World Building: Making The Outer Planes Better

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Once again, I find myself investigating the cosmological background of the setting I’ve most recently created.  I was reading through the Dungeon Master’s Guide again, reading the section on planes near the beginning, and I’m in that usual place: somewhere between excited and miffed.  Fortunately, it’s easy enough to change the things that haven’t excited me.

I’m comfortable, for the most part, with the material the DMG offers on things like the Astral and Ethereal planes.  I’m more okay with the DMG’s ideas for the Shadowfell, the Feywild, and the various elemental planes.  I’m not very happy about their ideas for the Outer Planes.  I have some rewriting to do; let me tell you why.

To clarify for those not already overly familiar with how D&D has long structured its universes, there are related but separate semi-physical spaces called planes (some of which totally aren’t physical, but which are best understood as being so for the sake of discussion).  5th Edition has taken them from the shelf and dusted them off for another round of show and tell, and changed a few minor details while it was at it.  The Astral plane is kind of like a dimension of thought and memory, often associated with the soul, and it’s associated with its own set of scary monsters and travelers now.  The Ethereal plane is “closer” to the Material plane (the 3D world we all run around in) but is blurrily distinct.  It is generally the provenance of spirits and ghosts, or other weird things, and creates problems for GMs by letting ethereal people walk through walls.  I think I’ll solve the problem by linking the Ethereal Plane to The Passage, or something like that.  The Shadowfell and Feywild are like scarier magical versions of our world, similar to Underhill of old fairy stories, or other similar places, and as such are basically the perfect excuse for an adventure.  The Elemental planes are mostly composed of their one element, with occasional elemental intrusions and their own native lifeforms, and now they have cool places to go and fun reasons to visit.  The Outer Planes, though, are a collection of planes which appear to exist solely such that every alignment can have a home-base of sorts.  I guess that might be over-simplifying things, and the many levels of the Abyss and the various hells are obviously meant for fun adventuring in high-risk situations, but so many other Outer Planes seem like they’re just there because there was a space missing on the alignment wheel.

The idea of having a plane for every type of alignment seems downright silly to me.  Why would things be so simple?  Why would the metaphysics of the universe separate themselves out so nicely?  I’m perfectly happy to accept that a plane would echo the mindscape and preferences of the being(s) that controls and maintains it, but it seems silly to suggest that there would simply be a natural set of planes perfectly aligned with such a nonsensical (and not-innate) feature as “alignments.”

If you don’t know what D&D’s alignment system is, it’s basically a shorthand for an individual’s moral / ethical compass.  This is complicated by the fact that D&D’s system assumes that there are truly good and evil things in the world, and that they can be effected by appropriately targeted spells, prayers, and abilities, but whatever.

I’m okay with using the alignment system as a feature of play, and I’m okay with characters having abilities that interact with it to some extent, but I don’t think that the universe of my setting should organize itself around this thing that I view as a non-intrinsic shorthand.  So I’m definitely not going to use the Outer Planes as they’re presented by the DMG, though I may steal from them extensively.  I’ve already written my own version of the classic hells and the Abyss, so why stop there?

Basically, I think that the Outer Planes are all spaces that have been created by beings, and they should thus reflect the desires and preferences of those beings.  Some may have been created long ago and expanded since, some may have been created long ago and have now fallen into neglect and decay… some are going to be fundamentally confusing and alienating to any character who travels to them, because the intelligences and wills which created them are entirely unconnected to any comprehensible reference point for the character.  New planes, or demi-planes, or whatever you want to call them, might be made all the time.  But they’ll exist because something made them, intentionally or not, rather than because they fill a blank space in the moral cosmos.

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4 responses to “World Building: Making The Outer Planes Better

  1. I’ve always thought of the alignments in D&D as being very directly connected to the gods. Detect evil is a level one cleric spell, and cleric spells are basically entreaties to the deity worshiped. It would make sense for detect evil to simply be the deity in question offering his opinion on the moral character of the character in question. I don’t think they necessarily need to be any more intrinsic than that.

    It should be noted that I haven’t dealt with many things that interact with alignments, so I don’t know how many non-divine such instances there are.

    • I don’t think of the alignment system as having much to do with D&D’s gods, though perhaps I should. It seems strange to me that Lawful Good can cover such a broad range of behaviors (including some which we might not consider especially “good”) while still being acceptable to any given “Lawful-Good preferred” god. I much prefer having gods care about their particular portfolios and purviews, with variable interest in things outside that according to their personalities, etc.

      You’re right that most of the ‘detect good and evil,’ ‘protection from good and evil,’ and other such things are based on divine power sources (clerics and paladins get both, wizards only get protection), but they are specifically worded to cover aberrations, celestials, elementals, fey, fiends, and undead. Also magically consecrated or desecrated ground. Regular mortals, in other words, just don’t merit recognition by those spells and abilities most of the time.

      If someone wrote a new spell that dealt with mortals’ alignments… I’m not sure if I’d let people use it. It seems like that’s been intentionally phased out of 5e, and I think I agree with it. I will say that the supernatural focus of those other spells makes them a bit less useful for players who’re dealing with lots of humans, but… yeah. That makes sense to me.

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