The Architect DM: Planar Modification

Last week my first appearance ever on the Tome Show podcast was posted (on my Birthday, no less!) and the topic that I was very pleased to be invited in on was Planar Advice for 4th Edition. Thank you to Jeff for the invite, and if you haven’t listened to this episode or if the Tome Show in general then you should head over to his website and check it out!

For the Planar Uninitiated

While recording the show, Jeff brought up an interesting point that I hadn’t considered with regards to the 4th Edition D&D planes. If you’re not familiar with the 4E planes, allow me to give you a very brief introduction. The material world has two mirror planes, the Shadowfell that is a darker reflection focusing on death and the Feywild which is a brighter reflection and focuses on life. I greatly enjoy both of these planes because they both thrive on the abundance of either death or life and particularly the Feywild introduces the concept that the abundance of life (killer vegetation, tricksy faeries, etc) can be equally as dangerous as anything found in the other planes.

Below the material world and its reflections is a plane called the Elemental Chaos that represents unbridled creation and destruction and is the domain of primordial creatures, while above is the plane known as the Astral Sea that closely resembles the common conception of “heaven” and is the domain of divine entities. If the Shadowfell and Feywild are death and life, then the Elemental Chaos and Astral Sea are chaos and order, and you can practically guess what alignment creatures might be inclined towards depending on which plane they originated from (if 4E still used the classic D&D alignment scale, that is).

The Planes as Afterlife

Back to the interesting idea that I mentioned, while recording the episode Jeff summarized the 4E planes as the afterlife of living beings in D&D. The Shadowfell is where all souls pass on their journey after death, the Astral Sea is where divine servants ascend if they are worthy, and the Elemental Chaos (specifically the Abyss) is where souls might end up if they’re captured by demons or if they serve one of the gods that happens live outside of the Astral Sea. I was intrigued by this view of the planes, but I quickly jumped on the fact that the Feywild as written doesn’t entirely mesh with the overall idea.

That’s exactly why I suggested modifying the planes to fit into this greater concept. After all, if you have a big picture idea such as “the planes are the afterlife” then this is precisely the kind of creativity that can make campaigns memorable. Why not use the Feywild as the afterlife of elves, Eladrin, and other fey creatures in your game world? I’m sure that in some of the material for 4th Edition there are regions in the Feywild where elves can go after death, but I’m talking about making this concept a larger part of your game world.

Imagine if all Elves, Eladrin, and Drow in your game world experienced a completely different afterlife from other races that involved their passage directly into the Feywild. For starters you could use the religions from Eberron where elves worship elven heroes of legend, but then imagine if it were common practice to journey into the Fey plane to visit and consult your ancestors. Beyond that, what kinds of benefits or advantages would these races get from being outside of the Raven Queen’s dominion? Maybe Elves and Eladrin are largely immune to corruption from Devils and Demons and thus have less to fear from Orcus or Asmodeus. This could lead to armies of devils and demons invading the Feywild in search of souls and a way to circumvent this immunity.

Don’t be Afraid to Mess with the Planes

Just with the simple act of bringing the Feywild into line with the other planes with regards to the afterlife we can come up with a handful of compelling ideas that will set your game apart from others and distinguish your game world from what is presented in the 4E books. We could develop the idea further by adapting the Elemental Chaos to be more of an afterlife than just the Abyss, possibly even taking it to the point of introducing the Primordials as a bigger influence in the game world. Since 4th Edition launched I’ve been curious what a game world would look like where divine characters were evenly split between following the gods and following primordials. Perhaps the Dawn War ended in more of a stalemate than the divine victory that 4th Edition assumes. The ways this simple change to history might impact every aspect of the game world are astounding.

Along the same lines as the afterlife discussion, you could modify the planes so that they are all reflections of the material world. This would mean that locations on your map would have an impact on the Elemental Chaos and the Astral Sea as well, but it also changes some of the big picture concepts introduced in those two realms and would probably require some more in depth consideration while developing the idea.

