New on Desk #59 — Astral Adventure

The week’s been fairly productive; with the Christmassy Lapfantasy in the past, I’ve launched into expending the retained energies on the writing backlog. More on that at the end of the letter, though; I’ll use this opportunity to straighten out some Coup adventure development.

Low-Level Planar Adventure

I think I’ve brushed at the topic before in the newsletter, the conceit of the low-level planar adventure in old school D&D… yes, here in the overview of the D&D adventure model. As discussed, the planar adventure never quite panned out in the orthodox TSR D&D in an interesting and self-consistent way. The issue was, I think, a lack of structural core conceit, combined with the atavistic desire to use planar adventuring as a content stop-gap at high levels. The planar environment ended up being mere dress setting for adventure paths and dungeons.

Meanwhile, an interesting observation: “exploration of strange worlds” (arguably what underlies the idea of “planar adventuring”) has gotten some real heat in D&D, both old and new — adventures under that premise routinely have some merit as long as they’re not conceptualized through the Great Wheel planar cosmology so much as simply presented with a transition between the worlds of the mundane and the fantastic. I’m particularly fond of Zzarchov Kowolski’s fairy tale duology Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess and Pale Lady myself; clean, usable roadmap towards a type of location-based adventure set in faerie demiplanes. (Credit where it’s due: Beyond the Crystal Cave, 1983, combines similar ingredients.)

The Great Wheel (D&D’s traditional default cosmology) isn’t the easiest to use for planar adventuring, which no doubt contributes to the difficulties. When I read the early material today, it’s obvious to me that the vision concerns a fantasy simile of the modern age of exploration: everything that’s interesting in the planar world exists beyond immense vistas of boringness, the Astral and Ethereal Planes, because those are the final frontiers: Astral Plane adventuring is kinda like space travel, and Ethereal Plane adventuring kinda like deep-sea exploration. (Yes, Spelljammer is a redundant idea, essentially a failure in developing the Astral Plane.) GG basically outright says this somewhere or other, with the design strategy being that the Astral Plane is a forbidding place full of peril. Magic that enables its exploration is of extremely high level, and so on. I’m not happy with the implementation, but I can respect the high-level vision.

However, envisioning the Astral Plane as the vastness of outer space, with the heavens and hells as distant planets, leaves us in a lurch regarding those low-level adventures in strange worlds. According to TSR, Faerie is an Outer Plane location, which is so basically balderdash I’m not even going to explain why — check out those Kowolski adventures for the counterargument from somebody who actually understands what Faerie is.

This is all actually very relevant to practical play issues for us right now, as an increasing number of PCs in the Coup campaign have been dropping out of reality due to substance abuse. We’ve been planning to play some kind of low-level planar adventures with such characters, maybe see if they can find their way back home, but that requires making the Astral Plane gameable in the first place.

The Near Astral

To fix what I perceive as a conceptual problem in the Great Wheel cosmology, the Coup campaign uses the notion of the “Near Astral” or “Cislunar Plane”. Similar to the “Border Ethereal”, the Near Astral is not a distinct plane, but rather a specific part of the topography of the Astral Plane: it is the part of the Astral Plane so close to the Prime Material Plane that the soul-weight — psychic aura — of the material world dominates the local features of the plane. My purpose in introducing this concept is basically two-fold:
a) Put something interesting in the Astral Plane and close by, accessible at low levels
b) Attach the concepts of Faerie, Dreamland and astral travel in general to the Great Wheel

The Near Astral is non-contiguously enmeshed with the Prime Material Plane, which means that every material location has an Astral counterpart (vice versa is not true; the Astral Plane is vast and most of it is not enmeshed with the material world), but the mapping between the worlds is not contiguous: while things A and B may be adjacent to each other in the Prime, their astral counterparts A’ and B’ may be not. The Astral Plane being a spirit world, the Near Astral is organized more on the principles of ideal reality.

