I’ve been musing about the subject of this article for sometime now, without it coming to the boil! Finally I’ve managed to collect my thoughts on this, so here goes! 🙂
The original trigger was Chris Perkins’ editorial in Dragon 414 , back in August 2012, announcing a month of Dungeon and Dragon content with a planar theme. An excerpt from the article caused quite a lot of internet chatter at the time: “D&D is not truly D&D without the Great Wheel,…”
Plenty of people were immediately raising the roof after this quote, saying it implied that 4E, because it does not have the Great Wheel cosmology, was therefore not DnD!! I’m quite sure Chris, who had been sharing details of his long-running 4E campaign through his superlative Dungeon Master Experience column, meant nothing of the sort, but the article was interesting nonetheless for its viewpoint on how DnD Next might treat the question of cosmology.
Then later, in November 2012, a Wandering Monster column by James Wyatt was published on the topic of the ‘fey’, and posed the question whether the Feywild was really a necessary concept, despite admitting that it was one of the more popular innovations in 4E. This column is more about getting a feel for how people perceive the iconic monsters of D&D, but certainly it gave some insights into how the design team for DnD Next is thinking.
Finally, with this week’s Legends and Lore column, Mike Mearls has given us some fairly clear indications as to where the new system is going. Planescape and the Great Wheel are seen as the default cosmology, the distinct Elemental planes return, albeit with some changes to make parts of them (the border planes) more hospitable to adventuring. Meanwhile, the 4E Shadowfell (although renamed back to the Ravenloft setting) and Feywild are presented as borderlands to the negative and positive energy planes respectively. Even Spelljammer gets a mention!
So what is TolrendorDM’s view on all this? Well at first glance, I’ve got no major issues. Planescape and Spelljammer were two concepts I loved in AD&D, and it’s good to see them potentially making a new appearance. I’m pleased also that the Feywild and Shadowfell have not been thrown into the 4E trash can – these concepts were great additions to the D&D cosmology in my opinion.
However my second thought is that in some ways the whole concept of a ‘default’ cosmology seems wrong – this is one area which I think should be quite distinct depending on the setting you are playing or creating. For example, Planescape has a particular slant on planar material (i.e. the concept of ‘ideals’ having real power, and the planes portrayed as a diverse and wondrous dangerous set of tourist destinations!). A cool concept, but it doesn’t necessarily fit a setting where the Greater Powers/Deities are depicted as remote from the petty concerns of the world.
A strong influence on the way I think about planar adventures is the Eternal Champion series by Michael Moorcock, in which the various planes and otherworldly settings tend to happen upon heroes in strange and unexplained ways. Here there is no (at least none that is explained) overarching meaning or connection between these strange places – heroes simply reach them by accident or by seeking out legendary artifacts or beings. In some ways this is closer to the more abstract 4E concepts of the Astral vs the Elemental (Law vs Chaos?), within which disparate ‘realms’ appear under the influence of powerful beings.
In my Tolrendor setting, the cosmology is built around the 4E concept of the ‘Dawn War’, where the primordial Titans of creation (and Chaos) fought their great war against the ‘Law’ forced upon them by the Gods, until finally a tenuous balance was achieved upon the intervention of the primal forces of life and nature. If and when my players (kids…) venture into the outer planes, there is sure to be a Planescape flavour (after all, Sigil is cool…), but I’m unlikely to apply the rigid concepts of the Great Wheel – to me, the planes should never make sense!
Overall, I think this is my point. I accept there must be some default concepts about the cosmology in the D&D system in order to define a ruleset around planar adventuring (Demons live in the Abyss etc..), but I don’t think it needs to be all encompassing or rigid – I want to be able to develop my own setting’s cosmology and mythology, drawing on published material as needed, but not feeling like I have to have a plane of interlocking gears inhabited by insectoid solids …
To be fair, this ‘toolbox’ approach is clearly identified as a key aim in Chris Perkin’s editorial from last year, and I think that is still what Mike is saying in the most recent article … time will tell!
And as for Spelljammer? D&D in Outer Space? The Return of the Giff? Bring it on … 🙂
I agree in that there need not be a rigid planar default, although I must admit I am partial to “The Great Wheel”, having been brought up with it through three editions of D&D. And let’s face it, Sigil is the best non material plane town ever invented in the history of fantasy roleplaying. I will miss it on my next Midgard campaign.
Re: Sigil … 100% agree 🙂