The World has changed.
I feel it in the water,
I feel it in the earth,
I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost,
For none now live who remember it.
Worlds and Monsters is the second of two preview books for the new fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons. It examines the iconic monsters, cosmology, world and planes of existence that will be supported and alluded to by the core rules. The designers of fourth edition have gone to a great deal of trouble to create a coherent rationale behind all the disparate elements of the game. There is a verisimilitude that has not been present before in D&D. The designers have created a grand narrative and mythology for the default campaign setting that is richer than I would have expected.
Which is all very curious really. Coherence and verisimilitude has not been a goal of the rules system. Everything from hit points to powers exist in the abstract. The mechanics seem to work well in the context of the game, but they don’t actually make any sense. However, that is an entirely different rant that I’m sure I’ll get to in due time. At the moment, I’ll just flag up that there are double standards at work.
In striving for flavour and ‘believability’, the designers have revised or dispensed with many of the tried and tested elements of D&D. Is this a good thing? It certainly makes a good read, but is it really wise to saddle generic D&D with such a specific back story? Should the core rules be providing this level of detail?
In previous editions, the rules have simply provided rules and the barest bones of a linking narrative; individual GMs and published campaign settings provided the flavour. The generic setting was simply that: generic. Angels were handsome men with feathery wings that did vaguely defined angelic stuff. Specific campaign settings might give angels different roles, or change their appearance, but the default angel was something everyone could recognise. In fourth edition the angels look more like a legless version of Robocop with wings. Now don’t get me wrong, I like the design, and I think they’re far more interesting than before; but they won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Shouldn’t the core rules be as bland and inoffensive as possible, to allow designers and GMs to customise from a tried and tested source? At what point do the core rules stop being D&D and start being something else?
That is an argument that has been raised on various message boards. Far from simply changing the rules, fourth edition attacks many of the fundamental and iconic elements that have been present since Dungeons and Dragons began. What’s happened to Plane of Fire? Where’s the Great Wheel, the outer planes? What have they done to the gnome? This goes far beyond simply redesigning the troll’s nose, and many have found these changes a step too far.
I’m not one of them. By and large I like all of the changes that have been made. I know that I won’t use all of them in the Iourn campaigns, because Iourn already has a mythology and established history. It didn’t conform to the third edition background, and it won’t conform to the fourth. It will continue to borrow from all editions. If it’s ever been printed in any edition of D&D it will find its way into the setting sooner or later.
The writers of Worlds and Monsters are keen to point out that all the various background material presented in the preview books and the core rules does not amount to a campaign setting. There are no maps, no NPCs and no plot hooks. Instead of a setting the core rules, and the generic sourcebooks that follow, hope to provide a collection of distinctive principles that all games purporting to be fourth edition D&D should, to some extent, subscribe.
What principles? The most important is the widely publicised concept of “points of light”. In D&D the world is a dangerous and generally uncivilised place, filled with dangerous monsters. Safe harbours are like points of light in the darkness. Even kingdoms only manage to tame the wilderness within a few miles of their cities.
Now if you think that parts of Iourn do not subscribe to that world view, then you would be right. The trouble with D&D is that, even after all these years, it is still basically written as a series of reasons to get PCs out of their cosy little towns and into the nearest dungeon. If you don’t run a campaign based around dungeoneering then you continually run up against mechanical and conceptual walls that need to be torn down before you can proceed. It’s quite possible to run D&D against type, I’ve been doing it since 1992, but the rules and the generic ‘setting’ is not built that way. It was too much to hope that fourth edition would be any different.
The Future of Campaign Settings
Before I get into the specifics from Worlds and Monsters I wanted to take a short detour to consider the other published settings. We all know that published campaign settings sell less well than books that are considered setting neutral. Call a D&D book Draconomicon: The Book of Dragons and it will sell well. Call a book Dragons of Eberron and you’re going to get a fraction of the sales. That’s why the third edition Races of Eberron was branded in the standard D&D colours rather than the expected Eberron livery.
In fourth edition, the designers are hoping the break down the prejudice against published campaign worlds. The guiding principles behind generic D&D will be applied to all the published campaign settings. The intention is to produce significantly less settings-specific books and more generic books. It is hoped that because all of D&D will be so stylistically similar that books like the new Draconomicon or Manual of Planes will act as expansions for (e.g.) Forgotten Realms just as much as for a home brewed campaign. And conversely, settings books and adventures set in specific worlds will become more palatable to players who usually ignore such books.
A good business decision, or a nail in the coffin of variety? Or both? The point is that with fourth edition, Wizards of the Coast are taking a very different approach to the their campaign settings. Every year they are going to choose one campaign setting, publish three books and then that will be it. There will be no further print expansions, to the line, although there will be continued setting-support online as part of the D&D Insider subscription.
This year, they are tackling the Forgotten Realms. The campaign setting is being released in August, with a player’s guide and adventure following in September. This same pattern of GM’s book, player’s book and adventure will be repeated in 2009 with Eberron. After 2009 we can expect to see some classic settings revisited. We don’t know which ones, but as Wizards are taking the trouble to reprint Ravenloft and Darksun novels I would seriously expect to see those settings back in print. Greyhawk and Spelljammer have also been mentioned. Whether they decide to tackle Dragonlance, Birthright, Al-Qadim, Mystara, Greyhawk and Planescape remains to be seen – although given the changes to the cosmology a new edition of Planescape would be unrecognisable from the last. We’ll see how many they can get through before it’s all change for fifth edition.
Anyway – all this is largely irrelevant for Iourn. I happily buy all the official campaign settings and poach the good bits at the moment, and I’ll continue to do so in the future. Although the idea of 4e Darksun has me stoked. If there’s ever a campaign I would run instead of Iourn, it’s Darksun. I do like Darksun.
The Points of Light Gazetteer
Back to the plot. Despite not being a setting, the ‘points of light’ conceit suggests a number of key locations and historical empires that should fit into all D&D campaigns. Some of these fit in with the new back stories created for the iconic races, others are simply such fundamental mainstays of Dungeons and Dragons that it would seem a crime not to include them. I’m in two minds whether any of these merit inclusion on Iourn, even if I file off the serial numbers and locate them in some remote and far-flung land to the east of nowhere. Read on and see what you think. These are all features of the World (the Prime Material Plane, as it was in previous editions); we’ll get onto other planes in a minute.
