Planes of Existence 5e: Welcome to the DnD Multiverse

With titles like Multiverse of Madness and Flashpoint at the forefront of media, the concept of multiple planes of existence isn’t quite as obscure as it once was.

In D&D, the many planes are central to how the universe functions, even if they’re not used to explore alternate dimensions.

Today, we’re going to be explaining what exactly the multiverse is in D&D. From what exactly the planes of existence are to how to travel between them, we’re bringing you all the info you could need before walking through a suspicious portal.

What Are the Planes of Existence in 5e?

A plane of existence is a place within the multiverse that exists as its own pocket of reality. These planes are real locations, but they also embody spiritual and elemental concepts.

Thinking of planes as their own distinct pockets of reality can be confusing, especially when we know that you can travel from one to another.

To be more precise, you can’t typically walk from one to another or even travel by any means short of magic, although there are a litany of exceptions to this rule that we’ll cover later.

All of the planes represent some sort of spiritual or elemental principles.

Elysium, as an example, is more than simply the place where celestial creatures reside; it is the essence of goodness itself.

Life and goodness are so pure and abundant on this plane that adventurers can even become trapped, unwilling to pry themselves from perfection.

The planes can all be looked at in this way – as dramatized concepts. Whatever they represent, they do so in such an unfettered way that they can be almost unbearable. 

Of course, the planes are also real, tangible locations.

While the Elemental Plane of Air is the very concept of air, there are still physical locations, such as the spired city of Aaqa that adventurers might have the fortune of setting foot in.

The River of Styx that flows through the lower planes is a concept, but it is also a very real river with potent magic flowing through it. 

There are many planes out there, and if you’re making your own planes, they still exist within the confines of the D&D multiverse. A plane can go by many different names and still hold the same core concepts.

The planes of D&D can be split up into a few categories.

The Prime Material Plane and its echoes, the Transitive Planes, the Inner Planes, the Outer Planes, and the Positive and Negative Planes, all make up the vast space that can be explored.

The Material Plane and Its Echoes

  • Material Plane – Center of the multiverse where the vast majority of races live and where most adventures take place.
  • Feywild – Wondrous mirror of the material plane.
  • Shadowfell – Dark shadow of the material plane.

The Material Plane is where the vast majority of 5e adventures take place.

This plane draws in elements from all of the other planes of existence, from concepts of good and evil to the various elements that make up the inner planes.

Typically, the creation story for a material plane involves some sort of influence from these Outer Planes, treating it as a sort of melding pot, battle ground, or some other space to exert influence.

This is where we have gods like Moradin and Yondalla as the creators of entire races (dwarves and gnomes, respectively).

Settings like Toril (The Forgotten Realms), Eberron, Ravnica, and more all exist within the prime material plane.

Rather than distinct planets though, these are all still their own planes. Each of these separate material planes exist in the same multiverse though.

These material planes are held within their own bit of reality by protective seals called crystal spheres. 

The echoes of the Material Plane are the Feywild and Shadowfell planes. Both of these are echoes in the sense that they have roughly the same geographical layout as the Material Plane, but they are skewed in different ways.

The Feywild mirrors the Material Plane but makes all of its aspects more wondrous and mystical, while the Shadowfell is a dark reflection full of terrifying creatures and twisted images from the Material Plane.

These echo planes each can have many smaller demiplanes within them known as domains of delight and dread. Ravenloft, one of the premier horror settings of D&D, is a domain of dread within the Shadowfell.

The Transitive Planes

  • Ethereal Plane – Ghostly plane encompassing and touching the inner planes.
  • Astral Plane – Endless void encompassing the outer planes.

The Transitive Planes consist of the Ethereal and Astral Planes. While space, almost as we know it, exists within the Material Plane, these can be thought of as the “space” between the planes or as a way to travel between planes. 

The Ethereal plane encompasses the Inner Planes, while the Astral plane encompasses the Outer Planes. The two are very different in composition, even though they are both immaterial expanses between worlds.

Those traveling through the Ethereal plane will often find themselves in the “border ethereal,” which makes contact with the entirety of the Inner Planes.

As such, someone using the Etherealness spell could walk unseen and unheard while still observing everything in the keep they’re surveilling.

Conversely, travel through the Astral plane, and you’ll find what is largely a vast expanse of empty space.

There are some places and even creatures that exist within this plane, but mostly it serves as a place for souls to travel to their resting spots in the outer planes.

The Inner Planes

  • Elemental Planes of “ – ” – Planes that are the source and embodiment of the core elements.
    • Air
    • Fire
    • Earth
    • Water
  • Elemental Chaos – Swarthing pool of energy where the elements meet.

