Book of Vile Darkness
The Book of Vile Darkness is a term from Dungeons & Dragons that can refer to either of two things; an in-game magical item, or a pair of Splatbooks that exist for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition and Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. In case its edgy name didn't give it away, it's all about the EVIL side of things, with a goodly counterpart in the Book of Exalted Deeds.
The Magical Item
The Book of Vile Darkness has shown up in multiple editions of D&D, and is essentially a compilation of notes and musings on the nature of evil by some of the most wicked and profane beings in the Multiverse; Vecna is usually described as one of the first editors to craft the Book of Vile Darkness. In general, it's of great use to an evil spellcaster (or at least a cleric), but is hazardous to the body, mind and soul of anyone who isn't evil.
Released for 3.0, the Book of Vile Darkness was a sourcebook on evil, containing a mixture of the authors' personal musings on the nature of evil and how to use it in your games of Dungeons & Dragons, either as adversaries for your party or by running an evil PC campaign yourself, and mechanical support for that goal in the form of new rules, equipment, systems, monsters, gods, etc.
The book is widely regarded as something of an eye-roller, as it handles its themes clumsily at best. It was, however, the original splatbook for 3e to feature many classic "villainous" monsters, such as Demon Princes and Archdevils. The book has some serious balance issues.
Some alternate options for bestow curse are presented. While most are pretty nasty social penalties and not really of note since the default options include "do nothing half the time", it also has "Target is rendered sterile." Since curses are relatively easy to remove (just cast the opposite spell), this tends to be an advantage to most Adventurers. The disease Festering Anger is also introduced which damages Constitution in exchange for an increase in Strength with no ceiling. It's as easy to break as healing the constitution damage (a mere second level spell, or first if you know what you're doing). This can reach insane levels with Cancer Mage, a Prestige Class that doesn't take penalties from disease and was printed in the same exact book.
The first chapter is titled, simply The Nature of Evil, and it talks a lot about what evil "is" in the context of D&D. It lists specific evil acts, details "evil" fetishes or addictions (with mechanical traits to add), lists several unique "vile gods" (Karaan, Rallaster, The Patient One, Scahrossar, The Xammux, Yeathan), two new "vile" races (Vashar, Jerren), and an overview on creating villains and malign sites, with examples of both.
The second chapter is dedicated to Variant Rules; possession, sacrifices, curses, diseases, "The Calling" (a justification for an evil creature to be mysteriously augmented by the powers of darkness), "Dark Chant" (an unholy litany that the undead can be used to hinder turning spells), "Dark Speech" (a system for a language of pure evil that can have mystical effects when uttered), using souls and liquid pain as power, creating hiveminds, the new mechanic of Vile Damage, a list of "evil weather" (violet rain, green fog, plague of nettles, rain of blood, rain of frogs/fish), and possible lingering effects of evil.
The third chapter is all about Evil Equipment; torture devices, execution equipment, trapped armor & equipment, alchemical & quasi-magial items, drugs, poisons, and evil material components for spellcasting. It's kind of weird to have execution equipment here; after all, lawful good societies execute people too, and Fiendish Codex 2 even listed performing an execution as a lawful act, not an evil one.
Chapter four is all about the Feats, and needs little further explanation.
Chapter five is for Prestige Classes, introducing myriad ways for beings to tap into greater power from unholy sources:
- Cancer Mage: A mystic who seeks to explore the magical powers in disease, spreading plague and pestilence as weapons.
- Demonologist: A Conjurer who has focused on the futile art of mastering and subjugating demons.
- Diabolist: A malevolent spellcaster who barters their soul to the Nine Hells of Baator, hoping to master infernal magics and ultimately become a powerful devil themselves.
- Fiendish Disciple: A servitor of a specific archdevil, who gains unique powers depending on which of the Nine that they serve. In the book, this is treated as a set of separate (but thematically identical) prestige classes, representing disciples of Asmodeus, Baalzebul, Dispater, Mammon, and Mephistopheles.
- Lifedrinker: A vampire who has learned to draw ever-greater magical power from the blood they ingest, imbuing themselves with pronounced spellcasting abilities.
