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D&D 5E The D&D Multiverse: The Weird Go Pro (Part 1)

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

I have been thinking about the speculation for upcoming campaign settings, and specifically about the desire for a Planscape, or a Spelljammer, or a Planjammer type of setting to provide some type of interstitial connection between the various settings- the meta setting to connect them all.

But why re-invent the wheel? We have a perfect solution, already, to allow parties to move between settings weird and wonderful. I think it is time for D&D to go back to the roots of the D&D multiverse. First, a history lesson.

A. The Proto-history of the D&D 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 in The Strategic Review, vol. 2, no. 1 (February 1976) which had a planar arrangement along with the depictions of alignments (it included Heaven, Paradise, Elysium, Nirvana, Limbo, Hell, Hades, and the Abyss). The next evolution that I am aware of was in Dragon #8 (July 1977), which gave us the first real exploration of the extra-planar nature of the D&D multiverse. It's the beginning of D&D cosmology that we later see expanded on (aka, the Great Wheel). But the most important thing to note in terms of the multiverse are these brief notes in the article:

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 early sketch of the multiverse 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 and the infinite number of realities used by Gygax that is so intriguing and worth developing further in 5e, IMO.


B. The AD&D Rule Books Expand on the Multiverse.

The Gygaxian multiverse was then slightly expanded and codified in the AD&D Player's Handbook (1978). Of importance we see the following in the PHB:
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 AD&D play, although some of these new realms will no longer be fantasy as found in swords & sorcery or myth but verge on that of science fiction, horror, or just 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 Prime Material do exist, and states that other game systems that aren't fantasy (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 - an early premonition 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 (the Alice Adventures) are also funhouse mirror planes. 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 as recounted by Jim Ward:

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. Greyhawk (the homes setting of Gygax) was on Oerth, and famously had portals to other settings, such as Yarth (magic between Earth and Oerth), Aerth, and Uerth (magic is very weak). (Source- Polyhedron '84 interview).


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

There is obviously a general 60s and early 70s gestalt that permeates 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 and the series 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 the ability to travel between these different parts of the Prime Material plane through the ethereal (the "shadow").


....and why does this matter?

Sometime between the publication of the Manual of the Planes (1987) and Planescape (1994), we began to see 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. I would further say that the primary issue was the publication of the Manual of the Planes in 1987; prior to this publication, travel between parallel planes in the Prime Material was unexceptional- just something something portal, while travel to the outer planes was exceptional. But the focus and interest in D&D cosmology shifted to those outer planes.

In my opinion, this shift 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 Warlocks in Battletechs fighting amongst a thousand dying suns, and a comedic Flintstone setting. As weird as a singular Planescape might be, nothing can be as weird as ... everything.

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. And a focus on this, on the sheer weirdness and variety of the D&D multiverse, allows for D&D to stay weird. In the next post I write, I will discuss, a little more, about the foundational weirdness of D&D and why we should want to continue that with 5e.


Note- I borrowed portions of this from a prior post I wrote so that I can a followup post about D&D essential weirdness. Hope you enjoy!
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Just a quick check- any interest in expanding this to Part 2 (why to bring this to 5e, and why it may not be needed)?
I'd be interested, though I have no opinion on whether it'd get more discussion. Possibly the "why it may not be needed" part will be a conversation seed.
 




Cadence

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

There is obviously a general 60s and early 70s gestalt that permeates 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 and the series 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 the ability to travel between these different parts of the Prime Material plane through the ethereal (the "shadow").

I'm really curious to hear @Doug McCrae 's Appendix N and beyond take on the origin of the infinite prime material planes.

The first one I read back in the 70s that seemed to hint at a bunch of worlds was C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew (written in 55). A bunch of ponds in a sedate in-between plane isn't quite the ethereal plane though.
 

Rogerd1

Explorer
DC comic's Higher planes are very similar to DnD ones such that if you replace the Speed Force with Astral plane you would not be far off.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
I'm really curious to hear @Doug McCrae 's Appendix N and beyond take on the origin of the infinite prime material planes.

In my opinion, its origins are to be found in the work of a large number of different authors from the mid-30s to the mid-70s writing in the alternate history science fiction genre, or influenced by it. Several of them are mentioned in Appendix N – Stanley Weinbaum, L Sprague De Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Jack Vance.

