ASH SOURCEBOOK: Elemental Planes

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Thu Sep 23 22:32:10 PDT 2010

                             Elemental Planes
            an Academy of Super-Heroes Universe Information File
                    copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen

     [Editor's note: this is a partial transcript of a briefing given by
Peregryn on September 29, 2026 to Solar Max, Scorch, Breaker, Centurion and
Lightfoot.  Since it's pretty much all lecturing, we've left out the main set
of quotation marks and any minor gesturing he might have done during the
mystic teleconference.]

     The first thing you need to understand is that what I'm about to tell
you is simplified, but even the full complexity is not yet an accurate
description of the truth.  The study of other realities is complicated by the
fact that most of that studying is done by people whose wills alter reality.
But even leaving that aside, the mages of ages past agree that while there
must be some underlying ultimate law of supernature, we haven't found it
yet.  And what we *have* found is too complex to explain without years of
study.  So this will be the "Rocks for Jocks" level of explanation, if you
will.  Where even an untrained person will be able to see where the
assumptions fail to hold and the approximations break down...but it's a
useful starting point.

     Of the many ways to classify realms is by the strength of their
underlying "spirit field".  It's a sort of mystical equivalent to the scalar
field in physics, and it underlies everything.  Matter and energy can
interact with the spirit field, and some sages believe that the spirit
field's strength doesn't actually vary from realm to realm, just the ease of
interacting with it.  Functionally speaking, for our purposes here, it
doesn't matter who's right, since the effect is the same: different realms
have different levels of spiritual resources.  The Spirit Pillar of magical
law could be seen as saying that everything interacts with the spirit field
in its own way, and it's a violation of natural law to alter another thing's
interactions or to significantly change your own.
     A world like our own, and in fact like all in which "life as we know it"
exists, has a moderately strong spirit field.  Certain things interact more
strongly with it than others, and those interactions can be strong enough to
affect the local spirit field even after the interactor has left.  For
instance, psychic impressions may be left on an area, and a person's mind
could detach completely from their body and exist solely as an interaction
within the spirit field.  Most of the more dramatic effects violate the
Pillar of Spirit, of course.  
     In our specific world, all matter and energy interacts with the spirit
field on some level, but the sorts of electromagnetic processes that go on in
our brains have a special "hook" into the spirit field.  The same sorts of
things that make thought possible also create stronger links to the spirit
field, be the thinker organic or artificial.  Sages have postulated worlds
where mass creates the links instead, leading to stars being the primary
ensouled life in those realms.
     At the high end, you can have "spirit worlds" where everything is fully
alive and aware, it doesn't take an electromagnetically active brain or an
excess of mass to tap into the spirit field.  Identity and personality can be
constructed fully within the spirit field in such worlds, so even things that
are too simple to ever think in a mechanistic sense are alive.  Mind you,
that's not the same as communicating with the spirits of objects in our
world.  You may recall me speaking to the spirits within stones or trees, but
that requires artificially boosting their spiritual connections...they simply
lack the complexity for normal thought in our world.  In a spirit world,
however, anyone can awaken the spirit in anything, assuming it's not already
awake on its own.  In spirit worlds, the spirit field is as important as
gravity or electromagnetism, if not moreso.
     At the low end are realms where only gross matter and energy exist.
There is little to no interaction with the spirit field, assuming they even
have a spirit field.  While I suppose it's possible to have life arise in one
of these materialistic worlds, it would have no separation of mind and body,
any intelligence would be purely a mechanistic process with no spark of the
divine to it.  A thinking being from a low-spirit realm would be fully self-
contained, with no extension of their personality into the spirit field.
Should such an entity enter a realm like ours, it would be as unpredictable
and unsettling to them as a high-spirit realm would be to us, and they might
gain abilities resembling uncontrolled spirit magic.  However, I know of no
such visitors having arrived here, so it's all speculation.

