Welcome to a new series of unasked questions and unedited responses! It’s a mindfulness exercise. As far as anyone can tell.
Anyway… cosmic plots. It’s a topic that’s been bouncing around my head recently. What are they and why do people love/hate them so much?
Let’s take a look together and figure it out. Maybe. The post-credits scene will throw a wrench in it all, but that’ll get solved sometime in Phase 37.
What Are You Even Talking About?
So, what is a “cosmic” plot? Simply put it’s a narrative whose scope encompasses the entire vastness of a reality – in other words, it’s an existential threat.
Examples of this kind of plot include Avengers: Infinity War, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands (I’m still mad), and the Wheel of Time series. In each of these stories, the ultimate goal of the villain is to irrevocably alter or even end reality itself. This isn’t the fate of the galaxy, like in Star Wars, and it isn’t a continental scale problem, like in Lord of the Rings.
On a grand scale of narratives, cosmic plots occupy the highest point.
By necessity, cosmic narratives require cosmic characters. This isn’t a tale about the dark wizard Voldemort – we’re dealing with the Dark One, the ultimate evil of reality. Simultaneously the heroes must also be on a cosmic level. Our Chosen One can’t be a kid with a scar, it has to be the Dragon Reborn, a figure of massive power and dread importance.
There’s also an effect on setting, but that varies a bit more. Cosmic narratives tend to take place in outer space or in metaphysical space. You don’t fight Thanos just in Africa, you have to go to a blasted ruin of a planet to do it. But again, that varies.
So now we know what a cosmic plot is. The question that remains is why do I even care.
A Problem of Scale
Narrative depends on creating a connection between the viewer and the characters. Cosmic narratives run into issues because the problems these characters face are incomprehensible and the stakes unimaginable.
What does it mean to “rewrite reality” like the Jailer in WoW wants to? What does “eliminating half of all life” look like in practice? What happens if the Dark One breaks free?
In the latter two examples, we get concrete examples. Thanos has been pulling his balancing act on various planets for a while now – we can see what his “solution” looks like through the eyes of people who suffered, like Gamora. The Dark One breaking free is an unknown, but we are shown the effects of him almost breaking free – the Age of Legends came to such a disastrous end that the world still hasn’t healed.
But even so a problem remains. In a longer narratives (IE not a movie) what emotion does this cause? How do people feel? In Wheel of Time we get to see a wide variety of reactions, from despair to wild determination. It’s the end of the universe and everyone has their own way of coping.
More importantly, the reactions of various characters are usually tied to concrete, visible things. Rand fears losing people he loves. And we see him lose people. I won’t say who for the benefit of people who haven’t read the books, but the point is that we get to see what the end of the world means for Rand al’Thor. Or for Mat, or Moraine, or Lan.
When we’re told that the Dark One plans to unmake reality, we know what that means to each character and what hurts them the most.
Okay, But Isn’t This Supposed to be a D&D Blog?
When it comes to D&D, cosmic narratives are very common. Most official adventures are stories of preventing Tiamat from destroying the world, or saving the world from Elemental Evil, or stopping a strange death curse. A few focus on smaller things (can someone please kick this magical hobo out of the basement of Waterdeep?), but they tend to be the exception.
The best of these adventures handle the cosmic scale of the story by introducing connections. Likable NPCs threatened by the villain, or welcoming townships that turn into another home for the party. In effect, they make things smaller so you can properly appreciate the vastness of the danger.
My favorite moment in all the campaigns I’ve run was one of cosmic importance that exemplified this concept. In it, the party faces off against a megalomaniac warlord seeking to gain control over all the planes of reality. But the memorable moment is when one of the PCs, a former hero fallen on hard times, shatters their family sword to kill the villain. It was a perfect end to their arc, and it was the most memorable part of the whole encounter.
No matter how I could draw out that fight, taking place at the heart of creation between a desperate party and an all-powerful villain, nothing could compare to the simple breaking of a sword. Galaxies could be colliding in the background, Latin chanting in the air and multicolored flames surrounding the party… but the moment of connection was a character silently breaking their most precious possession.
There are other ways to do it, of course. And in that campaign I did try to give my own reasons for why players should care. There was the young, awkward couple they had met at the beginning of their trip. There was the stranger they had met along the way, whose fate was tragically tied to the villain’s scheme. There was the city they had come to call home hanging on the edge of destruction.
The key is that when it comes to playable narratives, whether that’s D&D or video games, you have to give the player a concrete connection to the plot and the characters. The villain can rewrite reality all he wants – what I need to know is who gets hurt by this?
Infinite Cosmic Power, Tiny Narrative Space
So how do you write a cosmic narrative? My advice is to play Hades for starters – its unique blending of deific conflict and family strife is a perfect example. Your hero, Zagreus, is dealing with ancient forces of Chaos and a potential war between the gods of Olympus and the cthonic forces of the Underworld.
But in the end, he’s just a guy who wants his family to work. And we can all understand that one.
The most important thing is to give your players something to care about as well as concrete expectations of what failure entails. I failed at that latter part in my own campaign and was luckily saved by my players’ incredible performance in investing in the story.
There’s nothing wrong with a cosmic narrative as long as you’re aware that we, ourselves, are not cosmic beings. We need to interact with things on our own level in order for it to resonate with us.
Outside of D&D, though, I think there’s something to be said about the irrelevance of epicness. We all love epic fantasy of course, but it doesn’t have to be epic. Sometimes you can just write a story about someone getting over a personal tragedy and it can end up just as dramatic and satisfying as a story about taking down the ultimate evil of the universe.
Not everything has to be the end of the world. And not every “end of the world” involves the world literally ending. Sometimes, to certain characters, “the world” is just another word for their loved ones, or the experience of living. Watching someone you love die is the end of the world, to you anyway. The challenge of a writer is to make the viewer feel that desperation too.
And there we have it! I should also point out that just because I’m not editing this doesn’t mean I’m just throwing it out into the world – so please, let me know what you think!
Oh, and if you have any questions… DM me (or comment).