Posted by : David Guyll July 01, 2013

One thing I (usually) like about Dungeons & Dragons is that there is no default world (though I guess 3rd Edition kind of implied Greyhawk). Sure, races have their assumed traits, and you can pick up a prefabbed campaign setting, but there are rules and guidelines to help you create your own world, going into as much detail as you need or want.

That being the case, why is it that there needs to be a default cosmology? Planescape featured the Great Wheel, which 3rd Edition kept (though Forgotten Realms had some kind of tree thing going on), Eberron had the outer planes orbiting the prime materialDark Sun had
at least a handful of other planes, and 4th Edition gave us the World Axis.

In other words there have already been a number of divergent, official cosmologies, so why try to condense various degrees of the popular models into a single, default one that tries to use "as much prior material as possible"? Though I prefer 4th Edition's World Axis and whatever you would call Eberron's 3rd Edition iteration to the Great Wheel of editions past (despite being a Planescape fan), why not have them all as potential examples for DM's on the go?

It is all well and good that they are trying really hard to please everyone with this, but they do not need to. 3rd Edition's Manual of the Planes took the toolkit approach, by telling you what a plane is, what each planar traitlike gravity, time, shape, size, etcmeans, how the planes interact with each other, how to get from plane to plane, the Great Wheel as an example cosmology, and how to build your own. Oddly it was after that point that it went into thorough detail on each "classic" plane, giving you the traits, inhabitants, other features, and even telling you the repercussions of removing the plane (if any).

This book already exists. Just clean it up, cram several examples in there (Great Wheel, World Axis, and whatever else you want), and you are good to go. This way everyone gets what they want; people who liked previous cosmological models can use those, and people who want to make their own have the tools on hand to do so. To me this sounds more conducive to the idea of making Next the edition for everyone.

That being said I dig the idea of the border elemental planes. The concept sounds similar to Exalted's elemental poles and Wyld, (which is fine because Exalted has a lot of awesome story content), or like a mix of 4th Edition's Elemental Chaos and the Feywild and Shadowfell mirror planes. Either way both takes are more accessible locations for actual adventuring, so that it also a plus.

If you go beyond that you hit the deep elemental planes, which I guess were more like how they were portrayed in 2nd and 3rd Edition (maybe 1st, I do not know) in that they are pure elemental energy. So fire for fire, water for water, etc, which I really dislike because it makes them less useful for adventuring. I am guessing they will include pockets of other elements, so players may not have to rely on high-level magic to get around, but unless they do something to make them interesting I will probably just remove them.

After that you get the elemental chaos, which is briefly mentioned as "a region of pure, fundamental elemental energy". I am not exactly sure what that means, but unlike 4th Edition's Elemental Chaoswhich you could actually go to and survive without powerful magicit actually sounds worse than the individual classic elemental planes. As with deep elemental planes if it takes high-level magic to get there and survive then this is also getting the axe in my campaigns.

The bit about Spelljammer confuses me. Are people really going to get upset because a campaign setting they may not even own mentions one that they might be using? Magical pirate ships in space sound like they would probably be fairly easy to ignore, what with them being in fantasy space and all. Actually I never had much interest in Spelljammer, but from what I have seen I would probably prefer my own setting.

{ 6 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I've always found it best to create my own cosmology for each of my campaigns. Usually I do so by the seat of my pants, only creating elements of the cosmology as they come up in the game, and then recording and remembering what has been stated for future sessions.

    The only real change I made was in the transition from 3.5 to 4E. What with the changes in the pantheon and the drastic changes to the cosmology (most of which I enjoyed), I simply decided to adopt most of the new content. The Raven Queen appeared, the Shadowfell/Feywild border planes came into play, the Elemental Chaos superseded the deep elemental planes, et cetera. Honestly, it would have been a lot of fun to play off those changes and create a huge world-shaking (or even sundering, eh?) campaign that showcased the changes. But shoulda-woulda-coulda, right?

    Some good criticisms here, cheers!

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  2. The Elemental Chaos as described seems backward to me. I guess they're going for Plato's Forms? But in that case, wouldn't the pure Source of the defining Elements be anything but Chaos? I would imagine the Elemental Chaos is where the four (or five or six or whatever) elements haphazardly combine, forming new and imperfect connections. You know, somewhere like the Prime Material.

    I think they just got their naming scheme backward. The Prime Material should be the purest Form, while the Elemental Chaos is the imperfect shadow. Or maybe they just got their creation story the wrong way around, and the elementals are imitations of the mundane.

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  3. There are a few things about having a default campaign setting that make things easier. In fact, claiming that there is no campaign setting being written about in the player's handbook makes things far more difficult-- in fact when you claim there is no default campaign setting then you are actually saying that there are things that are universally true across all campaigns. In many ways this is much worse:

    1) Who are the gods of the campaign setting? This is sort of an important thing to know since PCs are usually at least marginally assumed to be totally devoted to one god (something that is extremely odd in a polytheistic society anyway). Moreover, the most required class for any group is the Cleric because... well... healing the party is an absolute necessity and D&D has utterly failed to sell players on a non-religious fanatic healer concept. Which means that it is essential to the group that there MUST be gods who have names and symbols and fully developed concepts and those gods MUST be incorporated into the world in such a way that they have sites and orders that PCs can report to or pray at or seek for guidance and support.

