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General The Brilliance of the Original Gygaxian Multiverse

Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

I was looking at the following conversations in these two threads about the multiverse in D&D, and how that certain Card Game's setting can be incorporated into the D&D multiverse, and, for that matter, how the multiple D&D settings that we are seeing now (and have been used in the past) can be reconciled with each other.

All of which made me think about the origins of the D&D multiverse; specifically, why a return to the old Gygaxian multiverse should solve all of the problems. First, a history lesson.

A. The Proto-history of the Gygaxian Multiverse.

D&D's multiverse first started in the campaigns being run by Gary Gygax, but the first print version that I am aware of is Dragon #8 (July, 1977), which gave us the first glimpse of the extra-planar nature of the D&D multiverse. It's the beginning of D&D cosmology that we later see expanded on. But the most important things to note are these brief notes:
For game purposes the DM is to assume the existence of an infinite number of co-existing planes. The normal plane for human-type life forms is the Prime Material Plane.
There are seven inner planes. The first (no. 1) is the Prime Material. The planet Earth and everything on it, all of the solar systems and the whole universe are of the Prime Material. The Fantasy worlds you create belong to the Prime Material.


The reason this is important is that it is, as far as I know, the first written acknowledgement that the Prime Material Plane is legion; it contains not just an infinite set of planes, but a really big infinite set (something something aleph). While most histories of the D&D multiverse then concentrate on the evolution of the various inner and outer planes, it is really this idea of the Prime Material used by Gygax that is so intriguing and worth developing, IMO.

EDIT- also, please see this post by @Alzrius.


B. The Core Rule Rule Books.

The Gygaxian multiverse was then slightly expanded and codified in the AD&D Player's Handbook (1978). Of importance we see the following:
There exist an infinite number of parallel universes and planes of existence in the fantastic "multiverse" of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. ... The Prime Material Plane (or Physical Plane) houses the universe and all of its parallels. It is the plane of Terra, and your campaign, in all likelihood. ... The Ethereal Plane is that which surrounds and touches all of the other Inner Planes, the endless parallel worlds of the universe, without being a part of any of them. (PHB 120).

Later, the Dungeon Master's Guide (1979) was more explicit. The section "TRAVEL IN THE KNOWN PLANES OF EXISTENCE" states the following:
The Known Planes of Existence, as depicted in APPENDIX IV of the PLAYERS HANDBOOK, offer nearly endless possibilities for ADBD play, although some of these new realms will no longer be fantasy as found in swords & sorcery or myth but verge an that of science fiction, horror, or lust about anything else desired. How so? The known planes are a part of the "multiverse". In the Prime Material Plane are countless suns, planets, galaxies, universes. So too there are endless parallel worlds. (DMG 57).

Later, the DMG explicitly states that alternate planes in the Primae Material do exist, and states that the use of other game systems (such as Boot Hill & Gamma World) can be used. There is even the concept that some planes would allow for breathable atmospheres between the "main planet" and the other planets and moons - shades of Spelljammer!

Later on, the DMG makes it explicit, with conversion tables to allow characters to go back and forth between D&D, Boot Hill, and Gamma World, and explicitly states that all possibilities of adventure are contained within the planes of the Prime Material.
Similarly, there are places where adventurers can journey to a land of pure Greek mythology, into the future where the island of King Kong awaits their pleasure, or through the multiverse to different planets, including Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure”, where they hunt sequins in the Carabas while Dirdir and Dirdirmen hunt them. (DMG 112).


C. The Modules & Early Play.

Of course, there was also a rich history of these alternate planes existing in the modules. The go-to example for most people is Q1 (previewed in D3); who can forget that Web Level 4 has teleportation devices to multiple alternate worlds on the prime material plane! The Pharisee - evil elves of Caer Sidi. The Nightmare World of Vald Tolenkov (the proto-Strahd). The last kingdom of the mountain dwarves. And so on.

