Great Wheel diagram from Dragon #8

Intro to Planescape #2: The Great Wheel Cosmology

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The Great Wheel refers to the traditional arrangement of the Outer Planes since the beginning of D&D. It first appeared in The Dragon #8 (July 1977) in a short article by Gary Gygax called “Planes: The Concepts of Spatial, Temporal, and Physical Relationships in D&D.” In just over a page, he explained the entire planar cosmology that is still largely used to this day! There’s been some minor changes but the general concept and overall structure remain intact.

Expand: Key to Dragon #8 diagram above
1) Purple, The PRIME MATERIAL
2) Yellow, The POSITIVE MATERIAL PLANE
3) Grey, The NEGATIVE MATERIAL PLANE
4) Lt. Blue The AIR ELEMENTAL PLANE
5) Red The FIRE ELEMENTAL PLANE
6) Green The EARTH ELEMENTAL PLANE
7) Blue The WATER ELEMENTAL PLANE
8) Orange, The ETHEREAL PLANE
9) Lt. Blue, The ASTRAL PLANE
10) Blue, The SEVEN HEAVENS
11) Lt. Blue, The HAPPY HUNTING GROUNDS
12) Blue, The TWIN PARADISES
13) Lt. Blue, OLYMPUS
14) Blue, ELYSIUM
15) Blue/Grey, GLADSHEIM
16) Grey, LIMBO
17) Red/Grey, PANDEMONIUM
18) Red, The 666 LAYERS OF THE ABYSS
19) Lt. Red, TARTERUS
20) Red, HADES
21) Lt. Red, GEHENNA
22) Red, The NINE HELLS
23) Red/Grey, ACHERON
24) Grey, NIRVANA
25) Blue/Grey, ARCADIA

Between The Dragon #8 and the AD&D 1e Manual of the Planes, a few of the upper planes were re-arranged and the Plane of Concordant Opposition was added to the center of the wheel. Then with the beginning of Planescape, several planes were renamed, and now the current 5e names have a long form that largely merges the various names from across editions.

Expand: Planar Names and Positions through the Editions
The Dragon 8 MotP 1e Planescape (2e) MotP 3e DMG 5e
LN Nirvana Nirvana Mechanus (formerly Nirvana) Mechanus Mechanus, The Clockwork Nirvana of
LN, LG Arcadia Arcadia Arcadia Arcadia Arcadia, The Peaceable Kingdoms of
LG The Seven Heavens Seven Heavens Mount Celestia (formerly Seven Heavens) Celestia Mount Celestia, The Seven Heavens of
NG, LG The Happy Hunting Grounds Twin Paradises
(moved position)
Bytopia (formerly Twin Paradises) Bytopia Bytopia, The Twin Paradises of
NG The Twin Paradises Elysium
(moved position)
Elysium Elysium Elysium, The Blessed Fields of
NG, CG Olympus Happy Hunting Grounds
(moved position)
The Beastlands (formerly Happy Hunting Grounds) The Beastlands The Beastlands, The Wilderness of
CG Elysium Olympus
(moved position)
Arborea (formerly Olympus) Arborea Arborea, The Olympian Glades of
CN, CG Gladsheim Gladsheim Ysgard (formerly Gladsheim) Ysgard Ysgard, The Heroic Domains of
CN Limbo Limbo Limbo Limbo Limbo, The Ever-Changing Chaos of
CN, CE Pandemonium Pandemonium Pandemonium Pandemonium Pandemonium, The Windswept Depths of
CE The 666 Layers of the Abyss Abyss The Abyss The Abyss The Abyss, The Infinite Layers of
NE, CE Tartarus Tartarus Carceri (formerly Tartarus) Carceri Carceri, The Tarterian Depths of
NE Hades Hades The Gray Waste (formerly Hades) The Gray Waste Hades, The Gray Waste of
NE, LE Gehenna Gehenna Gehenna Gehenna Gehenna, The Bleak Eternity of
LE The Nine Hells Nine Hells Baator (formerly Nine Hells) The Nine Hells The Nine Hells of Baator
LN, LE Acheron Acheron Acheron Acheron Acheron, The Infinite Battlefield of
TN N/A Concordant Opposition The Outlands (formerly Concordant Opposition) The Outlands The Outlands

Note: The planes are originally presented in The Dragon #8 were not necessarily arranged by alignment. It is only with the Manual of the Planes that the idea was formalized. However, they are largely rather close to that arrangement already.

Alignment-Based Arrangement

The primary arrangement of the Outer Planes since the original Manual of the Planes is by alignment. The Lawful plane of Nirvana (later named Mechanus) is on one side opposite the highly chaotic Limbo, with Good Twin Paradises (later Elysium) opposing Evil Hades (later Gray Wastes). It even mirrors the traditional alignment grid (lawful on the left, chaos on the right, good on top, evil on bottom). A compass comparison is quite apt with Good as North, Lawful as West, etc. The lawful Good plane of Seven Heavens (later Mount Celestia) is NW, and so on.

