Hello, everyone! Today’s bookshelf article is a review of Mike Myler’s Book of Exalted Darkness.
Kickstarted in June 2017, Book of Exalted Darkness is a love(er.. hate?) letter to the Book of Vile Darkness of earlier editions. Part supplement for evil characters, part campaign setting, the supplement introduces the reader to the world of Askis, a world in which nine immortal Celestial Heroes have brought the forces of evil to their knees.. or so they believe.
Table of Contents
Alright, so I’m going to break my “review voice” for a bit, here. I briefly mentioned this in my review of A Touch of Class – evil campaigns are not my cup of tea. When I say this, I hope that I’m making it clear that I’m not saying, “No, stop, you’re having fun the wrong way!” but for me, “evil” doesn’t particularly appeal. To that end, I greatly appreciate that this supplement, in no uncertain terms, has a candid discussion about consent in making a campaign using the contents of the book.
Because of the nature of some of this book’s contents, I advise you to read no further if you would be bothered by or otherwise not interested in including graphic violence(of a physical, emotional, or sexual nature) in your games.
The first thing that jumps out at you is Book of Exalted Darkness’s size. At 415 pages, it will dwarf all but your library’s largest books.
Book of Exalted Darkness uses two distinct layouts – a gilded facade and a darker, almost tarnished style representing the repressed villainous elements of the setting. While I appreciate the juxtaposed aspects of the setting, the transition from white-on-dark text to dark-on-light can be a little disorienting from page to page(or even within a single page), and it makes me wonder if the layout could have approached this differently.
Rules text in the book is consistently worded and understandable. From time to time, specific instances of text aren’t consistent with the wordings which Wizards’ rulebooks would use, but these situations are intuitive enough to not detract from the reading experience. For instance, the well hammer describes a DC for a saving throw and the results of failing that save slightly awkwardly, but in a way which should be understandable.
The World of Askis – Too Bright a Future
Askis, in the author’s words, is a decopunk campaign setting – technologies derived from inaequa have allowed the world to urbanize and develop into a society analogous to 1920’s America and lengthened the lifespans of those on the side of the angels. The short stories opening each chapter are evocative of a world which, on the surface feels utopian, but is gradually facing vile threats, both new and old. Overall, the setting is divided into three continents – Ouranios, the Contiguous Continent, Samovi, the Wild Continent, and Zakuthombo, the Far Continent.
In addition to a large number of detailed cities and locales for each continent, the book includes a table to quickly generate new settlements using a fast system of generation with “Signifier Words,” adjectives which refer to the overall feel of a settlement and its inhabitants. Ability checks which are suited to these Signifier Words gain a somewhat strong modifier, while ability checks opposed to them can incur similar penalties.
Sanctity and Sin Attributes
In order to quantify goodness and evil in a character or creature, the supplement introduces two new attributes – Sanctity and Sin. Sanctity reflects a creature’s goodness(or at least ability to appear Good), whereas Sin is more a measure of a character’s misdeeds and transgressions.
Sanctity’s main function is to perform Deception checks to pass as Good or to operate inaequa-powered equipment, but additionally to disguise one’s aura from relevant detection methods, and to reduce damage from a good creature’s attacks.
Sin can be used instead of Charisma for Intimidation checks, but is more used for overcharging inaequa technology. It can also be used to deal extra damage on an attack as a reaction, opposite Sanctity’s effect, or for saves against magical or verbal influences. Other than these mechanical abilities, Sin is also the abstracted timer towards becoming a vilespawn.
Vilis points add an extra resource for characters, a few options such as converting a spell or weapon’s damage to necrotic, or rerolling failed checks or saves. One effect which can be invoked by vilis points is to delay the effects of a spell by 1d4. I am unsure if this is deliberately worded to be this way, but a single vilis point could be used to delay an enemy caster’s spell by long enough to become irrelevant to a combat encounter. What I imagine the intended effect of the use of this reaction ability is to cast delayed spells in crowded areas for maximum amounts of devastation or otherwise to place blame away from the actual caster.
Inherent Heresies are how a character determines their starting Sanctity and Sin scores. The Heresies are based on the traditional seven deadly sins plus Mendacity, each Heresy offering you an extra potential usage of a Vilis point as well as adjustments to your ability scores similar to a feat, and a drawback usually involving a mechanically compulsory behavior.
Depending on your gaming group, you may find Inherent Heresies a welcome way to encourage you to interact with the world in various circumstances consistently, or you may see them as a mechanical nuisance. Personally, I’d lean towards using them more as guidelines than explicit mechanics, but that’s definitely within the “play how you want” realm of debate.
