Nov 27 2012 3:00pm

If I Ruled the Multiverse!

Imagine Mike Mearls has given you the job of coming up with the #dndnext cosmology. What would you keep from prior editions and what would you bin?

That is the question Rich Green—author of the Midgard Bestiary, and several other Open Design and Raging Swan sourcebooks—posed, and the heart of the “If I Ruled the Multiverse” thought experiment. Bring back the Great Wheel? Keep the World Axis? Mix it up with an orbital system? I have given the subject a lot of thought over the years—as I am willing to bet a large number of other gamers have—ranging from complete overhauls to a sort of Grand Unified Theory. I think that the latter option is truest to the spirit of the prompt, and probably the most fruitful topic of discussion, so I decided to give it a whirl, coming up with a hybrid that cannibalizes previous editions while adding a few twists of my own in order to provide a fertile cosmology for D&D Next.

First, let’s talk about the planes in Fourth Edition. I like a couple of the divine realms—Arvandor has a neat thing going on with its Wild Hunt, and Celestia is a great way to fit the Greek Olympus in with the more Judeo-Christian Heaven—but the abandonment of the Great Wheel and the creation of the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos isn’t for me. The best thing, far and away, were the two Parallel Planes, the Feywild and the Shadowfell. I think the names are a bit much—“Shadow” and “Faerie” would do just fine—but otherwise that is a great direction to go. I’d hold on to them, and in fact I’d probably standardize them a little more. Make the Shadow more explicitly tied to the undead and bring Faerie into sharper focus as it relates to races like the elves and goblins.

The Inner Planes, the elemental ones, are tricky. I’m not sure how much actual adventuring goes on in them; sure, you have places like The City of Brass, but outside of that, they either seem sort of tame for a place of raw elemental fury, or they seem too inimical to make adventuring there plausible, depending on what you’re reading. As I said above, twisting the Negative Energy Plane into the Plane of Shadow to make the Shadowfell—now just The Shadow in this new cosmology—is a great coup, because it sidesteps that issue.

The Elemental Chaos tried to do the same thing, but I think adding the Abyss into the mix led to its failure. Similarly, having Limbo in the Outerplanes as a swirling chaos of the raw stuff of reality is evocative, but not entirely “big” enough as a concept. I think the solution is to borrow a page from the Shadow and Faerie and make a Parallel Plane out of it; maybe it is because I was just reading about Norse mythology, but I’m inclined to call it Ginnungagap, and explicitly associate it with giants and genies. Make the various elements, para-elements and quasi-elements all places inside of the plane. I’m open to a better name for it, if you’ve got one.

Before we get to the Great Wheel, let’s talk about the Transitive Planes. There does not need to be both an Ethereal and an Astral plane. Both are functionally identical; collapse them into each other and keep the best parts of each. The same Astral—the name has more cultural cache, so I’ll pick that one to keep—connects the Prime Material Plane, the Parallel Planes of Ginnungagap, Faerie and Shadow, and provides a medium to get to the other, strange planes beyond. Think of it as another spatial dimension, if you like, filled with an aetheric substance, as per the classical elements.

The Prime Material Plane…well, I think it should be bigger than just “your game world.” In fact I think it should pretty much just be Spelljammer. That isn’t to say I think Spelljammer should be a default component of every setting, but rather that I think if you squint hard enough, its cosmology should be. Campaign settings are “planets”—not necessarily heliocentric or even round—in some kind of “solar” system, with all that wrapped up in a crystal sphere. Other campaign settings are reachable by exiting the sphere and traveling there. While I am thinking about it, I should mention that I think Spelljammer would be a natural evolution of or supplement to Eberron’s dungeonpunk motif.

I’m a Planescape partisan. As far as I’m concerned, the best place for high level play is the Outer Planes. There, some of the goofiness of a High Fantasy game can be mitigated; sure you can raise the dead, kill archfiends and travel between worlds; of course you can. It would be weird if you didn’t, berk! So yes, put the Spire and Sigil in the middle of the Outer Planes, fill it full of cutters speaking in a madcap, cobbled together slang, all under the nose of the enigmatic Lady of Pain. By and large the Outer Planes are pretty great, and I’d make only a few tweaks to them.

