Friday, February 18, 2011

AD&D Cosmology: A Defense


The so-called “Great Wheel” of AD&D cosmology takes its lumps from folks who feel its non-mythic, too mechanical, and over-complicated. To these charges, I find the system guilty--but I’d add for the sake of fairness that one should look at its virtues. After a discussion of this nature over at Dreams in the Lich House, Beedo suggested I offer a counterargument here. I’ve touched on ways I feel the Great Wheel can be reconceptualized before (twice)--but I’ll summarize my argument in favor of it here, before diving into a slightly new way to look at it.

So, to it’s virtues:

1. It’s complicated: That’s right--this can be be both a deficit and an asset. The system of correspondences, associations, and the like in hermetic magic is a lot less streamlined than fire and forget or comic book-esque magic blasts, but its got a little thing called verisimilitude. Ptomelaic epicycles are complicated as hell (and terribly wrong) but they’re authentic. The Great Wheel, ironically, has some of this “almost too convoluted to make up” charm about it.

2. It’s consistent: The implied setting of AD&D has morality (i.e. alignment) as a tangible force with teams, and secret languages, and auras (or something) that can be identified by spells. It makes sense that the realms of gods, devils, and the afterlife would operate on this same system--as above, so below, as it were. In fact, any cosmology that doesn’t take into account the reality of alignment in AD&D as written, is really an incomplete one, as there’s an odd, omnipresent force unaccounted for.

3. It’s weird: By this I mean its cobbled together (syncretic might be a better term) and idosyncratic. It’s strangely uniform in some ways, and oddly random in others. In other words, it reminds me of crackpot theories of physics, or theosophic ramblings, and whole swathes of occultism. Looking at that diagram in in 1E Deities and Demigods is like hearing about the Philadelphia Experiment, or reading an occult tome that claims to be the “real” Necronomicon. It’s crazy, but the sort of crazy that makes one curious.


All well and good, you might say, but what do you do with it? This a complicated question.  First off, I’d say take a look at it through these principles:

1. The Outer Planes are representations of “human” ideas/concerns (the Anthropic Principle).

2. The Outer Planes are not material places but conceptual ones: their appearance is malleable, and they're perhaps more symbolic than literal: perhaps like being in a dream in Inception, or maybe like Ditko’s surrealist portrayal of magical realms in Doctor Strange comics.

3. Each plane is sort of symbolic or representational of some aspect of its alignment: Hades might be the archetypal prison, for instance.  Deities don't so much dwell there in the sense they someone might live in the suburbs, they dwell there in the sense that are associated with its archetypes or ethos.  In this respect, they might resemble the sephiroth of Qabalah as portrayed in hermeticism-- Alan Moore’s Promethea being a great (and gameable) representation of this.

If this generates any sort of interest I might give some examples in a future post--or maybe I’ll give ‘em regardless, if I’m of a mind.

17 comments:

Tim Brannan said...

I rather like the "Great Wheel" myself and have found the newer cosmologies a bit lacking.

Joshua said...

My biggest problem with the Great Wheel is exactly that it's an example of alignment writ large, and I don't like alignment.

In a setting that assumes alignment to the level that the implied setting of AD&D did; with secret alignment languages and everything, the Great Wheel is consistant. But I tend to minimize or even eliminate alignment entirely, so having alignment reflected in the cosmos is not what I want.

That said, there's some cool stuff in the Great Wheel; I just prefer to cherry pick from it and rearrange how it all hangs together, though.

Johnathan Bingham said...

I've always liked the D&D cosmology. It was part of the wonky charm that went part and parcel with the rest of D&D. To strip it out, really seemed to lessen the D&D feel for me. I remember being a kid and reading through the 1e Player's Handbook and DMG. The planes REALLY sparked my imagination probably more than anything else in the entire AD&D system.

Welleran said...

I ratehr like the conception as written, though it seems to me such an orderly arrangment implies a stronger degree of "law" than "chaos" but maybe that's over thinking it.

Beedo said...

Trey - thanks for putting up the old links - I missed those posts.

I'm thinking one my future campaigns will be post-Renaissance, taking a hermetic vs mythic approach to the planes would work well - I like the Doctor Strange reference, and the idea that planar travel would be more symbolic; the AD&D view of Astral travel fits perfectly for a "John Dee" magician.

Both the guide to the lower planes and the connection to Inception were informative.

Even in a setting with hermetic or occult magic, I would decouple alignment from the cosmology - no "infinite planes of existence" for neutral good lawfuls or chaotic evils with neutral tendencies, and whatnot.

Tim Shorts said...

