A Walk Through the Planes – Part 3: Dragon Magazine




Given that Dungeons & Dragons‘ concept of the planes of reality was originally cooked up in an issue of Dragon Magazine, it’s no surprise that most of the early development of what this really meant came from the same venue. Sure, we had those extremely vague descriptions from the appendices in the Player’s Handbook and Deities & Demigods sourcebooks, but they did little to tell anyone what it was like to actually run a game in, say, a realm of pure fire, or pure mind, or the depths of Hell itself. Gygax’s original conception of the planes was theoretical, and the struggle for anyone interested in actually sitting down and playing a game set in them was left purely to people’s imaginations; vagueness in some things only spurs imagination, but this level was just too much for anyone to know what to do with.

Following that first Dragon article, it’s little surprise that the first of these planes to get any real detail was Hell. This remains the area of the multiverse most fleshed out, and the reasons for this are obvious: if you want to just bash a bunch of devils in, this is your place. That being said, D&D already had a place for that sort of chaotic smashing (the Abyss), which meant that the lawful evil conception of Hell needed to be something different. Fortunately, many writers have tried their hands at this in the past, chief among them Dante and Virgil. This first article on the subject, by Alexander von Thorn in the August 1979 issue of the magazine released soon after the Dungeon Master’s Guide finally made its way to shelves, is more than a bit of a mess. Of course, a lot of these early Dragon articles are shoddy to at least some degree, as the magazine feels for the most part like a fanzine, but it still attempts to address some of the questions raised by the Monster Manual: namely, if there’s Hell then where’s Satan, and who else is hanging about the joint? I don’t recommend looking back at this essay, as it’s aged poorly and for the most part ignored by all of the game’s lore that would come later, but it’s still notable as an early look at a topic that would become integral to Planescape. 


Likewise, Gary Gygax took another swing at the planes just a few issues later in his article, “Playing on the Other Planes of Existence,” in which he notes again how he’s not actually very good on the subject, saying, “But on second thought, it is perhaps a bit too much. Outside of a few facts regarding the principal creatures inhabiting some of these planes, there is nothing upon which to build.” This is true enough, and he also notes, “As the planes are interconnected to the AD&D multiverse, it is actually TSR’s job, and mine, to see that the laborious functions are weeded out into what is not a part of a given plane and what is germane.” This, however, he would never actually do. Instead, he casually drops in the idea of para-elemental planes existing between the elemental ones, then gets the hell out before actually having to give us any details about what this means. That was how game development worked back then, with ideas Gygax haphazardly mentioned becoming game canon possibly because why not. 

The real development of the planes came from two other authors, Ed Greenwood and Roger Moore, both of whom would spend much of the 80s becoming Dragon‘s most important contributors. Ed Greenwood is most famous for creating the Forgotten Realms Campaign setting, which was purchased by TSR in 1986 and by fifth edition had become the default setting for all of D&D, replacing the original Greyhawk and Blackmoore settings the game originated in. His first dive into the planes would be the May 1980 issue of Dragon, in an article titled, “From the City of Brass to Dead Orc Pass.” This essay isn’t important reading either, as it largely focuses on the logistics of running a game through multiple worlds and how a DM can use this to create exciting adventures. Still, it’s the first time we could see Greenwood thinking about the planes in detail. Several years later, this would come to the fore, but already he was considering the importance of travelling between worlds in books by Michael Moorcock, C.J. Cheryh, and C.S. Lewis. He saw the possibility in this vein of fantasy, even if his primary focus lay in his realms.

Two more early essays on the subject would appear in the next year. First came Lenard Lakofka’s number-wonky and largely meaningless essay on the inner planes in the October 1980 issue, which nonetheless has at least passing (though not very canonical) descriptions of the inner planes and a more interesting explanation of space travel in the D&D universe. I suspect this  may have inspired, at least in part, some of the key ideas behind the Spelljammer campaign setting, though I’m far from an expert on the topic. Then came a special section on “The Other Planes” in March of 1981, which was not only fairly useless, but if anything made planar games seem much more difficult and confusing than ever before due to the number of ridiculous equations therein. All of this reads as super unprofessional and just plain messy, despite a small addition from Greenwood. 

The first article I recommend taking a look at would be from the November 1982 issue of Dragon, in which Roger Moore not only detailed much more of what the Astral plane actually entailed, this is also coupled with the only planar adventure of the magazine’s early days, “Fedifensor,” which involved the still rather newly invented Githyanki species of demi-human, who came to international fame (of a sort) when they were featured on the cover of the Fiend Folio, a supplement filled with new monsters primarily drawn from White Dwarf magazine in Britain. Gygax notes at the beginning of Moore’s essay that, “Although Mr. Moore calls the attention of the Gentle Reader to the ‘unofficial’ nature of his offering, I must add that it is about as ‘official’ as is possible at this time,” which would be true for more than a half a decade afterward. 

