Full disclosure the temptation to title this post “How to be an utter bad ass evil son of a bitch in D&D” was hard to resist. We had a lot of fun planning for the video over on the Nerdarchy YouTube channel and looking over all the artifacts in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. In another video Nerdarchists Dave and Ted talked about D&D magic items that will damn your soul. While there wasn’t much explicit indication of any soul damning, a character using those magic items definitely wasn’t winning any points in the good department. D&D artifacts raise the bar orders of magnitude. There is no question with these evil artifacts — a creature who uses them puts their soul in peril in a multitude of ways. But for a creature placing power above all else, employing the Book of Vile Darkness, Hand and Eye of Vecna or Wand of Orcus most certainly qualifies for the title of utter bad ass evil SOB.
Book of Vile Darkness
The Book of Vile Darkness is a gruesome catalog of all mortal wrongs. Back in the day it was designed for priests — evil ones. Good priests perusing the pages of the unspeakable book of vile darkness had to save against poison or straight up die. If they made that saving throw they had to make another one against spells or become permanently insane. In 5E D&D, a creature has to succeed on a saving throw after attuning to it or they become neutral evil. And a whole host of despicable nastiness ensues from there.
Incorporating the book of vile darkness into a campaign ups the stakes for the adventurers by merely existing. If I’m honest I could never do justice to an evil D&D artifact like this. Even dipping a toe into the unfathomably horrid contents is so far outside my interest in exploring I can’t even tell you.
But if I were interested in a campaign featuring this artifact with “every diseased idea, every unhinged thought, and every example of blackest magic” inside the first thing I’d do is talk with the players beforehand and manage expectations. Because even if you incorporate book of vile darkness lite and avoid delving into any specifics, the kinds of scenarios surrounding the book would be pretty damn grim at the very least.
An easy place to start with campaign and adventure hooks for this repugnant tome lies right in the description in the 5E D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. An evil creature pursuing any depraved goals might find the power they need inside. Seeking lichdom or death knight status are two fantastic antagonists for a campaign. I particularly like the idea of someone looking to become a death knight. The bog standard lore is fallen paladins are transformed into death knights by dark forces. A powerful warrior craving immortality as a death knight sounds like a fantastic villain to me.
The part about true names also intrigues me. It could tie in with Onomancy from Unearthed Arcana as a way to introduce this new kind of magic to a setting. A wizard, perhaps one the party knows and is on good terms with, begins studying Onomancy and grows obsessed with the arcane power. The NPC wizard begins acting differently towards the party, irritated by interruptions to their work. They begin manifesting a Mark of Darkness, and evil begins to spread.
The book will never be truly destroyed unless all evil in the multiverse is eradicated (so basically never). But how dramatic would it be to finally confront their former friend and ally now completely evil and someone convince them to speak aloud in Celestial the hidden phrase inside the book, which destroys both the speaker and the book itself? It will reform in the future, but for now the cosmic evil is thwarted.
Book of Vile Darkness campaign and adventure hook
Aside from the campaign and adventure hook ideas straight from the DMG lore, I would look to something like the Doomsday Killer from Showtime’s Dexter, season six. Instead of giving them the book of vile darkness, the villain would be a devotee of the evil within, committing horrific murders in the book’s name. The villain encountered the book at some point and descends into madness in their quest to learn more about it. The vile deeds they perpetrate are an attempt to emulate what little they manage to learn about the book. Over time as they perfect their methods, hubris drives them to commit even more evil in hopes of their own deeds being worth penning into the book.
In a campaign like this I’d dismantle the book and the villain would be hunting for and gathering the pages to assemble a complete copy of the book of vile darkness. This villain would need to be smart to stay ahead of any pursuers like the adventurers, and capable on their own. But they might also amass wealth, power and influence along the way and assemble their own forces. The biggest concern to check yourself for in a campaign like this is getting to attached to the villain’s goals and narrative arc. It’s entirely possible a group of players and their characters make sound decisions and tactically advantageous moves in and out of combat and defeat this villain maybe during their first encounter. If that’s the case, congratulations players!
Hand and Eye of Vecna
I’d say Arkhan the Cruel fits the criteria of bad ass evil son of a bitch. Joe Manganiello’s now iconic character absolutely earned his bad ass chops on Critical Role during guest appearances. The very actions described in the video, which caused Ted to uncharacteristically curse, apply here. One of the earliest parts of D&D history the Hand and Eye of Vecna show up in every edition of the game. 5E D&D does a good job of carrying on the tradition and representing these loathsome evil artifacts in the game. And they are loathsome, even to the gods of the multiverse. One consistent thing about these two items is in order to use them, a creature had to mutilate themselves by gouging out their own eye and chopping off their own hand to affix these artifacts in their place.
Check out this text from the 1st edition AD&D DMG, with the caps kept for effect straight from the page.
“Remember that NOTHING SHORT OF INTERVENTION FROM THE MOST POWERFUL OF GODS CAN ALTER THE EFFECTS OF VECNA’S HAND UPON ITS HOST, and it is urged that even the greatest of deities will be loath to attempt to undertake meddling with any host creature — so allow the effects to be irrevocable.”