Most of the Diabolist is the same as you would see in A Touch of Class – like before, the Diabolist makes pacts with dark entities to gain powers, wielding a Necromantic Touch ability to deal a melee spell attack, siphoning temporary hit points from a target you kill with this effect. Mostly this class is the same as it was before, but some of its features have been rearranged or renamed. The Diabolist picks a Dark Path subclass at 6th level instead of 3rd now, and instead at 3rd, their familiar gains the undead properties.
With its collection of resistances and immunities and summoning mechanics, the Diabolist fills a different functional niche than a Warlock, but thematically it has to squeeze in next to the standard Warlock pacts. Like before, your diaboli are an incredibly resource-dependent mechanic, so be sure that you’re willing to track those resources carefully before creating a Diabolist character.
The Mad Scientist class is an incredibly modular and flexible class, featuring three defining options – A field of Mad Science, a list of Gadgets to choose from, and of course, their list of spells known. Thematically, Mad Scientists use their technological knowledge to emulate spell effects, and I’m a huge sucker for this trope in fantasy campaign settings. As you progress in the class, you develop the ability to emulate first common and uncommon magical items with only technical know-how rather than Inaequa.
The fields of Mad Science available are as follows:
- Engineer of Evil, which uses its tech to produce effects to detect foes and remain undetected, and to impose new vulnerabilities on a target of your analytical abilities.
- Fleshworker, which utilizes the Chirurgical Procedure feats, grants proficiency with Martial weapons, and ultimately can build a dissectrinator, a large and dangerous surgical machine which can act of its own accord as necessary.
- Trickster, which focuses on pushing its resources to their limits. A Trickster can forego Advantage on an attack to deal a small amount of extra damage on a hit, make grenades at an earlier level than the other Mad Scientist subclasses, and lay traps for unsuspecting victims.
- Unholy Technologist, which subverts Inaequa technology to function for evil characters rather than good. The Unholy Technologist at later levels can outright disable Inaequa-powered technologies within a large energy aura.
The list of gadgets a Mad Scientist can select from is extensive – in addition to the gadgets included in Book of Exalted Darkness, a Warlock’s Eldritch Invocations are mostly options, using the Scientist’s Intelligence rather than Charisma. A table alongside the list of gadgets has flavorful renames for these “Scientific Invocations.”
Because of the sheer number of choices involved in the creation of a Mad Scientist, I’d strongly recommend not jumping into a higher-level game with one unless you are familiar with the Gadgets, Mad Science, and spells you’d want to pick beforehand.
Since its release in A Touch of Class, the Occultist has gained some new Occult Paths. In addition to the Abomination, Werecreature, and Vampire Paths from A Touch of Class, the Occultist has three new Occult Paths.
The new Dark Paths in Book of Exalted Darkness are as follows:
- The Horror, which derives its powers from aberrant forces from the stars or other realms. The nature of the Horror’s abilities is mainly psychic, allowing it to learn information from seemingly nowhere, or to extract secrets from creatures it has previously interacted with.
- The Nightmare, which uses Fell Points to cast spell effects, emulates the abstract terror of monsters from nightmares. The spells it can cast using Fell Points allow it to transcend physical obstacles and render its foes helpless.
- The Ooze, whose body slowly deteriorates into an amorphous mass, sheds the trappings of its once-rigid body, dealing acid damage with the Dark Touch Occultist feature and becoming a corrosive blob which damages foes who attack it in melee.
A lot of my concerns with the original Occultist in A Touch of Class have been addressed – the new Occult Paths add meaningful choices which can’t be found without more advanced dabbling and multiclassing. Overall, the class is still definitely more of an “easy choice” for beginning players who want to play as existing monsters, but in a book of more advanced options, the Occultist is a solid choice for low-complexity characters who can still hold their own in a party.
Dark Transformation Prestige Class
The Dark Transformation Prestige Class is more of an umbrella term for multiple transformations – one for each of the 6 core attributes, so any character aspiring for a Dark Transformation will have at least one option. The transformations offered are Abyssal, Dragon, Infernal, Golem, Lich, and Rakshasa. My philosophy in designing Prestige Classes is to guarantee that there are multiple ways to reach it, and the incorporation of a transformation for each attribute functions as a convenient way to design the class to that end.
- The Abyssal transformation, which uses Wisdom, deals a corrupting touch attack which imposes disadvantage on a future attack, check, or save and develops an aura which increases all damage that creatures within its aura receive.
- The Dragon transformation, which keys off of Strength, allows a character to use a similar feature to dragons’ Frightful Presence to frighten creatures as a bonus action, grants it a breath weapon, and ultimately a set of wings which it can beat to deal bludgeoning damage to nearby creatures.