I guess I never thought about the placement of planes or their physical position. Thinking about it makes my head hurt. I guess the philosophy I always played with is if I needed it there it was. Interesting discussion though even if I only understand about half of it.

Risus Monkey said...

It might be interesting to rearrange the planes of the cosmic wheel to take on a Quabalic structure... with alternate paths between very different parts of the wheel. And I like the notion that the names for the planes could embody universal concepts that may releate only loosely with alignment.

*And* you could have the same gods manifesting in vastly different parts of the structure and taking on different aspects. Ares could hang out in Olympus as an Olympian while he'd also be "present" as a Chaotic Evil force for War in the Abyss (most likely confused and commingled with other chaotic evil war gods). The realm of spirit, symbols, and imagination should be complicated, confusing, and contradictory.

seaofstarsrpg said...

I find the Great Wheel a fascinating design for a cosmology but it does not really fit for most of my games. Which is not to say that it is not a fun idea, its incredible complexity combined with the very arbitrary nature of the various parts make it seem, oddly, very 'real' in a way that is hard to explain.

kensanoni said...

I always liked the Great Wheel mainly because it always made it very clear that there are Places to Go and See. The hardest part of the whole thing was figuring out how to get to any of the lairs, and there were times I just wanted to throw out some layers so I could get people to others... if I could ever get anyone to go to a Plane.

My biggest disappointment still is that I simply don't get to play with the Planes, because my players don't like them. Even in the simpler cosmology of 4E, they don't want to go.

Of course, my real love has always been the inner planes. Give me my plane of Vacuum and Minerals! Give me Magma and Slime! And don't play them like SOLID masses of one thing. That just never made any real sense to me, given how diverse elemental creatures were.

Trey said...

@Tim - Got agree with you there, floating islands in seas of whatever are near mythic nor kookily occultic, and so are kind of the worst of all worlds.

@Joshua - I don't like alignment for characters, but the planes as related to cosmic forces (alignments by some name) is cool to me. I don't think it reguires alignment languages or the like, I just was pointing out it fits with that.

@Welleran - Well, chaos and law are awful fuzzy and arbitrary concepts, so..yeah maybe you're overthinking it. :)

@Beedo - Glad you liked them. I think I'm planning on doing something similar to what you're describing for Weird Adventures.

@Risus - Man, you hit upon pretty much exactly the way I would expand upon what I've written here. That's definitely the general direction of my thinking.

Paper and Plastic said...

I like the "Great Wheel" also because it leaves room for derived cosmologies in simited regions or tribes. For example a barbarian tribe that believes only in Carceri

The Drune said...

I've always disliked the AD&D cosmology and have never used it. For me, it contains too much of western Europe and Christianity whereas I've always preferred my fantasy more outre, more exotic.

I also don't like the AD&D devils but on the other hand, I'm just mad about the Slaad..

Harald said...

While I like the idea of allignment as a kind of ruling principle for the metaphysical topography, I've never used it in any of my games. As for the classic wheel, that seems a bit too...simple(?) for me.

The other take I am familiar with is the old White Wolf version of the spirit-world, the Umbra. That one I never got a handle on -- far to un-structured and abstract to make much sence.

I made my own, rather vague, I maight add, interpretation of this a while back. What I decided I needed was something that gives the players enough information that they are able to relate to it, while at the same time not being too much like a road-map.

I'd like to see what you come up with in a future post though. Especially if there's something there I can steal ;)

Trey said...

@Drune - I'm a big Slaad fan, too, as my previous post on the topic might suggest.

@Harald - I've been thinking on the topic of planes for the City, so I wouldn't be suprised if it appears here sometime in the future.

ancientvaults said...

I like the idea of the Great Wheel, but I use it gamewise as a sort of Madman's Explanation of Everything. The planes are there, but not there as in easily mapped out. If they are all infinite in some way, then they are places on a map but rather destinations one may get to via stepping sideways through reality. In other words, every plane is there and at some points other planes are closer due to planar anomalies (hence, one could walk out of Hell, theoretically) to others, but in general, one must fade out of one plane and into another, sort of like modern occult theories of the astral and ethereal planes. I guess it is a version of the Dr. Strange outlook that I take.

Trey said...

I like that a lot--the Great Wheel is a model, but not neccessarily completely reflective of reality.

Clovis Cithog said...

I like the DnD alignment system as it goes well with a FANTASY campaign; it is not a real life cosmotology. In my world alignment determines spells allowed:

CHAOS = illusion, deception, charm, etc . .
LAWFUL = ritual, summoning, divination, etc. .

GOOD = healing, bless, light restoration, etc . .
EVIL = death, curse, necromancy

and naturally, their is a class of GENERAL spells available to all such as protection, magic missile, command, etc . .