Like Dave mentions in the video, the depraved lich Vecna is the author of the book of vile darkness too, and this evil son of a bitch is so evil that the hand and eye — all that remained after his own lieutenant Kas slew him — are enough to instantly turn another creature evil. This is the starting point and it only gets worse from there. Unlike the book, I don’t see a villain seeking them out as much. They’re definitely powerful, but the eye of vecna in particular runs the greatest risk for that power. Every time you cast a spell from the eye, Vecna potentially annihilates your soul and takes over your body forever. For the hand, the evil artifact itself only casts suggestion on you.
The only way to destroy and hand and eye of Vecna is to slay the entity attuned to both with the Sword of Kas. In this regard it’s infinitely easier to destroy these evil D&D artifacts than the book of vile darkness.
Hand and Eye of Vecna campaign and adventure hook
Vecna achieved godhood in many iterations of D&D lore, with clerics and cultists devoted to this evil presence throughout the history of the game. So if you want to start a campaign featuring this pair of evil D&D artifacts at low level, devotees of the Undying King could be up to any number of profane acts bringing the party into conflict with them. You could take a page from True Detective season one and embroil adventurers in a murder mystery that spirals into a larger scale political struggle with powerful and influential people serving the Lord of the Rotted Tower creating obstacles at every turn. Cultists or their victims with missing eyes and hands adds to the horror, and a creature like a nothic would make a great first low level boss monster to keep with the motif.
Like Ted mentions, introducing these evil D&D artifacts for much higher level campaigns works perfectly well too. The final campaign arc for Critical Role’s Vox Machina focused on Vecna’s return and attempted ascent to godhood, and that campaign seemed to work out okay for the group.
Whether a campaign featuring the hand and eye of Vecna starts at low levels and builds to an epic climax or only emerges after many unrelated adventures throughout the party’s career, this is cosmic conflict level stuff pitting parties against one of most iconic creatures woven into the fabric of the game itself. Going all out might incorporate the book of vile darkness into this campaign as well, with servants of Vecna seeking to gather all three D&D artifacts to return their master to power. At that point the sword of Kas could be required to put an end to the evil. High level D&D campaigns are challenging enough to begin, and adding two, three or four unbelievably powerful and evil magic items into a campaign could have disastrous results.
Wand of Orcus
Another iconic D&D artifact the wand of Orcus was rather mundane in the early days of the game in comparison to the 5E D&D version. At least these days a creature has a chance at surviving merely touching the thing.
“This instrument causes death (or annihilation) to any creature, save those of like status (other princes or devils, saints, godlings, etc.) merely by touching their flesh.”
You’re gonna have to put Kevin Feige to shame with this one, since the goals of Orcus and by extension the wand of Orcus is singular — destroy all life in the multiverse. You thought Thanos and the snap heard ’round the universe was bad? The demon prince Orcus has no desire to balance out life to conserve resources or prolong the lifespan of the cosmos. Orcus seeks nothing less than slaying everything in existence. Going up against forces like this is going to require the absolute best planning, strategy and resources and even then it’s a grim outlook.
Wand of Orcus campaign and adventure hook
Orcus sometimes intentionally allows the wand of Orcus to leave his grasp and fulfill a vile agenda. This being the case I’d put this evil D&D artifact in the hands of commoner and go from there. The wand is smart, charismatic and has a personality designed to drag creatures down into depravity and evil. A campaign featuring the wand of Orcus strikes me as a tragedy for the wielder, corrupted so thoroughly that they don’t care or realize their own mortal destruction is part of the artifact’s designs. It kind of reminds me of Crenshinibon from The Crystal Shard book.
Another way to incorporate the wand of Orcus into a campaign is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and that’s a full-on undead themed campaign. In a post apocalyptic world overrun with undead, small pockets of life struggle to survive the horrific darkness and evil enveloping everything. The wand of Orcus can be the motivation for the entire campaign and adventure, identifying the wielder as the Thing to Overcome. Since the adventurers would have a clear understanding who their ultimate enemy is — the wielder who rules over all with the power of death — this campaign would focus on carefully traveling the land avoiding detection and revealing their goals to undead enemies.
Quest goals would be things like learning the lore of the wand and gathering information about the wielder to glean any advantages to defeating them. With the knowledge, then it becomes a matter of retrieving the soul of an ancient hero, true resurrection-ing them and then taking it to the Positive Energy plane.
Final thoughts on evil D&D artifacts
All of these discussed here and in the video represent the kinds of threats and consequences high level D&D adventurers face. This isn’t really in my wheelhouse so it’s challenging to imagine what campaigns and adventures featuring these evil D&D artifacts are like. On top of that, I’m a squeamish person and I don’t enjoy exploring the sorts of dark twisted themes and ideas these items represent.
Of the three, the book of vile darkness intrigues me the most. It is in every way an evil artifact that’ll damn your soul, but i feel like it can be incorporated into a campaign without adventurers ever encountering the book itself. Such a terrible tome was likely sealed away with powerful wards. An inciting incident might be discovery of the book missing. If could have simply vanished, and increased evil activity suggests it is active in the world. Or if could have been closely guarded, and when discovered missing it’s clear there was evil afoot. This could have happened well before the campaign begins for context, and low level adventurers get caught up in a rising tide of evil. Like you do.
Iconic D&D villains like Vecna and Orcus likewise can become amazing antagonists without adventurers ever encountering them directly.
How would you use these evil D&D artifacts in your game, as a player or DM? Have any of your characters ever found these and (gods forbid) used them? What happened next?