- The Infernal transformation, utilizing Charisma, focuses on deceit and control of the battlefield. Those who have undergone the Infernal Transformation can bind a target into a short-term contract, locking it into combat with you under penalty of significant psychic damage.
- The Golem transformation, based on Constitution, offers a variety of resistances, meaty hit point gains at each level, and a mental defense which allows it to succeed on a failed mental saving throw, but enter a state in which it can only move towards and attack nearby creatures or objects.
- The Lich transformation, based on Intelligence, gains a paralyzing touch ability, the ability to cast some 1st through 6th-level spells without expending spell slots(making up for the lack of spell slots gained because of multiclassing) and ultimately gaining a necrotic aura which deals additional damage whenever it casts a high-level spell.
- The Rakshasa transformation, which uses Dexterity, gains the ability to cast disguise self at-will, and over time develops the ability to cast detect thoughts, and curse enemies with melee claw attacks.
If you’re looking for a deviation from your expected class progression, the Dark Transformation may serve your purposes. However, since Book of Exalted Darkness introduces two new attributes, I would’ve loved to see options which key off of Sanctity or Sin as well(like some sort of corrupted angel, or an impersonator of Askis’ Celestial Heroes, perhaps?). Fortunately, as the supplement mentions, this is not an exhaustive list of transformation aspects.
Book of Exalted Darkness offers 16 new class archetypes, at least one for each of the core classes.
- The Feral Rager barbarian path embraces a more primeval attitude. They develop magical claws which they use instead of a weapon during a rage and can make multiple unarmed strikes while raging. As they level up, they can knock prey prone after charging at least 20 feet, inflicting another attack. At 14th level, their Dark Claws can also restore hit points equal to the necrotic damage they deal.
- The Bard College of Anarchy uses song and word to control minds. They can expend Bardic Inspiration to gain advantage to Deception, Persuasion, and Wisdom checks, and to mimic others’ proficiencies(including skills, tools, and weapons). As they level up, they can deliver orations to convince crowds to behave as they dictate.
- The Abyssal Domain grants clerics divine powers through one of the greater demons. At the end of long rests, these clerics can choose fire or poison resistance for the day. These clerics can summon quasits as combatant familiars. Interestingly, they can summon multiple quasits(up to a maximum of 3 at 20th level), which might clog higher-level combat gameplay with too many combatants.
- Clerics belonging to the Infernal Domain have pledged not only their souls in death but their worship in life to a devil. Like the Abyssal Domain, Infernal Clerics can summon a number of Imp familiars equal to half of their proficiency bonus. As they level up, these clerics also increase the critical hit range of these imps, allowing them to score a critical hit on a roll as low as 17 after level 17. While I like the notion of modifying critical hit ranges, in 5e, this effect can become incredibly difficult to balance – with a critical hit range of 17-20, an imp has almost a 1/3 chance of a critical hit if they can gain advantage on an attack roll.
- Circle of Necrobotany druids gain the ability to inflict the poisoned condition at a range using clouds of decaying pollen. These druids gain animate dead within their circle’s spells, and gain class features which improve those undead into plantlike monstrosities, ultimately capable of animating a necroplant, an undead reinforced with plant material. Of the subclasses offered in Book of Exalted Darkness, the Circle of Necrobotany is by far my favorite flavor-wise; if you’re looking for a compelling and unusual villainous character, I’d definitely recommend taking a look at this subclass.
- Druids of the Circle of Gray also turn to the Gray Knight for their powers against mages and priests. These druids gain telepathy and the ability to overwhelm minds telepathically and reduce their ability to concentrate. Additionally, the Circle increases the spell level at which you cast counterspell and dispel magic.
- The Warrior of Darkness archetype aspires to use vile techniques as readily as any other means. As they level up, they inflict scars on themselves which reduce their hit point maximum in exchange for powerful effects such as advantage on death saves, immunity to certain conditions, or the ability to spray venom as per the poison spray cantrip(but using Strength).
- Warriors of Dark Chi are monks who have been rejected from traditional disciplines and paths. These monks use forbidden chi techniques instead of ki, imposing a variety of potential effects from their Flurry of Blows techniques. As a capstone ability in this subclass, chi manifests itself physically in a randomized way(though you can expend vilis points to manipulate this randomized effect to the one you want).
- Paladins who swear the Oath of Heresy are devoted specifically to the destruction of the world that the Celestial Heroes have created. They gain Channel Divinity abilities which can restrain a target or deal additional necrotic damage on a hit, an aura which provides cover from ranged attacks to themselves and their allies, and the ability to take on a fiendish appearance and deal levels of exhaustion to enemies. Interestingly, this Paladin is one of the best-suited character options in Book of Exalted Darkness for group combat, offering tactical protection for an entire group and locking down enemies.