In creating the World, the designers wanted to create something darker, more dangerous and more fantastic than before. They didn’t want a world with polite borders delineating a map. They didn’t want a world where humans are in control, or where countries and sites had a real-world analogue. Here’s how they did:
Bael Turath is the fallen empire of the tieflings. The back-story of the fourth edition tiefling is that they were once humans, who swore pacts to terrible creatures in return for power. The humans were transformed into the new tiefling race. Bael Turath was eventually laid low in a mutual war of extermination with the Dragonborn empire and everything is now in ruins. Present-day tieflings are descended from those pact-makers, and they now have to try and integrate themselves in all manner of different societies.
Obviously, the race of tieflings on Iourn need an origin of some kind. They are a different race to the general class of fiend-blooded entities also known as “tiefling”. The race of 4e tieflings are obviously not prevalent in eastern Urova, but the world is a big place. There is room for Bael Turath (or some approximation of it) somewhere on Iourn. Any yet, the origin of the tieflings seems a bit simple to me. Are they just the result of a pact gone wrong, or are they something more?
The 4e tieflings on Iourn will have a history that is more firmly tied to the Iourn’s history. If they are going to take their place as a new core race alongside the elf and the dwarf, then they need to be more firmly wired into the past and the future. Tieflings as a race should have been active in the Great War (guess which side?) and earlier. I have ideas, some of them will come to the fore in the inaugural fourth edition campaign, the others will have to wait.
One thing, I won’t be held to is a history of warfare between the tieflings and the Dragonborn empire. This empire, known as Arkhosia, was ruled by dragons and subjugated large portions of the world before it’s eventual fall. Well, not on Iourn it didn’t! I have my own plans for the Dragonborn. The great achievements of that race wouldn’t even be in the same millennia as the tieflings. However, I very much like the description of Dragonborn society and architecture. That will be staying.
The last great human empire was Nerath. It was destroyed but a hundred years ago, during a prolonged conflict with rabid gnolls. One of the 4e designers is obviously a fan of gnolls because they’re getting a lot of attention in the new edition, none of it unwelcome. The logic behind Nerath is to give the setting an empire that existed just beyond living memory, and to create a world that still lives in the shadow of what was. A destroyed empire creates a destroyed and fragmented land, which is a land ripe for adventure – or ripe with opportunities for parties of adventures to climb into holes in the ground.
Obviously, there was no Nerath in Iourn history. One hundred years (read one hundred seasons) ago, the countries of Norandor, Salmaynak, Calclafique, Junos and Sorostrae were largely as they are today. The moon churches having created a stabilising influence upon them. However, during the dark ages after the end of the Hadradan occupation and the beginnings of civilisation anything goes. Many short lived empires rose and fell, even in civilised Norandor. Maybe one of them was called Nerath. Who knows?
Cendriane was the empire of the eladrin (the high elves). It seems to be Myth Dranor from the Forgotten Realms in all but name. The eladrin of Cendriane were powerful arcanists who opened a doorway to somewhere horrible. Within a few days all the citizens disappeared without a trace. There are certain parallels between Cendriane and the Iourn realm of Cyryth Allavorean that was destroyed one thousand years ago in the war against Karatath. Cendriane probably won’t appear on Iourn as an entity in its own right.
This is an ancient empire ruled over by the progenitors of the Yuan-ti. This ancient race conducted ill-advised arcane experiments that transformed them into the Yuan-ti we know today. The most interesting thing about this entry is that it flags up the level of detail the designers went into, that they bothered to give the Yuan-ti a back story. I hope that this level of detail is reflected in the Monster Manual. I haven’t used Yuan-ti in the campaign setting yet, so their history is an open book. How much I end up borrowing from the ‘official’ history remains to be seen.
Other Locations of Note
In addition to the empires and history of the implied setting, there are also other locations that the writers expect will appear in all fourth edition D&D settings. Some of them are inspiring, others less so. These locations may appear in forthcoming adventures, so my players for the fourth edition campaign may get to visit them. Here’s the travelogue:
The city of Bael Turath, centre of the fallen tiefling empire. The fortress of Razortear that marked the boundary between warring tieflings and dragonborn. The Serpentus Rift was the pride of the Dragonborn Empire. Amethystra the Cendriane city on a cloud that drifts between this world and the Feywild. The Misty Isle provides safe harbour for rapacious halfling pirates. The Tower of the Impossible Staircase is a tower that floats five hundred feet in the air and is guarded by ghostly gnolls. And then there is the Temple of Elemental Evil (always a favourite) that has newfound life and direction in the 4e cosmology.
So much for the world, let’s get on to the monsters and let’s start with a party’s quintessential adversary: the dragon. Dragons are fundamental to the Iourn setting, so any changes to them directly affects the foundations of the campaign. To remind ourselves of where things stand at present:
Io, the first child of Fate, created the dragons from the matter of the newborn universe. He created them to mirror his own ninefold nature, thus inadvertently creating the blazing light of Aduro, and the terrible darkness of Barathrum. In creating the dragons, Io began the circle of life. All the Ancients only came into being because of Io’s actions.
Io created a world for his children: Iourn. As time passed war erupted between the dragons, a war that spilled out into the cosmos destroying countless worlds. Io brought his children back to Iourn to settle their differences. A peace was brokered between all the opposing sides. The dragon war was over, but it had left destruction on a universal scale.
The fourth edition game makes many mechanical changes to dragons. There’s a slimming down of age categories (from twelve to three would be my guess), and each dragon will have unique powers, tactics and personas. Dragons are designed to be solo opponents: one dragon should be more than enough to deal with an adventuring party. In 4e they come equipped with extra actions and continuous effects that make them a danger all the time, not just on their turn. Many of the special feats from books like the Draconomicon have become standard. What they don’t do is cast spells.
I can see the logic behind this decision. It’s confusing and time consuming to manage a dragon’s spell list as well as all its special abilities. The dragons presented in Monster Manual V don’t cast spells either, and they’re much easier to run. This is a theme of the new edition: play up what makes a race iconic, and get rid of the baggage. For dragons, spellcasting is baggage. Being a powerful sorcerer isn’t what makes dragons… dragons. Unfortunately, it is quite important on Iourn.
