D&D 5E Ethereal Plane in 5e?

Quickleaf

Legend
I'm going to be using the Ethereal Plane in an upcoming game with a Lost City that exists both on the Material and the Border Ethereal. But I'm having a hard time grasping the essence of the Ethereal Plane (pun intended) even after reading its entry in the 5e DMG, the 3.5e Manual of the Planes, and the 2e Guide to the Ethereal Plane. The material I've read had exhaustive descriptions on the what/mechanics, but little on the why/essence.

So...what is the Ethereal Plane about?

Is it the Plane of Dreams? Well...maybe...cause night hags go there and prey on the nightmares of dreamers...and ethereal dreamscapes are a thing in 2e...but then the 5e DMG says explicitly that the Astral is the "realm of thought and dream." So...which is it?

Is it the Plane of Travelers Unseen? Some kind of "space between spaces" with travelers both in the literal and figurative sense (e.g. dead souls "traveling" to their eternal reward) moving amidst the mists? Kinda like a cross between the city of Ghostwalk in 3.5e and a planar caravanserai with all kinds of skullduggery and espionage?

Is it like the "Upside Down" from Stranger Things, full of strange monsters, like a surreal blend of the Far Realm and the Shadowfell?

Is it the Plane Beyond Time and Space where the ruins of ancient civilizations crumble into faded memory? Where you could run into any figure imaginable, whether from history or legend or pure fancy?

Is it the Plane of the Un-manifested, where the building blocks of life wisp away from the Inner Planes into mists, to coalesce and form tangible matter on the Material Plane?
 
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My take is that it is a realm of imagination. To the passive imagination, it is the place where the things that you see in the corner of your eye reside. To the active imagination, it is a world of "grey goop" that can be molded by the willful into personal microcosms.
 

jgsugden

Legend
My version is morphed from the book material, but it works for me.

There are two polar opposites in the Planes - the Core of the Negative Energy Plane (which exists only at the end of the universe) and the Core of the Positive Energy Plane (which exists only at the start of time). All existence is found between these two points which are separated by five dimensions (length, width, height, planar, and time) Extending between these two points is the Astral Sea, a five dimensional space that is undefined until beings enter it and define it through their beliefs and understandings of existence. As almost all creatures perceive time, they create time within the Astral Sea via their presence. The Astral Sea connects to all other planes (Outerplanes, Elemental Planes, Far Realm, etc...) with

The Prime Material Plane (PMP) has the Shadowfell as an Echo of the Negative Energy Plane, the Feywild as an Echo of the Positive Energy Plane, and the Ethereal Plane as an Echo of the Astral Plane. These three realms are distorted reflections of the PMP, the Shadowfell touched by dark energy, the Feywild abundant with positive energy (which the Fey creatures long ago mastered and abuse), and the Ethereal which reflects the partially undefined nature of the Astral Sea - with segments of it infected with the energy of the other planes touched by the Astral Sea. However, the Ethereal doesn't like to be occupied and tends to push creatures out of it, leaving it generally empty of life.

This results in short trips to the Ethereal appearing surreal with hints of other planes that range anywhere from angelic, demonic, elemental and nightmarish - often with these elements clashing around the PCs. A PC that assumes Ethereal Form and enters the Ethereal might see one ally burst into flame, another grow demonic horns, a third ooze slime from their eyes, while a fourth be surrounded by both an angelic halo and a swirling whirlwind of elemental air. Meanwhile, the world around them would look like the PMP they left with touches of all the planes that touch the Astral Sea infecting them. Generally, these hints are all randomly aesthetic, but occasionally I'll use it to introduce something into the game or provide a hint... why does that NPC always look like a demon in the Ethereal when everyone else switches from one influence to another...
 

CapnZapp

Legend
I'm going to be using the Ethereal Plane in an upcoming game with a Lost City that exists both on the Material and the Border Ethereal. But I'm having a hard time grasping the essence of the Ethereal Plane (pun intended) even after reading its entry in the 5e DMG, the 3.5e Manual of the Planes, and the 2e Guide to the Ethereal Plane. The material I've read had exhaustive descriptions on the what/mechanics, but little on the why/essence.