According to John Clute and Peter Nicholls, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 2e (1995) "Murray Leinster introduced the idea of alternate worlds to genre SF in Sidewise in Time (1934)". Leinster's alternate worlds come into being as a result of branching decision points in history. They are the infinite number of "roads we do not take." Many other science fiction writers were influenced directly or indirectly by Leinster. From science fiction, the concept made its way into fantasy. EoSF "Parallel Worlds" entry:

Modern uses of the theme [parallel worlds] usually imagine an infinite number of parallel worlds extending in a manifold which contains all possible Earthly histories and perhaps all possible physical universes. The notion that the perceived Universe is simply one single aspect of such a "multiverse" has been lent credence by the "many-worlds interpretation" of the enigmas of quantum mechanics… Modern fantasy novels – including most of those in the intermediate science-fantasy category – sometimes draw upon the legacy of sf recomplication in order to invigorate their use of parallel worlds. Notable examples include Roger Zelazny's Amber series and Michael Moorcock's many Sword-and-Sorcery series, which are all bound together (with some sf novels) within a hypothetical multiverse.​

Examples of Infinite Parallel Worlds

The following excerpts provide evidence that a large number of creators used the idea of infinite parallel worlds (including alternate histories).

Murray Leinster, "Sidewise in Time" in Astounding Stories (June 1934)
There is more than one future we can encounter, and with more or less absence of deliberation we choose among them. But the futures we fail to encounter, upon the roads we do not take, are just as real as the landmarks upon those roads… There are an indefinite number of possible futures, any one of which we would encounter if we took the proper 'forks' in time… As there must be any number of futures, there must have been any number of pasts besides those written down in our histories… and it would follow that there are any number of what you might call 'presents.'

Stanley Weinbaum, "The Worlds of If" in Wonder Stories (August 1935)
The worlds of "if," the weird, unreal worlds that existed beside reality, neither past nor future, but contemporary, yet extemporal. Somewhere among their ghostly infinities existed one that represented the world that would have been had I made the liner.

Stanley Weinbaum, "The Circle of Zero" in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1936)
Through all the multifold eternities of the past-future cycle you can't have been always Jack Anders, securities salesman. There will be fragmentary memories, recollections of times when your personality was partially existent, when the Laws of Chance had assembled a being who was not quite Jack Anders, in some period of the infinite worlds that must have risen and died in the span of eternities.

CL Moore, "Greater Than Gods" in Astounding Science Fiction (July 1939)
Before time has caught up with it, while our choice at the crossroads is still unmade, an infinite number of possible futures must exist as it were in suspension, waiting for us in some unimaginable, dimensionless infinity.

L Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt, "The Roaring Trumpet" in Unknown Fantasy Fiction (May 1940)
The world we live in is composed of impressions received through the senses. But there is an infinity of possible worlds, and if the senses can be attuned to receive a different series of impressions, we should infallibly find ourselves living in a different world.

These infinite other worlds… exist in a logical but not in an empirical sense.

Poul Anderson, "Three Hearts and Three Lions" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (September 1953)
Wave mechanics admits the possibility of one other entire universe coexisting with ours, and the lecturer said it was not hard to write the equations for an infinity of such parallel worlds, each with its own laws of nature. In which case – somewhere in the boundlessness of reality, anything you can imagine must actually exist!

He was quite sure now that the old professor had been right… in speculating about multiple infinities of coexistent universes, each with its own laws of nature. This was the one in which Carolingian legend happened to be true, in which magic (mental control of inanimate matter?) was real... And it was possible to go from one cosmos to another; it must have been done in the past, and accounts of such journeys had been written down as myth and romance on his Earth. But there was more to it than that. Being all embedded in the same ultimate reality, these universes seemed to share a strangely parallel course of events.

Robert Sheckley, "The Store of the Worlds" (1958)
From the moment this battered Earth was born out of the sun's fiery womb, it cast off its alternate probability-worlds. Worlds without end, emanating from events large and small… Millions, billions of Earths! An infinity of Earths! And your mind, liberated by me, will be able to select any of these worlds, and to live upon it for a while.

Strange Tales #133 (June 1965)
Strange Tales #133-1.png
Strange Tales #133-2.png


Strange Tales #148 (September 1966)
Strange Tales #148.png


Strange Tales #162 (November 1967)
Strange Tales #162.png


Michael Moorcock, Stormbringer (1965)
Who can know why the Cosmic Balance exists, why Fate exists and the Lords of the Higher Worlds? Why there must always be a champion to fight such battles? There seems to be an infinity of space and time and possibilities. There may be an infinite number of beings, one above the other, who see the final purpose, though, in infinity, there can be no final purpose.

Michael Moorcock, The King of the Swords (1971)
"You mean this Kernow lies in my future?"
"In one future, probably not yours. The future of a corresponding plane, perhaps. There are doubtless other futures where the Vadhagh have proliferated and the Mabden died out. The multiverse contains, after all, an infinity of possibilities."

