Art by Henning
The release of the Book of Vile Darkness was highly anticipated and has been hotly contested in the gaming community. It was the first book produced by Wizards of the Coast for mature audiences, and the first such book produced for the Dungeons and Dragons system (to my knowledge). Some gamers were very disappointed in what the book did not cover, or the ways in which the book covered the subjects that it did. Other gamers didn't see much use in the book within the boundaries of their own games. I found it worthwhile to add it to my collection and to my game, but here I am going to share what I think of it, for good and ill.
The Book of Vile Darkness states that it is the province of the Dungeon Master. Players are not meant to see it and memorize it, the way that they do with the Players Handbook. The options within are meant for villains and NPCs only. In my opinion, DMs need all of the help they can get. New and nasty surprises are good when you have a group of hardened and/or jaded players. The options in the book give DMs ways to twist villains and make them more interesting. Players will have less of an idea of what to expect. Surprise adds a lot of spice to games and I cannot praise the quality enough.
First off, the cover is not color-coded to indicate that it is a Dungeon Master book. The design is actually a little funky, with what looks like bat wings stretched out under three lined-up silvered skulls. The book comes with a warning sticker in the upper right-hand corner that doesn't seem to want to come off. I've heard a lot of folks bitch about that sticker. I've just gotten used to the idea that the sticker is part of the book. It does seem like overkill, and they could have tried a sticker that wouldn't cling for dear life, but it could have been worse - the book could have been shrink wrapped.
The first order of business in the book is the defining of evil. The book truly supports the same clumsy, status quo definition of evil that can be found in most other D&D products. It is dubbed "the objective approach" here, but it might as well be called "the true fantasy approach," or perhaps "the simplistic approach." In the standard approach to defining evil, there is an absolute sense of what is evil and such absolutism is reinforced by the game system. It all comes down to detect evil and holy smite, two spells that can instantly take all of the guesswork out of a situation. The book essentially argues that in a fantasy game of heroes, the enemy must be easily identifiable so that the hero knows who to swing a sword at. The "objective approach" apparently saves players from most moral guesswork, and saves games from being "derailed" by philosophical debating - but it can also act as a buffer between players and a deeper, more engaging roleplaying experience.
The book gives a nod to "the relative approach," a variant method of using evil in D&D. The relative approach depends on the eye of the beholder; what one culture condemns as evil might be considered good in another culture, and who is to say which belief is right? The book freely admits that this view is more indicative of real life, but the book also abandons this possibility as soon as possible after it is presented.
The Book of Vile Darkness gives an absolutely horrible example of a kind of moral dilemma that can come up in a game. First of all, the example uses a paladin, who is even more strictly bound to being good than the average layperson. A paladin is not a typical character in the morality spectrum, and it would have been more useful if they had used a more neutral class - a fighter, a ranger, a rogue or a wizard. The example bears out the extreme nature of the rules impressed on a paladin, in which a well-meaning warrior can be damned for accidents or simple shortsightedness.
One of the pitfalls of the Book of Vile Darkness is that it is a Dungeon Master only book and pretty much tries to restrict itself to spicing up villains. The book does not provide the backup that it could for the players of evil characters. For example, all of the discussion about the definition of evil revolves around good characters facing evil or making evil choices. But what about evil characters? How might they make their choices? How might evil influence their world view? The Book of Vile Darkness does not address such things, and seems to carry on the tradition of tacitly discouraging gamers from playing evil characters - even though the evil alignments are presented in the Player's Handbook and gamers have wanted to play those alignments throughout the history of D&D.
The same rather narrow-minded view continues into a list of evil acts which is not all it's cracked up to be. Some of the acts are not evil per se but can be used for malicious ends. The list of fetishes and addictions has some very obvious and classical entries, like bestiality, but also includes a laughably simplified version of masochism. According to the Book of Vile Darkness, masochists don't know the difference between pain and pleasure to the point that they get off on being injured by enemies - which is just ridiculous, but might seem reasonable to readers who know nothing about masochism. In reality, masochists can be very aware of various types of pain, and very particular about what types of pain they like. All types of pain are not equal; if only a masochist had been around to edit the entry.
The vile gods the book lists are your basic cardboard cutout deities. You can cut and paste them into your game, but if you are using a detailed setting you won't have to. There are two evil races listed, one of which should have been listed under the halfling entry in the Monster Manual to begin with. Evil halflings are rather self-evident, given how good they are by nature at thieving. While thieving doesn't always lead to evil, it is easy to see how it often does. Theft is towards the top of their list of evil acts, after all.
There are also cardboard villain types and sample villains, but they are lacking in several respects. First of all, they remain firmly rooted in the "objective" tradition and are rather one-dimensional. What about the villain who isn't entirely evil, who tucks his children in at night and kisses his wife good-bye before going out to plunder? Likewise, the sample characters are almost entirely high-level, to the point that two out of four are CR 20. It would have been educational to see a spectrum of villains in the book, with different races used besides monster races (three out of the four examples in the book use monster races). Below, however, I offer two sample characters based on the book's materials to fill the void a little.
