Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Higher and Lower Planes of Existence

The original D&D game had a spell called Contact Other Plane, which enabled a high-level Magic-User to contact a "higher plane" and ask a number of questions of a creature there. The planes were numbered 3 through 12, and as the plane number goes higher there are four variables: the higher number of questions, the greater chance of the contacted being knowing the answer, the lower the chance of its lying, and the higher chance of the Magic-User going insane for a number of weeks equal to the level of the plane that was contacted.

While this may seem like an utterly vanilla cosmology, in fact it suggests a view less like the "Great Wheel" and more like the medieval view of the system of celestial spheres. In religion before the modern epoch, other planes were supposed to be physically located on other planets. The astral plane, which first comes into D&D through the Astral Spell in Greyhawk, is literally the star-filled void between these spheres. If we begin numbering planes at 1 for earth, the pictured diagram of celestial spheres indeed brings us out to a 12th sphere - so that the ones Magic-Users do not contact are the Earth and the Moon. This view of the world ultimately stems from Aristotle in De Cælo, or On the Heavens.

The astral plane, then, is a place where the heavens and earth meet - open to be home to beings of pure energy, which manifest themselves in various forms when they visit the earthly realm. Weird and fluid creatures, some good, some ill; some being the remnants of humans unable to leave for another realm, others being inhabitants of the astral plane, incomprehensible and possibly Lovecraftian beings. I'm thinking for this, rather than a catalog, a system may be needed: something like Jim Raggi's Random Esoteric Creature Generator, but more focused. This is one of the things I'll also get into with alignment, since I think Chaos needs much better avatars than the Slaadi.

I'll have more to say about the numbered planes in the future, but what is memorable about them is their directionality. Since the highest plane contains the most truthful entities, but also the greatest chance of temporary insanity, it makes sense that each plane should be further removed from the mundane reality, stranger and more surreal. But as the astronomical chart above shows, there is a plane "2" that is missing from both our world and Contact Higher Plane: the Moon.

Which brings me to a gem that I found while researching this post, specifically the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. It's a story of a mythical telescope which revealed the kind of civilization that Victorian people expected to find on the Moon, and it didn't disappoint. The centerpiece were the "vespertillo-homo," lunar people, who were short, about 4' tall, furry, and possessed of bat-like wings. They had taller, whiter cousins and lived in relative harmony with the other species. This is a moon covered with crystals, flowers and volcanoes, where there is a great temple of sapphire made to look as if it is on fire; there are buffalo-like creatures, blue goats with one horn, and even tail-less beavers that walk on two legs and live in huts. Tell me that isn't a place that is just aching for weird encounters! A portal, a "moon pool"? Who cares, it's practically made for adventure.  So yes, you can anticipate a full complement of authentic lunar creatures in the bestiary. Maybe even an adventure.

Astral Spell has one further tantalizing possibility, which also ties in with our directionality. A character whose body dies while in astral form will find themselves in "the lowest hell." And yes, we will be going there.


  1. Good stuff. In PatW, I wrote a footnote about this. While surely the ancient sources you reference here are the origins of this cosmological model, I think the narrow vocabulary in D&D points to more recent influences. The construction "higher plane" is a Theosophical one, used extensively by Blavatsky and other authors of the era. You can find "astral plane" in her book "The Secret Doctrine," for example. These sources were read by many fantasy authors in search of inspiration, and by the time of D&D you see the "ethereal" and so on referenced in comic books like Doctor Strange.

    1. I'll confess that I haven't gotten very far in the book - do you know off-hand where that footnote would be found? I'd like to check it out for insights.

      I tend to think that having both an "Astral Plane" and an "Ethereal Plane" tends to lead to an unfortunate duplication, and the astral plane both interests me more and appears earlier than the ethereal, so I'm sticking with it. The classical bona fides are enough for me, having been a history minor in college.

    2. The relevant text is in PatW 2.7.2, around page 169 of the print edition. It's where I discuss the spell "Contact Higher Plane." I have a few notes there on the usages of "planes" and "dimensions" in fantasy literature, on the latter especially this coincides with a broader theme of scientific language in the magic spell list. I talk about older Greek sources there as well. I did consider making yet another reference to C.S. Lewis's "The Discarded Image" here, as he has a great overview of the medieval cosmological model, but this section was already getting pretty bloated.

  2. I like this model of the higher planes by Steve Marsh:


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