It’s Time to Ditch Great Wheel Cosmology

There’s one thing everyone agrees on: this realm is called Midgard. Dwarves and Elves will tell you the Gods all live on Asgard, and that it’s connected to Midgard in some way, but the ‘how’ is a little fuzzy. They also talk about the elemental planes, and the sphere they make around the material world reaching up into the Positive Plane and down into the Negative Plane.

The Goliaths will tell you that’s just one part of it. Alongside Asgard is Jotunheim and Vanaheim, and the Gods aren’t really Gods, they’re just races that are long-lived even by Elven standards. Also, they themselves were descended from the Jotnar, and Aasimar were descended from the Aesir, and whoever was descended from the Vanir are long since extinct.

The Aasimar will go a step beyond that and tell you there’s 9 whole realms, and that Midgard was actually built by the Aesir, Vanir and Jotnar. Better yet, according to them the Dwarves and Elves actually come from precursor races on Alfheim and Svartalfheim. Humans are the only race native to Midgard. Apparently the Negative Plane the Dwarves all talk about is actually just Niflheim and the Positive is Muspelheim. But also they are separate from the Elemental Planes, which are actually just quarters of the trunk of what they call ‘The World Tree’.

The Atrican Church will talk about something called ‘The Great Wheel’, and how the Material plane is encased in the mirrored realms of the Shadowfell and Feywild, then a shell of the 4 Elemental Planes (with no mention made of the Positive and Negative Planes), then beyond that are various ‘Outer Planes’ entirely. They make no mention of this ‘World Tree’ whatsoever.

Now the issue with this idea is that most of these Outer Planes have never been visited (at least in recorded history) and many descriptions of the few that have been reached have correlation with descriptions of the other ‘realms’ described by the Aasimar. Thanks to the scholar Daeonicus we also know that dead souls go to what the Aasimar would call ‘Helheim’ rather than the alleged Lower Planes the Atricans talk about.

This might all lead one to believe that these different faiths are talking about the same places under different names, but one core issue remains. The remaining 8 realms of Aasimar Cosmology are accessible through the Ethereal Plane, but the Outer Planes the Atricans describe are only accessible through the Astral Plane. They simply cannot be the same places.

There has not, in all recorded history, been a single soul who has made an excursion through both of these mediums and reported their findings.

Orren Oldendyne
The Cosmologies of the Peoples of the Northern Archipelago


I’m going to kick this one off by delivering an opinion, served up hot and fresh. Cosmology should be incomprehensible. In the same way that we can only interact with 3-dimensional representations of 4-dimensional objects and not the 4-dimensional objects themselves, models of Cosmology should only be representations of the cosmic reality that are simplified so as to be comprehensible to mortal minds. Put simply, we lack the ability to perceive the structure of the planes as it truly exists.

Impossible Models

Many DMs will at this point be wondering what this means for their games. If they do not have a fully fleshed out model of the planes then what does that mean for Tiefling characters whose ancestry hails from the Nine Hells? Or for Elemental foes? Or for Celestials?

The answer is thankfully quite simple. These things need not be explained, they need only exist, and luckily the game already gives us the rules for the way in which they exist. Tieflings have ancestry from the Nine Hells (and some settings even have Tieflings with Demonic ancestry). Where is the Nine Hells exactly? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that there is some way to cross from there to here, and that somehow through that process Tieflings came in to existence. In fact, the more mysterious we make that mechanism, the more esoteric and compelling our Cosmology becomes. The mistrust of Tieflings may in fact be rooted in the inexplicability of their existence. Similarly, many a discriminated-against Tiefling will lie awake at night wondering ‘Why and how do I exist?’.

In addition to this, by making the nature of our planes and the connections between them more esoteric, we are given the opportunity to pick-and-choose what extraplanar things appear in our campaigns without needing convoluted reasons as to why. Why have the players fought tons of Devils but nothing from the Beastlands? Because nothing from the Beastlands is able to cross over. Maybe it works differently for that plane…

Planar Travel

Perhaps most curious among the cosmological models of the different races is that of the Firbolgs. On the surface they do not seem to have any predominant beliefs or even understandings of cosmology, but their particular dialect of Elvish belies that assumption. They have several words for discrete directions beyond the 4 cardinal directions of Common, and among these are what appear to be directions that describe movement into and out of the Astral and Ethereal Planes.

There have been no records of Firbolg-kind explaining what exactly these terms mean or how exactly they are used, but nonetheless they exist and that fact alone suggests that Firbolg-kind have some way of moving freely into these spaces. What they have discovered within them is utterly unknown.

Orren Oldendyne
The Cosmologies of the Peoples of the Northern Archipelago

So if our Cosmology is fuzzy, how exactly do players travel beyond the Material Plane? Again the answer is deceptively simple: with the spell Plane Shift. The use of the spell does not demand that the players know how they shift to these other planes. In fact, all it demands is that they know a particular plane exists. If the player casts this spell and targets Jotunheim then that is where the spell will take them. If they have not heard of Mechanus then they cannot travel there.

