OK, this has come up quite a lot. In fact, it’s come up in every Shadowrun game since I was using the first edition.
You want to hit something on the astral level? All you need is an astrally-active weapon.
In first and second edition this was relatively easy. In fact, it was far too easy; all you needed was something that was alive, but not astrally active. Your fists would do. Plants were impenetrable astral barriers, so a simple sapling would do as an astral club, while something like a net woven of vines or “spanish moss” could act as near-invincible astral armor, block spells by acting as cover, and conceal foci. For that matter, you could also conceal magical items from astral detection or interference (such as barriers) by swallowing them, or putting them into a pocket in your flesh – whether that was a fold of fat on your abdomen or a surgically-created smuggling pocket.
It didn’t explain why – for example – skin fungi, intestinal and skin bacteria, eyebrow mites, and similar independent living things didn’t block astral projection – or why having passing insects boring through them didn’t kill a lot of astrally-projecting magicians.
Later books introduced bacteria-filled nets, which could entrap astral forms, but (again) never explained why – since astral forms were defined as being unable to exert physical forces on dual-natured things – such nets didn’t just pass on through astral forms like cutting wires through cheese. You do have to apply a force to change the state of motion of masses, no matter how small.
Perhaps fortunately, things changed a bit in third edition. You could no longer engage spells in astral combat and the auras of living things were only solid on the astral plane if they were otherwise astrally active.
So: What IS active in astral space in later editions?
Alchemical radicals and materials are not astrally active on their own. Sorry, but those absurdly expensive orichalcum bullets won’t do you a bit of good – unless you’re interested in a reputation as a spendthrift.
Activated foci are active in astral space. Unfortunately, they need to be invested with karma before they can be activated at all, and must remain in contact with a source of magical energy that’s linked to them to remain active. Usually that means in contact with their owner, although foci made for spirits to inhabit remain active as long as the spirit is inhabiting it and sustaining foci remain active as long as they’re in contact with the spell they’re linked too – co-dependance at it’s finest.
Weapon Foci are the best astral weapons of course. They use the appropriate damage code for their form as modified by the physical or astral attributes of their wielders. Unfortunately, they deactivate as soon as you let go of them – hence their range is limited to their reach.
Other Foci normally use a base damage of (Force)M. Even if you can afford the cost of firing spirit-habitation or sustaining foci at things, it usually isn’t that effective.
If you just want an astral melee weapon, you can wield any sufficiently powerful focus as one. Per the book, it will do (Force)M damage if you club an astral form with your power, spell, or whatever focus. Personally, I’m willing to let characters add a bit to the effective damage code if their Strength or Astral Strength exceeds the force rating of the focus – but this is likely to temporarily reduce the force rating of the focus, since it’s being hammered against something harder than it can resist itself.
Note that – if what you’re attacking has a physical aspect with conventional armor – that armor is effective: it breaks the impact of the physical attack and, since the astral attack is linked to a physical weapon, it will reduce the impact of the astral attack as well.
You can use Sorcery and such as well. As demonstrated by the Killing Hands adept power, weapons imbued with magic by ongoing spells or similar effects can also be effective in astral combat. A spell that imbues a weapon with magical energy can make it quite effective as long as it’s sustained.
Unfortunately, such spells are either individually-targeted, or area of effect. Either works well in melee. If you want a long-range weapon that works outside the radius of an area-effect weapon imbuement spell, you’re just going to have to get the imbuement spell cast (and preferably quickened) on each separate arrow, bullet, or other projectile. Not too practical – at least not without a slew of special metamagical techniques (Quickening, Ritual Quickening, Faceting, and Ritual Faceting – allowing the user to make spells self sustaining, reduce the karma cost of doing so, break spells which affect multiple targets into individual subspells, and reducing the karma cost of doing so, will suffice – if you can find an initiate). A Thaumaturgist with the right spell – say an extended-area-effect weapon enhancement backed by a spirit with a force of 20+ – may be able to cover you too. Witches can do much the same thing, but – since their effects are so easy to resist – it’s rarely a practical application of their abilities.
Once again, of course, physical armor applies.
Next up we have Conjuration. The easiest way to use spirits as “astral weapons” is, of course, to simply tell them to attack your target, in which case they can inflict (Force)M damage.
You could also have an earth spirit manifest as a bullet, put it in a cartridge (or smoothbore) and fire it at a target – but it would still inflict (Force)M damage, although the user could apply his firearms skill and combat pool to that first attack. Under rare circumstances, that might be worthwhile.
Spirit-imbued weapons (QV the Sparrowhawk Grimoire) work fairly well. They don’t provide the dice bonuses that weapon foci do, but they still function as enchanted weapons. They still can’t bestow an astral aspect on ammunition, but they don’t have to remain in contact with the wielder to remain astrally active. Ergo, a spirit-imbued spear or such can be thrown. In fact, if it’s imbued with an air elemental or some such, it may even be able to return to it’s user on its own. Of course, while spirit-imbued weapons are relatively cheap to make (at least in terms of karma) and cost little or nothing to “bond”, the spirit which empowers them can be fairly readily attacked or banished, just like any spirit bound to long-term service.
