Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Cosmology for Gothic Greyhawk

If you haven't noticed, I try to draw inspiration from real-world myths and folklore for gaming.  With that in mind, let me just say, the AD&D cosmology bugs the crap out of me.  Al over at Beyond the Black Gate appears to be starting a review of AD&D, and every time I look at those amazing hardback books, it brings me right to the crux of the matter - is it a more satisfying exercise to play a version of OD&D and add in elements you miss, or play AD&D and gut or house rule huge swaths of the rules?

A good example is the default cosmology.  I start reading about Negative and Positive Energy Planes, Para-Elemental Planes of Dust and Vapor, the rules for Ethereal Travel, and the 17 Outer Planes (all arranged according to Alignment, no less) and my eyes glaze over.  An outer plane for neutral good chaotics - really?  If anyone has a clue where such ideas came from, or whether they were created whole cloth, by all means - would love to hear it.

Let's take a concrete example - the cosmology we see in Greek myth.  We know of a few supernatural realms - Mount Olympus, Hades, perhaps Tartarus (I'd argue that Tartarus is just an extension to Hades, but whatever).  The gods live on Olympus, Hades rules his eponymous underworld, and the imprisoned titans are stuck in Tartarus.

But when our 1E Hades hangs out his laundry to dry, what does he see?  Unwanted neighbors.  How did Hel, the death goddess of Asgard, afford some real-estate next door?  And why are those moving trucks unloading boxes for Nergal of the Babylonians?  There goes the property values.

Apparently Bast, the cat goddess, enjoys the snows of Asgard - she got stuck in Gladsheim.  Lots of deities inadvertently find their mail being delivered to the Nine Hells, like Hecate.  (Sure, she's not an Olympian, but sticking her in Hell? That's just mean spirited).  Basing the cosmology around alignment doesn't work for me, and certainly doesn't make sense with how these mythic places are depicted in literature.

I'm finding quite a few OSR bloggers like myself that tried 4E, grew dissatisfied with it as a role playing game (it's a decent tactical combat game), and returned to earlier editions.  Some of the 4E ideas on cosmology, monsters, and assumptions about a D&D style world, work really well, and are worth porting back into older editions.  Just jettison the 4E rules.

Take the divine realms - 4E calls them "astral dominions".   Built by the gods, they're no longer organized by Alignment, but by pantheon.  The realm of Asgard no longer needs to host interlopers from Egypt who just happen to share the same alignment; Bast is free to go home to wherever the Egyptian deities hang their sandals.  Hades can issue eviction notices to Hel and Nergal; Hel can now have her own little realm of Niffleheim adjacent to Asgard, even though her alignment is different.  There's no problem with Ares, a god of chaotic evil, sipping nectar or ambrosia with the rest of the (chaotic good) Olympians.  You get the idea.  Each pantheon can "own" it's own conception of the underworld and hereafter, too.

The 4E cosmology gets rid of the ethereal plane, the elemental planes (as well as the quasi, para, pseudo, demi and whatever other unusable elemental planes got tacked onto it) and throws them in the trash along with the positive and negative planes; all those "inner planes" get rolled into the Elemental Chaos.  In the traditional 1E elemental planes, you die the moment you get transported there - the Plane of Fire is nothing but fire, Earth is solid earth, etc.  Not very fun or useful for adventuring.

4E also adds two mirrors of the mortal world, the Feywild and the Shadowfell.  Pretty hard to say those names with a straight face, I agree, but the concepts are solid; the Feywild is essentially the realm of Faerie, a realm of magic ruled by Archfey and home to faeries of all sorts.  Lots of literature posits a realm of Faerie that intersects the mortal world.  The Shadowfell is the realm of the dead, a benighted land of shades and ghosts.

What I like about these mirror worlds is that the same location will have parallels between the three of them; a sprawling city in the real world, crammed with people and filth, might be a blighted place in the Faerie world, and a crumbling ruin haunted by shades in the Shadow realm.

A Cosmology for Gothic Greyhawk
I haven't given a ton of thought to how the cosmology works in Gothic Greyhawk (yet), seeing as the group is only about 3rd and 4th level, but porting some of the 4E approaches back to OD&D makes it easy to present a simplified cosmology.

Divine Realms
The divine realms of Heaven and Hell exist as dominions out in the Astral Sea; the main deity of the Church is the Great Spirit, served by legions of angels and exalted saints.  Hell is populated by the devils and the fallen angels.  (I would argue how I'm using this dualistic approach draws more from Zoroastrianism than Christian theology).

The Mortal Realm
The various pagan "deities" are more akin to powerful nature spirits, inhabiting the mortal realm

Realm of Faerie
Faerie is an alternate earth with numerous portals and ways of crossing back and forth; it's ruled by powerful arch faeries like Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, or Titania, Lady of Summer.  I especially like this approach as a lot of the medieval romances and pulp fantasy place Faerie as an alternate or adjacent dimension to the mortal world.

Realm of the Dead
The shades of dead mortals drift into the Realm of the Dead after death.  Many find their way beyond the Realm of the Dead to one of the divine realms; those that get stuck here become incorporeal undead - ghosts, wraiths and spectres.  (Corporeal undead are created in the mortal world by the power of Orcus).

Elemental Chaos
This is an amalgam of the inner planes from 1E AD&D and home to Djinn, Efreet, Elementals, Slaads, and some notable locations, like the City of Brass.  However, when high level mortals travel there, there is air to breath and places to stand, unlike a realm of pure [insert homogenous element here].

