Tuesday, January 3, 2023

(D&D 3rd) Book of Vile Darkness

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual violence, body horror, eye trauma

Y'all ready for a shock? I didn't hate this book. I was expecting to. I'd heard bad things, and it certainly lived down to its reputation, but . . . I guess I'm jaded. I've read M20's Book of the Fallen. I've read Guide to the Sabbat. I read Aberrant: Terragen. And while Book of Vile Darkness (by Monte Cooke) could be pretty damned gross, there were only a few fleeting moments where it even managed to break 1.0 White Wolfs on the grossness scale (although, there is one bit that would have been the fifth or sixth grossest thing White Wolf ever published, and I'd quote it here except that it's so out of place it's hardly salient to the rest of the book).

Maybe I should be a bit harsher on a book that's transparently going for shock value, but it's all so affected that it almost seems . . . cute? Reading this book is like watching middle-schoolers look up swear words in the dictionary. Yeah, that language is inappropriate, and it would be awkward if you repeated it around the dinner table, but just look at the little guy, trying so hard to be edgy. He's still wearing his Ninja Turtles T-shirt!

The T-shirt, in this metaphor, is gnomes. I didn't count, but there are at least three evil gnomes, and they're all jarring. Who will stop the sinister schemes of Narma Glitterhome? We can assemble a band of heroes, but let's hope they don't run afoul of evil weather. (That particular juxtaposition of words so amused and delighted me that I actually put an emoji in my notes when I first read it "Evil Weather 😈")

Don't get me wrong, the book could be offensive in its gratuitousness - one of the evil gnomes is a rapist - but even then, D&D's overall sexlessness makes all but the worst of it seem neutered. Mostly what you get is standard D&D villains, but at the last moment Monte Cooke remembered this was supposed to be an "adults only" book and slapped a sex crime into the description. The high priest of Dispater is a necrophiliac. Not as part of his cult activities, or in order to please his dark master, but just as a random personality quirk. By day, he is a domineering figure in a religion of tyranny, by night he fucks corpses in a church mausoleum that the locals have come to appreciate as being notably free of necromancers (it's a real hazard in D&D world). Yeah, it's vile, but . . . how is this meant to play out in an adventure? I try to think of something and my brain just returns a null object error. The result is numerous instances of things that should be over the line, but Mr Cooke doesn't seem to know how to make the moments land.

The main thing holding this book back is a stunning lack of self-awareness. The conclusion states "the material in Book of Vile Darkness will inject added depth and realism."

Counterpoint: Nipple Clamps of Exquisite Pain.

That's a real magic item that no one who read this book would ever forgive me for omitting from the post. It's definitely the silliest thing here, but strangely, it also feels like the closest this book gets to being actually good.

Take all that speculation about the nature of evil and put it in a box (because it is uniformly terrible). Focus instead on the villaincore aesthetic. Skulls and chains and spikes and, like, fucking demon worship, man. It's not evil, it's eeevill *sick guitar riff.* Cast the spell that gives you a really long tongue and praise Asmodeus! This is the D&D the Christians thought you were playing back in the 1980s.

The book gets flak for including sexual fetishes and drug addiction in its depiction of "the most vile and monstrous evil," and it's all very well deserved, but they are also central to the best possible use of this material. It's sex, drugs, and D&D, man!

At the risk of revealing too many of my own proclivities, I'm certain there are some people for whom Scahrossar, The Domme Who Will Actually Kill You, is not a dealbreaker. Sure, if you take her entry literally, she is at the center of a religion that practices terrible sex crimes, but "known by all as the Mistress of Exquisite Pain, Scahrossar is usually portrayed as a woman covered entirely in studded black leather so that even her face is concealed." I see you, Monte Cooke.

Sadly, the bulk of the book is not that fun. It all comes back to the lack of self awareness. Let me quote for you the actual most evil passage in the entire book: "A dictator might order the elimination of an entire race of good creatures because she believes them to be evil."

Now, as a critic, I should attempt to unpack that line . . . but I don't want to. You can't make me!

Oh, okay. The dictator in question is described as "a villain," despite being in a section about people doing evil without self-identifying as "evil." But there's something about the word "good" in that sentence that is gnawing at me. There's an implication, there. That maybe if the race wasn't so good, it could be eliminated with a clean conscience. That the dictator's sin isn't genocide, it's being wrong.

And this isn't purely a matter of me reading into some negative space. There's a line earlier that puts this into context. "An objective concept of evil allows players (and their characters) to avoid most ethical or moral quandaries, particularly the kinds that can derail a gaming session. If you run an adventure about killing gnolls, you don't normally want an entire session consumed by a philosophical debate about whether killing gnolls is a good thing or a bad thing."

I would argue that avoiding the stress of confronting those sorts of question is one of the most fundamental, if not the most common, motives for evil. Later on, the book says, "Even killing an evil creature for personal gain is not exactly evil (though it is not a good act), because it still stops the creature's predations on the innocent. Such a justification, however, only works for the slaying of creatures of consummate, irredeemable evil, such as chromatic dragons."