So...what is the Ethereal Plane about?

Is it the Plane of Dreams? Well...maybe...cause night hags go there and prey on the nightmares of dreamers...and ethereal dreamscapes are a thing in 2e...but then the 5e DMG says explicitly that the Astral is the "realm of thought and dream." So...which is it?

Is it the Plane of Travelers Unseen? Some kind of "space between spaces" with travelers both in the literal and figurative sense (e.g. dead souls "traveling" to their eternal reward) moving amidst the mists? Kinda like a cross between the city of Ghostwalk in 3.5e and a planar caravanserai with all kinds of skullduggery and espionage?

Is it like the "Upside Down" from Stranger Things, full of strange monsters, like a surreal blend of the Far Realm and the Shadowfell?

Is it the Plane Beyond Time and Space where the ruins of ancient civilizations crumble into faded memory? Where you could run into any figure imaginable, whether from history or legend or pure fancy?

Is it the Plane of the Un-manifested, where the building blocks of life wisp away from the Inner Planes into mists, to coalesce and form tangible matter on the Material Plane?
All of that. But basically (boringly?), it's the space ghosts dwell in.

Sent from my C6603 using EN World mobile app
 

So...what is the Ethereal Plane about?
It's a misty otherspace useful to underpin some magical effects.

Is it the Plane of Dreams?
No.

Is it the Plane of Travelers Unseen?
Only in the practical sense that some creatures can travel there, and thus move unseen/incorporeally about the prime material.
In that sense it's like an explanation for the impression of ghosts and spirits as being misty see-through beings - an impression that only goes about as far back as 19th century 'spirit photography' (double-exposures).

Is it like the "Upside Down" from Stranger Things, full of strange monsters, like a surreal blend of the Far Realm and the Shadowfell?
Yes, but less so, because it doesn't have lots of weird/cool/surreal set-dressing, just mist.

Is it the Plane Beyond Time and Space where the ruins of ancient civilizations crumble into faded memory?
No.

Is it the Plane of the Un-manifested, where the building blocks of life wisp away from the Inner Planes into mists, to coalesce and form tangible matter on the Material Plane?
Pretty fair. The RL meaning of Ethereal comes from ancient ideas about the structure of the universe, the Greeks thought that the four elements made up the physical world, and the the stars were made of some fifth, spiritual essence - 'ether' was one of the words used to translate the concept. Scientist later used it for, well, ether (C4H10O) and for the theoretical luminiferous ether that explaned the wave characteristics of light, confusing the subject.

The D&D Astral & Ethereal planes are clearly influenced by Theosophy (as is so much the pop-culture take on the supernatural), the Astral coming prettymuch whole cloth, the Ethereal possibly a take on the Theosophic afterlife, as an immaterial being that perceives itself in the form it had in life, and exists apart from, but able to perceive, the world of the living. D&D Ghosts and the like, for instance, have been 'Ethereal,' in early editions of the game.

So, it's a plane of the immaterial which is co-existent with and permeates the material planes - both the prime material and elemental. Where the prime is layered into infinite parallel planes, the ethereal is just one undifferentiated misty nothingness - shapes glimpsed as 'part of the Ethereal' different from one's native material plane are probably reflections from other prime materials.

TL;DR -
All of that. But basically (boringly?), it's the space ghosts dwell in.
Yeah, OK, if you want to be succinct and to the point... ;(
 

snickersnax

Explorer
Here's my take on it.

I think of the ethereal plane as the firmament that connects energy and elementals to the Material plane. It would be more like energetic memory than imagination. Like what you would see with Kirlian photography. I would think that a city that existed on both the prime material plane and the border ethereal would be less lost and more living. Meaning that damage to structure might regrow following the ethereal template.

I guess I would say that the astral plane is more like your #1 and #2 and the ethereal is more like your #5. #4 seems to be a blend. I'm am unfamiliar with your #3.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
[MENTION=996]Tony Vargas[/MENTION] [MENTION=6888204]snickersnax[/MENTION]

Long story short, this is for a project I worked on with [MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION] a while back, which I'm using in my own game. It's a "lost" city because it planeshifts through the Inner Planes and Material Plane, not "lost" because it's a ruin – it's actively inhabited by jann genies.