But they exist in so many modules! Castle Amber has a large proto-plane. EX1 and EX2 (Alice). Simply put, there was a general and acknowledged existence of many planes of existence, of many realities, that were considered standard in earlier D&D. All campaigns, all games, from this Earth to Greyhawk to Star Frontiers to all possible home campaigns exist within the Prime Material plane. And this is in accord with what we know from early play in Gygax's campaign. While the examples are multitudinous, we can look at an example from this website:

Into the dungeon we boldly walked. The others were old hands and had hand drawn maps of several levels. Mapping looked like a lot of fun. Brian Blume taught me how to trail map so I was recording our turnings as Gary called out the distances. We went into a new section of the dungeon and suddenly everyone in the group was tense and I had no idea why.

“You come upon three doors and each one is a bit strange,” Gary described. “The left one has the picture of an island in the middle of the door (it was the Isle of the Ape in playtest). The middle door has the picture of a walrus on a beach. The right one has a picture of an odd looking humanoid with a strange cap and in its hand is a strange crossbow pistol.”

I wasn't about to say anything. The group chose the door with the island image. We walked through and found ourselves at night with an ocean breeze coming from the west. We moved by moon light and decided not to mark our presence with a torch or lantern. Gary perfectly described the hilly area. We came to a village with no one moving about. I couldn't see anything in the window of the large hut I was looking at so I cast my light spell into the hut. BIG MISTAKE! It seems I woke up ten warrior natives. The magic spooked them and they grabbed their spears and ran for the door.
Isle of the Ape, Alice in Wonderland, Boot Hill. The borders of the planes were porous indeed, in 1974.


D. Where did the Infinite Planes of the Prime Material Come From?

There is obviously a general 60s and early 70s gestalt that would seem to permeate the idea of infinite planes. But the idea of infinite, slightly different planes on the prime material, and the specific way that you travel between them using the ethereal plane .... while it borrows a little from all sorts of sources, and while it certainly is in line with the general gestalt, I think you can trace the idea to one very specific source.

June, 1970, was the publication date of Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (the author is, of course, name-checked in Appendix N). The primary conceit of the series is that there are an infinite number of "shadow worlds" that the protagonist, Corwin, and certain others can move through, and each is slightly different than the other. There are an infinite number of alternate histories, of worlds, of possibilities, of creatures. While this may not have been the sole source (and certainly not for the outer planes) it certainly seems that it played on outsize role in crystallizing some of the concepts for the Prime Material.


....and why does this matter?

Sometime between the publication of the Manual of the Planes (1987) and Planescape (1994), we were seeing a seismic shift in the focus of the D&D multiverse. This is my general belief; outer planes ... well, they seem cool, right? Why not futz about with the outer planes? Why not populate them, and make them interesting? Why not try and make them focal points of adventure? They are weird, and exotic, and an interesting design space.

But in my opinion, that missed the original brilliance of the Prime Material. The Prime Material is, quite literally, everything you could ever imagine. It is all worlds. Ever. It is your friend, Bob's, OD&D Monty Haul campaign. It is the d20 modern world. It is the 4e Gamma World. It is the homebrew Rakshasa world. It is Star Frontiers, but with Kender instead of Sathar. It is our planet, right now, as well as both versions of Battlestar Galactica.

It is Greyhawk with a breathable space, a Greyhawk with a not-breathable space, and a Greyhawk in a Spelljammer space. All the campaign settings that have been printed, or can be printed, or can even be imagined, are already within the Prime Material.

So, in a certain sense, there is never a need to worry about how something "fits into" the D&D multiverse.

Because everything is already in the D&D multiverse and always has been. :)
 
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darjr

I crit!
I wonder why the focus changed? Was it maybe because those other systems didn’t do as well as AD&D and D&D? Which forced a product focus on the fantasy aspect of them, thus the more fantasy like outer realms. I wonder if the original intent was that the outer planes were not necessarily D&D fantasy anyway.

