grading the planes: 4e cosmology

February 13th, 2012 by paul
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series planes

Planes of existence are just as good as the adventure opportunities they offer. I've always found planar travel pretty boring, but some of the new 4e planes have something to offer. Since the 5e devs are talking about returning to the Great Wheel cosmology, this would be a good time to take a look at the Feywild, Shadowfell, Elemental Chaos, Astral Sea, and Outer Realms.

Feywild: When you travel in the world of faerie, you should meet truly odd NPCs and encounter fairy-tale magical thinking where everything comes in threes. And you can use this awesome world map! The only problem is that it seems like it requires a superhuman DM to maintain the level of wonder that the Feywild promises. Grade: B+

shadowfell: If you have an idea for a spooky horror one-shot, might as well put it in a realm in the Shadowfell. That way the PCs can't just leave if they get too spooked, and you can introduce implausible elements like the Land of Eternal Night and the Country of Graveyards that just don't fit on your world map. I think the Shadowfell's main city of Gloomwrought is insufficiently spooky, but that can be ignored. Grade: A

Elemental Chaos: 4e mixed all the planes together, so in the Elemental Chaos you might adventure on a burning iceberg or climb a lightning volcano. It's 4x as exciting as the elemental planes of older editions, and it's STILL too boring to use. It inspires in me ideas for interesting tactical encounters but no adventure hooks to go with them. The bottom of the plane is crawling with demons, so I guess that's something. Grade: C

Astral Sea: The realms of the gods are islands floating on a silver sea. In theory, this is a really exciting setting. In fact, I doubt my ability to convey the wonder and awe of the lands of the gods. The gods and their realms are things you should be able to glimpse, and carry that sacred memory to your grave, but in 4e you can move to Hestavar, the Bright City, and become a greengrocer. If describing the realms of the gods sounds too ambitious for you, you can always have nautical adventures fighting Githyanki pirates on the astral seas. This would be better if I didn't find Githyanki so boring. Grade: C

Outer Realms: People don't go to the outer realms: they're from there. They're fun as a source of weird otherness and horrific threats. They're a bit of an exception to my rule: even though there aren't a lot of obvious great adventuring possibilities on the plane itself, it's still nice to have it around: the threats from the plane can spark adventures. That's kind of a cop out, so I'll give the Outer Realms a B-.

Overall Grade of 4e Planes: B

Bonus rating: The natural world. It boasts a huge variety of settings, from tundra to desert to urban pubcrawl to dungeon; there are lots of NPCs; and you can throw in silver seas and lightning volcanoes if you want. Grade: A+.

And that's always been my problem with the planes of existence. A world of magic is such a compelling fantasy that it never seems attractive to visit another, less varied world of magic.

Next time: I'll grade the planes of the Great Wheel cosmology of earlier editions!

Series Navigation<< Grading the planes: the Great WheelFixing the elemental planes >>

4 Responses to “grading the planes: 4e cosmology”

  1. Claire Claire says:

    I love the natural world!! I think the message of most of these ratings is that these planes are useful when they sort of glimmer through the mists in the natural world and freak us out. A whole adventure in the fairy world is not necessarily that interesting, but a liminal place in the natural world where the borders with other worlds are thin is the best! and I guess thinking about “planes” helps you think about how that other world works. But you kind of don’t even want your players to know, that, right? You just want to freak ‘em out a little with the odd green onion in a monochromatic town.

  2. I’m a huge fan of Planescape, so when 4e scrapped the great wheel it was one of the sacred cows I didn’t want to see butchered. That said, I really dig the whole Titans vs. Gods creation myth, and the relationship between the world, the feywild and the shadowfell. It’s nice to see the realm of faerie given more of a role than a forgotten demiplane and the shadowfell is realized in a much more useable way than the plane of shadow ever was. Plus I think it’s cool that the three are reflections of one another and you could visit the same place one each of the three planes (although drastically different versions of the same place).

  3. Canageek says:

    Really? You don’t like the elemental chaos? This of it: This is the matter from which the universe itself was forged. You want to build an artifact? Guess where you need the components from. Guess where the only fire hot enough to destroy another artifact is? Guess where the clan of monks training themselves to survive and maintain order in amongst pure chaos lives?

  4. [...] over at Blog of Holding has a really interesting series of posts where he has graded the 4e cosmetology and the great wheel of earlier editions. They were really thought provoking, and I thought most of [...]

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