The Strategic Review

A Walk Through the Planes – Part .5: Stephen Marsh and the Strategic Review




I know this may come as a huge, monumental surprise, but I am not an expert on all things Dungeons & Dragons. Hell, I’m not much of an expert on anything, and neither am I any sort of researcher—this blog series really is meant to be nothing more than that, a series of blogs by some guy who happens to find this subject interesting. So needless to say, I’ve certainly missed some big things along the way, as I’m not in any mood to go back and read every single D&D book or magazine article that’s ever been published. This project is meant to be fun, not a dissertation. 

With that in mind, I will be going back and adding a few essays on topics I’ve missed along the way, some of which I knew at the time and decided against writing (the original Monster Manual II I initially decided to elide, but now have second thoughts about and will probably return to) and some of which I’ve discovered along the way through researching these things. This current topic is definitely one for the later category, as while I was aware of The Strategic Review, a short-run predecessor to Dragon published by TSR, I’d never actually seen one before. Someone has graciously uploaded every issue online at though, and this led to the discovery that D&D‘s planar landscape was proposed even earlier than I’d thought. 


In February of 1976, TSR published The Strategic Review Vol 2, No 1. Like other issues of the Review, it was only 16 pages long, though these were quite dense pages filled with text and information. The article I want to discuss is “The Meaning of Law and Chaos in Dungeons and Dragons and Their Relationships to Good and Evil” by, no surprise, one E. Gary Gygax. Along with discovering  this essay came my realization that originally the game’s alignment system didn’t have good and evil in it at all. Gygax’s original proposal included only law and chaos, and while there were some awkward assumptions as to law being good and chaos being evil, overall this was all pretty muddled. Not even Gygax seemed quite sure what these concepts meant in the game, let alone reality, and so players found themselves confused about these things as well, which only gets worse when you consider the existence of spells like “Protection from Evil.”

The impetus for bringing good and evil into things came not so much from common sense or a love for fantasy literature as it was the letters of Stephen Marsh, an occasional game designer who began corresponding with Gygax in 1974 and by 1975 had begun writing him about adjustments that should be made to the alignment system. For this, Marsh used evidence from one of the game’s primary influences, Michael Moorcock:


Having finished the Hawkmoon/Corum/Erikose/Elric cycle in the old editions, I’m considering reading the new ones (especially the new Elric stories).  A quote from the last of the last books:

“… It has sometimes worked for good.”

“Chaos is not wholly evil, surely?” said the child. “And neither is Law wholly good. They are primitive divisions, at best – they represent only temperamental differences in individual men and women. There are other elements…”

“… All are primitive,” said the child.

And thus we have the last, definitive word on alignments from Michael Moorcock who is responsible for the original set up (tho’ not what TSR did with it).  I thought you might like the quote.

Gygax appears to have taken this criticism to heart, and so used this article to expand the scope of alignment in his game. He notes, “Had I the opportunity to do D&D over I would have made the whole business very much clearer by differentiating the four categories, and many chaotic creatures would be good, while many lawful creatures would be evil.” Well a new edition would be coming out within the year, giving him the opportunity to do just that. And even before then, this article allows him to preview what alignment would become for D&D afterwards.

What all of this has to do with the planes should be obvious to anyone into Planescape, as the outer planes’ cosmology is based upon this alignment system. If that was the only link, this would still be a relevant article, but much to my surprise we’re also left with this table I’ve included below, which specs out the game’s early version of the planes in relationship to their alignments. 

The original Great Wheel cosmology

None of this is remarked upon in the article. We’re left wondering what the Abyss is and how this differs from Hell, likewise what exactly we’d find in Paradise but not Elysium. Yet we are nonetheless told that they are different, that these outer planes define the universe in a way never shown before. This, so far as I can find, is the first true cosmology for the game, and while it’s not at all detailed, it’s still influential. While the upper planes in particular wouldn’t quite stick with this conception (also: Godling?), only two of these eight planes would change between this proto-cosmology and the great wheel we’d all come to love, or at least prefer to whatever the hell fourth edition was up to. 


As some final notes about this subject, it seems that Stephen Marsh had quite a large effect on emphasis D&D placed on the planes in general. It was his conception of a mystic for a character class that became the game’s first version of psionics, and his version of this class was as to allow people to play as a person “that could teleport to various planes of existence via mental powers.” This helps explain why Eldritch Wizardry off-handedly includes these snippets about planar travel that seemed so out-of-place at the time.

Marsh’s interest on the other planes didn’t abate. While he only briefly worked for TSR (instead he went on to law school), he continued corresponding with Gygax and proposed writing a hardback rulebook titled The Planes of Existence. Unfortunately, when Gygax was forced out of the company, this book was thrown to the wayside as well. I would love to learn how much Marsh’s version of the planes remained when Jeff Grubb became the author of the Manual of the Planes, but perhaps we’ll never know. While Marsh saved much of his writing from back then, his papers were snatched up in an eBay auction years ago and since then seem to have disappeared. Sadly, as far as information about its contents goes, this ancient thread is all of the information I’ve been able to find. 

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