Product Review: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Book of Vile Darkness

I’ve been so busy with Life that I had honestly forgotten that I started this blog a year ago. After about three years the behavior of my desktop computer, which was running an upgrade copy of Windows 7 that had been installed over Window Vista, became too erratic to be able to rely on it. So after double checking that my regular data backups were in place and functional I wiped the hard drive and reinstalled the operating system, this time choosing to have Windows 7 replace Vista. So far, so good. During the tedious process of reinstalling my programs (are we calling them apps now?) and restoring my data I remembered this blog.

For my first day back I want to do a review of Book of Vile Darkness, which is a D&D 4th edition product written by Robert J. Schwalb that I looked forward to with no small amount of anticipation prior to its release. And if my memory serves, I believe there was a lot of conflicting information both from inside and outside of Wizards of the Coast in the months and weeks leading up to the book’s release. The alleged format of the product changed a few times and I remember hearing some word that it was supposed to coincide with the release of a Dungeons & Dragons film of the same name. The dungeon’s master book has a tiny little sidebar deep in the book that mentions the film vaguely, and lists the movie as a 2013 release. So your guess is as good as mine.

Overall, I’m satisfied with this product. The price point of $29.95 does feel a touch high for what you get, but I suppose the days of $15 and $20 supplements are gone forever. The format of the product is awkward, however. It comes with a 96-page, perfect-bound dungeon master book, a 32-page, saddle-stitched player book, and 21″ x 30″, double-sided, full-color poster map with encounter areas from the adventure. These components are held together with a slipcover, which is a highly irregular format and smacks of a product that was probably going to be a boxed set but fell short on either content or funding. It makes me wonder why they didn’t just make it a hardcover with a perforated, tear-out map.

So what about the content? Well first I want to say that as a lifelong D&D player I realize that this product has some pretty big shoes to fill. In the AD&D 1st edition days, the Book of Vile Darkness was an iconic artifact that formed the backbone of many a campaign. In the D&D 3rd edition days, the Monte Cook book of the same name was one of the game’s strongest and most controversial releases. Given my acknowledgement of that, I will try my best to examine the 4e Book of Vile Darkness on its own merit.

The 32-page player book is chock mostly full of crunchy bits (rules elements) with a few pages of narrative at the front that serves as an essay on playing evil characters. The narrative essay feels kind of thin and thrown together with such dubious gems as, “To ensure the group remains together, it’s critical that you shield your companions from whatever wickedness you intend. In sum, you must avoid stealing from, maiming, exploiting, and murdering the other members of your party.” The crunchy bits, however, are a different story. With archetypes, themes, paragon paths, an epic destiny, and some feats, there is plenty in this book to help players round out evil PCs.

Here’s an example of a feat that I really like from the book (and it goes a long way toward making Channel Divinity cool). It’s called Lolth’s Cruel Sacrifice. Basically when an enemy hits you with an attack, you and the enemy teleport, swapping places, and the enemy ends up hitting himself with his own attack. The nascent concept of 4e themes is really becoming a nice addition to the game, and the themes presented in Book of Vile Darkness give some solid ways for players to create evil PCs without being cliché and boring. The people they have designing at Wizards have really brought some innovative technology into the design space. For example, a theme from the product that I really enjoy is Vile Scholar. This lets you, right from first level, be fluent in Abyssal and gives an encounter power called Dark Speech, which attacks all three non-AC defenses (NADs) with one attack and has a different effect depending on which NAD it hits. Hit one and just that effect occurs, hit two and just those two effects occur, hit all three and all three effects happen. In short, while the narrative at the front of the player book feels “phoned in” to me, the other 90% really delivers.

The 96-page dungeon master’s book contains three chapters, but conceptually I think it can be divided into three broad categories: narrative essays, crunchy bits, and the adventure. Unlike the player book, the narrative essays in the dungeon master book contain some real punch. They cover such topics as the way evil propagates in a game world, motivations for evil adventuring parties that go beyond two-dimensional “me go kill things and take what me want” characters, and some great campaign arcs. The campaign arc section is a real gem, in my opinion. Arcs are campaign concepts that are broken into heroic, paragon, and epic tier synopses, and the arcs in Book of Vile Darkness do not have to be used for games with evil PCs. For example, the War for Hell campaign arc starts with the PCs investigating a murder at low heroic tier, and culminates with the epic tier characters hip deep in a war in the Nine Hells. Good PCs could put an end to the war by destroying key devilish lords and evil PCs could restore order by uniting those same lords.

The eponymous, in-game artifact Book of Vile Darkness (I’ll use the abbreviation BoVD to refer to the actual in-game artifact) is detailed in the dungeon master book. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a shortfall for the product. The artifact is a bit uninspired, in my opinion. There are two major areas where I believe the BoVD goes off the rails: corruption points and the concordance. The BoVD has a list of powers that are not tied to the artifact’s concordance. Each time the artifact’s possessor (I won’t use the term “owner” because nobody really owns the BoVD) uses one of these powers he gains one corruption point if he fails a saving throw. As these corruption points build up, the possessor’s alignment will begin to shift toward chaotic evil. Unless this is something desirable to the player then the corruption point powers are just too tame to justify the risk of accumulating points. The possessor risks accumulating corruption points for such trivial powers as dealing an extra 1d10 damage on a successful hit or conferring a -2 penalty on an enemy’s saving throws. As with all 4e artifacts, the BoVD has a concordance and confers differing effects and powers (or penalties) on the possessor depending on how satisfied it is with the possessor’s actions. Unfortunately, it’s quite possible for the possessor to max the BoVD out at “pleased” simply by gaining levels and merely being neutral all the time. On the concordance the act with the greatest upward influence on the BoVD’s mood is gaining a level, with an average of +5.5 concordance points (it’s +1d10 points) every time the possessor levels. The artifact starts at 5, so if the possessor merely behaves neutrally he will hit “pleased” on average after gaining two levels. I appreciate Schwalb’s attempt to make the BoVD feel like an evil influence, but unfortunately it just plain falls short.

At the end of the dungeon master book is an adventure. Well, really, it’s not so much an adventure as a series of related encounters that are intended to be plugged into the DMs normal paragon tier play at various points. So, for example, the DM might run the introductory encounter (the actual introduction of the BoVD into the party) at around level 11 or 12 and not run the second encounter for a couple of levels if he wishes. I actually like this quite a bit because it gives the DM the option of introducing the BoVD into his game world without disrupting his normal flow of storyline and XP gains. The series of encounters culminates with an event that may destroy or strengthen the BoVD depending on the alignment and motivations of the PCs. My only issue with the adventure is that what happens to the book and its possessor after the event is complete is a bit vague. I won’t go into more details because I want this review to be as spoiler free as possible.

So wrapping up, I would say that the Book of Vile Darkness is a worthy addition to the list of D&D 4th edition products, and one that is going to have some influence on my own long-running D&D campaign. There is a solid mix of DM and player information, and crunchy bits and narrative. So far I’ve had no problems with the physical quality of the product’s components, and visually it looks attractive and well laid out. I think if you give Book of Vile Darkness a chance to stand on its own legs rather than putting under the shadow of previous iterations of the D&D game, you’ll get a lot of use out of it and it will have some lasting and memorable effects on your game.

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