Both of you guys seem to be saying something similar – the Ethereal is a firmament / plane of the immaterial. OK, I get that philosophically. My next question is: What on earth does that look like making it an actual adventuring locale?
 

Cosmologically (and I believe this is traditionally accurate; someone correct me if I'm wrong) the Ethereal Plane is the conduit through which the elemental building blocks of the multiverse travel from the elemental planes to compose the Material Plane (just as the belief from the Material Plane travels through the Astral Plane to compose, or at leastly shape, the Outer Planes). It is composed of proto-matter. That is also why it is the most common location for demiplanes to exist within/attached to. (It might have been the sole location in 2e, but I can't recall).

Keep that in mind when interpreting everything else.

The realm of dreams seems to exist somewhat connected to it. The souls of those not ready to pass on through the Astral Plane to the Outer Planes are drawn into the Etheral Plane and become ghosts. You can use it to travel between the Inner Planes and the Material Plane.

Think of it as not quite fully formed matter, and that's a decent concept.
 

[MENTION=996]My next question is: What on earth does that look like making it an actual adventuring locale?
It doesn't. It's like a Twighlight Zone scene shot on an empty, dark sound-stage, or with fog machines going full blast. The point is the lack of features.

The Feywild & Shadowfell, even if they were blatantly derivative of the WoD's 'Umbra,' were a step up from D&D tradition for that reason. Actually - you could look at any oWoD material you have kicking around on the Mage version of the Umbra, that could give you some ideas...

...OK, one thing you could do is bring whole features into the Ethereal. So you could have a town, or castle, or mountain or something, misty, and surrounded by impenetrable mists - wandering off into them either brings you back at another point or you never return (for purposes of the episode scenario).

...Or, you could emphasize the connection to material planes. Describe the Ethereal as vaguely-seen shapes and images, consistent at first (because you're looking at a particular prime), then when your perspective shifts, everything changes. As you become more attuned to the Ethereal, the images become increasingly jumbled together from many planes. It could be a danger of being Ethereal too long - at first, it's a convenient way to walk through walls and avoid detection, but if you stay too long, it's harder to keep your point of reference to the prime material, if you lose that connection, you might never return to the right prime - if you stay Ethereal for too long, you could lose all perception/connection to the prime material, and just be floating in that formless mist for eternity...
 

E

Elderbrain

Guest
If you want the full "canonical" details on the Ethereal Plane (Border and Deep), the best place to get the answers is a 2e Planescape book called "A Guide To The Ethereal Plane", which fleshes the whole thing out and gives you the low-down on what's of interest there - including the many demiplanes that can be accessed from the Deep, and who lives in or visits the Ethereal.
 
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SkidAce

Legend
Supporter
I use the Border Ethereal as the 1st level of the Astral Plane. It surrounds worlds, but does not connect them, other than to the Shadow Plane and the Faerie Realm.

So functionally, ethereal is sideways, and astral is up.

There is no Deep Ethereal.
 

...OK, one thing you could do is bring whole features into the Ethereal. So you could have a town, or castle, or mountain or something, misty, and surrounded by impenetrable mists - wandering off into them either brings you back at another point or you never return (for purposes of the episode scenario).

Wait a minute, I think I heard of a place like that before from a gypsy woman...
 

Quickleaf

Legend
If you want the full "canonical" details on the Ethereal Plane (Border and Deep), the best place to get the answers is a 2e Planescape book called "A Guide To The Ethereal Plane", which fleshes the whole thing out and gives you the low-down on what's of interest there - including the many demiplanes that can be accessed from the Deep, and who lives in or visits the Ethereal.

Yes, I have A Guide to the Ethereal Plane and have been reading it. Some of it's good material, and because it's by Bruce Cordell of course that are Cthulu-esque/Far Realms-ian references.

However, the picture it provides of the Ethereal's unique identity – that it's where demiplanes reside as "islands in the mist" & where dreams happen – doesn't mesh with the 5e cosmology. In 5e, demiplanes are "free floating" with no special relationship to the Ethereal (unless the DM decides a specific demiplane has a special relationship) and the Astral Plane is called out as the realm of dreams.