Pathfinder has the Four Horsemen ruling their Neutral Evil plane; that is pretty great. Yoink. The Celestia of Fourth Edition, I’d bring that over. I’d add more strains of Platonic Idealism to Mechanus. Small nudges. I’d also make sure that different settings focus on different planes; a Viking inspired campaign would play up Ysgard and Acheron—perhaps calling the latter Hel—while an Oriental Adventures game could call Arcadia Tian—under the rule of the August Emperor of Jade,—and view Pandemonium as Diyu or maybe focus on Youdu as a city within Pandemonium. Relativism!

The big problem with the Outer Planes is the Upper Planes. Evil? Dungeons and Dragons has Evil covered. For my money the devils, circles and Archdukes of the Lawful Evil Hell and the demons, layers and Princes of the Chaotic Evil Abyss are the most evocative and internally consistent parts of the game’s mythology, no matter what edition. The trouble is, the other alignment axes don’t really hold up to the same scrutiny. Partially because the default “hero” party isn’t out there killing supernatural manifestations of Good. 4e tried to solve this by making angels servants of particular gods, Good or Evil, which is a clever notion, but I like the idea of counterparts for Devils and Demons better, personally.

My solution to that conundrum is the emphasize the conflict between Law and Chaos as an older conflict—both cosmologically, and with a wink to the game’s earlier editions—with the battle between Good and Evil being relatively recent. Angels, then, are creations of Law, with the Lawful Neutral ones being a little bit more Old Testament judgement and wrath and the Lawful good being more justice and forgiveness...and the devils, of course, being “fallen” angels. I’d want to reach deeper than just the Western European versions: many eyed, many faced, many winged angels, Zoroastrian daevas and Hindu devas; heck, reach deep. Then, much in the same way that Dungeon Masters love to force players to interact diplomatically with devils, I’d encourage complex conflicts with angels.

I’d thought about making Fey attached to the Outer Planes as creatures of Chaos before 4e came out, but I like the Parallel Plane of Faerie better. No, I think the answer to Chaos is similar to angels; as the demons are deformed and monstrous agents of Chaotic Evil, I think that the Guardinals are a good direction to go for Chaotic Good, despite the fact that they used to be Neutral Good. I’d play toward the “animal headed god” angle of mythology, along with animal psychopomps and totems. Creatures of pure Chaos would include Slaad and truly amorphous Proteans, but I think one of the perks of Chaos is that you don’t have to worry too much about hierarchies and subdivisions.

Last but not least? I’d keep the Far Realm. Make it another Parallel Plane, but one “out of synch” with the Prime Material Plane, sealed off, distant, borrowing a page from Eberron’s Xoriat. Waiting to become coterminous again, to overlap with your campaign, when the stars are right....

Mordicai Knode figures that if there is something missing from this cosmology, you can just call it a demiplane and shove it in where it fits best. He’s curious to see your feedback in the comments. You can see more of him on Tumblr and Twitter. Special thanks to Symatt for the logo.

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Possible ideas I left out:

Elves are connected to the Faerie. Dwarves are connected to Ginnungagap. Orcs are connected to the Shadow? (It should come as no surprise that I want Orcs to be one of the core races.)

Or: the Parallel Planes are Mirror Mirror planes, where there are alternate versions of all the PCs & NPCs?
2. kingtycoon
I go back and forth on this - but today I really like the Inner Planes and some of the planar adventures as the Fantasy proxy for space-exploration. Let the PCs encounter aliens and try to survive on the surface of Neptune/The Paraelemental plane of Darkness & Cold (or what have you). But yeah - I say keep the inner planes for the survival & wilderness & exploration element.

The outer planes are settled right? To a great extent I think they're redundant in a fantasy game. "Oh! It's the weird city of the strange race... Just like everywhere else..." There's way s to deal with it. I like the Prime Material as being the amalgam universe -not just the feywild and shadowfell overlapping - but the Underdark (to heck with this idea that it's not its own dimension) and why not the heaven-dimension and the hell dimension - they interact physically with the Prime and there you have it - the amalgamated fantasyland everyone loves is answered for - and every species and thing has its own homeland.
3. Gerry__Quinn
Every day would be *every* day of Spring...
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
2. kingtycoon

I like the Inner Planes but...I've never really seen them work, is the thing. Though the idea of making it explicitly a home for the "outer space" elements of DnD is interesting...maybe relocate Spelljammer to the Inner Planes, make them sort of the "cluster of black holes at the center of the crystal sphere galaxy"?

