The Plane Above is the next 4th Edition D&D supplement that focuses specifically on the Astral Sea, denizens of the plane, a wide variety of locations found there, campaign ideas involving the plane and a handful of new monsters that can be found in the Astral Sea. While I initially thought this book fell short of the The Plane Below and Underdark books, after reading further into it I begin to really enjoy the more free-form, epic elements that are presented for the Astral Sea. While most games are still in the heroic and early paragon tier, this book presents a lot of material that can help tie divine/astral entities and themes into your game at lower levels. When your game does reach the late paragon and epic tiers, those themes will blossom into the detailed locales and brutal enemies detailed in The Plane Above.
Not surprisingly this book is very similar in format to The Plane Below, but whereas the Elemental Chaos book jumped right into specifics and rules for how to adventure in that plane The Plane Above begins with a bit more of an overview of what the Astral Sea is and why it exists. Just like the previous books it is almost 160 pages deep and contains 45 new types of monsters. The Astral Sea is presented as many things, including a former battlefield from the Dawn War, the home of the gods, the setting for the afterlives of mortal worshipers of the gods, and the home of native astral races such as the couatls, githyanki, maruts, and the quom. A relatively small amount of time is spent on the physical geography of the Astral Sea versus what was described of the Elemental Chaos and the Underdark, but that’s a good thing because the sea itself is relatively simple and the diversity of the plane comes from each individual island and dominion that sits in that sea.
If you’ve read any of my other reviews, you know that I’m a big sucker for the campaign arcs presented in these books. The Plane Above gives us a different approach to that section, providing a series of campaign themes that are typical to the Astral Sea. These themes include simple exploration of the vast expanses of the sea, the classic dungeon crawl but in astral domains, fighting and dealing with astral pirates (YAR!), the always popular fight against the evil gods, joining the ranks of heaven’s elite, overcoming the flaws in the divine system of order, and simply adventuring into myth. Each of these themes is detailed across several pages and broken down into the important elements that make up a campaign based on each theme. For a few of the themes, a full fledged campaign arc is presented including one that involves a wide scale githyanki invasion and another that details an all-out fight against the evil gods.
One of the reasons I had a negative reaction to this book at the beginning was because a lot of the early chapters contain references to things later in the book, which gave me a feeling of reading a glossary rather than a detailed supplement. I feel that the book probably could have been organized and set up in a better order. Many of these references are to specifics deity’s plans that are detailed later in the book in the section that pertains to that deity, so that makes sense and any problems I have with the book’s organization are easily outweighed by the awesomeness of the story ideas presented for many of the deities. For example there is a lot of detail given to Erathis’ new plans to reunite the astral sea by rebuilding the “Lattice of Heaven” that was damaged and mostly destroyed during the Dawn War. The book also presents some of Bane’s larger scale plans despite his ongoing battle with Gruumsh in their crashed together/merged dominions. Another overarching story that is mentioned several times in the book and detailed later on is the story of the god Lakal’s accidental death at the hands of Bahamut while trying to defeat a primordial named Nihil, which ties into the race known as the Quom and their backstory. In order to get a complete picture of the story, you have to read several different places in the book and put them all together, so at times it is hard to piece everything together from the book.
Between the campaign themes and the more detailed divine dominions sections is the information on specifics of traveling the astral sea. This section includes a few stats for new astral ships but mostly it goes into detail on each deity’s fleet of dominion ships and specific properties or advantages they have over other fleets. This section surprised me because it really seems to set a DM up for a kick-ass seafaring and swashbuckling campaign on the astral sea involving lots of fleet-to-fleet combat and adventuring. The next section focuses on the major divine dominions and begins with an overview of the major players – the gods, exarches, angels, the exalted, and outsiders. It also introduces the concept that each dominion in the astral sea has an archipelago of border islands around it that really turns each location into a more varied and interesting location than simply one city or continent would be. Arvandor is detailed across seven pages and talks about its ties to the fey, focusing on Corellon and Sehanine, and also elaborates on some of the major areas found in the dominion. Each section also includes several adventure hooks and encounter groups that can be found in specific locations, as well as details on the border islands for each region. Other dominions detailed include Celestia, Chernoggar (where it talks about Bane and Gruumsh’s plans), Hestevar which includes more information about the Living Gate (from the PHB3) and how Pelor’s plans tie into everything, the Nine Hells including a set of encounters that involve crash landing in Avernus, and Tytherion which goes into more detail about Tiamat and Zehir.
