The Big Ugly Idol we all still know and love

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons Gets Advanced




Most people did not play, and for that matter have never even seen copies of, the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The original box set’s first printing was only a thousand copies, and though it was reprinted numerous times after that, we’re still talking about numbers in the low tens of thousands by the time it was replaced by the game’s next edition. If you weren’t part of the niche Midwest wargaming hobby, you probably didn’t hear about it, and given how rough and ugly those first books were, it might not be a huge loss. 

Conversely, the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books were ubiquitous for decades. Even by the time I started playing, during the era of AD&D‘s 2nd edition, these books were still everywhere, their covers universal signifiers for both the hobby and the type of people who’d be interested in reading them. You might not be super familiar with where you know this essay’s top image from, which is the iconic AD&D Player’s Handbook, but it’s almost certainly in your brain somewhere. While specific stats and rules would be adjusted and reworked over the ensuing decades, for the most part the original late-70s core rulebooks would be compatible with everything up through the year 2000. In essence, when people talk about classic D&D, the stuff you’ll see on Stranger Things, this is what they’re talking about1.


I have no hot behind-the-scenes information about what was going on at TSR back in the day, but it still strikes me as incredible how quickly the idea of a planar-based multiverse went from a half-baked doodle in Dragon magazine to a concrete part of the D&D firmament within a year. That article I wrote about in Part 1 came out in July of 1977, yet in just September of the same year, which saw the beginning of the Advanced line, this concept was already set in stone and ready to be fleshed out. Here’s the first entry from that 1977 Monster Manual, the cleverly (I guess) unillustrated Aerial Servant:

The aerial servant is a semi-intelligent form of an air elemental. It is typically encountered only due to conjuration by a  cleric, although these creatures roam the ethereal and astral planes and when encountered there can be dimly seen.

No explanation of these planes or what an elemental actually is ever arrives. I still find this approach most striking today when I read through entries on the demons and devils, which will nonchalantly say something like, “The erinyes are the devils common to Hell’s second plane.” The very idea that Hell has multiple planes had barely been introduced at this point, but there’s still a confidence that players will understand what’s being said here. TSR was extremely good from the very beginning at leaving tantalizing plot threads and assuming that if players latched onto them, someone would flesh these out later. And if not, what’s the harm?

This form of world-building has always captivated me. When I was young I would literally read our World Book Encyclopedia set for fun, piecing together how things worked in the world like parts of a great puzzle. The Monster Manual used a similar type of prose in that it assumed a sort of foreknowledge that simply didn’t exist, which felt encyclopedic and, to my childish eyes, adult in its lack of handholding. Today, you see this form of world-building primarily in From Software’s Soulsborne games (and their many imitators), in which countless fragments can be pieced together to understand the past and present of the world around the player. This mode of storytelling requires different mental activity from a traditional, linear narrative, and one effect of it is to make readers or players believe in the reality of this world, as like our own world it’s largely unconcerned with whether what’s said is fully understood. This type of writing requires the assumption that readers are intelligent enough to piece together non-linear temporal and spatial relationships, which is something we rarely see even in highbrowliterature—this way of telling a story reminds me not so much of any American writers as it does Jorge Louis Borges and a few other Latin American boom authors, and more than anything of Roberto Bolaño’s early masterpiece Nazi Literature of the Americas (that Bolaño was a noted gamer is not, in my opinion, at all a coincidence). It’s a form that hasn’t been explored nearly as much as it should be, and while I will return to this much later, for now I just want to mention how offhandedly brilliant this first introduction of it to Dungeons & Dragons really is, not to mention its importance in making players stick with the system when even then there were many superior rpg systems. 

Just as important to this type of storytelling, though, is that it’s easily missed and not necessary to notice to enjoy as a game. You can beat the entire Dark Souls trilogy without having a firm idea what the hell you’re doing—I would argue, in fact, that even people like me who have spent dozens of hours trying to piece together this world could only claim to be making assumptions about what’s happening, whereas it’s the game itself that actually pulls players along. You don’t need to know the relationship between demons in the Abyss in order to kill them, and for many people these “monsters” remained no more than stat blocks. Yes, you could read every description and try to piece together what exactly AD&D‘s fantasy world looked like, the relationships between its gods and dragons and everything in between, but that was entirely optional, and most likely these mentions of other planes were probably read by most players as meaningless flavor text. 