I thought about making the Underdark it's own Parallel but then I figured...maybe that is just the place the Shadow overlaps the most? Making...each campaign's "Lothlorien" place the bit where Faerie overlaps more?
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
3. Gerry__Quinn

I'm more of an Always Winter Never Christmas sort of guy.
6. kingtycoon
I call you out on your insistence on considering the planes as spatial and or physically ruled - as in by physics. Still - I really don't see the difference between spelljammer and planescape! You were in my longrunning campaign that I guess I have to mention here (?) The interstitial medium is the astral/etheric plane - the various worlds are then non-homogenous associations of the basal elemental substances. They're incorporated in such a way that there are worlds of fire, of rock and any crazy geomorphic conglomeration that you can think of.

Concentrations of one element (e.g.: the volcanic depths of fire-mountain) link up through the inward-looking recursive 'presence' of that substance in every world with a similar concentration. So you can go to the bottom of the ocean and it's the bottom of every ocean. Go to the center of the deepest mine and it's the center of all the deepest mines.

Then you make sure that you populate your interstitial medium with unspeakable Shoggoth monsters and call it a day.
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
6. kingtycoon

The only reason to think of the Planes as a place is...so that adventurers can go there & kill things? I mean, I like esoterica, & I think the planes totally can provide that, but I also admit that I care more about cool Spelljammer ideas than I do about the Inner Planes?
8. William Van Landingham
I'm onboard as long as The Blood War is forever raging.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
8. William Van Landingham

Though "The PCs are fated to end the Blood War" is a great prophecy to drop on the heads of a Planescape party.
10. Kingtycoon
Well - look at what including the planes gives you as the DM - you can have whatever crazy thing you imagine be the next destination for the PCs. That's kind of the idea behind it. Worldbuilding comes up but it's secondary to the adventure-arc that you're trying to establish (mostly).

So you want players to go to a city of angels and devils and have the blood war - fine, you can have those.

Now to me - I say, why have the planes at all if you can turn your high-fantasy setting up to 11. Why isn't the blood war happening in the starter-village? Why not have angelic cities on the mainland? And really - if you're going whole hog for high-fantasy why have spherical worlds orbiting suns at all? Why not have flower shaped worlds resting atop enormous turtles swimming in seas of dinosaur ghosts?

Which is to say - I like the exotic nature of the inner planes because they're exotic and weird. From the straight up world-building persepctive they can just exist because you want them to. From the adventure-arc perspective you can address them just as soon as you railroad your poor PCs into having to go to them.
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
10. Kingtycoon

Wait, didn't I explicitly mention not having round heliocentric worlds?

Anyhow, I hear what you are saying, & to some degree I concur, but I think your example of the Starter Town is a perfect example of why I disagree. Planes as places let you have your cake & eat it too. Gritty low fantasy, but you can GO to the weird high fantasy place.
12. kingtycoon
Sure, sure. But we're talking about what we want DnD next to be. 5e Planes?

I stick with the idea of expanding the franchise of the Feywild and the Shadowfell. I really liked those ideas and used them, but the general execution seemed - a little too 'planar'. Like, I wanted there to be Prime-Material NYC / Shadowfell = Gotham / Feywild = Metropolis (approxomating sure). Why not have the same place recapitulated on different dimensions - and then add dimensions. Then you have Sigil that is also Waterdeep (or whatever - Greyhawk) and also the city of brass and so on - all the cities are part of the Elemental City - they're facets of it. Then you can have the mirror mirror versions of everything and everyone. The Infernal you, the Celestial you, the Fey you, the Undead you. Make them - you know - indistinguishable from monsters etc... but then you've got a good mechanic inbuilt for some shapechange rules - a good mechanic for damage types and resistances emerges from that as well.

Make the upper planes really dimensions of the world. They don't have to all be mirror mirror - of course, but the PCs can be special, and the gods? Why Hextor & Heironeous are already this thing you know? So play with that, build on that.