Example 1: Geera, CR 7
Name: Geera, Race: Kobold, AL: LE, Size: Small, Level/Class: Ranger 6/Cancer Mage 1, CR: 7, HP: 74, Speed: 30, AC: 21, Init: +4, Base Attack: +6/+1 [+1 due to small size], Str: 14, Dex: 18, Con: 13, Int: 12, Wis: 14, Cha: 10, Fort: 10 [+1 versus poisons of all sorts and immunity to one poison], Ref: 9, Will: 6, Sneak Attack: 1d6
Skills: Climb: 4, Concentration: 4, Craft (trapmaking: 4, Heal: 5, Hide: 22, Jump: 5, Knowledge (nature): 3, Listen: 12, Move Silently: 17, Search: 6, Spot: 12
Feats: Great Fortitude, Poison Immunity, Toughness, Alertness, Track, [Ambidexterity and 2 Weapon Fighting when in light or no armor]
Spell: Pass Without Trace
Favored Enemies: humanoids, goblinoids
Geera has darkvision to 60 feet and light sensitivity [-1 to all rolls in bright light]
Geera possesses the following gear at all times: +1 Studded Leather Armor, Short Sword +1, Dagger +1, and a masterwork shortbow with poisoned arrows. Geera wears a potion belt and bandoleer and always has healing potions on her. Geera has plundered all of her weapons and armor from the dead. Geera will often steal from passing caravans the things that she needs, but she does not need much.
Geera is a disease host. She carries all manner of diseases but is not much affected by them. She will take 1d6 damage per caster level if she is hit with a cure disease spell or like effect. Geera carries the Deathsong disease, which is spread by contact with an infected person [Fort save DC 25]. The Deathsong disease incubates for one day and then the character infected takes 1d8 temporary Strength, Dexterity and Constitution damage. The character will continue to take that damage once daily until achieving two consecutive successful saving throws or a cure disease effect.
Geera is an outcast of kobold society, as well as every other society. She was captured by a wandering group of adventurers early on and forced to walk through a dungeon before the rest of the party. Instead of saving the party from danger, however, Geera led them right into the heart of it: the party was too busy being amused by her shivering form to notice the danger slinking behind them. The party was ambushed and Geera was quickly forgotten. As the party fought, enemies began to fall. Geera was trapped and could not escape, so she stole some gear and began to shoot enemies from the shadows. She aimed her efforts at foes nearly dead and the young adventurers were included in her list. The adventurers fled and the rest of the enemies pursued, leaving Geera to plunder the dead.
She found a way out of the lair and learned her way around the forest nearby. She progressed in the lore of the forest and began to use the poisons of the woods against foes. After nearly dying many times because of the poisons she used, she began to develop a resistance. She set out in search of her old tribe when she heard a shrieking in the forest. Geera crept toward the sound, thinking that she might be able to surprise whoever was murdering the victims she heard. What she found was puzzling. A family of humans was writhing on the ground, alone and unmolested by brigands. Geera moved forward, thinking that they had already been wounded, and began to plunder them. She was curious about a strange, brittle sound she was hearing from the humans, and she used her Heal skill to see what was making it. It was then that she understood: the humans were dying of a disease, dying violently, and their bones were breaking as she watched. Geera fled the family but the damage had been done, though she did not know it.
Geera tracked her old tribe and was taken in as a skilled hunter. Within two days, the tribe fell ill and died of the Deathsong disease. Geera did not comprehend why she had been spared. She began to experiment with the disease, to see what she could affect with it. She sent animals shrieking into the depths of death and decided that she would try to infect the old enemies of her tribe: a nest of goblins. She sent the Deathsong into their camp and waited in the dark to hear them die. Geera hunts the wilds and has only recently began to explore the underbellies of cities. She carries several diseases, but the Deathsong is her worst weapon. Geera will strike from the darkness and flee from foes, knowing that they will die within a day. She has escaped death many times by simply outrunning her enemies and waiting for their howls. She will rub her arrows against her skin before shooting them, if she desires to spread the Deathsong. Geera carries another disease that causes her skin to ooze, and the dampness carries the Deathsong just fine.
