Fixing the elemental planes

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series planes

Featureless expanses of earth, air, fire, and water are just not that interesting, even liberally sprinkled with elementals. That’s a core problem with most of the D&D planes of existence – they’re more like allegories than locations. Unless you’re playing Pilgrim’s Progress: The RPG, allegories probably don’t feature heavily in your weekly game.

In my opinion, the best planes are the ones you can wander into unawares: the faerie kingdom, the land of the dead, dreamland: and the inhabitants will seem strange and frightening, and the rules will not be the rules you know, but they will be close enough that you won’t have to wear a space suit.

With that in mind, here’s my attempt to fix the elemental planes: earth, air, water, and fire.

Earth: The plane of earth is no fun because there’s nothing to do except get encased in solid rock. What if, instead, it’s a vast megadungeon, aware and malevolent like the dungeons of OD&D? Like all the best planes, it has its own rules: that everyone but you can see in the dark, and that doors that stick for you open easily for monsters. In fact, many dungeon crawl campaigns might as well be set in the Plane of Earth, except that the players occasionally “go to town” to rest and sell their loot. This fabled “town” might be one of the strange bubbles in the Plane of Earth, little places where people live in the illusion that there is a whole aboveground world around them.

How can you wander into the Plane of Earth accidentally? A lot of dungeons are filled with pits, and some of the pits are bottomless. Bottomless pits drop you into the Plane of Earth. You could keep falling in such a pit for minutes or days: you stop when you successfully grab at a door or ledge along the side of the pit. (Long drops are common in the Plane of Earth, and the rules of the plane are such that an otherwise deadly fall always leaves you with 1 HP). Falling for miles is easy: finding your way back up to the real world will be a Herculean task. Depending on how far you fell, you might have to adventure your way up past dozens or thousands of dungeon levels to find the portal you fell through. How’s that for claustrophobia?

Air: Just as the Plane of Earth is below us, The Plane of Air shouldn’t be an infinite, featureless expanse: it’s in the sky. I assume that we’ve all looked down at the clouds out of the window of an airplane, and imagined striding across them like giants. But even in the world of D&D, clouds aren’t usually solid.

When you travel to the Plane of Air, the natural world becomes insubstantial, and you start to gently ascend as if on an air current. Cloudstuff is the only thing that you can touch. The clouds are constantly changing, their castles and villages appearing and disappearing, and the creatures of the clouds come and go too: you might see a cloud deer emerge from the billowing ground, run from a cloud wolf, and then dissolve, and leave not a rack behind.

Furthermore, when you’re on the clouds, you can interact with the storm giants. In normal life, storm giants cannot physically attack or be attacked by the creatures of the natural world. (They can, however, throw lightning bolts at the creatures of the prime material plane.)

Fire: For this one, I’ll use an idea I mentioned before: of a campaign world where fire was sentient, and had lineage. A fire lit by another fire would share many of its characteristics, as a child does of its parent.

Fires in this world could level up: a level-one fire would be one that was just lit for the first time, and would have no special powers. A level-twenty fire might have an intelligence, wisdom, and charisma of 20, and a bunch of special powers: telepathy, the ability to burn without consuming fuel, and the ability to burn with blue cold.

Rather than an endless plain of flames and lava, the Plane of Fire would be a world that was dark in many places: with no sun or moon, it would only lit by bonfires, the great Eternal Fires that rule kingdoms, and the torches borne by mortal slaves.

Water: I’ve racked my brain and I can’t think of a way to make a Plane of Water that’s significantly cooler than a garden-variety ocean. Sure, it could be infinite, but infinity is overrated. Just making something big doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting. So do you have any ideas?

Series Navigation<< grading the planes: 4e cosmologygrading the planes: take your D&D players to Mars, Midway or Metamorphosis Alpha >>

14 Responses to “Fixing the elemental planes”

  1. That’s a cool idea for fire.

    My world of Ytherra doesn’t have elemental planes as such, but it does have planes where one element tends to dominate over the others. The shard dominated by water, for example, is a vast (but not infinite) ocean with neither surface nor bottom, wound through by a great reef of luminescent coral, proving at least dim illumination for the whole planes, and even some places where air can collect. Carved into the reef is the great palace where dwells the sea-god and his followers.

  2. Baf says:

    Perhaps one of the different rules in the elemental plane of water is that water doesn’t just lie there and seek its level. I mean, we know that some of the water is alive; just broaden this notion a little. I’m imagining vast, towering structures of water, water forests and mountains, even dungeons cut into the surface of the water. It would be easy to scoop water out of , but, as in our world, difficult to make a permanent hole in them. You’d have to be careful in architecting such things, though, because you’d have to take into account the permeability of water, and the fact that a sufficiently brave adventurer could swim through walls.

    Come to think of it, the water-dwelling inhabitants of the plane probably regard the air as a sort of dead zone where nothing can stay for long. Your ability to inhabit such spaces is probably seen as a kind of supernatural power, much like the earth elemental’s ability to move through solid rock.

  3. Noumenon says:

    I really like your plane of earth, and your whole approach to the issue.

    One interesting thing about the ocean is how any creature can just wander by and eat you at any time. Maybe if Water was filled with currents and whirlpools that carried you into all kinds of encounters you didn’t want?

  4. Baf says:

    Another thought about the elemental plane of water: Perhaps what appears to be the surface of an ocean is actually the interior of a very large bubble in the infinite expanse. You could sail the entire inside surface of this bubble — gravity always pulls you towards the nearest water. And of course there could be multiple bubbles, separated by thousands of miles of water. Traveling between them would be a significant challenge, suitable for an obstacle in a quest.

  5. Excellent ideas! I had the idea a while back to have the underdark be an ancient elemental diety and that most dungeons were the physical extension of the underdark trying to worm its way to the surface world.
    Overall some awesome ideas for the elemental planes.

