Welcome to the world above the world of mortals, an infinite silver expanse dotted by countless small shards of land, scattered larger islands, and the dominions of the gods. Here are some key highlights to keep in mind as you prepare to use the Plane Above
in your campaign.
The Astral Sea is a former battlefield still ravaged by the cosmic conflict known as the Dawn War.
The deities were the original inhabitants of the astral realm when the world was newly created by the primordials and the mortal races had yet to find their final forms. Along with shaping and refining the creation of the world, the gods had grand plans for a single realm that would link all their dominions together with an all-powerful astral connection known as the Lattice of Heaven.
When the gods intervened to prevent the primordials from destroying the world and starting a new creation, the primordials responded by invading the Plane Above. Gods died, dominions crumbled, and the incomplete Lattice of Heaven was shattered into fragments. The astral world that had nearly become a fantastic interlocked mesh of divine dominions blew apart into an infinite silver sea. Much later, when the gods had eked out a narrow victory in the Dawn War, only a few of the divine dominions that survived the devastation still functioned for their deities, hinting at the glory that died forever when the primordials destroyed the Lattice.
Since that time, shattered dominions (those that no longer have a deity), ruins, corpses of forgotten gods and primordials, and war magic left over from the Dawn War still linger within the Astral Sea, whether on shards of matter scattered throughout the astral realm or floating freely through it. Dramatic examples of such remnants include the Golden Monolith of Erishani (p.108), the floating corpse of the primordial Haemnathuun (Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, p.120), and the primordial energy bubble known as Frostburn (p.125).
The player characters will most likely have already met the free-willed servitors that have a preference for killing known as abominations—one of the worst consequences of the great rituals employed during the Dawn War. In the prison realm of Carceri (p.104), or perhaps on the Glorious Hunt in the dominion of Arvandor (p.37), the characters might uncover the full story of the abominations’ origin and the reasons for their increasing attacks centuries after the end of the war they were created to win.
Gods such as Asmodeus took advantage of the Dawn War to seize power they didn’t deserve (see the Nine Hells on p.65). Threats native to the Far Realm took advantage of the devastation wrought by the Dawn War to pry a hole into reality through which they could enter. And as always, many horrible echoes of the Dawn War are poised to enter the Astral Sea unless capable paragon and epic tier characters can set things right and create something better in the scars left over by the war.
The Astral Sea is the home of the gods.
Most of the deities who survived the Dawn War maintain mighty dominions on islands scattered widely through the Astral Sea. Chapter 2 details each of the functioning divine dominions, as well as the border islands that cluster around each dominion. (The shattered dominions are discussed in Chapter 3.)
Although the deities wield much influence in the mortal world and its echo planes, the Feywild and the Shadowfell, the gods’ influence has been limited due to the ravages of the Dawn War and the forceful intervention of the primal spirits. But in the Plane Above, the deities are the most powerful agents, taking direct actions and choosing paths that shape the history of the plane.
Momentous divine events that have acquired mythic force did not end after the Dawn War. Epochshaping events since that conflict have included Asmodeus’s rise to power and manipulation of the gods (p.65), Gruumsh’s invasion of Bane’s dominion of Chernoggar (p.51), the destruction of the god Amoth and his dominion of Kalandurren by three demon princes (p.114), and Erathis’s more recent determination to restore the dominions of the gods and rebuild the Lattice of Heaven (page 61).
Depending on the scope and interests of your campaign, the player characters might be able to reshape the Plane Above, including the agendas and life spans of the deities that reside there. The campaign themes explore these possibilities in more detail.
The Astral Sea is the setting for many separate afterlives for mortal worshipers of the gods.
Each of the functioning divine dominions has its population constantly refreshed by a small number of exalted, the spirits of dead mortals restored to life in new physical bodies known as soulforms. The exalted are generally not the protagonists of the great stories of the Plane Above, since they generally maintain their immortality only while they stay within their god’s dominion. But many exalted do venture beyond the protection of their dominion on pilgrimages, sightseeing voyages, or missions for their deity that could bring them into conflict or association with the player characters.
The exalted most frequently encountered in the wider Astral Sea are exalted of Bane (on missions of conquest), Gruumsh (on missions of destruction), Erathis (pursuing aspects of the Game of Making, p.62), and Kord (raising hell or training for the Dusk War, p.45).
Chapter 2 details the exalted and their less fortunate counterparts, the soulform beings collectively known as outsiders. After the destruction of the Lattice of Heaven, the divine dominions stopped functioning at full power and effectiveness. Many mortals who were traveling to their god’s dominion to become exalted suffered the repercussions of that event, instead waking up on the shores of the border islands surrounding each of the dominions. They are cursed with the name "outsiders" because they are physically unable to enter the dominion of their god.
