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.