Example 2: Riawin, CR 14
Name: Riawin, Race: Halfling, AL: NE, Size: Small, Level/Class: Rogue 6/Disciple of Mammon 8, CR: 14, HP: 112, Speed: 20, AC: 23, Init: 6, Base Attack: 10 [additional +1 due to small size, and +1 with thrown weapons due to being a halfling], Str: 14, Dex: 19, Con: 14, Int: 16, Wis: 12, Cha: 16, Fort: 8, Ref: 17, Will: 11, Sneak Attack: 3d6
Skills: Appraise: 10, Bluff: 9, Diplomacy: 5, Disable Device: 14, Disguise: 13, Escape Artist: 14, Gather Information: 5, Hide: 19, Listen: 14, Move Silently: 17, Open Lock: 15, Pick Pocket: 15, Search: 14, Sense Motive: 7, Spot: 14, Tumble: 16, Use Magical Device: 9
Feats: Disciple of Darkness, Combat Reflexes, Weapon Finesse (short sword), Blooded, Poison Immunity, [Evasion, Uncanny Dodge (can't be flanked) through rogue benefits]
Riawin possesses the following gear at all times: Keragna's Amulet of Nondetection, Dagger of Sweet Venom +1, Ring of Protection +1, Bracers of Armor +2, Bag of Holding 2, The Whistling Death +2 Mighty Composite Shortbow, The Lesser Darkness +1 Mithral Chain Shirt of Shadow, The Wound of Love +1 Short Sword of Wounding, Cloak of Resistance +1. Riawin also keeps a potion belt and bandoleer on her at all times. She steals many potions that work well with her rogue skills (spider climb, invisibility, etc.) and she always has emergency healing supplies. All of her gear has been stolen from others, and thus much of her gear was named by previous owners.
The halfling known as Riawin began her career as a teenaged ruffian in a small farming town. She was kidnapped one night along with other townsfolk so that she could be a part of a sacrifice planned in honor of Mammon. The leader of the strange cult was a man dark of skin, eyes and hair, and he was pleasantly surprised when the halfling was able to slip free of her bonds. Elseer the Unclean put her to the task of finding all of the wealth that the captives had hidden in their clothing, and Riawin mistakenly believed that if she could please Elseer, he would let her people go. All of the gold and jewelry she scavenged from her neighbors and friends only bought one life from the knife of sacrifice - her own. Elseer took her with him, even when he betrayed all of his companions to discovery and death. He set her out to work in the great cities they encountered. Sometimes he would tell her what to steal, but other times he asked for her own ingenuity. He betrayed her to the authorities more than once, and would not save her from the guards.
Riawin learned to save herself, and each time, she made her way back to him. The two became lovers, as is not unheard of between humans and halflings, but is certainly rare. Her size and spirit thrilled him, and he stole children so he could compare her to them. Riawin's mind warped early on and she withstood abuses to curdle the blood because of an emotion she could only call love. She became pregnant several times over the course of their years together but her children were each killed in turn. She was eventually spurned by Elseer for a human woman, and Riawin offered her first sacrifice to consecrate her mission to kill Elseer's lover. And as Elseer was fighting off other enemies he had recently acquired, Riawin took the opportunity to cut the woman down. Riawin did not know that the woman was the daughter of a powerful noble, but she was quickly pursued by all of the power the family could muster. Riawin has been hunting Elseer ever since, as she means to steal from him his greatest treasure: the amulet that links his soul to that of a demon, making him immortal. Until she can take his immortal life, Riawin consoles herself by destroying all of his ventures that she can uncover. She does not care that Elseer dupes people into helping his causes and she has little compassion for innocence. Riawin sees only her end, and Elseer's face covers those of her victims.
Some of the feats in this book have nothing to do with evil per se, but are meant to enhance spell-like abilities. These feats can be very useful to characters who get spell-like abilities through templates and special races. It might be a good idea to offer them up for players to use, even if you use nothing else from the book.
The rules and implications of possession are very fun. A fiend can possess a person or an item, and it can act benevolently, malevolently, or not at all in regards to what it has possessed. I appreciate the possibilities that the rules allow for. The Book of Vile Darkness makes possession a real and frightening possibility for characters. The rules are reasonable and they aren't too complicated to use quickly. I had a good experience using possession in my game, as well.
Another great thing about the book is the sacrifice system. We've all heard by now about how evil gods demand sacrifices of their worshippers. The Book of Vile Darkness actually presents a system to figure out what the sacrificers get out of the whole bloody affair. No one does anything for free on the dark side - not evil gods, and not evil laypeople, so a system of rewards only makes sense. It has taken this long for one to be printed, but at least the system in the book is logical, neat, and easy to use. The system is also easily altered so that rewards can vary, and so neutral characters can benefit from sacrificing to the gods.
One thing to note about this book is the excellent artwork that can be found throughout. The entrance piece to Chapter Two is one of my absolute favorite pieces of D&D artwork ever. It involves a creature that appears to be a Drow female, except that she has four forearms, two joined to each elbow. Her bottom half looks something like a spider's, and she has another set of arms on her belly that remind me of the arms of a half-fiend draegloth (as shown in the Monsters of Faerun book). Her belly is swollen as if with child and she is tending to a bound victim. The only thing that comes close to her is the marilith on the first page of Chapter Four, done in a lovely Indian style. If I could get posters of both I would be a very happy gamer indeed!