Game: Book of Vile Darkness
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Review Dated: 12th, November 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 37
Average Score: 4.62
It’s not vile but it’s not especially good either. The Book of Vile Darkness was doomed to crumble under the weight of the hype. It wasn’t just Wizard’s marketing to blame (in fact, they’re not only allowed to market/hype their products but I encourage them to do so) but also sealed-sections-in-magazine hype, mouth-watering-fan-boy-on-webpage hype and heated-debate-in-forum hype too. I do think Wizards were wrong to launch their new adult line with this book though; they’ll catch themselves in a corner by setting the limit with the initial experiment.
“Vile Darkness” – the title gets my goat. It’s either an oxymoron or redundant, depending on your definition of darkness and that’s an impressive trick. I suppose many Dungeons & Dragons players have never had the “darkness” debate but if you’ve gone through your pretentious White Wolf phase (I know I have) then you probably have. Gore doesn’t equate to dark. A werewolf ripping your head off with its big claws isn’t dark, that’s just goring, that’s just vile. The werewolf’s battle against a three-headed giant slug isn’t dark either. It’s the fact that no matter how hard the werewolf fights that the war is already lost that’s dark. Seven is a dark film; Rambo isn’t – not even when he’s being tortured.
Of course, I shouldn’t judge the book by it the cover, the title or anything as superficial as that. Which is a bit of a shame for the Book of Vile Darkness; if I was to rate it based on the illustrations, the cool scary tome look, the black borders and layout then it would get a very high score. It’s a nice book to have lying out on the table when friends come to visit – anyone flicking quickly through it will be more impressed than anyone sitting down to read it.
The book makes a start by trying to define evil. This is a valid attempt by Monte Cooke. He was never going to succeed – too much of this philosophy is out of place for a roleplaying book, too little would be a token effort, there’s little chance of finding a middle ground and no chance at all in a Dungeons & Dragons setting where the nature of evil has been boiled down to something (almost) elemental. I’m glad this section is here though since it gives merit to the half of the book that doesn’t really work. It’s here that we go over some acts that might be evil – and in a game where the response from more people is to kill first, ask questions later and after looting the body – this is rather funny. Well, it’s funny if you enjoy a laugh at the “rollplayers” expense. The fetishes and addictions section here is disappointing but probably needed in their brief form just for completeness. For a book of its nature Vile Darkness has way too much of “I knew that” and “I already thought of that”. The Vile Gods are interesting but underplayed, they didn’t need to put especially into this book, and any other supplement would have done. The same goes for the vile races, interesting and a little silly in the case of the Jerren. Unfortunately all the following examples are not so interesting and are quickly skipped through.
Chapter two offers up one of the positive contributions form the Book of Vile Darkness. Monte Cook gives us his 3rd ed guru rules on possession. The rules on curses are nearly as good but perhaps something that didn’t need hard and fast rules for in the first place. Diseases are good too, not especially suited to the Book of Vile Darkness except that there’s an excuse to write particularly gruesome disease effects – but plenty of real diseases are just as horrid.
In a small “Other Aspects of Evil” section in chapter two you’ll come across some nice ideas. Ideas that work very well – except in a the typical cheese fantasy that D&D games become. Dark Speech is the secret language of the evil goods – it’s so dire that even demons refrain from using it. That’s the theory, except any mortal with the right feats and knowledge will happily blurt out a quote or two from this “secret” language. At high level games your heroes might go toe-to-toe against powerful demons or even avatars, crushing them beneath +5 war hammers and burning demonic flesh away with divine fire channelled straight a powerful deity through their own fingertips but suddenly encounter extra difficulties if their enemies decide to say “I like candy” in Dark Speech. I like Dark Speech though; it’ll make a great addition as the language of the others in Cthulhu games or even the language of demons in barbwire gritty fantasy games. The idea of vile damage is less convincing.
Evil equipment isn’t inherently evil – it’s just stuff used for horrid things like torture and, oh wait, for killing people. I suspect much of the Player’s Handbook and the DM’s Guide is filled with vile equipment too. The rules for drugs are in here.
Vile Feats wrestle with credibility but come out fairly well. It’s easy to me to argue that Cleave’s a vile feat; it is all about killing or maiming someone. A vile feat is inherently evil – like the Disciple of Darkness where the character is formally supplicant to an archdevil – it’s a magical or perhaps better understood as spiritual vileness. Other feats, like Willing Deformity, are trickier. Are tattoos vile? Is circumcision vile? Is the tribal ritual of scarring that still goes on in some parts of Africa vile? Rather than start a debate here I’ll rush to say that the Willing Deformity feat includes the caveat that in this case the self-mutilation is carried out along with supplication to evil powers and again we can invoke the spiritual corruption get out clause.
