One-Hour Review: Book of Vile Darkness

Book of Vile Darkness

The Book of Vile Darkness through the editions has been many things. At its best, it is a strong source of inspiration for DMs who want to include some frightening elements into their campaigns. It can also be an inspiration to players who want to have their characters be a little darker or who would rather play an evil party and scour the land rather than save it. While the Dungeons & Dragons line rarely achieves the depths of depravity that gaming lines like White Wolf’s Vampire games or Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, it is every bit as dark as the epic Midnight setting. The various Books of Vile Darkness have been a must-have for anyone hoping to strike terror into the normally cavalier D&D player’s heart. At the same time, the Book of Vile Darkness has historically also been an excuse to run depraved characters without consequence or thought to roleplaying. There are excellent examples of evil campaigns out there but in my experience they easily get out of control.

I remember vividly the first time my dear brother DMed for my gaming group. He wanted to run a short one-off campaign of evil characters and did exactly that: we lasted half a gaming session before frustration on both sides of the screen called a halt to things. It wasn’t that my brother was ill-prepared or that we were trying to tear his campaign world apart. Our evil characters were actually more of comical Batman villains than truly depraved individuals: a psychotic gnoll psion, a modron sadist, a minotaur terrorist, and so on. The trouble is that many normal D&D tropes do not work at all with evil characters and as soon as the mayor of a small town told us they were beleaguered by raiders and in desperate need of help we were conflicted. Do we act like good characters despite our alignments or do we take advantage of the town’s leader admitting they were vulnerable to being sacked? In the end we killed the mayor and took over, throwing all campaign plans out the window and grinding things to a halt.

With this new Book of Vile Darkness, I’m looking for two things. First, I want to make sure that the book strikes a balance between “definitely evil” and “actually playable.” This should prepare DMs and players alike to play selfish and ruthless characters that nonetheless have reason to go adventuring and be part of solid stories. Second, I loved Heroes of Shadow but I’m going to be disappointed if this is just a rehash of that. I don’t need more shadow feats that don’t add more to the game and I also think Heroes of Shadow was the mid-point between core D&D and definitely evil. The previous book says on its back cover that it helps characters to “dabble” in evil (an amoral warlock, a self-righteous knight, a tortured vampire) but the Book of Vile Darkness is infamous because it goes all out. This book needs to give me new material and ways to make a character that other players are uneasy having at their table. Let’s see if it delivers.

There are three parts to this product: battlemaps, a DMs guide, and a player’s guide. I’ll go through them in that order and rapidly record my thoughts for my first hour with the book. On into the darkness!

Battlemaps

There are two sides to this poster and three maps in total. The first one, a big one that takes up a good deal of space is some grass verge littered with chunks of rubble. It looks like it might be an ancient castle, which isn’t anything revolutionary, but the corpses strewn about the place are a little darker than usual. Some have blood smears where they have dragged themselves over the ground, one has its head torn off and a spray of blood between the bodyparts, and another is in several pieces and looks more like a pile of clothes and limbs. On the other side of the poster are two scenes to place evil cults in. One is a circle of standing stones in the woods with a large stone dais in the middle, stained with blood from sacrifices and featuring some dark hooded figure with insectile legs jutting from its robes. There are a couple of other sacrificial blocks and some skeletons discarded to one side, sure to give adventuring groups pause and remind them of swamp cults from Call of Cthulhu. The other scene is a grey cavern with obelisks and a swirling pool of rainbow light in the middle. It’s a little more reminiscent of Gozer the Gozerian from Ghostbusters than Great Cthulhu but ominous still. As always, nice quality and definitely usable sites in any campaign.

DM’s Book

The larger of the two books is intended for the DM and is a respectable 95 pages of material. The table of contents lists subjects of both the DM’s Book and the Player’s Book which I think is a good touch. With the Gloomwrought supplement and adventures like Seekers of the Ashen Crown, I sometimes end up shifting between the product’s two books trying to find what I’m looking for. The first chapter is Evil Unearthed and serves as an Introduction and a means to set the stage. It catches DMs and players up on the history of the Book of Vile Darkness both in- and out-of-game and then discusses evil in the campaign world. Evil spreads, it dominates, it corrupts, it annihilates… there’s not a lot of new material here but even veteran DMs should appreciate the clear discussion of the chapter.