Imagine a more Shadowrun like Planescape? Or a more gammaworld like abyss?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
I wonder why the focus changed? Was it maybe because those other systems didn’t do as well as AD&D and D&D? Which forced a product focus on the fantasy aspect of them, thus the more fantasy like outer realms. I wonder if the original intent was that the outer planes were not necessarily D&D fantasy anyway.

Imagine a more Shadowrun like Planescape? Or a more gammaworld like abyss?
Well, I have a theory. It's really about calcification.

In a lot of ways, people are correct when they say that D&D has expanded its purview. There are more options to play more non-human races, for example. I think people like to say that D&D is more than just the old "dungeon crawl" and "hobo-murder" that is used to be.


....but, I think a lot of people truly don't understand how completely weird D&D used to be. It's very hard to explain, but D&D used to be a game where spaceships could happen (Barrier Peaks), where crossovers to the old west (Boot Hill) or science fiction (Gamma World) were explicit parts of the core rules, adventurers would fight King Kong or the Queen of Hearts, and could fly to the moon on a roc.

Whereas today, you get a lot of "I don't want any {blank} in my fantasy." (Insert "science fiction" or "comedy" or "genre bending"). D&D has expanded to include more in fantasy, but has drastically curtailed alternate planes, and travel.

So, to get even a little weird, that design space has gone to the outer planes. If you think about it, under the Prime Material paradigm, anything you can imagine, no matter how weird (yes, even the Modrons or Sigil) that people have made in the outer planes could have been designed as an alternate plane in the prime material.

I really think that we've lost one of our greatest assets in D&D through lack of use. It's still there, we just have forgotten about it. And it also easily answers most of the "how if the multiverse" designed questions. They don't matter if we concentrate on the infinities of the Prime Material.
 

Dausuul

Legend
I think the focus moved away from the Gygaxian multiverse because the Gygaxian multiverse, while cool in concept, has very little functional value for somebody running an actual game of D&D.

The multiverse may contain my game and my friend's game and a plane where there is breathable air between planets and a plane where there isn't. But I only need the bits that support my game. If the needs of my game require breathable air between planets, then breathable air there will be, and the existence of an alternative reality where planets are separated by vacuum doesn't affect my game in any way. The number of cases where somebody wants to build a campaign around the differences between parallel universes is very small, and those folks can always homebrew it.

Contrast the Inner and Outer Planes: They expand the multiverse in a definite and useful way. They can serve as settings for adventures, origins for fiends and celestials, and targets for high-level spells like astral projection. This is far more useful to a DM in need of raw material than saying "Everything exists somewhere and anything is possible."
 

darjr

I crit!
Huh. I do think your right. But also I think it sounds like a opportunity. With so many gamers active now I’m sure there is fan crossover for exactly some of what your talking about.
 

darjr

I crit!
I think there is another perspective that has been lost. Early on there was an understanding that all games were portable. I.E. you could bring your character from one game and show up at another. Bring them to a tournament. It’s evident in the concerns over Monty Haul campaigns polluting others games with characters overly rewarded in others campaigns.

I really miss that idea. I think the multiverse, in part, grew out of that idea but in a way that was unstated because it was so baked in that nobody ever thought it needed being said.

I think there are a lot of things like that from the early days that have been lost precisely because word of mouth was so heavily leaned upon and those lost things were just accepted and nobody thought to write them down.

It’s part of the reason I like posts and threads like this one.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
I think the focus moved away from the Gygaxian multiverse because the Gygaxian multiverse, while cool in concept, has very little functional value for somebody running an actual game of D&D.

The multiverse may contain my game and my friend's game and a plane where there is breathable air between planets and a plane where there isn't. But I only need the bits that support my game. If the needs of my game require breathable air between planets, then breathable air there will be, and the existence of an alternative reality where planets are separated by vacuum doesn't affect my game in any way. The number of cases where somebody wants to build a campaign around the differences between parallel universes is very small, and those folks can always homebrew it.