- Mortal Hunter: A dark parody of the Ranger, Mortal Hunters are fiends who have trained themselves specially to hunt down and assassinate mortals, allowing them to remove those who stand in the ways of their masters' plans.
- Soul Eater: A monster that has transformed itself into an abomination that devours the souls of living beings in order to fuel its own might.
- Demonic Thrall: The Abyssal counterpart to the Fiendish Disciple, a Demonic Thrall is a devout worshipper of a specific Demon Prince who gains powerful abilities in emulation of their master. Demon Princes granted thralls in this book consist of Demogorgon, Graz'zt, Juiblex and Orcus.
- Ur-Priest: An arch-blasphemer who hates the gods so much that they learn methods of secretly leeching away divine power from them to serve their own needs.
- Vermin Lord: A mage who seeks to master the power that comes from controlling and communing with invertebrates; insects, arachnids, and all other squirming lowly beasts.
- Warrior of Darkness: A warrior who seeks to enhance their physical might by augmenting themselves with vile alchemical reagents and black magic rituals.
Chapter 6 is all about the Magic; new spells, new magic items, and new malevolent artifacts.
Chapter 7 is devoted to Lords of Evil, covering several Archdevils and Demon Princes. It also briefly covers how to handle clerics sworn to a specific archfiend. The archfiends covered in this chapter are:
- Belial and Fierna
- The Hag Countess
Naturally, chapter 8 follows this up with an assortment of new wicked monsters:
- Demon (Mane, Rutterkin, Bar-lgura, Babau, Shadow Demon, Chasme)
- Devil (Kocrachon, Ghargatula)
- Eye of Fear and Flame
- Kython (Broodling, Juvenile, Adult, Impaler, Slaymaster, Slaugtherking)
- Creature Templates: Bone< Corpse, Corrupted
Finally, it ends with an appendix discussing how to handle evil PCs, specifically addressing a singular evil PC, an evil party, and how to run an evil campaign.
Much like its 3e counterpart, 4e's Book of Vile Darkness was a sourcebook on evil in Dungeons & Dragons, divided into two physical splatbooks. The DM's book is full of advice for DMs on how to use evil or to run evil campaigns, complete with monsters, cursed items and other foulness to use against players. The Player's book, in comparison, is all about new PC goodies for malevolent (or at least seriously antiheroic) PCs, including character themes and Paragon Paths.
The Dungeon Master's Book opens with the chapter Evil Unearthed. Fairly brief, this describes the history of the in-game Book of Vile Darkness, and briefly touches upon the nature of evil - not by attempting to strictly define things as evil, as was the case in 3e, but more examining general traits of evil.
The second chapter is Evil Campaigns, which covers all of the issues from a DM's perspective on creating evil adventurers and running campaigns that either feature them or which are directly evil in nature, including the tricky issue of "how do you motivate an evil PC" and "what do they actually want to do". It closes with two sample campaigns that, whilst perhaps not requiring truly evil PCs, do feature a theme of battling true evil and arguably requiring some moral ambiguity; War for Hell, in which the party becomes caught up in open civil war in Baator, and Hunger of the Nine-Tongued Worm, in which the party must battle the tsochar before they can unleash Mak Thuum Ngatha on the World Axis.
Chapter three, Vile Encounters, opens with a discussion on how to impress upon players that they are fighting truly evil forces. This then segues into a number of new "vile themed" terrain features, followed by mechanics for cursing players and several sample curses. It finishes up with unnatural and evil-touched plagues (resurrecting some from its 3e counterpart), and an assortment of vile-themed traps and hazards for dungeons.
- Vile Terrain: Agony Amplifier, Carnage Stone, Festering Corruption, Forgotten Soul, Green Fog, Hellfire, Larvae Pool, Lingering Evil
- Curses: Accumulated Years, Misery Eternal, Sentient Tumor, Tomb King's Wrath, Werewolf Lycanthropy
- Vile Diseases: Deathsong, Demon Fever, Faceless Hate, Melting Fury, Psychic Parasites, Scarlet Plague
- Vile Traps & Hazards: Crypt Thing, Death Mold, Far Realm Anomaly, Glyph of Changes, Iron Boot, Lunacy Mist, Mirror of Life Trapping, Rot Grub Pit, Symbol of Death
Chapter four gives its identity away with its title: Villains and Monsters. The bulk of it is advice on how to create and run different kinds of villain for your D&D campaign. It follows it up with several new monster themes, for customizing monsters for a specific role, a couple of new beasties to boot, an d some sample villainous organizations.