The Abyss
The Abyss is a great hole torn into the Elemental Chaos and descends down into the 666 layers.  It is the home to demons.  In the 4E view, demons are elementals corrupted by the shard of pure evil at the heart of the Abyss.   Works for me.

There - reduces 33 various planes down to 6, and 3 of them are mirror worlds.  My work here is done.


  1. I agree that the 4th Edition cosmology is actually very good, and I've been using it in my 3.5 games for a while now, and think it'll work well with LotFP when I start to run that at some point in the future. The Shadowfell would work really well, although I'd have to rename it to something more sinister I think.

    p.s. enjoying reading the game sessions and the blog overall.


  2. AD&D cosmology is best ignored I think. Fortunately, most of the time all the "plane stuff" does not even come up in play.

  3. I really like this, especially the mixing of the (rather boring) elemental planes into a single Elemental Chaos (or Elemental Realm). This is going to see some use in my Wounded Gaia setting.

  4. AD&D cosmology is best ignored I think. Fortunately, most of the time all the "plane stuff" does not even come up in play.

    I agree - that's why I'm proposing changes. The planes are pretty much off-limits (as written) except for the end-game.

    I'm hoping to put out some ideas on making them more useful at lower levels - especially the realm of Faerie, which looks like it will play a role in the campaign.

    @Omer - I knew you'd like this approach, it would be super easy to extend it to include your idea of an Asian-themed spirit world that also mirrors the mortal world - the Realm of Spirits.

  5. Agreed, the 4E cosmology makes a lot more sense than AD&D/3E versions. I also like the Feywild and Shadowfell mirror planes.

    For a time, while working on campaign design my 4E hardcovers were packed away, and I apparently took to describing the Shadowfell as "the Shadowlands." I decided that I liked "the Shadowlands" or "the Shadow Realm" better, and that's the terminology I plan to use in my Northern Isles campaign (which will probably end up using LotFP rules, with various AD&D-style additions grafted on over time; my LotFP box set is supposed to arrive this week, yay).

    I don't like the term "Feywild" either. "Faerie" is, as you say an obvious choice - depending on how much you want to use the basic fey concept; I've also thought of using "Otherworld" or "Other Realm," or if I went all Celtic, "the Land of the Young."

  6. I ripped the 4E cosmos for my 2E Greyhawk game. My favorite part is that the itea of astral dominions allows for some light SpellJammer action without the commitment to full space opera.

  7. Your description of the 4e cosmology sounds a lot like how we always played the outer planes back in 1e. When we played under various DMs it was always assumed their version of the homes of the gods and demons was their own unique take, just like the other physical areas of their campaign world. :)

  8. I'm gonna dissent a bit here and say while I do regret the loss of some nice mythological things the AD&D cosmology doesn't allow (like a Realm of the Dead), and the weird mixtures of pantheons can be annoying (more due to a cobbled together feel than anything else) I think there's a way to make it work that makes it feel like something occultic rather than mythologic--and I think that can be cool. There have been a lot of funky cosmologic systems proposed by folks over the years, and I don't think AD&D's is much wonkier than many people have actually believed in.

    For instance, what if the planes are conceptual rather than literal? Asgard is the state of mind/spirit attuned (aligned) with a certain wavelength in the spectrum of morality. Attuning with that wavelength allows you to commune (or visit) any deity who is also attuned to it. In a sense they all "dwell" there, but not in the sense of being next door neighbors.

    Likewise, I've got to defend para-elemental planes--or at least the existence of para-elementals. Particularly in worlds with variant levels of technology (like my own Strange New World) I think having other elementals speaks to people placing talismanic significance on things beyond what their less technologically advanced ancestors did, which strikes me as realistic. Zak S. pointed out in his monster review that many of the para-elementals (Dust, Smoke, whatever) are more evocative or thematic than traditional ones--and I think he's right. See Fritz Leibers "Smoke Ghost" and "The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity"--and Exalted makes good use of this in Authochthon.

  9. Trey - I'm not advocating getting rid of para-elementals or composite elementals as monsters, just getting rid of the unnecessary planes. I like the idea of a singular (but infinite) elemental plane with crazy floating globs of stuff in the air like a Roger Dean picture. Though I wouldn't use elementals right out of 4E - names like Thunderblast Cyclone and Earthfire Ravager irritate me.

    So will you be posting an occultic view of the planes of existence for Weird Adventures over on FtSS? It would be a fun counterpoint. :)

  10. Good thought, Beedo. I may do just that. :)

    I don't know that WA cosmology has fully crystalized, but maybe I could muse aloud on the things I'm considering, and see if that generates some discussion.

  11. I fully sympathize! For my homebrew campaign setting, I use only four "planes":

    1. The mortal realm, home to mortal creatures but also to natural spirits and the "gods of earth" served by druids.

    2. Dream, modeled on Lovecraft's Dreamlands, home of all the other gods, and effectively the "astral plane" in terms of out-of-body experiences.

    3. Faerie, AKA the Twilight Realm, source of most of the world's monsters, ruled by the elf-lords (whose elaborate chivalry and obsession with questing after worthy foes is the model for paladins).

    4. "The shadow," yes I know, but essentially a psychic mirror to the mortal realm. The medium through which most magic works (e.g. "invisibility" is actually stepping most of the way into the shadow realm, Detect spells attune the caster's eyes to seeing the shadow, etc.). Not associated with death or corporeal undead, although ghosts are psychic impressions left behind there.