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D&D 4e cosmology

"It's not a place you go / It's a place that comes for you"
—YACHT, "The Afterlife"

Recently I've been reading through the Manual of the Planes for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. The planes are the cosmology of the D&D setting, the alternate realities and supernatural worlds that make up the universe. These include the heavens and hells, the halls of the gods, the spirit worlds, the faerie lands, the shadowy realm of death, the magical home of genies. There are plenty of instances throughout myth, legend, and literature of mortals making perilous journeys into the supernatural world, sometimes even confronting the gods, and then returning home. D&D is a game of heroic fantasy adventure, so of course the Manual is a very detailed sourcebook on what all these supernatural worlds are like, should your heroes journey there.

This edition of the game includes two "parallel planes" to the mortal world, the Feywild and the Shadowfell. The Feywild is basically the faerie realm, and it's pretty good: it sounds cool and magical and dangerous, a great place for adventure. The Shadowfell is basically a classical realm of the dead, combined with the older editions' Plane of Shadows; it's also pretty good, although there's some awkwardness in its combination of a home to some mortals, the realm of the dead spirits, and also the source of undead horrors and evils. These work very well in the game, providing the mystical otherworld and the shadowy underworld common throughout myth and legend. They should be, and do feel, both magical and accessible. 

But it's the realms of the gods in the Astral Sea, which in older editions were called the Outer Planes, that are falling flat for me. The realms are supposed to be remote and nigh-unreachable to mortals, as in most traditional myths and legends, but they also have to be fairly open and easy to get to for the heroic adventurers. The realms have to be fairly static and secure, since they're the homes of beings with unfathomable divine power, but they also have to be vulnerable to occasional attack, otherwise there'd be little of interest for adventurers. And of course the inhabitants are mostly powerful supernatural beings that far surpass the mortal world, but the theoretically-mortal adventurers are also fully capable of tussling with them. The realms of the gods end up losing any sense of wonder and just sound like typical fantasy settings in the mortal world, and kind of boring ones at that. They're not really heavens or hells, just different places with different and slightly weirder inhabitants and slightly more rigid cultures. This is not the afterlife, it's just an alternate life. There's nothing compelling about the realms of the gods, and no particular reason to bother with any of that.

I've already spent too long on this post; it turns out my thoughts were only half-formulated. But there's a lot more to be said, another time, about the basic philosophical problems in D&D, of which this is just an example.


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