Worldbuilding pt. 01: cosmology
I’m creating a new world.
I won’t get into specifics, but my default setting started suffering from the fact that I was a beginner DM when I made it; too many inconsistencies, no room for new player options, cyclic history, yada yada yada.
Now that I have GMed a few successful campaigns, I feel like my world is due for a reboot. The plan is to document the whole process here on my blog, so you’ll be able to follow along and maybe create your own world too! This will be the perfect opportunity to exercise both my worldbuilding and my writing muscles.
So where do we start? Many people like the bottom-up approach, i.e., starting from specific details (like characters or places) and going up from there. My method of choice for this series, however, will be top-down: we’ll start from the literal birth of the universe and zoom in later.
Birth of the universe
I’m a bit tired of fiction with “conventional” creation myths and pantheons. In my humble opinion, too many settings have gods with humanoid depictions, defined genders, fixed alignments, and clear portfolios. You just have to take a look at the 5e PHB for a bunch of pantheons where this is the case.
For this reason I’m taking the inspiration for my creation myth from Taoism, a Chinese system of thought which encompasses philosophy, tradition, and religion. I like Taoist cosmology as a basis for my setting because it doesn’t involve personified deities with human-like emotions. Straight from Wikipedia:
The Limitless (Wuji) produces the delimited, and this is the Absolute (Taiji). The Taiji produces two forms, named Yin and Yang. The two forms produce four phenomena, named lesser yang, great yang […], lesser yin, great yin […].
Note that none of the concepts mentioned above are gods! At least from the descriptions I’ve read, there is no intention or conscience here; all of this just is. Exactly what I was going for.
Even from this short explanation, I bet you can already see things from D&D that could fit into this template. The Positive and Negative Planes, Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil… My first instinct is to do something like this:
The Limitless produces the delimited, and this is the Absolute. The Absolute produces two forms, named Negative and Positive. The two forms produce four phenomena, named Law, Good, Chaos, and Evil.
This is already pretty interesting, but now I think the Limitless and the Absolute feel a bit out of place. As someone with an exact sciences background, I like the idea of the Infinite producing the finite. Meanwhile, the Absolute could become the Prime; it has a lot of gravitas and also evokes both Prime Material Plane and Prime Mover (from Greek philosophy). With a few edits, the creation myth looks like this:
The Infinite produces the finite, and this is the Prime. The Prime produces two forms, named Negative and Positive. The two forms produce four phenomena, named Law, Good, Chaos, and Evil.
The only thing I’m still not satisfied with is the bad connotation that Negative, Evil, and Chaos have. Even though Yin is usually associated with darkness and cold, this is by no means meant pejoratively. According to Taoism, “everything has both yin and yang aspects (for instance, shadow cannot exist without light)”.
To solve this issue, I’ll instead use my own alternative to the classic D&D alignment axes: Order vs. Freedom and Unity vs. Autonomy. In place of Negative and Positive forms, something like Dark and Light aspects is enough to tone down the bad vibes. This is what the myth looks like now:
The Infinite produces the finite, and this is the Prime. The Prime produces two forms, named Dark and Light. The two forms produce four phenomena, named Order, Unity, Freedom, and Autonomy.
Making it mine
To finish off, I think it’s important to make the cosmology truly mine. This is important because, so far, the creation myth is just Taoism with the serial numbers filed off. I don’t want to give my players (or the readers) the impression that my cosmology is a parody of Taoism even though it is heavily inspired by it.
Therefore I want to rewrite the myth with my own words, in own style. For instance, I’d like people to feel as if this has happened outside the domains of time and space, as if the four phenomena are intertwined with the fabric of reality.
This is what I came up with:
Even before time itself, there was the Infinite. The Infinite gives birth to the first of all things, named the Prime. The Prime has Light and Dark aspects, which are simultaneously opposite and complementary. Light and Dark together create the threads from which all other things are woven: Freedom, Autonomy, Order, and Unity.
See you next time, when I’m going to create a pantheon!