Exemplars of Evil

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 117: Exemplars of Evil




With third edition D&D quickly winding down, Wizards of the Coast was in a small bind. It still needed to release new books in order to, you know, make money, but at the same time anything it put out with new mechanics was more or less worthless. Fans knew that a new edition was around the corner and had a hankering for what was next. I suspect that sales really plummeted around this period, and I must admit that due to both this factor and other lifestyle reasons (i.e. college), I was one of those who checked out at the end of the edition and only picked the game up again after fourth edition came out. One solution to this problem was to release books that focused more on story content, fluff rather than crunch, which could then be used by DMs regardless of what edition of the game they played. Two books released in this vein were by Robert J. Schwalb, Exemplars of Evil and Elder Evils, which served to offer a plenitude of ideas but few new game mechanics. Both books are fairly obscure today, as this is just not the type of thing that sells well, either then or now, which isn’t to say that they’re bad works, just that their appeal is rather niche even for the rpg splatbook genre—in order to be interested in this book, you have to be a dungeon master who’s not running fully premade adventures, but also looking to crib ideas from elsewhere rather than coming up with them on your own. As I said, that’s far from the biggest of audiences, though that isn’t to say that Schwalb in any way phoned these works in. 

The first 30-ish pages of Exemplars focuses on advice for creating a great villain in any roleplaying game. Some of this material is probably good, some perhaps less so, though really I have no idea as this is the type of material that interests me not even slightly. Following this, the rest of the book’s 158 pages is filled with profiles of eight villains presumably made in the manner prescribed by the first chapter. Each villain is designed around a different level of campaign (and ordered as such), or as the book puts it:


To show you how to put all that advice into action, the rest of the book presents eight new groups of villains. Each chapter is built around one primary villain (or pair of villains) and delves into his or her background, allies, minions, and base of operations. You learn how to use the villain in your campaign, including those set in Eberron and Faerûn. Each chapter gives full game statistics for the major characters, plus three detailed encounters of varying difficulty. In each case, you can drop the whole package into your campaign for a ready-made master opponent, or you can modify details as desired to fit your particular setting, style, or PC group.

Seven out of the eight villains aren’t planar in nature, which makes sense as interdimensional conflicts tend to be a rarity. One of these seven wishes to create a portal to the plane of fire, but that’s it as far as other dimensions are concerned, and aside from this goal the most notable of these villains is a pair of siblings wishing to bring back the Age of Worms, which ties in with a recently published adventure path in Dungeon. However, the one planar villain is relevant enough that I didn’t want to skip this work entirely, as it concerns a rebel githyanki and his likely-doomed war against the lich queen Vlaakith. 

Is this image supposed to depict Kastya Zurith-Movya contacting Acerak? I can’t really say.

Kastya Zurith-Movya was once a prominent member of Vlaakith’s githyanki court, a necromancer of immense power, perhaps second only to her. Such was his ability that he even transformed himself into a lich, an act that Vlaakith was understandably concerned about. Courting her disfavor ultimately led to conflict with the rest of his race and eventually his escape to the Negative Energy Plane. There, he discovered the remnants of Moil, our returning favorite from Dead Gods, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and a handful of mentions since then. After learning of its construction, he now searches for a way to restore Acerak to the multiverse proper, and with him triumph over his former queen. 


There’s not actually a ton more information about Kastya himself within his write-up. He and his chief minions, the vampiric dragon Albrathax and the warrior Iliss Githom-Vaas, are all high enough level that their stat blocks take up much of the chapter’s space. There’s some friction between the three of them, but aside from this there’s not a ton of personality here. As such, the highlight of the section is the profile of Bleak Hold, i.e. the remnants of Moil that ended up in the Negative Energy Plane. A vast majority of the city is supposed to have been destroyed, and although its new home plane should be good for the undead, seemingly many of them are gone too, including the winter wights (which were weirdly profiled in the Epic Level Handbook but nowhere useful). There’s a map of the Hold, with new gaps in its crumbling walls and a few noteworthy places to visit, though for the most part it feels small and disappointing compared with the epic towers of Moil from the past. 

Bleak Hold floating through the Negative Energy Plane. Maybe this skeleton dude is supposed to be a winter wight? I don’t really know.

Dumbly, a full six pages at the end of the chapter are devoted to more of those encounter-format situations I dislike so much. This means that information, maps, and scenarios are repeated piecemeal, and that much of the space that could’ve been used to make Kastya and his plot more detailed are instead given to information about fighting a dragon and all of that typical nonsense. This actually explains much of the book’s length—though Exemplars is 160 pages long, 48 pages are devoted to these encounter pages, making for a much less meaty book than it first appears to be; while there’s 16 pages devoted to Kastya, the relevant content is about a page and a half in length, and I’m not exaggerating. 


Despite the weirdly short length of this section, I was happy that Schwalb returned to Moil and Acerak again, and the decision to tie this in with Vlaakith and plots against her were superb. There are essentially three big liches in D&D, and with this addition they’re all tied together in a weird way (keep in mind that Moil originated with Renais). It’s a nice bit of lore continuity, and it feels like this conflicting set of undead powers could’ve set up some interesting events in the future. I also like seeing more drama within the githyanki, as the frozen nature of that society always felt ready for a shakeup. But in every sense, the format’s requirements work against creating something deep, and as a result Kastya ends up forgettable, to the point that I doubt practically anyone but me even remembers this entry exists. Anyone dying to get some small updates on Moil and the doings of Acerak might be interested in a quick read through this section, but for the most part it’s for completists only.

Oh, and since I’ve had a few people asking whether I intend on covering the new, fifth edition Planescape boxed set, the answer is a definite yes… just not yet. I do have a copy, emblazoned with the wonderful Tony DiTerlizzi alternate cover art, staring at me from atop my desk as I write this, and am more than happy for its existence. But I’m also just not up-to-date on the state of the planes that this work is set in, one with a radically different cosmology and history from second and third edition D&D despite the attempt at continuity the set’s title implies. Essentially, I feel that I lack the context to do a good look at this release until I’ve actually read up to it chronologically. Nevertheless, I still plan on featuring some fifth edition planar material for the next few weeks, it’s just probably not what you’re expecting or hoping for, apparently because I hate doing the smart thing and pursuing easy traffic. Here’s a hint for what’s in store for this series instead: Monte Cook and some of his pals return to the Great Wheel, just this time without the baggage of working for Wizards of the Coast.

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