Beyond the Material Plane, the Inner Planes are the next most tangible concepts. The four Elemental Planes, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, float within the Elemental Chaos and create a ring around the Material Plane.

While these are separate planes, they do touch each other. You can almost think of them like a color wheel with four primary sections.

The places where they meet often characterize mixes of the elements: fiery storms, magma, steam, etc. While the great wheel shows this in a 2d visualization, all of the four planes do touch each other.

The closer these planes are to the Material Plane, the more they resemble it. Conversely, the further out you go, the more these planes become the pure embodiment of their respective element.

The Elemental Chaos is one larger plane, almost like a Transitive Plane in its own right, that encompasses the meeting of all the elements in strange and volatile combinations.

Few living creatures will make the Elemental Chaos their home, although there are rumors of several races of elementals that have evolved to weather the extreme elements.

The Outer Planes

  • Arcadia – A place of purity where even such concepts as night and day or the different types of weather are never in conflict.
  • Mount Celestia – This great mountain is the home of justice and order.
  • Bytopia – Twin paradises representing balance.
  • Elysium – A heavenly plane filled with life and joy.
  • The Beastlands – An embodiment of nature’s beauty.
  • Arborea – The home of many elven deities, this plane values strong emotions, be they rage, joy, or anything in between.
  • Ysgard – A place of eternal battle where the mightiest heroes go to test their might.
  • Limbo  –  Pure chaos and thoughts rule the form of this nightmarish plane.
  • Pandemonium – Those who travel here will surely be driven mad by the extreme weather, noise, and darkness that rule it.
  • The Abyss – The many-layered home of demons. Each layer, of which there may be an infinite number, represents a different vile aspect of reality.
  • Carceri – An unforgiving prison plane that is home to traitors, backstabbers, and the like.
  • Hades – A gloomy plane that collects the souls of those not wanted by the celestials of the Upper Planes or the fiends of the other Lower Planes.
  • Gehenna – Home of the yugoloths, the most neutral of the fiendish races. A merciless plane that is also the birthplace of greed.
  • The Nine Hells – Archdevils watch over the nine layers of hell. This is home to possibly the cruelest deeds, as it is the embodiment of lawful evil.
  • Archeron – A plane of war split into four unending cubic layers.
  • Mechanus – Home to the modrons, the clockwork plane is likely the only place in the multiverse where perfect order prevails. 

The Outer Planes are physical representations of abstract concepts. They can be split into the Upper and Lower Planes, embodying good and evil respectively. 

These are the planes that are furthest from the Material Plane in more ways than one. On our home Material Plane, everything exists in a state of shifting balances and conflict between opposing ideals. 

In contrast, the Outer Planes are almost hard to understand for mortals. These are places where a single thought rules over existence.

Elysium, for example, is full of such pure joy and perfection that it can be hard to leave. Mortal beings have a hard time pulling themselves away from such infinite beauty.

As far as inhabitants go, the many gods of the multiverse often reside among the Outer Planes. Creator gods and good-natured deities reside in the Upper Planes, while fiendish deities live in the Lower Planes.

The servants of these gods too, celestials and fiends, can be found following their masters and fulfilling their purposes.

Other beings may also reside in the Outer Planes.

Certain races that came to be in the far reaches of the Astral Plane or deep space, such as the githyanki, make their homes here, while others were created or formed with the planes themselves.

Lastly, the souls of mortal beings find their final resting places among one of the many Outer Planes. Gods will lay claim to a soul based on the way that they lead their life.

Goblins, for example, are often claimed by Maglubiyet to fight in his eternal war on the plane of Archeron. Someone who suffered immense, undue pain throughout their life might be taken to Elysium by Ilmater, the broken god. 

Each of these planes have a wealth of lore to explore with many locations, artifacts, and characters just waiting to be discovered by adventurers.

These planes aren’t the kind of place that you wander into at the request of some tavern-goer though. 

The Outer Planes provide incredible challenges to anyone that might find themselves drawn there. The creatures that inhabit them harness great powers, be they magical or mundane.

It’s for that reason that you probably won’t show up in one of these locales without some grand mission.

You might end up in the Abyss to free an ancient hero or on Ysgard to collect a powerful artifact.

These sorts of quests are often in preparation for, or in reaction to, huge events which could have cataclysmic repercussions throughout the multiverse. 

The Positive and Negative Energy Planes

Very simply, these two planes create the border that holds the entirety of the cosmos together. Within them are the very energies that provide substance to life and death within the D&D multiverse.

Like all of the other planes, they are building blocks upon which life can come into existence.

But just as the Outer Planes are more conceptual than the Inner Planes, the Energy Planes are far more conceptual than any of the others.

These planes are made up of almost pure energy in a way that’s difficult for mortal creatures to comprehend.

What Is the Multiverse in D&D?

