So, I said I’d be doing a series of these. I figured I’d start small. 😉
(Again, just to reiterate: These are not hints or clues as to what’s coming up in the next edition. I know no more than you do about it. I’m not involved in it. This is purely what I want to see, as a fan.)
One of the things I both loved and hated about 4E was the new cosmology. Taken by itself, I really like it. I think it’s a great planar structure for a D&D setting, and I had a lot of fun using it.
On the other hand, I hated the idea that every single setting had to be part of it.
Greyhawk? Forgotten Realms? Planescape? I want my Great Wheel (which I love just as much as I do the new cosmology, albeit for different reasons). Eberron? The unique Eberron cosmology in 3E was one of the coolest things about that setting; give it back!
I understand the marketing advantage of a single unified cosmology, in terms of keeping the audience for planar adventures/supplements as wide as possible. But I really feel like it does a disservice to the settings on a thematic and creative level–and since I’m just talking about I want, I get to throw out marketing considerations I don’t like. 😉
So, what do I want to see, cosmology-wise, in the next edition? I want to see the core rules present the Great Wheel and the 4E cosmology. I want it to present them both as equally valid options (with emphasis on the fact that any other setup is also equally valid). If the goal of the next edition, as has been stated, is to be a toolbox, then that needs to include aspects of the example/default/implied setting. Don’t say "This is what the cosmology is." Say "Here’s a couple of examples of what it could be."
And then give Eberron back its own, separate cosmology, too. 😛
Yes, this takes up extra word count. But it can also be used to serve another purpose: to illustrate the different ways of using alignment in D&D.
In 1E to 3E, alignment wasn’t just about how a character behaved. It was an actual universal force. Good, Evil, Law, Chaos–these were more than abstractions. There were planes and gods devoted to them. They could empower certain types of magic or damage. You could detect them with spells.
In 4E, with a very few exceptions, alignment has zero mechanical impact. You can’t detect if someone’s evil. A spell doesn’t do more damage against someone who’s good.
And once again, I want to see both options presented as equally valid. Sometimes I want to play in a setting where Good and Evil represent actually forces, clashing for the fate of the multiverse. In such settings, the Great Wheel–with its alignment-based planes–is a perfect fit. In other settings, I want to see alignment as purely a general indicator of behavior, with all sorts of shades of gray and no magic "Is he evil?" button. For those settings, something like the 4E cosmology might be a better fit.
The game needs to include and allow for both. Some people love alignment; some people hate it. It’s not so hardwired into the game that the choice must be binary, but it is important enough that people need advice and guidelines on both ways of running it.
It should be easy enough. Adventures and the like simply include a creature’s alignment, and how much that impacts the game is largely up to the DM. Maybe you need a few sentences of advice. "This adventure was written under the assumption that alignment is not detectable. If your campaign does allow the detection of alignments, we suggest you do X or Y to keep the plot from unraveling." Again, a few extra words here and there–but extra words that would be worth it, I think, if the different ways of looking at alignment were both presented as equally valid, rather than one or the other being the assumed default.