Chapter 2 starts things off with a bang as it discusses Evil Campaigns. The chapter art is a black-armored tiefling warlock and a Tiamat-born dragonborn beating down on a gold dragon. The first five pages are aimed at dealing with what I mused about in my opening remarks: how do you motivate evil characters and keep a campaign based on evil goals together? The authors advise forging some strong bindings to keep characters together and reminds us that “even a party of lawful good adventurers will have a hard time finding success if each character pursues a different agenda.” Too true. Positive connections don’t have to be duty either, but things like romance, debts, shared enemies, or even simple friendships can bind an evil party together in place of another campaign’s bonds of duty, honor, greater good, etc. A powerful patron can also help to hold the party together… or else!

Campaign motivations are also similarly base: greed, revenge, and power. There’s some good discussion here and it ends up with a number of adventure seeds like betraying a famous hero or founding an evil temple. Besides seeds are some campaign themes to take the place of those in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and they range from Evil Against Evil and Conquest to old standbys like Deicide and Destroy the World. Classic evil. The two most interesting parts of this chapter, however, are the Campaign Arcs. War for Hell walks us from the Heroic Tier to the Epic Tier in a storyline that involves stopping the Abyss from invading and destroying the Nine Hells. Planescape fans rejoice! Shemeshka even makes an appearance! The second arc has Mak Thuum Ngatha, the Nine-Tongued Worm, ripping through from the Far Realm to devour the Nentir Vale. Once more we are walked through from Heroic Tier to Epic Tier but this campaign doesn’t seem like it needs evil characters. I suppose that isn’t a bad thing but it’s not really in keeping with the chapter’s theme.

Chapter 3, Vile Encounters, gives DMs some tips on making gut-wrenching and disturbing encounters. Tactics such as Betrayal and Kill Dying Characters are well worth exploring but probably already thought of by veterans. The vile terrain effects like agony amplifier and forgotten soul are a little more inventive but the first really great option is the curses. These use disease effects (no doubt drawing from the Curses! article in Dungeon a while back) and includes some monster powers to spread the curses to the PCs. The most interesting one in my book is the Werewolf Lycanthropy curse which makes you attack allies and gives you an powerful at-will power that can spread the curse. Ravenloft, here we come. Vile diseases also make an appearance but I can’t spend too much time on them right now. They look interesting and reminiscent of the Abyssal plague disease.Vile hazards like crypt things and death molds can make suitably terrifying dungeons, especially the rot grub pit which someone can get shoved into and turned into a rot grub zombie. I feel bad about drooling so much over that image.

Chapter 4, Villains and Monsters, is the opposite of Chapter 2. When you have stalwart and noble characters, how do you make truly despicable enemeis for them to face? Well there’s lots of advice on connections to the PCs and utilizing familiar archetypes but the creature themes also really help. There are cultists themes, a maenad theme for the Feywild, a Moilian dead theme for the Shadowfell, and a cool Nine Hells set of themes which reflect individual Hells. The new creatures include fallen angels (of winter, of death, of sorrow… great names), several types of devils (including hordelings), Nhagruul the twisted user of the Book of Vile Darkness (curiously 14th level…), filth hags, and tsochar! Some vile organizations round things out if you’re tired of the Netherese and the Blood of Vol, with some familiar names to fans of Ravenloft (the Kargatane!) and other past settings.

The Dark Rewards chapter begins with probably the first usable rendition of cursed items I’ve seen. Usually they are slaps on the wrists for powerful players (“You find an awesome sword in the corner, even better than your vorpal blade! Look at the sapphires… just drop your sword and grab this one…”) but these offer actual enhancements at a steep price. Well, alright I take that back, some of them are good. There’s the usual cursed weapons (which effectively mark you for the first enemy you hit in an encounter) and the boots of many steps (that remove you from play for a round on a natural 1) which are at least imaginative. But there’s also Gruumsh’s bloodthirsty weapon which grants you temporary hit points for killing enemies and gives you a daily power that lets you attack and use a healing surge… only you don’t get to pick who you hit. There are similar items for Lolth, Tharizdun, Torog and other baddies. As in earlier editions you can’t get rid of a cursed item without magic, but sinister items are just regular magical equipment with a nasty bent. The flesh-eating rod that deals ongoing acid damage and lets you slide the target around the map and the skull of terror totem that lets you send a creature running and recharges the power if they end their next turn closer to you than they started.

