The Gates of Firestorm Peak

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 37: The Gates of Firestorm Peak




So much of what would become planar canon originated with the foundations laid in the 70s and 80s by Gary Gygax, Jeff Grubb, and Ed Greenwood, such that it’s particularly weird to have a major part of them arrive from an obscure 90s release with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever. And no, I’m not talking about a Planescape book here, which brought in plenty of new ideas but remained fundamentally tied with the past. Rather, it’s time to look at Bruce Cordell’s The Gates of Firestorm Peak, which added the first new plane to the multiverse since Gygax slipped the quasi- and para-elemental planes in way back at the beginning of AD&D. This is the adventure that introduced the Far Realm, which has only grown in prominence despite its relatively inauspicious origins. 

That being said, like pretty much all of the non-Planescape adventures I’ve covered so far, Gates is not something I would recommend actually playing. Planescape tends to emphasize roleplaying and ideas, and as a result meshes much better with both what I look for in roleplaying games and the general direction the medium has taken. Gates on the other hand hearkens back to the dungeon crawls of 70s and 80s TSR, offering up a blandly forgettable town adjacent to an absolutely epic dungeon crawl. And nothing else. Roleplaying opportunities are going to be few and far between here, and what’s more the dungeon itself is actually kind of weird to run due to its own strange origination. 


Gates was written as a sort of tie-in module linked up with the Player’s Options series of books, which arrived in the mid-90s and had enough of an effect that people have sometimes dubbed them the game’s 2.5 edition. They’re full of strong, good ideas, and are nonetheless a complete mess of disorganization that I don’t at all recommend using. My memory of them in practice mostly involves players bringing up overpowered things they could do and then arguing with the DM about whether these should be allowed. Most of these books’ best aspects would be implemented much more smoothly in the game’s later editions, so they’re for the most part best left as an awkward growing-pain of a footnote in the game’s history. But, well, practically every 90s release got a tie-in adventure (and as a result, 90s TSR had a LOT of releases), so it should come as no surprise that nearly every passage in Gates is followed by a short paragraph detailing how to integrate ideas from the Player’s Options series. This is both awkward and weird but, well, so were the 90s.

Arnie Swekel’s interior art is mostly pretty good, though perhaps a bit literal.

But let’s get back to the Far Realm, as that’s what’s actually interesting about Gates. In a backstory-focused introduction, we’re told that way back in the day a group of Elder Elves set about making a bunch of interplanar gates. They were big into exploring the multiverse, with a focus on other crystal spheres in the Prime Material Plane (and if you don’t know what this means and the whole “crystal spheres” language sounds like gibberish… well, it’s largely beyond the purview of this series, but it’s all about ptolemaic cosmology and, I don’t know, just google Starjammer already).

The opening of gates to nearby worlds was a fabulous accomplishment for the Elder Elves. But in the flush of their success, they dreamed greater dreams. They soon became dissatisfied with the subjectively limited range of worlds accessible by the World Gates (only a few hundred of the uncounted millions of worlds they believed existed). With a new fire of determination, they set to work on their greatest gate of all: The Vast Gate. It was the Elder Elves’ goal to power a gate which could Bridge any distance, to the outermost Crystal Spheres of existence, in both space and time.

…Three times in eighty-one years did the Elder Elves find worlds of strange delight and fresh beauty. However, on their fourth Bridging they found disaster. They opened the Vast Gate to a world so distant in space, and possibly even time, that it may not even have been a part of the cosmology of worlds and planes as it is presently understood. Instead, the Gate opened into a realm with its own closed geometry, a multiverse utterly unlike our own.

Tl;dr: the Elder Elves delved too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Khazad-dum… shadow and flame. Or, to be more accurate, a bunch of weirdo Lovecraftian horrors from outside of the known multiverse. Same thing, really.

A suitably Lovecraftian fountain from near the Vast Gate.