- Rangers following the Gruesome Salvager archetype take on grafts in order to become more powerful. Like other feat-based subclasses, the Gruesome Salvager aims to provide characters who can specialize in a large range of these feats without suffering from the traditional “feat tax.” and is fairly sparse on its own features. Like the other more modular classes like the Mad Scientist, these feat-based options offer a wide range of customization but newer players will likely feel overwhelmed by the number of decisions they need to make while building a character.
- Masquerading Heretic rogues are agents of darkness who attempt to sabotage the Celestial Heroes’ world from the inside. They can use Cunning Action to gain advantage on Deception and Persuasion checks, and gradually can select how they are treated by spells which refer to specific alignments, and conceal their thoughts from magical detection.
- The Fearmonger Sorcerer Bloodline focuses on producing fear effects, enabling them to override immunity to fear through the use of sorcery points, inflict the frightened condition on a target they can see, and eventually inflict the condition passively through an aura. While this sorcerous bloodline is mechanically solid, I would’ve liked to see more explanation of its origins than an explanation of how they utilize their arcane power – in particular, sorcerers derive a lot of their character flavor from their ancestry and determining what source their magic comes from. Without this information, the sorcerer is probably competing for thematic space in the supplement with the Nightmare Occultist, having a similar range of spells without the Fell Point mechanic.
- The Patron of Meat is a primal entity which can grant Warlocks their powers, provided that they consume the flesh of an intelligent humanoid daily. These warlock subclasses gain a “meaty” amount of extra hit points each level, and have resistance to the self-inflicted damage from this supplement’s blood magic. Oddly enough, at 10th level, when they take bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, that damage is reduced by 1(Way to dig deep for your patron benefits, Meat). As one of their later level features, these warlocks can attempt to wrest the blood from an enemy, dealing a large amount of force damage.
- Warlocks can select the Gray Knight as their patron. These Warlocks gain Psipoints which can be used to negate active spells or function as counterspells. As they level up, Gray Knight Warlocks can resist psychic damage and get protected from becoming charmed, and sever sources of magic at a touch range.
- Wizards of the Chirurgeon Arcane Tradition master the nuances of fearsome surgeries and chirurgical procedures in addition to their arcane spells. This is done similarly to the Gruesome Salvager Ranger by taking on Chirurgical practice feats. Like the capstone feature of the Fleshworker Mad Scientist, 14th-level Chirurgeon Wizards produce a dissectrinator.
- The Vile Arcane Tradition follows the path of the more traditional wizard schools of magic. Wizards using this school of magic can cast vile cantrips and spells without damaging themselves for blood sacrifices. At 14th level, Vile wizards immediately gain all vile spells of a given level when they are capable of casting them.
Feats, Spells, Equipment
An aspect of the author’s style which I particularly appreciate is the organization of feats, spells, and equipment that he employs. Due to his prolific style(which is clear from the sheer volume of this book!), there are about 50 feats in Book of Exalted Darkness. Instead of simply lumping everything together alphabetically like Wizards’ sourcebooks, these feats have been cataloged into Deformity, Grafting, Ritual, Sinful, Fleshworking, and Mutant feats. My only objection to the organization of feats is including Chirurgical Procedures in this chapter, as I’d almost consider them to be closer to equipment than to feats, but this is a minor organizational nitpick for me.
Spells are similarly organized into Vile spells, with a second section for Spells of Mutation. All spells include whose spell lists they belong to. My only hangup with this adjustment to the standard spell format is that the Mad Scientist isn’t listed on spells, even if they can cast a given spell.
The equipment chapter is similarly organized into mundane goods, drugs, weapons, augmetics(the list appears to be a reduced list from Mists of Akuma where they feature much more prominently), inaequa technology(which behaves differently based on the user’s perceived alignment), vehicles(complete with driving rules), and evil relics.
I’m not in a particularly strong position to recommend or dissuade anyone from Book of Exalted Darkness; this book is overall geared towards a very different audience than myself. Players likely won’t be using Book of Exalted Darkness often unless playing in a vile campaign, but overall the book will certainly have more utility than, for instance, Ultimate Bestiary: Revenge of the Horde. Storytellers will probably get roughly equal mileage from Book of Exalted Darkness or Demon Cults and Secret Societies(obviously more for games set in Askis). If Book of Exalted Darkness looks to be your cup of tea, you can get a copy on DriveThruRPG. The $23($60 for a hardcover) price tag may seem steep compared to other digital titles, but you’re getting what you pay for in Book of Exalted Darkness.
Reviewer’s Note: Mike Myler generously provided me a copy of the Book of Exalted Darkness supplement for this review.
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