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  4. 2) You must define what the races are like. Okay, sure. The concept of Dwarfs as a race of universally-bearded underground-dwelling gold and gem obsessed violence-prone race that tend to be tough as nails, wear heavy armor and carry axes, live in orderly clans that care very much about being truthful and forthright and hold grudges forever is pretty well developed and ingrained in people's minds. A terrible amount of deviance from this would likely make someone say 'those aren't Dwarfs'.
    Other races-- the concept is more mutable. The old Elf concept was so much 'the best at everything' that they had to be chopped into two distinctly separate races-- the Elves who lived in ivory towers and excelled at magic, and the ones that lived in forest, were friends to animals and fae and were supreme archers. Similarly, Gnomes concept has been all over the place-- you have forest dwelling ones that are friends to animals, ones that were little more than Dwarven mages and others that were masters of the cutting edge of technology.
    Even races that, because as a rule they are generally enemies, can kind of be split into different concepts. You have Orcs that live in caves and never emerge during the day and are kind of like Morlocks and are really nasty and will eat you, and then you have others that are a cross between neanderthals and an exaggerated concept of a barbarian who are plenty sympathetic is done well. Similarly, you have cave dwelling Goblins who are little more than unintelligent shadowy pack animals that will rip you apart but are pretty useless on their own-- and then you have physically weak forest dwelling ones that can inexplicably take control of wild beasts, are fast talking and shrewd, can survive on the scraps of humanity and yet somehow find a place for solace in a world where they are hunted.
    All of these ideas can be chopped up into subraces. In the case of the orc and the goblin, the later subrace probably makes for a much better protagonist PC version than the former. In fact, these later ideas were developed over time of developing out the basic concepts into something more respectable and sympathetic.

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  5. But what about the very existence of some races? Are Dragonborn a serious presence in the world with their own kingdoms and technology and are universally more affable to humans than say... hobgoblins? That isn't necessarily something that should be true of all worlds.
    Warforge offer a much more difficult challenge to deal with. Here we have an construct race whose construction relies on the ability to create something far more advanced than a suit of platemail or even the most typical golem. And then somehow managing to give that created thing a consciousness by which it can make its own choices to the same degree as any human. And then, most odd of all, to simply allow this thing that untold hundreds of millions of gold was sunk into creating free into the world of its own actions and accord. And that these things are just so common and frequently encountered that they receive no hassle or prejudice from anyone ever... Quite honestly, that race requires a world with a very specific technology level, magic concept and social understanding for it to quite work out right. You call them a universally present race and you are ascribing quite a lot to all settings.
    Then there are races that... well... they may be traditional, but they are... icky. Aasimar stand out as something that... maybe it was best to go back to the drawing board. A race that is part demon or demonic infected is easy to do-- you have a human and you give them horns and a tail and maybe red skin. But a race that is part-angel? The idea that they look just human but universally have blond hair and blue eyes and are just so 'perfect' that everyone loves and bows to them makes one seem like they ought to be sporting a swastika, yes?
    I don't know... maybe Deva was more a step in a better direction. Make them blue with weird glowing eyes and natural birthmarks that look like odd tattoos. Maybe even given them wings that are too small to let them fly, but kind of add another level of 'not a human'.
    But, who knows-- maybe in some campaign worlds, you want to push the idea that Nordic people are the closest thing to angels?

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  6. 3) This is a minor thing but... spell names and weapon choices. If a mage existed that left such a mark upon the world that mages still call the spells they invented by their name, that HAS to be a campaign-specific concept. Moreover, what precisely appears on the weapon list sort of tells of culture.
    For various reasons, D&D is inherently Eurocentric often positing a world where the entire planet is like Europe. Virtually all humans are white, all architecture is based on European architecture, the armor and weapon selections are entirely based on European arms of the 1500s with armor being more advanced for the time and firearms being removed from existence, the religions are all early European polytheism (although Hinduism might actually be a closer match) without even remote nods given to Confucianism or Buddhism as being functional possibilities. And, as noted already, without a clear concept of how gods work, the most important class to any party doesn't work.
    To some degree this makes sense-- elfs, dwarfs and goblins are all from European mythology. The primary target audience is made entirely of European-descended people or at least those who have been integrated into a European-derived culture from their birth. If it wasn't, the game wouldn't be printed in English.
    Random Japanese items get thrown in, usually posited as 'weird' and 'exotic'. Mostly because Japan has made a serious presence in the media realm and managed to push their culture out there to the point that most gamers know about it and respect or idolize it. Even the class 'Monk' is posited as something exotic and weird, i.e. 'not like us, proper humans'-- the class could well be renamed 'brawler' and it would be a more universal concept.
    But someone wants to incorporate Chinese elements? Chinese-style Zombies? A character wants to use a three-section staff or a dadao as their main weapon? Someone wants to use a 1500s era firearm? Well, they are either out of luck or the DM has to create these rules on their own.

    4) Maybe to a lesser degree... the classes? Their functions? Their limitations? This all speaks to very limited and narrow definitions to how a human being can behave and function within the world. They are artificial constructions that generally do not naturally apply to all imaginable characters equally or well. In fact, because the classes have such heavy over-reliance on only one or two attributes and ignore the others, it really does limit the character concepts. Any Fighter worth is salt is also stupid and ugly, and Rogue worth making note of is as weak as a new-born baby deer, etc. Because there are 6 attributes and the designers both cannot see to it that every attribute is going to be equally valuable to every class and/or have no vested interest in seeing to it that they are... well... character concepts are very restricted and limited so long as the players have a vested interest in their characters being functional.

    You see... things like this all mean that they could go on denying all day and night that there is no core setting... but the first time they say something definitive about anything, the first time they make a list of the available gods, races, weapons, classes, spells, etc...
    The first sentence they write about what an elf is like or what a goblin is like, when they make their list of monsters... well they already have proscribed a default setting.

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