The Plane Above: Supplement: Secrets of the Astral Sea ("Dungeons & Dragons") Hardcover – 20 Apr 2010
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The first chapter, "Astral Adventuring," opens up with some guidelines that will help set the tone for a game set in the Plane Above and quickly moves into how to create adventures and campaigns set on the Astral Sea. The possibilities presented are myriad, from exploring the infinite sea, crawling astral dungeons, fighting agents of the gods, or battling astral pirates in spectacular ship to ship conflicts -- to name a few. Supporting these options are new rules for moving about the plane, ship-to-ship combat, astral hazards, and a collection of dazzlingly well illustrated astral ships for each of the divine dominions.
Sailing on through, the second chapter describes six different divine dominions that can be accessed from the Astral Sea, including Arvandor, Celestia, Chernoggar, Hestavar, Avernus (the first layer of the Nine Hells), and Tytherion. There are also a number of "Border Islands," which float in the mists of the Astra Sea surrounding each of the divine dominions. These too are fantastic locations with rich histories and backstories. In fact, it is obvious as you read through each of these locations that the authors made it a priority to provide the Dungeon Master with enough story hooks and background information to bring the Astral Sea to life at the gaming table. As you're flipping through this chapter, be sure to check out the mini-adventure for 12th level characters. It really ramps up the intensity right away with the characters aboard an astral ship that is plummeting to its doom through the skies of Avernus -- an excellent opening to a series of "Escape from Hell" adventures.
The "Races of the Astral Sea" section presents four races that dwell within the Astral Sea. Among these are the couatls, a race of feathered serpents often thought of as "selfless paragons of virtue," but who are interestingly portrayed in this section in a less favorable light. The githyanki, who have long traveled the Astral Plane through all of its various editions, of course make an appearance. They are ever the planar raiders they have always been, but we get a bit deeper glimpse at their culture and some of the factions within their society. Following these, the maruts, or Inevitables as they were previously known, now have been expanded to have a full history and culture of their own. As it is told, the maruts were created from astral-stuff by the gods to serve as neutral arbiters. Millenia later, they are still sought for settling disputes impartially -- and with a heavy hand when necessary. Rounding out this section, the quom are a completely new race. Turned into nomadic raiders after their home dominion was shattered and destroyed during the Dawn War eons ago, they now scour the Astral Sea in search of fragments of the dominion, and their god, Lakal. Woe be to those who may have a fragment of Lakal in their possession, or worse yet, for those who may have accidently consumed even some microscopic fragment thereof.
Before we dive into the bestiary, we find that deeper in the Astral Sea are realms known as the "Shattered Dominions." These are the domains of gods who have long since died, been lost, or in the case of Canceri, been cordoned off as the prison plane of the gods. The Deep Astral hosts an array of exotic locations for your players to find and explore out on the Astral Sea, including Canceri, Erishani, Kalandurren, Pandemonium, and Shom, as well as a number of others that are given brief summaries. Another mini-adventure, The Monolith Stirs, lurks in this section and is designed for characters of around 27th level.
Closing this supplement out, we have a chapter on "Astral Denizens," stating out some of the dangerous foes the planer traveler might encounter along their way. All, save one lonely 4th level monster, fall squarely in the paragon and epic tiers, and the 45 new monsters presented in this book are fairly evenly distributed, slightly favoring the paragon tier by a few monsters. The githyanki get the most real estate with some eight pages of new variations to challenge a paragon tier group. Vlaakith the Lich Queen also makes a reappearance as a Level 21 Solo who will seriously mess you up. She would make an excellent final encounter before the characters progress on into the epic tiers, to bigger and meaner things -- perhaps a round or two in the ring with a Hundred-Handed One, for instance? There are also some epic tier abominations, a smattering of new devils, two new monster themes, the followers of Gruumsh and Bane, the quom and a few other unique monsters to punish the party with.
* One Caveat *
It's notable to mention that there are a lot of references throughout this book to the "Dawn War" and its influence on the Astral Sea, so if you haven't read Divine Power where this war between the gods and primordials was described more in depth, there will be points where the backstory is hard to follow. It doesn't detract too heavily from the book, however, and this supplement stands alone without it just fine. However, you are almost certainly going to want to have a copy of Manual of the Planes and perhaps The Plane Below, as this book references those sources frequently in lieu of restating what was previously written.
* My Thoughts *
Looking back at the Astral Plane of old, it was never as interesting of a place as it is today. It was presented as a road to be traveled rather than a destination to be explored -- a basically empty space between the other planes with a few hazards and perhaps a couple locations of interest to visit at best. Characters were meant to pass through quickly, glossing over the journey except perhaps for the occasional encounter with githyanki pirates or the infamous astral dreadnought. The Astral Sea of 4th Edition is still described as an infinite and mostly empty expanse, but it is far from being simply the "Silver Void," as it was once described in the Planescape Campaign Setting. With colorful dominions orbited by "Border Islands" rich with story hooks and "Shattered Dominions" waiting to be explored, Plane Above succeeds where I think Plane Below didn't, by making the Astral Sea a must-visit destination in any planar campaign.
In particular, I like the portrayal of the 4e Cosmology as something fundamentally broken, a world with a problem that epic characters have a chance to improve. The Lattice of Heaven and its flaws, depending on how they're portrayed, could drive multiple campaigns at higher tiers, and that's something I like. I was less thrilled with the implication that Heaven is somehow finite, but in can understand the reasons for doing so.
I also like that The Plane Above has this tendency to take material mentioned in previous books (like the Shardmind racial origin, or the characterization of some deities) and complicate or subvert it a little. Anyhow, overall I give it 4 stars; if you like 4e, you'll probably like this book. If you don't like 4e, I doubt that this is the book that's going to win you over -- but given that it's as devoted to establishing setting elements as it is hard rules, you still might find some fun items to adapt to different rules.
also manages to solve a problem that the older manual of the planes didn't: How do you justify adventuring in what is essentially heaven?
Hell sure, It has demons and souls in need of saving and forbidden treasures. But why have Celestia or even Arvandor be anything more then a foot note?
Fortunately this book played up the fact that since the Dawn War, Heaven isn't' quite the perfect paradise everyone assumed. There's this post apocalyptic feel to it.
There's now lots of plot hooks that can see your characters doing stuff even in lands controlled by "good" Gods. And of course there still the evil planes to cause trouble win too.