The introduction to the planes for most players, I suspect, came from the most ubiquitous of all D&D rulebooks, the Player’s Handbook, which was released shortly afterward. At the very back of the book, in its fourth appendix, players are introduced to “The Known Planes of Existence.” The entirety of this section is just two pages long, one of which consists of only the two images displayed above, and the rest of which simply lists the planes and offers brief explanations of what travel and combat are like in the astral and ethereal planes. That’s it, that’s the whole  appendix, which is about the length of that first article in Dragon, and barely more detailed. 


Why Gygax & company wanted to include this in the Player’s Handbook still leaves me baffled. One possibility is that they wanted the Astral Spell and its related abilities to make at least a modicum of sense, but this is such an infrequently used ability that it seems unnecessary (had it been left out of the handbook entirely and only inserted in a later supplement, I don’t think anyone would’ve missed it). But this glimpse still did plenty to capture many imaginations, or at least mine and Planescape’s designers, because of the possibilities it hinted at. Most importantly, it named every one of the planes, and with this it hints at what they might contain. That being said, if anything the rest of the section’s information on the Astral and Ethereal sections do more to confuse than anything else, and with this they continue a long tradition of muddling up the question of what differentiates these two transitive realms. 

The original Great Wheel that would one day became part of Planescape. It’s, uhh, highly legible, I’ll give it that much.

Once this appendix was here, it stayed here, thus making the planar cosmology a true, permanent part of the game. For instance, when the Deities & Demigods book was published in 1980, it featured a substantial change from its 1976 predecessor Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes in that for every listing it included a line telling readers what plane contained each particular deity’s realm. Likewise, this book included a short explanation on the strange theology of the game was at this point developing, saying:

When a being from the Prime Material Plane dies, its soul or spirit goes to one of the Outer Planes. (See THE KNOWN PLANES OF EXISTENCE section.) Selecting which plane the soul or spirit goes to is the province of the DM, based upon the alignment behavior of the creature during its mortal life. If a human cleric died professing to be lawful good, he or she might expect to go to one of the Seven Heavens. The DM might judge some of the cleric’s acts as more neutral than lawful, and decide that a more ap-propriate plane would be Elysium. If a being has been faithful to the teachings and tenets of its deity, however, it is likely that the soul or spirit will pass into the plane where the deity resides. Moreover, the soul or spirit will go to that port of the plane most strongly influenced by that deity; for each plane is infinite, and most planes have more than one deity residing there (Olympus, Asgard, etc.).

This is only an excerpt of a somewhat wordy, more than a bit messy entry about how the afterlife works in this fantasy world. Far more lengthy is this volume’s own version of the Player’s Handbook appendix on the planes, which receives much more detail including encounter charts and the revelation of quasi-elemental planes existing between the four traditional elements. The explanations here attempt to at least somewhat differentiate between the astral and ethereal, and even includes a third transitive plane, the Plane of Shadow, which would later be dropped only to return again in the third edition of the game. 

As Deities & Demigods2 was only intended for dungeon masters, it makes sense that there’s much more detail about the planes here, especially given the book’s focus on divinity. What I find most noteworthy about this is that its time of publication was only two years from the introduction of the planes and already they’re changing and expanding. The cosmology presented here doesn’t strictly align with what we received before, and leads to an understanding that the “known” part of the Known Planes of Existence is still in flux. In essence, it still feels like we’re still reading a rough draft, and this sense of impermanency would continue through the Fiend Folio and Monster Manual II, wherein it’s clear other authors were also intrigued by the planes and had plenty of questions about what lay out there. New demons and entire species of fiend would be added, while more creatures and otherworldly races began to fill in the many blanks of those other cryptically named outer planes. 

The only early three-dimensional diagram of the planes. It’s actually pretty sweet.

Still, while these books gave us a few clarifications, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide offered a perfunctory section on “Travel in the Known Planes of Existence,” which states, “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!”, at the same time it’s clear that Gygax doesn’t really know what this might mean. Alternately, at the very least, his examples are quite bad. The DMG also contains some encounter charts for what players might meet while traveling the lower and transitive planes, but also recommends that when it comes to planar adventures maybe dungeon masters should draw their inspiration elsewhere:


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-for-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.

When Gygax says that there will soon be planar modules, he’s not wrong, but it will be quite some time, and during his heyday at TSR the company only published one adventure that features any real involvement in the planes. Published in 1980, Queen of the Demonweb Pits was written by David C. Sutherland with Gary Gygax (note the somewhat odd crediting convention here3) as a conclusion to the epic Giant and Drow series of adventures. Its cover notes that it is “The first of a new series of other-planar adventures” and includes “notes on eight alternate worlds, suitable for expansion and addition to existing AD&D campaigns.” Don’t listen too much to this, though, as despite the module’s success, for more than half a decade this was the sole journey into the planes, and what it offered there was, well, about what you’d expect from this era of adventure, which is to say a lot of butt-kicking and not much else.

