Book of Vile Darkness

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 81: Book of Vile Darkness




Converse to the Epic Level Handbook, which I was dreading as soon as this series hit third edition (and turned out to be perhaps worse than I worried it would be), I’d been rather looking forward to the Book of Vile Darkness… which has also turned out to be a disappointment, though not for the book’s quality level but strictly for its planar content. I remember when a friend of mine first showed me the book and its pages and pages of details about devils and demons really set my mind ablaze. Its first half, filled with statistics for diseases and torture implements, was less of interest, but finding out more about Graz’zt and his devious plans for conquering the multiverse? Yeah, that’s the sort of nonsense I’m all about.

Back then, though, I wasn’t so well-versed in the game’s mythology, and in particular I didn’t have access to Faces of Evil or Guide to Hell. I wasn’t well-familiar with the hierarchy of archdevils, and I wasn’t even clear what exactly was going on with the Reckoning. Now that I am, it’s rather obvious to me that the main thing that this book adds to what we already know about the fiends is that they do a lot more R-rated evil acts than previously hinted at, and also, umm, yeah that’s pretty much it. 


Which is not to say that the Book of Vile Darkness is a bad book, just that its new planar content is largely limited to stat blocks. Its central concept was to do a sorta edgy look at what evil is and how it fits into a game of D&D. Monte Cook, its author, really had a difficult time in finding his audience here, as pretty much everyone is going to think the book is either too tame or goes too far; that’s inevitable from even broaching subjects such as rape and torture. As such, the book infamously had a “For Mature Audiences Only” label, and relatedly when I was 15 and my friend showed everyone their copy we all thought it was about the coolest thing ever, as only a group of 15-year-old boys would. Come to think of it, we were probably the perfect target audience, so of course that copy got passed around quite a bit.

Belial and Fierna might have an incestuous relationship, which is why he always hugs her naked body tightly while wearing his, uhh, genital pouch.

The book is probably best thought of as an addition to the Dungeon Master’s Handbook (also, in this edition, by Monte Cook). As such, a lot of it is devoted to the simple mechanics of running villains and evil sorts in a campaign. Which, I dunno, is probably useful for some people, even if I just skip past these pages like so much filler. For those who haven’t played a bajillion RPG sessions, I suspect useful nuggets of advice are contained here, but as a 37-year-old adult whose familiarity with D&D is almost embarrassing, I always ignore this type of thing. This means that chapter 1 of the book, “The Nature of Evil,” was pretty worthless for me—even the part about new evil gods, because they hardly seem canonical and, I don’t know, also seemed pretty certain to never be mentioned again. They were all generically evil, which is my main complaint about this sort of content within the book. 

The next three chapters focus on variant rules, evil equipment, and feats, and I also skimmed past these. The book also contains a staggering 18 prestige classes (many of whom tie in with archdevils or demon lords), which isn’t a huge surprise given that Cook also had a column creating new ones in Dragon. None of them are planar in nature, though, and the ones involving fealty to fiends don’t really reveal anything new about these individuals. The chapter on magic was another bunch of skippable information aside from a few goofy artifacts (and learning that the Despoiler of Flesh from “Squaring the Circle” in Hellbound is back!), including a yugoloth-made Cauldron of Zombie Spewing (that’s really its name!), and from there we’re onto the two real sections, Lords of Evil, which focuses on the demon lords and archdevils, and Evil Monsters, which, uhh, focuses on evil monsters. 


The actual information about archfiends here is surprisingly close to what we had before. Yes, there’s semi-confirmation of Belial and Fierna having an incestuous relationship, and more material of this sort that I’m sure Lorraine Williams would’ve hated (turns out Graz’zt is pretty damn into orgies), but nothing is truly new. Essentially, Cook spells out subtext for those too thickheaded to get what was happening earlier. Each listing includes one or two servants, who I suppose are sort of added information, but these listings are consistently both perfunctory and uninteresting, especially compared with hench-fiends in earlier editions. Most disappointingly, page after page is filled with statistics, which ironically would be rendered moot almost immediately (edition 3.5 was right around the corner), and also are utterly hilarious when compared with what we just saw in the Epic Level Handbook. Demon lords may rule entire universes (i.e. planes of reality), but also can be taken down by any random group of bakers and blacksmiths from Union. 

He may be a demon lord, but it sure looks like Graz’zt has some serious back issues.

Even outside of Union’s utter nonsense, which I will do my best to pretend doesn’t exist in the future because bringing it up renders all of D&D‘s stats instant bullshit, the statistics here are underwhelming. These individuals went from being Power-level untouchable to rather tough for a high-level group, and this takes a lot of wonder out of the planes. I have to admit, these stats were a lot of the joy I had reading this book as a kid, but also please remember that I was an idiot. Nowadays, I would never use any of these because the idea of players walking over to, say, Mammon and punching him in the face to death is underwhelming to say the least.


So yes, the retinues are new, a handful of demons are updated to third edition, and there’s even a whole new type of devil who would never be seen again after this book. But that’s really it. Removing the mysterious, deific power level of the demon lords and archfiends was the main change, and is also something I’d recommend ignoring. I had a smattering of other takeaways, such as that now that Hag Countess is weaker than the other archdevils rather than weirdly tougher, plus clarification as to what the hell exactly happened with Orcus post-Dead Gods, but that was it. Oh, we also receive new information about Yeenoghu that I found hilarious but is difficult to summarize quickly except to say that he’s trying so very hard, but he still sucks so very much. However, for a Planescape fan there’s almost nothing here.

I say “almost” nothing because there were a couple surprising additions to planar lore having nothing to do with the fiends that I did appreciate. Early on, as a sample villain, Cook creates a character called the Dread Emperor, who dwells on the Ethereal Plane. He also keeps children chained to his armor because he’s an edgelord and all that, but ignoring this stupid part of him (it crops up later with the magic items, too, *sigh*), it gives us a new location on that usually-neglected plane and a pathetic new villain to poke fun at. 

The Hag Countess looks happy, so maybe don’t tell her that she’s about to be deposed in the next half-edition.

The other, probably more significant addition is that fiendish possession requires the Ethereal Plane to function. It turns out that fiendish possession works by fiends shucking their physical forms to become malevolent ethereal entities capable of taking over corporeal bodies. This is pretty cool, and seems like a rare but memorable set piece for campaigns. Everything here makes sense and seems like it could be fun, so kudos to Cook for expanding usage of the Ethereal in this new way.


The weird thing about The Book of Vile Darkness is that while it lets me down as a source for new information about the planes, the book’s actual content otherwise seems quite good. All of the variant rules, new spells, and new equipment fill in many of third edition D&D‘s holes. None of it is strictly necessary, but as an enrichment to a DM’s arsenal of options there’s a lot here. The information about running evil PCs and NPCs that bookend the book are far less my sort of thing, but if I were interested in running a weird version 3.0 old school campaign this is actually a book I can see myself using, likely moreso than the actual Dungeon Master’s Guide. My general advice ends up being to skip this book if you’re looking for a resource on the fiends and planes, but perhaps take a look if you’re hoping for a vaguely third edition (which can include fifth edition if you’re smart about conversions) resource for new character options, particularly those of the evil variety. Once again, third edition has largely let us down in planar content, but we’re also already almost out of it and onto the more exciting world of edition 3.5, so perhaps things will swing the other way soon. 

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