The concept of draconic magic is enshrined in the setting. Dragons can work magic. Because of this, those with dragon blood can become sorcerers. Those without dragon blood saw sorcery and tried to copy its effects, thus wizardry came into being. It’s a neat explanation, and one that much of the politics of Iourn revolves around. How does that work in fourth edition?
Dragons are inherently magical creatures. Perhaps this magical blood is enough to give their descendents the ability to become sorcerers. Mortal races can’t cope with draconic power, so the powers manifest in different ways – in spellcasting. That sounds fair enough, and isn’t a million miles away from where we are at the moment. No dragon that has appeared in the campaign so far has made a big deal of its spellcasting powers, so there’s no in-game inconsistencies that I can think of. Of course, there’s nothing stopping a dragon from becoming a powerful spellcaster as well. So there’s still room for Shalnazara.
I think it would be wise to wait until the sorcerer himself makes an appearance in fourth edition before making any firm decisions. The 4e sorcerer is likely to be very different to anything we’ve seen up until now, the world is filled with uncertainties.
The official mythology of dragons is very different to Iourn. It dwells on the war between the gods and the primordials. Io picked a one-on-one fight with the most powerful of the primordials and got cut in half. The two halves of his body became Bahamut (embodying honour, justice and protection) and Tiamat (embodying hubris, arrogance and greed). It’s a nice story. Maybe people somewhere on Iourn believe it. However it does explain why Tiamat and Bahamut are part of the default D&D pantheon.
Both Tiamat and Bahamut have appeared in the unending game. Both were generals during the dragon wars, and both were imprisoned by Io in the Walk Between Worlds for their trouble. Both have tried, thus far unsuccessfully, to influence Iourn. It’s quite likely that they’ll try again.
Finally, and perhaps importantly, the relaxation of the Alignment rules means that dragons are no longer defined by their colour. Metallic dragons tend to be haughty and fond of authority and control. Chromatic dragons are predatory, visceral and cunning. Any dragon can be evil, and any dragon can be good. I think that after the end of the Dragon Wars, dragons would have felt bereft of purpose. I like moral ambiguity, and I’m more than happy to embrace this ‘change’ to dragons. It doesn’t fell like much of a change to me.
Oh, and don’t expect to see any metallic dragons in the first Monster Manual. It’s chromatic all the way, and the chromatic dragons are also in the spotlight in Draconomicon I that is coming out later in the year. Where are our metallic dragons? I’m guessing that 2009 will give us Monster Manual II and Draconomicon II, and all our questions will be answered. But don’t expect the roster to be unchanged. When the metallics do appear in a Monster Manual we’ll be treated to Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and Adamantine dragons. Farewell to Brass and Bronze. At least for the time being.
Considering how prevalent they are in D&D, giants have played a very small role in the Iourn campaigns to date. The PCs were attacked by a passing bunch of stone giants, and fire giants have been encountered living in a volcano, and acting as mercenaries for the Church of Fire. Very recently it was revealed that the country of Maldomoor is in fact a homeland of sorts for giants, or at least one giantish race. It was also revealed that the Maldomoori fought many expansionist wars in pre-Hadradan times, striking as far as Norandor.
However, Maldomoor itself has not been thoroughly explored. So while I have many ideas about that place, I can allow fourth edition to inform those ideas. In short: I won’t come up with anything that’s incompatible with 4e.
The default D&D mythology treats the giants as an elemental race. Ogres, trolls and ettins aren’t Giants any more. They might be big humanoids, but they are not of the Giant race. The primordials created servants from the Elemental Chaos, called titans. Titans of Earth, Titans of Fire… you get the idea. These ancient titans themselves created servants. These servants looked less elemental, and more like the humanoid races that already populated reality. These servants were the traditional D&D giants.
It is interesting to note that the creation of the titans and giants created ripples through reality and led to the emergence of parallel beings in both the Feywild (the Fomorians) and the Shadowfell (the Shadow Giants). I’m not sure how closely the whole parallel-planes thing will fit into the Iourn setting, but it’s an interesting idea.
The back-story of giants and titans includes a long period of time when they enslaved the dwarves; this helps to explain the enmity between the races. Although, I don’t need to keep this specific element in Iourn (and I probably won’t) there still needs to be something equally as plausible. I suspect there will be various weapons, spells or paragon paths in the new game that will play on this back-story, and I want the game to be able to take advantage of these mechanics.
Giants in fourth edition are races who have lost their culture. The imprisonment of the primordials have left them bereft. Some have lost their intelligence and their sense of self, others remember enough to be bitter and dangerous. Giants have become inherently more interesting. It would be a shame not to use them in that fashion.
The problem I have with the Underdark is: why? Why bother with it at all? Why do power entities insist on building dungeons, why are these dungeons linked to subterranean worlds, and why do thinking races bother living down there? The Underdark has always struck me more as a campaign setting in and of itself than something that should be part of all D&D games. It just isn’t that interesting! That’s why I liked Darksun so much. No Underdark.
However, there are so many iconic elements, and so many races attached to the place that running D&D without the Underdark existing (even if you never go there) is too tricky for words. And as Iourn is an everyman setting then it too has an Underdark, and I’ve run adventures set in it, and it hasn’t been too bad.
Admittedly the flavour text in this sourcebook does succeed in jazzing the Underdark up a bit. The descriptions are evocative, and now that the ability to see in the dark has been lost by almost all races, some thought has been given to how races can actually find their way around and exist in this hell hole. I would be interested if anyone has given the time to describe fundamental problems such as how one measures time in a land of no sun or moon. We shall see.
The text goes onto describe the key factions that dwell in the darkness. There’s no fundamental change to drow, troglodytes or mind flayers. Kuo-toa are repositioned as the insane servants of the aboleths. Even the myconids get mentioned, which is a little surprising.
It’s the Underdark – it is what it is. Iourn has never emphasised its role in the world, and I don’t intend to now. At best it is a hiding place to plot an attack on the real world, a mustering ground for horrible forces or just a place for exiles to call home. I don’t want to make too much of it, because as parts of the setting go, it doesn’t interest me that much and it never has.
