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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Book of Exalted Deeds Is Unredeemable

by Ken Newquist / May 25, 2005
Cover art for the The Book of Exalted Deeds. Credit: Wizards of the Coast.
  • Book of Exalted Deeds
  • By James Wyatt, Christopher Perkins and Darrin Drader
  • Wizards of the Coast
  • 191 pages
  • ISBN 0-7869-3136-1
  • MSRP $32.95
  • Official Web Site
  • Buy it from Amazon

The Book of Exalted Deeds is meant to be the good and noble counterpart to the nefarious, twisted, profane -- and excellent -- Book of Vile Darkness source book by Monte Cooke.

Unfortunately, it takes the mirroring of that Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook too far, creating counterpoints for every aspect of the Vile Darkness but doing so in an unimaginative, and in some cases, dumb way.

A Long Time Ago, In A Good, Good Land

The book starts off with an introduction to the nature of Good as it exists in the D&D universe, basing it on the traditional altruistic, self-sacrificing model appropriate to D&D's precepts of the lawful good alignment. Examples of exalted versions of all the base classes are given, as well as advice to providing heroic adventures for these characters to undertake.

It then introduces a series of variant rules aimed at making the idea of running a dirt poor, humble and peace-loving martyr actually palatable. It's here that the reader will start getting that uneasy feeling that the Exalted Deeds really does mean to provide an exact inversion of its evil counterpart.

The section opens up with "channeling", in which good-aligned celestials can take possession of a willing mortal. Aside from the implicit permission of the contract, the effects of this bonding are identical to demonic possession. New 'exalted' demigods are introduced to counter the demon lords of Vile Darkness, but unlike Cook's tome, these gods aren't drawn from any part of D&D canon, not even Greyhawk's. Rules are given for allowing a player to ascend to sainthood, acquiring special powers via a new "saint" template. Extreme poverty -- usually something that most adventurers actively avoid -- now yields something more than despair, disease and filth; it grants all manner of special powers. By swearing a vow of poverty and taking certain feats, a character can become an ascetic, which grants armor class bonuses, bonus feats, elemental endurance, bonuses to attacks and damage, and even the ability to forgo food and water.

Only D&D could make something like poverty actually appealing.

But wait -- there's more! Players can also choose to "wage the peace" and become pacifists. The book offers advice to DM's on how to handle such characters. Another tool for good characters are the "Words of Creation", which -- you guessed it -- are a Celestial-based counterpart to Vile Darkness' Dark Tongue. Like that foul language, "Words of Creation" can produce magical effects, enhance bardic songs, and aid in summoning.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

The sheer silliness of Exalted Deed's good-aligned mirror universe really takes off with "Exalted Equipment". First, we get sanctified weapons, which are good versions of vile weapons. Ok, I get this -- if you're going to have something as nasty as vile weapons, it'd be nice to give players something to counter it. But things get really ridiculous with "ravages" and "afflictions", which are good versions of poison and disease, which only affect evil characters. This, perhaps more so than anything else in the book, demonstrates the lack of imagination that was put into it. These ravages and afflictions use identical mechanics to the normal poisons and diseases; their only difference is that they are alignment specific. I'd much rather have seen a wholly new game mechanic -- perhaps through charms, salts, salves or other folklore remedies -- that could repeal evil without creating something as mundane as "good" diseases.

Any D&D source book worth its salt is packed with feats, and Exalted Deeds doesn't disappoint, offering up all manner of special abilities for good characters to take. These include the aforementioned vow of poverty and vow of nonviolence feats, which provide bonuses for embracing the pinnacle tenants of the altruistic code. While these weren't my cup of tea, they do provide players with the ability to play very different kinds of characters. In Vile Darkness you could take a feat that gave bonuses for swearing fealty to some demonic lord so -- of course -- there are the corresponding good versions here, with players pledging allegiance to some paragon dwelling on the upper planes.