Now, there’s no reason a conjurer with the proper metamagic technique can’t imbue inanimate objects with a temporary “charge” of astral energy – it’s just that the Infusion metamagic is pretty rare and highly specialized. It has been a nasty surprise to more than one spirit however.
Unsurprisingly, if you’re attacking with something which has a physical aspect as well as an astral one, simple physical armor applies. You can pretty much take that as a general rule.
Dual-Natured Beings are – by definition – astrally active. So all you need is to use one of them as a weapon.
Unfortunately, carrying around a hellhound to bash spirits with isn’t too practical. Dual-natured animals are kind of awkward to use as melee weapons and are difficult to launch at targets at range.
Dual-natured plants are a little more hopeful. Sadly, they tend to lack the astral “density” of dual-natured animals. Thus they have simple force ratings instead of astral attributes and abilities and “fight” astral penetration inflicting (Force)M damage. You could stuff a bullet full of astrally-active bacteria, or seeds from a dual-natured plant, or even some dual-natured leaves and such. The trouble is that the Force tends to be proportionate to how much material there is, and to how active it’s metabolism is: even moderate-force bullets tend to be light, fragile, and to have a very short shelf life. Worse, the area of effect is small and the kick of being fired – which hits your dual-natured filling just as hard as being hit with a bullet – tends to disorganize things. About the best base you can get – barring autofire and similar modifiers – is about 6L, and that includes a small bonus for the speed of the bullet. 4-5L is a lot more common.
Of course, you can always use a much bigger bullet to upgrade this. An assault cannon-size round is probably good for at least 5-6M and maybe even a bit more.
Worse, since the astral aspect is being carried along by a material one, simply physical armor is – as usual – effective against such attacks. Still, such ammunition can still be pretty useful against a high-force spirit.
Wards are astral barriers of course, and are normally attached to physical objects. Can you put a ward on a weapon or on a bullet?
Yes you can. Unfortunately, Wards don’t do a lot of damage when the contact area is so limited. They’re also strictly temporary, take a good deal of time to set up, and must be set on individual weapons. Normally Wards inflict (Force)M damage in astral combat, but small-scale wards like those on weapons inflict only (Force/2)L damage and – again – basic physical armor applies. Of course, how often do you see spirits wearing armored jackets?
Now, in a strong enough Overlay Zone, physical weapons will work just fine against astral targets: after all, there’s no distinction there between the planes. Now, overlay zones are obviously a magical phenomena – and thus can, at least in principle, be duplicated magically – such a task is a good deal harder than duplicating the antics of some minor spirit.
A sufficiently powerful mage – as demonstrated in the Harlequin’s Back adventure – can send non-magicians on astral quests into the metaplanes, and even allow them to retain the benefits of physical cyberware and equipment – although this seems to be limited by both the nature of the metaplane and by the talents of the mage. In fact, this same adventure introduced magical bullets – albeit only on a particular plane.
That leaves us with one more possibility: if you can haul your physical body and equipment along into the astral plane – whether through a rift or through some sort of magical effect – it should work fine.
Rifts are kind of rare – and most of them only allow astral forms to pass anyway, although they often extend the privilege to mundane characters. A few rare, powerful, rifts may allow a physical transition, but having that sort of resource available is hard to count on.
A spell which transformed the physical body into magical energy – and thus sent it directly to the astral plane – can be used, but normally must be either personally directed (bringing cyberware and such, but possibly not external equipment depending on how strict the game master is being) or area-effect – and, in either case, melee weapons will work fine, but once a projectile leaves the area of effect, it will revert back to the physical world. That could be interesting as an assassination technique, but is fairly useless for making ranged astral attacks.
The Enhancement technique which allows the user to imbue items with a portion of his or her magic and make such items “a part of himself” does allow items to be brought into astral space. Unfortunately, it doesn’t apply to ammunition. Again, the basic version is good for melee, but not much else.
Now, an Enhancement expert with Astral Access, the imbuement effect, a metamagic allowing him to bring along items that are engulfed in his or her aura, and another which causes the effect to persist for a few moments after such an item leaves said aura, can take a gun into astral space and shoot things with it. Of course, he or she will probably have devoted at least one or two levels of initiation to the project.
As a note, in Shadowrun the astral essence of the Earth is similarly vague: “Natural Earth and Stone” is astrally active as long as it is in contact with the earth, and can be pushed through only very slowly. An artificial mound of earth is astrally active. How about the grains in a sand dune? While they’re being blown about? At what point do they become “astrally active” again after the wind stops? What about when they’re compressed into sandstone? How about adobe blocks? Rammed earth construction? If dirt is astrally active again after being piled up, how about earth with pebbles? Pebbles with very little earth? Gravel from a natural gravel-bed? The slabs of rock in an avalanche? A dry-fitted fieldstone wall?
Oh well. That’s an article for another time.