The Planes of Existence
If you thought the game had changed beyond recognition already then you better find yourself a chair and a hot cup of tea. The changes wrought to the races and the prime material plane are as nothing compared to what has happened in the cosmos. In creating a new narrative for D&D the game designers felt obliged to rebuild the mythology. This was the right decision. The new origin stories for the races would not have fitted in the old cosmology. Whether they’ve thrown out the baby or merely the bath water is another matter.
In order to understand where we are, it might be an idea to remind everyone of where we came from. My understanding of the history of Dungeons and Dragons is not the best, but it is true to say that by the publication of the AD&D 1st edition Manual of the Planes in 1987 the concept of the inner planes, the outer planes and the great ring had already been laid. I don’t know how much of this was devised by Jeff Grubb, and how much was an adaptation of what came before. I’m going to start our journey in 1987 and move on from there.
In first edition the traditional D&D world was called the prime material plane. This was the world where adventurers lived, died and explored dungeon after dungeon. Beyond the prime material world were other planes of existence. The inner planes were the planes of matter and substance; and the outer planes which were the planes of ethics, morality and conscience. The gods lived on the outer planes.
The Inner Planes
The inner planes were made of the four traditional elemental planes: Air, Earth, Fire and Water. Added to this mix were the Negative Material Plane (aka Negative Energy Plane, aka the plane of death) and the Positive Material Plane (aka Positive Energy Plane, aka the plane of life) for a total of six core planes. All the elemental planes were inimical to life, and populated by elementals, energy beings and (oddly) genies.
Now things get slightly more complicated. Where the an elemental plane bordered another elemental plane, a para-elemental plane was created. There were four para-elemental planes: Magma (between fire and earth), Ooze (between Earth and Water), Ice (between Air and Water) and Smoke (between Air and Fire). With me so far?
Let’s complicate things slightly more. Where one of the four elemental planes bordered one of the two energy planes, a quasi-elemental plane was created. There were eight quasi-elemental planes: Lightning (between Positive Energy and Air), Mineral (between Positive Energy and Earth), Radiance (between Positive Energy and Fire), Steam (between Positive Energy and Water), Vacuum (between Negative Energy and Air), Dust (between Negative Energy and Earth), Ash (between Negative Energy and Fire) and Salt (between Negative Energy and Water).
The Outer Planes
The outer planes were ruled by Alignment. There were seventeen Outer Planes, and each Outer Plane expounded the philosophy and the traits of a particular Alignment (or a particular facet of an alignment). Supernatural beings of a given alignment hailed from the outer plane where that alignment was in the ascendancy. So demons came from the Chaotic Evil plane.
The outer planes were also the home of the gods. All the gods were aligned, so each god lived on a plane that shared its alignment. Rather than having their own planes to themselves, the gods carved out their own dominions on the planes itself. Infinite domains contained within infinite planes. The servants, clerics and followers of the deity went to the realm of that god when they died. Those that didn’t serve a god went to the plane that most closely reflected their alignment.
The outer planes formed a great ring. The plane of ultimate Law was in the left most position (at nine o’clock). Working clockwise around the ring the planes became progressive more chaotic until reaching the plane of ultimate chaos (at three o’clock). The uppermost planes were the planes of good, the lowermost planes were the planes of evil. This gave rise to the terms Upper Planes and Lower Planes. At the centre of the ring was the plane of neutrality, that bordered all other planes.
The outer planes – starting at nine o’clock and working clockwise – were as follows: Nirvana (Lawful Neutral), Arcadia (Lawful Neutral Good), Seven Heavens (Lawful Good), Twin Paradises (Neutral Lawful Good), Elysium (Neutral Good), Happy Hunting Grounds (Neutral Chaotic Good), Olympus (Chaotic Good), Gladsheim (Chaotic Neutral Good), Limbo (Chaotic Neutral), Pandemonium (Chaotic Neutral Evil), Abyss (Chaotic Evil), Tarterus (Neutral Chaotic Evil), Hades (Neutral Evil), Gehenna (Neutral Lawful Evil), Nine Hells (Lawful Evil) and Acheron (Lawful Neutral Evil). In the centre was the Plane of Concordant Opposition (True Neutral).
These planes would go through several changes of name over the years, as can be seen on the following table. Third edition was the compromise edition as far as naming conventions was concerned!
|1st/2nd Edition||Planescape||3rd Edition|
|Nirvana||Mechanus||Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus|
|Arcadia||Arcadia||Peaceable Kingdoms of Arcadia|
|Seven Heavens||Mount Celestia||Seven Mounting Heavens of Celestia|
|Twin Paradises||Bytopia||Twin Paradises of Bytopia|
|Elysium||Elysium||Blessed Fields of Elysium|
|Happy Hunting Grounds||Beastlands||Wilderness of the Beastlands|
|Olympus||Arborea||Olympian Glades of Arborea|
|Gladsheim||Ysgard||Heroic Domains of Ysgard|
|Limbo||Limbo||Ever-Changing Chaos of Limbo|
|Pandemonium||Pandemonium||Windswept Depths of Pandemonium|
|Abyss||Abyss||Infinite Layers of the Abyss|
|Tarterus||Carceri||Tarterian Depths of Carceri|
|Hades||Grey Hades||Grey Waste of Hades|
|Gehenna||Gehenna||Bleak Eternity of Gehenna|
|Nine Hells||Baator||Nine Hells of Baator|
|Acheron||Acheron||Infernal Battlefield of Acheron|
|Concordant Opposition||Outlands||Concordant Domain of the Outlands|
The Astral and the Ethereal
So how did you get from the Prime Material Plane to the Outer Planes and the Inner Planes? Two further planes of existence linked the multiverse. The Astral Plane connected the prime material with the outer planes. It was an ill-defined plane of thought, dreams and psionics. It was later established that the souls of the dead travelled to the outer planes through the Astral.
The ethereal plane was a misty realm that lay right on the border of the prime material. It was divided into the two distinct areas: the Border Ethereal and the Deep Ethereal. From the Border Ethereal you could see the prime material plane. Certain creatures such as ghosts lived partially out of phase, caught between the prime material and the border ethereal.
