Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Plane Speaking

This article first appeared at the Old School Heretic Blog and is being reprinted here as it is part of a series that will be further explored and developed as part of the overall Riskail worldbuilding project.

Planes.  Whether you subscribe to the theory that there are Seven Planes of existence, or Fourteen (seven plus a second set of opposite shadowy planes), or Thirty-One Planes (ala Buddha: Check out this handy reference at Buddha-Net), or some other configuration based upon Nineteenth Century esotericists, Theosophists, Science fiction, Enochian magic, Neo-Platonism, quantum mechanics, Gnosticism, newage quackery, or whatever else floats your particular boat.  Seriously, you can pretty much pick a number at random and find a system out there that will support your spontaneous channeling of higher wisdom in regards to how many Planes of Existence there might be out there. 

That last sentence in particular works best if you say it all breathless and as if it were supremely meaningful, like Shatner reciting from the Yellow Pages.  It'll help you keep a healthy dose of skepticism when treading into this particular territory.  Worse than any religious components or deprecated philosophies struggling to regain prominence, this area has money attached to it, and where there be money, there be pirates (both operative and speculative), intellectual sharks out to make a buck from the gullible & vulnerable, and rentable prophets of spurious dogmas as well.  It's quite the cavalcade of human frailties, foibles and follies.  Just remember that an open mind does not mean that you need to be a suggestible moron.  As always, when exploring the realms of philosophies and related pursuits, question authorities, demand proof or at least a receipt, keep your hands inside the car at all times and Caveat Emptor!

Pointless Confession Number One: I have never liked, nor have I ever used the so-called 'standard cosmology' first promulgated by Gygax and then peddled like pseudo-esoteric crack by those who came after.  It's rubbish, pure and simple (in my personal opinion).  If you like it and have had wonderful experiences with it, that's cool, but not of any interest to me.  When I speak of Planes of Existence, I'm referring to concepts derived from sources far older than an RPG and in some cases even older than Shatner, comic books or the Yellow Pages.  Not that those sources are necessarily more credible, just more interesting to me.  It is my blog after all.
Ahem.  Back to the Planes. 

 One of my favorite phrases used to describe the nature of Planes is "...a fractal ontological spectrum of innumerable divisions..." that a wonderfully helpful author/scholar named Kheper uses on his website discussing the correlations of Blavatsky's model of the planes to Max Theon's model (and includes Gurdjieff as well).  Blavatsky is heady stuff and best taken in small doses.  Her use of Sanskrit confuses Sanskrit scholars, her references to various Eastern concepts often diverge substantially from the supposedly quoted sources so that it confuses the experts of those traditions being quoted.  This is not to say that she was any sort of a fraud, not at all. I am not inclined to judge her but rather much like H. P. Lovecraft and a number of authors before me, I like to wander about the various constructs and conundrums that good old Madame HPB tossed out there and see where they can take a story--or a game.  Kheper's analysis of the Seven Terrestrial Planes at the link above will give you a wealth of information to sift through.  Oh, and there are diagrams.  Lots of diagrams.  Gotta love weird, esoteric diagrams.  Once I get the chakra-to-attribute diagrams I am working on finished, I'll be able to expand upon them to show the next level of complexity in terms of chakra-to-planar level correlations.  Then I can plot out the portions and parts of the astral-body and some other cool stuff.  That'll be fun.  Really.  I promise.  It'll be in color, too.

Any how.  Before getting too much farther down this particular maze of madness and mysticism, we need a good definition of what a 'plane' actually is, otherwise this is all rather pointless and not of much use to anyone.  Okay.  So a 'Plane of Existence' is best summed up, at least for our purposes, as being both a location and a state of consciousness simultaneously.  Mind and matter are interconnected, just as space and time are intertwined, and as a person dwells upon certain concepts or acts out various irrational desires or rational principles, they are already aligning themselves with various and sundry planes both positive and negative.  The more 'evil' one acts/thinks, the more evil that begins to harmonize with them on the subtle levels and they become attuned to those sorts of expressions, they sink to those levels, they literally already are living on those planes in some respects.  Likewise with 'good,' however you care to define it.  One's state of mind determines which planes they have access to, and where they are drawing energy from.  There is an implicit, intrinsic moral geography or topography that comes along part and parcel with the notion of planes of existence.  Planes are states of Consciousness as well as places that can be traveled to or visited.  That makes them freaky on so many levels.  As soon as you even touch the concept you are confronted with Freewill, Meaning, Perception, Souls, Spirits, and the deep waters of philosophy, religion and the emergent doctrines of quantum psychology and so on.  The beauty is that there are no right or wrong answers aside from matters of personal conviction, established faith and a lot of conjecture that frankly amounts to so much fiction.  What it all boils down to is we really don't know all that much about Planes beyond the various (often conflicting) notions that we've inherited from (almost always) apochryphal/dubious sources.
(Philosophers are still debating just what the hell COLOR is or is not.  Check out this paper on 'Color Primitivism.')

