A long time ago, in a gaming company far, far away…
It was back in 1986, and TSR was looking on a way to expand upon the successes of Gygax’s famous D-series of modules. Many older D&D players will recall these modules with fondness - and perhaps with a bit of trepidation - because it was the first time we gamers were introduced to the horrors in the labyrinth of caverns which would become known to all fans as the Underdark. Pitting heroic adventurers against the dwellers that lurked in the depths, like drow, umber hulks, kuo-toa, and mind flayers, was considered by many gamers to be the iconic dungeon crawl. So to give AD&D gamers a way to make their own subterranean epic adventures, TSR released the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, a source book containing content for both DMs and Players on how to handle tramping around in the Underdark.
Flash forward to today, and here we find WotC authors are taking a cue from the past, and creating their own version of this guidebook to the deep places of the world. Just this month, Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook was released, offering both players and DMs more detailed content for handling dungeon crawl adventures and for expeditions into the Underdark. And like the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, this new source book is accompanied by a blitz of related products and events, such as D&D Encounters (Web of the Spider Queen), D&D Lair Assault (Spider Killer), two dungeon tile sets, Fortune Card set, and even invasions in video game worlds of D&D Online and Heroes of Neverwinter!
So what sorts of new content does this new “dungeon survival” book offer to the D&D 4E fan, and how does it stack up as to its historical predecessor for guiding players and DMs in their dungeon crawls?
Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook
Design: Logan Bonner (Lead) ,Matt James, Jeff Morgenroth, Robert J. Schwalb & Matt Sernett
Cover Illustrators: Wayne Reynolds (front); Ralph Horsley (back)
Interior Illustrators: Dave Allsop, Eric Belisle, Noah Bradley, Clyde Caldwell, Milivoj Ceran, Julie Dillon, Jesper Esjing, Wayne England, Ralph Horsley, Tyler Jacobson, William O’Connor, Adam Paquette, Wayne Reynolds, Craig J. Spearing, Stephan Tapping, Eva Widermann, Ben Wootten, Kieran Yanner
Cartography: Mike Schley
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Media: Hardcover (160 pages)
Retail Cost: $29.95 ($19.77 from [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Into-Unknown-Survival-Handbook-Dungeons/dp/0786960329/ref=as_li_wdgt_ex?&linkCode=waf&tag=neurogames-20"]Amazon.com[/ame])
Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook is a new supplement of both Player and DM content for D&D 4E, featuring material focused on dungeon crawls and adventuring in the Underdark. The book features player material on three races – Goblins, Kobolds, and Svirfneblin – as well as seven new Character Themes. There are also new organizations and groups which sponsors twenty-four new “dungeon themed” Class Powers and twenty new Skill Powers which are available to a wide range of characters wishing to be more attuned to crawl-style adventures. The book also includes a wide range of advice for both players and DMs for adventuring in variety of dungeons and the Underdark, including new gear and magic items. Appendices include a discussions on dungeon building, as well as a random dungeon crafter for the DM to use to inspire an adventure site quickly.
The production quality of Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook is, as typical of nearly all WotC products, exceptional. It has excellent writing, an easy-to-read layout, and a fairly logical presentation of the content. The book presents special DM notes regarding the topics in sidebars, and the powers, items, and other crunch material is presented in formats readily recognizable to D&D 4E gamers.
The illustrations in Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook are frankly phenomenal, and there is evidence of some really stunning editing to get just the right artwork for the various contents in the source book. The art truly enhances the reading experience of the material being discussed, and helps convey some of the creepier and spectacular aspects of dungeon delving. Sadly, there is only one map in the book, but it was beautifully rendered. I would have liked to see a couple more maps tossed into the book, particularly as examples when different dungeon settings and environments were being discussed.
Despite the fact that Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook is touted on the back cover as useful “whether you’re a Dungeon Master… or a player”, this book really comes across as very player-heavy in the content. The book is divided into three broad chapters, and although there is material presented in the book for the DM, about three-quarters of the pages are aimed at providing players with information on dungeon delving and the Underdark, while only the last chapter seems to be meant for the Dungeon Master. While I read it, I distinctly recall asking myself “where’s the DM stuff?” I can’t deny that Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook has DM material in it, but its mixed in here-and-there in player-centric fluff text, sidebars, and in the appendices.