Then make the inner planes really - inner. They're elemental in the way that the atom is elemental, they're the shrunk-down subcosmos, they're the weird quarky glue of the universes.
David Moran
13. DavidMoran
I never really dug the planes not physically bordering the prime material and just being ... a weird space that is different from our space. You can't leave Waterdeep and walk to the Elemental Plane of Fire. You can travel and travel in any direction you like and you'll never get there. If I was creating the cosmology I'd hollow earth it / space-ify it. You want to get to the Abyss? Find a really deep cave, dude. Or, I don't know, the bottom of the ocean or something. Where's Ysgard? Probably on a really high mountain. Or a cloud! Or - Spelljamming it up - on an asteroid or moon base. Angels are probably crazy space orca, who knows.

Trancendentalist conceptions of the planes, they're not really for me. I like them being definable PLACES.
Mordicai Knode
14. mordicai
13. fordmadoxfraud

Wow, I didn't realize there were so many materialists in the ranks! See, I'm down with a planetary schema personally, which Kingtycoon hates (above) but you seem to like. Huh. I like dualism for the reason of seperation. I also like it for the reason on contiguousness; anywhere can bleed into anywhere else! Gates & summoning, that is what I like.
Thomas Jeffries
15. thomstel
I've always been a fan of a single Prime Material, and built a simple planar setup in a custom campaign (3.0) years ago that we enjoyed. It always felt fantastical/unreal in a way that we thought a D&D world should (who need plate tectonics, or even spherical globe?). Like an 80's fantasy movie. :)

Material, Ethereal and Shadow co-terminuous as usual. Complete overlap at all points. Ethereal's feel was tweaked more toward Light-based to balance the theme of a dimmer Shadow; but nothing Positive/Negative about it, just themed.

Ethereal/Shadow was where the dichotomous nature of a sentient being existed, so everyone in the Prime (with a good and evil aspect to their soul) had a semi-tangible part of themselves in both realms. Workaround to physical travel to these planes? The magic to allow such things had been a) lost, b) restricted or c) functioned as a natural/extraordinary ability. This was a campaign plot point, as some beings had learned how to achieve immortality by utilizing the Ethereal to restore themselves before being recycled/reincarnated into new being(s).

The Elemental Planes existed in their normal orientations around the Prime Material, as the many cosmology models show, except that they physically manifested in the Prime instead of being on the other side of a portal of some kind. If one walked/flew/burrowed directly away from the central origin point of the plane, the landscape would slowly transform into that of a normal Elemental Plane, including communities of the normal denizens, environment hazards, etc. This allowed for all the quasi-elemental realms to exist as well, in the in-between areas far from the world's origin point in 3d space.

So with Fire, Water, Air and Earth being horizontally aligned around the origin point, the Positive Plane was above it, and to facilitate possible methods of reaching it there was a World Mountain that took up a huge portion of the center of the Prime. To match, there were countless (Underdark-y) tunnels that we termed the Lightless Ways that would eventually lead to the Negative to match.

The big chunk of land in the middle where all the Elemental Realms' effects were in balance: the Greenlands. An expansive D&D Prime realm with room for all sorts of cultures, realms, local environmental variation, etc. Normal D&D campaign material.

Astral & Outer Planes: The plan was to have the Outlands as normal, functioning as a mirror of the Prime except with the portals in the gatetowns intact instead of letting the berks walk to the actual Outer Planes, and Sigil hanging out as a planar hub as usual. The Astral was going to be ther intermedium between the Prime/Inner realm, the Outer Planes and Outlands, pretty much the interstellar void it usually ends up being. Campaign never went there due to the high-level action that could be supported in the combined Prime/Inner plane though, so didn't get much of the details worked out, other than "lean towards Planescape" since I love that setting.
Mordicai Knode
16. mordicai
15. thomstel

The "Ethereal/Shadow" twist is neat, I like that-- though I would go further & explicitly tie it to the Positive & Negative planes, personally, since I'm a bit of a reductionist-- but I am again shocked to see everyone as a materialist!

In my personal game, I explicitly muddy the waters between planes, planets, dimensions, but that is because the people often don't have a perspective to differentiate them.

