Dark Roads & Golden Hells
By Thilo Graf
This pdf by Open Designis 111 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving a total of 106 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Disclaimer: I was a patron of this project, but didn’t contribute due to time-concerns.
All right cutter, I see you’re rather clueless about them’s roads, so here’s the chant:
The pdf kicks off with a rather interesting treatise on the nature of planes, making the outer planes essentially a foundation spawned from the soul essence of beings, entwined with an ever-swelling tide of interloping ideas that continuously touch, change and expand each other, giving birth to countless, even infinite multitudes of ideas – to the point where infinity itself is just another idea betwixt an uncountable legion of concepts and their ever-soaring inhabitants, seeking for meaning – be it gods, outsiders or mortals. If one were to say so, even the phenomenon of quantum entanglements could be explained in the magical context of a planar game and fit within the themes that determine one’s after life – for as like draws to like, proximity destinies and karmic resonance are not just abstract concepts here and while numbers are present in many mystic traditions, it is in the planes that they exhibit their full potential and significance, just like abstractions and allegories may actually become truth and quite literal in the planar realms of countless possibilities. Even better, outsiders, those strange beings (and strange they should be due to their very nature) in service to a cause or concept, are also given a rather brilliant introduction, returning the concept of distinct foreignness that soften escapes DMs to these beings – immortal souls, player in the grandest game, these beings are different from mortals, even if they once were ones themselves.
In a total of 10 sample entries, we get a selection of outsider personalities, ideologies and character traits (not mechanical ones, mind you) that serve as a stellar gateway for any DM (or a brilliant primer for those characters with Knowledge(Religion) or (The Planes)) to outsider psychology (lacking a better term): From immortal chessmasters to cynics and elementals and whisperers, these write-ups immediately spell out evident truths and serve in a way that has largely been absent from many products – in just a paltry 2.5 pages, this pdf returns the “out-“to outsider: They are not us, they do not belong to us mortals. Granted, Paizo also does a great job regarding their outsiders, but seeing such an inspiring introduction to basic concepts is nevertheless awesome. And that was, as mentioned the introduction.
In chapter 2, we are introduced to the variant cosmology that serves as the default for the highly anticipated Midgard campaign setting, but with the general design-goal of remaining modular to the extreme and easy to plug and play into just about every kind of cosmology – from Planescape to the Great Beyond. Central concepts of the cosmology presented in these pages is a sense of an end to a cycle –just as once the primal gods were vanquished and banished from the worlds and planes, so is the fate of the new gods already woven, spinning towards Ragnarök in the ever-changing eternal game that fate and chance may play – or not. Generally, the addition of fortune and destiny to the cosmic forces at play as a dominant construct and concept feel like a very smart move indeed. The two dominant struggles in the planes Psycohmachia, the feud between good and evil for mortal souls as well as the eternal fractal dance of law and chaos are concepts introduced in lovingly unique detail and care. Of course, conceptual planes those touching upon the prime material plane are also a part of this chapter, as is an extensive discussion of how alignment traits of respective planar locations, be they overlaps or planes in their own right. The conceptual planes deserve special mention: From overlaps like mercy street, the lane of disguised celestials, to a city in which everything is mad of glyphs, both inhabitants and everything beyond to the palace where all things lost and broken go – these locations ooze imagination and creative sparks and may, very well, spark their own multiverses, campaigns and concepts, as befitting of the uncounted possibilities inherent in the planes. Better yet, the planes adhering to the order of elemental indwellings also are featured and come with a rather staggering array of sample locations – from 999 Luftballoons, inhabited by intelligent wasps to the forests of valor, where burning, fire-clad celestials stoke the fires of courage in mortal souls.