  6. -Sd says:

    On of the more interesting setups for ‘elemental’ worlds that I’ve seen was from one Tracey Hickman & Margaret Weis and the Death Gate Cycle. The fourth book of the series was a “water world” where everything was submerged into a semi-breathable water surrounding a central sun that kept water warm/liquid. When you got out to a certain point it froze into a shell. Between those points were the islands/floating rocks. That’s about all I remember of the world.

  7. Argent says:

    Nice ideas – I’m planning on running my players through these planes when they reach epic so some really good stuff.

    One of the interesting things about water is that is can exist in all three states at 0 deg C/ 35F. So there would be ice, water and vapour in the elemental plane of water.

    Ice could help shape the water and direct the flow, rain, snow and sleet would fall permanently from misty skies. Waterfalls would drop out of the clouds hinting at other bodies of water somewhere else. Icebergs would drift across seas, blocks of ice would be driven down channels and spin in whirlpools smashing into the unwary or unlucky,

    Anywhere there was a body of water it would move. Creatures not native to the plane would be subject to forced movement when in the water – moving 1, 2 or 3 squares dependent on the speed of the flow. Creatures native to the plane would have the choice on whether to move. Add water to the initiative order and move everyone on its turn. Use it to separate unwary PC’s, put the natives into advantageous positions but let PC’s have Nature checks to identify the currents.

    Let the ice break up, blocks fall from icebergs, place sink holes, thin ice, super hot steam vents, contrary currents and sucking currents.

    Just some thoughts.

  8. Kensan_Oni says:

    I never really envisioned the planes as presented in the Manual of the Planes, and always swore if I got the chance, I wouldn’t do it like they presented completely.

    However, since that time, the Novels Death Gate Cycle happened, and now present what I would do with the Elemental Planes, which is nice, because now I have a point of reference I can throw at players. 😀

  9. Noumenon says:

    Regarding what Baf says about air, maybe it could be like in that story “Perils of the Blue World” where the paramecium-sized pond-dwelling humans attempt “space travel” above the surface. Instant full-body sunburns from exposure to the sun and “drowning” as water is forcibly squeezed out your gills.

    Also from that story, you could say that surface tension is a strong enough force that Baf’s towering structures of water are inescapable without magic. Now the question is, do you let players pierce those walls and have the water flow into a random new form, or make them essentially solid?

  10. paul paul says:

    As people have mentioned, the interesting thing about water is that it allows 3d travel, so it’s a bit like space travel. maybe the plane of water is where Spelljammer stuff can live: swap out the space ships for Nemo-style steampunk submarines.

  11. Brendan says:

    I’ll add my voice to the chorus praising the Death Gate elemental worlds (the plot of the series not so much, but it’s still a fun read). I also like the idea that they aren’t separate from a normal world, but the result of the normal world being split up in the distant past.

    One other approach I would prefer to separate planes is to bring the planes back to the world itself. Take everything that would be in the plane of water: that becomes what is present in the deep oceans. Everything that would be in the plane of air goes up in the sky (flying palaces and islands, air elementals, etc). The plane of fire could be the center of the earth, or maybe a sea of lava like in The Time of the Dragon Dragonlance boxed set. And, of course, as you mentioned, the plane of earth is the mythic underworld and is a huge megadungeon. All the gods can live in the world too, like was assumed by many polytheistic religions (Mt. Olympus, etc).

    This reminds of the this discussion about mythic geography:

  12. Baf says:

    Once you have steampunk submarines, giant squid battles will inevitably follow. I approve of this.

    (I mentioned inhabitable air bubbles that are thousands of miles apart. Perhaps twenty thousand leagues would be a better distance?)

  13. […] Not too long ago, paul reviewed and graded the planes as presented in D&D.  Many were deemed pretty uninteresting.  Here he presents some ideas to make the elemental planes better. […]

  14. falsedan says:

    I like to steal from Garth Nix’s _Abhorsen_ series, and make the Elemental Plane of Water a series of gates between microplanes & a stoic current carrying waste energy from the Positive Energy Plane as water through the gates to eventually drain into an endless calm lake set under the Negative Energy Plane.

    Each gate (and the plane surrounding it) is darkly overcast, surrounded by fog, cool, windless, & covered with water to a relatively-shallow depth, and each is distinct with swells or fierce currents or catastrophic tidal waves or chilling gushes or treacherous ice sheets or warm gentle cascades or stinging sleet and hail. Each gate is a mild puzzle for the adventurers, which they can solve to pass by in a controlled, dignified manner (or get foolishly sucked through).

    There are few native inhabitants. Most encounters will be with flotsam floating down-plane: strange waste materials from the Positive Energy Plane riddled with parasites; mindless undead banished here by cut-rate exorcists, to ultimately be flushed to their destruction in the Negative Energy Plane; intelligent undead fighting their way back to the living worlds by forcing the gates open in unnatural manner; aberrant algae-like oozes filtering out organic material from the current; and strange beachcombers picking over the infinite mundane detritus floating through.

    The gates naturally connect to many other planes: any world with an endless sea or river eventually connects. Traveling downplane is difficult, so few flotillas attempt to use it; traveling upstream is nigh-impossible without divine assistance. The lower gates connect to lower planes, so it is possible (and dangerous) to travel from Amorim in Elesium into Stygia in the Nine Hells via Oceanus → Elemental Plane of Water gates → Styx. Standard travel to the plane arrives at the first gate, and travelers can trace their way back to their origin plane by carefully wading away from the gate through the fog (attempting to wade to another plane quickly turns into a bad idea, as the dim light vanishes, the temperature plummets, and the waters quickly deepen with a strong undertow dragging travelers down to the next gate).

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