The elemental planes have long been a source of adventure in Dungeons & Dragons. Princes of the Apocalypse marks D&D’s latest delve into the world of the elements—a constant presence within the game since its inception.

Air, earth, fire, and water elementals are as old as the D&D game, appearing in the original Dungeons & Dragons rules (1974). However, these elementals only became part of something larger when Gary Gygax introduced a cosmology for Dungeons & Dragons in Dragon magazine. In issue 8 (July 1977), he laid out an entire “Great Wheel” that included “the ultra-pure Elemental Planes of air, fire, earth and water.” Those four “Inner Planes” existed alongside the material plane and the almost-elemental positive and negative material planes. Gygax didn’t provide many details, but it was a first look at a cosmic conception.

The Great Wheel was officially incorporated into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the Player’s Handbook (1978). Meanwhile, over in Dragon magazine, author Jefferson Swycaffer was contemplating other possibilities. In Dragon 27 (July 1979), Swycaffer suggested a complex set of eighteen planes. First, he introduced four new elements—cold, dry, hot, and moist—each of which lay between two of the existing elements. Then he added two new planes lying above and below the elemental planes: good and evil. Finally, he added four planes between good and the elements—beginning, fertility, light, and pleasure—and four planes that lay between evil and the elements—barren, darkness, ending, and pain. The result was an elemental globe.

Though Swycaffer’s elemental planes were totally unofficial, Gygax liked the idea. In Dragon 32 (December 1979), Gygax said that he also had been thinking about the elemental “borderlands.” He revealed the results in Deities & Demigods (1980), which contained the first official expansion of the elemental planes. Now four paraelemental planes lay between the various elemental planes: ice between air and water; dust between air and fire; heat between fire and earth; and vapor between earth and water.

Three years later, the elemental planes grew again. It started in April with the publication of the adventure The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (1983), which featured a new monster called the lightning quasielemental, said to inhabit “the Elemental Plane of Air and the Positive Material Plane.” Gygax explained the expanded elemental cosmology more fully in Dragon 73 (May 1983), published around the same time. Swycaffer’s elemental globe had become an elemental cube, with the elemental planes and paraelemental planes around the middle, the positive material plane at the top, and the negative material plane at the bottom. The brand-new quasielemental planes lay between the traditional elemental planes and the two energy planes—which Swycaffer had replaced with good and evil in his own model. There were thus eight quasielemental planes. The positive side of things contained lightning (near air), steam (near water), radiance (near fire), and mineral (near earth), while the negative side included vacuum (near air), salts (near water), ash (near fire), and dust (near earth).  

Later that year, Monster Manual II (1983) revealed a complete set of paraelementals, though three of the names were changed: a smoke elemental rose from the dust plane, a magma elemental rose from the heat plane, and an ooze elemental rose from the vapor plane. The book also reprinted the lightning-based quasielemental.

The elemental planes as imagined by Gary Gygax for AD&D had reached their ultimate form. Jeff Grubb then produced a final supplement to Gygax’s primordial elements in Manual of the Planes (1987). That book devoted nearly forty pages to the eighteen Inner Planes, including the paraelemental and quasielemental planes. Author Jeff Grubb even got to stat up the missing quasielementals in Dragon 125 (September 1987) and Dragon 128 (December 1987).

Elemental Adventures: 1979–1989

Elemental monsters like those that appeared in original D&D, the Monster Manual, and Dragon magazine were the height of elemental adventuring in the 1970s and 1980s. The elemental planes were seen as a dangerous and inhospitable place, so adventurers didn’t go there. Instead, elemental adventures occurred when the elemental planes intruded on the material plane.

This idea was made explicit with the Elemental Princes of Evil, an original set of elemental monsters by Lewis Pulsipher that first appeared in the Fiend Folio (1981). Frank Mentzer saw their potential and used four of them—Imix, Ogremoch, Olhydra, and Yan-C-Bin—in the RPGA adventure The Egg of the Phoenix (1982), later collected as part of the TSR adventure module Egg of the Phoenix (1987). It was the first major encroachment of the elements into the world of D&D adventuring.

Meanwhile, Gary Gygax was working on his own elemental adventure. Though The Village of Hommlet (1979) hinted at the topic, it took several years until The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985) revealed Gygax’s full elemental plan. Instead of elemental monsters or elemental gods, Gygax focused on a new way to bring the elements to the world of D&D. The eponymous temple contains four elemental nodes, described as “cauldrons, used to mix evil and elemental forces in an unholy recipe.” In other words, each node was an elemental miniplane that allowed for exciting elemental adventuring without facing the deadly rigors of the actual Inner Planes.

Other than a short adventure for each elemental plane in Tales of the Outer Planes (1988), that was the extent of elemental adventuring prior to the advent of AD&D second edition in 1989.

Elemental Settings: 1991–1998

The 1990s saw the development of a plethora of new settings for D&D, many of which were able to incorporate elemental themes more fully than the adventures of the 1980s. Whether you wanted to travel to the elemental planes or to feature elementals more in material plane adventuring, the 1990s had what you desired.