I'm just surprised how many people just make the planes explicit PLACES. It is really interesting to me; I wonder if it says more about Tor.com or if this same logic holds for the rest of the gaming community?
Thomas Jeffries
17. thomstel
For that campaign, the materialist approach came down to the symmetry inherent in the 3e source material. Since I had a new cosmology that shared a lot of the 3e characteristics, names, etc., but oriented them in a different fashion, I wanted a fixed set of relationships between up/down, good/evil, light/dark, etc. so that players (though experienced) would be able to connect the dots on missing cosmological info. They had their wise lore figures to consult with, but often those folks were off adventuring themselves as well since it was a big "World in Peril" story from the get-go.

I would likens it to the symmetry you find in a lot of Zelda games (gather the red/blue/green thingies in the red/green/blue zones from the red/green/blue creatures, then the 6 or 8 pieces of the doohickey on your inventory screen), as opposed to the disorientation of booting up an open-world title and wondering a) where am I?, b) what do I do now?, and c) how do I get there?

I've played a handful of urban setting games throughout the years where everything was clear as mud in terms of logical consistency, be it the planar aspect, overlap of magical realms, means of ingress to the real world by "monsters", etc. Still fun, but you definitely have to learn to roll with whatever happens next, cuz it's tough predicting much, especially early on.
18. William Van Landingham
The planes as alternate dimensions only accesible via exotic means approach only fails for me if they don't interact with other spheres of existence in a meaningful way. One of the things I thought 4E did really well was enumerate on the ways in which the shadowfell seeps into other spheres.

I am super into the planes as alternate dimenions multiverse where players get to explore how, where, and what happens when other spheres interact with eachother.
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
17. thomstel

I admit that in my personal campaign, I am a mix between "clear as mud" & "logical consistancy." Which is to say, as the Narrator, I know there is logical consistancy, & I adhere to it. What I don't do is explain it to the Players. Since the "logic" of the planes is often...crazy & counterintuitive, it adds a sense of mystery, but a mystery that makes sense. Mostly I just end up with Players who, a campaign later, run across a similar field of events & go "OH!"

That said, I do want to point out-- just in general-- that this isn't the cosmology I would neccisarily use for my own homebrew campaign. This is the default cosmology I'd put together for Fifth Edition. The two concepts are pretty different in that the latter is a shared sandbox for everyone!
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
18. William Van Landingham

I agree with your logic for SOME planes, but not all. That is, for the Parallel Planes, that overlap is neccisary, for sure. I wanted to underscore it by tying the races into it, even. What I don't agree with is that the Outer Planes need to overlap. I like the idea of "as Above so Below"-- or is it "as Below, so Above?" for the Outer Planes-- connecting them, but I think Hell & such should be, as a default, seperated & connected only by extraordinary events. I'll note, also, that Lolth's Demonweb Pits are full of webs so big that they have captured entire Prime Material Planes & pulled them into The Abyss...which is sweet. #TeamSpider
Emmet O'Brien
21. EmmetAOBrien
I haven't played in any settings like this for years, but my thoughts fwiw;

I'm generally opposed to mashing up all the cool weird planar stuff into the world your players start out on, because I've tended to play in terms of large-scale campaign arcs, where the players could start out poking around home villages and small towns and get through national politics to cosmic adventure, and it's kind of hard to make a workably consistent world for a bunch of low-level players to go hunting treasure at the levels where orcs are a non-trivial challenge if you have to keep coming up with reasons why the greater powers aren't interested in this bit of world; outer planes that are difficult to get to and from can be built as much more challenging without so much worry about spillover.

As a GM I favoured something like the orginal Manual of the Planes' distinction between the Ether and Astral Planes, with the Ether being how one got to the Elemental planes and the Astral being how one got to the Outer Planes, and thinking of those directions conceptually as being at right angles to each other; had some notions of Shadow as a third right-angled dimension again allowing players access to "parallel planes" which were basically alt-histories of the world they started out on, but never really got very far with that. I never did like Spelljammer, though, and the players' world was definitely a planet in a real-world-type solar system, with an orbiting space station that they spent years wondering about.