Contrast the Inner and Outer Planes: They expand the multiverse in a definite and useful way. They can serve as settings for adventures, origins for fiends and celestials, and targets for high-level spells like astral projection. This is far more useful to a DM in need of raw material than saying "Everything exists somewhere and anything is possible."
See, that's where I disagree.

The inner and outer planes are a forced expansion. They don't .... really .... add very much. Yes, there is a vocal contingent of Planescape fans, but the details about the outer planes did not expand the game so much as it constricted it.

You ask what the expanded Prime Material did? It did everything! And in a deliberately useful way. Instead of the crabbed and useless outer planes, you had an infinite possibility of planes. You had the explicity recognition that PCs would go from campaign to campaign (as @darjr just noted). You had campaigns using different mechanics from different genres. You had the regular inclusion in published materials from the 70s and early 80s.

Now? You don't have that. We have sacrificed actual diversity for monotony, and infinite possibilities for arguments about the shape of outer planes (is it a wheel, or a tree?).

Eh, to each their own. :)
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Part of it too is that 'canon' has become the watchword of the day. For many people, they want all of their fiction to "make sense" in a long-lasting, point A to point B narrative. If there's a story happening and something is introduced that seems counter to the "rules" that have been set up in that story... it can't just be accepted out of hand, people want an explanation of WHY this "rule" was broken. There has to be a story reason so that the entire narrative remains sensical.

And people will argue and argue and argue about everything in order to try and put all these special things into narratives so that they make sense. Or they will argue about why things have to be excluded in order for the narratives, the 'canon' to remain making sense. "Dragonborn can't be in Greyhawk! They're not canon!" "Oh yeah? Well, what if..." and the argument continues on.

People just aren't willing to accept that all of our stories are just that... OUR stories. Instead, they expect that our stories are a PART of some grand tapestry of ONE interconnected story. A story that needs to be updated. A story that have to maintain a logic and purpose. And most importantly, a story that the person actually LIKES, because if they don't like the way someone else has messed with the story, then the person feels betrayed. Their time spent caring about and working out the 'canon' has been stomped upon.

Only problem is... the rest of us just don't care. And we are no longer beholden to maintain a 'canon' of any type if that 'canon' doesn't help us just play the game. So yeah, we're going to just stomp away and there's nothing you can do about it.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
The inner and outer planes are a forced expansion. They don't .... really .... add very much. Yes, there is a vocal contingent of Planescape fans, but the details about the outer planes did not expand the game so much as it constricted it.
I don't think that's true either. Quite honestly... the outer planes DO give us something for our games-- they give us Heaven and Hell.

If we have angels and demons, faeries and devils, all of them having influence and power over our game world in the Prime Plane... if they are in fact "higher powers" than us mere mortals... it helps us to have them actually be from somewhere higher (or lower) than our world. That's what the Outer Planes are.

Now could it be said that our angels and demons just come from another "world in the Prime plane"? Yeah, I guess. But that seems kinda lame if you ask me. It tells me that these "gods" that our clerics are praying to are just hanging out in another alternate Prime plane equivalent to ours just like mortals from Boot Hill. Is that what we really want? The divine worlds of the gods in our game to be no different than every Faerun ever run? I certainly wouldn't. It sure takes the shine of them supposedly being "gods". And I doubt there's many others who would go along with that either.

The outer planes are our Heaven and Hell. And I know for me personally... I want them directly connected to my world.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
Part of it too is that 'canon' has become the watchword of the day. For many people, they want all of their fiction to "make sense" in a long-lasting, point A to point B narrative.
The idea of "canon" in a TTRPG is .... well, that seems kind of weird to me.

Even weirder when you remember that, historically, it has an infinite number of parallel planes with their own histories, differences, and so on. Not only is there a Greyhawk with Dragonborn, there is a Greyhawk in which all there is are Dragonborn.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
The idea of "canon" in a TTRPG is .... well, that seems kind of weird to me.