Even early D&D cover art was all kinds of ugly

Adventure modules in the early days of D&D were a far cry from, say, a Pathfinder Adventure Path. Characterization and motivations were barely a part of the game at this point, and modules were essentially just elaborate dungeon designs. Unfortunately, Queen of Demonweb kept to most of these conventions, and while it’s actually a pretty interesting dungeon, its version of the planes is only shown in passing. While the adventure begins by travelling to Lolth’s, the spider goddess of drow elves, plane of the Abyss, in actuality this entire plane is treated as simply a cool way of allowing for wonky dungeon physics. There’s no one to speak with here, and no ability to wander the plane outside of the dungeon—in fact, if players fall off the dungeon’s edges they instantly die (a tactic mentioned as advice for the DM), implying that there isn’t really anywhere for them to fall to. The only thing that feels truly planar here are, unfortunately, the lengthy rules at the beginning of the adventure detailing the changed functionality of magic and magic items in this realm. Much of the adventure’s challenge derives from these rules, but they’re both not terribly fun, and are also largely mysterious to players. They are, as is typical with when games add on pages of additional rules for just one small portion, far more cumbersome than they are fun.


The demonweb and weird airship it eventually leads to are unique and well-designed dungeons, particularly in the way they bend physics, but at the same time they’re also more than a bit underwhelming for the lair of a demon goddess. In this it also comes across as small and meek compared with the Powers and realms that later appear in Planescape. The very idea of knocking down the door of a goddess and charging into her palace is antithetical to the later campaign setting’s central idea that the Powers are too big for you to deal with directly, and mortals, however strong they might be, are still only that: mortal4. The wonder and mystery of the planes, the idea that it is beyond our understanding, simply doesn’t play well with this generation of adventure module and what they considered important. 

Still, there’s one part of Queen that remains compelling and unique, which is those “eight alternate worlds” it mentions on the cover. This completely skippable part of the adventure involves the players finding a room full of portals to prime material worlds where Lolth is waging various evil campaigns of conquest. In one, she’s trying to corrupt the elves of a world, while in another she’s laying siege to the few remaining humans of what is essentially Waterworld. In another there’s a war being waged, and won, against an army of dwarves, and in yet another there’s the castle of a vampire mage who’s allied with the goddess. It’s a stretch to call these worlds “full of adventure,” as they’re sketched out in anywhere from a page to two paragraphs in length. But it’s still the most unique and fascinating part of the module, and the only part that really points out the potential of travelling between worlds in a roleplaying game. It’s also the only part of the module that’s there largely just for flavor, fleshing out the role of Lolth and her aims across various dimensions while adding very little as far as the actual dungeon itself is concerned. 

Sadly, that’s the last that players would see of this type of planar scope for many years. Yes, the possibility of more out there existed, from those eight portals onward, but TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, didn’t seem interested in actually exploring this. What’s more, this adventure also set down the precedent that Planescape would have to fight against: that adventures outside of traditional fantasy require ultra powerful characters and dealing with epic adventures. But it’s not nothing, and those doorways do still offer us a glimpse of what more this setting might offer, even if it would be a long time before players would spend much time there again.

1. Basic Edition D&D (as in, not so advanced) is its own, weird thing.  I’m not going to spend a ton of time talking about it, because it is in essence a different game entirely that happens to have the same parentage, and which died out a solid 30 years ago. That being said, there’s a lot to its credit (for instance, it places a larger focus on roleplaying while Gygax started delving deeper into rules and statistics with his “advanced” version), it’s just that its influence on Planescape is minimal and, to be honest, I’ve never actually played a game of it. It was long dead by the time I first started rolling twenty-sided dice..

2. My desire to abbreviate this as D&D is forever thwarted by the topic at hand. Poor choice, TSR.

3. Gygax wrote an introductory note explaining that he didn’t do, uhh, pretty much anything on the adventure. But clearly his name being on it was helpful for marketing purposes, so there it is.

4. While technically Lolth is at this point only a demigod, that distinction is both incredibly dumb and not something that would stick with her for long beyond this adventure. Planescape Lolth would destroy this poser’s entire realm with the snap of her fingers.

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