Dark Roads and Golden Hells has a beautiful celestial cover, with a clean layout that is a wonder to read on the screen, though I wished the printed version was a little more elaborate.
The first chapter introduces us to the mentality of the Psychomachia – the eternal war between Heaven and Hell for the souls of mortals and, this, the importance of Midgard (the Material Plane) on this cosmological conflict. I admit that I was a little disappointed with this part of Dark Roads and Golden Hells. Let me explain: I was expecting either Wolfgang’s dark and flavorful use of old mythologies or Open Design’s clever twists on traditional fantasy clichés. What I got was a very dry, abstract and sometimes paradoxical text on how to use the Outer Planes as “Cold War-like” powers – a mix of fanaticism and cynicism. The idea is good (very good), but Planescape already pulled it off years ago with more surrealism and charm, by mixing such paradoxical conflict of axiological forces with doses of philosophy and dark humor – both elements are in my opinion missing here. One of the reasons for this may reside in the fact that Dark Roads and Golden Hells proposes itself to be a “plug-and-play” book. In other words: you can use it in a modular fashion. This is great if you want a Manual of Planes-like sourcebook, but I was more interested in a “Midgard Maunal of Planes”.
The good stuff, however, does shows up with the short, but appetizing, description of Midgard’s cosmology. The following entries are dedicated to planes in the Sea of Possibilities – the Astral Plane equivalent of Dark Roads and Golden Hells.
I quite like the format employed by the authors: we get a short description with the general aspects of each planar region (and planar traits), followed by specific exemplas of otherworldly locations (usually one or two paragraphs short). My favorites are the Conceptual Planes, an idea I wished was further developed.
Their take on the Ethereal Plane as the misty shores of a vast Underworld is excellent and allows the Gamemaster to use all kind of cool planar adventures otherwise “obstructed” by D&D/Pathfinder traditional cosmology. I especially enjoyed the Vim Flare rule – try to imagine the consequences of casting healing magic on Hades and you can picture what this rule is about.
When we finally reach Heaven and Hell, although we do get good descriptions, there isn’t any twist or original spin on them. Ok, I admit that after eternal classics, like the first Manual of the Planes, Planescape and Beyond Countless Doorways it is hard to come with something really new regarding D&D/d20 cosmologies. I must point out that this isn’t actually a negative point. Dark Roads and Golden Hells’ Seven Heavens and Eleven Hells are perfect usable Good and Evil uberplanes. The problem is that I (again) expected to see some of Wolfgang’ material and there isn’t any. Instead of a different, less known, mythological approach to Heaven and Hell we get typical “D&D-fied” Heaven and Hell (however, the Alignment-based gravity planar trait of Heaven and the Flowing Time planar trait of Hell are interesting innovations).
Dark Roads and Golden Hells does bring cool new stuff to the planar legendarium with the Between. When planar spells goes wrong, artifacts are (improperly) destroyed, portal are open inside portals or bags of devouring are misused you are dragged to the feared Between – literally the space between planes. I like to picture it as a combination of a planar underground and a prison. It’s also very creepy (yeah, I loved it).
Another unique location is the Casino, a sort of middle-ground where Law and Chaos meet and all kind of exotic, weird and dangerous games happen. The Casino is ruled by the Dual Emperors (one for Law, other for Chaos… and the cool thing is that PCs can become Emperors through challenging contests).
My favorite part of Dark Roads and Golden Hells isn’t exactly a planar location, but a city inside one. Vultures Beyond is a decadent city inside the Evermaw, the Hell of Hunger. It has a terrific Clark Ashton Smith vibe (read the The Charnel God). I’m very tempted to “unplug” Vulture Beyond from the Evermaw and use it as full city in my campaign world.
‘The Wellspring of Life and the Plane of Radiance’ is the most original (and weird) take on a Plane of Positive Energy that I’ve ever seen. It basically mixes that plane with the Ten Sephiroth of Kabalistic lore, creating a really good structure (and game hook) for planar adventures – particularly given the fact that the Plane of Radiance here is conterminous and coexistent with all other planes.
Dark Roads and Golden Hells details 3 new PC races: Deva, Maxims and Warplings. The later ones are new takes, respectively, on lawful and chaotic planetouched races. Unfortunately they suffer the same old issues – they’re just too bland and not as interesting as, for example, aasimars or tieflings (although the “floating” Ability Score bonus of the Warplings is a step in the right direction). The Deva are bizarre humanoids born fully formed (and equipped) from the Plane of Radiance. They have a mix of Indian and Abrahamic flavor that I quite liked – in fact, they seem like a more customizable and cool take on the Deva race from D&D 4th. Each Deva is almost like a unique creature and it’s easy to think of new Planar Forms for these fellows.
After the races, we have new feats, divided among combat, general, magic, monster, racial and patronage categories. Patronage feats are special abilities that require peaceful contact (and covenant) with an outsider. Of the new feats, my favorites are Puppetmaster, Soul Eater and I’ll be back. There’re also a fair number of new character traits.
Oh, and did I said that there’re new Incantations? This is probably my all-time favorite rule from D&D 3.5 and I’m very happy that Open Design continues to use it in its products. Incantations are flavorful (and usually dangerous) magical rituals that can be cast by any character with the right skills (and time). They’re like Call of Cthulhu spells, but usually with a more mystical or mythological flavor. The new Incantations are Dead Man’s Bridge and Walk the Shadow Road.
Dark Roads and Golden Hells also has new spells. Angel Eyes stands out for me because it such a cool idea that I’m tempted to grant it to all my celestials and good outsiders as a constant ability; Chaos Ball and Combat Geometry are other great examples. Confutation reminds me of those old and weird spells from the AD&D 2nd Tome of Magic – its use isn’t obvious up front, but it can have all kind of clever applications and will surely encourage your PCs to think and plot. Other “complex” dweomers are Defensive Paradox, Memory Net (this last one is an instant adventuring hook), Slipstream and Winds of Time. Excellent stuff here!
The Gamemastering Chapter starts with a description of the more common planar highways of Midgard: the Ever River, Fey Roads, the House of Infinite Doors, the Nine Stairways and the Road of Gates. After that we get new planar settlements, together with additional rules for the city system described in the Pathfinder Gamemastery Guide. My favorite place is Beruthea, the Kingdom of Cats. Dark Roads and Golden Hells really impresses you with the section on Planar Economics. Of course we’re not talking about “real” economy here. Forget treasure and coins… between Heaven and Hell the commodities are more exotic: you can loan your body to a possessing spirit, sell a little of your Fate, or even your Name or Mortality. This part alone makes Dark Roads and Golden Hells worthwhile. As the king of all planar campaign setting, I’m sure old Planescape would be proud. This chapter ends with 3 new artifacts – the Archetypical Sword, the Fate-Eater’s Flesh and the Remnant Pearl.
The next chapter is for the Bestiary. There’re 5 new templates: Animus (our new Petitioner), Ankou, Fallen/Risen Creature, Neverborn and Radiant Creature. Following these templates there’re 9 new creatures, from a new dragon to a plethora of weird outsiders.
Dark Roads and Golden Hells is a solid sourcebook on the otherworldly. If you’re hunting for Midgardian goodness, you may be a little disappointed, as Dark Roads and Golden Hells leans toward the modular and generic side of the Outer Planes. Now, if you want to add planar content to an existing campaign/cosmology, then this book is a great option. It mixes easily with almost every other d20 book on the topic – especially the Manual of Planes (either 3rd or 4th Edition versions) and Beyond Countless Doorways.