The first RPG I tried to write from scratch was Astral, a game about exploring the Astral Plane. After abandoning the project for a while I may return to it. Below I’ll outline the goals of Astral, the fairly minimal setting, the mechanics I’ve currently chosen, a brief motiviation and history of the project, and a very rough roadmap for the system.
Astral strives to provide rules for encounters in the Astral Plane, not just as a standalone game but as an adjunct to other RPGs in any genre. It’s also an experiment in starting players with a blank character sheet and building up their “character” during play. Unlike many other “multi-system” rules it provides its own ultra-lightweight system that stands outside whatever RPG rules a group normally uses just as the Astral Plane stands outside tangible reality. Eventually I will provide conversion notes to and from various common systems. To a large degree, though, just as a character’s astral body obeys vastly different rules from their physical form, so too does Astral define a distinct player avatar in a new game world with new game rules.
In Astral, when characters project their “subtle bodies” into the Astral Plane for the very first time, it’s a disorienting, terrifying experience. The character sheets for their Astral Forms are blank, except for notes on who they were in their corporeal lives. Sometimes that past experience is useful, but more often its not. New projectors quickly learn how to move through a seemingly endless void, how to speak to each other, and how inert the Astral Plane’s inert matter can be.
As psychic explorers learn when (if?) they return, space and time in the Astral Plane have no meaning. There are no meters or miles; a projector can concentrate on a point in the distance and cross seeming light-years in the blink of a phantom eye. Explorers could spend a few subjective minutes or a dreamlike week in the Astral Plane, and when they awaken from their trance in their old familiar bodies only a few hours will have passed. If all goes well.
Astral projectors soon meet other entities: guests like themselves, guests wholly unlike themslves, exiles from the material world, and permanent residents who seldom have guests' best interests at heart. The most numerous species of residents call themselves Astral Wardens. Their stated mission is to keep the peace and to impose order on this endless void with no borders. As with watchmen everywhere, som take their duties seriously, others abuse their power, still others pursue their own agenda … with thousands of their kin at their backs. And woe to those who gain the attention of their Queen; reportedly Her Dark Majesty thinks little of interlopers from the Corporeal World, and confines those who displease her in an Oubliette from which none escape. Nobody dies in the Astral Plane – it’s where some of the dead go – but there are truly fates worse them death.
Assuming they mind their manners around the Astral Wardens, projectors build a second life of sorts with the projected minds of beings from across time, space, and parallel worlds. They may discover portals to what some call Dreamworlds or Demiplanes, sub-realities which behave almost like the material world, until they don’t. They may even find exits to a Material World, maybe not the world they know, and walk, unseen and intangible, among men from other times and places … among other things.
Astral players normally start with a blank sheet of paper, or a mostly blank “character sheet” where they’ve filled in basic biographical information:
- World of origin
- Date and place of birth in the “current” calendar for their World of origin
- Current date when they projected themselves into the Astral.
- A brief “story of their life”, if the player chooses to write one.
- Three “Areas of Expertise”, i.e. subjects they know enough about to earn a living with or at least teach an advanced class on. These may have a game effect later, so players should avoid trivial or silly answers.
The character sheet would not list the character’s physical attributes. or physical items the character had in the Corporeal World. His astral body might resemble his physical one, and even have his customary clothes and gear, but in the Astral Plane they’re only images with no underlying reality. (That’s one solution for magic item Christmas tree players.)
Magical powers depend heavily on the laws and loopholes of the Corporeal World and worlds from which sorcerers draw their magic. Powers from the Mental Planes “above” the Astral Plane will work, and the ability to call upon beings from other planes might if said beings exist and have power in the Astral Plane. The GM may allow some players to start with Glamours1 that mimic powers their corporeal selves could use, or even with ranks of Mastery2, on the theory that they already “know” how to do those things.
In my earlier notes all beings in the Astral had a pool of “Aura” points. The character sheet would then have note the character’s default, current, and maximum levels of Aura, which started the same for all new. Characters spent Aura to use Glamours, and lost Aura in astral combat. For combat I’m leaning toward imposing Conditions instead: penalties or outright inabilities to do some action until the character recovers.
In Astral, when two Beings come into conflict, a player and the GM or a competing player each roll 1d6 simultaneously, and add the character’s rank of a relevant Mastery (see below). The Being with the higher total wins and inflicts some condition or penalty on the opponent. If two opponents are tied, nothing happens.
Since each side uses only one die, battles between multiple Beings
require each participating player to roll one die
and add their ranks of Mastery in Attacking if they’re attacking.
(The rules for fighting defensively and defending others are under review.)
The GM rolls a number of dice equal to the number of attackers,
grouped or color-coded by who’s attacking whom,
and adds each attacking NPC’s Combat Mastery to their die.
Resolving battles between
M PCs and
N attackers to their targets
minus the number of cases where two characters attack each other.
In Astral, “Objects” in the Astral Plane don’t fight back. If a player uses an object as it’s meant to be used he does so automatically, otherwise they’re immovable and indestructable. Unlike other games, Astral had no need for “unopposed” tests.
The one exception is Building. To craft an Item, characters need the following:
Sufficient Prima Materia for the Item. Prima Materia comes from the slow decay of abandoned ideas and dead, forgotten gods. New Builders must find their own source. Builders with experience, reputations, and connections receive commissions to build for others, and are paid with extra Prima Materia for their own projects.
Plans, or at least an idea. Experience creating a comparable Corporeal object counts a lot. Even experience with a comparable object, in any plane or world, counts for something. Another Builder may provide one of his plans, perhaps for a price. It’s still possible to craft an Item with none of that, but it’s not very likely.