Lucky for us, then, that there's a cash prize for getting the answer wrong. This is so much more uncomfortable than all the gross-out stuff. The book is filled with evil spells, tagged with the "evil" keyword, and most of them are just gross attack spells or things like Hellfire (basically a fireball, but it does less damage and isn't subject to fire resistance). However, please indulge me taking a moment to create a true evil spell.

Rezarf's Detect Alignment
Enchantment [evil]
Level: Bard 1, Sorcerer/Wizard 2
Components: Verbal, Somatic
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Effect: Strengthened Personal Belief
Duration: Instant
Save: None
Spell Resistance: None

When you cast this spell, you enchant yourself to believe that you are detecting the alignment of one definable group of creatures you can currently see (i.e. an individual, an entire adventuring party, or all the kobolds, but not every third person in a crowd or all the left-handed people, unless those groups have a visible distinguishing feature). The "detect alignment" effect returns whatever result is most convenient for you at the moment, usually confirming your gut feeling or preexisting bias. Because it instills absolute conviction, you may subsequently convey this "revelation" with convincing sincerity, adding a +5 morale bonus to any checks made to persuade others about these creatures' alignment.

This spell may be considered a Divination spell for purposes of who may use it (and it is learnable even by people who have Enchantment as a forbidden school, provided they are allowed to learn Divination spells). Furthermore, it requires a DC 30 Spellcraft check to identify this spell's true function, whether it is an observer watching it being cast or a wizard copying it into their spellbook. If the Spellcraft roll returns a result of 16-29, Rezarf's Detect Alignment appears to be an alignment-detecting spell of the Divination school. Anyone who has cast this spell at least once may take 20 on the Spellcraft check, but only if they are willing to confront what they've done under its influence. Non-evil characters may learn and cast this spell.

Obviously, as a DM, you would never put that spell into a campaign, because it would be a total dick move, but I was moved by this book's not-so-secret second agenda - depict terrible, adults-only villains, sure, but also do so in a way that doesn't disrupt D&D's core gameplay loop. This book is about evil in D&D. The evil of D&D should not be questioned.

Another very-nearly self-aware example. Adding the [evil] keyword to existing spells. 

Some would point out that a fireball spell is likely to cause undue suffering and it could be used to kill a group of orphans. Does that make fireball an evil spell?

Fireball, by itself, simply creates a blast of fire. Fire can be used for evil purposes, but it is not intrinsically evil. Contrasted with a spell such as shriveling, whose only purpose and only possible use is to wither the flesh of another living creature in a painful and debilitating fashion, it becomes easy to see why shriveling is an evil spell.

Okay, now do Power Word, Kill. But seriously, is this actually fooling anyone? I have an idea for an upgraded version of shriveling that's even more painful and debilitating - it sets the enemy's flesh on fire. I mean, potential civilian uses of fireball notwithstanding, are we just supposed to forget that being burned alive is widely considered one of the worst possible ways to die?

The real difference between normal attack spells and this book's "evil" spells actually seems to be that "evil" attack spells remember that they are targeting the body of a living creature, with a specific anatomy, and normal spells elide their horror under the abstraction of the hit point system. The average peasant has 1d4 hit points. A cone of cold, cast by a minimum-level caster, does 9d6 points of damage. Which means that if you think about it, being killed by this spell would be exactly like those stomach-churning liquid nitrogen accidents that you sometimes see in horror films. You cast this at a group of bandits and suddenly a half dozen formerly living, breathing human beings are being scattered in icy chunks across the battlefield. 

But the cone of cold description doesn't explicitly spell that out. So it's seething eyebane that gets the "evil" descriptor, because it explodes the target's eyeballs, even though you really don't want to contemplate the state of someone's eyeballs after being hit with a cone of cold.

As gross as they are, I actually kind of prefer this book's anatomy-specific spells, at least as a world-building conceit. Weaponizing magic is intrinsically a dark art, and the people who do it are nerdy little creeps who try to one-up each other by coming up with creative new ways to break a body. Get these supposedly "morally neutral" death spells out of my face. I mean, magic missile directly states that it does nothing to inanimate objects, so it can only be used to kill. That's the definition of an "evil" spell, right?

But, of course, Book of Vile Darkness doesn't want to go there, because for all its talk about being a mature, adult exploration of evil, it actually cleaves to D&D's most juvenile mechanic - the easy sorting of creatures (and even individuals) into "good" and "evil" alignments. People aren't good or evil, actions are, and people just have to make their choices as best they can. Magic missile should have the "evil" descriptor because when you're using it, you have evil intent towards the target's body, even if the overall situation makes it a necessary evil. The desire to use it and then go to bed thinking of yourself as a "good person" is, in fact, the root of much human evil.

(Practical upshot: while I didn't hate Book of Vile Darkness, I am very likely to absolutely despise Book of Exalted Deeds).

