and a 17 strength? How good of a wizard can an elf be compared with how good of a cleric a dwarf can be? All of these questions are deeply stupid (and for some reason I’ve long found the class limits of pre-third edition D&D pretty insulting), but they’re where the game decided to put its original spotlight. Combine that with some distractingly bad artwork and constant assumptions that you have the Chainmail game system that the game was derived from makes first-edition D&D feel like a true relic of the past, which I don’t mean as a positive.

That being said, I don’t blame the game’s creators for this emphasis. They were into wargames, so of course the focus was on rules and numbers, especially since this was uncharted territory they were delving into. How much of a game should be spent on roleplaying and how much should be spent swinging axes at goblins? This type of balance was something they truly didn’t know, and in the best sense possible the original creators Gary Gygax and David Arneson were making it up as they went along, which more than anything is what the true spirit of the game is about. Even so, the level of worldbuilding in those 1970s books is woefully sparse, and even within the game’s two original settings, Blackmoor and Greyhawk, the focus isn’t so much on the world or characters as it is what spells you might cast. While some later roleplaying books would be almanacs, bestiaries, and simply collections of wondrous locations players might explore, it would be a long time before these aspects of the game would take center stage. In the meantime, it’s really all about those numbers. The game’s original settings were, basically, dungeons, and the big bad enemies you’d fight were in fact frequently dragons. Was there a world around the dungeon, or a motivation for the dragon? Who gives a fuck, let’s swing our swords and roll our D12’s until we kick their butts. 


Still, even in those early years the sense of some greater explanation for these beings and beasts populating the game’s dungeons crept into its rule books, especially with the release of the original proto-campaign settings. These hints arrived in spells such as Astral Projection and Contact Higher Plane, which led to obvious questions such as, “Wait, what is this astral place you’re projecting onto?” and “So who lives in higher planes I just learned exist? Does this mean there are lower planes too?” And most importantly,  “What, for that matter, do planes have to do with this dungeon where I’m spending the evening  kicking kobolds in the face anyhow?” 

Likewise, the early source book Eldritch Wizardry introduces psionics, which features not just a psionic spin on astral projection but also an ability called etherealness, which states, “The psionic actually alters his bodily vibrations to those of a different plane … Ethereal individuals are affected by the psychic wind (detailed under astral projection).” But wait, so is the ethereal plane the same as the astral plane, if they have the same psychic wind, or is it something different? The same book also details that demons “frequently  roam  the  astral  plane. Their  attention  is  also  attracted  by  persons  in  an ethereal state,” which if anything makes things only more confusing (as well as raising the question of whether they live there or just like to chill in the astral for kicks). This slippery language gets most muddled of all in an ability called Probability Travel, which reads:

By means of this ability the possessor is able to cross into parallel worlds and  enter  different  planes.  It  is  extremely  dangerous,  however,  as  it  closely  corresponds  to astral projection with the corporeal body brought along. The psychic wind affects the probability traveler as if he were projecting through space. For each probability or plane crossed 10 energy points are psionically expended. The traveler is able to commune with friendly powers, for example — or risk entrance into planes hostile to his alignment, or attempt to explore the probabilities following a course of action contemplated by him.

In summation: Whoa.

All of these brief descriptions told players that somewhere, beyond those dungeons filled with dragons, lay a much bigger, stranger world than what the game system generally promised, and these hints were enticing. It wasn’t long before Gygax’s greater revelation of his game’s cosmology would be revealed, though perhaps unsurprisingly its reasoning was mostly mathematical and rules-based in nature, which is to say super boring and borderline pointless.


In TSR’s July 1977 issue of The Dragon, a kind of fanzine not just for D&D but for all sorts of geeky game-based hobbies, Gygax wrote an article titled “Planes: Spatial, Temporal & Physical Relationships in D&D.” Like most of Gygax’s writing, it’s a fascinating mixture of pure creativity mixed with rules-lawyer faff, but the creative part was so strong it didn’t matter. It begins by saying, with no preamble whatsoever:

For game purposes the DM is to assume the existence of an infinite number of co-existing planes. The normal plane for human-type life forms is the Prime Material Plane. A number of planes actually touch this one and are reached with relative ease. These planes are the Negative and Positive Material Planes, the Elemental Planes (air, earth, fire, water), the Etherial [sic] Plane (which co-exists in exactly the same space as the Prime Material Plane), and the Astral Plane (which warps the dimension we know as length [distance]). Typical higher planes are the Seven Heavens, the Twin Paradises, and Elysium. The plane of ultimate Law is Nirvana, while the plane of ultimate Chaos (entropy) is Limbo. Typical lower planes are the Nine Hells, Hades’ three glooms, and the 666 layers of the Abyss.

