“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” ~ Pubilius Syrus (Roman Author)
As it turned out, getting my copy of The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea was not a easy experience. I pre-ordered my copy at the beginning of April, along with the new deck of Three-Dragon Ante: Emperor’s Gambit (which will probably be next Friday’s review), but despite it shipping on April 20th, I did not actually get it until four days ago!
I do not think I’ll be shipping with the “big brown box” anymore. The first two times they “attempted” delivery, I was at home, and never heard the doorbell or a knock, but yet they claim they tried to deliver my package. After the third and final attempt, I called them to arrange a pick-up, assuming it was not worth my time to ask for another failed delivery, only to learn that it is the new policy of the “brown box team” to return items to the shipper after three tries! Needless to say, I escalated to a manager who stopped my package from returning to whatever book-filled warehouse it came from, and I drove over to pick up my package without further incident. Who knew that just getting this new supplement would turn out to be such a chore!
So anyways, The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea is sort of the quasi-sequel to The Plane Below, detailing all those planar places which are not part of the Elemental Chaos. Here we have the realms of the gods, the Astral Sea, and all the strange places lost since the Dawn War – I sure hope it was worth all the problems I had with shipping!
The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea
- Designers: Rob Heinsoo (lead), Ari Marmell, Eric Scott de Bie, Robin D. Laws, Matthew Sernett, & Rodney Thompson
- Cover Illustrators: William O’Connor (front), Ralph Horsley (back)
- Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
- Year: 2010
- Media: Hardbound (160 pages)
- Cost: $29.95 (Amazon Price $19.77)
The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea is an official supplement for Dungeons & Dragons 4E describing the Astral Sea and the Dominions of the Gods. The supplement contains a wide variety of information for Dungeon Masters to create adventures in this realm, including several campaign themes to involve Characters in planar questing, descriptions of divine dominions of living deities and the shattered dominions of dead ones, and details on mortal races and an assorted new monsters which are native to the Astral Sea.
The production quality of The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea is superb, with a very logical flow to the layout, and some really stunning interior artwork to enhance the reading experience. There were numerous sidebars which gave additional information on topics at hand, including references to specific sourcebooks (such as Manual of the Planes), Dragon, and Dungeon Magazine articles. I appreciated that the Authors added these notations, giving the Reader a real scope of how much additional “official” material was out there which could be tied into the Astral Sea campaign setting. However, I was also a bit disturbed (see further on) by the sheer number of references to other books needed just to get through The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea.
There are four main sections in The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea supplement, and they move readers in a reasonable progression, from topic to topic, as they learn about the planar realm:
Astral Adventuring – Introduces the nature of the Astral Sea and its “geography”, a list of recommended Campaign Themes, and details on how to travel in the Astral Sea.
Divine Dominions – Discusses the basic nature of the “immortal” entities (such as gods, angels, exalted, and outsiders), and has detailed information on the realms of Arvandor, Celestia, Chernoggar, Hestavar, the Nine Hells, and Tytherion.
The Deep Astral Sea – Divided into two sub-sections, containing information on the four “mortal” races of the planar realm (couatls, githyanki, maruts, and quom), and detailed information on fifteen shattered dominions of long dead gods.
Astral Denizens – Containing around forty new monsters and new variations on existing monsters to challenge adventuring heroes in the Astral Sea.
Now one of the hardest things that an “old school” D&D gamer (like myself) has to get over, when reviewing a book like this, is the sweeping changes in 4E cosmology versus the cosmology of the older editions. But as far as fantasy cosmologies go, I think that D&D 4E has a pretty solid foundation by using the Dawn War plot mechanic, and The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea delves more deeply into the progenitor “war to end all wars” than any previous supplement published. The very nature of the Astral Sea itself, the divine and shattered dominions, and the monsters of the planar realm all follow logically from this “Big Bout” between the Primodials and the Gods. Taken as a whole, the sourcebook’s cosmology works for me, but it is some of the little details which are still sometimes hard to get over. (Keep Reading!)