Time. Time in the Astral Plane is even more subjective than in Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Astral Time still passes, however, and time spent on Building is time not spent exploring. Worse, too much time in the Astral Plane can turn a corporeal being’s evening trance into a days-long coma, or something even more permanent.
Simple Items like weapons walls, and tools take few resources. Anything complicated or with unusual properties will take more.
Building a Thing – a stationary fixture of the Astral Plane – requires proportionately more time and Prima Materia. Building a Place – anything from a small hut to a Demiplane – requires more, often much, much more time, Prima Materia, and planning. Anyone who can construct a Place is an Architect, usually with dozens of apprentices and Machine Elves3 to assist them.
At the end of the alloted period of Astral Time, the Builder’s player rolls dice:
If one of the PC’s Areas of Expertise cover this kind of thing, or the PC has a valid plan from an experienced Builder, the player may roll three dice and keep the two highest.
If the PC is using their own plan, the player rolls 2d6.
If the PC has no experience building something like this before, no advice, no plan, and is simply winging it, the player must rull three dice and keep the two lowest.
To that and add their character’s Building Mastery, which may be 0. The final total determines the result.
|≥ 8||the Item, Place, or Thing is finished.|
|= 7||to finish, the Builder must spend a little more time and Prima Materia and try again.|
|≤ 6||all work is wasted, begin again from scratch.|
A Builder can recycle Prima Materia from failed projects, and even from finished work. A third-party Builder will typically keep a fraction of the Prima Materia recovered. A Machine Elf will crush things into Prima Materia for free but unless carefully instructed it may “recycle” other things. No matter the method, recycling takes some of the Astral Plane’s illusory time. Since Prima Materia doubles as a currency, illusory time is incorporeal money.
As characters gain experience in the Astral Plane, they gain the following:
One or more ranks of Mastery in things they’ve practiced in the Astral Plane. Since the environment is limited, PCs only gain “Mastery” in only one of a few tasks, currently Attacking, Defending, Persuading, and Building. By default all charcters have Mastery of 0 in each: even first-timers can do them, just not well.
A list of Glamours the character knows, and their rank in using them, starting at 0. Glamour is the form of magic available in the Astral Plane. Glamours mainly deceive and distract, as the name implies. Since the Astral Plane functions on perception and metaphors given form, though, they can also trancend the Astral’s apparent limits, which themselves are illusions maintained so that mortal minds don’t go mad.
An inventory of Items the player picked up. The Astral Plane has few inert Objects, and even fewer useful ones. Items are portable and grant some benefit, most commonly knowledge, assistance in navigating the Astral Plane, or advantage in astral combat, Unfortunately when an astral projector leaves the Astral Plane, all Items that aren’t specifically created to cross the barrier remain in the Astral Plane, in the spot from which the PC left.
A list of Favors owed by an NPC to a PC, and which PC owes them. Players can use a Favor once, usually to request an appropriate service from that NPC or in a Persuasion test against those over whom the PC has Influence. Favors from certain powerful Beings may have other uses. (In the existing drafts these were called Secrets and not specific to one Being. This makes a little more sense.)
If “Aura” still exists one can increase one’s resting and maximum Aura too.
Astral began with the observation that Monte Cook’s classic A Guide to the Astral Plane, written in 1996 for AD&D 2nd edition and Planescape, talked about the Astral Plane being outside ordinary time and space yet most things worked pretty much as they did in the Material Plane. Sure, mental characteristics INTelligence and WISdom replaced physical characteristics STRength, DEXterity, and CONstitution, and characters could move anywhere in three dimensions just by thinking about it. On the other hand, said movement still used feet, the “timeless void” still adhered to standard combat rounds, spells which presumed the existence of fire, earth, matter, plants, etc. worked the same in the Astral Plane, and apart from not needing to breathe, sleep, or eat astral travel was much like wandering a three-dimensional wilderness. What did you want Monte Cook to do? some of you might ask. Invent an entire new system? Well, no, I didn’t expect that of 1996 Monte Cook. But maybe I could give it a go in 2017 …
Turns out I couldn’t, for many reasons, some of which I’ll mention when I talk about Paranormality. It took attempting to write a few other RPGs and a long time dithering to return to the project now.
The original plan was for at least three 48 to 64 page 6'' x 9'' (or A5) booklets, or the equivalent:
- The Astral RPG: Core Rules
- A polished and expanded version of what I’ve just written, plus GM advice, a short list of common Glamours, and an even shorter list of commonly-encountered creatures.
- The Astral Gazeteer
- GM information on the persons, places, and things in the Astral, notably the Astral Warden and less common creatures.
- The Astral Grimoire
- A list of more Glamours, and GM advice on creating yet more.
If those are a success, however I might define success, I’d add:
- Astral: Plate World
- A complicated example of a Demiplane, loosely inspired by the Dungeonomics blog, various versions of D&D and other fantasy RPGs, 1980s computer fantasy games, and, as the name suggests, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
- Astral Apocrypha
- Alternate and optional rules, many of them from previous iterations.
- Astral Conversion Guide
- Detailed notes on using Astral alongside other RPGs, translating existing characters into Astral terms, and using the setting of Astral with other systems.
Depending on interest, I may or may not finish any of this.
the closest equivalent to “magic” in Astral; see below. ↩︎
One of a handful of ranked abilities PCs in Astral can gain; see below. ↩︎
The term comes from DMT hallucinations; in Astral a Machine Elf is an inscrutable being with the frustrating habit of doing exactly what you tell it. ↩︎