A better question might be: "What do we want planes to be like in our setting?"  Approaching the material from that angle will convert all of the perplexing, convoluted crapulous creeds and spurious claims into grist for our respective mills.  We can pick and choose whatever sounds appropriate and cool and leave the rest for other folks to play around with later. 

For my Riskail setting, I am approaching the concept of Planes as being layered around each world-core like the sections of an onion.  Each level outwards shifts a bit farther away from the central nexus in terms of how it relates to time, space, energy and consciousness.  Each planar layer has a particular vibrational rate or frequency that can be tuned-into like with a crystal radio set, or that can have an influence upon areas or persons sensitized to its particular vibration via rituals or mechanisms.  And, as I alluded to above, I am making the Chakras as well as Attributes integral aspects of the Planar Layers which are directly related to specific chakras which can then be further refined or attuned to these energies for various sorcerous applications.  Likewise Consciousness has serious ramifications in regards to the planes, not just in terms of which ones your character has access to, but by configuring consciousness in specific ways one gains access or blocks access to / from a variety of planes, unlocking both oneiric and etheogenic approaches to exploration of realities behind / beyond the conventional, accepted facade -- and that is so frikkin' Lovecraftian it hurts.  But in a good way.  I'm also building a set of diagrams, not quite so clunky as Blavatsky's or Theon's multitude of sub-planes, at least not right off.  Pictures make things easier to understand, and hurt the brain less than an over-abundance of cryptic, obscure and polysyllabic words that quickly slide into meaninglessness due to their inherent level of abstraction. (What?)

What makes the whole thing hang together in a useful way is that it serves as a terrestrial-style system of correspondences that facilitates comparison, description and manipulation.  For example, the various layers of a character's Aura are effectively membraneous interference layers between their chakra and the plane(s) that are aligned / attuned / resonant (cognate?) with their chakras.  Thus, as a character does things to themself, or suffers various effects, their connection to various planes will shift and change, allowing for all sorts of mechanics such as invisibility, clouding people's minds, glamoury, illusions, phantasms, communing with elders of another time and pace (Kashmir), and much, much more.  On a related note, I had thought that I could jettison that hoary old chestnut Alignment, instead it appears that I might have to re-think alignment as an attribute akin to Strength, Wisdom, etc. Maybe. This idea of a moral component to space-time is not just for fantasy role-playing any more.  Scientists and other authors writing about quantum mechanics are talking a bit about this sort of thing as well.  Books are being written, fist-fights have broken out; it's fascinating stuff, and I neither accept it nor decry it, I'm just here for the free beer.  It's weird. But I like weird.  Watch your step if you decide to go exploring in those caves and waters.  It gets pretty treacherous fairly quickly.  Beware the Wandering Opinion Table.

What do I mean by 'terrestrial' which I mentioned above?  Good question.  Sometimes it is better to begin with what is known before diving into the unknown.  We awaken into an awareness of our selves, our bodies and our surroundings.  Usually in that order, but that could be debated ad nauseum as well.  When we awaken into sentience, becoming thinking / feeling personalities who can answer questions on a Myers-briggs test Instrument in order to discover our personality-type, then we are becoming cognizant of our non-physical / abstract attributes (what OD&D would refer to as WIS, INT, maybe CHAR--that one likewise gets a bit of a debate going).  When we become aware of our bodies, we start dealing with breathing, eating, pooping and the physical attributes (STR, DEX, CON...).  Then we start to figure out that there is a world beyond our own asshole, unless we're a born politician sociopath or are crippled with an acute form of narcissism (which really is its own reward when you think about it).  The world around us, our environment, affects us in numerous ways.  Think burning stove, running water, and barking dogs and you'll be on the right track.  Those three developmental steps form the basis of how we perceive, relate and express our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the immediate world.  It is also the basic set of concepts that then leads into such stuff as chakras (attributes again), auras (chakra-planar interfaces), ectoplasm / phantasm (the sticky-gooey media in-between chakras and planes), and the terrestrial forms of divination, geomancy, interior decorating, and coping with ley-lines, etc.  Then there are the celestial / astral influences such as astrology, luminiferous aethyr / astral light, the ethereal zones, and so on.  It all stacks one upon the other like a bunch of weird Legos (tm) , and it all inter-locks just like the little Danish plastic blocks.