Beyond the border ethereal was the Deep Ethereal. Traverse this for long enough and you would reach the inner planes. The Deep Ethereal was also a plane where new planes were born. Floating in the Deep Ethereal were numerous Demi-Planes that had not yet been promoted to full plane status. The most famous were realms such as the Demi-Plane of Shadow, Demi-Plane of Time and (of course) the Demi-Plane of Dread (aka Ravenloft).
The Astral and the Ethereal never touched one another. This became and important constant. The only place with access to both the Astral and the Ethereal Planes was the Prime Material Plane.
The Planes Evolve
Through the first, second and even third editions of D&D the basic make-up of the planes stayed remarkably constant. Second edition D&D expanded the role of the Prime Material Plane. The prime material wasn’t just one world, but a crystal sphere. Inside a given crystal sphere could be one world or an entire universe. Magical craft called could ‘spell-jam’ between worlds though space. They could even journey between crystal spheres (alternative prime material planes) by entering something called the phlogiston that divided the crystal spheres.
This didn’t affect the outer or inner planes; they were beyond the crystal spheres and beyond the phlogiston. The planes had to wait until 1994 to get some love. It was in this year that the Planescape campaign setting was published. Planescape did not change the cosmology, but it did flesh it out. It explained and expanded upon planar descriptions and created a functioning multiverse. It remains the best thing TSR ever published: very difficult to run, but a damn good read.
Third edition made some minor changes to the cosmology. It created a new category of plane – the Transitive Plane. The Astral and Ethereal were obvious transitive planes and now the Demi-Plane of Shadow was promoted to full plane status to join them. The para-elemental and quasi-elemental planes were removed from the cosmology. The Astral and Ethereal were altered in nature. There was no longer a Deep Ethereal, thus removing all Demi-Planes from the game. The Ethereal Plane now bordered the prime material and only the prime material plane. It was simply a way of getting around the prime plane, nowhere else. The role of the Astral Plane was expanded, and now it touched both the outer and the inner planes. The Negative and Positive planes became much more synonymous with good and evil than they ever had been before.
An ‘in game’ story reason was given for these changes. In the module Die Vecna Die! (the last second edition adventure to feature the Planescape setting), the arrival of the god Vecna in Sigil profoundly affected the multiverse causing the cosmology to shift. These changes could have been carried through, and Planescape could have existed in third edition; but this was against the policy of the time.
The biggest change that third edition made was the advice it gave to GMs. The books stated: “Here’s the default D&D cosmology: please don’t use it”. In third edition, the emphasis was placed on GMs designing their own cosmology. All published scenarios and sourcebooks would use the Great Wheel in the same way they would use Greyhawk – as a simple default. GMs would only get the best out of their home-brewed world if they customised the planes. The planes of existence listed in the third edition Forgotten Realms and Eberron settings were far from the D&D default.
And so the third edition Manual of the Planes gave advice for GMs to create their own heavens and hells. It introduced many of new planes that didn’t fit anywhere in the cosmology – planes like the Region of Dreams, or the Plane of Faerie. The most successful of these planes was the Far Realm, a place of Lovecraftian horror filled with Things that Man was Not Meant to Know. The Far Realm had actually been introduced in the second edition adventure, The Gates of Firestorm Peak. It was a plane beyond even the outer planes.
The Planes and Iourn
Now, Iourn might have been created in the Summer of 2000, but it was conceived long before that. Iourn was originally intended to be a base prime material setting for a Planescape campaign. I wanted to run a campaign that crossed between the Planes and the prime, I couldn’t be bothered to read up on the Forgotten Realms so I decided to create my own world.
Once third edition came out, I quickly abandoned the idea. Using the Planes inevitably makes the Prime Material world insignificant in the grand scheme of things. I wanted Iourn to have a great significance and this wasn’t in keeping with the Planescape setting. What I had written of the Planescape campaign was eventually adapted to Iourn and became the Crucible of Youth campaign – which just proves that no good ideas are ever wasted.
However, Iourn was still based heavily on Planescape, and although I fiddled and tweaked with the cosmos and created my own multiverse completely different to the Great Wheel, there were still some commonalities. There were six elemental planes: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Life and Death, and these planes corresponded to the gods Terranor, Zephyre, Calafax, Sharrash, Vítaeous and Mortis respectively. In keeping with Planescape, the elements were all neutral. In third edition negative and positive energy were aligned. This was to create significant friction within the third edition rules; friction that I have never properly addressed.
I also used the Astral Plane in a similar manner as Planescape. The spirits of the dead traversed the Astral Plane via Astral Conduits to their place of rest. In the Iourn setting that place of rest is the Land of the Dead – a mustering ground where the souls of the departed wait for their next great adventure – and not an outer plane, but the principle was the same. This will cause friction with fourth edition.
Why do I care about all this? Why can’t I just say that my cosmology is different to the default D&D cosmology and leave it at that? The trouble is that I want Iourn to be a melting plot, a setting where any race or class from any published book can be dropped into. It’s not particularly imaginative for that very reason. Additionally, powers and spells and classes have a way of being linked to the cosmology in D&D. We didn’t get to Shadow Weave spellcasters in third edition Iourn, but the very fact they were published in third edition Forgotten Realms meant I had to leave a door open for them in my cosmology.
The cosmology and the planes of existence in fourth edition will have a profound effect on the game. As with magic, I want to minimise the impact. However, some of these ideas are simply too good to ignore. I’ve treated you to a lengthy history lesson. Let’s now have a look at the new game.
Fourth Edition and the Planes
The first thing I noticed about the Planes of Existence in fourth edition is that they’ve got much cooler names. The Feywild instead of the Plane of Faerie; the Shadowfell instead of the Plane of Shadow; the Elemental Chaos instead of the Elemental Planes. Fabulous. If I adopt nothing else, I’ll certainly be adopting the names.
So what’s changed? Well, there are no transitive planes any more. So no ethereal plane at all, and the Astral and Shadow planes are quite different. All the elemental planes have been lumped together into the Elemental Chaos. The Plane of Faerie now has a central role in the cosmology, as does the Far Realm. Most of the outer planes have been folded into other planes, with the majority becoming divine dominions floating in the astral sea. Change enough for you?