Lastly I’ll suggest an idea that I’ve been dying to try out in a campaign, eliminating one or more of the planes altogether! Particularly if you’re not a fan of one plane or another, imagine what would happen to the cosmology if the Feywild or even the Astral Sea were destroyed in some catastrophic planar disaster. You could have a world where the gods are homeless and stranded in the material world! Many of these concepts may already exist in one of the plethora of published campaign settings out there, so if that’s the case please let me know because I’d love to check it out!

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. Gargs454 says:

    Dang it! Destroying an entire plane, particularly one like the Astral Sea is such a deliciously awesome idea that I immediately want to put the concept into action. Sadly, this is yet another idea to throw into the “Idea File” for all those ideas that I just don’t have time to get to. 🙂

    As for the rest of the article, your ideas about changing the planes is a great example of how to modify an existing setting, cosmology, adventure, etc. for use in your home game. For the more harried of us, it can be done fairly quickly and easily, yet still produce a result that feels uniquely our own. Its a great reminder that we don’t always have to reinvite the wheel, sometimes putting a new hubcap on it will do just fine. 🙂

  2. Dixon Trimline says:

    Whooooooaaaaa, there are some truly compelling points here! I love the idea of tracking someone down in his afterlife to ask some important questions, sort of an adventure version of the ritual Speak with Dead. You’d have to figure out all sorts of things about the person, like who he served in life to determine where he ended up in death.

    Blowing up one of the planes definitely has a new Star Trek Vulcan feel about it, as the party can slowly discover all the repercussions of such an event. Man, my brain is all sparkly now from the inspiration.

    And finally, the idea of the mirror planes reflecting the material world… well, that makes me think of the shadow realm in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. If you shift into these other planes, it’s similar but not identical to the material plane. This city is a mega-graveyard in the Shadowfell or a thriving forest in the Feywild. Oooh, my sparkly brain.

  3. My weekly campaign has been experimenting with the idea of afterlife and alternate cosmology, and it’s a blast. When the party tried to interrogate the decapitated head of a central villain, they were drawn into a strange metaphysical space where they were forced to fight a hostile doppleganger of one other party member in single combat. When one was killed by the dream-spawned clone, his spirit was trapped in the severed head of the villain, and the villain himself ran off in possession of the PC’s body. After weeks of being stuck as a severed head, he’s finally about to get his body back.

    In my homebrew world, divine strife is the name of the game. There are a ton of gods, all with different relationships and histories. What I’ve experimented with is the idea that in the Darkplane universe choosing a god is like choosing an afterlife package. If PCs follow the god’s tenets, they’re taken to whatever that deity’s version of heaven is when they die, but there’s one god who takes all the failures and rejects.

    I’ve also warped the standard cosmology to include what I call in this world the “four elements of being.” Every living thing is made up of Energy, Spirity, and Body, while the gods possess Deity, the fourth element of being. It would take too much space to explain here, but the point is that it creates unique circumstances that require me to depart heavily from the source material in the Manual of the Planes. But that’s part of what makes the game fun for us. The players don’t always know what to expect.

    Sometimes as a player it’s nice to not know. We come into the game having done our homework and knowing precisely how magic and the universe work. I would argue that enemies are truly terrifying when you don’t know exactly what they can do, or what the source of their power is, or how a particular operation of the universe works. The mystery is more complete if we can surprise the players, not just the PCs.

  4. Gargs454 says:

    @Dixon: Definitely agree with the idea of tracking someone down in the afterlife. In fact around the end of paragon tier or early epic tier in my current campaign, I’m thinking of having the PCs come across one of their earlier fellow PCs who died during the campaign. Not sure which one, but I figure the idea is just too cool to pass up.

    @Darkplane: Again, I agree. Surprises keeps things interesting. Its the thrill of exploring and discovery, etc. All my players know that even monsters are not necessarily pulled straight from the monster manuals that even a common kobold could have a nasty trick up its sleeve.