What separates Moore’s article from what came before it is an emphasis on description, the question of what it’s actually “like” for a player to be in this location. Most articles before this focused on what players often term crunch, which is to say the hard numbers behind things, as well as specific rules regarding spells and abilities. These elements of roleplaying games do matter to a certain degree, but they’re also minimized in Planescape versus an emphasis on tone, character, and experience—what players often term fluff. But the fact is, the Astral Plane had not been described much at all until this point, so answering simple questions like “What is actually there?” make a big difference. And here, for once, we get more than just a passing description, e.g.:

There is no solid material in the Astral Plane aside from the wayfarers within it, some random  bits of debris, and [a few small “islands,” some with] built structures. To those passing through it, the Astral Plane appears to be a blurred silvery color all around, as if the travelers were  suspended weightless within a great silver atmosphere. Mists may be seen at times, and sometimes star-like objects are seen in the distance. Other strange phenomena have been reported as well. Objects in astral space are weightless but still have mass and can cause damage. It is conceivable that there may be dwellings on the Astral Plane built by great wizards, clerics,  or godlings; in a weightless environment these buildings could be of any shape, and might wander randomly from Outer Plane to Outer Plane, or across the various Prime Material universes

This description is perhaps not as concrete as things would be many years later, but for a first pass this isn’t bad at all, and gives DM’s a good idea of what to describe to players. And that, in essence, had long been the difficulty of running planar adventures. For the first time ever, Moore’s article gives an answer to the perennial question, “What do I see?”


Many changes would be made from this first version of the astral plane, such as the removal of fairly common encounters with deities. But the basics of travel here would remain, as would its sense of timelessness. Not only that, but Moore places an emphasis on actually useful things, such as how players might actually reach this strange realm, how travel through it works, and how a fight might take place here. This doesn’t mean there aren’t still pages of spell alterations that are tiresome to read and finicky to implement, but even these are done in order to emphasize the tone of unordinariness that Moore sought to permeate the astral plane with. At this point, the astral plane had been part of D&D for half a decade, but this was the first time it actually felt playable, like a location players could visit and actually have any sort of adventure. 

Likewise, the “Fedifensor” adventure that accompanies this article spends far less time than most modules of this era on the dungeon at its center, and more on the backstory and motivations behind its central characters. Sure, practically none of this has any bearing on the actual adventure itself, but even so we can see the shifting emphasis on the logic of adventures. True character/story-based modules wouldn’t arrive until Dragonlance showed up in 1984, but a great deal of this adventure exists in the story surrounding its Githyanki encampment and how they ended up with a magic sword, and much less on how many butts to kick. 

A couple months later, Moore followed this up with responses to reader questions in an article called “Solid Answers to Astral Questions,” and soon afterward Gygax returned for one of his last forays into the planes, “The Inner Planes.” This features not only the spectacular piece of weird three-dimensional art you see below, but also casually brings in the idea that quasi-elemental planes must exist because, well, isn’t this a cool box Gygax constructed? The logic of this is kind of insane (and it makes some assumptions about the Plane of Shadow that would be forgotten shortly afterward), but is still noteworthy in dropping eight extra planes out of nowhere, which would remain part of Planescape before disappearing largely because designers thought that at this point it was too overwhelming for people. They’re not necessarily wrong, but look at that cube!

The best kind of stupid nonsense is colorful stupid nonsense

However, the most important influence on Planescape wouldn’t arrive until July 1983, with the release of part 1 of Greenwood’s lengthy article, “The Nine Hells.” While Greenwood adapted a few of the ideas from that earlier article about “The Politics of Hell,” his emphasis is quite different, not just from this but from most other notes written so far about the planes. After noting that there are quite a few gaps and inconsistencies in the game’s treatment of Hell already, he says that his goal is to “depart from the official, and move into this writer’s attempts to make the Nine Hells a playable environment.” 


While there is still some crunch in this article and the one that completed it a month later, for the most part this comes from statlines for new archdevils, which are easily skipped over. The majority of the essay comes from lengthy descriptions of the different layers of Hell, as well as who the chief movers and shakers are of this infernal bureaucracy. Greenwood draws from not just the Inferno and the Aeneid, but also from the Odyssey, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and plenty of other sources, both classical and contemporary. Although by Planescape standards only giving each level of Hell a page or so of description before diving into characters (while still taking the descriptions in the Monster Manual and MMII as canon), these are by far the most luxurious and drawn-out treatise on individual planes that would exist until the 90s. Not even the Manual of the Planes (which we’ll dive into next time) would spend as much time as this in detailing the strangeness of a single plane.

