efore the holidays stretched into a longer-than-expected hiatus for this column, I wrote about the various worlds of D&D and how they fit together into a single multiverse. Along the way, I mentioned how 3rd edition (starting with the Manual of the Planes, extending into Deities & Demigods, and then the Forgotten Realms and Eberron) opened the door for the DM to create a unique arrangement of planes for any particular setting. So let's talk a little more about that this week.
Building Your Own
Right in chapter two of the 3rd edition Manual of the Planes is a section called "Building Your Own Cosmology." It advised the DM to create planes and a cosmology that suited the needs of his or her campaign, while acknowledging that most D&D campaigns require at least these elements:
- A place for deities
- A place for fiendish creatures to come from
- A place for celestial creatures to come from
- A place for elemental creatures to come from
- A way of getting from one plane to another
- A way for spells that use the Astral Plane, the Ethereal Plane, or the Plane of Shadow to function
That section went on to present a very simple cosmology that hit the bare minimum: the Omniverse, which included the following planes:
- A Material Plane
- An Astral Plane, an Ethereal Plane, and a Plane of Shadow
- A single Elemental Plane, made up of all four elemental types
- Overheaven, where good-aligned deities and celestials live
- Darkunder, where evil deities and fiends live
The appendix to that book presented four more alternative cosmologies:
- In the Myriad Planes cosmology, countless planes clump together like soap bubbles, intersecting with each other.
- In the Doppel cosmology, two mirror-image Material Planes, separated by a Plane of Shadow, hang in the midst of a single Inner Plane (a sort of Elemental Chaos) and an outer shell of unspecified Outer Planes. The Material Planes are moral mirror-images of each other—in other words, one of them is where your evil twin lives.
- In the Orrery cosmology, all the Inner and Outer Planes orbit the Material Plane, exerting greater or lesser influence on the world as they come nearer and farther. (Eberron's cosmology is based on this model.)
- In the Winding Road cosmology, every plane is just a stop along an infinite road. Each plane is adjacent to two others.
Drawing on Myth
With the Manual of the Planes setting the precedent, the 3rd edition Deities and Demigods included simple cosmologies for each of the three pantheons based on real-world mythologies in the book. These cosmologies had to account for the divine realms of only the deities in their respective pantheons, so they could draw on the same myths from which the gods themselves came.
In the Olympian cosmology, based on Greek myth, Mount Olympus stands at the center of the world (the Material Plane), with its peak so high that it's actually another plane of existence—Olympus, the home of the gods. All the Olympian gods except Hades have their own domains within Olympus, but it's not generally the place where dead mortals' souls go. That would be Hades, named for its ruler, where mortal souls linger as insubstantial shades until they eventually fade into nothing. Tartarus, where the titans are imprisoned in endless darkness, lies below Hades. And far to the west of the known world in the Material Plane is the blessed land of Elysion, or the Elysian Fields. This is where the souls of great heroes sometimes pass. This cosmology has Ethereal, Astral, and Shadow planes as well, though their connections to the other planes are slightly different than in the Great Wheel.
The Pharaonic cosmology, based on Egyptian myth, is defined by the daily path of the sun—across the sky of the Material Plane, down to the fair Offering Fields in the west, where the souls of the righteous live in eternal reward, and then beneath the world through the nightmarish Twelve Hours of Night. The Solar Barge is a tiny Outer Plane in its own right, though it exists within the Astral Plane and the other Outer Planes in the different stages of its journey.
Finally, the Asgardian cosmology, based on Norse myth, centers on the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The three roots of the World Tree touch the three realms: Asgard (which includes Valhalla, Vanaheim, Alfheim, and other regions), Midgard (the Material Plane), and Niflheim (the underworld). The Bifrost, the rainbow bridge, is a unique transitive plane that connects Asgard and Midgard. The Plane of Shadow links Midgard and Niflheim.
Strange New Worlds
The 3rd edition Forgotten Realms campaign setting carried this trend still further, taking the divine realms previously described in FR products and transforming them into new planes of their own. With names like the Barrens of Doom and Despair, the Gates of the Moon, and Dweomerheart, these divine realms bore little resemblance to existing planes in the Great Wheel cosmology, but they made a lot of sense in the context of the FR pantheon.
