Manual of the Planes (First Edition)

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 4: Manual of the Planes (First Edition)




If Gary Gygax’s first Dragon article announcing the existence of other planes of reality in his game’s multiverse was Planescape’s big bang, the origination of everything that would one day become central to that setting, the first edition version of the Manual of the Planes was like the creation of the Earth and its accompanying solar system. Plenty would change during the years after this release, but at the same time it’s a much firmer grounding than anything that came before it. Gone were the offhand musings by Gygax, Ed Greenwood, and Roger Moore about what the planes might entail, instead we were gifted with pages and rules with the typically official, no-nonsense tone of D&D‘s first edition hardbacks. 

This is both the central strength and primary weakness of this tome, which may be only 128 pages long but given its density and the rate of new, at-times alien ideas coming at readers, certainly feels a lot longer. The book’s primary goal doesn’t seems to have been creating a playable setting for DnD—many of the planes included here, hell most of them, are nigh-unplayable for all but the most high-level characters and equally committed dungeon masters—but to get rid of vagueness, both in rules and descriptions, that had surrounded these lands since the very beginning. It’s fine to say that a fire elemental is summoned from the plane of fire, but what does that actually look like? Well wonder no longer, the Manual of Planes has you covered. 


Shannon Appelcline, perhaps the most accomplished or at least well-known historian of roleplaying games, tells us that when Jeff Grubb and TSR set out to actually write this book, they had two goals in mind. The first of these was more obvious: a need for clarification. Someone needed to codify the rules surrounding these places that popped up every year or so in Dragon magazine and a random smattering of other supplements. D&D was designed by dozens if not hundreds of people at this point (if you include contributors to its semi-official magazines), and it was time to remove the contradictions and inconsistencies that had arisen over the past decade. The other goal was to use the format popularized in 1986’s Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and Wilderness Survival Guide to tell players how to, well, survive in these strange spaces. Appelcline writes, “After that, it was probably a small jump to the idea of a book about the planar adventuring environment—which was sort of a combination of those earlier Survival Guides with Deities & Demigods (1980).”

The resulting work is caught between these two poles, half-descriptive, perhaps in part so as to not make the book immediately dated with the release of AD&D‘s second edition, and half filled with wonky, rules-lawyering crunch. By now, you can tell which part of this I’m more interested in, as I generally consider rules to be only a hindrance to what makes roleplaying games a fun and noteworthy form, but given the landscape of things in 1987 this mixture did manage to offer something for pretty much everyone. To Grubb’s credit, he balanced both of these halves quite well, and while the book has plenty of limitations, it still feels capacious and generous with what it does offer, not to mention the sheer amount of ideas Grubb and perhaps others behind-the-scenes at TSR created. To put it as simply as possible, the amount of imagination required in creating this book cannot be overstated. 

The Plane of Air is ugly, but considering it’s first edition that’s to be expected.

At the same time, I still find this first Manual of the Planes a little bit baffling because with just a handful of exceptions at the back of the book, all of its environments are utter nightmares. I exaggerate, but only slightly, and this version of the planes is about constant danger, worlds where players risk not just death (an often temporary state in high fantasy), but complete and utter annihilation. Take, for instance, what even the Manual calls the “most hospitable” of the inner planes, which is no small claim considering there’s 18 of them. Yet even here:

The most common method of movement in the plane of Air is by changing the down direction and falling …. This method is both swift and rather unsafe as it takes the traveler in a straight line from point to point, running into intervening objects. The traveler has all the aerodynamics of a rock.


All of which is to say that most people move about this plane by flinging themselves through the air as fast as they can until they hit something, at which point they, uhh, hit it really hard. And this is what the Manual considers hospitable. The thing is, Grubb isn’t wrong: compared with the plane of earth, or salt, or vacuum, or positive energy, this method of smashing yourself into stones is downright relaxing. Here’s where the influence of those survival guides really comes into play, largely for the worse. There’s quite a sense here that rather than landscapes for people to visit, each one of the planes is its own special hellhole to be avoided at all costs. Sure, the efreeti may live on the elemental plane of fire, but we know shit about them, and if you’re to visit there expect to die within a couple rounds because that’s just how the place is. 

The inhospitable nature of these realms seems to be their selling point. Sure, you’ve survived all sorts of other dungeons, but you’re almost certainly not prepared for an adventure in the para-elemental plane of magma or the quasi-elemental plane of vacuum. These entries on each of the inner planes, and even much of the outer and transitive planes, largely consists of a catalogue of horrors. My favorite parts of these chapters are the ends, when slight plot threads and noteworthy places to visit are listed. Unfortunately, these sections are only a handful of paragraphs in length, and at times simply reiterate information from other books such as the Monster Manual. Things to do and places you’d actually want to visit are barely footnotes in these cavalcades of misery.

