Not Just the Underdark – GGG Reviews Into the Unknown: the Dungeon Survival Handbook

Hullo, Gentle Readers. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Dungeons are a major part of the Dungeons and Dragons game. For the uninitiated, I’m not talking about someplace that a king sends people to be forgotten (although that’s one possibility). I’m talking about fortified underground defense installations. I’m talking about perilous lairs and macabre vaults…dungeons deep and caverns old, as it were.

As a big fan of D&D, I am also a big fan of dungeons. I’m always surprised when someone says that they don’t care for the dungeons aspect of D&D. I usually find that the person who doesn’t like them doesn’t feel they fit into the story they’re telling. Well, I love story in my RPGs, and my dungeons are often highly tied into the setting and story I’m presenting to my players. Cities are great, and a wilderness adventure can be a blast, but give me a good old fashioned dungeon crawl any day.
The writers of Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook</B (which I will refer to as ItU from now on) clearly have the same love of dungeons that I do. So I wanted to review this book, which is, frankly, a love-letter from 4E to the dungeons of yore.

Love for the Players

This book is full of love and options for player characters who are going to be exploring dungeons. New options for races, themes, and powers are included, and there’s a huge chapter of advice on how to survive those nasty dungeons. There’s even a section on infamous dungeons that has me longing to pull out some of my old modules and convert them to 4E.

New race options include a full expansion on how to play goblins and kobolds as player characters in 4E. While there are some minor rules for doing so in the Monster Manual, this fleshes them out fully, with racial bonuses, racial Utility powers, racial feats, and plenty of RP advice. The svirfneblin ,the deep gnomes of the old days of D&D, finally get some 4E lovin’. And no, Chris, they aren’t 3 apples high and blue.

New themes are geared towards ones that would have good reason to enter the depths. Although most of these tie more to the Underdark in particular, they work well as straightforward dungeon explorers, too.
Almost everyone gets new powers that’re geared towards darkness, light, and being underground. Even the much ignored Runepriest and Seeker get some new powers. Woo hoo! And there are a plethora of new skill powers as well. Many of these powers are tied to new organizations that a DM can drop whole cloth into their game, but this hardly seems mandatory if you just want the cool new powers.

The section of advice for players talks about dungeon survival tactics, types of dungeons, monsters that’re commonly found in dungeons (along with advice on how to recognize an area that’s been infested with specific critters), and a bunch of new equipment for your characters to spend their hard-earned gold on.

Love for the DMs

While DMs will get a lot out of the sections meant for players, there are whole chunks that’re only meant for the DM alone. There are details on involving the PCs by tying their themes to the adventure, and a section on running an Underdark adventure that really stress how to make the Underdark scary, awesome, and Not just a series of caves to walk through.

There’s a great section I intend to raid copiously on “Dungeon Makers.” Obviously, a dungeon built by dwarves and a dungeon built by kuo-toa are going to be vastly different. This sections suggests how these dungeons might differ…common sorts of rooms to expect to find there, specific terrain and features that’re likely, and so on. This section can really go a long way towards making each dungeon reflect its builders. No dungeon need be “just another dungeon”.

There’s also a section that made me grin like an idiot. In it, they come up with a decent way to return some of the game’s ancient history in the form of 4 spells: Mass Heal, Polymorph, Power Word Kill, and Wish. Instead of these being standard spells, they’re offered as “Scrolls of Power” extremely rare magic-items that can put the powers of these magics in the PCs’ hands. This makes them very similar to artifacts, complete with tying them to specific Tiers of play and offering advice on kinds of quests that might offer them as rewards.

The Companion Rules from DMG2 get a little boost in the form of 4 ready to use companion characters. All of them have great hooks and would be fun to include in a campaign, but the one that’s likely to make players of earlier editions smile is good old Meepo, the kobold dragon-keeper from the Sunless Citadel.
Finally, an excellent set of Random Dungeon tables round out the book. Far from being the simple tables in the back of the original DMG, these are more around themes and feel for a random dungeon, including a mastermind, what kind of monsters might be encountered, and so on.

Summing It Up

If you’re a player or a DM who loves dungeons, ItU is definitely for you. If you’re not a dungeon fan, then you might give this one a miss. But the ideas in this book might give even the most ardent anti-dungeon hater a second thought about using this venerable institution in their D&D game. After all, without dungeons, the game is just “and Dragons”. And who wants that.

Your Turn

Do you love or hate dungeons? Is there an infamous dungeon you’ve survived, like the Tomb of Horrors or Castle Ravenloft? Do you have an opinion on this book? Let us all know.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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