House Rule: Three-Axis Cosmology

Especially astute readers may have picked up on this in the last article:

…the players suffered a planar travel mishap and ended up on Carceri, the plane of prisons…Instead I told the players on their way out the door that they had actually landed on Utopia, the plane of city.

This is important because they’re mutually exclusive. The Pathfinder planar cosmology has Utopia but not Carceri, and D&D’s Great Wheel has Carceri but not Utopia. I wanted both in my setting, so I had to find a way to squash the two together without creating problems with the overlapping planes.

More than five years ago (cripes), I wrote about a house rule in my campaigns, three-axis alignment. In additional to good/evil and law/chaos, my worlds have a third axis, action/inaction. A character can be lawful good active, where she rides out and slays evil or performs great works, lawful good passive, where she lives quietly but nobly, or lawful good reactive, where she is mostly passive but becomes active under duress or when a need presents itself. The issue is in how much she feels the need to impress her views on others or the world. It’s a measure not of how a person feels, but how strongly they feel about it. To be entirely nerdy, if good and law are the direction in a character’s alignment vector, active/reactive/passive is the magnitude.

Since that post I have started leveraging this axis in my campaigns, effectively making it mandatory rather than optional. Nobody has wielded a gumption sword to deal extra damage against passive players, but that’s less because I’m not committed to the idea and more because it’s a really expensive weapon enhancement at the levels at which we play. The option is always there, within reach for any player or NPC who wants to use it.

This presented a small problem when we hit the seventh Eight Arms campaign and got to plane-hopping. Both Pathfinder and D&D use two-axis alignment and their cosmology reflects that. D&D uses the Great Wheel, a circle of planes aligned along moral and ethical lines, and Pathfinder uses the Great Sort Of A Box With Planes In, a smaller set of planes aligned largely the same way. Both are two-dimensional. If I wanted a third alignment axis, I needed a third dimension, because that’s what the word “axis” means.

The thing is, something like this already existed. Most versions of d20 have the elemental planes, a set of planes representing fire, air, earth, and water. Alongside them in a separate-but-equal capacity are the Positive and Negative Energy Planes. They don’t really fit in a wheel; you can’t say fire is closer to positive energy than it is to negative energy because those concepts don’t have meaning to fire. They’re defined more by their opposition to each other: fire is far from water, air is far from earth, and positive is far from negative. It’s like an octahedron, or a d8 if you can’t reach Wikipedia from here. Each point on the octahedron is an energy plane, and each plane is “adjacent” to four other planes and opposed to the sixth.

But then, some versions of D&D have the para-elemental and quasi-elemental planes that exist in the confluence between two energy planes. For example, between the Plane of Air and the Plane of Water is the Para-Elemental Plane of Ice. Between the Plane of Fire and the Negative Energy Plane is the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Ash. If each energy plane is a point on a d8, the para- and quasi-elemental planes are the lines between sides. Each connects to two and only two energy planes, and it is what happens when those planes interact. These planes have a long and varied history throughout D&D, in which they sometimes exist, sometimes don’t, sometimes exist but without being separate planes, and sometimes exist only if you squint real hard and turn the book sideways.

The point is that this octahedral concept gave me the idea for a custom three-dimensional Outer Plane cosmology that let me add the effort axis to the planes. It also let me marry D&D’s planes, which we know and love, with Pathfinder’s, which is what every published monster, spell, and deity assumes. I ended up with this:

Each of the planes on points represents pure chaos (Limbo), law (Utopia), good (Nirvana), evil (Abaddon), action (Purgatory), and inaction (The Outlands). Each edge is a place that connects two of these concepts: Pandemonium is the chaotic/active plane, Elysium is good/inaction, and so on. Pathfinder’s planes mostly got to stay where they were except for Elysium. A bit of this is because I didn’t want to disrupt the game’s assumptions too much, but mostly it was because they were so generic; the D&D planes have more character, so they were easier to shift to active or inactive. Just like the standard planes, these inflict penalties on characters of opposed alignment, and the outsider races living in each generally act according to their role on the effort axis.

I did have a finite number of places to put planes and every one of those places had to be filled, so there were changes. After some deliberation I cut Ysgard, because I kind of feel like the whole Norse concept is played out and doesn’t fit much with an Industrial Revolution setting besides; Gehenna, because a plane whose whole concept is “place with steep surfaces” doesn’t merit preservation; Arcadia, because it’s incredibly boring and the “perfection” angle is already done by Utopia; and Acheron, because screw Acheron. I merged the Beastlands with Arborea, because that separation had always seemed weird to me. Instead of two planes whose gimmick is “nature, like, really really hard”, now there’s one with elements taken from both. None of the existing planes made sense for chaos/inaction so I added the Maelstrom, which I think I invented out of whole cloth except for the name. Everything else fit nicely into the new framework with a minimum of jostling or reinvention.

We’re also using the para-elemental and quasi-elemental planes, which means the Inner Planes and Outer Planes share a shape and make sense together. This happened to tie into a seed I planted in the first Eight Arms campaign about the nature of the universe, in a complete accident which I had planned the whole time because I’m incredibly smart and attractive. Since it’s not a wheel or a box, I’m calling this cosmology the Great Edifice (also foreshadowing) and I’ve started adding information about the planes to our campaign wiki. I don’t know how much of this I’ll fill out, but at least it’s there in case a player wants to know.

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3 Responses to House Rule: Three-Axis Cosmology

  1. MisterBlake says:

    There’s a Gumption enchantment? You’re telling me ALL symmetrical core alignment effects have an effort analogue by implicit fiat? How was I unaware of this!?

    • MssngrDeath says:

      Everything does, with the obvious caveat “except where goofy”. At any given time there’s probably a maximum of one paladin in the world defending the specific confluence of chaos, good, and inaction.

      “Freedom for everybody!” said the adventurer. “You know, whenever.”

  2. Babaelc says:

    I think every cosmology-nerd would appreciate the elegance in this system. Nice work!

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