The Dark Sun campaign setting (1991) used the old trope of bringing the elements to the PCs, but it did so in an unusual way that gave them particular prominence. There were no gods in Dark Sun’s world of Athas, so priests instead worshiped elemental powers. Though this idea was with the setting from the start, it received extended attention in D&D’s first-ever elemental supplement—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water (1993), a resource for Dark Sun players.

Earth, Air, Fire, and Water also introduced the paraelemental priest, who worshipped those elements lying on the borders. However, Dark Sun’s paraelements were different from those defined by Gary Gygax—revealing that the Dark Sun setting broke with D&D’s core cosmology. Its paraelementals were instead based on natural phenomena: rain lay between air and water; sun between air and fire; magma between fire and earth; and silt between earth and water.

The Al-Qadim campaign setting (1992) didn’t place the elements in such a central role, but the adventure Secrets of the Lamp (1993) did give special attention to one location on the Elemental Plane of Fire. That was the City of Brass—the great settlement of the efreet that had appeared on the cover of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). The city received initial attention in the late 1980s when it was briefly mentioned in Manual of the Planes (1987). Shortly afterward, it appeared in a pair of adventures: an unpublished RPGA tournament by Rob Kuntz called To the City of Brass (1987) and a short adventure in Tales of the Outer Planes (1988) called “Through the Fire.” These adventures demonstrated why the City of Brass was interesting. Though located in the Elemental Plane of Fire, it was a livable location and not just a place of wild flames—which made it perfect for adventuring.

Planescape (1994) was the last setting of the 1990s to place an emphasis on the elements. One of its core mandates was to make all the planes more playable, so for the first time ever, players would have regular opportunities to visit the elemental planes, rather than having the elements of the planes come to them.

All sixteen elemental planes got some attention in the Planescape Campaign Setting (1994). Then the designers immediately put those ideas to work in the first Planescape adventure, The Eternal Boundary (1994), which includes a trip to the Elemental Plane of Fire. Taking a page from Al-Qadim, The Eternal Boundary takes players to a set, civilized locale—a “citadel of fire.” However, the elemental planes only really came into their own with the publication of the Planescape expansion The Inner Planes (1998), which devoted a full chapter to each of the sixteen planes. By focusing on the inhabitants and numerous sites of each plane, the book provided a sound basis for adventuring—one that remains a useful primer on the elemental planes to this day.

Modern Elementals: 2000–Present

In the last few editions of D&D, the elemental planes have been ever-changing.

D&D third edition (2000) gave the elemental planes their spotlight in a new Manual of the Planes (2001). The overall structure of the elemental planes and the energy planes was similar to that found in Planescape, but the paraelemental and quasielemental planes were described only as places where elements and energies mixed. They were no longer named nor detailed.

D&D fourth edition (2008) reinvented the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, and the elemental planes became part of the Elemental Chaos. As explained in the newest iteration of Manual of the Planes (2008), the Elemental Chaos was the “raw material of creation.” Now instead of being theoretical building blocks, the home of the elements was clearly linked to the reality of the material plane itself. However, the Elemental Chaos was more than just the former elemental planes. It was also home to many different planar creatures, from the primordials (including the elemental princes) that shaped the world, to the demons that lived in the Abyss that was an adjunct of the Elemental Chaos. Despite these changes, the elemental planes’ prime destination—the City of Brass—survived the transition.

Fourth edition D&D’s cosmology—known as the World Axis—was well integrated into the game, providing power sources, character themes, and background settings alike. As a result, the elemental planes of fourth edition received the best attention since the end of the Planescape setting. More details on the elements appeared in The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos (2009), while players could access elemental-influenced powers following the publication of Heroes of the Elemental Chaos (2012).

D&D fifth edition (2014) largely returned to the older Great Wheel cosmology, but the Inner Planes retain aspects of the World Axis. The four elemental planes are back, but they remain tightly integrated with the material plane as its creative foundation. The paraelemental planes have also returned for the first time since Planescape, but they have more evocative names. The Plane of Ash is known as the Great Conflagration, the Plane of Ice is the Frostfell, the Plane of Magma is the Fountains of Creation, and the Plane of Ooze is the Swamp of Oblivion. Additionally, the Elemental Chaos is the churning realm within which the Inner Planes are held.

This organization reflects Mike Mearls’s goal to make the elemental planes “places to visit and explore”—a notion influenced by the writings of Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. As a result, the elemental planes are more habitable toward their interiors where they touch the material plane, and weirder toward their outskirts as they descend into the Elemental Chaos.

Making the elemental planes a destination for adventuring is a noble goal—because making those planes playable is something that D&D has been striving toward for a full forty years.

About the Author

Shannon Appelcline has been roleplaying since his dad taught him Basic D&D in the early ’80s. He’s the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons, a four-volume history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time.