     Now to get a little more specific.  Within the category of low-spirit
realms lie the elemental planes.  Not only do elemental planes lack a strong
spirit field of their own, they tend to be homogenous in some way,
representing a single sort of thing or concept.  Generally they are parasitic
sub-realities, each attached to a single reality or cluster of realities.
The classical elements of fire, air, water and earth are each represented by
such parasitic planes attached to our world, and they were not cut off from
us by the Barrier.  Other elemental planes, sometimes called para-elemental,
quasi-elemental or pseudo-elemental because they don't map onto the Classical
Elements of either the Western or Eastern traditions, also exist.  Ice is the
one you are all intimiately familiar with, of course, and I believe that
hyperspace is a sort of elemental plane of plasma, related to but not the
same as fire...but I could be wrong.
     Elemental planes generally lack native life, being too simple and pure
to generate mechanistic life and lacking the spirit field connections needed
to create life out of non-complex structures.  The elemental spirits that I
and other mages command are actually the result of making a connection
between the elemental plane and our local spirit field.  Fortunately, this
process rarely happens spontaneously at interfaces with elemental planes, or
Mrs. Grant-Taylor would have been shedding random ice elementals during her
ordeal.  But such interfaces do exist, and do generate elementals on rare
occasions.  The hearts of volcanoes often host portals to the plane of fire,
and the depths of the ocean hide a number of weak spots between our world and
the elemental plane of water, with elemental spirits emerging from these
interfaces once in a great while.  Without the binding of a mage, these
spontaneous spirits tend to stay close to "home" and dissipate if they move
away, though.
     Any sufficiently common thing or idea might spawn an elemental plane,
but we know the most about the Classical elemental planes of fire, water, air
and earth simply because they have been studied the most.  Prior to the
development of atomic theory a scant few centuries ago, most people who gave
the matter any serious thought felt that those four elements...or the five
classical elements of Chinese some mixture made up all things in
the world.  A mage specializing in elemental magic might simply be adept at
manipulating the world around him, but some actually use specialized
dimension-crossing spells to draw the elements out of their planes, summoning
fire out of empty space, or bringing a stone wall into existence on a grassy
plain.  My own talents run more towards working with the materials at hand,
while Claudette Viau's elemental magic includes a greater proportion of
summoning that respect, her magecraft is more like her brother's
than you might think at first glance.  Each breaks the Spatial Pillar in
different ways.

     The better-known quasi-elemental planes were once thought to have formed
at the boundaries between the classical planes, such as the plane of mist
forming where water met air.  However, explorations in the 1980s confirmed
fragmentary lore passed down through the ages and showed that the major
elemental planes were functionally infinite, and a physical borderland was
not the correct way to look at the "mixed element" planes.  Every major
elemental plane is effectively infinite in scope, with every point in our
world matching a point in the elemental plane.  Were you to enter the plane
of air and travel one kilometer before leaving, you would come out in the
real world a kilometer from where you started.  Given my observations from
the time when Comet was a living interface with the quasi-elemental plane of
ice, I'd say that the ice plane is similarly infinite.
     On the other hand, lesser elemental planes also exist, even if they're
not easily accessible due to the rarity or abstract nature of their element,
and their physical scope may be much smaller.  If you can think of something,
then it may exist in the infinite multiverse, even if you can never find it,
but the rarer it is the smaller its plane is likely to be.  For instance, if
there is an elemental plane of fudge, it is likely smaller than a lightyear
across and very hard to access, much as my wife would appreciate its
discovery.  Entering it and forcing your way through even a small amount of
fudge would let you emerge on the other side of the galaxy, possibly on a
planet where they independently discovered chocolate.  But that assumes you
could ever find a way to access it.  This, by the way, is why I think
hyperspace may be an elemental plane, one that is several orders of magnitude
smaller than our reality and hence useful for transport.  But given that
plasma of the sort found in hyperspace is actually more common than fire,
air, earth or water, it's hard to explain why such a reality would actually
be smaller than the classical planes.  Sadly, there are few people currently
qualified to have this debate, so it may be some time before I can put the
matter to rest.
     Just as physical substances can exist as quasi-elemental planes,
abstract concepts can also be embodied in some way, although the embodiment
may be symbolic rather than actual.  The lack of a spirit field connection
makes it difficult to have an elemental plane of love or of sorrow, for
instance, as emotions tend to be tightly bound to the spirit.  As a result,
it may be difficult to identify an abstract elemental plane once you do find
it, and likewise it's possible to mis-identify a high-spirit realm as an
abstract elemental plane.  I have read of three spirit realms that were
initially identified as "the elemental plane of chaos" by their discoverers,
for instance, because of their ever-shifting natures.  Many other abstract
elemental planes have probably gone unidentified because their discoverers
thought they were just empty pocket realities and never figured out what they
were supposed to embody.  The pocket in which the Svartalfen took refuge in
South America, for instance, might have been an unidentified abstract
elemental plane.

