13 May 2017

The Theory and Use of Gates in Campaign Dungeons, Part 1: Setting the Stage

Prerequisite to the summoning and binding of demons and their ilk is a deep understanding of gates and of the planes themselves.  How gates inter-relate with planar travel and truenames, with tesseracts and teleportation; the mastery of the magical traits that define planar portals, including how to ‘wrack them to your own purposes; fissuring the gatetrace of a fleeing archmage to follow and slay him within his own sanctum---these are the foundations upon which a demonologist builds her empire.  For without gates there are no summonings.
--- The Witch of Perrenland, The Demonomicon

A Quick Preface

If you have a copy of Ed Greenwood’s “Theory and Use of Gates”---first published in The Dragon #37 (May 1980) and reprinted in Best of Dragon Magazine Volume 2 (November 1981 and February 1986)--- read that before my article below.  You don’t need to read Greenwood’s treatise first, but it sets the stage for this article quite handily, hence my recommendation.  

To A Lesser Degree, Teleporters:  An Introduction

The World of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms are replete with gates and related portals, where they serve as underpinnings that showcase the importance of gates in those campaigns, and in D&D as a whole.  Castle Greyhawk is infamous for its portals to other planets and strange demi-planes---including EX1 Dungeonland and EX2 Beyond the Magic Mirror (leading to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland); WG6 Isle of the Ape (King Kong’s Skull Island); the planets from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus series; Jack Vance’s Tschai from the Planet of Adventure books; and Oz and Melnibon√© among many other locales.  Castle Greyhawk also features much intra- and inter-level teleportation as well, perhaps most-famously to Rob Kuntz’s Bottle City on level 2 of the dungeons.  The Forgotten Realms is similarly populated with a network of worlds-spanning portals, including a multitude within, to, and from Undermountain.  The Forgotten Realms use of gates pushed them the closest to approaching the level of ubiquity that they hold within Farmer’s World of Tiers novels, but even in the ‘Realms, gates remain, for the most part, the purview of high-level adventurers, and little is done to explain the processes behind their creation, usage, maintenance, or destruction. 

I see magical portals as a spectrum that range from rope trick to blink, through dimension door, teleport, and plane shift, to phase door and maze.  They reach their pinnacle with gate.  Thus, in my corner of the multiverse, even low-level PCs have access to gate-related magics, although no spells and few magic items directly deal with the structure of gates and related transportation portals. 

Gates present several logistical challenges to a Dungeon Master, in spite of the wonderful havoc they wreak on players (in particular the mappers), and the resultant glee that they bring to a Dungeon Master’s dark heart:  teleporters can separate parties within a dungeon or even scatter PCs across the planes; they may deposit a party into extraordinarily hostile environments for which they are completely unprepared; and they are often viewed a tools of DM fiat, in that PCs have little to no ability to control their own destiny when it comes to gates and teleporters:  PCs are either all-in, or all-out, with few tools to help them decide whether to take the plunge (assuming that they have any choice in the matter at all, of course).  In addition, gates, planar travel, and---to a lesser degree, teleporters---are often deemed the exclusive purview of high-level characters; in part I think this is because gate is, in fact, one of the highest-level spells in the game, but more so because few resources exist within D&D to help DMs and players come to terms with these semi-obscure elements of play.  In the eyes of some, to play in campaigns with a strong Moorcockian- or Philip-Jose-Farmerian flavor, is, perhaps, to step beyond the pale of even high-fantasy D&D into a “Monty Haul” campaign, or even into another rpg altogether.  Part of the intent for this article is to provide a toolkit to fill that gap---to enable gate-loving DMs and players to use gates in their games, and to challenge the perception that teleporters and planar travel fall solely within the purview of high-level characters.