Michael Moorcock, Count Brass (1973)
There are an infinity of dimensions, of this Earth alone.

Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber (1970)
Of Shadow I have this to say: there is Shadow and there is Substance, and this is the root of all things. Of Substance, there is only Amber, the real city, upon the real Earth, which contains everything. Of Shadow, there is an infinitude of things. Every possibility exists somewhere as a Shadow of the real. Amber, by its very existence, has cast such in all directions. And what may one say of it beyond? Shadow extends from Amber to Chaos, and all things are possible within it.

Roger Zelazny, The Guns of Avalon (1972)
I was walking in Shadow, seeking a place, a very special place. It had been destroyed once, but I had the power to re-create it, for Amber casts an infinity of shadows. A child of Amber may walk among them, and such was my heritage. You may call them parallel worlds if you wish, alternate universes if you would, the products of a deranged mind if you care to. I call them shadows, as do all who possess the power to walk among them. We select a possibility and we walk until we reach it. So, in a sense, we create it.

Robert Silverberg, "Trips" (1973)
Time forks, again and again and again. New universes split off at each instant of decision. Left turn, right turn, honk your horn, jump the traffic light, hit your gas, hit your brake, every action spawns whole galaxies of possibility. We move through a soup of infinities.

There's an infinity of worlds… side by side, worlds in which all possible variations of every possible event take place.

Jack Vance, "Rumfuddle" (1973)
I can tune the machine very finely. I can code accurately for the 'Home' class of worlds, and as closely as necessary approximate a particular world-state. But at each setting, no matter how fine the tuning, we encounter an infinite number of worlds. In practice, inaccuracies in the machine, back-lash, the gross size of electrons, the very difference between one electron and another, make it difficult to tune with absolute precision. So even if we tuned exactly to the 'Home' class, the probability of opening into your particular Home is one in an infinite number: in short, negligible.
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
This post considers the possible sources for astral projection, and the Astral and Ethereal Planes in early D&D.

Astral projection first appears in D&D Book IV Greyhawk (1975): "Astral Spell: A spell which allows the user to send his astral form, undetectable to all but others on the astral plane, from his body to other places… The magic-user may employ spells while in his astral body." Movement in astral form is very rapid. The version of Astral Spell in the AD&D 1e PHB (1978) allows travel to the Outer Planes.

D&D's Astral and Ethereal Planes are described by @Snarf Zagyg in the original post.

Theosophy and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn

These ideas derive indirectly from late 19th century esoteric religions – Theosophy and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Jon Peterson, Playing at the World (2012):

The conception of planes entered the twentieth-century primarily through the evangelism of Theosophists: Blavatsky writes extensively about planes in The Secret Doctrine, for example, repeatedly invoking "higher planes" and even alluding to the "planes of the etheric (or Astral) Force." For the theosophic distinction between the "spirit-plane" and "earth-plane," they relied on a characteristic hodge-podge of sources, including Neoplatonist and Buddhist sources. The direct constructions "Astral plane" and "etheric plane" also appear in The Secret Doctrine. By the advent of Doctor Strange, the construction "ethereal" replaced "etheric."​

From the entry "Imagination" in Wouter Hanegraaff, Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism (2005):

The stage was set for the concept, central to all forms of 19th and 20th-century occultism, of a "magical plane" parallel to the every-day world.​
A central role in this regard was played by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of whose most important practices focused on attaining "spirit vision" by means of "astral projection". According to the Golden Dawn teachings, specific occult and ritual techniques make it possible to project one's spirit out of the "sphere of sensation" and into the "astral plane" of the reified imagination; and essentially the same approach has become a standard element of occultist magic in the 20th century.​

Lin Carter

Lin Carter's World's End series is cited in Appendix N. His non-Appendix N novel Under the Green Star (1972) features astral projection, and makes a Theosophic distinction between the "astral body" and the "etheric body":

The ancient Eastern science called eckankar – soul-travel, the projection of the so-called "astral body" – fascinated me.​
His [Man's] nature is sevenfold: the animal flesh, the material body itself; the vitalizing life-force that animates that flesh; the ego that is the conscious "I" of every man; the memory, that contains a record of all that each man has seen and felt and known: the astral body, the vehicle of the higher soul-levels on the second plane; the etheric body, that is the chalice contained within the astral vehicle; and, seventh and last, the immortal soul itself, that is the precious flame within the chalice.​

Carter's Enchantress at World's End (1975) describes a spiritual realm resembling D&D's Astral Plane: "At death, the Astral counterpart of the physical body departs for a higher plane of being."