Obviously, I don't need to restrict myself to following anything written in a book slavishly, but I like to cover the bases of established lore before going my own way. For example, I could just say "the Ethereal IS the realm of dreams", but in doing so I then need to think further about what I'm using to fill that void in the Astral Plane's identity if I take away its connection to dreams.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
So...what is the Ethereal Plane about?

The Ethereal Plane as I have personally always used in my adventures, which is not necessarily as it was intended, is merely "behind the curtains" of the material plane. A bit like a fourth dimension into which you can "step" and then move around and observe the material plane as if you would observe a house from the outside through its windows.

I've always narrated the existence of the Ethereal Plane as the place where mortal souls move to after death, and occasionally get trapped there (ghosts) instead of moving forward towards the afterlife domains.

If you have seen the movies of the horror series "Insidious", their depiction of "The Further" is very close to how I've always seen the Ethereal Plane.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Long story short, this is for a project I worked on with [MENTION=4937]Celebrim[/MENTION] a while back, which I'm using in my own game. It's a "lost" city because it planeshifts through the Inner Planes and Material Plane, not "lost" because it's a ruin – it's actively inhabited by jann genies.

Honestly I would not even think about involving the Ethereal Plane into this story... I don't know the details, or what else you have in mind, but from the sound of this summary all I get is that the key story element is planshifting i.e. actively moving around the multiverse (not necessarily all of it). Why do you want to use the Ethereal Plane in this story?
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Honestly I would not even think about involving the Ethereal Plane into this story... I don't know the details, or what else you have in mind, but from the sound of this summary all I get is that the key story element is planshifting i.e. actively moving around the multiverse (not necessarily all of it). Why do you want to use the Ethereal Plane in this story?

The TL;DR is that there's an artifact hidden in the city's Border Ethereal "counterpart" or "side" which many factions are on searching for (though nobody knows for certain it's in the Ethereal, or even that it's in the city yet).

My actual answer is more involved...

Here's the former thread.

The Lost City of Ubar (which I'd previously been calling Qaybar until I found the Ubar references in Wolfgang's AQ4 Secrets of the Lamp) ir primarily inhabited by jann, lesser genies comprised of all the elements. In my story, these jann settled in what grew into the city, and they are much more mercantile and amoral than the nomadic jann of the desert (at least that's how I'm depicting them). One of the traits of jann is that they can have Innate Spellcasting – specifically, the ability to cast etherealness 1/day. So they can exist on the Border Ethereal for up to 8 hours a day! I wanted their habitation to reflect that (along with other things like having the ability to create food & water, fly, etc).

I'm really intrigued by what that means for the jann... maybe they are creatures with very active dream lives, or maybe they regard a child's fantasies with far more gravitas than humans, or maybe they forbid the unauthorized casting of illusions, or maybe they are accustomed to navigating in unusual ways & rely on plant life and/or creatures that can see/shift ethereal to block potential ethereal intruders.

I was trying to think of literary examples of a city with another side...maybe the Plateau of Leng from Lovecraft? or whatever that troll market was in Harry Potter?

I'll be honest that I do enjoy taking things that previously were "why on earth would a DM use this?" and making them fun and imminently usable. For example, I did this with the planar renovation project for Bytopia. But that's not my driving reason. If that was all I had, I wouldn't have gone forward with the idea. My driving reason is that somehow it feels right for the jann to have a city with a vibrant presence on the Ethereal Plane....something about the mystery, the mists, the ghosts of the past, the dimensions ethereality adds to thieves & repelling them, the thrill of a chase through the bazaar in both the Material and Ethereal Planes...it just feels right.

The one visual I have for this is the Prince of Persia game from 2008 (see below). In that game, the player uses magical pressure plates to navigate environmental obstacles in magical ways including accessing something akin to the Ethereal Plane.

prince-of-persia-art-10.jpg


Here's one small segment of my writing that's relevant to what I'm doing....