Even better – from the elflands, home to inscrutable beings like the Ljósalfar and similar mysterious fey to the loom – the planar fabric that connects the grand tapestry to the far beyond at the edge of conception – both planar frontier, edge of infinity, liaison to unimaginable things and distortions to the 7 heavens of the cardinal virtues to the eleven hells as well as the shadow realms, home to the courts of enigmatic shadow fey and other things strange and unimaginable, the compelling cosmology of Midgard is concise, expertly presented, stellar in imaginative quality and missing in no virtue to be expected from such a sourcebook. Add to that the Underworld, a dark prison of Carcerian dimensions in which liches and yama-kings decide on reincarnation all sorts of bleakness and desolate things abound and suffuse that with the staggering amount of sample locations, each of which could spring-board one, if not a vast array of campaigns, and we’re in for one of the coolest cosmologies I’ve read since taking in the original conception of the great wheel and all the derivative systems that spawned from it. Suffice to say, I consider this cosmology on par with, depending on your tastes perhaps even better, than Paizo’s and their version of the great wheel and Golarion’s tradition-infused, yet fresh take on the old tropes has been so far my favourite one since the inception of Planescape in second edition. And yes, that does include just about all 3pps and books like “Beyond countless Doorways” for 3.X.
Oh, but that’s not all! There also is a chapter that begins, quite titillating with: “Between”. After the grand overview, we thus delve into the samples for the strange places that can be found beyond the boundaries of mortal perception and the first location we’re introduced thusly is quite literally “Between” – the place where all those teleportation mishaps and plane shifting accidents alongside all the lost things, broken and abandoned, end up to form a plane coalesced and defined by a sense of not-belonging, by a sense of unbelonging and hybridity and the malevolent intellect of the intangible form that acts as master, creator and abductor – the Limnus. It should be noted that not only are the mechanical repercussions of such a plane are covered, but that magical peculiarities, denizens and adventure seeds are a part of this and all the entries that follow. Second is the Casino – another place between extremes, this place could be seen as the nexus between fate and chance, between law and chaos and is thus also headed dual thrones of law and chaos, this is the place where kingdoms and yes, even worlds and souls can be won, where fortunes are squandered and gained and where pachinko and signal noise games await alongside the options to gamble with the best the planes have to offer – but remember the ultimate truism of gambling – in the end, the house always wins…
After a trip to the dangerously joyful casino, we delve into the depths beyond and visit a particular corner of hell: Evermaw, where all things starve and thirst and Mordiggian the Hunger God rules beneath jaundiced clouds and even the mighty Ever River is but a mere trickle: Here, Mordiggian’s spawn, the ghouls and vampires rule and it is here the erstwhile lieutenant of Orcus has retreated for now, content with his living ghoul servitors and plotting towards inscrutable goals, the grand city (though grand may be a misleading moniker) “Beyond Vultures” offering multiple hooks and a disturbing peculiarity: The lottery. Worse than in Panem, the lottery brands each person with a 4-digit number once it has interacted and bought something from a resident – subsequently, each day means that the number may be drawn. If it is, the city demands a toll that is to be paid in flesh…
Now, if you’re looking to buy something truly out of the ordinary, there’s no place but one –marketplace. Literally THE marketplace among the vast planes, it is here that just about anything conceivable can be bought and sold – from hope to classics like Angel’s Tears or even the broken hearts of demons, this city can probably best be described as the planar consequence of mercantilism beyond moral boundaries, somewhat akin to a bigger brother to Katapesh and all who have visited that town in Golarion can probably depict how an escalation of this concept may look like. Better yet, the creatures provided as sample denizens include far-out characters like a suave mimic-master spy/sheriff that serve to add a plethora of style to a given rendition of this trade-hub among trade-hubs.
Now, the Plane of Spears is something different altogether – remember that concept of Valhalla, fighting only to be renewed and fight again? The Plane of Spears is essentially that, minus the feasting and anything resembling a respite from a battle never-ending. Now, If you think that the place remains in static conflict, you’d be wrong, though – the battles fought and lost, the places conquered and sacked actually change the plane towards some inscrutable destination in the eternal game between destiny and fate. Beyond the bloodshed and the violence, though, glory, riches and prowess beckon and worst (or best) of all: Newcomers may easily be doomed by dying to remain here – for all eternity to wage wars and challenge the armies of gods, demons and things beyond mortal ken.