Although the hierarchy of Hell has undergone many changes since this essay, the actual planes themselves have largely remained the same as what we see in Greenwood’s pair of articles. Archdukes have risen and fallen, and the role of Hell’s overall master Asmodeus has undergone at least as many changes, but Minauros and Dis have barely fluctuated. Importantly, even if they had, Greenwood’s descriptions are enough to construct adventures around, with plenty of hooks and answers to what it is that actually lives in these realms. Hell may be inhospitable to players, but there is a logic to its ecology that’s important for making this world feel plausible. It may be warped, but you can see how things got this way, and even moreso than the astral plane before it the Hells feel like a place that might actually exist. I am much less keen on the eventual magic alterations list that ends the second article, but at this point these things were de rigueur, and it’s not Greenwood’s fault that everyone expected this sort of nonsense. It’s clear that his heart lies with those long descriptions of truly alien realms, while the actual rules text is there because it had to be. 

Many consider Greenwood’s Nine Hells articles to be the greatest pieces of writing from the first decade of Dragon Magazine, and while I won’t claim to be an expert in the magazine, I’m not too surprised. In a sense, they feel even more professional than the official D&D supplements, let alone the frequently mediocre writing the magazine usually featured. I’ve never been able to finish one of Greenwood’s novels, and don’t consider him much of a writer in that regard, but there’s no comparison between him and someone like Gygax. Greenwood may not be much of an artist, but he still cares about tone and affect, whereas Gygax would always be focused on numbers and rules. Moreso than even the Manual of the Planes that came later, these two articles are the true predecessors to Planescape, the only pieces that feel worthy of what would come later. They are, to me at least, the only pieces of early planar writing that make me want to see what an adventure in this sort of otherworldly space really feels like. 


More than a year later, Greenwood would follow this up with another Q&A article titled “Eight Devilish Questions” and another one called “Nine Hells Revisited,” which made some clarifications but added little to the originals. However, his success with this article inspired Roger Moore to take a similar approach in his piece, “Plane Facts on Gladesheim,” and its accompanying adventure, “Aesirhamar.” Really, given that Norse gods had been detailed for so many years at this point and the fact that players could theoretically visit them at any time, it’s a surprise it took TSR this long to address the topic. 

Wait a second, this is both clean and attractive? How did this slip into the magazine?

The article focuses on just one plane, Gladesheim, rather than all of what would eventually be called Ysgard, so it lacks the encyclopedic scope as well as the creation of intricate plots that characterized Greenwood’s essays. Moore isn’t interested in spending pages describing this world, which is largely fine, considering that moreso than most planes, it’s likely that players and DMs alike have at least some conception of what the Norse mythology’s realm might look like. In this, Moore simply says, “Yes, it is what you think it is.” Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it’s a far cry from creating new worlds. At the same time, it’s still opening up D&D to elsewhere, as is the adventure, which is perhaps more interesting than the article made to accompany it. There’s a sense from this essay that while maybe planar adventures are only for higher level characters, any DM should be able to run them. Unlike his article about the astral plane, here Moore is more focused on creating a lived-in space and offering plot ooks. At this point, the planes aren’t becoming just strange places to have adventures in, a la Queen of the Demonweb Pits, rather they’re a place for characters to campaign in for more than one quick adventure. Once you get to Gladesheim, there’s no reason to ever leave, which is strikingly different from the sense before this that they were merely places to visit before returning home on the prime material plane. 

The last planar article from the pre-Manual of the Planes era came in September 1986’s issue, Bruce Barber’s “Welcome to Hades.” Barber took a cue from Moore and focused on the mythological version of this plane—while D&D‘s version of Hades consists of three planes, he’s only interested in the part that’s influenced by Grecian Mythology. The tact here, again, is in telling players that what they imagine Hades from the myths to be like is somewhere they can visit. It’s a completely forgettable article that serves its function well enough, but again unlike those pieces on the astral plane and the nine hells fails to really grow the world. Rather, the emphasis at this point is that mythology is something players can interact with. This is certainly a part of Planescape, but far from its emphasis, and neither of these later pieces have a ton of imagination.

From today’s viewpoint, the only of these articles I recommend reading are Moore’s article from issue 67 on the astral plane, Greenwood’s from 75-76 on the nine hells, and perhaps Moore’s from 90 on Gladesheim, though primarily for its notes about the Githyanki in the accompanying adventures. At this point, we’re getting some grounding in what the planes might mean, but with a few exceptions it’s remaining sketchy. More than that, in many cases it seems like just rehashing mythology, and the other worlds players visit are more focused on old religions than they are on philosophies or different conceptions of reality. Essentially, the planes are still, well, pretty familiar, and if anything the last few essays do everything they can to stick with this idea, telling DMs not to worry because Gladesheim is just like the prime material realm, only with Thor running around smashing stuff up in the background. All of these articles had some influence on the game’s conceptions of the planes that would come, but it’s only those few that I highlighted above that still feel of a piece with the direction the Planescape setting would take things in, while the rest is either too rules-focused or, frankly, too normal to be of much interest. 

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