While Astral Plane on average is a vast emptiness akin to outer space, the Near Astral is full of junk caused by the historical process of mortals living in the material world and spiritual forces orbiting the same. The relevant simile is that of floating islands of semi-stable geography, or of satellites orbiting a world. These world islands can be very small or very large, and they’re not extremely stable, what with the Near Astral space being greatly affected by events in the world of mortals. The word for a single astral island is “domain” (for reasons that will become evident), and they’re not demiplanes; the astral domains float in astral space, kept close by to the Prime Material Plane by the spiritual gravitation and the network of relationships that these domains have with each other and the mortal realm.

Near Astral domains have local domain gravity that resists astral flight to some degree. Potent astral travelers will find no difficulty landing and taking off, but the slightly lower level inhabitants I envision for this realm are generally stuck to their local context, only crossing between domains by means of Astral skiffs, line-walking from domain to domain, or other such means. I envision most low-level astral travel from the mortal world actually being stuck in this Near Astral psychic ecology, with the Gygaxian vision of Astral crossing to the Outer Planes being a non-trivial affair.

I’m thinking that the Near Astral is so close to the Prime Material that with some distance you can see the shadow of the material world lying beneath the chaotic floating islands landscape. The locals would have various names for this shadow; I’m currently liking “the Thicket”, but not being much into “Planet of Hats” I assume it’s conceived in various ways. Being lost to spiritual gravity and falling from the Near Astral into the Thicket is, needless to say, most likely to be a lethal experience; few are the beings mighty enough to cross from the Astral to the Material by punching their way through. Most will want to find the subtle ways.

The Greyhawk setting assumes that gods largely stay out of the Prime Material Plane due to divine politics. Those same reasons keep them out of the Near Astral (it’s considered part of the mortal realm for these purposes), so the highest divinities you can find are Level 14 Demigods. Otherwise Astral beings can and will raid into the Near Astral, so now the Gith have an actually juicy target zone for their supposed astral piracy.

While there’s probably all kinds of spiritual matter in the Near Astral, angelic listening stations (sounds kinda Gygaxian to me) or whatever, my current concern is with two major types of Near Astral spaces. These exist interleaved with each other in the amorphous geography of the Near Astral, and both have the potential to be quite significant to adventurers in the campaign. These are the Dreaming Domains and Fairylands.

Dreaming Domains

Dreaming Domains are spontaneously emerging psychic detritus of human existence, projected unto the Astral Plane. A sort of akashic record, if you will. The weight of human minds causes geography to bloom in the Near Astral. These domains are typically not like continental-sized or anything; one a hundred miles across would already be quite sizable. The islands are mainly populated by mortal dreams.

Dreaming Domains come into being by psychic pressure agglomerating around the Name Rank of a specific mortal, who is the “dreaming lord” of the domain island. The more Name Rank somebody has, the larger their island: a Dreaming Domain has a number of “regions” equal to the Name Rank. This means that every major polity, religion, school of wizardry, even criminal organizations that have Name Level leaders, they all have their own Dreaming Domains in the Neal Astral. Most mortals are, of course, relatively non-aware about the spiritual situation.

For adventuring purposes Dreaming Domains consist of “regions”, which is my technical term for an irregularly shaped hexcrawl element. (Regions are used like hexes in terms of travel and such, they’re just not regularly spaced or sized. Think Risk map.) Each region has a distinct name and geography, so the Dreaming Domains tend to be full of “Blue Forests” and “Trembling Glaciers” and similar. Each has its own random encounters and, generally speaking, 2–5 distinct points of interest. The intent is to have dream world travel be somewhat similar to hexcrawling, except with different base formalism that’ll hopefully make for a fun and exotic experience.

As for populating the Dreaming Domains, one of the quirkier elements is that every human has a personal “spot” in the domain of every dreaming lord they follow. (You can have places in multiple dreaming domains by having several Name Level lords you follow.) For the average mortal this doesn’t amount to much, usually just a distinct place among the dream jumble, but a dream hacker could conceivably use the spot to access the personal subconscious of the person in question and so on. With leveled individuals the situation grows more interesting, though: a person’s spot has dungeon levels equal to their character level, representing their share of the collective unconscious. The dungeon has treasures equal to the character’s XP count, monster population based on their personal values (less sane people have more dangerous dungeons), magic items based on their important life experiences, etc. as you’d expect this sort of thing to go. The dungeon is only open when the person it corresponds to is asleep, and going dungeoneering there is, of course, a blatant, mortally dangerous psychic attack. Fortunately Astral dungeoneers are so rare that the random aneurysms they cause to the leveled populations of Oerth (hundreds of thousands in Flanaess alone) can be mostly disregarded.