Similarly, Eberron introduced its own riff on the Orrery cosmology presented in Manual of the Planes, putting planes like Irian and Xoriat into their orbits around the world. Times when the planes drew close to the world marked some significant events in the world's history, offering a concerted effort to make the planes relevant to adventurers even if they never left the Material Plane.
With the launch of 4th edition, a whole new cosmology was born, though it had certain similarities to the FR model. This cosmology set various divine realms floating in the Astral Sea, while all the Elemental Planes merged together into the Elemental Chaos.
Problems and Solutions
I think there's a tremendous value in allowing DMs and world designers the freedom to design a cosmological system that suits the exact needs of a particular campaign. But this approach has its pitfalls as well.
Probably the biggest danger is in eroding the things that everyone knows about D&D—the D&D intellectual property, to put it in legal terms. Everyone knows that demons come from the Abyss, right? Well, except they come from the Twelve Hours of Night in the Pharaonic cosmology, and in Eberron they come from a couple of different planes. The Blood War is an important element of D&D, right? Except how does it make sense in Eberron, or in the 4th edition cosmology?
Those are relatively minor issues, all things considered. And the reality is that it's not actually very hard to reconcile even vastly different cosmologies. As I've mentioned before, the Great Wheel cosmology doesn't model an objectively verifiable truth. There isn't a being in the multiverse, except maybe an Overgod figure like Ao (and he's not talking), who can look down and see the planes in their arrangement as we look at a diagram in a book. Is the plane of Celestia sandwiched between Bytopia and Arcadia? Who can say? The only way to get from one to another is through a portal anyway, so for all anyone knows, that portal could be crossing a thin planar boundary, hopping to a different branch in a cosmic tree, or traversing incredible distances across an Astral Sea.
For that matter, is there actually a place called Celestia? A lot of lawful good deities seem to have realms with quite a bit in common—steep mountain slopes, archons all over the place, an air of beneficence to the place—but are they physically connected? Maybe. Maybe not.
For the purposes of your campaign, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you talk about Celestia or about the Seven Heavens or about the distinct divine realms of Green Fields, Dwarfhome, and the House of the Triad.
So while we're probably going to present the Great Wheel as a default, to establish some common ground as a key part of D&D lore, I plan to make sure we talk about other options as well. As long as you don't stray too far from the baseline, the rest of your game doesn't need to change much if at all—demons, devils, angels, shadow walk spells, elemental summoning, and even planar travel can all work normally, even if your cosmology is creatively different.
Wheeling and Dealing
So far, poll results seem to indicate that you appreciate the inclusive approach I've been trying to take as much as possible. So am I still on the right track? What do you think about the role of cosmology in your game?
Previous Poll Results
Do you agree that the core rules of D&D should focus on the multiverse rather than any particular setting?
| Yes, definitely.
| I think the rules should discuss the multiverse, but consistently draw examples from a single setting.
| I think the multiverse should be an advanced concept for the Dungeon Master, while the core rules focus on a generic D&D non-setting.
|I think the multiverse should be an advanced concept for the Dungeon Master, while the core rules focus on a single, specific setting.
Have you ever had characters travel from one Material Plane world to another? (Choose all that apply.)
|Yes, in a planar campaign (like Planescape).
|Yes, in a Spelljammer campaign.
|Yes, when the whole campaign shifted from one world to another.
|Yes, in a campaign that focused on adventures in different worlds.
|Yes, for a single adventure or very short term.
|No, but it sounds like fun.
|No, and I’m not interested in trying.
Are there multiple dwarf subraces in your campaign (not counting duergar)?
|No, just dwarves.
|Yes, I have hill and mountain dwarves.
|Yes, I have shield and gold dwarves.
|Yes, I have two but they’re different from these.
|Yes, I include deep dwarves, urdunnir, sundered dwarves, and/or other subraces.
How do you think shield dwarves should be distinguished from other mountain dwarves (for example)?
|They should be different subraces with their own rules.
|They should be the same subrace with some kind of cultural overlay that adds minor rule tweaks.
|They should be the same subrace with different cultures, with no difference in rules.
|It’s important to stress the common culture of mountain dwarves across the worlds, so there should be no difference at all.
|They should both be just dwarves, with no subraces in the game at all, even if there are cultural differences between them.
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.