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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A Much-Needed Battery Recharge

I am a Dungeon Master. Yes, I capitalize Dungeon Master because in the glory days of old we were like unto gods! Now, in the post-3rd edition world of templates and grids, the rules of the game are more clear and give a kind of edge to the players, who for the first time in gaming history can successfully argue rules with the DM. We are no longer all-powerful Interpreters of All and something of our former glory has faded. But I still remember a day when tributes of pizza and soda were the norm, presented to us with trembling hands and averted eyes, and so I still capitalize Dungeon Master.

My present D&D campaign has been running continuously since March of 2008, a DM and six players who have been sharing and developing and fostering a single, rich storyline. Back in the aforementioned day, such long-running campaigns were far more common. Today they are rarer than teenagers without cellphones.

But lately I’ve been feeling burned out. As a full-time, non-traditional age college student, I get tired a lot. And my creativity for the game has been waning, a fact that I firmly believe my beloved players, all of whom are far too polite to say so, have noticed. So I decided to take a break. We put my game on a 12-week hiatus while one of the other players has picked up the mantle of dungeon master (he doesn’t get capital letters because he never played D&D prior to 3rd edition) to run a mini-campaign. Each week I show up to the table with my character, eager to see what surprises Cip has cooked up for us, and all of a sudden D&D is fun again! I’ve been playing the game for longer than two of the players at the table have been alive, so it’s difficult to surprise and please me at the table. Cip has done both things, so I have to give him props.

And this morning, something has happened that hasn’t happened in a while. I’m actually in the mood — even eager — to work on my campaign. Ah, my poor players, they have no idea what they’re in for!

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Revenge of the Iron Lich (Heavy Spoilers)

Warning: Heavy Spoilers Ahead! Players who don’t want to have a polished and savory adventuring experience ruined for them should read no farther!

Saturday, March 5, 2011: A day that will live in infamy! I am the dungeon master of a D&D 4th edition campaign. It’s not my first time behind the screen, no not by a long shot, but I don’t mind saying it’s one of my best times behind the screen — that loneliest seat of all. We started the campaign in March of 2008 at the tail end of the D&D 3.5 life cycle, and converted to 4th edition that June after I returned from Origins with my cool new 4E books. There are seven of us: myself and six diehard players. We lost one about a year and a half ago to move-out-of-state attrition, but his spot was promptly filled the next week (I still miss you, Klaas). The characters were (and yes, I did say “were”) level 21, which may not seem very high for three years of play, but I do significantly throttle experience rewards for slower advancement.

So at 5:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time on Saturday, March 5, in the Year of our Lord 2011, when six starry-eyed players entered the Tomb of the Iron Lich, they did so with characters who were — like well-ripened and low-hanging fruit — plump with both rich history and future potential. It was a perfectly aged sacrifice to the oppressive and insistent gods of gaming.

I go out of my way to point this out because, surprisingly, the twisted minds behind Fourthcore recommended that DMs not run this module for their regular campaigns. To be blunt, I found this recommendation horrifying and even a little embarrassing because if you’re going to be Fourthcore then be Fourthcore. The “teeth” of an adventure that merely kills a set of meaningless pregens are blunter and more worn than the savage maw of a module that yearns for blood no less sumptuous and precious as that of a beloved party of long-time and history-rich characters. But more on that after I talk about the module itself.

In the interest of telling a complete and accurate narrative, it should be noted that five of the six of my players never played D&D prior to 3rd edition. But Bill, my lone grizzled veteran, bears the scars of many a campaign, and his eyes are distant and glassy from the weight of many a brutal character death, lo these many long years. And knowing that their inexperience with so-called old school D&D would be a crippling disadvantage as they entered the hungry and ruthless antediluvian jaws of Khaldun’s crypt, I carefully and with great ceremony cautioned them to lend great, great weight to all of Bill’s instincts. O, if only they had done just that!

First, let me comment on the general presentation of Revenge of the Iron Lich. It is a module for level 16 characters, which I had to power up for my level 21 PCs. Very few details were spared in the adventure’s rich presentation. There are item and rumor cards intended to be randomly distributed to the characters at the start of the adventure. The item cards represent things acquired by the PCs from prior delvers into the crypt, and are mostly subtle clues about the crypt’s inner workings. Although at first glance the idea is inventive, I feel that for the purposes of an extremely deadly dungeon crawl made even more so by a real-world time limit, the item cards are just too abstract to be of real value. The rumor cards, however, are both clever and useful. There are ten of them: five reliable and five unreliable, and they are so marked plainly on the players’ copies of them. Further, the players are informed that of one of the reliable rumors is false and one of the unreliable rumors is true. My group received, among other cards, the (true) reliable rumor that a password needed in the crypt was ‘honor and sacrifice’ and the (false) unreliable rumor that the same password was ‘flesh to steel.’ It made for some interesting times down in the tomb.

