Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kill the Planes: The Abyss

While I realize that the planes have a long tradition in both fantasy and D&D, I don't particularly like them. The idea of going to another world is interesting and all, but why bother setting all that interesting stuff somewhere else? Why not just cram it all into the world?

For instance, the Abyss is a scary place. It's filled with demons and extends far below the normal planar realms to who knows where. The thing is, though, by placing it into this planar structure you rob it of some of its value. Clear out part of your setting, punch a huge hole in your world, and voila, there's the Abyss.

That may seem like a bad idea. After all, what stops the demons from overrunning the world? When you think about it, though, you face all the same questions if you anchor the Abyss in the planes. The frame of reference shifts, sure, but the basic concept is the same.

Instead, the Abyss is a yawning pit one hundred miles wide. It drops deep into the earth, far deeper than anyone has delved. It cuts into the Underdark, and demons emerge both there and at the surface to kill and maraud. A number of ancient fortresses watch over it, but few of those are still manned by the orders of paladins that built them. Today, many are now occupied by renegade wizards, necromancers, and demonologists.

As one travels down the narrow ledges that circle the Abyss's outer rim, one can see great spires of black rock that rise through the Abyss's central void. Here, demon lords battle for territory along narrow, stone bridges and within the chambers and caverns that honeycomb the spires. Here and there, gates along the Abyss's wall lead to massive caverns warped and changed by the Abyss's influence. These layers are shaped by the demon lords that claim them and range from howling, frozen wastes to verdant jungles. Miniature suns hang in their skies, creating proto-worlds within the stone of the earth.

Luckily, the mightiest demons need the aid of mortal spellcasters to leave the Abyss for any period of time. It is a place infused with great magic, and without it they would die like a fish removed from the water. Still, legends tell of a time when a great, red comet will split the sky and herald the rise of demonkind. According to the legends, this comet is the Queen of Chaos, the mother of all demons banished in eons past by the gods to the outer realms of the sky. When she returns, she will lead her children on an endless war of conquest across the world.

The lands near the Abyss's rim are demon-haunted and mostly abandoned. Cultists, wanderers, and madmen make their homes there, as do many gnoll packs that can reach the size of armies. The gnolls will forever remain a thorn in the side of the realm, as even the most ardent paladin would think twice before leading an army into the Abyssal lands to slay them.

The Underdark is so dangerous because, by whatever strange laws govern the Abyss's power, the mightiest demons can enter it through the Abyss's lowest precincts. This makes travel there perilous at best, and it also provides the drow with easy access to demonic aid.

Placing the Abyss in the world opens up a lot of potential for adventure. What if the Abyss's influence starts to grow? What secrets are in the fortresses that once watched over it? Low level characters can venture into the twisted lands around it and maybe even its uppermost layers, while a journey into the Underdark can turn into an excursion to the Abyss with one wrong turn.


B. Austin Price said...

I really like this! What of the other planes? Maybe a Mt. Olympus-type on the other side of the planet. And the real secret is that the abyss continues down through the planet and up into the core of Mt. Olympus!

Unknown said...

Hmm. I totally dig this, but I wonder if you get a similar benefit from ditchign the planar framework and making everything more immediate, like the Feywild and Shadowfell. You can get a lot of the same benefits of giving it a physical location, but can throttle it down too.

I mean, I'm a big fan of the historic precedent for the very baroque setup for the planes, and as much as 4e has streamlined that, I wonder if it could be streamlined further. I'm just thinking of how well the shadowfell and Feywild work in play, and the infinite utility of "thin" points and gates, and it'd be neat to get some demonic action on that same vector.

-Rob D.

Mike Mearls said...

Yeah, both of you guys are hitting on good ideas. I really liked that in Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, the land of the dead was on the other side of the planet. Maybe I'll have to make this a series.

Robert Conley said...

Pretty much what I do with the Majestic Wilderlands. The main difference of my version from yours is that my Abyss is sealed by a system of wards.

Demon Summoning/Astral Travel involves basically going through the fourth dimension to go around the wards to pull a demon out of or parties enter the abyss.

The various gods homes are likewise pinched off pieces of the Wilderlands.

The way I visualize is that the gods pinch off a piece of the wilderlands leaving only a narrow neck to connect back. The neck can be open, guarded, or warded.

If you travel around the neck area you may think it is only a mountain or a forest. But try to traverse it you enter the pinched off area which can be many size large than it's perimeter can suggest.

Astral/Ethereal travel involves traveling through the 4th dimension that these pinched off areas are extending into.

