I have a confession to make. I rarely play video games on release anymore. I’d like to think that is because often times the needed patches to make a game stable and enjoyable aren’t available on release, or that I wait to see what is really top notch before buying them, but the real answer is I’m just busy and don’t get to games until years after release when the excited player communities have often moved on. All of which is a long way of saying I’ve been playing a lot of Control by Remedy Games lately. I’m especially interested in the game’s focus on psychic phenomena and the Astral Plane, but the dedicated telekinetic powers of the protagonist are quite fun as well (and if you want to play something like that in Starfinder you can get part of the way there with the variant spell casting on page 88 of Galactic Magic, but if you really want that feel I suggest Stellar Options: Planar Adepts by Legendary Games.)
This week’s focus, however, is on the Astral Plane and other Transitive planes in Starfinder. Due to their intwined relationship, Starfinder inherits the Planar Cosmology of Pathfinder (1st & 2nd Ed.) which means there’s actually a significant amount of information about the planes out there, just not a lot in published Starfinder material. The Transitive Planes are the Astral, Ethereal, First Realm, and Shadow planes. The Transitive planes all exist coterminous with the Material Plane, meaning they all overlap, and in many instances reflect, aspects and locations in the Material Plane. Most of the Transitive planes are also bridges between the Material Plane and other planes: the Shadow Plane is the bridge between the Material Plane and the Negative Energy plane, the Ethereal Plane is the bridge between the Material and the rest of the Inner Sphere (Elemental planes and Energy planes) as well as the Dimension of Dreams, the Astral Plane is the bridge between the Material and Outer Planes (the ideological planes, realms of the gods, Heavens, Hells, and so on), while the First Realm doesn’t seem to bridge between the Material and anywhere (that anyone has discovered at least) and it could be argued that the Material Plane is actually the First Realm’s bridge to everything else.
The Astral Plane is a silvery-grey void, a place of souls, and the in-between stop of all souls as they journey from life through the Astral to Pharasma’s Boneyard in the Outer Planes (and from there to any number of Outer Planes depending on how they are judged). As such, the River of Souls is the most notable feature of this otherwise largely featureless plane, as the endless stream of petitioners move along through the Astral guarded by servitors of innumerable gods, and occasionally preyed upon by astradaemons and other soul parasites. It is also the home to the Akashic Record, the ongoing chronicle of all sentient species since the dawn of time. The plane itself is timeless, infinite, and not often visited by living mortals, and when they do visit, it is more often as their Astral self (soul, effectively) than an actual physical body. Few creatures call the Astral home, notably the Mnemonic Stalker and Psychementals, Shulsagas, and Astral Leviathans that move in and out of the plane to feed. The other notable feature of the plane are all the Demiplanes. Some arise naturally, but many are the creation of mighty spellcasters, deities, and other factions of power. Most Demiplanes, when created, are formed in the Astral, and can persist there forever in the timeless void. Of note for planar travelers, the Astral is home to Yulgamot, the Calendar Stone, a planetoid and city in the Astral Plane that served as a hub for planar trade in the time of Old Golarion. What has become of Yulgamot since then is unknown…
Far more active, at least to mortals, is the Ethereal Plane. Another mostly featureless realm, the Ethereal and the Astral can often be confused by planar novices. Like the Astral, it is an endless plane without gravity, but unlike the Astral it is full of ever-shifting mists, and subject to time in the same way as the Material. Metaphysically, the Ethereal is closer than the Astral (so much so that magic with the force descriptor seems to exist on both the Ethereal and Material), and is actually visited by sentients on a regular basis when they dream, as their consciousness drifts into the Ethereal and touches the Dimension of Dreams, creating dream bubbles in the Ethereal that exist for as long as the dream itself persists. Because of this it also the realm of Night Hags and Animate Dreams, but they are by no means the only inhabitants. Xill and phase spiders are known inhabitants from old Golarion, but in addition to those threats, Twinsoul, Fuhlgeist, and any number of a near endless variety of non-corporeal undead dwell there some or all of the time. The Gray also use the Ethereal as part of their experiments, though to what extent remains a mystery. The Ethereal is something of a crossroads, connecting not just the Elemental planes to the Material, but also potentially other realities, some places in the Outer Sphere, the Dreamlands, and almost certainly many more planes. Because the Ethereal is tied so closely to the Material, powerful emotions, collective unconsciousness, and the unquiet dead can fracture the walls between the two planes, causing a bleed over that warps the Material. It’s also the other plane where Demiplanes can commonly be found, whether from tidal action between the Positive and Negative Energy planes, or the influence of powerful magic.
In your Starfinder game, either plane can be a great way to introduce uncanny or horror elements. Ghosts and other incorporeal undead are still very much an issue in the Sci-Fantasy setting of the Pact Worlds, and any attempts to interact with said spirits is going to take the party into Ethereal in some way. On the other side of that, if they want to contact Outsiders for information, track down a soul on it’s trip to Pharasma, consult the Akashic Record, or find a demiplane, they are going to need to spend some time in the Astral. All of these can make for great story beats in a campaign.
Check back next week for the First Realm and the Shadow Plane!
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