Fairylands

The other prominent kind of domains in the Near Astral are fairylands, mainly distinguished from Dreaming Domains by lacking the observable organizing principles of mortal dreaming. Fairylands probably come into being from Dreaming Domains that survive the deaths of their originating psyches, or perhaps they originate in the dreams of non-human monsters. Either way, their regions cluster together on the basis of faerie logic, so you have places like the Summerlands of the Seelie Court and so on — about what you’d expect, except acknowledging that other people aside from Brits have faerie lores.

Fairylands are the native homeland of elves and other fairy critters. (Orthodox D&D makes a big deal of “elves” not being “faeries”, which implies the existence of some kind of distinct “fair folk”, relegating your garden variety of elf into being some kind of forest-native bushjock. I assume the situation to originate in human stupidity, but maybe somebody out there likes the aesthetic.) Dragons also like to hang. Exploration and travel is region-based, as in Dreaming Domains. It’s probably best to treat fairylands as pretty similar to the mortal world, except more intensely so. There are no humans, but the faerie caste society (gnomes for commoners, elves for nobility, etc.) takes on similar roles where civilization abounds. Fairylands usually have various obscure paths and entrances into material planes, allowing Faerie as a whole to have a low-level interaction going with the world of man.

The geopolitical situation in the Near Astral as a whole tends to see fairies running amuck, with most Dreaming Domains not having any native political organization of their own despite showing some natural geography made for it. I’m toying with the idea of importing the Planescape political party system into a setting where belief actually defines reality; could fit for an Alice in Wonderland kind of feel. Barring that, though, I’m happy with the various fairy polities colonizing the Dreaming Domains. After all, small minds need their hobgoblins.

This vision of Faerydom obviously overrides canonical TSR stuff. The power level remains similar, though; I’m pegging the highest levels of Fae royalty at divine rank 3.5, roughly comparable to demon lords. While elf magic itself is charm magic (sorcery, psionicism), high fae royalty get into divine magic to shape their domains and defend them from the occasional random godling.

A word on Fading Lands and such

The Greyhawk setting lore and certain adventure modules involve significant amounts of demiplane action, enough so that the setting has its own demiplane cosmology. Oerthian demiplanes are called “Fading Lands” among their wizarding community, named so for the proclivity of such pocket worlds to start fading out of reality after the demise of their creator. The phenomenon is, overall, more of a historical magical phenomenon than anything else; several dozen distinct demiplanes have mysterious entrances across Flanaess, opening into worlds with the purpose of their existence often lost to time.

Fading Lands are alternate Material Planes, but the manner of their creation relies on plunging Near Astral real estate into the Ethereal Plane, with all the cosmological implications that involves. It’s not uncommon for Fading Lands to act as sort of planar bridges in between mortal world and the Near Astral. They exist as bubbles in the Thicket, so to speak.

I’m thinking that one of the more prominent Fading Land projects in the setting are the Dread Domains of Ravenloft. Practically speaking existing in the Deep Ethereal, plunged there by the Dark Powers, the Dread Domains work just like Dreaming Domains outlined above. It’s just that the Ravenloftian Darklords are very much awake and active in their domain. Otherwise the same tools that I’ll need for exploration and adventure in the domains of the dreams and fae should serve well in making Ravenloft playable in practice.

Monday: Coup de Main #34

My take on astral adventuring is being pushed forward by the practical play of the Coup campaign, of course. The latest session confirmed that the adventurers are indeed returning home after finishing their dwarf-ferrying errand. The return trip involves more hexcrawling action, of course, and we didn’t technically speaking get more than halfway home, but I can almost taste the necessity of preparing new adventure material for when we get back. The astral adventure thing has been under speculation for a while, so I should make sure it’s ready to go when the time comes.

