One-Hour Review: Dungeon Survival Handbook

I don’t know if you were aware but 2012 is the year for Rise of the Underdark. This might be a surprise to one or two of you out there, despite the not-so-subtle, full-page advertisements at the end of any Dragon and Dungeon article over the past few months, but there you have it. To be honest, it’s not really making my calendar most of the time.

I’m not a big drow fan and setting most of my campaigns in Eberron means the drow don’t care about the Underdark that much anyways (and that the Underdark is rather different when we do visit).

The only product I’ve been really keen on looking at as the Underdark rises is the Dungeon Survival Handbook, which has been changing names left and right but continuously putting out cool new content. Now that I’ve gotten a hold of Into the Unknown, let’s take a look at what the first hour has to offer.

Let me start by saying what I expect to get out of Into the Unknown. This probably doesn’t count as a confession, but I can count on one hand the times I’ve sent my PCs on a classic dungeon delve as a Dungeon Master. A dungeon in the middle of the woods that everyone knows about but is still there for the plundering has always struck me as the worst sort of cliche.

It doesn’t make sense, it promotes lazy storytelling, and it actively makes it hard for the players to anticipate the story, use NPC relationships, or even tell one adventure site from another. It’s literally a hole in the ground that houses monsters which the local government leaves to wandering mercenaries to take care of.

At their best, dungeons transport characters out of the world where they’ve built all their backstory and into the Underdark where its all drow and kuo-toa and paranoia. That, I can get into.

In Into the Unknown we’ll hopefully see some ways for DMs and players to turn that on its head. I want to read this book and at the end feel excited, not resigned, to send my players into one of these holes and not feel like the plot gets left on the threshold. I want them to seem like real spaces with a reason for existing, and not just a monster holding pen or an Underdark teleporter.

Chapter One: Dungeon Delvers

The first chapter is clearly player-oriented covering character themes, races, and dungeon-themed powers. There’s an overview of themes (helpful for those without Dark Sun or a DDI account) and a brief list of some interesting themes for those who want to be at home in the dungeon.

First off, there’s the bloodsworn who are adventurers with a particular grudge against a certain group. “Evil emerges from below to work villainy on the innocent,” which is not a promising opening for my hopes at a more nuanced dungeoneering world.

There’s a nasty little sidebar on how to hit enemies particularly hard in demoralizing ways, but interestingly there’s no mechanical way for your bloodsworn to gain a bonus against a specific foe. Unlike 3e rangers or other hunters, you never actually say who your target is so the mechanics are a little divorced from the flavor. Disappointing.

Next there are deep delvers who are cave explorers from the surface or native-born. Most of the deep delver’s powers are using Dungeoneering in interesting ways, but there are other neat tricks like using cover especially well, gaining blindsight 2, and reducing falling damage.

The escaped thrall are former slaves of abominations and have a very strong flavor as resistors of psychic enslavement while also letting them tap into the madness they are left with if they dare. Solid stuff, and reminiscent of Changeling in a weird way.

The trapsmith is a surprisingly appealing choice of theme, unsurprisingly a master lockpick and trap-tripper. There are some really good half-tactic, half-flavor sidebars on setting and dealing with traps as well which I love.

The treasure hunter is a neat idea too and the mechanics are admirable but not always fitting with the theme. “Treasure hunter” might be “useful trick master” as well since they’re powers are aimed at using tactics that in-the-know players are fond of. Good and bad.

Underdark envoy is a welcome variation on a theme seen throughout the Heroes of… series. Hailing from one subterranean city as representative (like their Gloomwrought and fey compatriots) they have a mix of combat and social abilities as well as a solid background story which makes them look really fun. There’s also a how-to sidebar on what to bribe which Underdark race with what.

The last theme, underdark outcast, is also an excellent addition with a good story behind it. Outcasts are dismissed from their community (there’s a sidebar with reasons why) and the powers aren’t too Underdark-themed that it couldn’t also be used for a goliath outcast, a disgraced knight, or something similar.

The new races are pretty straightforward and not a lot of new crunch. Goblins and kobolds are both repeated stat-blocks from the Monster Manual, but the extra material on protraying a faithful-but-interesting member of the race is definitely useful.

Goblins have feat options like Wrist Biter (deal damage when you use goblin tactics) and Goblin Feint (which gives you combat advantage with goblin tactics), as well as utility powers like leg up (increased jumping when you can use an adjacent creature) and fast filch (make a pick pockets attempt as a minor action at will). These are some interesting goblins, but then I root for underdogs.

The kobold has feats including Trapbuster (roll twice to find traps) and Eldritch Momentum (gain combat advantage when moving and using warlock’s curse) which aren’t as great options as the goblin’s, and the kobold’s utility powers include flee! (allies gain bonus against opportunity attacks and you shift) and trap-gang method (push an enemy in the way of a trap you trigger to absorb half the damage, at will).

The new race is the svirfneblin who are a lot darker than the last time I saw them. Goth-like and determined they prefer to swarm enemies with warlock curses and ranger arrows. Those familiar with previous versions might see the old svirfneblin poking through with their meekness: when they aren’t taking slipping through the shadows on a mission of vengeance, they are happy to be part of a team and proud of their families. Interesting combination.