There are prestige classes. There was bound to be prestige classes. This chapter sees the official Wizards of the Coast Demonologist and it is as good as the half-dozen demonlogist classes already in the market but there’s also the Diabolist and Cancer Mage too. The Cancer Mage, like the vile feats, is cause for debate. The class is a magical one all about rot and disease but I just can’t help the feeling that the title “Cancer” was thrown in there just because this is the Book of Vile Darkness. It could easily have been called Disease Mage, Diseasologist, Rotting Warlock, etc. There are a whole bunch of “Disciples” next and this are much more in line with traditional D&D offerings. These are classes that are powered-up through their association to named demons (which may or may not be OGL as WotC see fit). You’ve got the Disciples of Asmodeus, Baalzebul, Dispater, Mammon and Mephistopheles. The Lifedrinker will be the least used prestige class ever, available only to ancient vampires. The Mortal Hunter does what it says on the tin – and hunts mortals (like you need a special class for this?) and the Soul Eater eats souls. The Thrall set of classes do the same as the Disciples but for the other end of the evil spectrum. You’ve got the Thralls of Demogorgon, Graz’zi, Juiblex and Orcus. The Ur-Priests seem able to take divine magic from gods whether or not the gods want them to and for that idea alone deserve to be consigned to the trash. The Vermin Lord carries on with the idea that all things vermin are inherently evil… but manages to pull a safe out from the basket by being sure to tie the class in with an intelligent evil creature (providing it looks relatively vermin like). Finally, the Warrior of Darkness is good at killing things. The highlights of this chapter are that these prestige classes are all fully detailed through 10 levels and therefore can be safely played at the Epic level. The classes here are great templates for campaign villains. In some ways they are a good start for a fantasy version of Darth Vader. Another comment in the prestige chapter that I leapt on was the comment from Cook that the Thrall and Disciple classes weren’t very prestigious and might be better thought of as something else. Thank goodness! I was beginning to wonder if I was imaging that whole point. I shall continue to point out that “Foot solider”, “Gnome with sword” and “Failed wizard’s apprentice” are not suitable prestige class concepts.
There are plenty of evil spells in the book. That’s important. I think with this fact alone it’s worthwhile keeping the Book of Vile Darkness a secret from your players so you can present the dangerous and mysterious side of these powers. The short debate on what is evil at the start of the chapter is another brave attempt. I just don’t buy the ethical approach. If you’re melting people’s faces off with acid arrows or burning them alive with explosive fireballs then you’re a sick puppy. Just because the spell is renamed Dark Bolt or Charnel Fire doesn’t make it any more evil. What I do buy is that some spells can come from an evil and corrupt supply of magic or perhaps they were made available by evil gods in the first place. This, though, comes back to the idea that in Dungeons & Dragons (not necessarily evil game that rolls a d20, but in D&D) that evil is something elemental or an active career choice rather than a label for something unethical or horrid. This chapter plays to stereotypical D&D in other ways too. The “Addiction” spell grants the mage the ability to instantly addict someone to a drug of choice. It’s a level 2 spell (level 1 for Assassin) and that’s completely broken. It’s such a low level spell because a drug addition doesn’t do much in game terms just before, during or after a melee. The level of addiction is stacked so that it is more serious as the caster level increases. Nevertheless in a game where razor edge politics, carefully worded diplomacy and needle fine balances of power are the mainstay it is awful to think that some apprentice dressed as a Court servant could blight a powerful noble with an addiction. It’s enough to make GMs and players of the genre wince, it’s as if high fantasy is so determined to rule supreme that it’ll come and invade your game if given even half a chance.
Magic items and artefacts can be evil in the same way that spells are evil. Ignore the ethical use of the item; a dagger is just as evil as a three-bladed-spider-shaped-knife. On the other hand, if one of those two where forged in the blood of children by the archduke Buffy then it’s easy to see that it’s a spiritually corrupt item.
One of the longest chapters in the book is “Lords of Evil”. This is a fairly detailed examination of the movers and shakers in the ranks of demons and devils. It explains what makes a demon or a devil according to what side they’re on and what the outsiders in the middle are known as. It’s a nice little geo-political rundown of the Blood War and very helpful if you’re not a second edition fan and are reading some of this for the first time. What’s good is the summary of the tactics and strategies used by some of the power-houses here What’s not so good are the stats for Challenge Rating 30 arch-fiends. You need these stats so your players can kill them? Okay. Well. Be that on your own head. On the other hand I know fine well that there’s a demand for this sort of crunch. The stats for their favourite minions and lieutenants take up a fair whack of this chapter but are perhaps more likely to be used.
The stats for monsters right at the back of the book are even more likely to get used. Again these creatures are more horrific and explicitly detailed than typical monster manual creatures but rarely more ‘dark’.
I’m not sure how the designers imagined the Book of Vile Darkness being used. If it’s supposed to make your D&D game more mature then I don’t think it’s done very well. I think the maturity warning is more appropriate in that if the book is used immaturely then it’ll overshadow and wreck your game. The Book of Vile Darkness doesn’t really offer up anything more on the nature of evil. It could have. It could be that certain acts or intentions are more likely to attract the interest of these naturally evil powers. We still have Paladins striding around and smiting anything their “Detect Evil” (which they trust implicitly and without question) says is evil while retaining their own aura of goodliness.
The Book of Darkness isn’t a waste though. It does have a whole load of prestige classes that are put together very well indeed. They’ll suit high fantasy games nicely and are there for the master villain (and some of the classes are more manipulation and skill based than just crush-destroy) for grittier games. There are enough new feats too add something unexpected to your villains as well but best of all are the pages and pages of magic spells. If you keep the book a secret then it provides you, as DM, a way to keep your players on their toes since they’ll never know what to expect but can be sure that their enemy’s powers are at the very least extremely unpleasant. The structure of the Nine Hells is nicely explained too.
Finally, by ignoring some of the possible observations and discussions on fantasy evil that were missed and treating the book as a RPG supplement filled with unsavoury powers and demons – which is perhaps the most fair way to judge it – I find it easy enough to give it an average rating.