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Review: The Book of Vile Darkness by Wizards of the Coast

Pre-Release Review: The Book of Vile Darkness by Wizards of the Coast

In what must be one of the oddest choices for a Holiday Season release, the 4E version of The Book of Vile Darkness is hitting the shelves just in time for Christmas. While certainly more fitting as a Halloween release, admittedly there is something perversely amusing, in a sort of Tim Burton-esque “The Nightmare before Christmas” quality, to scheduling a December release of a D&D gaming supplement which the author himself was quoted as saying is “a memorable and shocking experience guaranteed to freak your players out.”

Of course, for older D&D fans, The Book of Vile Darkness is not necessarily a new concept. In October of 2002, a Book of Vile Darkness was released for D&D 3rd Edition, which was a bit controversial at the time, drawing both praise and condemnation for dealing with the nature of evil, as well as demons, devils, and other horrors, in such a blatantly open fashion for D&D. In fact, it was so controversial, copies of the book hit store shelves bearing a warning label proclaiming that its content was for “Mature Audiences Only”.

The new 4E version of The Book of Vile Darkness carries no such dire warnings, other than an “AGE 12+” printed in the upper right corner of the cover, and appears amid no controversy this time around. What sinister secrets does this editions’ version of a tome containing all things evil and horrific hold, and what dark delights does it offer 4E players and Dungeon Masters willing to peruse its pages…?

The Book of Vile Darkness


  • Design: Robert J. Schwalb
  • Cover Illustrators: Wayne Reynolds & Wayne England
  • Interior Illustrators: Tom Baxa, Zoltan Boros, Anna Christensen, Eric Deschamps, Steve Ellis, Wayne England, Colin Fix, Ralph Horsley, Tomasz Jedruszek, Todd Lockwood, Christopher Moeller, Chris Seaman, Brian Snoddy, Skan Srisuwan, John Stanko, Chris Stevens, Gabor Szikszai, UDON, Eva Wildermann, Sam Wood, Kieran Yanner, James Zhang
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2011
  • Media: Two Booklets (32 pages + 96 pages) and Poster Map
  • Retail Cost: $29.95 ($19.77 from [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Book-Vile-Darkness-4th-Supplement/dp/0786958685/ref=as_li_wdgt_fl_ex?&linkCode=waf&tag=neurogames-20"]Amazon.com[/ame])
The Book of Vile Darkness is a D&D 4E supplement which provides players and Dungeon Masters with new content for adding a potent presence of evil to any campaign. The product contains both a Dungeon Master booklet and a Player Booklet, each with separate content useful to the D&D gamers’ needs. The Players’ Booklet contains five new Themes, five new Paragon Paths, a new Epic Destiny as well as 17 new Feats, all of which can be used to design of truly evil characters in a D&D campaign. The Dungeon Masters’ booklet contains background information on designing an running an “evil campaign”, as well as a wide range of content for adding more evil and vile encounter content to existing D&D 4E campaigns. This includes a selection of new vile terrain, curses, and diseases to threaten characters, and six new monster themes to transform existing monsters into more vile versions of the original. Dungeon Masters are also offered a dozen new monsters, evil organizations, cursed magic items, “sinister” magic items, four sample vile encounters, and details about the artifact – The Book of Vile Darkness – itself!

Production Quality


Overall, I would have to say that the production quality of The Book of Vile Darkness is very good, but I would also say that it is somewhat of a “mixed bag”. The writing in both the Players’ booklet and the Dungeon Masters’ booklet are both top notch, and the material is presented in a very logical and well thought out format, making both books good reads and handy references.

Splitting the player and DM contents into two separate booklets is something that I’ve personally been hoping to see for a long time, and it definitely helps to keep the prying eyes of players away from the Dungeon Master secrets a bit better than all the material dumped into a single volume.
The 96-page Dungeon Masters’ booklet is a square-bound perfect binding, while the 32-page Players’ booklet is simply a fold-and-stapled affair. But given the binding types, I was a bit surprised at the cost of the supplement, being just as pricey as the recently released hardbound supplement, Heroes of the Feywild, and weighing in with 30 fewer pages fewer than the aforementioned 160-page Players Option book.