You start out small and simple and then slowly build up the complexity as things progress.  Now the notion of seven planes tied to the colors of a rainbow sounds pretty appealing, over the thirty-one bizarre-sounding ones with all the sub-levels and crap, huh?


Go big, or go home.

But whether there is only one plane or a billion, the scheme for explaining these things needs to be accessible, readable, something that can be grasped both conceptually and figuratively so that they can be used in a setting, story or adventure.  They make lovely furniture / backgrounds if you want to get all Zelazny-like, which is a great way to handle an infinite number of planes swirling between two primary poles, one of which is Chaos.  (scroll down to 7: Mike Says.)   Zelazny also pioneered the conceptual conceit of having physical laws shift in smallish increments from adjacent plane to adjacent plane so that what worked for gunpowder in on place might only be good for polishing shiny rocks in another.  That alone can spawn numerous random tables for handling a wide range of planar effects, or serve as a plot-twist worthy of the worst groaner of a Star Trek plot in which the PCs gain a massive load of fire-power (personal-scale Vulcan Gatling Guns ala Predator anyone?) only to find out that the dirt in their bullets isn't particularly flammable despite having gained some seriously intoxicating effects.  Of course, that only works if you're not a dick and let them find some other substance to re-load their ammo with, or you let them discover an alternative like trees that produce pods that have strange bio-crystalline cores that focus a wielder's WIS into a blade of shimmering force that cuts through titanium like a Ginsu, or something like that only actually cool.  Taking an Amber-style approach gives you those kinds of off-the-wall opportunities.

Moorcock has been developing his version of the Multiverse for decades and anyone not immediately familiar with Elric or Moorcock should probably stop reading this stuff and go read a book.  Even if you don't like the guy or his work, his fiction is very influential and worth taking a look at just to see how he handles planes if nothing else.  Consider the Vadhagh ability to shift from one to another of the Fifteen Planes: "Once it was easy to move through the Five Planes at will.  With a little more effort the Ten Planes could be contacted, though, as you know, few could visit them physically.  Now I am unable to do more than see and occasionally hear those other four planes which, with ours, form the spectrum through which our planet directly passes in its astral cycle." Corum from The Knight of Swords.

Now we're getting someplace.  A set number of basic, common-access planes (directly tied to the chakras to facilitate various forms of clairvoyance / clairaudience, etc.), that are all arranged into a spectrum (shades of Ken Wilbur!), and all part of a vast planetary-level astral cycle (HPB again).  I like this approach.  It is clean and a good place to start from, without getting too bogged down in endless reams of useless details.  It also presents a nice way to integrate mechanics into the underpinings of the setting, which makes things more integral, to borrow a Wilbur-ism.

Another fictional approach to Planes is Farmer's World of Tiers series.  This time though, the planes are synthetic and the work of super-science, not mystical mumbo-jumbo, and we all know that weird science and rocketships always trumps magic and unicorns, except when the scientists start creating unicorns like in Stasheff's stories, but that's a digression for another day.  Farmer did some fun stuff with his artificial planes, and it's too good an idea to waste, so I'm bringing my friends the Temjurri, a faction from the old Bazra campaign / stories from way back into Riskail.  The Temjurri are plane-makers, hardcore scientists every bit as weird and powerful as any wizard.  So now we have artificial planes in Riskail, planes that are designed, built and made-to-order by an elite cadre of technologists and engineers from an obscure secret society who are reputed to lock away their enemies in pocket-spaces the way that Montresor walled-away Fortunato in Poe's classic tale.  Cool.  Weird science, artificial planes, secret societies of engineers who hold the secrets to forgotten or forbidden technologies, a wonderful tie-back to Poe for the sake of atmosphere, and we're in business.