Even weirder when you remember that, historically, it has an infinite number of parallel planes with their own histories, differences, and so on. Not only is there a Greyhawk with Dragonborn, there is a Greyhawk in which all there is are Dragonborn.
Heh... trying telling that to some of the others here on ENWorld. ;)
 

Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
I don't think that's true either. Quite honestly... the outer planes DO give us something for our games-- they give us Heaven and Hell.
I don't think I fully explained my point well enough.

The amount that has been gained from detailing "heaven and hell" (aka the outer planes) since, oh, 1980 (the publication date of Deities and Demigods and Q1) has been pretty minuscule.

Especially compared to the loss; we have spent so much time creating "worlds" for the outer planes that aren't necessary, given that these "worlds" could exist as places in the Prime Material plane to the extent we want something "cool" and "different." There is a place where certain deities reside and/or where devils, demons, and other things live. Okay! We've known that since at least 1977. :)

The more detail they give to Elysium, or Olympus, the less interesting it became. Or, to use your phrasing- the more they added, the more people argued over what was canon for that, instead of just creating more cool stuff.
 
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Mort

Adventurer
Supporter
I really think that we've lost one of our greatest assets in D&D through lack of use. It's still there, we just have forgotten about it. And it also easily answers most of the "how if the multiverse" designed questions. They don't matter if we concentrate on the infinities of the Prime Material.
I wonder if we've lost it or if people are just hesitant to mix systems/genres like they used to (or at least my groups used to). One of my fondest memories was of a campaign where I transitioned a group from Heroes Unlimited to D&D (2e) and back seamlessly several times - superheroes in D&D in Greyhawk was a fun/hilarious concept. I wonder if people would be as ready to accept such jumps today (even though the actual # of types of games is hugely more robust/available).

I've actually heard people say that they don't like gaming so much as they like 5e D&D (a statement that blew my mind).

I wonder if that's part of it really. The planes, weird as they are, are "still D&D" (I put that in quotes because I'm not stating as fact that they are, but that they are presented as such) Whereas throwing stuff in from other sources may get the dreaded "not D&D" label that some people seem so hesitant to embrace. Granted, that doesn't really apply jumping between "D&D worlds" but then I haven't actually seen much hesitation in doing THAT.

Sorry, some rambling thoughts hopefully somewhere near on topic.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
I don't think I fully explained my point well enough.

The amount that has been gained from detailing "heaven and hell" (aka the outer planes) since, oh, 1980 (the publication date of Deities and Demigods and Q1) has been pretty minuscule.

Especially compared to the loss; we have spent so much time creating "worlds" for the outer planes that aren't necessary, given that these "worlds" could exist as places in the Prime Material plane to the extent we want something "cool" and "different." There is a place where certain deities reside and/or where devils, demons, and other things live. Okay! We've known that since at least 1977. :)

The more detail they give to Elysium, or Olympus, the less interesting it became. Or, to use your phrasing- the more they added, the more people argued over what was canon for that, instead of just creating more cool stuff.
Ah, gotcha! Now I understand what you meant.

It does make me waver though and I can't decide if I agree with your point or not. On the one hand, yes, giving details about a place does "lock it it" to a certain extent and thus potentially reduces its usefulness (because we no longer have an open tableau on which to paint our own picture.) But on the other... I don't know if any of the elemental or outer planes have really been that fleshed out to make me think there's no sandbox space remaining? I mean, they can tell me that Stygia, the Fifth Plane of Hell, is a frozen-over bottomless ocean... but its not like we have a world map of the plane with all the locations pinpointed (especially with all the planes being interpreted as "infinite" anyways.) Does the fact that the fifth of nine Hells has been identified as "the icy water one" really constrain me? Did I need all nine to be completely blank slates? I dunno. I happen to be one of those people who thinks that having constraints does in fact cater to creativity-- that focusing my ideas can make them better. So I don't think I need to have all 16 outer planes (plus the hundreds of sub-planes) completely devoid of info so that I'm free to make up whatever I want. That doesn't really feel beneficial to me personally.
 