And with that, a full cosmology is born! What I love so much about how Gygax wrote this is his tone of factualness, as if this wasn’t about players pretending to be wizards but rather an article in an encyclopedia. There’s an almost-pedantic tone as he introduces this overwhelming and abstract concept, as if it’s all natural though of course it’s anything but. Are any of these assumptions he makes necessary for D&D? Hell no. Will they even play a small part in the vast majority of campaigns? Certainly not. But to him, this is all perfectly natural, and with this, these strange assumptions would become a semi-permanent part of the game’s universe. 


There is one more interesting part of this article, which otherwise goes on for thousands of words about the technicalities of whether a magical sword can hurt different planar beings, which was in fact the real reason why Gygax came up with his labyrinthine cosmology in the first place (this, sadly, would remain a part of the planes, and is not just boring it’s a truly bad idea from a game design perspective, but more on this when we get to Planescape itself in the future). That part is an uncredited drawing1, which I’ll include below, slightly clipped off at the bottom because PDF’s are dumb that way and I can’t be bothered to spend a useful amount of time reproducing it perfectly: 

This beautiful mess of a drawing, like a color-by-numbers designed by an alien, is accompanied by a caption that begins: 

ABSTRACT ART IN THE DRAGON !!? Not really, this is a 2-dimensional diagram of a 4-dimensional concept.2 The concept is basically a concept of planes or dimensions and how to travel between them. There are two basic “areas” of planes in the diagram. The inner ovoid and the outer rectangle. There are also two ways to travel to these planes. The ETHEREAL will get you to any of the inner planes and the ASTRAL will get you to the outer planer[sic].” 

Gygax himself never seemed to grasp the enormity of what he was saying here and above, and I got the sense that his own campaigns, at least if the modules he authored are any indication, remained as much about kicking down dungeon doors as ever. If anything, these new planes only offered more places for characters to smash up that might be even more fun to smash than the old ones. Still, at the same time, there is a sense that he understands this could potentially lead to bigger, better things, roleplaying that isn’t focused purely on statistics or violence, even if he isn’t really the man for the job. He concludes the article by saying:


As of this writing I foresee a number of important things arising from the adoption of this system. First, it will cause a careful rethinking of much of the justification for the happenings in the majority of D&D campaigns. Second, it will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs. Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is. Magical/technological/whatever items need be devised. And ways to move to these planes must be provided for discovery by players. Third, and worst from this writer’s point of view, it will mean that I must revise the whole of D&D to conform to this new notion. Under the circumstances, I think it best to do nothing more than offer the idea for your careful consideration and thorough experimentation. This writer has used only parts of the system in a limited fashion. It should be tried and tested before adoption.

This paragraph, which doesn’t arrive until 24 pages later in the magazine on one of those obnoxious continued pages that print unfortunately sometimes necessitates, is a fittingly strange addendum to the whole concept. Here, we learn that the possibilities of this idea are endless, though also maybe it’s too much work to be worth the effort. It’s kind of wonderful to me that after publishing this as the lead article for the entire magazine, he notes that he’s only used parts of this “system” in a limited fashion. Likewise, I’m not even certain what trying and testing before adoption means as far as individual campaigns are concerned, as adding something and then cutting it when you decide you don’t like it is one of the quickest ways to run a campaign’s suspension of disbelief straight into the ground. 

But whatever, this was still a grand idea that, more or less, played a large role in shaping what the game would be. More than anything, this final paragraph points to Gygax realizing that, as ever, not only does he not quite understand the implications of the planes, he also doesn’t quite understand the game he’s co-created. He doesn’t know what’s good for it or what’s bad, and while he’s willing to unload his thoughts to us through articles like this one, even he doesn’t want us to fully trust them. While I find first edition D&D fairly unplayable by modern standards (or at least why-playable), this sense of creative discovery imbues these early books, and perhaps it shouldn’t be any surprise that this same approach seemed to infect Planescape itself decades later. This isn’t corporate Hasbro D&D, this is friends screwing around in the basement and figuring out what’s fun, and for that I fully support this project, even if it led to those beyond-stupid rules about magic weapons.


1. By Gygax himself? I’ve long wondered about this. Perhaps my favorite thing about it remains that even though a symmetrical square or circle makes much more sense for this conceptualization (thus Planescape‘s great wheel), because it needed to fit in the space allotted in this magazine the original conception was this awkward rectangle, which would carry over into later books all the way until the 90s.

2. No it isn’t. What does Gygax think the fourth dimension is? You know what, it’s probably better we don’t find out.

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