Doctor Strange

The magician Doctor Strange appears in comics published by Marvel from 1963 onwards. He frequently uses the power of astral projection. His disembodied spirit is usually described as "ectoplasmic", "ethereal", or "astral." This ability is commonly used for rapid travel or stealth.

The characters in Doctor Strange comics often travel between dimensions. This is mostly undertaken in physical form but sometimes an astral form is used, for example when Doctor Strange travels to Nightmare's Dream Dimension.

Doctor Strange's "ethereal self" travels to the Dream Dimension. Strange Tales #116 (January 1964):
Strange Tales #116.png


Doctor Strange is invisible in his "unphysical ectoplasmic form". Strange Tales #120 (May 1964):
Strange Tales #120.png


Doctor Strange's "ectoplasmic form" can “reach any spot in seconds." Strange Tales #124 (September 1964):
Strange Tales #124.png


Doctor Strange and Baron Mordo travel rapidly round the globe in their ectoplasmic forms while battling one another using offensive and defensive spells. Strange Tales #125 (October 1964):
Strange Tales #125.png


Doctor Strange travels between dimensions in "ethereal form". Strange Tales #133 (June 1965):
Strange Tales #133-3.png


The Ancient One uses his "spirit form" to travel between dimensions. Strange Tales #142 (March 1966):
Strange Tales #142.png


Doctor Strange casts the spell "Flames of the Faltine" while in his "astral self". Doctor Strange #176 (January 1969):
Doctor Strange #176.png


Doctor Strange uses his "astral body" to travel to the Dream Dimension. Doctor Strange #181 (July 1969):
Doctor Strange #181-1.png


Clea summons aid from the "Astral Plane". Marvel Premiere #7 (March 1973):
Marvel Premiere #7.png


Demons attack Doctor Strange thru "astral doors" and "ethereal doorways". Marvel Premiere #8 (May 1973):
Marvel Premiere #8-1.png
Marvel Premiere #8-2.png
 
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Doug McCrae

Legend
This post considers possible sources for some other aspects of the planes and planar travel in early D&D – the multiverse, the Prime Material Plane, and the silver cord.

The Multiverse

The term "multiverse", used for the first time in D&D in the AD&D 1e PHB (1978), has an obvious source – Michael Moorcock. He first used the word in The Sundered Worlds (1963):

Many who have probed the perimeter of space outside the galaxy have mentioned that they have sensed something else, something not in keeping with any recognised natural laws. Others have had the illusion of sensing suns and worlds within the galaxy - where suns and worlds just can't be! This has given rise to the theory of the "multiverse", the multidimensional universe containing dozens of different universes, separated from each other by unknown dimensions.

The multiverse is finite. Vast as it is, it has limitations. And beyond those limitations exist – other realities, perhaps.

The multiverse, agitated, swirled and leapt and delighted them with its flourish of colour and variety. All possibilities existed there.​

Its meaning later changed in Moorcock's writing to encompass an infinite number of universes. The Sleeping Sorceress (1971):

Elric's mind could hardly contain the significance of what he had heard. It suggested that the universe – or the multiverse, as Myshella had named it – was divided into infinite layers of existence… He was tempted to consider the idea of forgetting Theleb K'aarna, Myshella, Tanelorn and the rest and devote himself to the exploration of all these infinite worlds.​

The Prime Material Plane

The "Prime" in Prime Material Plane likely derives from L Sprague De Camp, The Fallible Fiend (1973):

On the first day of the Month of the Crow, in the fifth year of King Tonio of Xylar (according to the Novarian calendar) I learnt that I had been drafted for a year's service on the Prime Plane, as those who dwell there vaingloriously call it. They refer to our plane as the Twelfth, whereas from our point of view, ours is the Prime Plane and theirs, the Twelfth.​

The Silver Cord

In D&D this first appears in D&D Book VI Eldritch Wizardry (1976) as a feature of the psionic ability, Astral Projection. "The astral body is attached to the physical body by a silver cord. If this cord is broken, then the body and the astral body are dead."

The "silver cord" is surprisingly rare in Appendix N fiction. The only example I could find is Robert E Howard, "The People of the Black Circle" in Weird Tales (September 1934):

Wizards have drawn my soul through the wind-blown darkness. They seek to sap the silver cord that binds me to my dying body… They drew my soul out of my body and far away, into a stone room. There they strove to break the silver cord of life, and thrust my soul into the body of a foul night-weird their sorcery summoned up from hell.​

Another cord, not silver but with the same function, is mentioned in Robert Sheckley's alternate world short story, The Store of the Worlds (1958):

I'm trying to find a way of making the transition permanent. So far I haven't been able to loosen the cord that binds a man to his own Earth – and pulls him back to it. Not even the great mystics could cut that cord, except with death.​
 

Baba

Explorer
The Silver Cord

In D&D this first appears in D&D Book VI Eldritch Wizardry (1976) as a feature of the psionic ability, Astral Projection. "The astral body is attached to the physical body by a silver cord. If this cord is broken, then the body and the astral body are dead."

