Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "The Astral Plane"

A Dragon article written by Roger E. Moore and with an introduction by E. Gary Gygax, where he states that "it is about as 'official' as is possible at this time?" For my 13 year-old self, this was as good as an article could get. Appearing in issue #67 (November 1982), "The Astral Plane" was a massive effort on the part of Moore to provide comprehensive rules for adventuring on the Astral Plane. It included discussions of astral encounters, astral travel, the Psychic Wind, movement, combat, and alterations to spells and magic items. There was also an accompanying adventure called "Fedifensor" (written by Allen Rogers) intended to be used in conjunction with Moore's rules. Taken together, it was very impressive package that solidified my sense that, aside from Gary Gygax, Roger E. Moore was one of a handful of Dragon writers whose stuff I could safely assume would be good.

We didn't do a lot of plane hopping in my old AD&D campaigns. I do recall a few visits to the Nine Hells and the Abyss and I suspect the characters did so by means of the Astral Plane on at least one occasion, but, if so, these trips weren't particularly memorable. Ultimately, that's the main problem with "The Astral Plane" -- even with all the clever rules modifications that Moore came up with, the place is still deadly dull. That's not Moore's fault, because he was trying to work within the parameters laid down by AD&D up till that point and those parameters paint a rather uninspiring picture. Sure, the Githyanki hang out on the Astral Plane, but, other than that, what else makes this place cool? Why would anyone want to go there for any length of time? "The Astral Plane" doesn't answer that question and nothing in the AD&D books at the time provided a better answer.

That said, I did like the fact that Moore postulates that other planes will operate according to different laws than those of the Prime Material. That's something I strong advocate and think is essential to the feeling of "We're not in Kansas anymore" other planes should evoke. I also think, as was true in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, that "The Astral Plane" goes overboard in the level of specificity about how character abilities, spells, and magic items operate differently, but that's a criticism of implementation not of concept. So, in retrospect, I still like this article a great deal, even if I wouldn't use it as written in any game I am running now. It's still a great idea mine and a useful foundation for an approach to handling weird otherworlds in your D&D campaign.

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for mentioning this issue of Dragon, one of the first I ever read from cover-to-cover. I pulled a copy from my Dragon Magazine CD and re-read it. Aside from all the private nostalgia it induced, I am struck by the cover and other artwork. I find it hard to imagine contemporary RPG showing art with (gasp!) alcoholic beverages or pipes.

    How times change. I never remember drug use, healing potions aside, in games I played during that era. More recent play has seen more in-character drug use: intoxicants at parties to signal decadence, characters with concealed addictions revealed to provoke player sympathy or derision, and as the special effects of various game mechanics.

    I wonder if anyone's surveyed the history of vice in role-playing games.

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  2. It's a wonderful concept, but I agree completely on the trouble there is in finding a use for it. I think like all good ideas we need to step up our thinking to do it justice, take it further, and the onus is on the players that want to bring it in, or the GM at least, to get it comprehensible and appealing to the rest. Silver cords and god-isles are superb material. Think deep-sea diving for the waste of creation, a recycling of soul stuffs, the Knotters of cords, cosmic tolls, sublimations and condensations, moral rots and strange moulds.

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  3. Funny, because I just printed off a copy of Moore's article and stuck it in my reference folder to take a closer look at for something we're doing in our campaign. Rereading it brought back all sorts of memories. That Fedifensor piece tops my list of Dragon adventures I always wished I'd had a chance to run.

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  4. This was a fun issue and module, but I'm curious if anyone else who read the title "Fedifensor" immediately thought of this guy? :-)

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  5. No, but when I learned later in history class that Henry VIII was named "Defensor Fidei" (Defender of the Faith) by the Pope before they had their little disagreement, I kept flashing back to the title of the adventure.

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  6. I did A LOT of adventuring in Planescape, though, we only ventured into the Astral (or ethereal, or that matter) when absolutely necessary. The Astral is where Gods die, berk. I'd just assume argue with an Arcadian attorney and climb the spire before I braved the astral.

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  7. I was never a great fan of planar travel in (A)D&D, but Moore was one of my favorite Dragon authors.

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  8. Rarely made use of planar travel in most of my campaigns...the only time I can think of was a "one-shot" situation where the adventurers found themselves accidentally transported to Olympus and ended up in a Titan's garden menaced by giant caterpillars, slugs and the like. Certainly didn't use the Astral Plane ever that I recall.

    Although maybe I should take a look at that article again and consider plucking some gems out of it. Might be worth a shot to try making the Astral Plane interesting.

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  9. Planar travel was never an interest with my old 80s D&D group. The risks involved never seemed worth what the gain might be.

    I distinctly remember a "silver cord" involved in Astral Plane travel, which if severed would leave you stranded in the plane for eternity. The AC of the cord was fairly low, but with Githyanki, Githzerai, and other dangerous native monsters around, it was pretty discouraging.

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  10. It was easy for me to depict the astral plane as an old school Marvel Comics reader. Gil Kane Dr. Strange was my main source of inspiration for how it looked and what could go on there, backed up with Jack Kirby's Negative Zone. I did not really dip into anything the D&D stuff had to offer for it. Like you said, dull.