The last chapter is The Vile Tome, a quick adventure that involves finding the Book of Vile Darkness in game and ditching it down the Well of Many Worlds (that rainbow portal with the obelisks from the battle maps). This is a neat thing in that it gives you A) a way to involve the book directly in the game world, B) a way to introduce evil options to the campaign (what if they don’t get rid of it?), and C) a way to turn your campaign down a truly dark path. If you’ve been playing knights and blonde ingenues for a while and want to switch to dank cults and creeping corruption, introduce this encounter. They find the book and have to ditch it but returning home things aren’t quite the same. The king is distant and his formerly-quirky eccentricity is turning into paranoid madness. The princess’s innocent vanity is turning into obsession and jealous rages. There is a corruption growing in the land that started with that cursed book but it hasn’t ended with it? Is it still alive somewhere? Was some of its taint left behind? Who put the book in that crypt to start with? A useful adventure all-in-all.

Player’s Book

Fifteen minutes left… Alright, first of all this book is a lot smaller (32 pages) but it’s decorated on the cover to look like the in-game Book of Vile Darkness. I immediately can see using this as a game prop at the table and it’s actually functional in this way as well. If you want to add some vile darkness to your campaign have the characters find the book in the game… and then hand this player’s book to the players at the table and let them pick out what they want to take advantage of. Then figure out the Faustian cost of those new mechanics.

In a mirror of the DM’s book, this one starts off with discussions of playing an evil PC including warnings to “Proceed with Caution” and “Be Considerate.” The most important to me is the reminder that D&D is a “Cooperative Game” and that being evil doesn’t give you a license to be an ass at the table or purposely undermine fellow players and the DM. Even veteran players can get carried away with that alignment switch. You also get a smattering of evil organizations to join and archetypes for evil adventurers. There’s discussions of evil PCs by power source (Lord Verminaard is the poster-boy for Divine Evil while Lalali-Puy is the Primal Evil icon and Warduke the Martial Evil).

The character themes are definitely the meat here, though. The cultist looks neat, the disgraced noble an excellent choice for the more subtle-minded, the infernal slave seems like a way to play a tiefling without commiting to the race, the reaver is the bloodthirsty maniac, and the vile scholar is one following in the footsteps of Raistlin Majere. The paragon paths include the blood-crazed berserker (for fighter, not barbarian), contract killer (with singleing-out powers that would make it deadly with the avenger), demonologist (for those who always wanted a quasit familiar in 4e), the idol of darkness (why follow evil when you can exude it?), and the disgusting vermin lord (maggots to flies? I just threw up in my mouth a little). There’s one epic destiny (the disappointingly unimaginative exemplar of evil, which has some good powers despite the unfocused theme) and several pages of feats including several options to disadvantage your allies for your own gain and divine feats for all the core evil deities.

Conclusions

This book does indeed go farther than Heroes of Shadow and I was squirming at some of the evil options given so I’m sure my fellow players will as well. The options for creating truly evil foes for your valiant PCs to fight are good but I think the real utility of the book is the help on creating evil campaigns and characters that work. Whether for evil antagonists or evil PCs, the mechanics are excellent and shouldn’t be diminished at all but in my opinion, players and DMs do not need help making evil aligned characters with nasty abilities. On the other hand, they do need help making those characters fun for more than one encounter and I’m really glad this book spent so much time on that front.

So what about you, internet? Does this book make you want to run evil campaigns or ramp up the vile-ness in your heroic adventures? Or would you rather stick to shining knights, conniving and flawed bandit-kings, and keep things light-hearted? Do the approaching holidays make you question the darkness of this book or does hanging out with your family fit right in with evil-aligned character themes?