Welcome back world-builders!
We’ve been getting pretty specific recently, hammering out a lot of the nitty gritty stuff to do with shaping our worlds. So this fortnight, I thought we should take things back the other way again, and go as big as possible. Universe building, Cosmology building, whatever we want to call it. This post is all about other planes, and far-off planets.
If you’re writing high fantasy or science fiction, the question of cosmology is going to come up. Science fiction has a little bit of an easier time of things, in some ways, because they have the universe and all its systems and stars ready and named for them by us today.
But either way, these are big concepts and sometimes to really tackle them, we need to go all out big in our thinking to figure out how we’re going to make the big concepts in our creations work.
Creating a cosmos, or whole new universes or unexplored is not an easy task, by any means. But there is a lot of rich material to draw on from the Science Fiction we have which has used our known universe.
Just within our known universe, we have hundreds of objects, each with their own laws of physics and other unique qualities we can only imagine about. It’s easy to see why it alone provides such a perfect springboard for imagining new worlds and ways of life.
The Expanse, which you might have figured I’m a big fan of, does an awesome job drawing on the known solar system and the inner planets and asteroid belt to create a rich and interesting universe for its characters to explore.
My other sci-fi mainstays, Star Trek and Star Wars, go even further, imagining outer quadrants and creating new races and cultures in solar systems beyond our own.
Just look at the impossibly detailed maps created for games like Knights of the Old Republic, set in the Star Wars universe.
But what about planes? Those pesky fantasy places that won’t ever correlate to a planet. Places like The realm of the fey, or the Abyss. Even Heaven and Hell have become planes upon which storytellers have woven their own narrative. The classic example being Dante’s Inferno. Where and how do they exist if you want to use them in your story, and how can you represent them?
And this is where the idea of planets and planes as concepts in world building, kind of collide.
I think the first time I really thought of it this way was looking at a map in one of the Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 supplements, The Manual of the Planes. (I don’t have a copy of that book any longer, just a link to a random Amazon listing for an old copy.) Still the map in that book showed me how I could make sense of the complicated system of planes in Dungeons and Dragons, run campaigns in them, and even, create my own.
Just by using the way our planets work around each other as a template to imagine ‘other’ planes of existence and how they intersect can be a great way to get a handle on how they could work. Then, mapping out the planes, or realities in your world, can help you clearly get a handle on things like time travel, or magic, or dreams, or any kind of unique ‘planar’ plot device that your creation has.
Which is exactly what I did for fun when I mocked up a silly little planar system of my own. I made this for some Free-Form RP I do with friends online from time to time. It’s based on a blend of our mythology and folklore, and the D&D system which I grew up loving and playing so many campaigns in.
To give a mondo brief explanation; The Astral plane is the plane of travel, just like in D&D, but in this little creation of my own, it’s also the plane of magic. Which is why it touches everything.
The deal with all the little pockets of Abyss floating around the place, is the old Cthulhu outside or otherworldy idea of the spaces between planes and dark dimensions. I concept I love. They could be any one’s interpretation of such a place. A shadowlike realm, or a torturous place. I like to think that one of those could easily be the gateway to the ‘Empyrean’ dimension that my friend’s Cog and Jay over at Tinker Tabletop invented all their cool old-world inspired Gods for. Or that one of those ‘other material’ planes could be the world of Aldis, a universe of my friend Daarka’s creation. In fact, I haven’t even mapped out all the possible planes, just a couple for the sake of illustration. I imagine there could be more material planes, and even other sorts of planes.
I liked the idea of creating a universe where Heaven and Hell were fixed places, and I love the mythology that surrounds the ideas of Angels and Devils. I decided to make our Earth a fixed plane too, in between them both, and draw on stories like Dante’s Inferno and other works to create a plane system based on our mythologies.
You’ll notice my feywilds have an orbit, and they’re an irregular shape to all the other kinds of planes I’ve got on there. That’s because so much of our mythology draws on the Feywilds as a travelling place that touches down on earth and then disappears again for hundreds of years, I thought it would be fun to have it as this thin, orbiting plane that will end up touching just about everywhere.
There’s no real point to the map above other than to provide a little visual reference for my planar explanation, and you can definitely find other examples out there. Like the example from D&D that inspired me all those years ago. If you’re messing with planets or planes, and you want to try to start explaining them better, head for a map of the universe, or make your own one.
In any case, I hope I’ve got you thinking big, if you’re writing big!
Until next time, happy world building!