At some point in almost every gamer’s career, we get tired of being the good guy. The helpless villagers start to look less like citizens in need of aid and more like easy marks, we realize it’s easier to burn a town down instead of, searching for the bad guys, and the princess in the tower.... Well, let’s not mention that. But most systems aren’t designed with evil in mind, and keeping a group of evil PCs together is akin to herding cats. That’s where Book of Exalted Darkness comes in. Mike Myler was kind enough to sit down and talk about his book, which is aimed at providing a world where evil will thrive, mechanics to help players find the darkness in their hearts, and tools for GMs to keep their parties focused on being the horrible people they actually are.
(Editor’s Note, interview has been edited for length.)
1) The Book of Exalted Darkness introduces Sanctity and Sin attributes into 5E, which reflects on a PC’s holiness or vile intent, but what struck me is how a character loses points, namely being witnessed taking an action of the opposite nature. Why was is the perception of others so important to the loss of Sanctity and Sin, but not to gaining it?
First of all thanks for interviewing me about Book of Exalted Darkness!
Sanctity and Sin are thematic attributes—that is to say they are mechanical expressions of themes inherent to the game. All of my 5E campaign settings use thematic attributes as a way to reinforce how the game is fundamentally different than a regular D&D 5E game. For example, Hypercorps 2099 5e uses Luck and Reputation (to quicken the futuristic cyberpunk game’s pace), Mists of Akuma has Dignity and Haitoku (how honored you’re thought to be and “fall from virtue” that ends with transformation by the mists), and 2099 Wasteland has Irradiated (which is self-explanatory).
In Book of Exalted Darkness there are two new thematic attributes each serving two purposes. Sanctity defines how easy it is for a wicked soul to seem uncorrupted and Sin is a measure of that actual corruption, but both are largely involved with inaequa, wherein your answer lies. Again I have to divert a bit to explain something important: the actual campaign setting itself is not evil, mostly it’s just the adventurers. Everything (and everyone) else is holy decopunk—think Rocketeer or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow—so there are blimps, radios, telephones, trolleys, jetpacks, and what have you. The trick here is that all of that technology is fueled by inaequa, a substance that radiates energy elongating the lives of good creatures. The PCs (and other evil adventurers like them, as well as some mad scientists) are flawed souls that can take this fundamentally unjust technology and trick it to make it work for them or pervert it to overcharge and explode or produce other nasty effects.
Mostly it’s a matter of game intent—the book is built around the idea that a group playing in the world is out to wreck it. Throughout a campaign the PCs work with mad scientists lurking beneath the earths and seas, dismantling the 9 Spheres of Askis (inaequa being one of them) and restoring balance, or much more likely, imbalance in a different direction than before. By encouraging the party to secretly act in evil or good ways, it navigates gameplay towards subterfuge, reinforcing the pulp feel that decopunk brings with it.
2) What drove you to make inequality, which manifests itself as inaequa, the powersource of technology which prolongs the lives of good creatures, into the game?
We actually (we being myself, Savannah Broadway, Luis Loza, and Michael McCarthy) started writing this a year ago and it just didn’t hook. All of the other settings we’ve made all feel super distinct and are conceptually as tight as a drum, but the original pitch for Book of Exalted Darkness—a medieval world where angels had won the day, instilling a world of goodness for evil adventurers to fight against—just wasn’t clicking.
While checking on the status of the Book of Exalted Darkness pitch (which in its original form was not sent to Legendary Games but another publisher) I ran into an article about how the world needs more decopunk—and I emphatically agreed.
They decided to pass on it (which was a good call for everyone!) and since I had control of it again I started figuring out how to merge those two ideas together, then—like all my best and worst ideas—very late one evening I had an errant thought: “what if humans develop a gene that transforms electromagnetic energy in a practical way, like increased synapse firing or…” and off I went for a twenty minutes. The idea got tossed into my subconscious for a while and then a few days later it hit me: that could be the crux for the campaign setting! I ran to the computer and started a flurry of messages to my team and they were like “that’s it, we got it”. After a few more days all that germinated into inaequa and then the gold and blood encrusted grimoire of good and evil that is Book of Exalted Darkness. We actually had some other things planned for the start of the summer and ended up swapping the schedule around after figuring out inaequa because it really is something worth thinking about; it doesn’t do harm, it only unfairly grants gifts, a boon to one’s life, something more valuable than any gem or relic! I know I wouldn’t be cool with inaequa (even if it did work for me; anything that discourages free will is bad in my book) but it’s definitely a worthwhile conundrum and most importantly, it gives the party a reason to unify together and some justification for being truly despicable villains: for JUSTICE!