Ukss Contribution: Is there some way to do evil weather without being as dorky as D&D? Probably not. I feel like the spirit of the exercise demands I choose something eeevill, though honestly my favorite new spells were mirror sending, which allows you to replace someone's reflection in a mirror with your own image, in order to send a message and identify transgressor, which is "able to divine the answer to a single question, as long as the answer is a single person's name." One is a great image and the other is probably the best-balanced divination spell I've ever seen, but none of them are in theme (despite identify transgressor inexplicably having the "evil" keyword).

Let's go instead with heartclutch. If the target fails their save, you magically pull out their heart and they die. Much better than whatever finger of death is supposed to be.


  1. (ew, apparently there is a limit for a size of comment? So it will be several parts)
    I have now voraciously read many of your blog posts and thoroughly enjoyed them, at times vehemently agreeing or vehemently disagreeing with what I read, and here you perfectly pointed out the hypocrisy of a separate tag for “evil” attack spells, as if dying from non-evil ones wasn’t unpleasant at all or trifle. I no less agree with the conclusions about alignment (in general, I think that it ceases to make sense if you try to treat it as a real moral status and not just an indicator of what spells a creature is vulnerable to). But then I thought - in this blog you treat Technocracy as a creature with an evil alignment :D

    They can't have good actions because their alignment is evil, so all their actions have to be reframed or questioned as being from an unreliable narrator. It doesn't matter if they tried to save San Francisco in Loom of Fate in the first edition, only have Marauders and Nephandi on their "kill-on-sight" list and the rest of the supernaturals are usually left alone until they cause a mess, as stated in the Guide to the Technocracy in the second edition, Void Engineers defend the Earth from evil spirits in both of their splatbooks (which you decided not to believe because there are no evil spirits in the setting who want to take over the Earth. Well, except for banes, of course. And the Void Engineers would have noticed if no one tried to break through through their lines of defense, isn't it? They still have to get funding from the Syndicate for this, it is unlikely that the Technocracy will sponsor a line of defense against imaginary enemies), they killed the vampire Antediluvian who threatened humanity in the third edition, and one of the protagonist factions in the fourth edition (where the degree of corruption or it's absence is left to the Storyteller's discretion). That is, this characterization of them was always there, but did not fit into the evil alignment.

  2. (continuation)
    And what's the deal with their supposed fascism? Fascism is a form of social order in which large financial capital, the government and the military-industrial complex merge into an indivisible entity, and Technocracy is not a state for this definition to apply to, just as it does not completely control any of the human states. Is Technocracy authoritarian? Of course. But "sci fi fascists" is just a meaningless slur (and the more everyone uses this word just as slur the more it gets watered down, to the benefit of the real fascists) which is supposed to somehow justify why all the good deeds of the Technocracy should be discarded and the focus should only be on bad (whatever they are). Phil Brucato in M20 shared the insight that Pogrom in the third edition was an imposed attempt to simplify the setting by removing the factions added in the second edition, and was poorly received by the entire writing team, especially considering that it makes no sense within the setting - not only the Technocracy has more important things to do than to exterminate Mages who are not even participating in the Ascension War, but they are simply not able to simultaneously find and storm all these Crafts that have been hiding for centuries, so the biggest atrocity of the Technocracy was not even conceived by the writers but was imposed on them for doylist reasons.
    So maybe the conclusions of this post about the disadvantages of assigning good and evil beings instead of good and evil deeds can be applied to Mage: Ascension too? The setting still has techNephandi and Threat Null, if enemy magical cyborgs are a mandatory element of the game.

    And in The Operative's Dossier there are absolutely charming plot hooks about the Technocracy's attempts to establish a truce and cooperation against common enemies with the Cabals of Tradition and the Disparate Alliance, mostly ending in scolding the Technocratic agents for all their real and imagined sins, but there is room for diplomacy; and the long-collaborating separate groups of technocrats and trads simply took this opportunity to make their cooperation official according to technocratic documents. As was rightly noted in previous posts, the Technocracy-antagonist is outdated, because the corresponding fears from the 90s are a thing of the past and replaced by completely different ones, but the Technocracy-protagonist with whom the Traditions have an uneasy truce has enormous plot potential (as does Disparate Alliance which is awesome, but for which, unfortunately, there is practically no material. 2e Book of Crafts and M20, and in M20 many potential factions participating in the Disparate Alliance are mentioned, but we know nothing about them except a couple of lines of description. It feels like somewhere there should have been an M20 Guide to the Disparate Alliance, but whatever)

  3. I feel like my opinion of the Technocracy is a bit more nuanced than all of that. The tricky part about them is that I am a materialist and an atheist and so I'm inclined to go easy on the one group in mage that is closest to my real-world point of view, but it's difficult to do without inadvertently becoming a murder-apologist, so perhaps I overcompensated. That being said, alignment doesn't factor into it, because I never characterized them as cosmologically evil (and, in fact, if there was any group I'd remove from Mage, it would be the Nephandi, for exactly that reason), but they are villains because they are regular people who choose to use institutional murder as a vehicle for policy. And unless and until they stop doing that, their other good deeds have to be viewed in the lens of an ideology that exerts violent oppression on its political rivals.