The Great Wheel is a term from AD&D that came into its full fruition in late-2e setting Planescape. It refers to the cosmology of those two AD&D decades, preserved since then mainly by the Planescape fanbase.
The Wheel pattern resembles a set of consecutive rings or circles: the Prime Material Plane at the center, bordered by the Ethereal Plane, and then by the Elemental Planes, which are bordered in turn by the Astral Plane - these together make up the "Inner Planes". Wrapped around all that, come the Outer Planes. These are morality-based: the Good-based Upper Planes, the Neutral-based Middle Planes, and the Evil-based Lower Planes.
Back in the 1970s, the main conflict was taken from Michael Moorcock: between Law and Chaos, where either side might do deeds good or evil, but really the evil exuded from the conflict itself, often unintentionally. Later in that decade Gygax adapted this cosmology to good and evil planes alongside law or chaos; a decade later Jeff Grubb's Manual of the Planes fleshed it all out. In the 1990s Planescape, seeking a reason for an alignment-based multiverse, returned to that Moorcockian theme, so bound the Great Wheel with the Blood War.
The Wheel was the baseline, as mentioned, for the formative decades of D&D and therefore, inside and outside the role-playing community, has been assumed normative for that gaming system. But.
- Mystara descends from the Sword & Sorcery D&D which preceded and bypassed AD&D, and as such does not use the Great Wheel. Frank Mentzer's Companion / Masters / Immortal rules instead floated a reality made up of many different dimensions, aligned to five "Spheres" of focus (Energy, Time, Death, &c). Some BXCMI planes correspond to D&D planes; we can certainly muse about, say, M5: Talons of Night's Thorne with Yggdrasil and its Chasm with Pandemonium. Sadly, TSR never quite cohered Mystara's planar lore into a system and so it all has been lost to time, like tears in the rain.
- Dragonlance technically takes place in the Great Wheel, but adds whole new planes, jumbles the Great Wheel's planes, and generally tries to pretend it has its own unique cosmology, although Planescape sources are adamant that this is just Krynnish Clueless getting a lot of shit wrong. 3rd edition, however, leans much more towards Krynn being part of its own unique cosmology, although this new multiversial map doesn't have a catchy name.
- Forgotten Realms broke away from this planar model in 3rd edition to gain its own unique cosmology, the World Tree, but has seemingly ditched it for the Great Wheel as of 5e.
- Eberron has a completely and officially separate set of planes gathered into a layout called the Orrery.
This before we even get into Beyond Countless Doorways and other d20 / OGL supplements which reverted to Moorcock. (What can we say; we love 'Cock here.)
In 4th edition, the Great Wheel was replaced by the World Axis cosmology, and even though instructions on how to reshape the Axis into the Wheel were provided in the 4e Manual of the Planes, it was the source of much uproar. Fans of 4e generally like the Axis, though.
In 5th edition, the Great Wheel returned, but with some significant changes based on the World Axis cosmology:
- The Feywild and the Shadowfell coterminous planes were added to the planes as a whole, residing as analogues to the Prime Material Plane.
- The Elemental Planes were reshaped so that they were physically interlinked, with the former paraelemental planes literally being the regions where two elements intersected. Additionally, the layout of the Elemental Planes were reshaped to be more like Creation in Exalted; close to the Prime, the Elemental Planes resemble the Prime, but with a specific elemental trait dominant, but go deeper and the other elements fall away until you have nothing but a pure expanse of elemental matter, akin to approaching the Elemental Poles in Exalted. Go beyond the "deep elemental", though, and you break into the Elemental Chaos, the writhing, Limbo-esque plane where all elemental matter originates from and which serves a border between the Inner and Outer Planes.
- The Positive and Negative Energy Planes were removed from the Elemental Planes array (which removed the Quasielemental Planes from existence) and instead made the extreme "north" and "south" of the planar map, beyond the Outer and Inner Planes alike.
Pathfinder doesn't use the Great Wheel, instead using the inspired-by but different Great Beyond, which has a lot of equivalents but ditches the balance angle and in some cases have significantly different equivalents (the Outlands are replaced by the Boneyard and River of Souls) and relations to each other (the Maelstrom, Limbo's equivalent, is by far the largest plane, rivaled only by the Abyss, and created most of the others out of its substance vis a vis Order arising from Chaos. Axis, the Mechanus equivalent, is an expansionist city founded by lawful planars who made Inevitables to defend it from the Malestrom. etc.).
|The Cosmology of Planescape|
|Inner Planes||Ethereal Plane||Prime Material||Astral Plane||Outer Planes|
|Elemental Planes||Energy Planes||Demiplane of Dread||Plane of Shadow||Plane of Mirrors|
|World Serpent Inn||Tu'narath||Sigil||Demiplanes||Ordial Plane?|