The "silver cord" is surprisingly rare in Appendix N fiction. The only example I could find is Robert E Howard, "The People of the Black Circle" in Weird Tales (September 1934):

Wizards have drawn my soul through the wind-blown darkness. They seek to sap the silver cord that binds me to my dying body… They drew my soul out of my body and far away, into a stone room. There they strove to break the silver cord of life, and thrust my soul into the body of a foul night-weird their sorcery summoned up from hell.​

Another cord, not silver but with the same function, is mentioned in Robert Sheckley's alternate world short story, The Store of the Worlds (1958):

I'm trying to find a way of making the transition permanent. So far I haven't been able to loosen the cord that binds a man to his own Earth – and pulls him back to it. Not even the great mystics could cut that cord, except with death.​
Pure speculation on my part, but I wonder if these could in turn have been inspired by divers with airhoses.

They too would enter a strange, alien world, tethered to their home only by a cord, and if that cord was broken, they would be lost.
 


jgsugden

Legend
The core 'pickle' they ran into was that while there were an infinite number of 'Prime' worlds, the intent was that there would be one set of the rest of the planes. There would be one Dis, one Happy Hunting Grounds, one Astral, and one Ethereal.

This creates conflict when the PCs visit these realms and do something significant, such as kill Dispater. As the adventures began to involve more interplanar aspects, the conflicts created caused problem - so attention was pushed away from the Outer Planes.

However, rather than fight against or flee from that current, I steer into it.

My suggestion for DMs:

1.) Don't just use the Cosmology that is provided to you in the books. Take inspiration from it, but make it your own. Why? Because them it is still mysterious to the player ans PCs when they go explore them. That sense of the unexpected and wonder give these types of adventures a distinct advantage.

2.) Use your cosmology for all of your settings.

I have a simplified Cosmology. There is one Heaven, one Hell, and one Elemental plane, for example. In Hell, the center is Nessus, which is surrounded by 7 Regions controlled by Archfiends, and then those 7 are surrounded by Avernus, the battle ground of the Blood War, which has one technical ruler, but has dozens of Generals trying to earn that title of Archfiend. Surrounding that are countless Demonic Realms where demons fight amongst themselves and try to push their armies to the Heart of Nessus to win the Blood War.

These outer planes remain the same whether I am using my version of Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, my homebrew, Krynn, or any other setting. The perceptions of the people on the Prime may differ from the reality, but if they visit the outer planes, they get my one and only Outer Plane experience.

This allows you to develop the massive details of the Outer Planes over your decades of DMing and create something that has depth and soul.

3.) Have each Prime exist in a separate plane, and have a separate Shadowfell (with Ravenloft Domains) and Feywild (with Domains of Delight) specific to that Prime.

This will give your games distinction, depth and a life over a long period.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
This post considers possible sources for some other aspects of the planes and planar travel in early D&D – the multiverse, the Prime Material Plane, and the silver cord... The "silver cord" is surprisingly rare in Appendix N fiction.
Another possible source for the silver cord are popular books about the occult such as Dennis Wheatley, The Devil and All His Works (1971):

Finally he [the magician] conjures up an apparition of himself standing in front of himself. Actually this is what the Egyptians would have called his ka, his etheric double, which he has forced out of his body. His spirit then leaves his body and enters the ka, enabling it to ascend to the astral planes, but still attached to his physical body by what is called the 'silver cord', a transparent link which keeps it alive and enables him to return to it.

Occultists also hold that, in deep sleep, our spirits leave our bodies and, remaining attached to them only by what is termed the 'silver cord', ascend to the astral planes where they can communicate with other spirits whose bodies are also asleep, and those of others not in incarnation.​
 

Casimir Liber

Adventurer
Are we including all planes on this thread? If so, one thing I (slightly) miss are all the quasi- and para-elemental planes, though the latter are seemingly recently included (aaaaand welcome Cryonax to 5e :giggle: ) ...anyway.....musing that the Feywild and Shadowfell have taken the roles of the positive and negative material planes....so a quasi-elemental plane of minerals is a demi-plane or region at junction of Feywild and elemental plane of earth, and a demiplane of Dust lies at junction of earth and shadowfell etc.
 

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