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.