Dissecting Gates, From the Outside In

To begin at the beginning, in D&D a gate is a magical portal that whisks the PCs that enter it to another location.  In general, PCs won’t know the destination of a gate unless they have discovered some information about its creators and/or its current users because in-game there are few, if any, resources available to assist PCs with divining the nature of any magical portal.  Generous DMs may provide magic-users with some intelligence about a gate via detect balance, -evil or -good, detect magic, augury, identify, know alignment, divination, or true seeing, and they can always turn to the ubiquitous last resorts of desperate information seekers---bardic lore, sagely consultation, commune contact other plane, legend lore.  Perhaps even such spells as locate object, glassee, project image, and other scrying magics/devices, may allow PCs to “see beyond” to the other side of a gate
What intelligence such magics will provide, if any, rests solely on the DM’s judgment, and the players’ creativity.  
Most gates are presumed to operate continuously, and are reliably safe to use:  they are basically Star Trek transporters without the occasional melt-down due to signal lock failure.  These basic assumptions hold true across most editions and settings in the game, but they’re relatively useless if a DM wants to run a multi-planar, worlds-spanning campaign within which gates play a central role.  Consider these scenarios:

  • If gates can lead to variable destinations (a la Farmer, Greenwood’s article, and “From Kuroth’s Quill” #1: One-Way Doors, Variable Stairs, and the Accessibility of Sub-Levels), is there some way other than trial-and-error for PCs to recognize such gates?
  • If a gate can be trapped, can PCs detect it, and attempt to remove it, and if so, how?---will a thief’s Find and Remove Traps ability function on gates?  what detail will a clerical Find Traps provide?  would dispel magic to remove a magical trap on the gate interfere with its functionality?
  • When knights return from Faerie or other realms of myths and folklore, they often age heavily during the transition---or their age remains constant but time has advanced quickly in their absence (often a century or more); if PCs knew of such risks when choosing to traverse a gate, they might avoid it completely; if instead, however, they have tools to try to minimize such negative effects, the possibility of success (and failure!) raises the tension and the stakes in the game---especially, if they are perhaps “forced” to choose to pursue a foe beyond the gate, or to rescue a friend who fell through, or whatever.
As the usage of gates and similar transporters become more common in a campaign world, specialized magics will be developed to help manage them---not just to determine whether they are working properly, but to divine their destination(s), the arcane rules that govern when they activate, and most especially to identify the nefarious traps that have been created to safeguard their operation and usage.  Providing PCs with gate-related tools gives them a fighting chance in the face of such now-more-common challenges, and these tools make gates an easier pill to swallow, when introducing them as a new element within a campaign. 

In order to make such tools useful in a game, I’ve broken down the functionality of permanent gates and teleporters, along with some related states (trapped or not, for example) into the two sets of properties:  outer traits and inner attributes.  Depending upon how much emphasis you want gates to occupy in your campaign, you may want to combine some of these traits, ignore others, or even collapse them all into two values (all of the inner and outer properties rolled-up into one master trait, and one master attribute).  Like the myriad of the planes that gates are but entry points into, you should customize these rules to suit your own preferences, and as well as the level of detail that your players enjoy:  if none of your players run magic-users that employ detect magic to look for schools of magic or strengths of auras, then this sub-system as I’ve defined it is probably too much detail for them as-written.  Don’t let that stop you from using gates---just modify it and move on!

The outer traits of a gate can be divined via the new spell, detect gate (see part 2, below).  Outer traits include:

