A Guide to the Astral Plane

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 36: A Guide to the Astral Plane




One of the few disappointments of Monte Cook’s A Guide to the Astral Plane is that it makes you wish the entirety of the planes was given such a lush, luxurious treatment. I love the boxed sets for their maps and production design, not to mention how they spent plenty of time on relatively obscure places like Pandemonium and Arcadia, but imagine if they’d been given this much space each? Weirdly, like all Planescape books, it also feels like a lot of details have been left out here so as to make everything fit into the tight page count, but that’s really just the way of this type of design, focused as it is on setting up mysteries rather than answering them. It’s a book so bursting with ideas that you just want more, such as adventures that actually spend some real time in this plane’s weird non-space. I’m finally getting towards the end of Planescape (well, the second half at least), and as the releases keep improving, it saddens me to realize how many of these possibilities remain untouched. 

In a book filled with ideas, perhaps my favorite ones appear early on in Astral Plane (it’s kinda hard to abbreviate the name well, so I guess we’ll just deal with what I’m using). Cook begins the first chapter “The Spaces Between: Astral Space and Time” with an analogy taken straight from Zeno’s paradoxes. The Astral Plane, he says, is the space between spaces, however tiny that might be. It’s the border between the outer planes and the prime material plane, and with this it is in essence not a space at all. It exists more in the minds of people than it does as an actual location you can visit, which expands and changes our understanding of the entire multiverse.


How can anything—let alone a whole finite plane—fit into literally no space? Simple. The Astral’s not a place. It has nothing to do with space at all. It’s a realm of the mind. That’s why even though there is no distance to measure or space to occupy, it appears that there is. It’s all a matter of perspective–or rather, perception. The mind sees distance, feels space around it, and perceives what it thinks is a plane.

…it’s not really a plane at all. It’s not a plane, it has no space—it is the absence of space, the absence of plane. It is the void between all true spaces.

With this, Cook radically redefines the Astral, and with this both makes more sense of why it’s so different from everywhere else, and makes the multiverse a good deal weirder and more interesting. This new information informs the entire book, which considers the Astral Plane to be an anomaly, a location no one is really intended to visit, and thus its rules are unique. Where does someone get when they accidentally fall out of the planes of existence? This is where, and though that doesn’t exactly make sense of how things work with the Inner Planes, it’s interesting enough that I’m happy to ignore this weird cosmographical facet. The idea is cool enough that the Astral’s limitations are worth overlooking, which is generally the way of Cook’s supplements.

Adam Rex’s version of an Astral combat about to occur.

Given this new definition and its myriad implications, the next 40 pages of the book are spent the rules of this non-location. This includes both the basics of movement—which may be weird, but at least aren’t idiotic like Slaviscek’s concept of movement in Elysium—but also the logic of various aspects of the plane that had been there since at least the original Manual of the Planes, but had never really been explained. Movement really isn’t changed from what we knew before, but it’s given a sort of logic that never existed before, as Jeff Grubb was interested in rules, not metaphysics. Cook doesn’t just want to make a space playable, he wants to be able to answer questions players might have about it, which is what makes the book so valuable.

This explanation of getting around includes not just the weirdness of individual locomotion, but also the color pools dotting its landscape, which are explained as essentially tears in the plane, as well as conduits, which seem more like a natural function of this cosmology and the Astral’s “purpose” in guiding souls to the afterlife. In order to keep things interesting, there are also sections on parts of the landscape that had only really been hinted at earlier, psychic winds battering travelers and the islands formed by deceased deities. What’s more, all of these aspects are given a great deal of logic, such that it all makes a certain amount of demented sense, even when it requires some mental contortions. It’s a sort of Douglas-Adams-y way of looking at things that isn’t quite right, but is close enough to make things both fun and playable. 

DiTerlizzi does some wonderful work with the githyanki. I had trouble deciding which image to include, but decided that if I didn’t put this guy in, he might decide to do something with my head.

More than 20 pages are then devoted to the githyanki, which is something I’m of two minds about. On the one hand, this is by far the least interesting part of the book to me, despite finally offering rules for githyanki PCs, spells, and other options to make them into a bigger part of your campaign (plus some fantastic art). However, I just never cared much for githyanki, and my patience for reading through pages of material filled with bad fantasy nomenclature is extremely limited. But on the other hand, this is the level of detail I really wish we’d seen about all of the major planar races. I wish the guardinals and the gehreleths and every other obscure-to-extremely-obscure planar society received this type of focus, and as a result githyankis do even become somewhat interesting in a way that, say, the rilmani never did. Their martial, self-defeating society ruled by a lich demigoddess is cool and alien without feeling impossible. One of the issues Planescape has always had is that by containing so many infinities, it leaves a lot to the DMs, such that including an eladrin city can feel daunting. Not so with the githyanki, though, and they’re easily slipped into any Planescape campaign with plenty of detail as far as organization, lifestyle, and pretty much everything else a player might wander about. They feel like a real society of sorts, not just a bad fantasy trope, which is quite a coup to pull off successfully. 


