I find realism to be overrated in games. I’m telling stories with my friends and usually the games that focus on realism get dragged down in rules that make telling those stories harder. Books that add more rules to a game I like generally don’t interest me. Survivalist’s Guide To Spelunking made these promises but it also namechecked Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, a classic D&D book that was something of a magazine that included interesting ideas and mechanics. I was intrigued enough to request a review copy. AAW Games even went so far as to tap Douglas Niles as one of the authors of this book. What did Niles, Stephen Yeardley and Thilo Graf come up with for Fifth Edition? Let’s play to find out.
Survivalist’s Guide to Spelunking offers details on the nitty gritty elements of underground adventures. Fifth Edition sticks to the battles and the exploration while generally glossing over the details of keeping supplies dry and how to best ascend or descend a rock face. The book offers a mix of real world details, fantasy world implications and rules systems built for Fifth Edition. The book also features solid black and white line artwork and a three column layout that evoke the earlier book. Each chapter opens with a bit of fiction laying out the experiences of Dugmore Dimple, an expert Dwarven spelunker (though these segments also end with footnotes that detail where the dwarf may have been exaggerating his expertise).
The chapters tend to follow the same structure. They start with concrete real world details about the subject and then slowly but surely extrapolate how those details can affect the stories told set underground. The drier sections can read like GURPS Caves but even those can provide something useful. The best of those books contained small details that can delight players and drive Game Masters into a Wikipedia hole full of inspiration. I’ve played plenty of games set in old, abandoned mines and I never thought to explore the various processes that can be used to pull valuable substances from the ground.
These sections then discuss how these real world elements might be different in a fantasy world or an “underworld” which becomes the generic term for an Underdark-style massive underground ecosystem. Mines might have traps in them to prevent people from stealing the ore and those traps might still be set even if the mine is tapped out. The book also encourages designing underground systems with an eye to three dimensions beyond the usual discrete levels that most people think of when putting together a dungeon.
The mechanical elements vary from a small section detailing modifiers to more substantial subsystems. For example, there’s a more detailed look at camping that makes rests a bit more challenging when not in the safety of a comfy bed at the inn. A lot of these systems feel like they would be interesting to people who have a real world grounding in this stuff. Does your table have a rock climber who wants to show off what they know when your group has to scale a mountain? This book may help you find a way to do that.
My favorite mechanic, perhaps unsurprisingly, is one that aims for dynamism over realism. The momentum rules encourage players to stay moving during a battle. Rather than just running up to a bad guy and grinding it down until someone runs out of hit points, players gain momentum by moving around the battlefield. They can use that momentum to pull off flashy maneuvers like called shots and disarming attempts rather than waiting for a natural 20 to possibly trigger such moments. It reminded me of the best thing from the previous edition; battlefields full of combatants trying to find a balance between protecting themselves from harm and positioning themselves in the ideal place to fire off a cool move most effectively. The rules also seem poised to give fighters and non-magic users a bit more versatility. Plus they come in two flavors: a simple version that functions like Inspiration and a more complex version that allows players to build up points for bigger moves.
Survivalist’s Guide to Spelunking drills down to a level of detail that Dungeon Masters might find appealing while surprising those who usually don’t sweat the details.