The artwork is also lends itself to the mixed bag feeling of the supplement’s production quality, with interior illustrations that, while very good, contain a few reprints from previous releases, including one illustration which hails back to the 3rd Edition Monster Manual. And while the cover of the players’ booklet looks completely sinister, appearing as a horrid tome evoking images of Lovecraftian evil, the cover art of The Book of Vile Darkness itself looks rather cartoonish by comparison. Without wanting to sound like a grognard here, the 3rd Edition supplement had a cover that left no doubt in one’s mind that it was packed full of evil content, while the 4E cover art does little to inspire the appropriate awe.

On the other hand, the double-sided poster map is some awesome work by cartographer Mike Schley, and while mainly designed for use with the sample encounters in the DM booklet, offers some cool settings which DMs are likely to want to try using in other encounters of their own devising.

The Content


Thankfully, the content in The Book of Vile Darkness far and away exceeds the weak promise of the lackluster cover art, and there is ample amounts of both evil “crunch” and vile “fluff” in the two booklets for players and DMs alike.

The Players’ Booklet


The Players’ section of The Book of Vile Darkness is, in short, a reference and guide for creating and playing evil characters in both a standard campaign, as well as a group of villains in an evil campaign. The cover art is perfectly designed to inspire evil gameplay, being both creepy and evil looking, and is designed to be both a reference, as well as a table prop in the event that the book of vile darkness artifact makes an appearance in the campaign.

The Players’ booklet opens with a discussion on playing evil characters, and some recommendations on player behavior in a game where other gamers are playing neutral or even good characters. It goes on to discuss creating evil adventuring groups, and offers a range of motivations that might allow such individuals to band together despite their despicable natures. Further still, the author has tips on creating a personality for an evil character, as well as breaking down evil roleplaying by the power they wield, offering various viewpoints of how each of the characters of differing power types (Arcane, Divine, Martial, Primal, Psionic, and Shadow) would best personify their evil natures.

Throughout the Players’ booklet, the author has provided some very good “fluff” to aid in roleplaying, particularly in using short quotes attributed to have come from some of the most villainous individuals in the D&D multiverse. Readers will find quotes ranging from the demon prince Fraz-Urb’Luu to Artemis Entreri of the Drizzt novels, and from Fzoul Chembryl of the Forgotten Realms to Rary the Traitor of the Greyhawk setting. These little blurbs of flavor text offer some insights into the wide range of evil that can be roleplayed, and the author’s choice to include them in The Book of Vile Darkness definitely enhances the reading experience.

But the Players’ booklet offers more than just “fluff” and the theory craft behind creating an evil character. The booklet offers five Themes which provide a solid foundation for building an evil character. These new themes include the following:

  • Cultist – Devotee of a dark power
  • Disgraced Noble – Fallen member of the aristocracy
  • Infernal Slave – Thrall to an arch-devil
  • Reaver – Savage killer and plunderer
  • Vile Scholar – Seeker of forbidden lore
All these themes follow the basic design of those released in Dragon Magazine, and offer some well-designed powers to add substantial flair to a wide-range of race/class combinations, with limiting pre-requisites.

The five new Paragon Paths are equally evil and vile in nature, although they are a bit more restrictive in their class pre-requisites. While most require an evil alignment, of course, the classes covered are not quite as broad as the themes. The Blood-Crazed Berserker is a new path for overly aggressive Fighters, the Idol of Darkness offers a dark new path to both paladins and clerics, while even evil druids can opt to become Vermin Lords. But any evil character trained in Stealth can become a Contract Killer, and all arcane classes, even non-evil ones, can become Demonologists. I did wonder if perhaps this last path had a typo, seeing the omission of the evil-aligned pre-req, and considering that Demonologists gain a quasit familiar as a companion and advisor. But I definitely could see how even neutral-aligned characters might consider this Paragon Path, although I would probably push a good-aligned character for a reasonable explanation for wanting to dabble with demonic forces so readily.