  • intensity:  a measure of the strength of a gate’s magical aura and planar connections; detection levels are:  none/inactive, dim, faint, moderate, strong, very strong, intense, and overwhelming; gates rated at strong or stronger are more-easily detected; in general, an active gate will read with an intensity one or two levels higher than its inactive state
  • recency:  a measure of when an inactive gate was last used; detection levels are:  fresh (used within 1 round/level; detects at +50%), recent (within 1 turn/level; detects at +25%), waning (within 1 hour/level, detects at base), dwindled (within 1 day; detects at -25%), stale (within 1 day/level; detects at -50%), lapsed (within 1 week/level; detects at -75%), atrophied (within 1 month/level; detects at -125%), eroded (within 1 year/level; detects at -200%)
  • ethos:  a measure of the alignment components of a gate’s destination(s) (if any); detects as:  none, law, chaos, good, evil, neutrality (no detection modifiers)
Inspired DMs should tweak the increments for recency (and perhaps intensity), based on how common gates will be in a campaign, or how strong you envision their magics to be, and how lingering they are:  if you are playing in Farmer’s World of Tiers, “fresh” may measure turns or even hours per level, for example, with the rest of the values adjusting upward from there (concluding with “eroded” denoting decades or centuries per level).

The inner attributes of a gate are only available to the new spell, identify gate (again, see part 2 for details); detect gate is not sufficient to pierce the veil of a gate’s inner workings.  The inner attributes are:

  • activation method(s):  general details about how the gate is activated---by walking through, by command phrase, by proximity of some sort of key or item, by ritual, etc.; specific details beyond walking through the gate often require research via consultation with a sage or bard, legend lore or contact other plane, or similar efforts to glean the full information
  • destination(s):  the caster discovers how many destinations to which the gate leads; if the gate can access more than one plane, planes will be identified from most- to least-commonly travelled destinations
  • periodicity:  determines if the gate is always on, or periodic; a second check will determine the frequency of the gate’s operative periods---every other round, once per day, upon command, during the new moon, etc.; a third check will determine the duration for the gate’s activity cycle---always on during the full moon, one use during a full moon, for one hour after the third person to walk through during a full moon, etc.
  • sweetness:  a measure of the discomfort that passage through a gate causes, based on a 14 Constitution; adjust upward or downward from Con 14 using detect gate’s intensity scale to determine PC impact, if any:  none (no effect; the gate is “sweet”), faint (mild dizziness), moderate (dislocation), strong (mild nausea), very strong (nausea), intense (strong pain), overwhelming (unconsciousness); each level of effect is cumulative, and exact effects are left to the DM to adjudicate
  • symmetry:  does the gate shift travellers’ physical positions during transit, or do they arrive in the same positions relative to one another, to the gate itself, etc.
  • temporality:  does the gate shift travelers forward or backward in time, or have a discernable lag during transit time
  • transit options:  is the gate one-way or two-way?
  • traps:  the caster identifies one trap on the gate, if any, along with the trap’s level of threat (use detect gate’s intensity scale)
  • usage restrictions:  identifies whether or not the gate restricts usage in some manner, such as by home plane, race, sex, alignment, class, level, eye color, family lineage, etc. ; the first check provides a yes/no response, while subsequent checks provide one restriction per check 

Gaming Bibliography

Ed Greenwood’s “The Theory and Use of Gates” provides an excellent overview of gates-related fiction released through the late 1970s.  Other than Greenwood’s piece and Sepulchrave’s works, I do not reference fiction otherwise in this bibliography.  Instead, I focus narrowly on useful sources about planar architecture and gates,  rather than on content describing the people, places, and things found within  any specific plane:  this is one reason why I don’t list most Planescape titles in the bibliography, for example (that I can’t stand Planescape’s cant is another…).  The Dragon Archive details a cornucopia of such content specific to various planes, including the Nine Hells (issues #75, #76, #91), Gladsheim (#90), Hades (#113), and the Demiplane of Shadow (#213), in addition two planar adventures (in issues #67 and #90).  In addition, a wide variety of Planescape and d20 products have provided support content detailing specific planes as well, such as Rob Kuntz's and Necromancer Games’ City of Brass products, most of Mongoose’s line of planar books, Monte Cook’s Beyond Countless Doorways.