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  11. One thing 4e D&D mostly got right was to discard the incredibly dull traditional D&D cosmology for something with a bit more of a mythic feel. They should not have put Hell in 'Heaven' (the Astral Sea), but otherwise it's quite good. The Shadowfell and Feywild were not well named, but both fill clear needs for a Land of the Dead and a Faerie-Land.

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  12. I've personally never found a planes system worth exploring, short of the rare campaign situation that ends with the players becoming gods, Companion-style. It goes back to your article about the CoC Dreamlands as well. What on earth can you do there that you can't do back on Earth? What's remarkable is how consistently products prove to me that I just don't care. After all my work on the Talislanta restoration, all I could think about its cosmology was "an elemental plane of fire? I don't know if you've noticed, but I have fire right here."

    I could sort of understand that from RPGs. At least it's a common practice to let the DM come up with their own reasons to do things. But it doesn't seem to have changed in recent generations, either. There's still no point that appeals to me. Even Minecraft, that paradigm of "your imagination's the limit" can't spark my imagination. A set of more dismal-looking blocks that still do nothing special? Well sign. me. up.

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  13. I must admit that when I finally read the OD&D Greyhawk Astral Spell -- basically an invisible spirit-form that allows spell-interaction and very fast long-distance travel in the normal world -- I found that much more appealing and elegant.

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  14. You are so going to a hell where the Akuma will poke you with pointy sticks.

    I replaced the Astral with something a little more in contact with the Prime Plane. The Chaos Sea was one of those scary places where you could sail from a port on Planet x, and with a 'Navigator' capable of summoning up a planar 'maelstrom' ride the maelstrom onto the Sea between worlds allowing you to pop off to the Moon on a Ship. It kind of put the Planes up and down from that ocean. Down deep the Leviathan swam...

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  15. It's funny that even Planescape, a setting long on imagination and (overly?) full of flavor comes right out and says the Astral is boring and you don't want to be there unless you need to. That didn't stop Monte "Geek Seeker" Cook from writing a whole damned 100-page book about it though...

    PS - I think brunomac means Steve Ditko, Kane isn't really associated with Dr. Strange.

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  16. I go back to the original D&D approach, where the astral planes (note the plural) were the things you contacted with the Contact Higher Plane spell. This was later formalised in my games when these astral planes were the source of magic, which was why spells were quantised into discrete levels. Magic users had to gain access to the appropriate plane before they could cast spells of that level, usually through an initiation ritual.

    [This also allowed me to steal the Contact Higher Plane table for performing spell research. And yes, researching a 9th level spell was likely to send you insane.]

    To me astral and ethereal were always qualifiers. The Astral Spell allowed the mage's disembodied spirit to roam the world (it could also move with the speed of thought, essentially teleporting to areas it knew well, although not through wards or other magical barriers), while the mage's body was left safely behind. The magic user could materialise before any sentient being (although he or she would remain intangible), and even use magic whilst materialised. Ethereal simply meant that the creature or object was out of phase with the rest of reality (rather than being a creature of pure thought/spirit) and thus could pass through solid matter (and have solid matter pass through it).

    [* Although it could also be argued that Gygax's astral plane was the 2nd plane of this spell (with either the prime material or ethereal being the 1st plane). Also there is the implicit idea of Contact Lower Plane which were just as mind-warping and destroying as the higher astral planes, but were normally referred to as Hell. Not neccessarily evil, but neither were the higher planes good.]

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  17. Dangersaurus: Yeah, I did mix the names up. Thanks for the catch. Ditko for sure (so good at Spidey and Strange because of his love for wild poses and hand gestures).

    Was never a huge Kane fan, but I do think he did some John Carter comics back in the day that I liked a lot. Seemed to be a good setting for him.

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  18. One of the best things I remember was Gary's commentary added in brackets, including the line where he critiques Moore, stating (I'm going from memory here) "Why, this seems rather arbitrary" to one of Roger's descriptions of the altered spells.

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  19. The astral body and astral projection figure in Theosophy (the devas which popped up in the game around the same time were also "yoinked" from Theosophy). Helena Blavatsky's shadow looms large over the weird fiction of the early 20th century, notably the works of ERB and HPL. The inspirational role of theosophy in the hobby would make for an interesting dissertation.
    Fritz Leiber wrote an essay which would be a good place to start.

    Jonathan Richman's take on the Astral Plane differs considerably from Roger Moore's.

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  20. I postulate that combat between disembodied spirits can only be conducted on the psionic level. However, we must keep in mind that physical creatures can translate their bodies into the astral plane by going ethereal. I think the two types of travel, pure spirit vs ethereal, need to be handled differently.

    Here is my take on the subject: http://oldschoolpsionics.blogspot.com/2011/04/astral-travel-and-astral-combat.html

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  21. The Astral is just fantasy outer space. It's where the facehuggers and abandoned space stations and giant space amoebas and planet-killing doomsday weapons live.

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  22. The Astral is just fantasy outer space.

    That's more or less how I play it these days.

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  23. My players and I really enjoyed Fedifensor. We really ought to have done more planar adventuring.

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