Particularly interesting in its implementation of the concept of the fractal dance would the be the domain of Rusty Gears – set in Rava’s realm, the perfectly grinding gears and clockwork-realms work in perfect precision, inevitable roam – but where’s law, there’s also chaos – fields of rusts, towns constructed on moving gears and vast junkyards of broken cogs await those eager to find fate’s destination for them or an opportunity to jam a wrench into at least a part of the grand machine. Since it’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Mechanus and its mechanical inhabitants, you can imagine my delight when reading this particular section. And finally, there’s the Well spring of Life and Radiance: Here, Potential, essences and minds spring forth is blazing glory and sefirots to enlightenment await – if you brave their dangers, these literal and metaphysical paths enable you to gain a unique power (temporarily or permanently) and gain access to certain planes. Beware, though: For many have found truths that burnt them and destroyed them. I love this plane for its clever links to mysticism and metaphorical concepts as well as the dominant idea of radiance as something amoral and generally considered “good” that can nevertheless destroy the imperfect mortal as any kind of similarly pure cosmic revelation, thus somewhat further diluting the bland diametric oppositions that make gaming often so predictable.
Of course, there also are some major new pieces of crunch here for your perusal, starting with 3 new races: From Devas, born of the stuff of raw creation by echoes of personalities in the plane of radiance, these beings can come with wings, multiple arms or even bestial or elemental essences. They also are the only race that could lead to some abuse – I am not and probably will never be comfortable with playable races that (can) have more than 2 arms and not off some kind of inherent drawback. The Maxims and Warptouched are two sides of the same coin – the one touched by law, the other by chaos, with fitting racial abilities for both – I didn’t have anything to complain about either. Unless I’ve miscounted, we also get 45 new feats, which is slightly more than I would have wanted, seeing the potential for feat-inflation. However, even in this section can we find some rather interesting ones – from a feat that makes you immune to the modification of memory (think about it – no one but you remembers: What a great plot-device!) to the new concept of patronage feats that require you to be in service of a concept, god, deity etc. and clearly marks you, but also provides some nifty benefit, the section can be called well-made indeed. More than 40 new traits also draw on the new planes and planar concepts expounded in the beginning and some of them actually are fun: You could e.g. take “Lucky number”. Roll 1d20 at the campaign’s beginning – that’s your lucky number and every time you roll it on a skill-check or atk-roll, you gain a bonus of +1. Neat idea!
Now, it’s no secret that I LOVE the concept of Incantations (and if you haven’t bought the Zombie Sky Books yet, go do so now…) and thus, I was rather happy to see 2 new incantations herein – one to stand on the dead man’s bridge and bargain yourself into the underworld (but not necessarily out…) and oneto pass from the prime material to the elflands (or the shadowplane, depending on cosmology, I guess), but only by utilizing a site of tragedy and death. I LOVE these and I honestly would love for a whole book (100+ pages) of incantations of a similar quality. And then there are the 18 new spells and oh boy, they are…AWESOME. Again. Yeah, I know, broken record… But seriously – with the spell “Slipstream”, you can tag on to other creature’s teleports and come out close to their destinations. And then there’s “Defensive Paradox”, which is a stellar spell to negate devastating attacks, but which may change you forever and replace you with an alternate version, essentially allowing you to change afflicted character’s personality, Dr.Who-style. Alternately, you could use your magically enhanced sense of combat geometry to make truly devastating ricochets and similar supra-genius attacks. Hell yes!