Further, players who find themselves in the unfortunate but highly probable position of dying to one of the many sinister and merciless tricks in the tomb, aren’t relegated to sitting quietly by while their companions continue to adventure. They can come back as a ghost and aid the party by use of the ingenious lich cards. Lich cards give a single encounter power to a dead character, and that character can use it as needed to assist his friends. For example, the Whisper From Beyond lich card reads: “You let an ally re-roll a failed skill check and take the better result.”

Finally, the Deck of Mortals lends a particularly fine old school touch to the adventure, a la the time-honored Deck of Many Things. Apparently, a Save Versus Death fan even made up a printable version of the deck. Unfortunately, my party only had the opportunity to draw one card, and it was the Summoner, which caused a balor to appear and fight the party for three rounds. They opted to run out of the room, which was a good thing because balors are level 27 elite monsters in 4E. And I opted to rule that the balor would not pursue them out of the room because, yeah, in case you hadn’t heard, balors are level 27 elite monsters in 4E. They ended up taking relatively little damage from the balor as a result of this turn of events, but they also missed a good opportunity to interrogate the feature-rich first room of the dungeon.

The various pathways that would lead the party from door one to the final encounter are many and complex, so a DM would do well to read the adventure through more than once. The text recommends reading it at least twice, and the advice is sound. It took me three times to be comfortable with it, and even then I ended up having to look a couple of things up during the session.

For instance, it is possible to enter the hypostyle (room A), flee like a pack of terrified elementary school children from a balor (*cough*) into the cobbletone path (room B), drop immediately down into the open floor pit and find the secret door that leads to the iron gallery (room G), solve the puzzle therein thereby enabling the teleportation altar to the spectral stair (room K), waste all kinds of time in the dismal descent (room H) before finally using said teleportation altar to proceed to the spectral stair, find one’s way into the trial of the chests and solve the puzzle readily, then proceed up the spectral stairs (or, more accurately, have the winged Scion of Arkhosia dragonborn fly up them and tie off some rope), and into the crypt of the iron lich (room M) for the final series of encounters. This path resulted in the party experiencing 7 of the 14 named encounter areas of the dungeon, meaning that half of the rooms of the tomb were unseen. And depending on the precise path your party follows, the parts of the dungeon that are accessible might vary greatly from those parts that were accessible during my doomed party’s attempt.

One aspect of the adventure with which newer players may have no prior experience is the existence of a real-world time limit. In the game, the tomb is filled with a deadly poisonous gas that will eventually kill the party. It is simulated by a real-world four hour time limit, after which the party is dead and the mission is failed. The timer adds a frenetic pace to the adventure that some will enjoy and some will find needlessly frustrating. I think my players were roughly divided in half on that point. One decision I made as a dungeon master was to stop the timer (and quite clearly inform the party when this was happening) frequently. Some of the encounters — most notably the dismal descent (room H) — are so complex that they require extra processing time for the DM. In fact, when my party entered the dismal descent I went so far as to stop the timer every time it was “my turn” because the encounter requires several steps taken in a very strict sequence for the dungeon master. So including the break we took when the food was delivered, we played the “four hour time limit” in about five and a half hours. Your mileage may vary.

I think it would also only be fair to mention that the numbers used in the module didn’t always line up with the published recommendations for a level 16 adventure. Some of the DCs of skill checks were off, some of the damage done by traps and monsters didn’t line up with published recommendations. Frankly, as someone who has been DMing for well over 20 years, I have no problem with straying far afield from published recommendations. They are, after all, merely guidelines — stepping off points for negotiation. But for a module like Revenge of the Iron Lich — and for programs like Fourthcore and Saturday Night Delve — I feel there is a real opportunity to regain a lost element of truly old school gaming: the feeling of the DM versus the party, a la HackMaster. I think for a system like D&D 4th Edition, the way to capture that feeling is to adhere strictly to the aforementioned guidelines. If, for example, the recommended easy, moderate, and hard DCs for a level 16 adventure are 16, 22, and 31 respectively, in my not-so-humble opinion a Fourthcore module should adhere to them strictly. In that regard, the erstwhile feel of the “killer DM” can be recaptured. In other words, I believe that the Fourthcore DM has an ethical obligation to do everything within his power to severely punish his players, but in order for that not to turn into a wanton slaughterfest, that same Fourthcore DM should adhere to published 4E recommended numbers far more stringently than a casual DM who is out for a storytelling experience.