Without further ado, here is my list of preferred sources about gates and planar theory, including many formative articles about the origins of D&D’s “great wheel” multiverse from The Dragon:

  • Peter Adkison, The Primal Order, Wizards of the Coast (1992)
  • Bruce Cordell, A Guide to the Ethereal Plane, Wizards of the Coast (1998)
  • Bruce Cordell and Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel, Planar Handbook, Wizards of the Coast (2004)
  • Jameson Ferris, “Tales of Wyre” (Story Hour) and “Eadric et. al. (The Paladin and his Friends)” (Rogues Gallery) in Sepulchrave’s “Wyre” threads on EN World (2002 to date)
  • Ed Greenwood, “From the City of Brass… …to Dead Orc Pass… In One Small Step:  The Theory and Use of Gates” in The Dragon #37 (May 1980)
  • Gary Gygax, "The Inner Planes " in Dragon #73 (May 1983)
    • "Planes" in The Dragon #8 (July 1977)
    • "Playing On the Other Planes of Existence" in The Dragon #32 (December 1979)
    • "Protection Circles and the Like..." in Dragon #56 (December 1981)
  • Jeff Grubb, Bruce R. Cordell, and David Noonan , Manual of the Planes, Wizards of the Coast (2001)
  • Gareth Hanrahan, Classic Play:  Book of the Planes, Mongoose Publishing (2004)
  • Dave Howell, Chessboards:  The Planes of Possibility, Wizards of the Coast (1994)
  • Steven Kienle with Gary Gygax, "Elementary Ideas for Elemental Adventuring" in Dragon #47 (March 1981)
  • Lenard Lakofka, “The Inner Planes” in Dragon #42 (October 1980)
  • Mike Mearls, Legends & Lairs:  Portals & Planes, Fantasy Flights Games (2003)
  • Phil Reed, “A Dozen Planar Traits,” Ronin Arts (2006)
  • Roger E. Moore with Gary Gygax, “The Astral Plane” in Dragon #67 (November 1982)
  • Roger E. Moore, “Gates in the World of Greyhawk” originally in the Greyhawk AOL folder, was later available on wizards.com, and is now archived on Greyhawk Online (March 1995)
  • Carl Schnurr, Mythic Places and More Mythic Places for Ars Magica, White Wolf (1991)
  • David C. Sutherland III with Gary Gygax, Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits, TSR (1980)
Other likely gaming sources for planar inspiration include the rpgs Stormbringer/Elric, Everway, Amber Diceless Roleplaying, and Ars Magica.   If I’ve missed any interesting or worthwhile books about gates and the structure of the planes, do please let me know---I’m always on the lookout for these kinds of resources!


"The Theory and Use of Gates in Campaign Dungeons, Part 1:  Setting the Stage" first appeared in Knockspell Magazine #3 (Spring 2009).


  1. Not how I like to use Gates, but an informative read. Thanks!

  2. How do you use gates, MS?


  3. One of the things I like about gates as you've described them over the years is their strategic implications: a gate bypasses all defenses outside its perimeter. While in practicality, campaign use of gates is most often adventuring party-centric, known gates represent a worry for anyone holding the territory in which the gate is located.

    In the campaign world I'm working on, I'm thinking all the gates in civilized territory were destroyed during "the return", but they also represent the best way to get to the large savage interior. Finding the right gate (with one of the pair close to the marches) would allow access to areas attrition would never permit, and which are largely unknown for safe-ish teleportation.

  4. @ EOTB: agreed completely. This was one of the aspects of the FR that I really liked from Greenwood's articles in Dragon Magazine---the sense that gates in the FR were much-more common, and directly impacted everything in the setting. When it was eventually published in the 1987 grey box set, it didn't quite meet my expectations for that World of Tiers meets AD&D vibe that I'd been getting from the Dragon articles.

    Your usage of gates for your new setting seems similar to the approach one of our players used in our summer campaign last year. Not as over-the-top as FR, but still integral to our PCs' machinations!

    Somewhat less over-archingly, I've also used gates as adventure destinations before: the PCs need to fight their way to the gate, then get through it before they can do the "real" adventure that they're taking on.



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