The New Creation Myth
Creation split the cosmos into two: the broiling elemental chaos and the shining astral sea. In the Astral Sea, the gods twinkled into being, while down in the chaos the great Primordials appeared. The Primordials were elemental beings of profound might. They started to reshape the chaos, and threw out all the bits they didn’t want. These leavings found their way into the space between the elemental chaos and the astral sea, where they cooled and coalesced into the World.
The gods looked on the world and were impressed, but they thought that they could do better. So they breathed life onto the world, creating all the thinking races such as humans, elves and dwarves. The work of the gods created ripples through reality, creating two distorted mirror images of the world: the Feywild and the Shadowfell. Each god then took on responsibility for a different aspect of creation, and used the essence of the astral sea to create the angels. Angels were neither good nor evil, but willing servants of any god that would have them.
The primordials were very annoyed that the gods had interfered with the elemental chaos (even the parts of it that they had discarded). They created their own servants in the shape of the titans, and raised vast armies of elemental archons to be at their beck and call. Soon war came between the primordials and the gods. The Primordials wanted to destroy the world to get back at the gods. The gods acted to protect it.
The primordials were more powerful than the gods, but the gods teamed up and hunted down each primordial together. They killed, or imprisoned the primordials one by one until eventually the war was won and the world was safe. Then they retreated to the Astral Sea. Fed up with war and fed up with each other, they created their own dominions there, and they retreated from the every day running of existence.
Today, the gods only act on the world through their clerics. There is still great enmity between the denizens of the elemental chaos and the gods of the Astral Sea. The world is in the middle, and is still used as a battleground as servants of the long dead battle servants of the long departed. And so it goes.
The Feywild is the magical, fantastic reflection of the world. It was created by the gods by accident and it is the home to the fey, wondrous animals and beasts, the eladrin and so on. It is a parallel plane, each point in the Feywild (above or below ground) corresponds to a point on the world. As a result it is possible to move between the two worlds at specific points or times. An echo of the real world, the Feywild sports analogous terrain with mountains, seas and forests present in both this realm and reality. However, it is not a perfect reflection and there are plenty of dissimilarities to catch adventurers out.
This is a realm consistent with the way the fey are portrayed in myth and literature, as opposed to way they have traditionally been portrayed in D&D. These are the fairies of the Brothers Grim. The Feywild is a wonderful and fantastic place, but it is not safe and many of its wonders are far from palatable for the average human.
The Feywild in D&D is populated by nasty creatures such as hags, yeth hounds, fomorians and so on. The eladrin have a civilisation here, but the Points of Light ethic applies just as well to the Feywild as it does to the World. Eladrin castles and fortified dwellings are cut off from one another by dark and dangerous woodlands. The fomorians (distorted giants that came into being when the primordials created the titans) dwell underground and have expansionist plans.
A number of published previews have also made the Feywild the source of arcane magic. We’ve already had discussions on power sources, the weave and magic. I won’t revisit that here. Suffice to say that Dungeon Master’s Guide will hopefully tell us more about the power sources and the planes they are allegedly connected to.
From the point of view of the Great Wheel, the Feywild is a combination of Arborea, the Beastlands, Olympus and Ysgard – but isn’t really like any of them. I like the fey. If they are used properly they can be extremely creepy and malevolent beings. I like that they have a plane to call their own. Yes, I like the feeling and the colour of the Feywild. I can do something with this.
On Iourn, the Feywild is effectively two different planes. After the defeat of Karatath one thousand years ago, the elves had had enough of the world. They created a realm called the Greymere and retreated from Iourn. The Greymere is a parallel plane that sits over Iourn, touching it at every point. As I mentioned when I talked about Races and Classes the elves of the Greymere are the Iourn equivalent of the eladrin. So that seems to fit. As far as the players know, the Greymere is a paradise. The elves created a comfortable home for themselves.
The Plane of Faerie also exists in the Iourn cosmology (I am hastily renaming it the Feywild). This is a bleak and devastated plane of twisted forests and barren moorland. It was abandoned after the cataclysm. Most of the seelie fey emigrated to Iourn. The unseelie remained.
So, in essence, I already have a Feywild. There is the Greymere which is an intrinsically nicer place than the published Feywild, and there is my Feywild (aka the Plane of Faerie) which is an intrinsically nastier place than the published Feywild. Perhaps I could make parts of the Greymere nastier, and parts of the Feywild nicer (they are large places of course) but there’s no reason why the plots and the creatures of this plane cannot exist in one or both of my creations.
The Shadowfell is the second imperfect reflection of the world. Just like the Feywild, the terrain of the Shadowfell is similar to the world, but the Shadowfell is a dreary and distorted mockery. It is a dark landscape of shadows and muted colours, filled with ruins and danger. The Shadowfell is not inherently evil, but is a plane of melancholy and the macabre. It also has a fundamental role to play in the new D&D cosmology.
The Shadowfell is effectively a land of the dead. Shadow is a power source in fourth edition D&D – one that powers illusions, inspires fear and controls necrotic energy. Shadow is the stuff of necromancy, and so the dead and the undead are closely tied to the shadow plane.
When mortals die, their spirits first travel to the shadowfell. They linger here for a little while before moving on. Raise dead and similar spells only work if the soul is still lingering on the shadowfell. Once they have passed beyond then that is that. They cannot be brought back to life. Those that linger in the shadowfell might become undead. Those that move on, might go on to stand beside their god – dead orcs pass on to serve in the eternal armies of Gruumsh.
This mythology disconnects death and the afterlife from the process of divine reward and punishment. It is better than the standard D&D cosmology where death was a revolving door for adventurers but all the villains just stayed dead when they were killed. Death matters more because it’s difficult to come back. You also have the advantage of being able to use souls as a commodity. They gather in the shadowfell in great numbers – could they be found and tapped by the unscrupulous? Plenty of adventure ideas here.
So if the soul has gone, where do undead come from? Well, we have an answer for that. All creatures are made up of three elements: the body, the soul and the animus. The latter is a bridge between soul and body. When the soul departs the body for the shadowfell (as it does on death) then magic can induce the animus to grant locomotion to the body. An undead creature – even an intelligent one – is only body and animus. Those with a strong animus might remember what they once were, but this is torture to the creature. Without a soul it can never truly be as it was.