3) What challenges have you had bringing extra technology into 5th Edition? How have you tweaked character classes traditionally associated with medieval fantasy to integrate them into your decopunk setting?
Oooh, excellent question! Hypercorps 2099 5e is superhero cyberpunk, Mists of Akuma is eastern fantasy noir steampunk, and 2099 Wasteland is apocalyptic sci-fi, so this is going to be my fourth campaign setting where technology plays a significant role. In the past we relied on class archetypes, but starting with the most recent book we decided that technology was playing an important enough role that it needed to get entirely new class options so 2099 Wasteland has doctors, mechanics, and scrappers, all of which are available in that book’s PDF preview. We also created a customized weapon-building system but those rules don’t really have a place in Book of Exalted Darkness—we’ll be pulling the vehicle rules from 2099 Wasteland but otherwise every piece of technology is getting its own entry on how it functions (and in the case of inaequa-powered devices, the rules for how it works for a good/neutral/evil creature).
As far as technological archetypes go in Book of Exalted Darkness however, there are none yet. If backers or playtesters say, “Hey Mike! I want to ________”, I will make a draft of rules for it and toss it around with the design team, then probably include it. This book we’re shooting to make 180 pages but most of the time we end up stretching resources to the brink and producing 50% or more past what the initial budget planned on. But hey! We’re making the best books we can!
I’ve been mentioning mad scientists and those are where I’ve been putting my technological emphasis on, creating the equivalent of a warlock for the scrapper from 2099 Wasteland (which is built mostly like a wizard but with technology). Mad scientists only use their spell slots to cast offensive things through their Scientific Weapon, relying on Scientific Devices (like a warlock’s eldritch invocations) to access other magic. For their archetypes there’s an Evil Engineer (who specializes in surviving within society), Fleshworkers (chirurgeons that perform surgeries that grant a variety of benefits or things like lobotomies), Tricksters (want bombs and explosions?), and Unholy Technologists (if you’re looking to trick and manipulate inaequa, this is the way to go). There’ll be a free Mad Scientist Playtest PDF coming out before the Book of Exalted Darkness Kickstarter ends on June 17th so keep an eye out! :D
4) What’s been the most twisted thing you or your PCs have done so far in playtesting?
Oof, that’s a hard one. There are four things that stand out for me:
5) One of the biggest challenges in running an evil campaign is keeping the party focused on a unified goal. How does Book of Exalted Darkness help GMs and PCs stay unified?
Well the whole world is quite positively arrayed against them and they have a shared enemy (albeit an uncaring global effect as opposed to entity) but those are pretty vague. Part of the Book of Exalted Darkness is going to be devoted to fleshing out as many GM tools as we can provide for keeping a cadre of villains from backstabbing one another but there’s a trinity at the core of them all—fate, thematic mechanics, and circumstance.
Fate is pretty obvious: make the party need one another through plot, tie them to one another by connections in their backgrounds, or have some very vital story reason for the group to work together. Thematic mechanics are a little more vague—these would be things like an in-game pact that has out-of-game consequences on character sheets—but there’s also Sin. Killing one or two companions might not be so bad, but going about murdering too many (unprovoked allies) will rack up your Sin. Then there’s circumstance or tertiary benefits. Having a trusted ally you know is competent means access to a network of contacts you don’t have yourself, it’s easier to survive against a state government when you have allies, different compatriots have their own unique talents (like that mad scientist you all know and are kind of afraid of but have to rely on for technological help anyway), and so on. Near the end game it’ll be very important that at least one party member be able to act as the “face” when their villainy becomes truly infamous or they’ve transformed into vilespawn, otherwise the party will be up to commando-esque raids on the workings of Askis’ most powerful defenders with little ability to manipulate the exploitable bureaucracy surrounding them.
Thanks again for interviewing me about Book of Exalted Darkness! As of this writing we’re still in the first week and 67% funded, so we’re pretty excited about reaching the funding goal and unlocking a few stretch goals (hint: we’re looking to convert outside of 5E!) Check out the project page, download the 2 free PDFs, and consider pledging to my (6th, sure to overdeliver again) Kickstarter! :D
Check out the Book of Exalted Darkness Kickstarter here.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games