The next section is titled The Deep Astral Sea and starts with many pages detailing the races that are unique to the Astral Sea. The section on Couatls includes their mentalities and interactions with other races, the cloudlands that they live in, what makes up their culture and various factions they divide into. The next part is four packed pages on the Githyanki including their history, a bit of information on their home city of Tu’narath (though it mentions a Dragon article where the city is fully detailed), their pact with red dragons, some new information about their famous silver swords that ties them into the Living Gate in some interesting ways. Their outlook, culture, and factions are also detailed along with the Lich-Queen Vlaakith’s plans for the race as a whole. Maruts are elaborated upon in much the same way but with a great story about the race to start it off, and with some added bits about how they may have developed and spread the written form of the Supernal language. The Quom are a race that tie into the previously mentioned god Lakal, the primordial Nihil, and Bahamut’s accidental killing of Lakal. They were originally beings of peace and worked to help all other races, but when Lakal was killed they went insane and are now one of the more feared forces of destruction in the Astral Sea. Floating around on the shattered remnants of their shattered realm, they seek to obtain and re-assemble what they believe are the broken pieces of their fallen god at whatever cost is necessary.
The next part of the Deep Astral Sea chapter focuses on the remaining shattered dominions that don’t fall under the watch of any particular deity. The first one detailed is also probably the most interesting one, Carceri the prison realm. A lot of space is dedicated to the history of Carceri and how it was created not only as a place that produces abominations but also a place that holds them and other extremely powerful or unkillable entities that the gods wish to contain. This realm is maintained by a compact made between all but four of the gods (Avandra, Corellon, Melora, and Sehanine) that prevents a god from interfering with the prisoners of other gods. Carceri is made up of a series of swamp covered islands which are each detailed, including the island Agathys that is the origin of abominations. Erishani is the next dominion that is shadowed by the golden form of a petrified primordial with an arm outstretched ready to fire a blast of energy at some far-off astral location. This section includes two encounters that are set up to combat an Eladrin lich who plans to awaken and control the primordial, with some very cool consequences if the lich is not stopped in time. Other shattered dominions that are included are Kalandurren – the realm of the dead god Amoth who was slain by Orcus, Pandemonium – a twisted shell of an unknown entity inhabited by nightmarish creatures where souls often become trapped, and Shom – the realm of the dead God of the Word and home of the illumians. The chapter ends with a section on various random motes that can be found in the Astral Sea, providing for interesting adventures that are not necessarily part of a larger realm in the plane above.
Last but certainly not least is the section on Astral Denizens, happily lead by an illustration of one of my favorite epic-level monsters – the Hecatoncheries. Unfortunately, it has lost its unique name and is now simply called a Hundred-Handed One, but it is a beastly level 29 elite soldier abomination that can dish out and take a lot of damage. Several other abominations are also present including the Astral Render and Nullifiers. Banesworn is a monster entry dedicated to the humanoid followers of Bane and their dedication to battle, with a selection of stats spread across the paragon tier including the ominous sounding Juggernaut of the Black Hand, an incredibly tough level 18 brute. Naturally a selection of new devils are present, including Burning Devils of the whitefire and blackfire variety. The Indwelling Devil is a sly lurker that appears almost like a draconic humanoid that can merge with other creatures whose main mission is to retrieve souls that have escaped from the Nine Hells. The book also includes templates along with various attack and utility powers that can be added on to creatures to make them the exalted of Erathis or the exalted of Kord. Githyanki have the largest entry, including the Ch’r’ai Inquisitors, the half-red dragon Duthka’gith, several new types of regular githyanki, dragon raiders, dragon riders, and most importantly the lich-queen herself Vlaakith is present. Several types of humanoids dedicated to Gruumsh are also present, though the monster entry is simply titled Gruumsh unfortunately we do not see a stat block for any of the gods in this book. Last we have stats for many types of the fanatic Quom, and very strangely the most exalted of their race called Durud grow a second face on the back of their head and seem to have a passion for symmetry.
Much like The Plane Below, the biggest advantage The Plane Above has going for it is that it acts as a go-to resource when anyone has a question about the gods, angels, or the Astral Sea. It also presents a wide variety of extremely interesting settings for players to adventure in, and as a DM the epic tier content is where the fun world-changing story elements really start to shine. If you’re like me an have had a planar or astral character in your game from the beginning (a Githyanki PC in my case), this book is easily a must-have. The same can be said if you’re a fan of spelljammer, divine themes, epic level games, and fantastic sea-based adventures then The Plane Above: Secrets of the Astral Sea should not be passed up.