The most powerful undead are those that retain their souls for some reason – ghosts, vampires, mummies, death knights. Retaining a soul means retaining many of the abilities that they had in life. In the default pantheon, the Raven Queen is the goddess of the dead – her power transcending that of Vecna or Orcus, although these two are often the patrons of the undead. In fourth edition, dying is not evil; shadow stuff is not evil. And not all undead are evil either.
The major race native to the Shadowfell (and PC race as soon as PHB II comes out, I’ll wager) is the Shadar’kai. They were introduced in the third edition Fiend Folio. They’ve been polished up for fourth edition. They are a race of humans who made a deal with the Raven Queen. They offered their service in return for never having to die. They got their wish, but it didn’t work out quite as they intended.
The shadar’kai are not truly immortal. They are infused by the shadow plane and it eats away at them. If they rest, if they relax, then the entropy of this place will consume them and they will fade away. They need to anchor themselves in this reality to stave off the shadow. Most do this by keeping themselves in constant pain (studded armour with the studs on the inside, that sort of thing). They’ve become a race of masochists, replete with body piercings and a warped outlook on life. As the servants of death they are reminiscent of Clive Barker’s cenobites but with the power metre turned down. It’s odd that Wizards were happy with this, but baulked at the very idea of half-orcs. They do look fun though!
It should be clear that the fourth edition Shadowfell is an amalgam of the old Plane of Shadow, the Negative Energy Plane and (to some degree) the ethereal plane. In the Iourn setting, I’ve never really used the Plane of Shadow, so describing it in fourth edition terms rather than third is not an issue. However, the whole business of the dead, the undead and souls is a stumbling block.
On Iourn, when someone dies they go to the Land of Dead. In typical Planescape fashion they travel via the Astral Plane to get there. The Land of the Dead is much as its presented in the third edition Ghostwalk campaign setting – with a few tweaks. It is a place of rest and relaxation. It’s not the Shadowfell. But it could be on the Shadowfell, or part of the Shadowfell. Or something could happen to turn it from a paradise into something darker and more horrific.
It seems that the plot revolving around the closure of the Astral Plane is a cure all plot to cope with the change between editions. It’s an excuse for changing the way magic works, and its an excuse for changing the way the afterlife works (or at least tweaking it slightly). Of more concern is the lack of the Negative Material Plane.
On Iourn there are six elements. I’ll discuss this more at length at the moment, but each moon god is tied to a specific element and therefore an elemental plane. As the god of the dead, Mortis is tied to the negative material plane. Does the changes mean he is now tied to the Shadowfell? And if it does, does it really matter in the context of the setting? We know that radiant (life) and necrotic (death) energy still exists in fourth edition and (like second edition) it is unaligned. This could work to my favour. Let’s look at the Elemental Chaos before I discuss this further.
The Elemental Chaos
Take the elemental planes of air, earth, fire and water and pop them in a bowl. Throw in a bit of Limbo and a dash of Pandemonium. Whisk thoroughly. Decant, and display on top of the Abyss.
It’s not a hard concept to grasp. The elemental chaos is simply chaos. It is the building blocks of life all mixed up and muddled up. It is not as dull or as dangerous as the old inner planes. All the elements are present here, but there are also areas of respite – flat plains of earth with rains of fire, chunks of ice floating in the sky and so on. Many of the creatures that live here have still got to eat to survive, and the air is largely breathable so even humans can survive without magic.
So who lives in this soup? Well, there are the primordials of course (but like the Titans of Greek myth, they remain imprisoned). Most denizens are elementals, but unlike the elementals of earlier editions there is a much great variety to them. They are no longer just vaguely anthropomorphic beings composed of solely one element. Now there are elemental archons – soldier types that served the primordials in their war with the gods. The term “archon” no longer means what it meant in third and earlier editions. The celestial archons are a thing of the past.
Many of the elements (pun intended) you are familiar with from the D&D cosmologies are present here. The efreet and their City of Brass, the spawning stone of the Slaad (renamed the Pandemonium Stone!), the monasteries of the githzerai all exist within the sprawling chaos. Then there are the demons and the Abyss.
The story goes that a god whose name is never spoken didn’t fight with his companion deities against the primordials – instead he wanted to rule everything. He obtained a shard of pure evil, but the object drove him mad. He took this shard into the heart of the Elemental Chaos and the Abyss was born. The corrupting influence transformed some ancient primordials into the Demon Lords (Orcus, Demogorgan and so on). Elemental creatures were warped as well and became the demons. This god tried to marshal the demons and take over creation, but his fellow gods overpowered him and imprisoned him deep in the Abyss. Now he is known as the Chained God, or the Elder Elemental Eye.
Demons are monstrous, warped beings. Fourth edition does an excellent job of making the distinction between Demons and Devils. Demons are visceral, destructive entities. They lack the cunning of the devils. They are determined to strike back against the gods, but they can’t reach the Astral Sea so they take it out on the mortal world instead. To quote the book, demons are:
“…merciless, savage, hateful destroyers…varied by universally monstrous in appearance… fearless… eager to destroy the creations of the gods… difficult to enslave… disorganised… self-destructive… prone to gathering in hordes… not empire builders… not interested in negotiation… not interested in personal power, wealth or prestige… more include to use melee attacks than ranged attacks… more dangerous when injured…”
The Elemental Chaos is an obvious evolution of the Inner Planes from earlier editions. It is not so immediately deadly to player characters, and therefore supports more adventuring. Connecting the Abyss with the elemental planes gives a meaning to the term Elemental Evil and makes the old adventure the Temple of Elemental Evil slightly more understandable.
The history of demons (and devils) builds upon the two Fiendish Codex books, released in the dying days of third edition. The new edition downplays the Blood War to the point of non-existence (another reversal since the Planescape days). Also, Yugoloths – who never really fulfilled them potential in third edition, have now been relegated to the role of a demonic faction.
Does all of this have a profound effect on Iourn? Well, the short answer is yes, but the effect is not insurmountable. I have a very different origin for the Abyss, which hasn’t been entirely revealed and I am still very keen on. The Abyss won’t be part of the Elemental Chaos – although it might still be connected via gateways and portals. I’m happy with the descriptions of demons, and although it means that the succubus has switched sides and is now a devil rather than a demon I can’t see as that makes very much difference.
