Book of Vile Darkness – Review
The December release from Wizards of the Coast is the “fabled” Book of Vile Darkness. This latest supplement seeks to bring evil back into the campaign by giving players new options for villainous characters and Dungeon Masters new diabolical tools to throw at the players.
Wizard’s design team took an interesting direction with this supplement and actually turned it into two books in the same supplement. The book is divided into a book for Dungeon Masters and a book for players. The reasoning behind this seems sound, this way the meta gaming is kept to a minimum because the DM book offers a large variety of new information including monsters, magic items, diseases, traps, terrain obstacles and curses. Yes, curses. A long time staple of legends, fairy tales, fantasy fiction and role-playing games; curses have been absent from 4th edition D&D until now. Reading the designers notes on the official Dungeons & Dragons website the reason it has taken this long for them to appear is that they wanted them to be special. I think they have succeeded in this. I have already implemented the use of curses. Essentially the rules work in a the same fashion as diseases which have been a part of this edition from the beginning, but they have dressed them up a little and given them a flavor all their own. They took an approach that makes the early stages of a curse seem beneficial, but every time you take an extended rest you must make a skill check or the curse progresses further, and its effect increases.
The rest of the DM portion of the supplement covers a lot more of course. It introduces the concept of evil campaigns. Allowing players to play evil characters has been frowned on in 4th edition until now. This is a touchy subject for a lot of groups. The argument has been made that D&D is about playing the hero, saving the princess, slaying the villain and all that. Playing the villain just doesn’t appeal to a lot of groups. But it does to some, and if you find yourself DMing for a group that does this supplement provides some very good tips on assembling that campaign. There are even two great campaign arcs outlined in the book. They give a brief list of objectives for the PCs and their adversaries at each of the three tiers of play. The outline is generic enough that an experienced DM can tweak them to fit his or her own play style, and an inexperienced DM can use the other tips and suggestions in the book to fill in the missing parts to make the game memorable for everyone involved.
This book contains a small selection of monsters and monster themes that are of a particularly evil color. Some people might find this section lacking. It is very small and a bit focused. The monster selection does not cover many levels. The themes of course can be applied as desired, but I find the selection of monsters already available to be sufficient. I usually find the monster I want without to much work, but I have a Dungeon & Dragon Insider account so I can access all the monsters in print.
The DM portion has the new magic items. This is a slight departure from the approach Wizards usually takes. So far in this addition the magic items have been put in the player’s hands, at least they appeared in the Player’s Handbook. This book of course is different, the items in it are a bit more sinister. A DM may choose to limit player knowledge a little to keep them guessing, leaving little surprises for them later.
The player portion of this book…is slim. The first section of the book talks about the different types of villains, the difference between an anti-hero, a non-hero and a true villain. It also talks about the different approaches that characters can take based on the class they choose to play. It also gives suggestions on how a group of evil PCs can get along and why they shouldn’t just kill each other in their sleep. The next section introduces evil character themes. I have liked the concept of themes since they were introduced into 4th edition. They provide an extra flavor to spice up the characters, to show they are not just some guy with a sword, or some elf with a spell. The themes in this book are, for the most part, good additions to the growing list available. There are only five in the whole book, but it does give a varied selection, there is the Reaver if you are a blood-thirsty melee combatant or the vile scholar if you are a more cerebral villain. Without any new classes to introduce the book moves to Paragon paths, a choice you make for your character similar to themes but instead of broadening your characters, this choice more specifically defines their abilities. The selection however is extremely limited. There are more than 20 character classes to choose from in Dungeons & Dragons, but this book only offers 5 paragon paths. Two of these options have relatively open classes. One option, the Contract Killer, only requires that a character be trained in the Stealth Skill so basically character could take it, the Demonologist another option is required to be an arcane caster, so 6 classes can easily choose it, but the other 3 option presented in this book require specific classes in order to qualify. Now you could multi class to get them, but since they are built with these specific classes in mind choosing them through multi-classing would make the character sub optimal. By the way the classes are Fighter, Paladin, and Druid. Next in the supplement is the Epic Destiny, the ultimate choice the character makes to decide how they will be remembered in legend. Yes you read that right…the Epic Destiny, one and only one option is given. Now there have been other Epic Destinies that could be available to evil characters, but this is “The Book of Vile Darkness” it seems like only presenting one option for an Epic Destiny is kind of lame. The option, called the Exemplar of Evil, is incredibly generic. It simply states that your goal is to be the ultimate evil and leaves it up to you to decide what that ultimately means. The last few pages of the book deal with feats that allow your character to show their allegiance to evil.
All in all this is book is OK. I actually like the fact they split the book into two pieces. I currently DM two games and play in a random assortment of others. When a new supplement comes out there is a rush to see what a player can take from it to use for their own character. In the process of looking for their new powers and feats the players read everything the DM could use to enrich the game. With most players this wouldn’t be a big deal, they could pretend not to know what is coming and enjoy the show, but to truly surprise the players is one of the joys of being a DM. Now, I feel like I can do this on my own…but help from the professionals is nice every, once in a while. With the book in two different pieces, you can hand one to the players and keep one to yourself, allowing you to plan and keep the secret. So that is the upside.
The downside of this supplement is its size. Its short. 120 pages isn’t bad for a D&D supplement but this book is a really quick read. For a new DM this is a good book to introduce them to running an evil campaign, or at the very least adding a little extra villainy to their repertoireituar. For players its not got a lot to offer, but some people might find it of use. The opening section could help problematic players develop better ideas about how to play the character they want in a party. One thing I’m a little undecided about is the maturity level this book suggests. On the cover it is intended for Ages 12+. In my opinion this is an accurate suggestion, kids don’t need vile darkness in their game, but I’m an adult, and I was hoping for something a little darker. The 3/3.5 version of this book was very dark, in fact it garnered a “Mature” rating, self imposed I believe. Of course I don’t blame Wizards for downplaying the contents. It is their product and they need to appeal to the largest audience they can. I guess they feel most gamers are younger than I am. As with all materials and products they add…I can use what I like, tweak what nearly works for me, and ignore what doesn’t.
So, my final word is 3.5 out of 5