Book of Vile Darkness
Book of Vile Darkness Capsule Review by Brian Gray on 18/10/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)
Yes, this is the book from WOTC that officially declares that DnD 3E is no longer your older sibling’s RPG. But is it worth it? If you want to take the plunge… yes.
Product: Book of Vile Darkness
Author: Monte Cook
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro
Line: Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Ed.
Page count: 191
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Brian Gray on 18/10/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Horror Gothic
Admittedly, October is a fitting month for this release, where the trappings of ‘evil’ in the world around you get (Halloween) you primed for the trappings of Evil inside the book. However, if you’re looking for something that gets downright nasty, you’ll be disappointed. WotC takes the high road in dealing with this material, treating it all in a very restrained and mechanistic manner.
One telling thing about the book is that Monte Cook has included two notes, one right at the front, and one at the back, declaiming that he’s just written this stuff, and it’s got nothing to do with him personally. Further, he takes the trouble to explain that this book is not intended to glorify any of the ‘evil content’ therein, it only provides game rules for it, so that any GM who is so inclined to use it can do so. That the book includes both of those comments tells me that this is WotC/Mr. Cook’s way of saying “It’s not our/my fault, it’s what people want” and comes as something of a cop-out. Maybe they’re just trying to avoid a Moral Minority backlash against Wizards and Hasbro, like the tabloid stories that plagued gamers in the ‘80’s (Demon Worship! Murderers! People Who Can’t Live in Reality!). But enough about the social conscience of corporate America, on to The Stuff.
Overall, there’s not an awful lot that comes across as *insert creepy music here* Evil. Yes, right up front, the most common fetishes are explained with mechanics: your pain/pleasure kinks, your addictions, your mental aberrations. After that, though, the book kind of trundles along in a catalog mode. You get new diseases, rules for drug use (similar in treatment to poisons), rules for torture devices. Ho-hum. Things get interesting when you start getting to spells, although I’d categorize most of them as Gruesome, rather than Evil. If you’re looking, you’ll find quite a number of tributes to Barker and King, not to mention Lovecraft. There are some sizable chunks scattered throughout where morality and insanity and what-not are debated, as well as some tips on how to introduce these to your game (though I found the discussion in Dragon Magazine #300 to be better and more concise).
Oh, and for those of you who have missed the 1st Edition demon and devil princes (Asmodeus, Orcus, and their ilk), they’re finally included here, and given rather thorough treatments (bringing oddly warm-and-fuzzy memories to this old-timer).
For the most part, Mr. Cook wholly treats Evil as an absolute game mechanic, as in ‘this spell does XdX extra damage against good creatures’. It’s a reasonable treatment, given the two notes mentioned above. It took me a second read, however, to actually figure out what Wizards achieved with this book. If you read patiently, there are an awful lot of rather subtle suggestions about combinations of fetishes, new rules elements, and some spells that enhance the same. A little imagination goes a long way with this stuff, and though it didn’t turn my stomach, I did occasionally go “Hmm, now what… oh. Eww.” Given that the explicit intent of the book is to structure, rather than to titillate, there is much more in there than a cursory read indicates.
If you’ll notice, I ranked this book’s Substance as a 3. Not because of the quality of the material, or the work it’ll take to get it out, but because this book is not for everyone. I know that I will never use some of the material with any of my gaming groups, just because of their make-up and who I play with. Others may get much, much more use out of it, while others won’t touch this with a 10-foot pole.
As for Style, well, yes, Wizards has set a very high bar for hardbound gaming books, and this one doesn’t quite match up. Certainly, the quality of the book material is just as good as the rest of their work. However, the art in this book did not impress me, for the most part, for all of its high quality (I love the work of the penciller who does the chapter front-pages for the WotC books). Again, the majority of the work is restrained, and it is very skewed towards the gruesome (three torture scenes? Two grossly obese villains?), rather than covering whole ranges of evil acts. Perhaps the piece I was most impressed with was a dwarven assassin dealing a final blow to an angel—-an axiomatic piece, yes, but embodying a whole lot more Evil than just a torturer for me.
In the end, this book is definitely worth it for those who want to include really dark and mature elements in your d20 games. There are some pieces that probably everyone can use, but given the steep price of the book, it’s more worth a quick skim in your local gaming store, rather than bringing it home. On the whole, though, leave this one alone unless you want it for value of showing it off.