A Guide to the Ethereal Plane

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 52: A Guide to the Ethereal Plane




More than any other Planescape book, A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, by Bruce Cordell, is a mess. I don’t mean that word as a pejorative, though, but rather as a descriptive term attempting to make sense of a strange work. This is still a good, worthwhile book, but it’s also set up with two somewhat intractable tasks to try and manage. The first of these issues is that the Ethereal Plane is itself a mess. It’s composed of two parts that don’t really mesh together well, and each of those parts is also ill-defined, with strange rules that don’t make a ton of sense even on their own. But beyond this, Cordell was left with the just as difficult problem of navigating the many, many books that previously made use of this plane in the past, oftentimes written by authors who didn’t really know what they were doing. And while this was an occasional issue for everything in Planescape, and to a certain extent all of D&D due to the game’s shared universe, this was particularly bad here. Case in point, this little tidbit on Cordell’s research for the book:


I have complete appreciation for the effort Cordell went to in going back through the whole history of the game and trying to make these resources into more-or-less canon. Hell, some of these I hadn’t even heard of, and reading through every planar release is kind of my whole deal with this series1. But still, the quality and logic of these sources varies wildly, and perhaps some of them should’ve been left as forgotten relics of the past. In any case, a book that tries to make sense of all this while at the same time also making sense of a plane that never quite worked even before dozens of people dabbled with it is by necessity not going to be the most elegant work. 

The Ethereal Plane, as of second edition AD&D, was used to explain ghosts and other incorporeal monsters, as well as getting from the Prime Material Plane to the Inner Planes. It’s also the location of all the many demiplanes of the multiverse, plus apparently some of the dreams, though in a way that’s largely ill-defined and doesn’t really make much sense (I blame this, perhaps unfairly but perhaps not, on Bill Slavicsek…). Some of these purposes work a lot better than others, but the result of combining them all leads to the strangeness that is the difference between the Border Ethereal and the Deep Ethereal,  These are really two separate planes that serve different purposes, but D&D had long meshed them together for whatever reason. The Border is a plane coexistent with the Prime or other planes. You can use it to navigate through walls and such, making it a sort of parallel version of reality. The Deep, on the other hand, is more like the Astral Plane, and is largely an empty space that serves to get from here to there. Frankly, later editions’ changes to this plane were mostly for the better, and explaining all of this to players seems more than a little bit funky. I suspect the Ethereal’s revamp in third edition likely resulted from his own frustration with all of this from just a few years earlier (Cordell is one of the authors of the next Manual of the Planes).

I always love how completely nonsensical maps of the Planes tend to look. This one in particular is way messy.

Part of this issue stems from the question of what the Ethereal Plane represents. While the Astral Plane is nowhere, a place visitors were never meant to visit because it’s the mindscape between beliefs and reality (consciousness without full understanding, in a way), the Ethereal is supposed to be made up of possibility. Here, the basic building blocks of the multiverse held within the Inner Planes become a sort of protomatter before traveling to the Prime. But while this makes a sort of sense in a very short description like what I just wrote, actually explaining this at length is another matter entirely. 

For one thing, the Ethereal touches not just on a single Prime, but all of them, meaning it can be used to travel between them much like Spelljamming. But how this works in practice is… weird, and awkward, and strangely inelegant. It “touches every portion of each crystal sphere,” but maybe not the areas between them? We don’t know? The three-dimensional physics of this is messy. Likewise, Sigil’s relationship with it never made much sense. Portals from there can reach the Ethereal or Inner Planes just fine, despite not actually touching and having any pathway between things? This is in one sense just the magic of Sigil, but in another feels contradictory; I touched on some of this wonkiness previously in my article on The Nightmare Lands. Likewise, “Although there is only one Border, it doesn’t run in a continuous line. This means that a body can’t walk from the are of the Border that touches the Prime to the area of the Border touching another plane or demiplane.” Umm… wait a second, no, why not? That sentence just doesn’t work at all. Or, to give my least favorite explanation:

Want to know the ultimate dark of the Ethereal? Nothing lies in relation to anything else, and nowhere is that more true than in the Deep. A body can’t say that the Demiplane of Imprisonment floats 30 miles from the Demiplane of Time. Both demiplanes simply are. Any seeming relative distance merely lies in the perception of the beholder. Some bloods even think that everything in the Ethereal actually occupies the same “space,” and individual areas just exist in a different state of being-whatever that means. However, a canny blood can’t simply perceive herself (or enter a different state) and travel instantaneously to her destination. Distance is distance on this plane, even if it isn’t “real.”

Because chronolillies appeared once in an obscure Dragonlance adventure, here they’re given a large section. At least it’s Hannibal King’s best art in the book.

The end result of all this explanation makes the Ethereal Plane feel like a lot of hand waving excuses and non-answers. I would summarize the complete description of what the Ethereal Plane is and how it works by saying, “I don’t know, man, it just is that way, stop asking so many questions.” And while this is a somewhat Planescape-y sentiment and something the setting has resorted to many time in the past, that it’s unsatisfying is a vast understatement. 

