The Book of Exalted Darkness and The Book of Celestial Heroes are two books by Legendary Games set in a setting called Askis. I’ll be reviewing the core setting, and the two books seperately. I played two campaigns side-by side for both books from levels 1-20: an evil party and a good party, with both campaigns being linked and in competition with each other. To be more precise, I’m 98% done-I’m about two sessions short of finishing it as of this writing.
I will warn that I used a lot of homebrew and I modified the setting of Askis to be a planet in my own spelljammer-esque setting (the campaigns took place entirely on Askis, but interstellar politics did affect the storyline). Note that this is also a full-spoiler review intended for DMs, so beware.
The Setting of Askis:
To my understanding, the train of thought that led to the publication of Askis is attempting to create a setting that’d be great for an evil campaign. The premise they went with was a world run by the forces of good, in essence an inversion of the premise of settings like Tyranny’s Territus. This is a “post-campaign” world of sorts: imagine a world where your typical good-aligned party has had a campaign all the way to level 20 and succeeded in their goals masterfully.
In essence, Askis is a divine magic version of Ebberon. Whereas Ebberon has undergone and industrial revolution due to arcane magitech, Askis has undergone an industrial revolution due to divinely-powered magitech. They’ve discovered a resource called “Inaequa” which is a sort of holy-fuel. Machines powered by it only work in the hands of good-aligned creatures. This has caused the planet to become a sort of utopia where the forces of evil have been pushed back. The world is now run by demigod-like, level 20 adventurers. The utopian government is dependent upon 9 “spheres” (holy gifts of sorts, virtually none of which are sphere-shaped). BoED asks the party to destroy these spheres, and the BoCH asks them to save them.
Personally, I feel they should have capitalized on a sort of magic-versus-science war. The mechanics presented even sort of represent this: They introduce the good-specific Inaequa technology, while also introducing an evil-specific magic school. Unfortunately, they instead have the primary forces of evil be mad scientists, and don’t have many technology themed heroes. This is a rather sad missed opportunity. It also creates a little bit of a headscratcher: if technology is powered by Inaequa...just what are the mad scientists using? Admittedly this question is easy to headcanon around (likely arcane artifice or mundane technology like batteries). If I had it to do over again, I’d probably have reflavored the mad scientists as wizards. One of the evil players-a druid-did play the sort of character I had in mind: A fanatical luddite trying to bring down the industrial system.
The concept of Inaequa is very cool, to the point that I wish it was in more settings. I’d encourage-even beg-DMs to include Inaequa engineering as a sort of divine counterpart to Artifice if they have artificers in their setting, even if they’re not planning on playing in Askis. It’s the real killer app of this setting.
It’s also perhaps a shame-if one completely outside of its creator’s control-that both books were released long before Ebberon: Rising from The Last War, as there’s a lot it could have benefited from (well, if not for copyright reasons anyways). I’d suggest reading ERTLW and including stuff like The Warforged and The Artificer class. Indeed, it’s also a shame there isn’t an Artificer subclass for Inaequa, though admittedly the Battlesmith works pretty well for this (just replace force damage with radiant), as does Jonoman3000’s Lightslinger. The Greasemonkey’s Handbook is also a great companion to this setting, as Inaequa-powered ATUMs would be epic.
The Book of Exalted Darkness:
The Book of Exalted Darkness is a spiritual successor to The Book of Vile Darkness, both a guide to running an evil campaign in general, and a guide to playing evil campaigns in general.
As a setting for an evil campaign, Askis works pretty well. It’s a setting run by a monolithic force of good, which makes the villains underdogs. You might not root for them per se, but you can at least admire their valor. Similarly, it creates a setting where evil can plausibly be a happy family-they need to work together, because their enemies are very strong. Evil is a cause the villains intend to fight for.
Keep in mind, though, while The BoED doesn’t “force” anything per se, and staunchly condemns virtually everything it depicts (it is an evil handbook, after all), it seems to anticipate the PCs being very evil, which can be a bit of an issue if people would rather play more Bowser or Doofenshmirtz-esque villains (though admittedly, less gratuitous forms of evil are pretty easy to play with the stuff you find in the PHB). My evil party got pretty odd, as some players wanted to play cartoony-villains while others wanted to play more realistic terrorists. The party ended up being a bit like what would happen if Jessie and James teamed up with Pol Pot.
For example, the sample starting adventure it gives, Killing The Golden Twins, essentially depicts the players committing a school shooting (more specifically, they’re sent to assassinate two specific teenagers while they’re at school). The book does remind the DM that it depicts some rather uncomfortable topics, and the book in general does a good job warning them to make damn well sure the players know what they’re getting into when running an evil campaign. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer an alternative adventure or suggestions for alterations, so you’re stuck either with this one or making up your own.