This section has some really good information on the nature of the environment which makes up the Astral Sea. A realm which behaves as void, air, and water makes for some very interesting travel possibilities, and I thoroughly enjoyed the detailed information provided on all the various ship-types which ply the Astral Sea. For D&D gamers who liked the concept of “spelljamming” back in the day, they will definitely feel a bit of nostalgia at the re-envisioning of traveling by ship through this planar realm. But let there be no mistake: this is not a rehashing of Spelljammer! The ships which are launched from the various divine dominions have unique properties and capabilities, particular when in combat on the “highest” of seas.
Navigation of the Astral Sea is also discussed in some detail, as well as the hazards, such as marauding pirates and strange environmental conditions like psychic storms, which can interfere with a planar voyage.
But the most important part of this section is the discussion of Campaign Themes, which can be used by Dungeon Masters to involve Player-Characters in the Astral realm. There are seven major campaign themes recommended for use by DMs, and I have to say most are decent concepts and have some inspired writing. It should be noted that almost all these campaign themes are designed for Paragon and Epic Tier play, and the Authors make sure to mention this in the introductory discussion of The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea. For DMs wishing to make the Astral Sea an integral part of their campaign, theese themes make an excellent starting place to begin their Paragon and Epic Tier adventure planning.
This section was in many ways the most disappointing part of The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea. While it had some great information regarding the cosmology of the Astral Sea, with respect to concepts such as the Lattice of Heaven and the Living Gate, it was spotty in details about the various divine dominions. In some cases, it expands upon information provided in Manual of the Planes, but in general, DMs are going to need to reference MotP, as well as various Dragon articles, plus references in the DMG and DMG2 in order to make sense of this section. Sidebars do provide a handy reference point for finding corresponding information, but it is rather a burden to have to search out material spread so sparsely between so many difference sources.
There are some bright points in this section, however, particularly those touching on the motivations, conflicts, and long-term plans of some of gods in D&D 4E. There are all kinds of interesting factoids on the gods, like the strife between Bane and Gruumsh in Chernoggar, or of Erathis’ plans to re-create the Lattice of Heaven from her dominion in Hestavar, or of the origins of Tiamat and her redoubt in Tytherion. It cannot be denied that this section provides a considerable amount of raw adventure hooks for Astral Sea adventures, even if Dungeon Masters will have to research other “tomes” to generate cohesive campaigns from the material in The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea.
There is also a sample adventure for the Paragon Tier called Hell’s Bonds, consisting of three encounters and some additional notes for continued development. The adventure is quite good, actually, and paints a frightening picture of a ship wreck, not onto some deserted island, but into the Nine Hell’s itself!
The Deep Astral Sea
This section of The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea had some really great source material for the races of the Astral Sea, and the shattered dominions left over from the Dawn War. Much of the information revealed about the NPC races was refreshing and new, although I must admit I had mixed feelings about some of it. (ie. the githyanki)
The section opens with a discussion on Couatls, which was absolutely fascinating. These feathered serpents can have a profound effect on the lives of adventuring heroes, “adopting” them as minions in their war against evil forces. As a patron race, they could be used to spring-board any number of adventures, although their superior attitudes could get rather annoying over a long-term campaign. As a fan of the show SG-1, I was reminded of the relationship that the Asgard aliens had with the Earthlings – a resource to be used, and cherished, but with a paternal “better-than-thou” attitude that drove the Stargate team insane with frustration sometimes. So it would be serving under a couatl mentor.
I was really torn about how I felt regarding the section on the Githyanki. I may be speculating a bit here, but I believe it is the contents of this book which is the reason why the Githyanki were not included as a playable race in PHB3. The Githyanki are painted as the ultimate bad-guys of the Astral Sea, as race of raiders and pirates, murdering and plundering wherever their astral ships can reach. From previous editions, I had always envisioned and portrayed the Githyanki not unlike the Dark Lords of the Sith, wielding their silver swords like lightsabres and using their psionics to overwhelm their foes both physically and mentally. While I cannot deny that The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea presents some great new material regarding the Githyanki origins and their society, and this in turn offers a number of interesting adventure hooks, painting them as pirates and plunderers struck me as a downgrade of what the race used to be. But coupled with the new githyanki variants in the Astral Denizens (see below) section, I guess I can l can try and adjust my view of the species.
