Fourth Edition Book of Vile Darkness — Review

A brand new Book of Vile Darkness, specially tailored for 4E D&D, was released this week. Just in time for Christmas! It’s got all kinds of advice on making your campaign, encounters, monsters and maybe even your characters extra evil. Eeeeeeeeeevil. Plus, a poster map!

Earlier this year, Wizards experimented with a sort of soft boxed set. It was pretty cool, a way to get some extra goodies in with a softcover book while keeping the price down. Book of Vile Darkness comes in another new format, one that’s something of a compromise — the set includes two separate softcover books and one poster map. They’re gathered in a slipcase that’s open at the top and bottom. It’s snug enough that your books won’t go flying out as long as you use some reasonable care when carrying them — and in the store they’re sealed in shrink wrap. It’s obviously not as cool as a true boxed set, but it does the trick. It lets you keep all the Vile Darkness stuff in one place on your shelf, and allows Wizards to include a poster map.

One of the books is aimed at DMs, the other at players. The players’ book has no title on the cover — it’s made to look like a replica of the actual Book of Vile Darkness, with illustrated bindings and a grinning demon head on the front. The illusion is somewhat dispelled by the fact that the book has the physical attributes of a comic book, but it’s a neat idea.

The contents of the players’ book are largely irrelevant. They detail ways to create and run evil characters. Volumes have already been written on the pros and cons of playing evil characters within a good party, or an all-evil party. Frankly, most parties default to a sort of Neutral-Evil mercenary alignment as it is, and playing evil characters tends to bring out the worst anti-social tendencies that may already be a problem around the gaming table, especially (but sadly, not only) with younger players. Your mileage may vary. In any case, there are some themes and paragon paths in here. I found the Vile Scholar theme intriguing, and the Vermin Druid has a lot of potential too. This material is probably best suited for pillaging DMs looking to create interesting NPCs.

The larger book is intended for DM use. It does cover running evil campaigns to some extent, but the bulk of it is devoted to creating “vile” things for your good PCs to battle against. What is “vile” in D&D terms? It’s vague. 4E has always had a bit more of a PG rating than earlier editions, so vile encounters are more PG-13 (they could get into R territory, depending on the DM handling them). Basically, everything is a little bit grosser, the monsters kill more, throw in some torture or some evil rituals and now things are “vile.”

Honestly, I’d love to get all excited about this and say something like, “Book of Vile Darkness is EVIL TURNED UP TO 11!!!!” But really, it’s more like the evil was around 4, and now it’s turned up to about 6, but if the neighbors complain, we’ll turn it back down to 5 and maybe turn down the bass a little so it doesn’t bother them, after all they just had a baby and the poor thing is probably trying to sleep at this hour and we wouldn’t want them to call the cops on us or anything.

What we end up with is a very nice book of DM resources for creating villains, traps, diseases, curses and encounters that are slightly more evil than most. Which is awesome! It just doesn’t quite live up to the billing that the title Book of Vile Darkness suggests. Once you adjust your expectations slightly, you’ll find that this is a solid DM supplement.

Interestingly, a large proportion of the book is rules crunch. What this effectively means, in terms of making things “vile,” is that the diseases, traps and monsters are all meaner and tougher than typical 4E fare. That makes this, in some ways, the first “hardcore” 4E book. There are traps that will sever your limbs, monsters that will intentionally aim for your junk, monsters that will take out unconscious characters desperately trying to make their death saves, and curses that will make you turn to dust. There are cursed items to find, as well as “sinister items,” and interesting concept that ranges from magic abilities that are just straight up badass, to items that offer serious boons balanced by nasty drawbacks.

Somewhat unusual among 4E books, Book of Vile Darkness includes a full adventure. “The Vile Tome” details the events surrounding the acquisition of the game world’s Book of Vile Darkness. They aren’t run sequentially, but rather throughout a campaign as the book’s secrets are unveiled.

Last but not least, there is the poster map. It’s double-sided, gridded out (1″), and features three separate maps. One full side depicts a shattered village, full of crushed stone buildings, the ground dotted with corpses. The other side has a stone circle in the woods, and some kind of magical shrine surrounded by four obelisks. Very nice, well-made, wonderfully illustrated and highly useful.

So maybe it could have been a little more vile, but overall this book actually has the potential to rejuvenate 4E campaigns by making them more challenging, with just a slight twist of the evil-meter.

 

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