The book then pulls away from the githyanki to talk about what else lives on the plane, and this is the one section that’s disappointing. The information contained here isn’t bad, but the stats for monsters isn’t included if they’ve been printed elsewhere, and the result feels half-assed. I.e., “For further information, reference the brain collector in the MYSTARA Monstrous Compendium Appendix” feels like an ugly cheat that’s simply going to keep players from using these monsters. I haven’t played second-edition AD&D in literal decades, but I could at least do a quickie conversion if there was a baseline of stats for every entry. Cook’s writing here is excellent as usual, filled with plothooks and such, but the whole point of this book is to not have to bounce through other references, and as a result the section is mightily disappointing, despite the creation of the rather-neat Astral Dragon (the earlier version was nothing like this). 

A lovely image of the quite weird Astral dragon, which haven’t really been seen since third edition (the 4th edition astral dragons are nothing like this and kinda suck, and I guess Fizban never hangs out in the Astral?).

Fortunately, Astral Plane doesn’t end there, instead giving us more than a dozen pages detailing “Locations in Nowhere,” which offer more traditional Planescape write-ups of “specific astral encounters.” This is more useful than similar pages in the outer planes boxed sets because, given the way navigation works on the Astral Plane, it’s not actually difficult for players to reach any of these places if they’ve so much as heard that they exist. Plus, this means we get maps and other useful pieces of information for running adventures here. If the first half of the book focused on generalities, this latter section is all about specifics, and nearly every one of these locations is somewhere I can conceive including in an adventure. I wish a few of the locations mentioned elsewhere in the book were also detailed in this section, particularly the Speck in the Void tavern crops up several times in the book, but you do what you can with only 96 pages to work within. And admittedly, taverns don’t usually need that much detail because you can make them yourself pretty easily, but in the Astral Plane, given its weightlessness and such, I’d for once actually appreciate this inclusion.


Astral Plane is a lot less-collaborative when it comes to its writing than prior Planescape works, but it’s far more collaborative when it comes to the art. Cook’s prose is unified and strong. It feels like the work of one writer, and while perhaps not 100% polished, it’s about as good as D&D writing ever was, or ever would be (this ain’t literary fiction, it’s made on contract—not that there’s anything wrong with this). It has three interior artists, including Tony DiTerlizzi, who for once does actually contribute more than a handful of reprinted works, particularly in the section about the githyanki. I don’t love every drawing in the book, but for once even the b-tier artists are doing well, and Adam Rex in particular does an excellent job capturing the Planescape spirit. Likewise, its two cartographers collaborated on everything in the book, and though I recognize Rob Lazzaretti’s handwriting with the lettering, other than this it’s mostly just solid work that’s hard to really give particular credit. Hell, even the cover art is good, which may be the first time I’ve said that about any release so far. 

The Swallowed City is the type of wacky-but-cool idea that typically characterizes Monte Cook’s work. I love it.

The design and art really is detailed and strong throughout the work, equaling what we’ve seen in any of the boxed sets, which is why it’s a pity that this is a saddle-stitch release. At 96 pages that’s understandable, but that both makes it feel weirdly low-rent for a lovely and wonderful product (especially given the $15.95 price tag at its time of release), and also means it doesn’t match its Ethereal counterpart, or much else in the setting which aside from the slim early adventures tended towards more stately perfect-bound books. It sticks out on my bookshelf as a weirdly fragile work, which is a shame considering the care put within its interior. That being said, TSR was well on its way to imploding in October of 1996 when it arrived on store shelves, so I suppose I should just be happy the release came out at all. 


You can see the gears of Mone Cook’s mind really turning with this release, with the results being seen not long afterward with other Planescape releases. Dead gods are given their own section, and they’d soon play a huge role in his lengthy adventures towards the end of the setting. What’s more, Cook here is pushing against what we saw earlier from the planes. The sheer number of the outer planes couldn’t help but lead to a little bit of same-iness, despite the idea that this should be a weird and infinite setting where anything can happen. With Astral Plane, Cook delivers a lot more strangeness and creativity than we’d sometimes seen before. It’s an expensive book to purchase today, as are most of the setting’s later works, but it’s also one of the best, and as far as quality goes worth prioritizing even over the boxed sets. I must admit, I’ve never actually run a campaign that adventures on the Astral Plane, but it’s to this book’s credit that upon finishing it I was filled with ideas as to how to make that work. 

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