The outsiders live as well as they can in the outer islands, sometimes managing a prosperous if not perfect afterlife (as in the Green Isles around Arvandor, p.42, and in the Daybreak Islands around Hestavar, p.64). In other cases, such as in the island chain around Tytherion known as the Scales (p.88), outsiders live only by avoiding the hunting parties led by the servants of the evil deities they might once have worshiped.
Even in the best circumstances, the outsiders and mortals living on the border islands are cut off from the full protection of the dominions. Player characters will often be the only defenders standing between the inhabitants of the border islands and the ravagers of the Astral Sea: abominations, aberrants, slavers from the Nine Hells, githyanki pirates, quom searchers, and servants of the evil gods. In turn, the border islands and their outsider populations provide points of light outside the divine dominions where characters can recuperate and prepare for their next adventure.
The Astral Sea is the home of many native mortal races whose goals will shape the characters’ adventures.
The four major independent races of the Astral Sea are covered in detail at the start of Chapter 3. Each of the four races has its own slant on the Plane Above that is likely to conflict with the player characters’ goals.
The couatls seem like the most benevolent of the four, but their crusade against various forms of evil masks a status-oriented society that can turn player characters into pawns used in the hierarchy contests within the couatls’ Cloud Court (p.93).
Of the four races, the githyanki have the most influence on events in the Astral Sea. Player characters will probably have encountered githyanki in their earlier adventures. The githyanki excel as quick-ailing raiders and pirates, preying mostly on the border islands, on those who sail between the islands, and on explorers who dare the deep Astral Sea. In a campaign featuring confrontations with astral pirates (p.12), the githyanki and their wandering city Tu’narath can become the characters’ chief adversaries.
The maruts were originally creations of the deities. But they were created to have an impartial perspective to allow them to make detached rulings that would cut down on the squabbling gods’ tendency to resolve arguments by force. Unless the characters have supreme diplomatic skills and some knowledge of history, it’s likely that the maruts’ literally interpreted contracts will force them into awkward and violent situations rather than making their lives easier.
The quom are the most straightforward of the four races. A once-peaceful race converted to violence by the accidental death of their god in a Dawn War battle between Bahamut and a powerful primordial, the quom cut the fragments of their dead god out of the bodies of anyone who had the bad luck to contain a piece of it, no matter how small. The quom rival the githyanki as fearsome raiders, but where the githyanki seek plunder and entertaining violence, the quom target random creatures, structures, and magic items. As part of a campaign, the quom’s random raids can target the player characters, or those close to them. Occasionally, the quom might even target the characters’ enemies, perhaps forcing the characters to choose between enemies to assist.
The Astral Sea is most suited to paragon tier and epic tier adventures.
Most of the monsters and threats found in the Astral Sea match up well against paragon and epic tier adventurers. Exceptions exist, but few heroic tier characters should count on being able to sail through the Astral Sea without falling prey to githyanki pirates or devils harvesting souls for the Nine Hells. Heroic tier characters can use portals to access specific astral locations, but most adventures in the Astral Sea are better suited for adventurers in the paragon or epic tier.
No book can provide the compelling stories that you and the player characters weave together to bring your game world to life. The goal of this book is to provide a compelling backdrop and a rich selection of elements for you to draw upon for your campaign. The seven campaign themes introduced below help you benefit from this book. Several of the themes include suggested campaign arcs to use as inspiration.
The themes discussed in this section are:
Explore the Infinite Sea: An infinite ocean opens the option of framing much of a campaign’s points of interest as moments in the career of the greatest explorers of the cosmos. This theme examines the manner in which rephrasing character rewards can turn some exploration into the characters’ main goal instead of a step along the way.
Crawl Astral Dungeons: Groups that prefer old-school dungeon crawl adventures can find what they’re looking for, one island at a time.
Fight Astral Pirates: Githyanki, quom, and slavers working for the evil gods make great enemies, particularly when the characters get to feel like pirates. The Astral Incursion campaign arc suggests one way of using the githyanki as focal villains for much of the paragon tier.
Fight the Gods of Evil: No enemies exist that are more powerful than the evil gods. Make use of the information on the dark dominions in Chapter 2 to infiltrate, assault, and perhaps ultimately destroy the realms of the evil gods. The Gods War campaign arc is a campaign that spans thirty levels, gradually revealing the nature of this theme.
Join Heaven’s Order: Epic tier characters already dabble with demigod status and positions as exarchs. This theme draws the characters into closer connection with the gods of one or more dominions, or points the way to joining the gods on the characters’ own terms.
Overcome Heaven’s Flaws: The divine system hasn’t worked properly since the Lattice of Heaven was destroyed. The characters attempt to solve the tragedy of the outsiders, with or without the assistance of the deities.
Adventure into Myth: This theme offers as possible adventures the conflicts of history and myth related in this book (and in all other supplements). Venturing into deep myth makes it possible for the characters to succeed and change the world for the better or fail horribly and return to a world in worse shape than it was before. It’s a delicate balance, but an exciting option for demonstrating how epic tier characters assume the mantle of cosmic power.