The cosmology of D&D is a pretty big concept that has been around since the 1st edition as a way to reconcile the many planes of existence and settings in which adventures could take place.

In its current form, The Great Wheel cosmology describes the relationship between the world we adventure in and all other planes.

The Great Wheel

In the image above, which is the official 5e layout of the Great Wheel, each name represents a plane of existence.

At the core of the wheel is the prime material plane, surrounded on either side by the Feywild and Shadowfell.

Beyond that lies the Elemental Chaos and the four Elemental Planes. Beyond that still are the Outer Planes, each of which represents a different alignment and core theme.

While the arrangement of many spheres might look like a solar system, the multiverse of D&D doesn’t follow the same physics that we are beholden to by any means.

In fact, the only plane that typically resembles a planet in any sense of the word is the prime Material Plane.

Cosmologies of the Multiverse

While the generally accepted “map” of the multiverse is the Great Wheel cosmology, there are other ideas and conceptualizations that have been used in the past and that might be used by various inhabitants of the multiverse.

Like ants admiring the Great Pyramids of Giza, the many races that live within the multiverse often only speculate at the full breadth of what lies beyond.

Someone on the Material Plane might have only heard of other planes as fairy tales, while a wise sage that has travelled the multiverse might just have some small conception of the true layout.

In fact, there are probably few cultures that have an understanding of the multiverse as accurate as the Great Wheel.

You can think of that as a bird’s eye view for DMs and players to understand what’s going on while the characters we create are trapped in the maze. 

So, with all of this, there are a lot of other concepts that might come up if you get into talking about the multiverse with some random NPC.

The World Tree, based on the norse Yggdrasil, depicts the multiverse as a great interconnected tree. At the trunk is the Material Plane, while the roots and branches connect to the fiendish and celestial Outer Planes respectively.  

In The World Axis, the Material Plane and its echoes sit between two vast seas. The sea above is the Astral Sea, which holds many of the Outer Planes.

The Elemental Chaos sits below, and at the bottom of that lies The Abyss like a great void.

Some believe that there is just One World, a single Material Plane where many strange places like Mt. Olympus and the city of Mechanus are just hard-to-reach locations. 

There are many published concepts and many more that have yet to be created by players and DMs just like you.

Any idea that ties together the many aspects of the multiverse in a cohesive way is grounds for a new interpretation of D&D’s cosmology.

Travel Between Planes

Traveling between the planes of existence is more than just possible, it’s often a big part of higher-level gameplay.

Powerful magic and dimensional gates can send you hurtling through the multiverse once you’re ready to deal with planar adventures.

One of the most common ways to travel between planes is by using existing portals. Portals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but they tend to have a few things in common.

First, they are often in remote areas that resemble the plane they are attached to. Second, they will typically be protected by some form of guardian, puzzle, or required key.

Getting to go through a portal can be as much of an adventure as what might happen on the other side.

Your adventurers will likely spend a great deal of time hunting down leads to find out where the portal is and how to be best prepared for its challenge. 

Portals are natural gateways from one plane to another, so they can be subject to all sorts of weird requirements.

One portal might only be open on a solstice, while another portal might only appear to those who are pure of heart.

It really just depends on what kind of plot hooks you want to set up before jumping to another plane.

The City of Sigil

The Outlands is a plane that exists beyond the scope of any of the planes we’ve listed.

It can be found in the same place as the Material Plane, but it also makes contact with all of the other planes of existence. It’s said that you can physically walk to any of the Outer Planes from the Outlands.

High above the Outlands atop an endless spire is the City of Sigil. Here, in this city that looks out upon the whole of the multiverse, there are countless portals leading to any location in the multiverse. 

This is why another name for Sigil is the City of Doors.

This mysterious city is home to scholars and wanderers of the multiverse and is ruled over by the Lady of Pain, a god-like being that is said to possibly even be a physical incarnation of the multiverse. 

If you’re not jumping through a portal, you’re probably using magic. Magic spells can be essential to traversing the multiverse.

Specifically, Teleportation Circle and Plane Shift are the two most commonly used to get to a new destination.

Teleportation spells such as these require a decent amount of preparation though, which stops you from just deciding on a whim that you want to jump over to the abyss, throwing your DM’s plans into complete disarray. 

For a Teleportation Circle, you’ll need to know the proper Sigil sequence (think chevrons in Stargate) of another circle to reach your destination.

If you use Plane Shift, you’ll need a tuning fork tuned to the precise vibration of your destination plane. The requirements for either of these spells can easily become adventures in their own right.

The many planes of D&D are all huge settings in their own right. Now that you know what the multiverse is, we can begin to explore it and talk about the different places your characters might find themselves in.

As always, happy adventuring.