As for the session itself, the main feature was an absolutely brutal lizardman ambush in the Mistmarsh; the dice made for something that could well have spelled death for the party if not for their most recent adventurer pickup, Elfstone, being a poor man’s wizard: as a psionically talented monk Elfstone managed to blast the entire combat encounter with empathetic confusion that, in addition to causing hilarious drowning issues for the humans, allowed the adventurers to eke out a victory. The entire ambush was so brutally unfair that it casts into doubt our entire hexcrawling doctrine; is it really safe enough to travel without a scouting screen when there’s like 0.5% chance of a lizardman ambush out of thin air for every hex you travel?

Aside from the lizardmen, the rest was classic hexcrawl-y weirdness. An abandoned druid meditation spot inside a huge dead tree, for instance. Good times. The party is midway through the Mistmarsh now, planning to stop by at the ranger lodge to get help for their members injured in the lizardman ambush. We’ll probably make it back to Yggsburg next time.

Session #35 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 15.2., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #9

The face-to-face Coup group had been engaging in God that Crawls, an adventure that has a fair shot at killing everybody in a rather horrorful way… The session started with the party having wandered around the horrible maze for like six hours, with light sources running out and exhaustion setting in. What’s worse, they seemed to have little sense of the maze’s architecture, having made little headway into mapping it. (Restarting the map every while was a bit of an issue.) The only good news was that in the last session the party did indeed discover the secret history of the royal house of Sunndi that they were looking for down here.

The session break had done good for the party’s collective sensibilities, as Cultist (the Left Hand of Darkness, appointed tactical leader of the adventuring party, the “Beast Society”) thought to follow the slime trails of the Crawling God, distinguishing the most prominent ones from the lesser trails, and by this means managed to lead the party back to the doorway that they’d been forced to abandon in a mad escape earlier. Once they found the way out, the party in their desperation monofocused on breaking down the door; surely that was their best bet in a desperate maze that they couldn’t begin to understand otherwise?

This wouldn’t have been possible for most parties, but the Beast Society happened to have a combination of tools and capabilities that pretty much enabled them to McGuyver their way into burning a hole into the door. A little known but well established secondary utility of the Burning Hands spell being pyromantic fire control, combining the spell with the warlock’s hellfire allowed for some lucky dice rolls to establish success. The process took a fair amount of time and was risky both magically and in terms of having the God find the party, but sometimes the dice are lucky.

With the party escaping just as the God’s pseudopods came into the picture, we were able to declare the adventure an unmitigated success! Didn’t really see that one coming after the first two sessions. We had a few less players than before, so maybe the decision-making improved a bit with fewer cooks in the kitchen?

The rest of the session was spent doing simple downtime activities, mainly messing with the loot. The Beast Society proudly let its Chaotic Stupid fly, doing live human testing on the purchases they’d made at the Jim Raggi mall of “magic you should just leave alone”. I mean, you get a mysterious partial spell book with spells called “Color Out of Space”, “Strange Waters” and “Summon” (heh heh, not everybody grows concerned over that one), and you decide to upload these into your wizard’s hard drive? Takes all kinds, I guess. Aside from Warlock going on an unscheduled astral journey, the consequences have so far been mild.

We’ll get to figure out some new adventures next time. Master Melchert, the pre-eminent leader of the Beast Society, has stated that he’ll probably have a follow-up adventure for the party once he’s researched the politically volatile papers the party brought back from the ruins ruined monastery. In the meantime we’ll probably give the good (or less evil, I guess) adventuring party a turn in the spotlight, with Captain Bootsie having to deal with the consequences of this most recent imbroglio. As things stand, I’m only 50% certain that the Crawling God is still inside its prison…

State of the Productive Facilities

I bet you thought I’d never write something useful. Not so! With the spare time released by finishing “Christmassy Lapfantasy”, I wrote a rpg theory article on death in simulationistic trad adventure games, “The Sacrament of Death”. It’s currently in correspondent preview, should go public around mid-week.

With that out of the way, the next thing to do are, of course, Muster and Coup Workbook. I’ll work on both or either over after getting out of the Monday-Tuesday D&D double feature.

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