3.5 D&D: Drinking Souls

The Book of Vile Darkness is not a book for players. On the fourth page, it lists Hide This Book!, which states that the book should be treated as if it were a published adventure, that it should inform and add to player experience, but never be treated like other player option books.

Let’s ignore this and talk about the Soul Eater, a prestige class that requires you to be Evil and which is contained only in the Book of Vile Darkness.

Mechanically, the Soul Eater is robust. It gets the full base attack bonus, d8 hit dice, and all good saving throws. It requires you to have Weapon Focus (a claw or natural weapon), which includes unarmed strike, so monks and fist-fighters can use it. This is good, because the starting feature of the class is that you can inflict negative levels on anything you touch.

Negative levels are a weird artifact of 3rd edition D&D that betray an origin in 2nd edition. That, a very ‘gamey’ game, had enemies that would do things like heal from damage dealt like their hit points were reversed, or could deal damage based on who had the most valuable loot, things that leant hard on the way the game was a game. Level Drain was one way it did this, where some very dangerous enemies would attack you and drain away levels, requiring you to both get specialised healing (if you got away), lose abilities (while you were right there), and also maybe just die (if you ran out of levels to drain). Level drain was scary in 2e, and in 3e, they softened it somewhat with instead, the addition (hah) of negative levels.

If you impose a negative level on something (oh, and undead are immune to them, we’ll get to that later), you immediately gain 5 temporary hit points for each negative level you bestow. What’s more, the creature you hit suffers the following penalties (via the d20SRD):

  • -1 on all skill checks and ability checks.
  • -1 on attack rolls and saving throws.
  • -5 hit points.
  • -1 effective level (whenever the creature’s level is used in a die roll or calculation, reduce it by one for each negative level).
  • If the victim casts spells, she loses access to one spell as if she had cast her highest-level, currently available spell. (If she has more than one spell at her highest level, she chooses which she loses.) In addition, when she next prepares spells or regains spell slots, she gets one less spell slot at her highest spell level.

There’s also a whole system for how to get rid of these things, but let’s put that aside, because here’s the other, much more important thing: When you have as many negative levels as you have hit dice, you die. No save, no escape, you just die.

This is a big shift in how enemies present. First, enemies’ defenses are very high to protect them from conventional attacks, and their touch AC is typically very low by comparison. It makes sense, bigger things are scarier, and bigger things are easier to touch. Let’s grab an example of a level 7 dragon, the Juvenile Black Dragon because it’s the nearest to the front of the Monster Manual and I don’t want to flip through this book too much. It’s already a monster spread across three pages (god, dragons were so bad here).

Anyway, a Juvenile Black Dragon has an AC of 22, and a touch AC of 10. It’s always hard to work out the ‘right’ damage for a character of a particular level (because 3.5 doesn’t have a meaningful handle on character balance), so instead I grabbed Regdar from Enemies And Allies, who we see at level 5 and level 10. At level 5, his attacks are to +10 to hit for 2d6+7 damage, and at level 10, they’re +18/+13 to hit for 2d6+10 damage. We’re looking at level 6, so let’s just straight up add to the level 5 version and be generous about it – +12/+7 to hit for 2d6+10 damage. We can math that out — if Regdar is standing next to the dragon and whapping away at it, with its AC of 22, the odds that he hits on his first attack are 50/50, and the second attack are 25/75. At an average of 17 damage per attack, that means a turn can be expressed as, say, 13 damage per round, meaning it takes 15 turns to kill it.

By comparison, the Soul Eater can dual wield their hands. Let’s just start with a level 5 fighter, with one level of soul eater, and the feat Two Weapon Fighting. With just their hands, the Soul Eater is making four attacks at +9/+9/+4/+4, (+6 base, +4 from strength, weapon focus feat for their hands). This assumes no flanking or other kinds of bonuses. That is on the first two attacks, the Soul Eater is basically 100% guaranteed to touching, and then on the last two, 75% to hit, and plant the negative level. That means this character kills the Juvenile dragon after four turns.

I know there are math friends right now looking at this and going ‘Talen,’ because I’m doing this in an ugly way, at best.

Now there’s positives and negatives here; after all, if Regdar is doing hit point damage to the dragon, everyone else doing hit point damage is contributing to the same thing, while the Soul Eater is the only one contributing what they contribute. That’s not nothing, and being unable to stack damage with other players is a potentially big problem. This is also only looking at a single big target, which often have the most outsized hit points to hit dice ratio, right?

Well, what about a Troll? At level 6 the rules say you should be able to fight two of them at once, and they regenerate, they’re tough – another good example for the Soul Eater. The Soul Eater can kill a Troll in two turns, chasing an armour class of 11. Similarly the Soul Eater can kill a Gibbering Mouther in one turn, and this is all when this ability first shows up. It scales up from here, as you build for better and more touch attacks.

That’s just showing that doing a negative level on a touch is really, really strong. The Soul Eater gets other stuff as well — buffs based on whether you’ve drained a soul in the last 24 hours, or the ability to shapeshift into people you’ve drained, which is, yes, sick as hell. But it doesn’t matter, right, because the Soul Eater isn’t something you should be able to play, and it’s an evil prestige class, so yeah, obviously it’s allowed to be overpowered, right?

