Meet the mind behind the Book of Vile Darkness!In this month's exclusive interview, veteran designer Monte Cook talks in detail about the highly anticipated D&D rulebook for all things evil.
Wizards of the Coast: It's not often that a book comes out for the D&D game that includes subheadings like "Torture Devices: Rules of Torture" or "Cancer Mage," and spell types like "Masochism" and "Morality Undone." What concerns did you have in determining the content of the Book of Vile Darkness?
Monte Cook: My primary concern was, "What will Wizards of the Coast let me get away with?" The answer turned out to be "pretty much anything." I didn't push it as far as I could have, though, and that made some people happy and others disappointed. Ultimately, the content in the book is as vile as I'd want from a book.
If you were going to rate the book using movie ratings, it would be a solid R rating. If you're looking for that sort of content, this book is for you. If you're looking for worse than that, you'll have to look elsewhere or come up with it on your own. If you don't want that sort of content, please avoid the book. I don't want anyone to be misled about the book.
Wizards: What did you use for inspiration in coming up with most of the content? What sort of research did you have to do? One suspects there's not much out there already about wizards who use their own cancerous tumors as familiars.
Monte: A lot of it comes from my own campaign, where I have a reputation for pretty edgy, sometimes pretty disgusting stuff. I like running horror games, like Call of Cthulhu, and some of those sensibilities bleed over into my fantasy games -- and thus into a book like this. There wasn't so much research as there was just applying ideas and concepts that I'd had from various sources: movies like Silence of the Lambs, that sort of thing. I did read a few books on serial killers while working on this -- that was actual research.
Wizards: Inevitably, this sort of design and development must make you giggle at the horror of it all, the way a really scary film can elicit a similar reaction. Which parts of Book of Vile Darkness made your skin tingle as you worked on it?
Monte: There are lots of evil chuckles in the book, that's for sure. One thing you've already mentioned, the cancer mage, is a personal favorite. I also really like the spell that inflicts terrible damage upon the target's closest loved one. That's just mean.
Wizards: Much of the book is clearly new material, but some of it goes back to older D&D products. What did you retain from the old days?
Monte: Basically, the "old stuff" is all in the monster section, with all the demon princes and archdevils, and a few other monsters that are old favorites, like the eye of fear and flame. Many, of course, are new. The khython -- horrible insect/reptile things with a strange array of powers and nasty attacks -- are my favorites of the new stuff, mostly because they scale nicely. There are many types of them at many different Challenge Ratings.
Wizards: Many players will, of course, be most unhappy when they encounter some of these things in their campaigns--for the obvious reasons. But what do you think players will really dig in this new book?
Monte: Well, this is really a DM book. It's the DMs who are going to dig putting some of these new concepts into their games. It also gives lots of advice about creating new villains. What players are going to enjoy most of all is facing the truly epic challenges that the DM can throw at them now. Anything from Demogorgon himself to a villain armed with abilities and tactics that make him truly a foe to really, honestly hate. When you defeat a villain that uses aspects of the Book of Vile Darkness, there will really be something to cheer about.
There is, however, a section on playing evil characters. If that interests you as a player, then this book becomes a trove of new feats, spells, items, and so on for you to draw from. That's not the main focus of the book, however.
Wizards: What are you most proud of in the book? What did you work on the hardest -- what do you feel reflects your best efforts?
Monte: I really like how the archfiends are presented. Each not only has a standard Monster Manual-style write-up (with unbelievably powerful statistics), but a section on goals, cultists, and followers. Each also comes with sample cultists and servants. The idea here is that any of these beings could be the focus of a whole campaign. You start fighting against the cultists that revere them.
Wizards: What in the world were the playtests for this stuff like? Did the playtesters even know what they were in for?
Monte: My playtesters cringed a lot. They often grimaced when a bad guy got ready to cast a spell on them, because they never knew what it would do to their poor characters. And when a villain pulled out a black sword, pulsing with evil energy, people moaned. They squirmed even when the foe was defeated and it came time to see what kind of "treasure" he had.
In short, it was great fun.
The stuff was integrated into an ongoing campaign, so the playtesters really didn't know what to expect, or when to expect the "vile" stuff to start showing up. That made it all the more horrific.
There were also plenty of "throw-down" style tests where the monsters were run through their paces to test CRs. These weren't all run by me, but I heard about the ones I wasn't part of, and it sounds like they were fun, too.
Wizards: When developing most projects -- whether works of fiction, gaming supplements, modules, etc. -- there's a subjective threshold of "good taste," a level you know you can't really take readers past without offending them. In a project like this, that threshold hardly seems to exist. How did you know when you'd gone far enough without going too far?
Monte: I'll be honest: Lots of people are going to find something in this book offensive, but it will be something different for everyone, because everyone has different thresholds and standards. The material runs the gamut of sensitive topics (because I had to cover all the bases in one book), so it's an equal opportunity offender. That said, most people won't find most of the book offensive. The focus here is to provide rules and guidelines for people to actually use in their games, not to gross people out or disturb them. (That may happen, but it's not the intent.)
Lots of it is nasty without going beyond the boundaries of good taste. For example, the aforementioned eye of fear and flame is horrific and evil, but that's all. Likewise with many of the prestige classes, which are aimed at either evil monsters or characters interested in swearing allegiance to an archfiend. Evil and horrible, but not in bad taste.
So I guess there is horrible, sometimes-offensive material in the book, but most of it is just plain old evil (if you see what I mean). And what's most important to me is that none of it is gratuitous. Although some who have read the book said that certain sections could be more vile, making something vile for vile's sake is the very definition of gratuitous and I fought against the idea. Again, it's not the intention of this author to offend, only to provide material for people to use in their campaigns to really make the bad guys bad.
Wizards: Undoubtedly there's a collective holding of the breath going on as you await the release of Book of Vile Darkness and the response of players and critics. What reaction do you expect?
Monte: No matter how much I talk about it, it seems that there are two camps -- people who are already all upset at the terrible, offensive stuff in the book (that they haven't yet seen) and the people who say, "It's just another book of feats and spells, so what?" Both camps wait eagerly, I think, to be proven right, and those who haven't yet made up their minds worry that one or the other will be true. Once the book actually hits shelves, I'm actually expecting the reaction to be, "Oh, okay, we get it now." It's really something in between the two camps of expectations. It really is something new, and delves into areas long avoided in D&D, but it isn't going to have anyone burning torches and getting together lynch mobs, either. Ultimately, I think people will discover that it's just simply a good, solid book of D&D stuff aimed at an older audience than are most products.
Wizards: What are you working on now? Do you require some palate-cleansing for your next projects?
Monte: My energies are focused on my own design studio, Malhavoc Press. We just came out with a big mega-adventure called the Banewarrens and the first of a series of a new kind of sourcebook -- event books -- called Requiem for a God. As a palate cleanser (which was much needed), I worked on a Malhavoc book called the Book of Hallowed Might. This is a book aimed at the players of clerics, paladins, and other divine spellcasters who are interested in FIGHTING evil. It's very rewarding for me to have an opportunity to arm the other side, after giving so much help to the villains in Book of Vile Darkness. You can find out more about these products at www.montecook.com.