If I were doing this again now, I'd probably go for something roughly similar, with the Inner Planes probably accessable to some extent in the middle third of a campaign (and definitely keep the original Manual of the Planes' para- and quasi-elemental planes so that it's possible to trek from one plane to another) and the Outer Planes not until the last third and the challenge level of going there appropriate for that; devils and angels and demons and deities all in an immensely complicated political tangle, and some form of Lovecraftian space beyond it all (could well be the Far Realm, though one thing I'd definitely do would be untangle and have distinct identities for Limbo and the Abyss that made them not overlap on the purpose of that.)
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
21. EmmetAOBrien

Did you get a lot of practical use out of the Inner Planes? For me, I either think they are too tame-- oh, so I just cast a low level resistance spell & I'm cool in Fire Land?-- or too harsh, like "Oh I hung out on the Positive Energy Plane & I popped!"
23. Michael Martak
I'm a big fan of the original Great Wheel cosmology, since I first saw it in 1st Edition's Unearthed Arcana. It looked different then.

A couple of things: first, I disagree with the idea that the Ethereal and Astral planes are functionally the same--they serve entirely different purposes! But then, given how much things have changed in subsequent editions, it's no wonder that these have been neglected to obsolescence, just as the Quasi and Para elemental planes, as well as the Inner Planes in general--and pretty much any plane that serves an important function but doesn't have video-gamey elements to it.

Second, and more importantly, the very concept of what Planes are has changed drastically through each edition. I think you kind of hint at it when you say there is a disconnect when people start to think of them as actual places. And this is exactly my point: people have forgotten entirely what the planes are for. And nobody seems to understand them, at least as they were originally envisioned.

I might be doing a bit of revisionist history here, but in those early D&D days, just as "Advanced" was being added as a descriptor to all its books and being published for the first time in hardcover, somewhere the idea came about that "planar travel" was just travel in another dimension.

Imagine that instead of the classical, three dimensions plus time, you also have a mythical dimension, a fifth dimension. As you travel further along the mythical dimension, in one direction everything becomes more solid and earthy--until eventually you come into nothing but the building blocks of reality. In the other direction, everything becomes more and more spiritual until eventually you find yourself in a world entirely built on spirit. It becomes easy to see why the afterlife and the world of mythology find themselves at that end, while the four basic elements find themselves at the other.

Now into that framework you throw all the D&D weirdness. Ghosts, what are they? They can be people trapped in between our world and the building blocks (Ethereal), or made up entirely of dream (Astral). Ever read a Sandman comic? That's 100% the Astral Plane. A spooky ghost story? Usually the Ethereal plane.

Terms like "deep Ethereal" or "shallow Astral"start to make sense once you grasp the concept that these are dimensions, really, not any specific "place" that characters travel to. They're still in the multiverse, berk, even they could be technically in the same exact place--just more "Astral."

Once the Planes became a playground for adventuring, then people started to complain that certain concepts weren't exactly hot spots for fun. As if there is a ban on the very idea that anything can be mundane or boring in the world of D&D. Why not? Nobody says you have to travel to the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Vacuum--it's there to serve a purpose, which is to explain or expound upon where vacuumy things come from.

I find the concept of a world in which every character is a high-magic, high fantasy superhero kind of revolting. If Everyman is Superman, then what's the point? No, I like mundies--they are what makes the exceptional even meaningful. AD&D has morphed into ADD, and that I lament.

You kids get off my lawn with your Shadowfeywild and Ethereal Realm of Ultimate Chaos. I'm rolling my eyes at your xorns bent on absolute evil or what have you. I prefer a bit of explanation first--something to ground the multiverse before you build up hundreds of exceptions to the rule.
Mordicai Knode
24. mordicai
23. Michael Martak

You young whippersnappers! Get off my lawn! Uphill, both ways!

Actually, Mike, I was thinking about what you said last night, mostly about the Inner Planes...I still like the idea of smashing all the Elemental stuff into one big alternate plane. You can still have all the quasi- & para-fun! I agree that is the best part of the cosmology.

What I did think about, though, is that the whole mesh of the cosmology-- exactly that mix of para-elemental & quasi-elemental paths & borders & connections-- would make a really neat alchemical system. Just throw it into the game, not as a system of Planes but as a system of...well, cosmology, like the schools of magic.
Mordicai Knode
25. mordicai
Judging by today's DnD post at Wizards.com, it looks like I was right on the money for a lot of this...

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