Following the feats are numerous prestige classes, which (of course) exist primarily to serve as counterpoints to the vile prestige classes. Most of these prestige classes are devoted to gods created exclusively for this book, a fact I found infuriating. One of Vile Darkness' great strengths was that it relied on the great fiendish villains of old, but Exalted Deeds abandons the past to introduce gods, demigods and heroes we don't know, and don't care about. I would much rather that have either embraced Greyhawk's extended pantheon (Greyhawk being the default setting for D&D) or abandoned it entirely and created prestige classes dedicated to specific ideals (i.e. love, mercy, ascetics, etc.)

As with the Vile Darkness spells, many of the spells introduced in this book are powered by sacrifice, but in this case, we know it's a good act because, well, the flavor text tells us so. In many cases, these sacrifice-powered spells are pretty nifty -- "Phoenix" lets players obliterate themselves in flames, blasting all evil doers around them and then arising again 10 minutes later as per the resurrect spell. A host of new domains are introduced, including celestial, community, joy, pleasure, wrath, fey and endurance, which might be useful for GMs looking to round out their pantheon's granted powers.

The magic weapons section yields new weapon and armor special abilities and a host of new named magic items. Celestial paragons serve as the good-aligned counter points to demon lords and devil princes, and once again, are largely characters you've never heard of before. Finally, the monsters section offers new archons and celestials to serve as allies for players (or, depending on your campaign, opponents). There's also the new "deathless" template, which is a sort of positively aligned undead that ends up being used to good effect in the Eberron campaign setting (where the elves' ancient ancestors become "deathless" and reside in a hidden city.).

Eternal Disappointment

In many ways, Monte Cook had it easy with the Book of Vile Darkness. D&D has a rich history of demons and devils to draw upon and both our fantasy and real worlds are filled with examples of man's in humanity to man. Inspiration was never any further away than the evening news. That said, Cook created something that added real depth to Dungeons & Dragons, opening up the game to concepts such as torture, drug use and demonic possession and in the process gave GMs the tools to create villains unlike any their players had ever seen.

Exalted Deeds is tougher. D&D is all about fighting evil, and most of its lore lies there. Players can easily rattle off a half-dozen demon lords, whose legions they have undoubtedly fought many times over the years, but naming hero gods or saints, let alone "celestial paragons" is much harder. Having said that, the key to writing this book did not lie in simply creating a good reflection of Vile Darkness. Yes, some counterpoints were inevitable -- it makes sense, for example, to have paragons ruling the good planes -- but they did not always have to be exact opposites?

Give me charms, give me antidotes, give me spells that use magic to bring about a more perfect reality; give me anything but "good" assassins that use "ravages" to kill evil demons; all you've done is changed the words; I want something really different.

I should note (if it's not already readily apparent), when it comes to the concepts of good and evil, my personal beliefs lie outside the normal selfish/altruistic axis. As such, I don't see altruism as being an inherently good thing, I reject poverty as an ideal, and I don't think that sacrifice is any more acceptable when demanded by God rather than the Devil. With that in mind, it's hard for me to like something like a Vow of Poverty feat ... though I do find the benefits it grants pretty amusing. That said, my players did like the this feat, and a few other of the exalted ones, and they've found their way into my current "Dark City" Greyhawk campaign.

My admittedly pretty heretical hang-ups aside, Exalted Deeds fails even on its own terms. In order to succeed, it had to be as creatively "good" as Vile Darkness was wickedly bad. It simply isn't able to do that.

Final Analysis

Exalted Deeds isn't devoid of useful content. There are some good ideas -- some good beginnings -- in this book, but for every Phoenix spell we get a two or three ravage-class annoyances. I am using parts of it in my campaign -- like the exalted feats -- but that's largely because my players were interested in it. And even those players who are using it agree that large swathes of it are flawed and that when it comes to righteousness the quasi-reprint the Complete Divine is the better book.