For more variation and gradients of alignment, there are planes between each of the alignments on the ring, much like the West-North-West or South-South-East of compasses. Between the Lawful plane of Nirvana (Mechanus) and the Lawful Evil plane of the Nine Hells (Baator), there’s the Lawful-Lawful-Evil plane of Acheron. However, this only around the outer ring, and not factored into neutrality. So the 8 outer alignments, and then another 8 between each of those, and then the True Neutral Concordant Opposition (later Outlands) comprise the 17 Outer Planes arranged in a Great Wheel with the Outlands in the middle, and it’s infinitely high spire like an axel to that wheel.

Belief is centrally important to the Outer Planes – often even portrayed as being the actual material the Outer Planes are created from. So rather than the fundamental elements (exhibited in the Inner Planes and then mixed together in the Prime Material Plane), or even a more scientific ideas of atoms and molecules, the Outer Planes are often considered to be created from the very stuff of belief itself. In D&D, alignment is an extremely important way or understanding and organizing those beliefs, so it’s not surprising that the Outer Planes themselves would be arranged specifically according to alignment.

Alternative Arrangements

That is not the only way to organize the planes, however. Many gamers are unhappy with the strict alignment-based arrangement. Maybe it is too strict and clean. Maybe alignment is downplayed in their games. Maybe it’s not mythical and spiritual enough. Or maybe it’s just boring to them. Now, of course, DMs can have the planes be arranged any way they like in their games. But it is useful to have the designers recognize some alternatives as well as offer advice and examples.

In Third Edition, they branched out into offering alternative cosmologies. First there was the Manual of the Planes, where they included an appendix on “Variant Planes and Cosmologies.” The variant cosmologies (each with a couple/few pages) included:

  • Myriad Planes Cosmology – Where each plane is like a bubble bouncing around bumping into and away from other planes causing changes in what planes are accessible to each other at different times, as well as having the possibility for an endless number of possible planes.
  • Doppel Cosmology – The standard “mirror universe” concept with two Prime Material Planes, one with a slight tendency towards Good and the other with a tendency towards Evil. The Outer Planes are more clearly Good and Evil aligned and float around the appropriate Material Plane. (There’s no mention if goatees are more common in the Evil-aligned universe/)
  • Orrery Cosmology – Each plane moves in orbits around each other with moving closer and further from the Material Plane, and consequently have a greater or lesser impact on the plane.
  • Winding Road Cosmology – The multiverse is a long and winding road of planes, and the distinction between Material, Inner, and Outer Planes breaks down. There are simply countless planes, each with their own traits – some similar to each other, some vastly different. This variant included some random charts to determine planar traits with a few very brief example planes.

Furthermore, in the campaign settings, WotC untethered them from the Great Wheel. In the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, the planar arrangement was the World Tree with branches arcing off towards the more good-aligned Celestial Planes and the more evil-aligned Fiendish Planes (alignment seems continually to be important to Outer Planes even when the cosmology is vastly different). What were traditionally the Inner Planes were instead roots feeding into the Material Plane.

Eberron used a model similar to the Orrery Cosmology and had 13 planes matching the 13 moons and 13 dragonmarks that would move in and out of alignment with the world.

With Fourth Edition, WotC simplified alignment into a continuum of Lawful Good – Good – Unaligned – Evil – Chaotic Evil. Kind of difficult to make a wheel out of a line, so the core cosmology was suitably changed to the World Axis with the Astral Sea above and the Elemental Chaos below. Also, the Plane of Shadow was altered into the Shadowfell, and the Plane of Faerie (occasionally mentioned previously) became the Feywild. I will certainly talk more about these two specifically in future installments.

(Images of the various cosmologies through the editions are included at the bottom of this post.)

Fan-created cosmologies abound built around countless other concepts. Depending on what spiritual and metaphysical aspects are important to a campaign, many different arrangements can be far better suited than the Great Wheel.

The Hidden Truth of the Great Wheel?

So, is the Great Wheel the true arrangement of the planes? Or if you are in Eberron are they entirely different planes or the same ones just arranged differently? Is there a way to make sense of all of these different ideas in-game without resorting to cries of “clueless primes?”

Yes, there is. Personally, my pet theory is that (in-game) the Great Wheel is possibly the greatest bit of belief engineering since the creation of the multiverse. My reasoning goes like this:

All of the planes are isolated from each other. You can only travel from one to the other via portals, which can pretty much teleport you anywhere, or via a couple magical paths like the River Styx (I’ll definitely discuss the various planar pathways pretty soon.) So the idea of a plane being next to another is just a social construct because that makes more sense to mortal minds.