Mike Mearls said...

I like the idea of the Astral as a sort of dimension layered over everything else cool stuff.

Jeff said...

But what about the adorable Christian notion of an eternity of pain? You want to take that out of my game?


Anonymous said...

But it brings up some problems, too. Fitting all the planes into the world either makes the world very huge, or the usable places very small. And while that might make for an interesting twist, I imagine it could turn out to be a whole lot of work.

Or, you could have your whole world not fully follow the concepts of space and distance (think Xen'drik on Eberron, where distance and time also seem warped)

I think I would also miss the reflections of the world, like the feywild and shadowfell.

Anonymous said...

Nice ideas.

Hawkgirl, I think you can use reflection of the world still in this model easily enough. (As Rob Donoghue mentions above.)

My campaign has a shadowrealm where the dead go on their way to their final destinations. It combines elements of the plane of shadows and the various pathways to the afterlife. There is some sort of land of the fey too, but it has been broken almost beyond repair.

Additionally, there are places where demons, angels and elementals can be summoned from . . . but not that living people can go to. They are entirely metaphysical realms that only matter when they are forced into interacting with the 'real world'.

Anonymous said...

This is great. Someone linked me to this article on twitter because I was talking about the planes. They never really interested me as a player, and now as DM much less.

I'm surprised books on the Shadowfell and Feywild weren't published before a book on the Elemental Chaos was, as something tells me more people would get use out of those than one on the E.C.
I know I would.

This is an interesting discussion though, and I have to say that the concept of the abyss being set in the deepest core of the world is a good one...

Mike Mearls said...

I think some of the planes can remain outside of the world. I'm thinking of making this a regular series of posts, looking at different ways you can use the planes. I also think there is room for alternate realities, like a world of eternal night ruled by vampires, a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, things like that.

There would also definitely be room for strange places that exist outside the world, like an infinite library that holds every thought and piece of knowledge somewhere in its endless stacks.

B. Austin Price said...

Mike, the alternate realities would be a great way to use the Ravenloft Campaign Setting. When the mists roll in, it is the barrier between realities rippling...will you make it back in time...

Windjammer said...

I'm surprised no one mentioned it yet, but isn't the whole idea of loading a portion of the Abyss into the Prime Material *exactly* what the 4E team did with FR Impiltur?

As to your opening lines "why bother setting all that interesting stuff somewhere else? Why not just cram it all into the world?" they ironically fit my feeling of the 4E cosmology. Whether it's the implied setting or the new Realms, the Prime Material with floating rocks etc. is already so outlandish that every time there's a planar trip the characters feel they haven't travelled to something "out there" but just farther down the same stretch of land. So as far as I'm concerned you have exactly described what 4E is doing already - it's blended all the planes into one huge outlandish place which is quite exciting to be at but which has rendered cross-planar travel pointless.

Windjammer said...

PS. As a clarification - FR Impiltur is on the verge of doing what you describe, pretty much like the Dark Heresy RPG invokes the theme of a demonic invasion: the menace is quite subtile and not the "into your face - demons roaming the lands" style that you get in e.g. the Dragon Age CRPG.

Another reference - much closer to the latter variety of a demonic invasion in the making - is the Worldwound in Paizo's Golarion setting.

Roger said...

I've never been a fan of planes or traveling the other planes, so I really like this idea. It has a WarHammer world feel to it, too.

Mike Mearls said...

Windjammer - I don't really know much about 4e Realms, so maybe this isn't helpful. The way I'm seeing this idea is that for "planar" areas of the world to work, they need a few things:

1. They have to be distinct

2. They have to be tied into the background of the setting, making sense in terms of history and flavor

3. The planar regions need to be contrasted with a mundane central core, one where the focus is on kingdoms, factions, and much of the typical campaign world fodder.

A weird location is only effective, IMO, if it is contrasted with a relatively mundane region or place.

Windjammer said...

Exactly - your 3. is spot on. The published 4E settings lack the "mundane core" of the settings of old (like Greyhawk).

With 4E we've reached a point where people no longer know whether the illustration at the rear cover of the 4E Player's Handbook depicts the Prime Material or the Astral Sea.

So the clear cost of having a more fantastic Prime Material is the paling (of interest and flavour) of the remaining cosmology. This is certainly not helped by some of the less well considered excravances of 4E's new planar realms. Right now we've got a thread on Enworld where people ask the valid question why areas like the Shadowdark or Feydark can't fit into the Underdark in the Prime Material.