     The abstract elemental plane for which we have the most data is the
Office, which embodies bureaucracy and order if it is indeed an elemental
plane.  Unfortunately, "the most data" is still very little, as the apparent
lack of active threat put the Office very low on the priority list during an
age when more obviously hostile realities were a concern.  As far as I know,
every nation that acquired a portal to the Office seemed content to keep an
eye on it to make sure nothing wandered out, and left it at that.
     To the extent we do know about it, though, the Office would seem to be a
smaller elemental plane which can only be accessed through the doors it
generates in regions of locally high bureaucracy.  The Pentagon's door
emerged in the 1970s, the Kremlin is suspected to have acquired a door at
about the same time, and there are ancient accounts suggesting a version of
the Office opened out into the imperial capitals of several Chinese
dynasties and at least one place in pre-Colonial India.  The Office itself is
reputedly fairly small in scope, and it's possible you could walk from
Washington to Moscow via the Office in a fairly short time.  No one is known
to have done so, in part because all of the doors opened into "secure"
locations and no one in control of a door seems to have done anything but
guard it.  If there has been an expedition past the first few rooms, I could
find no record of it.
     Of course, it's also possible that the Office is a "real" realm that has
been twisted by a being of immense power to meet certain needs.  The gods
often made or altered pocket realities to suit their desires, and a god with
a particularly bureaucratic bent could have created the Office.  That's one
of the questions you will have to answer when you enter it.
     How will you answer the question?  There's no way to be completely
certain, but there are some things you can look for.  For instance, while
Mr. Dodson's stories in the 1990s implied a truly multiversal construct, few
elemental planes connect to more than a single realm at once.  So if you find
clear bridges to other realities, that would suggest it is a purposeful
construct rather than a naturally occuring abstract elemental plane.  On the
other hand, a construct would likely have some sort of "natives" or at least
long-term residents, as it would have been constructed for a purpose rather
than emerging from the aetherial foam on its own.  Should the Office be
devoid of such, that would suggest it is simply elemental bureaucracy taking
on a form that matches how you see the concept...nothing physical would truly
be there, it could all be mental constructs.
     A hybrid may also be possible.  A god may have discovered the naturally
occurring elemental planes of bureaucracy native to several realities and
used his powers to connect them together via a sort of "Nexus of Org Charts."
Or it could be an elemental plane of office furniture into which someone
introduced elemental spirits of bureacracy in an attempt to breed a new sort
of reality.  You may start to see now the problem with answering the question
of whether the Office is an elemental plane or not.

     There is no intrinsic hazard to being in a low-spirit realm, by the way.
Such elemental planes do not hunger for your soul, or anything so dramatic.
In fact, it's in the animistic high-spirit realms where you're most in danger
of having your own connection to the spiritual assaulted, simply because it's
just another avenue of predation for the native lifeforms.  You may find
yourself feeling somewhat...lessened, though.  More like you're going through
the motions.  This will be especially pronounced in an elemental plane of
bureaucracy.  Your spirit isn't under assault, but neither can you bolster
yourself by drawing on the spirit field as you might unconsciously do in the
real world.  What, you've never wondered why even normal people can sometimes
exceed their limitations by digging deep?  Even without a Magene, a human
mind's connection to the spirit field is strong enough that sometimes the
field can be tapped in times of duress to make an extraordinary effort.  Such
things cannot be done in a low-spirit realm, so you will not be able to count
on "turning it up to eleven" while there.  Grit and determination simply
don't count for as much in an elemental plane.  Except, I suppose, in an
elemental plane of grit and determination....


Author's Notes:

     This was originally going to be a scene in ASH #109, either done as a
flashback to September 29th, or I'd have them forced to evac and regroup,
getting a speech like this on October 1st while they prepared to go in and
rescue Sal.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it'd be one
big ol' chunk of explosition (exposition that explodes all over the story and
shatters any sense of narrative coherence) and I decided to break it out as
an info file, then have reference made back to it at a relevant place in
     Of course, once I made that decision, it started expanding.  :)  My
first draft was probably twice as long as anything I would have tried
cramming into a story, and I added several paragraphs during revision, ending
up with something about half as long as a regular issue.
     As a side note, while this piece was mostly inspireed by the need to
work out some worldbuilding for ASH, the idea of interaction with a spirit
field comes from some recent philosophical woolgathering I did while driving
to Topeka.  To wit, the idea that if there *is* such thing as a soul
independent of the body, it must be constructed in such a way that it can
interact with physical matter and/or electromagnetism or it wouldn't be able
to actually DO anything.  And this led to the idea that ghosts might just be
strong recordings on the spirit field that remain stable in a process similar
to magnetic hysteresis.  :)  It's likely that this idea has been developed
many times under many different names, but it arrived in my brain at the
right time to be useful for this file.


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