Another approach to the subject of Planes is Rudolf Steiner, not known for fiction but rather an intriguing guy in his own right. Steiner was an old school occultist who literally and truly did have run-ins with the Nazis who both feared him and hated him like no other metaphysical adept.  He was like an Austrian George Washington Carver only he was more ignored and his work tended to be less commercially applicable, except for his unique form of agriculture still in use, his unique approach to music (Eurythmy), architecture, education (ever hear of Waldorf?) -- oh just go take a look at the guy.  He wrote more books than just about anyone and when he got bored with that he started whole new schools, founded alternative economic systems, got entangled in politics and started his own band of not-secret society called Anthroposophy.  This guy's life reads like he was a real-life Doc Savage and The Shadow rolled into one, only more academically inclined and less likely to punch you or pull a Colt .45 from under his cape and blast you into kingdom come...but then again, I won't take that bet.  Maybe he donned a mask, fedora and opera cape and did just that and never got caught.  If anyone could do it, he'd be the one to pull it off.
Handy Link: Forgottenbooks.org is a good place to go snooping for weird, old out-of-print books that can be mined for all sorts of ideas and Steiner's Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment can be downloaded as a free e-book here.  Be Warned: Anyone interested in this stuff could lose many hours of their life digging through the many obscure treasures gathered at this site.  I am a big fan of this site.  Highly recommended.
Steiner offers up a lot of intriguing concepts that many a less talented and often times more venally-motivated author has gone on to present as their own revelation from the ethers.  He firmly and devoutly espoused the doctrine that any human being willing to do the work could reap the benefits of the spiritual sciences.  He was one of the earliest proponents of self-development, and in many ways could be seen as a godfather to the whole self-help movement.  The Guardian on the Threshold is one of those cool bits of esoteric lore that keeps turning up all over the place, from Alice Bailey to Joseph Campbell and on to hordes of earnest newage gurus trying to sell you on their cosmique revelations channelled directly from Sirius or wherever.  (sphincter?)

Despite the snake-oil peddlers, the Guardian of the Threshold is too good an idea to not use it, especially when planes are directly tied to both consciousness and locality.  PCs will need to learn techniques and / or rites for gaining the permission / means to cross the threshold(s) between them and the other planes, perhaps a pilgrimage to other planes is required in order to activate Arbitrary Powers or one needs to contact a plane to arrange for a sponsor on the otherside in order to gain access to the plane or planes in question.  Ancient secret societies guard antiquated devices said to awaken dormant powers of perception within a subject (victim), allowing them to negotiate with the Guardians directly and possibly giving them a way to go get strange cool powers as a result.  Sacred sites might facilitate this sort of experience, especially certain ley-line junctures / nodes, or one of those stock ruined temples with the vaguely pre-Columbian motif and cyclopean (non-Steiner) architecture could have literal thresholds constructed within them that are activated by rituals and sacrifices of silly-putty so as to allow a dedicant to shift across into other planes.  Assuming they get past the three-headed parakeet that guards the mauve portal to Ygulix, or whatever other dread form the Guardian takes.

Steiner is awesome.  You could spend decades just reading his stuff, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you're prone to insomnia.  A genius, yes, but a popularizer of his concepts suited to today's reading public?  Not hardly.  Thankfully there are scads of hacks authors who rip-off re-discover his works and foist share them with the world, or at least those enlightened souls with credit cards.

Steiner is also a good example of how something as seemingly simple at first blush as Planes can get way out there in three or less clicks.  Planes are an integral part of the magic system, at least in my setting.  They also tie directly into the core mechanics of attributes which makes the whole process of developing a ton of spell-effects and Arbitrary Powers incredibly simple and straightforward, which I will cover in a future post.

The idea is to make the magic / sorcery coherent.  I refrain from the use of a word such as 'authentic,' because after decades of intense personal study, I can tell you that there is very little of any actual authenticity in these areas beyond stuff that has lingered long after the expiration date has lapsed.  If it wasn't for inspired forgeries, conceited frauds, or conniving mountebanks a lot of this weird and wonderful stuff would never have happened in the first place.  But that doesn't discredit it any more than applying the same standards to religion would produce any other results.  We're dealing with the geography of imagination and the mechanics of mythologies.  Authenticity stems from an opinion, a particular point of view, and frankly the magic of a made-up setting either in fiction or in an RPG needs be no more authentic than the systems used to handle quasi-medieval combat, and no less.  Mayhem is an abstract thing in the OD&D-derived corpus, for the most part.  Attempts to make it more realistic are of limited utility, in my experience, as they tend to be promoted most vigorously by those who wish to super-turbo-charge their characters and who do not wish to see anything even close to what they are promulgating being done for the magic system of the game.  Somehow some schmuck waving a length of steel is supposed to be superior to someone who wields the powers of a hundred planes and can cast lightning bolts.  Sure, it's a common enough conceit in a great many of the old Sword & Sorcery stories.  Plenty of times you read about some illiterate git in a fur kilt laying the bloodiest of smack-downs on the massed ranks of the local members of the Conjurors, Sorcerers and Wizards Local 113 (a special sub-section of the union of electrical workers possibly).  Maybe that works for you, and that's wonderful if it does.  It doesn't work for me.  I want magic to be fun, usable, and not a bogus weeny-copout kind of train wreck that just makes wizards top dog.  Fighters and others get their due just as well, and the basic mechanics coming together from all this can serve the less wizardly-inclined and even the anti-psychic null-zone-emitting types as well.  But I want more than just fireballs and a list of boring spells for my magic-users.  If thieves get special skills, then so should sorcerers (and fighters, but that's another post).