All in all, Revenge of the Iron Lich is a jaunty trip down memory lane as it pays nothing less than tribute and homage to the deadly days of dungeons past. But more than that, it is a solid piece of writing that stands on its own legs and hopefully marks a bright future for the folks behind Saturday Night Delves. The module does, in my opinion, suffer from some organizational problems. There are several areas of the dungeon that are unlocked based on actions taken in other areas. It can sometimes be a bit of a chore to track down what those actions are. There are also several features of the dungeon that exist “between rooms.” And when you combine the two, such as the altar between the hall of the iron golem (room D) and the dismal descent (room H) that either curses or teleports would-be touchers depending on actions taken in the iron gallery (room G), tracking down all the relevant information can be an exercise in frustration. If I were grading the module, I would give it a very solid B+. Frankly, I can’t wait for the next Delve.

Now, if I may, let me return back to my doomed party and why I don’t feel that their wholesale slaughter was unfair, I want to remind the reader of my dire admonition to the party that they pay strict attention to the veteran Bill’s instincts. It turns out, every instinct that Bill had was so uncanny that someone who hasn’t known him for the better part of 15 years might have suspected he read the module beforehand. He, of course, did not. And had the party listened to Bill when he correctly labeled the dismal descent (room H) as a terrible time sink, and ran back out and tagged the teleportation altar like he wanted them to (one party member had already touched the altar and vanished, but to what fate the party did not yet know), they would have arrived in the final encounter with way more than enough time to defeat the Iron Lich’s guardians, followed by the battle with the Iron Lich himself. Had they done that, their experience in the module would have been so easy as to border on trivial and I would have been pretty embarrassed after all of my warnings about how ruthless and unforgiving and deadly the adventure was. Instead, after handily defeating the iron lich necrolith and the congregation of lich necromancers in the final crypt room, Khaldun himself was just appearing as the last moments of the time limit slipped away killing them all. I can still hear his evil laughter…

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WotC in a tailspin

If the world of media, going all the way back to the first inexpensive media that people could record at home, has taught anyone who pays attention one lesson it is this: customers and would-be-customers and will-never-be-customers will get what they want whether you like it or not. And the more you tell them “no” and try to make it difficult for them to get what they want, the harder they will fight to get it. Hell, Prohibition taught that lesson.

I’ve watched WotC make post-4E decision after decision that, at least from an outsider’s perspective, seem aimed at one thing: attempting to thwart the spread of their intellectual property through digital avenues. At a quick glance, the goal is admirable. You own something, someone wants to steal it, you try to stop them. If my shiny new MacBook Pro was sitting on the table at the coffee shop and someone tried to take it, I would do what I could to prevent them from doing so.

The problem is, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a laptop. It’s not a thing at all, but rather a vast and murky pool of things. And many, many people are deeply passionate about those things. They like them and they want them and one way or the other, they’re going to get them.

When 4E was first released, WotC sold PDFs of the 4E books through legitimate avenues. Now they don’t. When they first stopped selling them, there was at least a chance they made the decision because of some impending New Thing they were going to release to fill that void. But it has been so long now that the only conclusion one can realistically draw in restrospect is they did it out of fear that the PDFs were too easy to pirate and spread around for free. Now, instead of purchasing 4E PDFs from legitimate companies (such as, among others) some number of those would-be customers are merely finding their 4E PDFs over bit torrent streams.

What did this decision change: The people who would have pirated the PDFs before are still pirating them, and now some number of the people who were purchasing them before are pirating them. People are getting what they want.

After over a year of delay after delay after delay with D&D Insider, WotC released a character builder that exceeded all expectations. Frankly, it was extraordinary and I was blown away by how smooth, flexible, and useful it was. It was followed up by a monster builder that was every bit as good as the character builder, and those of us who waited patiently month after month (paying our D&D Insider subscriptions all the while) let out a joyful and heartfelt hallelujah.

Many unauthorized third-party applications came along subsequently (e.g., Lone Wolf Development’s 4E plug-in for Hero Lab, Masterplan Adventure Design Studio, DnD4E Combat Manager, etc.) that could take advantage of people’s D&D Insider subscription in one manner or another. WotC followed up by migrating their programs to a more-controllable web-based platform, releasing versions of the character builder and monster builder that are the vaguest, palest shadows of the triumphant versions they originally released.

What did this change: Some number of customers are cancelling their D&D Insider subscriptions because there is no longer even close to the value in that subscription as there used to be, and those customers are turning to third-party applications created by designers whom they perceive to “get it.” People are getting what they want.

WotC is stuck in the publisher-vs-pirate tailspin that so many great media giants have gotten trapped in before them. It’s an endless dance of 1.) create something, 2.) that something gets exploited in some way, 3.) change it to something new, 4.) that something new gets exploited in some way, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

All the while, if they would simply keep innovating and driving forward and creating reasons why customers would *want* to keep paying attention — and keep paying subscription fees — to what they’re doing they would be moving at a pace that would make the pirates who get stuck in their wake irrelevant. Instead their limited resources are being aimed at fighting a war that has been proven again and again and again to be unwinnable.

I’ve watched this happen in many industries, but now it’s happening to my beloved Dungeons & Dragons. And it makes me a little sad.

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