- Monster Themes: Chaos Beast, Devotee of Darkness, Doomdreamer, Maenad, Moilian Dead, Slave to the Nine Hells
- Monsters: Fallen Angel (Winter, Sorrow, Death), Hordeling, Wrath Devil, Nhagruul Dragonspawn, Filth Hag, Tsochar (Parasite, Wearer of Flesh, Worm Servant, Noble)
- Vile Organizations: Chosen of the Sun (mad fanatics who commit atrocities in pursuit of stamping out evil), Dark Brotherhood (cult of Tharizdun that believes "Good" is a cosmic mistake), Disciples of Nhagruul (guardians of the Book of Vile Darkness who seek to use it to unleash an apocalypse), Kargatane (a lich's secret police that seeks immortality through transformation into vampires), Servants of Xopos (Slaad cultists who seek to facilitate wide-spread infection of mortals with larval slaadi).
Chapter five, Dark Rewards, is all about potential magic that stems from a place in the darker parts of the multiverse; cursed items, unholy blessings, and twisted magical items.
- Cursed Items: Berserk Weapon, Boot of Many Steps, Cloak of Poison, Cursed Weapon, Potion of Delusion
- Divine Boons: Asmodeus's Dread Authority, Bane's Battle Acumen, Gruumsh's Bloodthirsty Wrath, Lolth's Fickle Favor, Tharizdun's Madness Spiral, Tiamat's Insatiable Greed, Torog's Inescapable Suffering, Vecna's Dark Secret, Zehir's Shadow Cloak
- Sinister Items: Bracers of Suffering, Flesh-Eating Rod, Girdle of Skulls, Midnight Blade, Obsidian Wand, Ring of Domination, Serpentine Knife of Zannad, Skull of Terror
Finally, the book closes with its sixth chapter, The Vile Tome, a mini-campaign in which the party crosses paths with the Book of Vile Darkness and is given a chance to disrupt it, or even destroy it. This chapter also features the mechanics for the Book of Vile Darkness as a 4e artifact.
The Player's Book, unlike its DM's counterpart, is not broken into nice, neat chapters. Instead, it opens with an immediate introduction that discusses the realities of playing an evil PC from a player's perspective - in particular hammering the point that this is not an excuse for the player to be a dick to the rest of the players or to the DM. It then examines some evil adventuring party archetypes, followed by individual "villain protagonist" archetypes, and other tips on creating villain PCs from scratch.
The next segment examines the different Power Sources in a World Axis campaign - Arcane, Divine, Martial, Primal, Psionic and Shadow - and these sources color the attitudes, behaviors, goals and desires of villainous PCs. This segment also expands the list of the Primal Spirits with the addition of Gnaw; the shunned and feared patron of scavengers, detrivores and vermin.
From here, the book presents several new villainous character themes; the Cultist, the Disgraced Noble, the Infernal Slave, the Reaver and the Vile Scholar.
Naturally, the next section is devoted to evil Paragon Paths, in the form of the Blood-Crazed Berserker, Contract Killer, Demonologist, Idol of Darkness and Vermin Lord, before ending with an Epic Destiny, in the Exemplar of Evil.
It finishes its list of content with an assortment of new feats.
Differences Between Versions
As might be expected by the tonal differences between 3rd and 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, the two Splatbooks are entirely different entities. The contrasts are so numerous, it could be argued that the two products are related by title much more than content. Without having to read both, though, a brief analysis could be thus:
- Monte Cook authored the 3rd edition book, and the imagery includes Promotions with approximately 7 female nipples throughout.
- Robert J. Schwalb wrote the 4th edition book, and it doesn't include Cancer Mages or any mentions of bestiality.