The elemental planes have been presented as different places in the Iourn campaign to date, but no-one has actually gone there. The moons of Terranor, Zephyre, Sharrash, Calafax, Vítaeous and Mortis are doorways to their respective elemental planes. However, they could just as easily be doorways into the elemental chaos where certain elements are in the ascendancy. The moon of Mortis could be a doorway to the Shadowfell. The moon of Vítaeous could be a doorway to whatever plane radiant energy originates from. These things are mutable. They don’t really change the nature of the setting.
The Elemental Chaos is an intrinsically more interesting set up than the old elemental planes, para-elemental planes and quasi-elemental planes. I am more inclined to use it than not, but I will have to consult the new DMG to be sure.
The Astral Sea
Having run a third edition adventure in the Astral Plane, I have to say that (even using the rules from Planescape) it’s just not very interesting. A vast expanse of twinkling nothingness is difficult to imagine and dull to explore. In fourth edition the Astral Sea is still a featureless silver sea where Githyanki pirates ply their trade on magical ships, but now there is more in the Astral Sea to explore than before.
Just as a normal ocean is filled with islands, so is the astral sea populated by the dominions of the gods. It is possible to traverse the Astral Sea to find these places, or you could just use magic to access them directly. The dominions are where the action is at, and most of the creative energy has been directed into creating memorable domains for Moradin and Corellon and so on.
With the realms of the gods firmly secure in the Astral Sea this gives me somewhere to hang the gods in the Iourn setting (I’ve never really given it much thought). On Iourn there is likely to be a blurring between the Heavenly Realm and the Astral Sea, and as the Heavenly Realm has never been properly explained in game then I have no qualms about adapting it to fit in with the new edition.
One of the key concepts of Iourn is Aduro – the source of all good. It was inadvertently created by Io long ago when he created all the dragons. There is no plane of good in fourth edition. There are good dominions, floating on the Astral Sea but they are the constructs of the gods. Aduro is something more than that. By keeping Aduro and the heavenly realms that have sprung up around and within it, then I am distancing Iourn from the core D&D cosmology. This doesn’t bother me per se, although I’ll give it more thought it I wind up contradicting some hitherto unseen mechanical imperative.
One thing I will need to think on is the role that angels now play in the setting. Angels in Iourn have always been the angels of traditional D&D: solars, devas and planetars. Hell, I even refer to angels as aasimon (which is a major throw-back to second edition). Fourth edition brings us themed angels: Angels of Mercy, Angels of Death, Angels of Entropy and so on. These angels were created by the gods to serve, and they serve whichever god is thematically appropriate. In fourth edition, angels are as likely to be adversaries as allies. Go to the temple of Bane, and you’ll find it guarded by angels, not devils: nasty angels, but angels none the less.
I really like this direction. Demons and devils have enough to do without being continually summoned by the servants of evil gods. Certainly, evil clerics can probably still summon these creatures, but it’s more likely they would use an angel already serving their god. Sounds a lot safer to me.
Is there room for the old-style aasimon as well as the new-style angels? Of course there is. I’m a great believer in variety and I don’t see why the existence of one precludes the existence of the other. It will take a little thought to work out how these new angels fit in with the established history, with the Accord of Damocles and so on, but part of the fun of writing your own setting is coming up with this sort of back story.
Which brings us to the devils (or the baatezu if you prefer). The Iourn setting borrows a little from Fiendish Codex II, a little from Planescape and a little from real world mythology. The devils in my setting were once angels who are tasked with fighting the hordes of demons rising out of the Abyss. They were so enthusiastic that they adopted many of the enemy’s dubious tactics. The other angels cast them out of Heaven into the Abyss where they continued to war against everyone, eventually gaining a fiendish aspect and becoming devils. The devils managed to avoid getting sealed in Barathrum (aka the Abyss) during the Cataclysm and brokered the Accord of Damocles with the remaining angels. It was basically non-aggression treaty that the baatezu (being the devils they are) manage to get around left right and centre.
In the implied setting, the devils (led by Asmodeus) were servants of a deity, but they rebelled and slew the deity. The other gods imprisoned them in that deity’s dominion which Asmodeus then turned into the Nine Hells. Asmodeus is now a god in his own right and uses his power to bargain with other gods to aggrandise his power. His greatest deal was brokered with the evil gods, granting the devils the rights to the souls of evil mortals. This is evidently some scheme of Asmodeus’s, that is yet to pay off.
I’m not a big fan of the new back story for devils, but I can take solace in the fact that I probably wouldn’t have used it even if I did. The devils of Iourn may well have dominions in the Astral Sea, although many are confined to the Great Dark on Iourn. In my version, I keep alive the concept of the Blood War which has been all but lost from fourth edition.
The Astral Sea is potentially more interesting in fourth edition than it was in third. The new edition shies away from including anything that is not fun for the players to interact with. When the Chosen of Narramac return to the Astral Sea (regardless of what edition of the rules I am running them under) they will find it a more entertaining place.
The Far Realm
Beyond the Astral Sea, beyond the Elemental Chaos is the noneucyclidian Far Realm. A place of secrets and revelations. A place where all the angles are wrong. Is it organically folded time? Is it a giant amoeboid space? Is the product of creatures even beyond the gods? No one knows, because everyone who has even dwelt on the matter for any length of time has had their mind turned to humous.
The Far Realm occupies the same space in the cosmology as it did in third edition, only this time it has taken its place as a core part of the cosmology. The Far Realm is the home plane of aberrations – all those weirdo races that have no real world or anatomical analogue like illithids, beholders, cloakers, grells and so on have their origins here. Aberrations are either from the far realm or touched by it. This is a nice and neat explanation.
Because the Far Realm wasn’t really created until third edition, and because it was the far realm of third edition that I adopted into Iourn then there’s not really very much to change. It continues to function in my setting as it always has. The pseudonatural terrors neither diminished or enhanced. It’s nice to finish my look at Worlds and Monsters with something easy!
Fourth edition is here! The first fourth edition adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell is released… well, actually it’s out now. I don’t have my copy just yet. When I get my hands on the thing I’ll post my comments here. Without giving away the plot of course. I still want to run it.