This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Six on 12th February 2020.
Ryu: So I believe the other day you were saying something to me that sounded roughly like “oh dear gods why?”
Lennon: That was to the Killer DM, not you.
Ryu: Fine, but I think I have a valid reason to ask you the same question?
Ostron: Oh my…what in the Hells is he trying to build?
Lennon: I don’t want to go to the Hells! I’m trying to figure out how to connect to the Elemental planes.
Ryu: How many times have I told you to stop messing around with dimensional portals?
Ostron: Especially not out in the main room! That’s what we have the Gnomish Workshop for. You know, the one with all the alarm spells and the antimagic field security system! And ROSTRO!
Ryu: I’m not sure that last one is a bonus, but anyway, he’s right. No portals. Why did you want to go to the elemental planes anyway?
Lennon: I didn’t want to go there, I just wanted to do what everyone else does; use stuff from them.
In the 5th edition cosmology of the planes, starting at the material plane, the Feywild and the Shadowfell are considered adjacent planes; the material plane directly affects and influences certain aspects of both planes and travel between them is relatively easy; common NPCs and non-magical beings can accidentally move from one to the other.
The elemental planes could be said to be one step removed from the three planes Lennon just mentioned. Because of that, portals to those planes don’t usually appear or occur by accident, but even when they do, there’s a lot of power and usually some noticeable effects involved. For example, portals to the plane of water often manifest as violent atmospheric disturbances.
Now, despite being easier to make than a gateway to somewhere like the Abyss, portals to the elemental planes aren’t common. The reason they don’t turn up a lot is simple; nobody really wants to go to any of them.
For example, let’s go back to the plane of water. 95% of it is just that; water. Solid ground is hard to come by, and most of it is crowded with the few air-breathing creatures that ended up on the plane for whatever reason. The plane of air is very similar. It’s a huge expanse of open air with maze-like and sometimes violent winds blowing through it. Even if you can fly it’s a tough place to be. There are a few floating islands around, apparently because things from the plane of earth drop by from time to time and don’t take their trash out with them, but other than that it’s just air.
Speaking of the plane of earth, as the name might suggest it’s mostly if not all rock and dirt, and most of the places where regular beings can move around are tunnels within rocks or mountains. This is one of the few elemental planes where regular beings might want to mount an expedition because the earth on the plane still has metal and precious gem deposits like normal material terrain. However, that might not be the best idea for reasons we’ll get to in a minute.
The last major plane is the plane of fire. Now, in the areas closer to the material plane it is not simply a bunch of literal fire, but there are a lot of hot rocks, obsidian landscapes, and lava. According to the rules, being anywhere on the plane is on par with walking in the middle of a hot desert, with the added bonus of there being even less water.
Now because there isn’t really a standards committee on how names are assigned, there are several areas labeled “elemental planes” that only sort of fit the usual criteria. Being located at the borders of the four major planes, they only exist because the interactions between the major elements have predictable results. The plane of ice, for example, exists due to the border between the planes of water and air, and is also sometimes called “Frostfall.” Similarly, the Great Conflagration, also called the Plane of Ash, is on the border between the planes of Air and Fire. The Plane of Ooze is also known as the Swamp of Oblivion and forms due to the interaction between Earth and Water, and The Plane of Magma is, yes, formed on the border of earth and fire.
Now our descriptions of the planes so far are for the areas of the planes that are slightly “closer” to the material plane, in a cosmological sense. As you get farther and farther from the influence of the material plane, the elemental natures of the planes get more purified. The plane of earth will cease having any pockets of non-solid material, the plane of water will be totally devoid of rock, and so on. This continues until reaching the outer boundary known as the Elemental Chaos, which is an area made up of endlessly uncontrolled storms of pure elemental energy roiling together.
Apart from the nature of all the elemental planes being barely compatible with most creatures’ tastes, the other reason they aren’t great vacation spots are the inhabitants. Like the planes themselves, there isn’t a lot of variety to the wildlife or people living there, but the things that do live there are extreme. The most common ones are the things the wizards keep summoning; all those elementals or elemental creatures like Mephits. You can also find creatures that are heavily associated with an element, such as gargoyles or salamanders, hanging out in whatever plane makes most sense. The plane of water actually has the most diverse ecosystem because of how many things live in water, though it should be noted there is a higher than usual concentration of Kraken in that plane, so an exotic fishing expedition is not recommended.