Every single cosmology is true (or false) because the planes are not next to each other, or closer or further to each other, or anything of that and trying to arrange them spatial in that way is actually nonsense, like asking “What color are nouns?” (In our academic circles, we like to call those category errors. You are trying to apply traits of one category to something that is not part of that category. But anyway…)

“But what about the Gate Towns?” you ask! For those who aren’t familiar with them, gate towns are the 16 towns throughout the Outlands that include a major gate to each of the other Outer Planes. So the town of Tradegate has a commonly used gate to Bytopia, the town of Excelsior has the gate to Mount Celestia, etc. Maps of the Outlands clearly show them arranged in a specific circle with gate towns located near gate towns for planes considered next to each other. That would seem to imply that the planes follow a similar arrangement, right?

Well, this gets into some tricky business with travel in the Outlands. Even though the Outlands is generally the most hospitable and Prime Material-like of the Outer Planes, it’s still made of belief and is somewhat unusual in some aspects. Travel between locations on the Outlands takes a random amount of time. You can walk from one town to another in, say, 3 days, but turn around and take two weeks to walk back the same way! The topography and shape of the Outlands constantly changes and morphs. So, with the randomness, it is quite possible to have a trip between gate towns considered quite far apart actually take less time than between ones considered next to each other. With this being the case, does it really make much sense anymore that one town is even “next to” the other?

But the Great Wheel arrangement of the planes and gate towns does make sense to many, which is why it’s so prominently used. (With travel between gate towns, so many believe them to be arranged a certain way that over enough trips it might average out to be shorter even if each individual trip length varies greatly. Belief shapes the planes, after all.) Since so many believe in that arrangement, does that make it more true than other cosmologies? Is there an objective truth underlying the planes making the Great Wheel the real truth?

No, not in my mind. For me, it’s all the modron’s fault.

The modrons regularly go on their Great March to… well, do whatever it is they do when they march across the Outer Planes. Modrons are extremely lawful creatures – even possibly solidified Law itself in living form. So, of course, they are going to have a specific route and have a very neat and orderly way of organizing the planes for their March. So they exit the gate town of Automata and go to the next gate town in their particular arrangement of the planes. Perhaps their arrangement relates to the amount of threat the native denizens are to the modrons, or based on some mathematical principles, who knows? (Could be an interesting question to explore in game!) The point is that every time the modrons march, they use a very specific path and go through the planes in a very specific order.

Now, having thousands of modrons marching through your home can be a bit of a disruption. At the very least, they are kind enough to (usually) do it on a set schedule. Therefore, since the emergence of the modrons and their marches, across the Outer Planes, beings know when they will march, and in what order they will march through that area. While initially used to prepare for the inevitable Marches, over the millennia, this knowledge lent itself to discussing the arrangement of the planes and gate towns in general. There were reasonable philosophical reasons for arranging them that way, and for planar beings worrying about the next Modron March, some very practical reasons to work with that arrangement.

So, over the generations and countless Modron Marches, planar beings began to believe that the planes had an alignment-based arrangement in a Great Wheel around the Outlands. It made sense. It was useful. It let the celestials feel better that the nasty fiends are as far away as possible, and so on.

Consequently, the need for the modrons to have a set path for their March led to the widespread belief in the Great Wheel. But it’s no more true than any other arrangement of the planes. At least that’s how I see it.

3 Things You Can Use Today

Planar arrangements seem rather academic and too metaphysical for direct game impact. But there are some ways the concept can apply in small or large ways in your campaign.

  1. An eccentric sage at the library or school the PCs are visiting to gather information is giving a lecture on a alternative arrangement of the planes that runs counter to the Great Wheel. The lecture is widely ridiculed until the sage is suddenly attacked/kidnapped by a squad of modrons! Why are the modrons so concerned with this particular theory that they would go so far as to take direct action?
  2. In the classic “magic mirror” scenario (or some sort of vision), each PC sees a glimpse of their afterlife in the 3 planes closest to their alignment (so a NG character would see a shifting vision of themselves in Bytopia, Elysium, and the Beastlands) with a mental message that their actions can determine their eternal fate. Beyond just alignment itself, the character and theme of each plane becomes an important part in matching a PC with their appropriate afterlife.
  3. A dungeon puzzle requires the PCs to arrange the tiles or an orrery of the Outer Planes into the proper arrangement in order to solve. BUT if they can legitimately justify a different arrangement other than the Great Wheel, that could be acceptable as well (which could be more interesting than simply having them go from memory or make some skill checks). Particularly mean fun DMs can force the PCs to complete it 3 times but each time must be different.