Game: Book of Exalted Deeds
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Review Dated: 19th, December 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 3.00
Wizards of the Coast’ the Book of Exalted Deeds faces a tough test if it wants to provide 192 pages of worthwhile resources for players who want to do more than just slap “good” in for their alignment and then act like neutral party members.
In the introduction we’re told that the Book of Exalted Deeds is for players. The book aims to ensure that a good alignment mean something. About 70 pages in this “players’ book” is given over to stats for Celestial Paragons and Monsters. Most of the book is full of prestige classes, magic, feats and equipment.
In truth no one was expecting nearly 200 pages of moral argument packaged alongside the d20 logo. No one would buy such a product anyway. But there is a serious problem with “good” in D&D and it needs to be addressed. What is good? Is slaying all the orc women and orc children in the dungeon good? Is killing something you’ve determined to be evil an act of good?
The Book of Exalted Deeds begins, as it must, by trying to tackle these questions. It’s tempting to write off the attempt as a no win situation. After all, there are huge cultural differences within D&D’s own reader base which would seem to offer up mutually exclusive opinions of “good”. There’s no death penalty in Europe. There is in America. We can debate whether the death of a convicted murderer is good or not – what chance do we have of deciding what the fate of an evil god worshipping goblin, equipped with a deadly weapon and caught stealing berries from a sacred grove should be?
Chapter One looks at the Nature of Good. We’re run through good aspects and discuss what they might mean in game terms; altruism, charity, healing, personal sacrifice, worshipping good deities, casting good spells, mercy, forgiveness, bringing hope and redeeming evil. “Worshipping good deities” stands out in that list for me. The thing to remember that this is a fantasy world with no false religions – all gods are real and there are good gods, neutral gods and evil gods. Redeeming evil is handled by the Monster Manual; if it says “Always Evil” then the creature can’t be redeemed and, in theory, good heroes can smite a way. The trouble with this assumption is that characters shouldn’t have access to the Monster Manual. The heroes should not know there’s an entry somewhere which says “Always Evil”.
The Book of Exalted Deeds weighs into a heavy debate. Do the ends justify the means? Normally in D&D they do. It’s alright to slay every monster in the dungeon because some monsters in the dungeon have been terrorising a nearby village. It’s alright to hack through minions to reach the evil wizard in the tower. It’s alright to summon creatures and throw them into the fight against evil. What about beating information out of an orc warchief to find out where the demon summoning ritual is going to be held so you can stop it in time? Can you torture information out of someone so you can try and stop a greater evil? The Book of Exalted Deeds says no. If you do evil then you’ve made evil and in the D&D cosmology this is enough to harm good. If you had powers or abilities which require you to be good at all times then doing a little evil in the name of a greater good will cost you everything.
The Book of Exalted Deeds doesn’t address the flipside to this decision though and that’s a shame. What about accidental evil? If you save a man’s life – that’s a good act. But what if turns out to be an assassin? An assassin who then goes on to assassinate the peace loving king? What if you stop a hobgoblin tribe only then to shift the balance of power in favour of an evil demonologist who goes on to decimate a dozen villages? Missing from the Book of Exalted Deeds’ list of the Nature of Good is “responsibility for your actions”.
We look at some good hero archetypes; Righteous Crusader, the Fated Champion, Benevolent Healer, Holy Teacher, Peasant Hero, Redeemed Villain and really almost anything could have been put in this section and the pages of stat blocks doesn’t help anyone. This is all filler.
There are variant rules for chapter two. The most significant offering in this slim chapter is the Vow of Poverty. The typical D&D game is inherently selfish. Very often characters adventure for loot and magical items. In fact the very fact that a group collects a host of magical weapons is built into the Challenge Rating system. Is collecting piles of treasure and deadly weapons a good pursuit? The Vow of Poverty magically rewards characters with an impressive list of power ups and abilities if they forsake loot. This balances the game mechanics but DMs will have to watch that the incentive to take risks and adventure is not removed from the game. In theory, of course, the good character will be willing to adventure to just help others.
There is new equipment in the book too. Poisons are evil and so good aligned creatures poison monsters with something else. Er, sorry, good aligned creatures, um, punish monsters with something else. This something else is the “ravage”. Ravages are magical concoctions which use magic and the evil of the target against them to inflict a supernatural effect – so good creatures are immune.
As we might expect there are a bunch of new feats too. We’ve the likes of “Holy Ki Strike” which does more damage to evil creatures. Much of what it means to be good is to be able to do more damage to evil creatures. Later on in the book we find new magic spells. Unlike the feats many of these spells have the good descriptor. Spells with the good descriptor are fundamentally good and even, according to The Book of Exalted Deeds, casting these spells is good. The ability to speed up your teleporting is a spell with the good descriptor. Healing magic doesn’t have the good descriptor because you could heal someone evil so they could fight Good. On examination plenty of the so-called good spells could be used in an evil way. This isn’t the fault of Exalted Deeds, this is just a bit of core rules reverse engineering that the DM needs to do. If some magic is quintessentially good then it’s quintessentially good; this is the nature of magic.
There are piles of prestige classes in the Book of Exalted Deeds. In many ways this is a prestige class book; rewards for characters who manage to stay “good” long enough. I’ll list all the prestige classes and just take a minute to count the number of them in the form of “[something] of [someone]”.
Anointed Knight, Apostle of Peace, Beloved of Valerian, Celestial Mystic, Champion of Gwynharwyf, Defender of Sealtiel, Emissary of Barachiel, Exalted Arcanist, Fist of Raziel, Initiate of Pistis Sophia, Lion of Talisid, Prophet of Erathaol, Risen Martyr, Sentinel of Bharrai, Skylord, Slayer of Domiel, Stalker of Kharash, Swanmay, Sword of Righteousness, Troubadour of Stars, Vassal of Bahamut and the Wonderworker.
In this list the likes of Valerian, Sealtiel, Raziel and co are listed in the Celestial Paragons chapter. Here we find powerful forces of Good which aren’t aligned, as such, to God deities. The Celestial Paragons are, in cosmology terms, there in counter part to the Archfiends in Hell.
In fact the D&D cosmology is a strong influence in the Book of Exalted Deeds – more so than any moral study. Although I think D&D would benefit from a better idea of “good” it’s perhaps a hard and awkward “product” to package up with WotC’s fine art and costly hardbound book. The Book of Exalted Deeds tries, it seems, to fine the best possible compromise. It pays as much attention to moral questions of good and then moves swiftly onto D&D safer grounds and provide rules for the Forces of Good. The result is satisfactory. I can’t find a compelling reason to splash the cash for Book of Exalted Deeds but there’s likely to be something in it for everyone even if that means there’s a lot of filler in there too.