For what it’s worth, my players did give me permission to run this adventure (which I told them involved going to a high school to kill two teenagers), though they didn’t quite seem to realize what they were emulating. They ran into the school literally guns blazing, killing security staff, then were a bit taken aback (not angry or anything, mind you) when it dawned on them they were, well, shooting up a school. Everyone agreed to not kill any students except the twins.
For an alternative starting adventure, I’d probably suggest something along the lines of kidnapping a princess. It’s cliche, sure, but I’d argue that’s often a good trait for a starting adventure to have. Plus, I’d argue starting adventures should be a bit more light-hearted, and then bring down the heavier stuff later (especially for ‘wham episodes’, if you will). This is true even for evil parties, have them start out more ‘harmless villains’ then get them to commit increasingly darker acts.
The other big elephant in the room to consider is The Divine Biologis, or “The Divine Virus'' as I tended to call it. This is one of the spherse of Askis, a disease that remains dormant in a person for a period of time and activates if the person commits sexual assault or rape, in which case it turns them into a sort of good lycanthrope called a Divirulent Hound. It’s an interesting quandry to be sure, and there’s even some non-evil reasons to want to destroy it (the government sponsoring the existence of a bioweapon is rather creepy).
Having said that, the most obvious reason, especially for card-carrying villains, is being pro-rape in some manner. Obviously, not everyone would be overly comfortable with playing that sort of character, even in context. I’d also argue a card-carrying, mustache-twirling villain who drew the line at rape would actually love the divine virus: It not only deals with a form of evil even they reject, it does so in one of the most mustache-twirling ways possible.
There’s no strict obligation to actually destroy it, mind you, but it does feel odd to not destroy one of the spheres if they’re going for a completionist run of sorts. Personally, here’s my recommendation: don’t have the virus be a latent disease or connected to sexual assault directly. Instead, have it be a sort of good counterpart to traditional lycanthropy: the Divirulent Hounds are pseudo-werewolves that exclusively hunt down and infect evil humanoids.
While Askis is a great setting for an evil campaign, they do cheat a bit in two ways: some of The Celestial Heroes are secretly evil, and Inaequa itself is actually secretly damaging Askis and needs to be destroyed in order to save it.
I’m not overly fond of either twist, personally. I consider it bad form when using a villain protagonist (or villain protagonists, as it were) to make their antagonist a hero who is secretly evil or a "Designated Hero" as TV Tropes would call it. It undermines the point of an evil-perspective story by turning it essentially into another form of good-perspective story. In truth, I’d actually encourage the DM to give the enemies they fight moral victories of sorts-the enemies might die off in droves, but let them die heroically. My players, at least, liked it when that sort of thing happened.
Plus, a lot of villains are portrayed as believing the forces of good are secretly just as bad as they are, and they’re more moral for admitting it. I could see Quickfoot and the like confirming this worldview. Personally, I think this is a stupid worldview and I don’t think giving it any sort of confirmation is wise, even here. Even if its premises are true (they aren’t), shamelessly admitting that you’re evil does not make you better, it makes you worse.
With Inaequa specifically, one of the more interesting things about it is that it-and the effects it has on society-can be pretty unnerving in a way, but it’s not actually evil per se, even when you think about it. For example, one could argue it harms free will, but does it? It’s not like it’s a mind control device. It simply stacks the deck in favor of good. It’s enough of a quandary that giving it a dark secret makes it less interesting. This is true of Askis’s society in general: In many ways, it’s a rather creepy and dystopian society if you’re an evil person, but that doesn’t mean the society is evil.
The real meat of the book is the new mechanics and subclasses added. It adds two new ability scores: Sin and Sanctity. Sin represents how evil you are in a sense, while sanctity represents how good you are at pretending to be good to magic items and the like. For example, sin lets you corrupt Inaequa devices, while sanctity lets you use them despite being evil.
Personally, I did not use these scores (roll20 doesn’t support them), but I do like them. If you decide to not use them, however, the trick I found was to use wisdom in place of sanctity and charisma in place of sin whenever the rules call for a sin or sanctity check. Wisdom here represents “the ability to suppress evil thoughts in order to trick alignment-detecting magic” and Charisma represents “your overwhelming hatred and will”.
One class it introduces is The Mad Scientist. Mechanically, it’s very similar to a Warlock, though I think it’s a bit better. Not a bad angle to take it, since the Warlock is all about ‘blasting’, but I will recommend The Artificer class over it. There are also some prestige classes, but I never did look at them.