Cam_Banks said...

I have always been a fan of what Neil Gaiman calls the "soft places," locations just a step over a hill or under a stone or across a river, the equivalent in a sense of the Feywild in 4E. But they're a part of the world itself, a place you can walk to, perhaps only while carrying the right key.

Dragonlance suffered in the minds of some for having such distant and unreachable planes, so when developing the cosmology for 3E I made heavy use of the Gray (aka Ethereal, Astral, or Shadow planes rolled into one) that held pocket dimensions and other plane-like realms for high level characters to venture into. In 4E, this is exactly what the Feywild and Shadowfell turned out to be, and so I was kind of jazzed that the utility of this thought process was obvious to others.

To my mind the planes seem way too much like outer space, and I'm no a Spelljammer guy. I think I would be much happier with your version of the Abyss than something I could hop into an astral vessel and sail to, at least in terms of ongoing narrative.

satyre said...

I like the idea of the world containing otherworldly strangeness; 3Es Impiltur had the seeds of Abyssal incursion in it's demongrounds. I've used a similar idea to Mike's in a game before and it's good as long as you don't give the keys to it to anyone.

@Cam Banks - If Spelljammer isn't your thing, you can always use a Ravenloft style mist or planar ship a la Michael Moorcock's Sailor on the Seas of Fate. You can put in all kinds of high weird and things that do not fit in your normal world.

Mike - would love to see a series on alternate realities as these places are often wonderful jumping points.

Lizard said...

Well, obviously, I have a bit of personal bias towards the Abyss (, but I think you may be missing part of the point of why having the Abyss, and the Hells, etc, "out there" is a cool idea. It's not just about the world -- it's about the multiverse. They abyss isn't "this place where there's lots of demons", it's "the place where the demons plot their attacks on countless worlds across reality". Making it just another dungeon, IMO, cheapens it -- as much as declaring that the Nine Hells are just some kingdoms on the southern continent ruled by some evil sorcerer or something.

Me, I'd use your Abyss idea as an example of the kind of intrusion into mortal reality that the demons want to accomplish. It's a small example of what can happen when they win, even for a brief time, a massive scar in the world.

B. Austin Price said...

I like what Lizard says. I like the idea of an Abyss-intrusion into the world, but I've always thought that if the abyss were in the planet, it would be "winnable". That is, theoretically, someone could go in and wipe it all clean. Now, if it more Planescape-like...the Abyss is infinite and unwinnable...much... much... scarier!

Don said...

I use something similar to this in my campaign. I placed the Abyss type area under the Underdark (aka the Under Under Dark). It is a place where light comes from flows of molten rock, demons and devils constantly war for control and Orcus rules, attempting to pull the souls of the dead down into it's dark depths before they can be taken away by the followers of the Raven Queen.

I also use the concept of the Feywild and Shadowfell as inhabiting the same place as the physical world, just that they run on different frequencies. Similar to how Gaiman did it in Neverwhere or any Charles deLint book.

I ditched the idea of multiple planes long ago. On Antur (the name of the world) the gods exist on the same plane as the mortals. Moradin is a mountain king that lives in one of the largest mountains on the world, Corellon lives deep in the elven forests and Lolth rules from the Underdark.

Dan said...

Golarion does this. And it has a neighboring nation of warriors who are doing their damnedest to keep the demons from spreading. I'd be surprised if you haven't already read it, though. If you haven't, the setting book is great.

Anonymous said...

In my campaign I've dropped the Feywild and the shadowfell right on top of the World. They are territories rather than dimensions. Here's the cool thing, they're at war with each other and the normal world is the no-mans land between them. The borders fluctuate as the war progresses and land gets 'overwritten' by the planar effects.
I went with this approach because I wanted to turn my world up to 11 where I could, and that means that mundance forests aren't going to cut it, I need Feywild jungles.

Marmalade Girl said...

to join the "i do something similar" thread, I have put both Nine Hells and the Abyss in the "real world". Wffenruuga is a flat world, a massive rug suspended in the "heavens". The top surface is the Material Plane, the underside contains the realms of the Nine Hells and the depths in between contain all the Demons, collectively known to both Devils and Mortals as The Abyss. Neither side is fond of the chaotic creatures and are protected by the fact that Demons have to physcally travel thousands of miles in either direction to get to the surface. Of course, there are the "just under the crust" Underdark elements the demons have to deal with first.

As for the Shadowfell and Feywild, they are superimposed "planes" representing previous (and disposed with) weaves of the rug.