There needs to be some way to prevent magic-users from taking over everything.  Just like there needs to be a way to keep the fighters from taking over everything, or any of the other classes.  No problem.  As they develop their powers (just like a warrior develops techniques with weapons, or styles of fighting...), they have to deal with repercussions and consequences that come with their decisions, initiations, attunements and actions.  Every time they resort to certain proscribed rites of nastiness, that affects their aura, contaminates their chakras, and affects which planes they have access to. In some cases they can lose the ability to contact certain planes altogether.  The other-planar entities that they decide to contact or consort with likewise affect them on this deep level.  Entering into the service of higher-order entities, be they mythic angels, synthetic archetypes, obscure demigods or the embodiment of abstract principles has a direct and very powerful effect on the character that goes beyond just what color underwear they wear or what brand of sword they prefer when looting a castle.  It closes some options off even as it opens others up.  And that is exactly the sort of approach I want in Riskail.  Your choices as a player matter, not in a punitive sense, though some actions carry penalties just like hacking off an arm might impair one's ability to play piano, but in an empowering sense.  I want options, not restrictions.  Player skill can (and should) have a direct and dramatic effect on character attributes, giving the best of both approaches in one fell swoop.  Maybe.  Depending on how well I can get the diagrams all colored in, I guess.  We'll see.

Planes.  Getting back on track.  Planes are an opportunity to provide forms of experience, adventure and even some excitement that can really enrich a game.  Being able to project psychically into a realm of strange creatures on a vision quest, or stepping across a threshold into a realm where the rules of physics are off-kilter, or learning the secret art of drawing forth the dreaded Purple Flames of Kumashton and single-handedly wiping-out the voracious swarm of link-beetles about to devour the party body and soul--that's what I want from Planes in Riskail.


  1. Goldarnit! You went and used the best material of a post I was planning!

    I though the World of Tiers was my little secret.

    You put it to better use, though, so more power to ya.

  2. Hey--let me know what you do with the World of Tiers stuff. You can never have too many planes, worlds, gates or tiers!

    I am very happy to find like-minded folks exploring parallel veins of material--like Blair over at Planet Algol or some of Telecanter's stuff. It's a big pool, lot's of room, and the water's fine.

  3. Good post. I don't think any of these things are either/or propositions. The multiverse is a complicated place after all, and permits multiple interpretations.

    In my current campaign--while I'm sticking to some degree to Gygaxian cosmology I'm interpreting it very different--noumenal planes, being the phrase--and toying with the ideas of moral quantum forces (by way of Wright's quantum-perceiving titans in the Chaos trilogy).

  4. Noumenal -- a wonderful word. I tried very hard to avoid it this time around. But I get it back next time! I am dying to learn more about this Chaos trilogy. 'Quantum-perceiving titans' wow. That's cool!

  5. Mike (Moorcock) has said that his mystical instructor was a disciple of Steiner, so that certainly helps in understanding where Mike's Multiverse is coming from, both in metaphysical, and (trans-)personal terms.

  6. Sure. John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos series gives at least 4 (or 5 actual) magical paradigms used by the various tribes of Titans in their war with the Olympians: traditional spellcraft, force of will, Newtonian mechanics, and quantum weirdness. They work together in a rock/paper/scissors sort of fashion. Cool stuff.

  7. Aw, nuts! I just went and clicked the "Forgotten Books" link.

    I may never see the outdoors again.

  8. Awesome post sir! Yes forgotten books will probably lure me even father away from the blogosphere - for that I should thank you!


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