Regarding the subclasses, I’ll express my opinions on some of them in order:
The Abyssal/Infernal Domain: Fiend-worshipping clerics are practically something that should have been in the base game. So uh, good job.
Circle of Necrobotony: A logical place to take an evil druid, though it does overlap quite a bit with The Circle of Spores.
Gruesome Salvager: Basically it’s a ranger that cuts off other creature’s body-parts and grafts them onto itself. That’s awesome.
Gray Knight Warlock Patron: Basically, if Mordenkainen was a Warlock rather than a Wizard, this guy would be his patron. Has a lot of anti-magic powers, which fits the flavor pretty well.
Gray Druid: Older edition druids who like to maintain the balance of good and evil. A small issue with it and the Gray Knight is that this setting doesn’t really give a ton of room for neutral characters.
Masquerading Heretic: Basically if you want to pretend to be good, this is the class for you. It gives mechanics to fool magic and the like that detects alignment.
Warrior of Darkness: Making an evil-flavored fighter must not have been easy. This one mostly works, for the record, though it is a little complicated. Essentially, it scars itself.
The Meat Patron: The Warlock’s flavor is the one that best lends itself to evil and general spookiness. The Meat Patron has a lot of competition, but it manages to rise above and beyond by being an inner voice of the warlock that drives them to eat human flesh. Uh, yeah, that’s pretty creepy. Even the description is creepy.
Vile Magic Wizard: To be perfectly clear, if nothing else, this is the reason why you should buy this book. Or, more specifically, the Vile Magic School. Initially, I assumed that necromancy covered evil wizards, but this manages to be distinct while being at least as evil. My favorites are blood bullet, blood spear, and savage break. Savage break lets you rip a bone out of somebody and then toss it at someone else, and Blood Bullet lets you use your blood as a projectile. Plus, every spellcasting class can learn Vile Magic, which is amazing. Sadly, my players seldom used it, but it’s something you can throw at good-aligned PCs to great effect.
The Book of Celestial Heroes
The Book of Exalted Darkness created a setting that’s pretty cool, and as such, it made sense to make a book for more conventional heroes in it.
As a setting for a good party, it mostly works. However, I would make a couple changes. For example, the book says that there is little unexplored wilderness. Personally, I would change this: have it so there are a lot of ruins of the world from before the Utopian Dawn, and many regions of wilderness, especially in the Samovi continent. Samovi, incidentally, is also a great place to put dinosaurs (something every campaign setting should have). The reason being to give them something to fight despite the utopian world. Not every danger is necessarily ‘evil’ as we know it. It might also be utopian in the cities, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t small amounts of evil or danger beyond.
The book implements new subclasses, but sadly no druid or warlock (aside from the ‘grey’ ones that are also in the BoED). This is especially a shame for The Warlock, as The Warlock is the class that most needs a ‘holy’ subclass. The good news is: if you happen to own Xanathar’s Guide, you can use The Celestial Warlock Patron and The Circle of Dreams. As for other subclasses:
Holy Spirit Primal Path: Basically, you get possessed by angels while raging. I had overlooked this one while playing, but now that I’m re-reading it, I kind of love the flavor of that.
College of The Celestial Song: Basically, it’s a worship leader. I’m very glad this exists, as the angel playing a harp sort of deal is a great way to take a bard.
Oath of The Angelic Warrior: Y’know, when I heard they were making a Paladin subclass, I was worried. A ‘holy’ or ‘good’ themed Paladin is incredibly redundant. Luckily, they pulled it off in the form of the Angelic Warrior. Basically, you Paladin so hard, you actually gain angelic organs.
Inquisitor Ranger: A ranger that hunts down evil creatures. If you’re expecting to fight evil, then this is a great class to have. It is a bit overpowered, though, so I might suggest make its Champion Against Evil feature a once-per-day deal.
Samaritan Rogue: I once was in a campaign where this guy played a rogue who was a good natured, pacifistic kid guile-hero. This is the subclass I wish the DM had let him play.
Holy Arcane Tradition: The Holy Magic School has a few issues. The first one is the name. “Holy” magic implies divine magic, which isn’t necessarily how it works. I’d suggest changing the name to ‘Exalted’ magic or something. The other thing is simply that there aren’t as many cool new spells here, and not every class can learn every Holy spell. There are two stand-out spells, however: Lance of Light, and Holy Hand Grenade. That last one’s spell text is the best thing ever.
