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Book of Vile Darkness
Design & Development
By Robert J. Schwalb

I think it was sometime in July of 2010 when Chris Perkins shot over an email letting me know that in consolation for another project going back into the vault (translation, put on hold), I was to write the Book of Vile Darkness. That this book was even happening was a shock to me. One might say I nearly fouled my britches on getting the email. I was so surprised, so excited, I immediately printed it off and scampered up the stairs to where my wife was reading a magazine with the “cat who lives apart™.” As excited as I was about this assignment, I can safely say she did not share my enthusiasm and I seem to recall receiving an arched eyebrow and a sigh about my exuberance. Unmoved by her stoic response, I immediately rattled off all manner of nonsense about what dark and sinister things I might cover, what horror I would unleash upon the world, and all the truly vile things my own unhinged imagination might introduce to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.

Of course, the wife asked an innocent question, a simple one really, a minor query that left me scratching my head and my guts squirming deep inside. “Hasn’t there already been a Book of Vile Darkness?” Just like that. One question, and my excitement turned to worry, and my sinister intent went slinking back into the far corner of my little attic, where it would languish along with all the other hopes and dreams I’ve abandoned. “Yes,” I muttered. “Monte Cook wrote the first one for 3rd Edition.” My dejection stemmed not from the fact that another Book of Vile Darkness likely haunted the bookshelves of D&D’s most discerning fans, or that Monte had in some way fouled the well, so to speak. Quite the contrary. My concern and subsequent anxiety bubbled up from having to follow what was, arguably, one of the nastiest books on the subject of evil to come swimming up from 3rd Edition’s depths. How could I ever hope to follow Herr Cook? What could I write that Monte hadn’t already several years back with a bit greater flair and artfulness?

You see, I remember very well grabbing my copy of Book of Vile Darkness from the late Temple Games in Murfreesboro, a fine game shop run by my friend and cover artist Henry Higginbotham, and returning to the flooring shop where I worked to pore over the pages with my fellow gamer and friend Dan. I remember being shocked by how far Monte went and scoffing when he didn’t go far enough. I remember my excitement in finding such wicked things as violated unicorn horns, clamps, and angel blood, seeing my favorite villains presented in full-color glory. Then there was the cancer mage, perhaps the coolest prestige class ever made for the game. Oh, yes. The Book of Vile Darkness sparked my imagination and spawned countless hours of fun and disgust for my gaming groups in the weeks and months that followed.

So there I was, years after, presented with what might have been the greatest and most exciting project in my career, only to realize that I would be doing this book in the shadow of 3rd Edition’s Dungeon Master’s Guide principal author. Win!

And then there was another wrinkle, one discovered when I was whisked away to Seattle for a few days of meetings and general debauchery. Not only would this book need to explore evil as an active and destructive force, it also had to tie into the upcoming D&D movie that shared the same name. This discovery, with the added pressure it brought, most certainly reshaped how I saw the project and what I would be able to do with it. While I was still thrilled by the opportunity, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was concerned. How would I make a product that would have sufficient connections to the movie (which necessitated a careful study of the script) and would also live up to the work that came before?

Meetings happened. Phone calls occurred. Outlines were written, rewritten, and rewritten again. An idea for writing an “in voice” treatise on evil from the perspectives of the greatest evil individuals in the D&D world wound up in the trash when I convinced my dark masters to let me create options for evil player characters. My thirty 2-to-4-page studies on the different sorts of evil in the game gave way to a more thorough (and ultimately more useful) examination of evil as an active force in the world, and the tactics and consequences of its influence as evidenced in all the horrors adventurers are bound to face. And so by the time I finished the outline, I had several major objectives. I wanted to create a product for people who enjoyed the new D&D movie. I wanted to create a product for people who didn’t enjoy or didn’t see the movie. I wanted to create a DM resource for using and exploring evil in the worlds of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. I wanted to create a player resource that explored options for antihero and villain PCs. And finally, I wanted to be respectful of 3rd Edition’s Book of Vile Darkness, while also making this product my own. A tall order, to be sure.

What I wound up with was two books, a Dungeon Master’s book and a player’s book, along with a poster map that features key locations from the adventure included in the DM’s book. Throughout both, I dropped in plenty of nods to the movie—and in fact the adventure scenario, designed to be dropped into an existing campaign, ties into the movie’s plot by showing what might happen after and also describes the fate of the Book of Vile Darkness. Of course, there’s enough here that even if you didn’t want to tie the story into the movie, you can still incorporate the adventure material to make it your own.

Aside from the mini-adventure, the DM’s book includes extensive quotations and short commentary on the nature of evil by some of D&D’s most iconic villains. You’ll find curses, diseases, nasty traps, magic items and boons, a selection of disturbing monsters, and a quick how-to guide for building a villain. To make these rules “vile,” I created effects that caused lasting harm to player characters. Under normal circumstances, one nasty condition lasts only as long as it takes to roll a 10 or higher on a saving throw. For some groups, this sort of “way out” is what makes the game fun and exciting. Every now and then, however, a little nastiness that sticks around and requires a bit more effort than a die roll to escape creates a memorable and shocking experience guaranteed to freak your players out.

Clearly, this product is aimed at Dungeon Masters, so it was a fight to convince my dark masters to let me create player content for it, especially when pretty much everyone agrees that evil player characters equals unpleasant experience. However, I’m a big fan of gray areas in gaming, where the adventurers’ actions don’t always fall on the side of justice, light, sunshine, and rainbows. I like games where a little darkness adds complexity and depth to player characters, where temptation, corruption, and destruction can all take root and thrive.

An earlier draft examined the various power sources through the evil lens and provided supplementary mechanics for the major classes in the game. A second pass through this section revealed that we could get more mileage out of the product by recasting many of the ideas as character themes. With them, we could create rules elements for almost any character in the game. Along with character themes such as the cultist and the reaver, you will find new paragon paths, an epic destiny, and an assortment of evil-tinged feats (including divinity feats for the game’s evil gods), all of which helps you take existing character options and drench them in vile darkness.

In the end, I feel as though I achieved the major objectives I set for myself. There are mechanics in this product that recall Monte Cook’s sourcebook, story material and mechanics with ties to the film, and plenty of new tricks, traps, and creatures to ensure that players quail in fear whenever the Dungeon Master cracks open this product’s pages. And hopefully I did all this without wrecking your game. Merry Christmas!

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