And of course, all these evil characters can aspire to become an Exemplar of Evil for their Epic Destiny, finally becoming the penultimate expression of Evil Incarnate.

The Feats offered in the players’ section of The Book of Vile Darkness are fairly necessary to round out those offered for non-evil characters, detailing Divine Devotion and Divinity Feats usable with a wide range of evil deities in the core D&D 4E rules. Whether one worships Asmodeus, Torog, Bane, or Zehir, there are new feats worth considering particularly for divine based character classes.

The DM Booklet


Unlike the shorter Players’ booklet, the DM content in The Book of Vile Darkness is divided into six chapters to organize the topics and make referencing easier. However, the authorship is similar to the Players’ booklet, and there are numerous quotes by the who’s who of evil D&D personas. Reading quotes attributed to the Archlich Vecna, Eclavdra the Drow High Priestess, and even the two heads of Demogorgon make for some great flavor text and a fun read throughout this part of the content.

The first chapter of The Book of Vile Darkness is a short overview and introduction of the ways evil enters a campaign, and offers ways to look at evil from a basic alignment point of view. But it is a good set-up for the second chapter, entitled “Evil Campaigns”, which give not only ideas on how to manage a pack of evil characters, but also how to set up evil campaign and adventure themes, what sorts of things an evil adventuring group might be motivated to do, and rounds off with a couple of evil campaign arcs as examples of the sorts of play Heroic, Paragon, and Epic evil characters might enjoy. There are a lot of very good ideas here, and for DMs that have never tried running an evil campaign, or been concerned about it getting out of control, there is sound advice in this chapter for providing a campaign arc for their players, should they decide to swing over to the “dark side”.

In the third chapter, the author introduces DMs to the concepts behind creating “Vile Encounters”. Unlike regular adventures and encounters, vile encounters are all about evil in action, carrying out terrible and horrific events which will change the world in which the heroes live. But worse still, vile encounters put the morals and ethics of the heroes to the test, offering them a choice between evils in order to solve the major crux of the adventure. The author describes not only ways to set up vile encounters, but offers a range of tools that can transform a regular encounter into a vile one with only a few modifications. This chapter is long on both “fluff” and theory craft, but also has some great “crunch” in it as well, adding new tools to the DMs encounter toolbox like vile terrain, vile curses, vile diseases, and vile traps and hazards.

I was heartened to see some great material on curses in here, with the author providing numerous samples, as well as powers that can be added to existing monsters and villainous NPCs to allow them to administer a curse as part of their combat repertoire. And werewolf lycanthropy is now no longer just a hereditary affliction, but can be bestowed and transmitted as a very nasty curse.

In chapter four, “Villains & Monsters”, the author covers a wide and diverse range of topics for creating vile enemies for heroes to face in their adventures. This is, by far, the largest chapter in “The Book of Vile Darkness”, and is absolutely packed with great content for use in almost any D&D campaign. Like the previous chapters, the author opens with a discussion on theory craft, which in this case is all about creating villains, and then goes on throughout the rest of the chapter putting those theories into practical use.

One of the most accessible ways the author provides for making new villains is the use of themes, and there are six new ones available – actually there are 14 new themes, as the last one is called Slave to the Nine Hells, and is divided up into nine subthemes based upon which Hell the monster draws its power from. Other themes include Moilian Dead from the Shadowfell, Maenads from the Feywild, and Doomdreamers which are devoted to the Elder Elemental Eye and the Chained God, and can turn up anywhere. The author makes sure that a DM can create vile evil creatures almost anywhere, and to suit almost any campaign theme. There is also a short section of new monsters available, such as Fallen Angels, a new demon and devil type, and a race of body-thieving horrors from the Far Realms called tsochar. These last creatures figure strongly in one of the campaign arcs mentioned in the first chapter, detailing an incursion of an entity known as the Nine-Tongued Worm. Very unpleasant, indeed.

The chapter finishes off by introducing five evil organizations which work to spread vile corruption wherever they go. Each organization is provided with an overview, lore section, how they operate, and what their goals are. Each entry is also given a recommended “hook” or “game link” to provide a possible starting point for an adventure or campaign involving the evil organization.