[Editors Note: Is it just me or did they just cast the two Races of Gith, githzerai and githyanki, into the tiresome “ninjas versus pirates” roles? I seriously hope that was not intentional!]
The Maruts and the Quom are “new” to my experience, although I know that maruts existed in previous versions, but I never really utilized them in any previous campaign. I thought the maruts being portrayed as “warrior bureaucrats” was an interesting concept, but even after reading their racial description, I was not particularly enthralled enough to want to utilize them at present. On the other hand, the Quom have a fascinating origin, and the idea of a race rocketing around the Astral Sea, looking for pieces of their sundered god in order to “unsunder” him offers a lot of possibilities for adventurers to run afoul of these astral aliens. Given that magic items, artifacts, and even some people might contain a tiny shard of their dead god, Lakal, the Quom have the potential to show up and create havoc almost anywhere.
The second part of this section deals with the Shattered Dominions, and like the section on Divine Dominions, had some really great parts, and then some downright disappointing ones. On one hand, the detailed information the Authors of The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea present regarding creepy places like Carceri (which I think used to be called Tarterus in the pre-4E days), Erishani (a graveyard realm with a petrified primordial in it), Pandemonium, and other shattered realms offers some great locales in which to build adventures. Even simple exploration missions to these “dead god” realms could occupy Player-Characters for many sessions of play. The Authors also offer two short “side-trek” adventures as examples in this section – “The Monolith Stirs” is a two encounter high Epic Tier quest to Erishani, and “Purifiers of Shom” is a single Paragon Tier encounter – both of which are good examples of the types of scenarios one can get from these shattered dominions.
However, I was disappointed by some of the “filler” pieces which were tucked into the end of this section. Referred to as “Motes in the Astral Sea”, these locales were given two to four paragraphs, offering a few tidbits of information, but leaving most of the development work up to DMs. While this is normally not a big deal in my book, as I usually like to develop my own content, I found one reference to a shattered dominion called Pluton to be particularly vexing. Pluton received a tiny entry of one paragraph, with a note referencing you back to the Manual of the Planes for more information – which consisted on another three small paragraphs. Sorry WotC, but reading a filler piece which then refers back to a different filler piece in another book does not, in any way, impress me.
As much as I have shown my angst in previous reviews regarding WotC making supplement books like The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea into “mini-monster manuals”, I have to say I really liked a lot of the entries in this section. There were eleven new variants of githyanki, six new devils, and more than a dozen new servitors of deities, such as Banesworn, the exarchs of Gruumsh (such as Luthic and Baghtru), and the exalted of Erathis and Kord. There was a new type of creature, abominations, which are the “living” weapons of the gods and primordials left over from the Dawn War. These creations are apparently still floating around the Astral Sea like old WWII submarine mines, waiting to go off when encountered by unsuspecting voyagers. And there were even seven variations of the new Quom for adventurers to tackle. All told, it was a respectable selection of monsters to add to the Astral Sea, and to populate any number of adventures.
Overall Grade: B+
I cannot say that I would recommend The Plan Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea to every Dungeon Master. While there is a lot of good solid material for campaign building, particularly for the Paragon and Epic Tiers, the handy sidebars pointing me at other sourcebooks just underscored how deficient some parts of this book actually were. While journeying across the Astral Sea would make a fantastic campaign after the Heroic Tier, there is still plenty of material out there, by WotC and third-party GSL Publishers, to provide more than enough adventures for aspiring Heroes. Now for Dungeon Masters who enjoy Planescape-style adventuring, this book is definitely one you should not pass up, as it provides essential information on planar adventures, whether your Characters are based in Sigil or cruising about on an astral galleon. For most DMs, however, I would sooner recommend the Underdark and The Plane Below for Paragon and Epic adventure source material, before I would The Plane Above.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!
- Presentation: A-
- - Design: B+
- - Illustrations: A
- Content: B
- - Crunch: B-
- - Fluff: B+
- Value: B+