I feel as though that the Material Plane from Dungeons & Dragons is misnamed.
Allow me to explain. In traditional DnD cosmology, there are four types of planes: the Material Plane, the sphere of mundane reality, the Transitive Planes, which must be traveled through to get from on plane to another, the Inner Planes, consisting of the Elemental Planes of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, and the Negative and Positive Energy Planes, and the various combinations of them, and the Outer Planes, consisting of Heaven, Hell, and every afterlife in between.
First, I’ll describe the Transitive Planes, consisting of the Astral Plane and the Ethereal Plane. The Astral connects the Outer Planes both to each other, and to the Material Plane. It is a world wear time does not pass, and the where the corpses of dead gods float between the world. The astral plane is a concept from real life esotericism, incidentally. More on that later.
The Ethereal Plane connects the Inner Planes to the Material. It is divided between the Border Ethereal, where the traveler can see into another world, Material or Elemental or otherwise, as if through grey mist, and the Deep Ethereal, where the traveler can reach one Border Ethereal from another, and where the demiplanes – worlds to small to be planes themselves – exist. Ghosts exist in the Border Ethereal of the Material Plane. In the same way that travelers do, they can see the mortal realm, and sometimes, whether through great effort or simply being in the right place, reach out and touch it.
I suppose I should also mention the Plane of Shadow. It doesn’t have much to do with either the Inner or Outer Planes, it just happens to connect to every point on the Material Plane. This means that it can be used to get from one part of that world to another, and as such, is also called a transitive plane. The Plane of Shadow is dark and formless, as the name suggests.
The Inner Planes consist of worlds based on the four elements – fire, water, earth, and air – and the two energy planes, based off of Positive Energy (which makes living things move) and Negative Energy (which makes dead things move). The Inner Planes also include worlds based on various combinations of the first six planes, for example, the Lightning Plane is based on the combination of fire and positivity. Later editions collapsed the combinations into a type of meta-plane called the Elemental Chaos, where the elements are all mixed up, and you can simply walk from the water part to the fire part. It seems the fifth edition also kept the distinct planes for the four elements, however.
The Outer Planes are the various afterlives a person can go to after death, and in the Great Wheel cosmology, are dominated by the concepts of Good, Evil, Law, and Chaos. The general idea of the outer planes is that they are to be dominated by abstract concepts. They are the worlds of gods and spirits, angels and demons. These are the worlds that mortals are reborn into after a lifetime of deeds and beliefs, where their morality and ethics determine if they spend eternity in bliss or suffering.
The Material Plane is the world most like our own, except for the elves and wizards running around. This is the world where people are born, live, and die. In short, it is the plane ‘closest to earth,’ so to speak. The reason I don’t like the name ‘Material Plane’ has to do with the ghosts.
Ghosts, as I said, exist in the Ethereal Plane, specifically, in the Border Ethereal. From there, the spirits of the dead can see the world of the living, even as they pass through the solid objects of that world. However, they still cannot pass through solid objects on the Ethereal Plane. Furthermore, any traveler to the Ethereal can pass through Material objects in the same way that ghosts can.
Those of you that remember my piece Subtle Matter will know that I noted that this idea of ghosts getting their ability to mass through solid matter from the plane they’re on is unusual. As if being a spirit doesn’t arise from being fundamentally different from matter, but from simply being ‘over there,’ in a sense.
This is why I don’t like the Material Plane being called the Material Plane – every plane is material. The material of the Ethereal Plane is ethereal matter, the material of Hell is hellish matter, and the four elemental planes are made out of one particular kind of elemental matter. Perhaps a better name for this place would be the Terrestrial Plane, to emphasis that it’s the plane ‘closest to earth,’ or the Temporal or Mortal Plane, if the important thing about it is that it is where beings live and die. However, terrestrial would surely describe the Elemental Plane of Earth better, and even in the Outer Planes, time passes and things die, if only so that it’s possible to adventure there.
But in older editions, the Material Plane had a different name: the Prime Material Plane. This name change has interesting implications, now that I think about it. In the switch to fourth edition, when the world ‘Prime’ was lost from the name, it seems to have been because the designers didn’t think the word was important. After all, in real life esotericism, there is no such thing as a prime material plane, just a material or physical world.
Prime, then, would simply look like a way of emphasizing the importance of the plane. The Material, as the place where mortals live, is where the ultimate conflict for the fate of the multiverse is played out, rather than some afterlife between heaven and hell. But this does not explain how there can be multiple Prime Material Planes, as there were in certain early publications.
The answer is in this concept of ethereal matter. The planes of the esoterics, after all, are not simply ‘over there,’ they are completely different states of being. People and objects could not be said to be made of any kind of matter. The original designers quickly realized that such a world would be difficult to play in, however, and to simplify things, they decided that the other planes would also be made of their own kinds of matter. This is why the plane that was inspired by what the writings called the material plane gained the word ‘prime’ to it’s name. It’s not a material plane that is prime, but a plane made of prime material.