The fifth chapter of the book is called “Dark Rewards”, and provides new magic items, cursed items, and boons for use in both evil campaigns and in standard ones. There are five cursed items which are somewhat different than the ones dealt with in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, as they are items which are designed to always be cursed, rather than a template which can be applied and then removed from another item. The Divine Boons provide benefits from the evil deities listed in the core rules, and would no doubt be welcome to evil characters who have pleased their dark gods. And the author introduces a selection of “sinister items”, which are not cursed, but instead have properties and powers which are unmistakably evil. Items with names like the “Flesh-eating Rod”, “Girdle of Skulls”, and the “Midnight Blade” are almost certainly evil in nature, and the author makes sure that the powers they possess are undeniably vile when used.

The sixth and final chapter bears the name, “The Vile Tome”, and it contains the game statistics and lore for The Book of Vile Darkness as an artifact which can present itself in any campaign. This Paragon Level artifact is very nasty indeed, and the author provides a scenario for putting the book into the hands of the players, leaving it up to them to decide whether to unleash its power (evil campaign) or try to destroy it (any other campaign). There are four encounters and some adventure arc information contained here, which is designed to work with either end goal, and the poster map provided in the supplement is used to run these encounters.

Overall Score
: 3.8 out of 5.0

Conclusions


The Book of Vile Darkness
is undoubtedly one of the most inspiring products I’ve had the chance to review in a quite while from Wizards of the Coast, and the author did a tremendous job providing a new set of tools to DMs for creating adding new depths of evil to his campaign. In addition, there is great advice here for Dungeon Masters wanting to try running an “evil” campaign, as well as to players looking to experience creating roleplaying a character that in no way is motivated by heroics or goodness.

Presenting the new content from The Book of Vile Darkness in two books – one for DM and the other for players – is a brilliant move, and one which I have been in favor of seeing every time a new campaign setting is released with joint material published in it.

That said, the supplement is also a little disappointing, particularly in page length and materials versus the price point. Frankly, the two booklets which comprise The Book of Vile Darkness will simply not hold up as long or as well as a hardbound, yet WotC has seen fit to charge full hardbound price for the supplement, not to mention the trend over the past year of shrinking page lengths but the same price for the books.

Still, any Dungeon Master should give some serious thought to picking up a copy of The Book of Vile Darkness, as it’s a real game changer, and has some great new content to really give your players a new reason to freak out when they are told to roll for initiative.

So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!


Author’s Note
: This author received a complimentary advanced copy of this product for use in writing the review above.

Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)


  • Presentation: 4.0
  • - Design: 4.5
  • - Illustrations: 3.5
  • Content: 4.5
  • - Crunch: 4.5
  • - Fluff: 4.5
  • Value: 3.0
 
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da_samus

First Post
really nice review

i had introduced the book of vile darkness as an object that my players didn't know what it was and they coulded read it.

i think i will buy this 4e version for the stats of the artefact
 

Windjammer

Adventurer
Thank you for this very thoughtful review. I must say, I was a bit suspicious about some of your past reviews, but this one and the previous one (on Heroes of the Feywild) really show you as a very scrupolous and fair minded reviewer.

As to the price point, from your description of the product I wouldn't personally compare it so much to another hardbook as to a 4E Classic adventure. You know, the HPE series which came in a folder, featuring two booklets (together at ca. 100 pages) with a poster map. Sounds pretty much like what you have here. Those adventures retailed at 25 dollars back in 2008-2009. I think adding 5 dollars when we near 2012 is not too far fetched.

Anyway, thanks again for the review. I'm going to give this a pass, especially when James Raggi has just re-published Corcosa, which is for mature audiences, but I really appreciate such an honest and all round informative break down of the content.
 

AdmundfortGeographer

Getting lost in fantasy maps
It should be said that the reason the age warning is there is for a recent US law requiring expensive, and time consuming certifications on lead content in products sold to children under a specific age. By putting an age limit on a product you don't have to certify your product is lead-free.

Yes, books qualified as a product requiring lead-free certifications.
 

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