Chapter 5 then deals with advice on gamemastering the infinite planes and if you expect tried and boring truisms, you’ll be disappointed: Instead you get poignant, sound advice on how to do it as well as ANOTHER selection of awesome locations – gateways to the planes, from the feyroads to the 9 Stairways, the house of infinite doors and the ever river to the road of gateways, we get a neat selection of traveling ways beyond boring spells that should satisfy all tastes. Better yet, planar settlements and settlement-modifiers (including disadvantages), sample fully stated planar settlements, again, with excellent fluff (and statblocks) are fully detailed. However, in the planar economies-section, the book once again amps up the coolness: From buying and selling (or loaning) your body, the purchase of destiny, names, youth and voices and similar esoteric goods are covered. And there are rules for the archetypical sword, the flesh of fate-eaters and remnant pearls, remains of squashed planes – all artifacts, mind you.
The final chapter details the bestiary and kicks off with new templates: From the Animus, to the fallen/risen templates to the servants of death (Ankou, CR +1) and the radiant creatures to those called neverborn, I enjoyed the templates. The first new creature is the Algorith, an angel of force, pure math, universal physics and impeccable guards against things that none should know or witness. Fidele Angels are more benevolent: Born from a love so pure it transcends death, they retain their memory to guard their mortal lovers. Perhaps against the threats like the Cambium, which seek to steal the mortal creatures humors – a great call-back to this pseudo-medical concept, which imho should see more support in the game. Also rather disturbing, the fate-eaters may unhinge certain abilities and devour not only a mortal, but also his/her/its abilities, skills and feats. The idiot-savants of chaos, the headless hundun are creatures of creation and might seem almost chthonic, though they remain a general brainless benevolence. We also are introduced to clockwork dogs, rust drakes and eyeball-like observers, to finally the spinning hags, which could essentially be pictured as lesser versions of the Norns with some cool additional abilities. All the creatures herein come with a multitude of signature abilities and the b/w-artworks are fitting, where provided.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I didn’t notice any significant glitches while skimming through the pages of this pdf – great to see that the somewhat major editing glitches that plagued some ODs have been purged from these pages. Layout adheres to a 2-column standard and is mostly black and white, accentuated with an elegant gold that should provide a great synthesis between good looks and printer-friendliness – kudos to layout-artist Marc Radle. The artworks contained herein are b/w, adhere to a rather nice style and can be considered top-quality as well. The pdf is also excessively bookmarked.
All right, I’ll say it straight away: When Dan Voyce, lead designer of Northlands announced he would head the planar sourcebook for Midgard, I knew that this would rock in the end. Little did I know how much not only Dan, but also the patrons understood the peculiarities that make the planes different from the prime. In no way did this book ever amount to the rehash of a prime material concept, instead providing not only a strikingly original cosmology, but also featuring a splendid array of locations and creative ideas that can enhance your game, even f you already use other cosmologies: The ease of plug-and-playing any component of this book is beyond belief and in fact, in my opinion, the crowning achievement: While the content herein could stand alone as a cosmology, whether Planescape or the Great Beyond are used – all components retain their usability without losing their conceptual identity, thus making this book, at least in my opinion, vastly superior to all 3.X-plane-books. And yes, that does include the otherwise awesome “Beyond Countless Doorways”. I’ve been waiting for such a book since Planescape and the only other planar resource I could mention that somewhat is similar in quality, though different in focus, would be Paizo’s. Yes. It’s that good – and it’s also intelligent. I only touched upon all the awesome concepts herein, briefly even and delivered only a fraction of potential interpretations. This book can enrich any campaign and even if you don’t want to go planar (yet), I guarantee that the content in this book and its ideas can influence any campaign in some kind of positive way. And even the crunch (of which I’m not as big a fan – I can’t see those boring traits anymore…) has its stellar quality, from the cool patronage feats to the excellent spells and incantations, we’re in for fun galore. My final verdict, if my rather lengthy tirade of joy and praise has been no indicator, will be 5 stars + seal of approval.
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