by Mike Shea on 9 January 2012
This month, Wizards of the Coast released Robert J. Schwalb's Book of Vile Darkness supplement for 4th edition D&D. Today we're going to look at how to squeeze the most use out of this product for any game you might happen to be running.
First, some full disclosure. On top of receiving a review copy of this book, I am also a paid freelancer for Wizards of the Coast. That said, given my propensity to write articles that contradict my own books, you can rest easy knowing that my primary goal remains giving you the best DM material to help you run your D&D game.
This article isn't a review of the Book of Vile Darkness. If you want a review, check out Neuroglyph's excellent review of the Book of Vile Darkness on Enworld. Instead, what you'll get here are a few things to consider in the design and the use of this dark and twisted tome.
Pay particular attention to the design of the Crypt Thing on page 35 of the dungeon master book included in the Book of Vile Darkness. Though it is started out as an 18th level trap, it is, in fact, an NPC. This design matches perfectly with the original crypt things found in the 1st edition Fiend Folio.
When designing your own focused NPCs, particular golems, magical statues, and other challenges; consider building them out as traps or hazards instead of traditional NPCs. For one major advantage, traps and hazards are generally immune to all of the nutty status effects that PCs might heap up on a typical monster. You don't want to use it all the time but it's a nice tool to have handy.
Traps and hazards can be tricky business. Given their experience budget, traps and hazards are often not worth it. We've already discussed ways to get the most out of traps but the Book of Vile Darkness shows us examples of another great idea: minion traps.
For 1/5 the experience budget cost of a typical monster you get a single-use trap such as an exploding glyph, a single dart trap on a chest, a swinging poisoned scythe, or such single-use trap. The Symbol of Death on page 39 of the DM book in the Book of Vile Darkness is a great single-use high level minion trap. It's very dangerous but only fires once.
As discussed before, poster maps bring a lot of value to a lazy DM's game. They're easy to set up, highly detailed, and relatively inexpensive. The three maps (one full-size and two half-size) included with the Book of Vile Darkness adds three re-usable layouts to your encounter arsenal. The rocky ruins map can be used for a variety of potential situations included a war torn ruin or a sieged battlefield. Perhaps it is a wasteland from the Dawn War out in the Astral Sea. The standing stones map can likewise be used for a wide range of situations including an ancient grave site, a magical clearing in the Feywild, or a camp ambushed by orcs. The Well of Many Worlds map is a great central encounter for the conclusion of a big mystical adventure. It's packed with spots for potential terrain effects, traps, hazards, and terrain powers. However you use them, this is a map you can use again and again throughout any tier campaign.
Reskinning and re-leveling are two of the best tools for running D&D games these days and these techniques work perfectly with the Book of Vile Darkness. Though the challenges in the book focus around the paragon tier, you can level these challenges up or down without too much difficulty. As Chris Perkins describes in Instant Monster, to increase the challenge add one point per level to defenses, attacks, and damage and ten hit points per level. Subtract a like amount to reduce the level of the challenge. Now the fallen angels, hordelings, and filth hags can be useful in just about any campaign.
The various monsters and traps in the Book of Vile Darkness can also be easily reskinned into creatures more appropriate for your campaign. Now that Hordeling Mob might make for a perfect greater stirge swarm.
The Book of Vile Darkness fits very well with the Heroes of Shadow and the Shadowfell: Gloomwrought and Beyond books. When running a vile campaign, the use of the gloom cards from the Shadowfell can add another layer of darkness atop the evil already in play. Likewise, the shadow-focused classes in the Heroes of Shadow fit perfectly with the more gloomy character themes, paragon paths, and the epic destiny included in the Book of Vile Darkness.
For a short-run, focused, and evil campaign, consider running a six-level mini-campaign focusing on the races, classes, and themes included in the Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, Heroes of Shadow, and Book of Vile Darkness books.
Schwalb mentions in the book's introduction that the Book of Vile Darkness includes a toolbox for DMs to build vile campaigns. Take that idea to heart. Like many of these products, the mechanics are easily manipulated to help you pick out and use the pieces that make the most sense for your game. Don't feel like you have to keep the components of a supplement like this pristine, feel free to twist, reuse, rename, and rejigger them to fit the needs of your game. Use these tools wisely and it will reap great rewards.