There is an entire section in the book about how astral forms don’t come with clothes. I guess that only applied to women, though….

Conversely, one thing I do like about this approach is that Grubb’s versions of the planes feel more real than most of what appeared before, largely because of how little they gave a crap about player characters. You’re not meant for these places, so of course they’re inhospitable—after all, you’re not a chunk of sentient ice.  But at the same time, I have a hard time imagining anyone reading this book and deciding to do more than, say, a session or two in any of these locations. Players don’t want to live inside of a deathtrap, they’d rather visit there for a little while before going back to somewhere that’s comfortable to, say, walk, or breathe, or move within. The planes’ complete resistance to being remotely welcoming is both what makes them fascinating to read about and also makes the book itself completely skippable and largely irrelevant to most players, let alone dungeon masters. It is a work of cosmology and mythology, not a plan for where to send adventurers.


This aligns with my other issue with the book compared with Planescape and much of planar writing in the past: its focus on the inner planes. On the one hand I understand this, given the survival guide nature of the tome. These are the places where survival is miserable, so any assistance with this is appreciated, but at the same time this means that two-thirds of the book is devoted to areas players should, if they’re smart, do their best to avoid, while the outer planes only pop up at the back and are given very little space, often just a page-long write up that’s largely concerned with listing which deities like to chill in the area. 

The Manual doesn’t exactly run into creative burnout, as Grubb keeps coming up with fantastical ideas through the very last of these outer planes, but rather what feels like a time and space crunch. Nearly every plane in the book is theoretically infinite, yet once we get to the outer planes there’s 30 pages to jam 17 of them into, including maps and drawings. It’s no wonder, then, that Grubb has little to say about the plane of Arcadia, considering that it’s both unlikely for players to visit there (if this is mostly a survival guide, then the lower planes should be heavily emphasized, which for the most part they are), and little has been written about it in the past. 

I still have no idea how to read this image.

If the first half of the book is too obsessed with the minutiae of surviving in the inner planes and goes into an at-times useless level of detail, the second and much shorter half is just too fleeting. Many of the ideas Grubb sets down for these planes became canon and incredibly important for Planescape, from Bytopia’s flipped realms to the interlocking wheels of Mechanus to the still-confusing-to-me conception of whatever the hell Tartarus’s six planes look like. Some of these ideas would be dropped, such as Limbo having five planes or the Outlands’ rim portals leading to any of the outer planes, but on the whole the idea of what these planes look like stuck. In this way, the vagueness is in fact a feature, as it allowed later authors to sketch in details when they had more time and to think about all of this. The planes all became much larger and more vast, but even something as brief as the description of Acheron laid a foundation for other authors to build from. More than that, what’s remarkable is how many weird arrangements of infinity Grubb was able to come up with, which largely fit with the alignments he themed them upon, even if he wasn’t able to always figure out what life would necessarily look like in these places. 


Perhaps the biggest sin committed by this first edition of the Manual is that it continues the first edition’s general feeling that the Gods are in fact pretty accessible, and something players not only might interact with, but most likely will. Thor in this manual is someone you’ll wander past in your adventures. Likewise, reading through these entries you get the sense that players may well depose of a demon lord like Demogorgon through happenstance on their way to brunch. Despite the planes being theoretically infinite, they still feel small, and their inaccessibility isn’t so much a product of their magnitude as it is their antagonistic nature towards all but the most powerful life forms. If you actually make it into the planes, whether inner or outer, the book implies you’ll be high-fiving the Chinese pantheon in the morning before joining in a greek bacchanale in the late afternoon. In this version of D&D, everyone is a semi-immortal, world-changing hero cavorting with the Gods of all the universe, which is frankly a terrible idea for a setting.

One of only two good pieces of art in the book, I still find this depiction of Nirvana/Mechanus evocative .

Despite being so foundational, it’s not surprising that the Manual is completely skippable at this point. The third edition Manual does essentially what this one tried to do, only much better, and for me remains the easiest text for getting across the general concepts of D&D‘s multiverse while still remaining playable. Likewise, if you do want detail and a much more playable version of the planes, well, we’re more than a few years off but that’s really what this series is about. While I enjoy reading the Manual from a weird historical point of view, its dry tone, staggeringly ugly art, and lack of actual usefulness for play means that I don’t recommend tracking down a copy, even for the most committed Planescape players. Without this book, I have trouble imagining that setting coming about in any shape, let alone the one it did, but that doesn’t mean it’s in any way relevant to running a game today. Perhaps give it a look so as to glimpse what the planes once looked like, how miserable and finicky they used to be, but I would try to put these versions of the planes out of your mind because they are much more limited than what would come later. 

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