Of course, the coolest thing in Askis is the Inaequa. As with Vile Magic for the BoED, This is the main reason, in my opinion, to buy this book. Again, I recommend DMs consider putting Inaequa as a sort of variation of Artifice in their games even if they’re not in Askis and make Inaequa weapons special magic items. Still, not every DM is liable to follow that advice, which is a shame. In any event, here are the Inaequa subclasses:
Inaequa Inventor: A good counterpart to the Mad Scientist using Inaequa goodies. I’m mildly disappointed it focuses on healing-I’d rather it had focused on radiant blasting, but it can do that too. Besides, most classes need a healer subclass. Apparently, playing with Inaequa devices requires one to follow a lot of bureaucratic rules and dodge a lot of red tape, but Inaequa Inventors are so intelligent-and perhaps crazy-that they can actually read, understand, and follow EULA agreements.
College of Inaequa Tinkering: Essentially, these are people who would be Inaequa Inventors, but bend the rules of their EULA too much. Their more dangerous methods of experimenting cause them to be sent to a special college instead. I will say it’s a little odd to have a charisma-based technologist class in this context, but it works I suppose as something between an Inaequa Inventor and the Deviant Technologist below.
The Deviant Technologist: These folk tinker with Inaequa so much that they’re basically shunned from all academic institutions. Apparently, Askis takes EULA agreements very seriously. I’m not 100% sure why Askis doesn’t want people playing with Inaequa. I mean, I suppose corrupted Inaequa devices can blow up in your face, though that’s solvable with the proper training. Tucker Quickfoot might be the answer.
Inaequateer Ranger: I accidentally named this one when I proposed the name ‘Inaequateer’ at some point while looking over playtest material to its creators. And I didn’t even get my name in the credits, tsk tsk (just kidding). I was actually proposing it as the name of what would become the Inaequa Inventor, if I recall, but it works well for the Inaequa Ranger too. Anyways, The Inaequateer is a warrior who specializes in Inaequa weaponry. Personally, I would have went for a fighter subclass for this, but Ranger works quite well too, especially since you’ll mostly be using guns in all likelihood.
Probably my biggest issue with Inaequa weapons is that virtually none of them can kill, or even bring an opponent down to zero hit points, unless you take a certain feat. This might not sound like too big a deal, but it is enough that a lot of my players stayed away from Inaequa weapons until the the late-game.
The book also has two classes, The Exemplar and The Feywalker.
Regarding Exemplar: At first glance, I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of The Exemplar is. It appears to be a cross between a fighter and a paladin. I suspect it could work if you wanted a superhero class, which is admittedly something I’ve wanted. That isn’t to say it’s bad, I just am not sure why it exists.
Feywalker: You get a fairy godparent, essentially. While I’m having a little trouble nailing down its precise identity, it does do much better than the Exemplar in that regard. They’re a martial class that gains a bond with either Fey, Beasts, or Plants and gets a companion in the process. Apparently, it’s supposed to be somewhere between a druid and a Warlock.
Oh, one quick sidenote: Having some of the celestial heroes be secretly evil actually works for The Book of Celestial Heroes. I still am not overly fond of Inaequa destroying the world (since it means you have to destroy it, getting rid of something that makes the setting very unique), but it does fit the themes here much better.
Having it turn out that some of The Celestial Heroes are evil also works great and can be a nice conspiracy to uncover, especially since they’re the people they work for. This could be something almost Deus Ex-like. I attempted to subvert this, personally: I decided early on Inaequa and the Celestial Heroes were actually quite good, but I did have Mordenkainen show up to the Good Party to try to persuade them that The Celestial Heroes had a great evil within them and that Inaequa was destroying the world (these claims were untrue in my version of the setting, though Mordenkainen believed them). However, the more good-leaning characters saw through it and the more mercenary characters simply didn’t care. A bounty hunter PC attacked Mordenkainem mid-sentence and a difficult fight ensued, which (impressively) they won.
The two main features of either books are Vile Magic and Inaequa, both are things I do love.Having said that, there are a few things that are superfluous (like the Exemplar class), better done elsewhere (like the Mad Scientist class), and some stuff that’s just rough around the edges mechanically.
Personally, I would recommend it pretty strongly, but do be prepared to put in some work to smooth things out. If you like Ebberon, you’ll like the Askis setting. The Vile Magic from Exalted Darkness is useful even if you aren’t running an evil campaign (you can hand it to your NPC villains).
Honestly, I wish the setting had more people talking about it. I could see it really taking off, especially if people tried making their own homebrew and stuff for it.
I’m expecting to miss this world, too, and almost wish to run this campaign again. Admittedly, though, that’s in large part because I grew quite a bit as a DM and now have a more solid idea of what I want to do with the setting and my own. If I had a new group of players, I’d probably give another swing at it.