I’ll get off this topic/absurd soapbox in a second, but just indulge me a bit more. Actual movement on the Ethereal Plane never really worked for me, either. Oh it’s fine on the Border, where it’s basically the same as elsewhere, but moving to the Deep or once there is ill-defined in a way that feels apposite to what we recently read about in the Astral. First off, to get to the Deep, “Leaving behind the Border Ethereal is as simple as willing it.” We learn what this looks like to an outsider, but to a person actually doing this there’s never any explanation of what this is like. “A body in the Deep floats free of all features usually visible on the Border, save for a vast, undulating curtain of vaporous color.” So by floating… do they go up? Like in the air? Can they see what’s behind them? And once in the Deep, movement gets even worse. Cordell tells us there are two types of Deep Ethereal movement, one for what my group calls in-scene situations, when there’s something going on, and one for when it’s just travel. In-scene I’m fine with, but for between situations (long distance he calls it),


First off, a body has to have some idea where she’s going-either by having visited the location in question, having viewed it through magical means, or having received detailed descriptions of a specific area on that plane … A basher who sets out from the curtain of vaporous color without any idea about her location will never discover another area of the curtain or significant feature; instead she’ll wander the limitless expanse of the Deep Ethereal. 

Now this may sound logical, but remember, one of the main focuses of Ethereal travel, and this book as a whole, is exploring this plane… yet you can’t get anywhere unless you’re already familiar with it. Wait, what? That makes exploration literally impossible! 

Dinner with a dharculus.

In short, the first 16 pages of this book are its worst, filled with a lot of half-explanations that don’t really work. I suggest ignoring parts of this you don’t like, and maybe saying that people can actually explore if they want to because, well, that’s a lot of what D&D is often about. Most of the rest of the book I quite like, though, as it’s not so concerned with these contradictory mechanics and more interested in sight-seeing and adventure hooks. This begins with Deep Ethereal features, including ether cyclones, protomatter, vortex fronts, and, perhaps most intriguing of all, Ether Gaps. These are rips in the plane that ether material is being sucked into in order to fill up what’s now a hole in the multiverse. In essence, they function almost like Ethereal black holes, and as such there are many rumors about what people have seen near them. Falling through the gap leaves people “lost to the multiverse,” which leads to the question of what else is out there? This is something Cordell hints at many times in the book, bringing his Lovecraftian Far Realm from The Gates of Firestorm Peak closer to Planescape, though he never quite goes all the way. 

The following chapter on Ethereal Magic is probably something most people will skip, but I actually enjoyed it, despite the fact that second edition AD&D spells aren’t exactly the most usable thing for someone running the game today. Information about the spell schools is always useful if you want to use these rules and gain a better understanding of a location, and more than this the addition of new spells and items tell us about the possibilities within this world. Maybe it’snot the book”s most exciting chapter, but still a good read. 

Neth, which you get the sense was Bruce Cordell’s favorite part of the whole book.

Perhaps the most anticipated chapter of the book is the next one, focusing on demiplanes. Unfortunately, though, Cordell decided to spend most of his time on ones already included in previous products. Places like the Black Abyss are kind of cool, but they’re also not actually new. Not every single demiplane seen before is included here—most notably, Gary Gygax’s Dungeonland riff on Alice in Wonderland is surprisingly missing, perhaps because Cordell thought it was too silly—but places like Maelost and the once-again Lovecraftian Demiplane of Imprisonment are far from new. Admittedly, very few of this product’s readers are writing an obsessive series about the planes in Dungeons & Dragons, but as far as I’m aware the only new demiplanes here are The Boundless, which is a somewhat cool concept but not all that usable; The Semblance, which is pretty much just a random mage-based demiplane; Neth, The Demiplane That Lives, which is quite cool in some respects but also not too far from the realm of Nimicri from Gehenna, and the Wormscape, which is… infinite worms. I suspect this last demiplane began as a joke between the designers, though it’s also quite noticeable how many bugs Cordell slipped into the latter half of this book. And I could also be wrong that these demiplanes are all new, as unlike with the monsters their original sources aren’t referenced.


On the plus side, Cordell completely ignores Chronomancer and turns the Demiplane of Time back into a demiplane, which I fully appreciate. That’s right, it’s canon in Planescape that Chronomancer is stupid. You can’t prove to me otherwise. 

More dharculus fun.

Following this is the most random-feeling chapter, “Realms of Dreams and Powers,” which is just four pages long, and mostly composed of material drawn from The Nightmare Lands. Remember how this is also the realm of dreams? Sort of? This chapter tries to explain that, even though the Astral Plane literally has dreamstorms and is a place visited in an earlier adventure in order to literally visit dreams.