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atanakar

Hero
There was definitely a weird-pulp-horror-sci-fantasy mash up going on at the beginning of D&D. Temple of The Frog (DA2) is the best exemple of that. Vance's Dying Earth (1950-1966 novels) and others must have been a great influence. In those days mixing genres was very common.

I didn't have any problems with my players when we did DA2 with 5e in 2018. They liked to weird stuff going on. On the other hand when I tried to make them play Numenera, which is an hommage to Vance and Wolfe, some of the players couldn't wrap their heads around it and refused. Now, I presented an Urban Arcana idea set in Paris 1989 (Belle Epoque) using Modern AGE (with gate jumping to different worlds and alternate Earths) and the same player agreed to play. Go figure!!! I'm happy!
 

Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
Ah, gotcha! Now I understand what you meant.

It does make me waver though and I can't decide if I agree with your point or not. On the one hand, yes, giving details about a place does "lock it it" to a certain extent and thus potentially reduces its usefulness (because we no longer have an open tableau on which to paint our own picture.) But on the other... I don't know if any of the elemental or outer planes have really been that fleshed out to make me think there's no sandbox space remaining? I mean, they can tell me that Stygia, the Fifth Plane of Hell, is a frozen-over bottomless ocean... but its not like we have a world map of the plane with all the locations pinpointed (especially with all the planes being interpreted as "infinite" anyways. Does the fact that the fifth of nine Hells has been identified as "the icy water one" really constrain me? Did I need all nine to be completely blank slates? I dunno. I happen to be one of those people who thinks that having constraints does in fact cater to creativity-- that focusing my ideas can make them better. So I don't think I need to have all 16 outer planes (plus the hundreds of sub-planes) completely devoid of info so that I'm free to make up whatever I want. That doesn't really feel beneficial to me personally.
So this is sort of what I am trying to get to with my post- this is the CRUX of it.

If you accept the pre-Manual of the Planes (really, the 70s-80s "vibe") of the multiple parallel planes in the Prime Material, you already have all of the design space. You have not just all the campaign settings, and all the homebrew setting, and all the genres, but all permutations.

In other words, an outer plane that is a "frozen-over bottomless ocean" isn't really interesting not just because it's uninteresting, but also because there are already an infinite number of worlds within the PMP that are "frozen-over bottomless oceans." Just like when you visited Q1, there were gates to worlds, including a proto-Ravenloft, and a world of endless ocean rules by the evil ocean dwellers.

The issue with the outer planes is that they are static. Once the design focus shifted from the infinite variety of weirdness that is all possibilites of the PMP, you are stuck with the cosmology of the outer planes. That means that the design space is forever getting narrowed by prior definitions (and by "canon").

The little bit of weirdness you get from the outer planes came by sacrificing an infinite amount of design space that remains unused. :(
 

dave2008

Legend
And it also easily answers most of the "how if the multiverse" designed questions. They don't matter if we concentrate on the infinities of the Prime Material.
However, they do matter if we want to concentrate outside the Prime. Personally, I like a combination where some things are explained by the many universes of the Prime and other things are explained by things outside the Prime.

One issue with stuffing all the settings in the Prime is the part you quoted about the Ethereal plane touch the Prime and inner planes. If all the settings are in the Prime, it should be fairly simple to travel through the Ether to get to any alternate universe (setting) in the Prime. But that is apparantly not the case (MtG, Eberron, & Athas are all difficult to get to).
 

Dausuul

Legend
The little bit of weirdness you get from the outer planes came by sacrificing an infinite amount of design space that remains unused. :(
This is what makes absolutely zero sense to me. All of that design space is still there. As DM, you can do anything you want with your setting. If you want parallel worlds, you've got parallel worlds. If you want your own cosmology, you can build it. The intro to the 5E DMG is all about creating your own world.

If you feel that you have to hew strictly to what's in the books, in spite of the books explicitly telling you you don't... that's on you.

What the planar books do is provide raw materials for DMs who don't want to build everything from scratch every time. I don't see why those DMs should be deprived of that material.
 


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