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Sunday, July 20, 2014

That Oddest of Birds in AD&D- Cosmology

Cosmology, the word alone means a number of things to a number of people as it pertains to D&D. The Great Wheel cosmology that marries up to the alignment charts are the first stabs at different planes of existence its neither good nor bad in my pinion, it just is. It introduced the ideas of planes and everything that was to come after. It also is an odd man out to a degree.

One of the things I often hear people refrain is "I don't like the Manual of the Planes" or "I don't like how AD&D cosmology is set up". Ok... so how would you do it I ask or wonder? The funny part is usually most people do not have a definitive answer, but rather a nebulous idea. Some sracth their heads because they really don't have an idea of how it could be better as they only know what D&D presented decades ago. This is probably to be expected given that cosmology in D&D is a bit of an odd-bird.

As originally presented in the 1st edition Players Handbook it looked like this. Then one one goes to what is presented in Deities and Demigods it doesn't get much better and the two don't exactly jibe. When one looks at the way that its presneted in the 1st edition Players Handbook then the differences to Deities and Demigods to the Manual of the Planes its apparent that throughout the late run of 1st edition the idea was continuing to evolve. Consider the Manual of the Planes, it expands and yet confounds more then it helps to a degree. Manual is another book that draws a lot of fire if for no other reason then it is what it is: a encyclopedia of facts and rules for the planes in a textbook fashion. It has its merits but still doesn't really satisfy. (This is not a defense or praise of the Manual of the Planes of which I'm neutral on. The astral dreadnought on the front cover is pretty damn cool.)

As is well know when Manual of the Planes came out when Gary was on the way out of TSR with his fight with the Blumes/Williams nearing its end. This leads many to label the likes of the Manual Planes along with the Dungeoneers Survival Guide and the Wilderness Survival Guide as "AD&D 1.5". I don't use this nomenclature, not for any reason revolving around a dislike but rather because it is an attempt to denote a separate game rather then what Gary created. I call it late 1st edition. Manual of the Planes in a way suffer from the company it keeps rather then its rules, which it should be fully judged on. In the end to me at least its a somewhat useful reference, but not one I consult all that often. MoP and  OP1- Tale of the Outer Planes.  These two formed the majority of late first edition material for the outer planes, well really all of it for that matter.

"Meh book, great cover."
With the move from 1st to 2nd edition AD&D the cosmology stayed roughly the same as it was in 1st. There really wasn't much movement and most adventures didn't really focus on this aspect of the game to any large degree anyways. It wasn't until the mid point of 2nd Edition's run that it was tackled.

Enter Plansescape which a number of people absolutely love. I can understand why, even though I'm not a fan per say I do like the Tony DiTerlizzi art and the graphical representation. Other like it because the CRPG Planescape: Torment captured it so well. For me Planescape is an odd bird there are parts that I like but as a whole its not something I would use especially in light of the topic of this blog post, cosmology. I think the one really interesting thing that Planescape introduces is Sigil: The City of Doors, a place that is connected to every point in the multiverse. That's a cool concept but sometimes I can't help but wonder if its merely a mechanism to facilitate adventuring at 1st level in the out planes? After all the PCs really aren't on the planes per say, they are in a walled garden where they can gain levels, experience other-worldly  creatures far beyond the norm of adventuring on the prime material plane. Add to the fact that Sigil can be seen as having some qualities of the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", to a degree that is. Then there is the story told by some of Planescape's designers (I think it was the modules) that "Hey, here 100 gps, go save the universe!" Basically saying that at first level in your traditional land of adventuring fare such inducements make sense, in the City of Doors less so. 

Planescape is likewise odd for me given the designer: Zeb Cook. Many people hold a grudge for his work on 2nd edition, the perceived or real animus Gary had for him. In my case much like say I1- Dwellers of the Forbidden City its some of his works I like the least. Its also odd that a lot of older school fans like Planescape in varying degrees as well as say I1. Different strokes and all. It just goes to show just how different my lense of D&D is from those who cam before me.

Tying it into my games my 2nd edition campaign world of Galena is heavily influenced by the Finnish myths and some of the cosmology is the same, some different. There are two other world places after death largely along the good/evil axis: Taladis (akin to Valhalla) and Pohjola (using as a name) but in the campaign world means "Halls of the Dead".  Positive and negative planes as well as the classical elemental planes and the astral are present. After that I ditch everything else. In doing so I'm able to ignore/avoid not use a lot of stuff that doesn't make much sense: no Olympus, River Styx, Valhalla, Plane of Concordant opposition??? You name it.  Also by drawing from the world of the Finns legends it brings something that is familiar yet at the same time different enough that it gives an exotic feel.

Last quick note, in a way the idea of Yggdrasil is a good one for D&D cosmology as its fairly self contained, just add the Astral plane "around" the tree and problem solved. As shown right here: 

A minor point that some might ponder: I don't use the ethereal? As presented in AD&D, either edition, I think excluding solves far more problems then it adds in terms of the game. Consider going through G1-3 with the possibility of popping around ethereal? This would be a huge advantage to any group and not out of the realm of possibility for a group of characters at that level. On the magic item front, what is lost? Plate mail of Etherealness... and a few other minor parts? Psionics? I don't use them either.

In closing I'm not entirely convinced that planes are the best way to represent cosmology in the game. Sigil and its doors has some merit, but as I noted I'm not overly found of it either. I also would like to add, as always this is no knock against the progenitors of the ideas. In most cases they were inventing as they went. Simply put, I'm just not sold on the ideas. Not sure if I ever was, but as I've gotten older a case of less is more works for me.


  1. The original great wheel cosmology of D&D was always impressive but also, oddly, not very interesting. Planescape managed to make something fun out of it, in my opinion at least, but Sigil was the place to be,

    Like you, I have opted for a much pared down structure for my campaign,

  2. I agree with your first premise, the idea of the cosmlogy is interesting but leaves you asking... and?

    I certainly don't fault anyone for liking Planescape, if nothing else it added some thing different to the AD&D campaign settings, plus it really hadn't been addressed since the Manual of the Planes.

    Cool idea for your world? Similar to Michael Reaves Shattered World?