Well-lanned folks’ve heard of dreamstorms on the Astral Plane. These psychic winds sweep through the plane, flooding sleepers with others’ dreams. Bloods wonder how that could possibly be, since most cutters believe dreams occur in the colorful boundary between the Border Ethereal and the Deep. Here’s the chant: Dreams, once dreamt, end up in the Astral in just the same way that thoughts, once thought, fly unrestrained through the Silver Void. Fact is, no one was ever supposed to go [to] the Astral, and that holds for dreams as well as for bodies. These ‘escaped’ dreams had their origin in the Ethereal Plane.

Between the Border and the Deep, the shimmering Wall of Color forms a boundary. This curtain of vaporous color appears two dimensional, having width and length but no discernible depth, akin to the northern lights visible on many prime worlds. Exceptionally canny bashers who’ve tumbled to the dark of it know the shimmering expanse by another name: the Veil of Sleep.

All of this serves to give a weird explanation for the nonsense of The Nightmare Lands, which I suppose originally came about in order to make it so that the Demiplane of Dread is nearby. Planescape is full of many awkward contortions in order to make its cosmology fit with every single campaign setting TSR published, but this one is perhaps the ugliest. Dreams didn’t fit terribly well into the Astral, but they did fit and had been well established at this point, whereas here they’re truly awkward (I have no idea what “These ‘escaped’ dreams” is remotely supposed to even mean). Is it that dreams, while being dreamt, are here, but afterwards they’re in the Astral? Ugh, no one needs all of this nonsense, and it’s one of the reasons I weirdly prefer third edition’s cosmology. 

A creepy spacestation is just good times, even (especially?) in a fantasy setting.

Another odd chapter is the one on Ethereal Inhabitants. It’s not that this chapter is a bad idea, but rather that only three of its dozens of creatures are actually new. Otherwise, Cordell simply drags in the creatures from elsewhere. Thankfully, he includes in all of these entries (aside from an accidental omission) where they originally come from. However, this means that what we do have is small and incomplete, and only 2-3 creatures (one piece of art is so bad and unclear that it’s questionable what the hell it’s depicting) from this entire section actually gets a drawing, making it extremely difficult to use these monsters yourself without hunting down the originals. Particularly useless, in my opinion, are the monsters from both the Monstrous Manual and the Planescape Monstrous Compendium Appendix III, both of which seem like they could’ve been left out entirely in order to give the other entries more space. At this point, I think we’ve seen the Foo Creatures appear in six different Planescape accessory books and boxed sets, and while I might be exaggerating, I’m not so sure I actually am. 


Fortunately, Cordell ends the book with its strongest section, which details specific Ethereal Encounters. Unlike with the demiplanes, I believe that only one of these is reused (the Castle at the End of Time came from Tales of the Outer Planes), which allows the author a lot more creativity here than in most of the book given how much recycling was involved. This includes information about the pseudo-sect the Etherfarers and where they live—why he didn’t make them into an actual sect is unclear to me, perhaps coming down from on high in an attempt to make the setting easier for newcomers—plus an interesting dreamscape that could conceivably exist forever, a bug who’s developing a demiplane in its thorax, and a giant nest for phase spiders. My favorite location here is the one that I’m guessing was also Cordell’s, as he lavished the most attention on it: Leicester’s Gap. Here, a wizard made what’s essentially a space station to study an ether gap, however he and everyone else there is now long dead and the implications as to why are horror-tinged and hint yet again at the Far Realm. It’s a legitimately cool location that seems ripe for the creation of a full storyline that would make use of it. 

I suspect Planescape’s cartographers loved getting to draw this sort of physically impossible location.

Ethereal Plane also doesn’t fare well when compared with its counterpart in terms of art. Not only is the cover by rk post memorably mediocre and confusing, its interior artists Adam Rex and Hannibal King mostly turn in only passable work. Rex’s dharculus I quite like, and his Neth is evocative and helps to picture the demiplane, but I still don’t much care for, well, anything at all by King, and find it largely forgettable. Sam Wood does a pretty good job on the book’s cartography, and while it’s not quite up there with the best in the series, he consistently captures the Planescape feeling. In general, the book didn’t feel like it had a ton of art, and as a result feels overly compressed with words. There’s a definite strain to fit this humongous plane into just 96 pages.

That’s my main complaint for A Guide to the Ethereal Plane. Given that it’s basically two separate planes plus infinite demiplanes, it’s easy to imagine a far more expansive version of this book that treats these topics in more depth. Many of the demiplanes, for instance, do little more than mention their existence and then move on, which is hardly helpful. But I do end up feeling like Cordell did about as good as anyone could given the parameters of this project. It’s an extremely dense 96 pages, and he does the best with this mishmash of a plane as could be managed. That being said, it’s not as necessary as A Guide to the Astral Plane, and feels like more of an afterthought both for the setting and for the planes as a whole. In a way, this is the book that despite its overall quality really signals at the need for at least a slight revamp in the multiverse’s makeup, as the Ethereal Plane had by this point truly gotten a bit out of hand, especially for a location 99% of campaigns will never even visit. 

1. A couple of these I’m thinking about turning into full articles, while others are pretty half-baked in the typical fashion of first edition releases. 

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