Their stone camouflage power is a modified fade away: you gain only partial concealment but also heal hit points. The only thing missing is that they don’t explicitly count as gnomes for feats and such… Oversight or purposeful?

Skipping ahead for time concerns to the powers there are class powers and skill powers both for a variety of characters. This book definitely benefits from coming at the end of 4e and has options for classes from every source, though not every class.

There’s love for the artificer, assassin, barbarian, bard, battlemind, cleric, druid, fighter, invoker, paladin, psion, two ranger powers, three rogue powers, runepriest, seeker, shaman, sorcerer, two wardens, warlock, and warlord. Quite a list.

By contrast, the skill powers are concentrated around Arcana, Dungeoneering, and Insight with a handful of others as well. This is definitely a range of character types, though, and the best part is that these powers are organized into sections based on character hooks.

Do you fear the things that live in the dark? Covet the secrets of the deep guides? Live in the shadow of an aberrant stronghold? Possess drow training from your past? There are seven sections in total with powers and fluff all sorted for you. The best way to use this, I think is in reverse by starting with one of these categories and deciding from their suggestions and options what class-theme(-race?) combination works best.

Chapter Two: Strive to Survive

The second chapter is a little more what I expected when I first heard about this book, the stuff I wasn’t terribly impressed to consider. There are tactics and suggestions for would-be dugeoneers, but the delivery is straightforward and, given the rest of the book, a breath of fluff instead of a whole treatise on metagaming.

There’s a section on Expert Delving Tactics which gives you the inside scoop on climbing, darkness, secret doors, stealth, clearing rooms, resting up, sustenance, water dangers (often overlooked), traps, hazards, and rituals you might want to carry.

There’s also a small sidebar on Dungeon Don’ts which warns against common errors like bringing animals to trip traps and checking everything obsessively and thinking you’re safe.

The next section deals with Dungeon Types which I appreciate given my distrust of dungeons mentioned above. Caves are the most natural assumption for a dungeon complex and crypts are a close second, but both benefit from some fresh ideas and explanations.

Then there are some unorthodox types of dungeons including the purposeful death trap (looking at you Acererak), the floating castle (a dungeon in the sky!), ice palaces, magic laboratories (like Undermountain), mazes, mines, prisons, sewers, volcanic tunnels, and warrens. All of these give dungeon types I haven’t thought about that much which might give my players a delving experience that doesn’t make me feel like I’m phoning it in.

There’s another section on Dungeon Denizens which doesn’t offer much to an experienced DM but make for a good in-character bit of dungeoneering knowledge. Any of these could be a scrap of paper handed to the party by an ally when they ask about a dark tunnel they are thinking of heading down.

The section on Infamous Dungeons is definitely meant for long-time players and includes sidebars on the publication history of its subject matter. Castle Ravenloft, the Ghost Castle of Inverness, the Lost City of Cynidicea, the Pyramid of Amun-Re, White Plume Mountain, the Tomb of Horrors, the Temple of Elemental Evil, and the Gates of Firestorm Peak all get two to three pages of summary and encouragement for those who want a classic campaign of tunnels and death.

Lastly in this chapter is the section on Dungeoneers’ Tools with all the little crunchy things an enterprising spelunker might desire. Drills, mirrors, tongs, and vial bandoleers are all there for the purchasing if you think you’re going underground, and a host of alchemical items from lung-expanding longbreath to acidic stone eater are yours if you can afford them.

Chapter Three: Master of the Dungeon

The chapter for Dungeon Masters isn’t all terrain features and suggested encounters, although those are here too. The first section deals with involving players and the advice on utilizing themes as tools is useful in all sorts of campaigns. Advice for capturing the feel of the Underdark is useful for campaigns that take place totally underground, or at least significantly down there, and the skill challenges are a good addition to these sorts of campaigns to avoid monotony.

The list of Dungeon Makers can also add spice to your Underdark campaign by changing up the villains, but the list of cultists, drow, duergar, kuo-toa, mind flayers, and a few others is not going to rock the boat too much although the hooks are well-written.

I won’t spend too much time on the Power Word scrolls since they’ve been seen in a preview, except to say they still seem cool and worth basing a good story around.

The last piece on Dungeon Companions is good with a drow refugee, a troglodyte hunter, Meepo the comic-relief kobold, and a juvenile umber hulk as possible companions. Good write-ups and an excellent inspiration for other companions in other settings.

Appendices

The last sections are two appendices, one on building a dungeon (with some good advice) and another on random designs (with tables to roll up truly twisty complexes). These are good resources for making classic-style dungeons with a few new twists: that abandoned keep is a lot more interesting when you roll up an ascetic dragon lord, his crafty lycanthrope minions, and stirges in the nooks and corners… Write that epic, Perkins!

All in all, I think this book both met and fell short of my needs. It’s a solid book for those who love dungeon crawls and want as much inspiration, resources, and options as they can get for them. If you don’t like dungeons so much (like me!) there’s lots in here to bring you around but not really enough to really change my mind entirely.

One reason I bought this book (besides this review) was because a party I’m running is headed for some dungeon-like complexes and I wanted to find a reason to make those larger parts than I’d originally planned. I’m still not planning on running epic dungeons (I’d much rather they beg, borrow, and steal to get there and then have a short jaunt inside) but this book will let me gussy the places up a bit so I feel happy with my creations.