Other than the elementals, perhaps the most famous inhabitants of the major planes are the Genies. Formed when a mortal soul merges with matter from one of the major elemental planes in a particular way, the genies are the most powerful and organized inhabitants of the planes and come in four flavors: the Dao are based out of Earth, the Djinni are from Air, the Efreeti come from Fire, and the Marid base from Water. The details of each type vary a bit, but in general the primary motivation of the Genies is procuring mortal slaves to serve and worship them. The risk of being taken by genies is perhaps the greatest threat to travelers other than the planes themselves.
Because slaving and gathering wealth is such a significant part of genie culture, several cities have sprung up to encourage the trade. The City of Brass, the Efreeti settlement in the plane of Fire, is probably the most famous as it does brisk trade in magic items along with everything else, but the Dao, Djinni, and Marids have The City of Jewels, Citadel of Ten Thousand Pearls, and Aaqa respectively.
Please note that in D&D, very few genies are capable of granting wishes; you have to find what’s called a “noble Genie” and what makes them more noble than the rest of the genies is currently unexplained. Encountering a random genie and asking for a wish is unlikely to result in a favorable outcome, either because the creature will be unable to grant wishes and may retaliate out of spite, or because the genie will take whatever you said and interpret it in the least favorable way possible. Just file them in the same cateogry with Feywild creatures and Devils and make sure you have legal representation present before speaking.
One benefit to the presence of the genies is they very often assist against the arguably more dangerous beings that live in the elemental chaos. The Princes of Elemental Evil are constantly trying to break up the elemental planes, and the rest of the material ones, so everything can become the Elemental Chaos. D&D mythology from previous editions, and partially from the Princes of Apocalypse resource, contend that the elemental forces are trying to do that because it was the state of the universe prior to the intervention of the gods, who formed worlds capable of supporting life. The leader in this endeavor is an amorphous, mysterious force known as the Elder Elemental Eye.
As mentioned, going to any of the elemental planes is a risky if not suicidal proposition, and it’s not done very often. Assuming someone isn’t trying to go to the plane of Earth to do some mining (and gods help you if the Dao catch you doing *that*), there are usually only two reasons people travel to the planes. They either want a magic item (probably bought from the City of Brass, but people also try to hide them in the Swamp of Oblivion) or they want to try to trap a noble genie. Have fun with that.
Probably 80 to 90 percent of people’s interaction with the elemental planes is the other way; wizards or cultists summoning creatures from the Elemental to the Material plane for whatever purpose. Given the questionable or outright hostile attitude most elemental inhabitants have for the material plane, it’s probably better that way.
Lennon: See but that’s what I was trying to do! I just wanted to set up some sort of connection to the plane of Fire to help with heating!
Ostron: Why didn’t you just use the thermostat?
Lennon: Because 1) I have no idea what “little superscript circle capital F” means; 2) You tell me that thing controls the temperature, but the average Summer temperature of the Sahara is 30c, and the lowest that thing goes is 50
Ostron: It’s Fahrenheit!
Lennon: Well I also speak German… and how dare you, sir!
Ryu: So, let me get this straight, you wanted to open an extra-dimensional portal to a plane with beings that literally want to set everything on fire, because your nose is cold.
Ostron: Actually… a cooling system hooked up to the plane of ice would help for keeping ROSTRO running longer.
Ryu: I’m still not comfortable with the amount of time it’s on now, I’m certainly not going to help turn it on more…shut up KayDee, you’re awful.
Lennon: Wait, she’s getting involved now?
Ryu: She probably will if we keep this up.
Lennon: Fine. Central heating isn’t worth that.
Ostron: Speaking of, though, there were a few other things I might want to check with ROSTRO in the workshop-
Ryu: No, no, I don’t have the smelling salts on me and the Oblex clones never get your hair right and it distracts me.
Lennon: She’s…upset. Probably that whole thing with the Killer DM earlier, don’t worry about it, just…let’s get over to the scrying pool.