[SECTION]An Ethereal City. Ubar exists as much on its current plane as it does in the Border Ethereal, where the ground level streets are shrouded in thick bluish mists and the minarets glow faintly against a sea of the cosmos. Special guardians and magical pathways known as the Masarat al-Jann are found in the mists. This is the spiritual heart of Ubar, sought after by malevolent forces which assail the city with ether cyclones (coinciding with sandstorms on the Material Plane or elemental storms on the Inner Planes). Jann alchemists and philosophers believe it is in the Border Ethereal where the Seal of Jafar al-Samal was hidden and where lies hope for the transcendence of the jann race into a form equal to other genies.[/SECTION]
 

RoyalEF

Villager
In the end you can make it what you want. The different versions have slip-slided on the cosmology.

I've been playing around with a Cosmological model for my own campaign ideas and I've tried to read through the various pieces to come up with something that is cohesive. It is quite difficult.

The Ethereal is described as a coexisting transitive plane. The transitive nature has been altered between versions--but it was written off as the in-between of planes (Astral, too). What I think has been consistent is that it co-exists. Every point in the inner planes exists in the Ethereal Plane. I think some versions waffled whether the elementals and energy planes were overlapping with the Ethereal. This co-existing space is the Border Ethereal, since it overlaps with all. This is whether stuff happens. A ghost or other ethereal is walking around in the same "space" as you, but you can't see or touch them, because there is a veil separating the dimensions of the ethereal from the dimensions of the Prime Material. Ethereal creatures have limited vision into the other planes. But everything here is there. Remember they aren't peeking through a mirror, they are walking around the castle the same as you, but they have 60' vision before the shroud of the ether fogs the world out.

In early versions Ethereal and Astral were often depicted like Darkvision, black and white or grays. You can do what you like. Perhaps the Ethereal world looks just like the real world in color, only translucent. You see the room you're in, and the next and next. You see the floors above and below for 60'. It might be very disorienting.

(homebrew) One of the glaring omissions in the cosmological model is the absence of the weave. This was added in later versions to explain magic, but it is completely absent in the model. There is a plane explaining why Ooze exists, but no mention of the fabric of magic. I decided for my model, that the veil that separates the planes from each other is The Weave. As a side effect of that decision, an anti-magic field would merge Ethereal creatures (not sustained by a spell) onto the material Plane within an AMF. The veil that separates the two would be removed and there would be no separation between Material and Ethereal. I haven't decided if that means Ethereal become solid or remain incorporeal, but i believe the logic will work to be the latter. Since the veil has this one-way mirror effect, I've decided that the magical nature of the weave is more evident on that side of the veil. So if one did a detect magic in the Ethereal plane, it would be useless.
 

I figure it is something like this: there is a multiverse, and between similar locations in different universes (even if they have different names), there is a "dark space" (must trademark that quick before the physicists get to it) that can't be perceived except by magic. This "dark space" is the Ethereal Plane. The closer you get to a specific location in a given universe, the clearer it gets, but if you get too deep into the "dark space", the conflicting details from the different universes mush together as a mist.

The benefit of this is that if the PC's get lost in the mist outside of FR, you can have them wind up in Greyhawk or Dark Sun.....
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
The four elements − Air, Water, Fire, and Earth − each have their own plane.

Ether is the fifth element, being "spirit", force, that unifies all four elements within it. The other four elements emanate from Ether, and operate within Ether. Similarly, the Ethereal plane emanates and contains within it, the four elemental planes. The world of matter, the Material plane is in the center of the four elemental planes, and is also in the center of the wider Ethereal plane. As the Ethereal plane overlaps the Material plane, it is possible for observers in the Ethereal to see the Material, in a ghostly whispy way.



Where the elemental planes are ‘horizontal’ around the Material, the planes of Feywild and Shadowfell are above and below the Material, respectively, and are likewise within the Ether as well. Both Feywild and Shadow fell are Ethereal, made out of the spiritual forces of Ether.

Positive energy Feywild, and negative void Shadowfell, are both aspects of the Ether − at high and low frequencies of energy, respectively.

Where the Ether overlaps the Material world, both formative Feywild spirits, and dissolutive Shadowfell spirits, can manifest within the Material World, depending on the "frequency" that dominates that particular area of the Material.
 
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