Dungeonscape
Written by Jason Bulmahn and Rich Burlew
Published by Wizards of the Coast
www.wizards.com/dnd
160 full color pages
Hardcover
$29.95

When looking at this book, the only thing you need to judge is the following. If you enjoy this statement, the book is for you, if not, move on. “When a dungeon builder needs a deterrent, the only thing better than a giant pit of acid is a giant pit of acid with a shark in it.”

Dungeonscape is a big toolbox to enable the GM to make better dungeons and for players to make characters better able to thrive in those environments. Most of the book is aimed at the GM though and if I was just looking at this book as a player, I’d pass on it due to the limited utility in that regard.

For players, we have options to modify your normal gear such as hallow hilts for weapons or a wand bracer for spellcasters to carry their gods around. New alchemical items include ghostwall shellac to prevent those pesky incorporeal undead as well as lava stones, a pebble that becomes a 2 foot diameter column of stone that the user can use to move along the lava.

We have new armor and weapon special abilities ,like restful armor where you can finally enjoy that good night’s sleep you’ve always known you’ll need when fighting in a dungeon. For those more interested in making the best of what they have, there’s some advice on what magic items are best for use in the dungeon environment. This includes sovereign glue to keep those pesky doors closed for when iron spikes don’t do the job.

One thing that’s nice about the book, is that it functions as a bit of a reminder/timesaver for the players and GMs. For example, one of the things that’s not fun is buying standard equipment. Here we have a list of numerous kits that players can buy that includes item, quantity, cost, and weight. There are also notes on useful skills and feats for players to look over before moving into the old Dungeon.

While there are new feats, the number is small. Included in that number though, are new Weapon Style Feats that should be familiar to some. Hammer and Piton and Weapon and Torch styles are truly ground in classic moments of the game.

For those using the Teamwork rules from the DMG2, there are new abilities to select. For those looking for prcs, we have advice on which ones from previous books are useful, as well as two new ones, the beast heart adept and the trapsmith. The former is a master of monsters and the latter of traps. Neither one struck me as particularly useful, especially the latter as the open d20 community has dozens and dozens of such PrCs.

One thing I don’t get is why they put guilds in the character option section. Sure, it’s up to the players to join the guild, but it’s really something the GM has to add to the world which takes a lot more work on the GM’s hand than it does the player. Still, it’s nice to know that there are whole organizations out there that make it a point to study and defend against those things in the old dungeons. Included are affiliation scores and the benefits from the different ranks.

Some of my favorite bits for players come at the start of the book under the switching of standard class options. Don’t like having a familiar as a sorcerer? Swap it out for the ability to shield yourself by sacrificing spell levels. Lots of neat little stuff like that.

The new class, the Factorium… didn’t do anything for me. It’s a jack of all trades with medium bad, good ref saves, special abilities and spellcasting abilities. It’s not bad or anything and it’s d8 hit dice means they won’t be the first down in a fight but it just struck me as… substandard?

For Game Masters, there are lots of bits scattered in the book. For example, while players have mechanics and other fun stuff in chapter one, there’s also a section on dungeon terrain including various walls like magma, ice, and bone as well as floors made of various substances like ooze and souls. There are a lot of little touches for special terrain that have game effects like how deadwood gives undead creatures standing on it turn resistance and bonuses to attack, saves, and skill checks.

With 4e looming, as I reread through the book for specifics to call out, I was impressed by how much of the book is just plain old advice and that in the writing, it was like the authors were having fun with it, winking at the whole absurdity of a dungeon setting, but realizing that some of the greatest adventures in the game take place in such settings and at the same time, treating it with the respect it deserves.

For example, when 4e comes along, you should still be asking yourself, what’s the function of the dungeon? What’s its origin? What type of inhabitants does it have? Are there creatures there that follow a different way of life than those on the surface? Are there factions within the dungeon, and if so, how do they interact with one another? The lists like ten traits of legendary dungeons take a nod from previous editions, so a new edition will benefit from thinking about what sets the ‘new’ dungeon apart from the old.

Now having lists of standard dungeon casts and dungeon themes are useful, and having details on some of the various rooms after room that can be in a dungeon are time saving, there are new monsters in here. We have the rot grub swarm and the ascomoid. The former a vermin swarm and the latter a plant. It’s good to see the rot grub again but I was more impressed by some of the templates. The acidborn monster I couldn’t take seriously. The initial quote that I used at the top of the page makes me think of Austin Powers too much. I keep looking at the picture expecting it to have a ‘friggin’ laser on it’s head. Other’s though, like the Guardian Monster, come in handy. The guardian has better senses than others of its kin. The dungeonbred monster on the other hand, is bred to be smaller, making monsters that normally wouldn’t be in a dungeon a perfect fit.

There are numerous other bits in the book that make it a nice fit like a whole chapter on traps, a top ten list on why dungeons fail, and lots of good advice on how the atmosphere and mechanics of the game can affect the game itself. For example, the section that talks about switching out the default feats for a monster doesn’t require any new mechanics and while it’s not something brand new, the examples make you sit up and think and go, “Ah…. Yes…. I see how doing something so simple can result in almost a new encounter. Great!”

While 4e may invalidate some of the mechanics here, and possibly the gold standard used in this book, it’s great advice and numerous lists make it a handy book to have for GMs who may have skipped over the things that make dungeon crawling fun and the tone it’s written in is so far from stuffy and boring that you may find yourself looking over it just for some random ideas when filling out other adventures like Expedition to Castle Greyhawk.