first impressions of dnd 4; part 1: cosmology

This post may be extremely dorky. I don’t even know how dorky I am, half the time, so … you have been warned.

When the fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons was announced last year, I was dubious. They didn’t say much at all about how it would change, and it seemed awfully soon on the heels of 3.5. All they did talk about was how they’d be adding all kinds of online services, which I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to use, and wouldn’t be able to use even if I wanted to (as a non-Windows user).

As the release of 4E got closer, though, I started to follow some rumors on and things seemed like maybe they’d be pretty interesting. I saw that I could pre-order all three core rulebooks for about $55 from Amazon, which seemed like an excellent deal, so I did so. When they arrived, I was in the middle of preparing to go to Chicago and do a bunch of talks at yet another Perl conference, so I didn’t have a lot of time to read the rules. Today, though, I managed to finish a first pass through the new Player’s Handbook. I skimmed the new combat rules and the power definitions, but I tried to give everything else a decent read.

In a nutshell, I think the rules have been substantially improved in a number of ways. I think the changes to some of the game concepts and setting are awful.

I’ll talk about those first, since they might be slightly more interesting than the rules changes.

I don’t mind that the default setting is no longer Greyhawk. I think it’s sort of a weird move, but I don’t mind. I never use the default setting anyway. I think it’s a shame to get rid of half-orcs, and it’s bizarre to add tieflings and loldragons as core races, but that’s okay. It’s just a setting.

The problem comes up because of the change to alignments and planes. Traditionally, there have been nine alignments, forming a grid:

 Lawful Good   | Lawful Neutral  | Lawful Evil
 Neutral Good  | True Neutral    | Neutral Evil
 Chaotic Good  | Chaotic Neutral | Chaotic Evil

Lawful evil beings adhere to the rules, but their goal is personal gain. This in contrast to neutral evil beings, who only follow the rules as long as they’re convenient, and chaotic evil beings, who are pretty likely to break the rules just because they can. Chaotic good creatures dislike any sort of rules, but follow their sense of what is good and right. (“I can’t define justice, but I know it when I see it!”)

By third edition, alignment was mostly a role-playing aid rather than a gameplay mechanic. (In first edition, it was sort of bizarre and concrete; if you were neutral good, you could speak the language shared by all neutral good creatures. What??) Despite that, it had a lot of important ramifications. For example, two of the Really Evil classes of beings were devils and demons. Devils were lawful evil and demons were chaotic evil, and they really hated each other a lot. They were engaged in an eternal war, the Blood War, which raged across the Lower (Outer) Planes.

The outer planes were a group of realities, each of which was strongly influenced by a position on the Big Grid of Alignments. There was Hell and the Abyss, where the Blood War was fought in part. There was also Elysium, Limbo, Arcadia, and Mechanus (the plane of pure law).

These planes were arranged in an orbit around the inner planes, which included the elemental planes, the positive and negative energy planes, and the prime material plane. The prime material plane is where the game probably takes place and – and this is important – it’s the whole multiverse. That is, every published D&D campaign basically takes place inside this cosmology. Sure, some realities (Athas, Ravenloft) are mostly cut off from the other planes, but they’re still there. D&D asserts that it is metaphysically possible to travel from Greyhawk to Faerûn to Krynn, and all these worlds share one cosmology based on the two orthogonal axes of good-evil and law-chaos. Actually, Eberron does not share the planes, but it does share the cosmological order. Explaining it as somehow connected to the “stock” cosmology would not be extremely difficult.

So, even as things like Planescape and Spelljammer came and went, the cosmology changed a good bit, but the above held true pretty well through first, second, and third edition.

In fourth edition, though, alignment has been changed drastically. (I would suggested that it has been changed for the worse.) There are now five alignments, organized more or less on a continuum:

Lawful Good - Good - Unaligned - Evil - Chaotic Evil

Why? Well… I have no damn idea. I think that the missing alignments have been used to pretty good effect in explaining many creatures throughout the history of D&D, so why would they be eliminated?

Of course, without the three-by-three grid of alignments, the stock cosmology no longer makes sense. There’s a new one.

In the new cosmology, there is the world, which is something like the prime material plane. It has a beautiful, enchanged reflection called the Feywild. (White Wolf dorks out there: this is the middle umbra.) There is also a dark, twisted reflection, the afterlife, the Shadowfell. (That is, the low umbra.) “Above” these worlds is the Astral Sea, where a lot of the gods live. Various realms float in the astral sea, many of which (the Hells, Celestia, and so on) were once outer planes. Not all the outer planes are here, though. Some are “below” the worlds, in the Elemental Chaos. This is basically like the elemental planes, all mixed together and more evil as you go further down. At the bottom is the Abyss. While most of the Elemental Chaos is chaotic neutral – sorry, “simply untamed” – the Abyss is “actively malevolent.”

The 4E DMG has an illustration of this cosmology (p. 161) that looks something like this:

            The Astral Sea
Shadowfell -  The World  - Feywild
         The Elemental Chaos

Evil is definitely down, except that Hell is up. The Shadowfell isn’t “wholly evil” but everything in it has a “dark and sinister side.” The Feywild seems like it’s probably good-ish, but it only gets five lines, so I’m not sure. There are some vague intimations about other realms beyond these, but they seem more to be about unknowable distant weirdness than anything else.

Why does this matter? Well, it means that not only is the new setting different than the old, but it is cosmologically incompatible. If you are used to playing in Greyhawk (the default setting since AD&D was born) then you are going to have to re-learn alignment and the cosmology. Worse, if you end up playing in a pre-existing setting, the “default” rules in the core books will not apply to your setting. The benefit of a coherent, shared cosmology across most of the D&D settings has been lost. I’m interested to see what the Forgotten Realms book is going to say about that. Will it retcon all of the Faerûn into this new cosmology? Will it say that in Forgotten Realms games, there are nine alignments? Ugh!

This might end up being justified, if and only if the new core setting really leverages the change in cosmology to produce a better game experience for the average player. Will it do so? I’m dubious, but I guess we’ll see.

I know this, though: when I start up my new D&D campaign, the mind flayers are still going to be lawful evil.

Written on June 29, 2008
🏷 dnd
🎲 games
⚔️ rpg