Let’s shelf that for now, the idea that an evil prestige class is allowed to be stronger. Let’s look instead at the flavour of the Soul Eater, its fiction, the fantasy the class lets you fulfill. When you’re playing a Soul Eater, you’re physically very powerful, capable in combat, but in ways that don’t relate to any other classes; you’re not advancing monk abilities, or spellcasting, or sneak attack.

The flavour describing the Soul Eater is as follows:

Bane of all living creatures, the soul eater is a monstrous being that feeds on the very essence of life force. Twisted and evil—even by the standards of creatures such as beholders, lamias, and mind flayers—the soul eater is feared by all creatures that live. Soul eaters are often confused with vampires or other undead, but they are decidedly alive, making their actions all the more heinous.

Soul eaters are usually created against their will. Sometimes, the emissary of an evil god or a powerful fiend approaches a monster on the verge of death. In exchange for continued life, the creature must feed on souls thereafter.

The Book of Vile Darkness, page 66

Now, this is a great story hook. It’s your grieving vampire archetype, it’s your Ravenous, it’s all sorts of cool and interesting as a character hook. If you have some great duty that pulls you onwards, and you’re dying, you might make a deal, and become evil, in order to continue that great duty. From there, there’s a path of guilt and redemption in which you are able, day by day, to slowly turn your character from falling further into that evil’s grasp, to find a way to hold onto your morality and your monstrosity, side by side.

Hold up, you may say. You got to be evil to become a Soul Eater but then if you’re redeemed, you’d stop being a soul eater, right? That probably means, like a fallen Paladin loses access to some Paladin abilities, you’d stop being able to inflict the energy drain, which is the thing that defines you as Evil, right?

Right?

Haha, nope.

You might imagine that the answer to this is nice and clear cut. You want to make sure it’s not ambiguous at all, after all, since Prestige Classes are classes with, like, requirements so if you don’t fulfill the requirements, what does that mean for you, right…? It seems like that’s something that’d be set up ahead of time, something that’d be really clear from the very foundation of the mechanic.

Anyway, it’s not.

There’s nothing in the Dungeon Master’s Guide about what happens when you lose access to the requirements that lets you access the prestige class. Literally nothing. There’s an entry that classes can have that indicate what you become when you lose access to the prerequisites, known as the ‘ex-members’ entry, but this is per class. If a class doesn’t tell you what to do, then… nothing happens.

There’s nothing wrong with starting out Evil, becoming a Soul Eater, and abandoning it immediately. It’s even worse, really, in that you can’t get rid of your Soul Eater level if you start out evil and change your mind! If you’re convinced to change sides from the side of evil as a Soul Eater, you still have those abilities that you can choose to use or choose not to use, and also, weirdly none of them are marked as ‘evil abilities.’ Inflicting negative levels isn’t an evil act!, which means that the only thing about this class that makes it evil is… what?

The vibe?

If you’re concerned about the power, that’s reasonable, of course. You wouldn’t want a melee character closing on an enemy, then immediately imposing, like, a -4 to all of its attacks and gaining 20 temporary hit points to handle the retaliation, right? That would be overpowered…

Probably?

This isn’t about the Soul Eater.

Of course not.

In the Book of Vile Darkness, there’s the Ur-Priest, which is a fantastically powerful divine spellcasting prestige class, and it shows up in most conversations about optimised builds and power levels. And that’s okay, that’s fine, because players probably don’t have access to it. Yeah? Oh wait, the Ur-Priest is in the Complete Divine, as well. And that suddenly makes the prestige class look… different. Without a doubt, the Ur-Priest is the most powerful prestige class in the Book of Vile Darkness. It gets a unique access to spellcasting, where instead of gaining 9 levels of spellcasting over 17 levels, it gains access to those 9 levels of spellcasting over 9 levels. The Ur-Priest casts level 9 spells before a cleric does, and that’s a big deal.

What’s more, the Ur-Priest opens up another weird rules question. See, if you stop being evil, you can’t advance as an Ur-Priest, either, but you don’t lose access to the features of the Ur-Priest you had. So if you take a level of Ur-Priest, tap into the power of the gods that don’t want you realising they’re not special, realise it’s a bad idea, then change your alignment to good (why is refusal to acknowledge gods an inherently evil position, D&D? Hmm), and start taking levels of (say) Divine Oracle, that Divine Oracle wants to advance your divine spellcasting.

From the Ur-Priest.

And you might think ‘well obviously that shouldn’t work,’ and yeah, you can make that judgment call easily! But the rules as written do not stop it working, which is really baffling because this showed up in the Book Of Vile Darkness! The Ur-Priest, which gets to be a full 9 level spellcaster along with whatever else you bolt onto it, doesn’t have rules in place for ‘what if I want to stop being an Ur-Priest,’ but the Paladin in the Player’s Handbook does.

Ostensibly, prestige classes are meant to be balanced. Ostensibly. You’re meant to be able to look at two prestige classes, and assuming, they’re both roughly as difficult to get in as one another, assume that both let you fulfill interesting, different class fantasies that are both about as strong as one another in the places they want to be strong. Which is why it’s ultimately a foolish thing for the Book of Vile Darkness to have these feats and prestige classes at all. That’s meant to be a book of villain stuff! It’s meant to be treated as a treatment on morality and evil in the context of the D&D universe!

Why did you put the Ur-Priest in there?

And then why did you put it in the Complete Divine?

Anyway, the Wizard spell Enervation becomes available at level 7 and it inflicts 1d4 negative levels every time, at range, with no saving throw.

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