Perhaps it is also possible to travel between planes in ways that are less codified than the Plane Shift spell. Remember that spells are not the only way to do magic, they are just the most accessible way to do it. All other mechanisms through which magic is manipulated are far more esoteric, but that does not mean they do not exist. A Fey creature might know how to step from the Feywild into the Material Plane during a full moon as easily as we might step from outside to inside via a doorway, but explaining how that works is nigh impossible and teaching it is entirely futile.

This also opens up possibilities for our players to travel between planes in ways they themselves do not entirely understand. Indeed, maybe they camp out in some old growth woods one night and awake in the Feywild. A religious party may find their patron Deity at times transports them to other planes where their services are needed. Perhaps the party ingratiates themselves with a wandering Firbolg grovekeeper who agrees to transport them to the Elemental Planes through some portal magic that the party has never seen the likes of before.

Disparate Parts of an Unknowable Picture

Perhaps our fictitious scholar from the flavour text is on to something. Maybe everyone is seeing different parts of a complete whole. The added issue is that the complete whole is incomprehensible, so reconciling the parts each belief system sees into one complete model is just not feasible. Indeed, sometimes our very belief informs how something works. Perhaps the Atrican Clerics travel to the Outer Planes through the Astral Plane because that’s how they believe it works, and they cannot access the Positive Plane because they do not believe it exists.

So why has nobody simply chosen to access all Planes in all ways by believing that all models exist simultaneously? Well, these models are mutually exclusive. They all contain contradictory elements, and even the most robust of minds cannot truly believe all of these things are true at once. Maybe even some folk think they can, but all they end up accomplishing is surrendering their minds to madness. They allow their minds to break in the pursuit of a comprehensive knowledge of the planes, but all they are rewarded with is the inability to articulate or record what it is they learn. The mortal mind simply is not built to understand the cosmos.

Outer Beings

Let’s dive a little bit into that last bit because it may have sounded a little bit familiar. The idea of pursuing knowledge and power beyond what a mortal mind can achieve is something that falls well under the purview of Warlocks. Perhaps among the myriad benefits from surrendering oneself to an unknowable higher power is the ability to travel freely through the planes. Explaining how this works though is still entirely impossible. The Warlock can only do it because they have sacrificed many of the things that make them human. They could not put it in to words, and any attempt to do so sends them spiralling back into the gibbering insanity they spent many years to break free from after first striking their pact. They know better now than to truly examine the knowledge that lies in their head. They instead merely access it, handling it with detached care as a Smith handles hot metal with their tongs rather than their hands.

It’s Time to Ditch Great Wheel Cosmology

Because we can do better. It doesn’t mean ignore the outer planes (or Cosmology entirely), it simply means stop making it so concrete. Players often like to know exactly where things are in the world, and as DMs this often applies doubly-so, but the reality is we don’t at all need to know where other planes truly are. We only need to know how to get to them, and even then the ways we know might only be just a handful of the myriad ways in which creatures cross from one realm to the next.

Maybe once upon a time the Aesir truly did have some structure called the Bifrost that allowed them to travel from their realm to ours, and maybe Asgard really is the same as what the Atricans call ‘Ysgard’, but nobody has been there in all of our recorded history. Indeed all of these things, whether half-truths or facts distorted through the endlessly refracting lens of time, have been lost to the past one way or another.

Orren Oldendyne
The Cosmologies of the Peoples of the Northern Archipelago

If a player gets a spell like Plane Shift and asks to go to Asgard, take them to whatever that character would think Asgard is (assuming it exists). They’re not even getting that spell until 13th level, and even then they’re unlikely to go there unless they have a particular reason to. If you give the player a call-to-action in the Shadowfell then they’re going to go there rather than Asgard.

Perhaps you even have a character who has the goal of building a truly comprehensive Cosmology. Now you get to build a sprawling multi-planar narrative in which they discover there truly can be no understanding the way the Planes all fit together. Perhaps in the ultimate pursuit of their goal the character chooses to surrender their presence of mind in exchange for the understanding they so desperately long for. If you’re going to sit there and tell me that doesn’t sound like an awesome character story then I would call you a liar.

Speaking Planely

Had to throw at least one pun in there…

I really hope this write-up has tickled something inside your brain. With any luck I have helped you free yourself from the idea of needing a full model of Planar Cosmology. I used to obsess over making sure I had robust, comprehensive Cosmologies for my settings, but in the end I found I created something that felt far more real when I ditched the idea of having a cohesive Cosmological ‘map’ altogether.

It is not for us to know the heavens. It is only for the most deserving of us to go there.

Or whatever the DnD equivalent of that is.

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