Due to a bunch of weird machinations that are largely unimportant (but fittingly Lovecraftian), this gate to the Far Realm is only open every 27 years whenever a particular comet passes by, and only then for 28 days. Unfortunately, an evil magician, from the “alienist” subclass that just happened to be detailed in the most recent Players Options book, is trying to make the gate permanent and bring some of these horrors from elsewhere into the world. Again, it’s basically just a portal to the Lovecraft universe, and any parts of the story that are either missing or that you don’t really like could easily be filled in by just dregding up your memories of literature from everyone’s favorite racist, xenophobic horror author circa the early 20th century. 


Unfortunately, the actual adventure itself doesn’t get into the real Lovecraftian stuff until at least a third of the way through. For much of it, the adventure is more about punching Duergar dwarves than anything else, not that anything’s wrong with that. And really, it wouldn’t be that hard to file off this entire 40% of the adventure and move right into the Lovecraftian stuff, but I guess then it would be less subtle? Whatever. 

A dharculus in its most completely visible form. What a kidder.

In any case, the actual Far Realm itself is likely not visited by the adventurers, so we learn more about it from inference than anything else. What we do know of its supposedly bizarre structure is that, “Unfortunately, the Far Realm is intensely inimical to biological life as we know it, and the effect would be like stepping directly into a living amoebic sea. Journeying through the gate goes beyond the scope of this product, but it is recommended that any PCs who do step through have their minds permanently burned away by the visions of madness, even as the life in their bodies is quickly snuffed by the deadly acid of the amoebic sea.” Which sounds bad, of course, but isn’t all that different from certain particularly deadly levels of the Abyss. The Far Realm would get weirder later on, but for now it seems hellish but not anymore so than places we’ve already visited in Planescape. 


What does a better job hinting to us about the Far Realm are the myriad weirdo lifeforms that have seeped out from the Vast Gate and into the dungeon over the years. Many of these, in fact most of them, are not actually new to D&D. I believe that the dharculus, a strange creature that exists half in the ethereal plane and half in the Prime, is new, but otherwise Cordell simply pulls weirdo aberrations from previous sources, such as the Neh-thalguu and Wyste, and says that they’re Far Realm natives. This contradicts previous sources that say or imply they were the results of magical experiments gone wrong, but honestly this origin story is far more evocative. That a lot of these monstrosities we witness in the dungeon cause loss of wisdom and with this perhaps insanity is a nice touch, but given how little roleplaying is involved here it’s also kind of just window-dressing.

Just because it’s all about Lovecraftian horrors doesn’t mean the artist couldn’t somehow jam unnecessary T&A into things. I mean I really wish they hadn’t, but here we are.

Planescape went ahead and ignored the Far Realm as far as I’m aware, though it’s possible I’ll be soon contradicted when we get to Cordell’s Guide to the Ethereal Plane, which I’ve never read before. Really, it was the third edition Manual of the Planes that really got the place going, as it offered enough detail to at least propose adventuring there, though really it still seemed semi-unreasonable as an actually visitable place. Which, I should add, is just fine by me. It’s totally fine to have nigh-unnavigable landscapes, especially when that’s the whole mythos about them. Cordell’s initial use here in Gates is a smart way of including this plane without having to deal with a movement and action system that can’t really cope with a realm where time and space are supposed to be truly alien to our own. 


Ultimately, Gates is a bit of a footnote, as it merely introduces the idea of this extraplanar plane, but unlike a lot of additions (such as the Plane of Time from Chronomancer, which I’m skipping because it’s so lame that we all wish it had never been semi-officially released), this is a strong one that has lasted—in the long run it did better than Gygax’s original conception of the planes as a whole in some ways. Yes, it’s just a taste here, and the adventure surrounding it is just a dungeon crawl, but the idea of this location (not that it was remotely original) was excellent and you can tell it grabbed the imagination of future designers for decades to come.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest Exposition Break articles sent to your inbox.