In many respects, this book feels like it should have been entitled “Player’s Options: The Underdark” or “Player’s Guide to the Underdark Setting”, and that would have been a lot closer to describing the contents of Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook.
Putting aside my DM-curmudgeonly griping, there’s actually a lot of really nice content for creating characters in this book who are expert dungeon delvers, as well as for revealing some great material for handling an adventure when your DM drops you headfirst into the Underdark.
The first chapter of the book deals specifically with player-character content and powers, and begins with an offering of new Character Themes. As a whole, the new Character Themes are nicely designed to give characters a background familiar with the Underdark’s horrors, or for being good at dungeon exploration in general. The Escaped Thrall (one of my favorites), Underdark Envoy, and Underdark Outcast are all good examples of themes where the character actually has a “dark” past in the Underdark. For surface dwellers with a flair for tramping below ground, the Deep Delver, Trapsmith, and Treasure Hunter are nicely designed to give characters an edge in dungeon crawl adventures. The Bloodsworn theme (also a favorite of mine) strikes me as a darned good vigilante style theme, which can be used in a wide range of character designs, regardless of whether dungeon crawls and Underdark expeditions are part of the campaign. The authors provide examples of characters built with these themes as a guide and inspiration here.
Of the three races discussed in Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook, only the Svirfneblin is new. The Goblin and Kobold have been in DDI since Monster Manual came out, although there is some good new fluff material, as well as advanced utilities like what was found in last year’s Player’s Options books for the Feywild and Shadowfell races. Disappointingly, the Kobold racial At Will power, Shifty, was replaced with a really bizarre substitute. Shifty Maneuver is an Encounter power which allows all allies of the Kobold character to shift if in a burst, which strikes me as very much a Leader class power, like something a Warlord might pop off. If your party is inspired by a Kobold shouting commands to “shift”, chances are you’re already in a lot of trouble wherever you’re exploring.
I should note that the Goblin racial remained unchanged from the MM, and allows for plenty of at-will shifting as a reactionary power.
The material on the Svirfneblin, however, is very nifty and I was struck at how much it reminded me of the “old school” abilities of this elusive Underdark race. The authors were kind enough to include racial specific feats as well as utility powers, but disappointingly, no racial Paragon Paths. But overall, fans of deep-gnomes will undoubtedly enjoy creating new 4E Svirfneblin characters, and hopefully we might see some DDI content to fill in the character content gaps of Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies for these Underdark style races.
Following the new racial material, there is a section on Dungeon-Themed Powers, which offer a fairly large array of class powers and skill powers useful for dungeon delving and the Underdark. Some of these themed powers are tied to knowledge of specific organizations or locales, such as the Deep Guides, the Dark Lake Ziggurat (mentioned in The Underdark source book), or the Vault of the Drow! This gives heroes additional power options with some good fluff tie-ins to add to character background stories, or possibly as rewards for adventuring to these exotic locales and gaining their secrets. Despite the title of the book, the skill powers offered in Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook use more than Dungeoneering as a prerequisite, and there are some nifty new skill powers here for nearly every character skill excepting Nature and Religion.
Chapter 2 of Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook begins with advice on handling a dungeon delve or a foray into the Underdark, covering tactics as well as explaining hazards like finding food, resting, and dealing with the ever-present darkness. Interestingly, this section is a much-scaled down version of the Player’s Section of the AD&D Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, which went into far greater detail about the hazards and hardships characters might face during a delve underground. Six fluffy pages seems a bit light for a discussion on dungeon delving and hazards, although the authors did include a list of useful Rituals to have handy when going on an expedition.
The next section offers a discussion of Dungeon Types, with short descriptions and variations on caves, crypts, floating castles, ice palaces, and other locales. The authors offer a couple paragraphs on the types of dungeons, and then short entries on the dangers, inhabitants, and possible rewards for exploring them. It’s a pretty short given the topic matter, and a more expansive section might have been actually useful for a Dungeon Master to use.
A discussion of Dungeon Denizens follows this up, and it comes off like a new players’ primer to “monsters found in dark places underground”. The various Monster Manual and Monster Vault entries offer better information, and the section is pretty much a throw-away regurgitation of information already available for most 4E gamers.
There is then a section on Infamous Dungeons, which offers overviews of famous old dungeons in TSR adventures such as Castle Ravenloft, Ghost Tower of Inverness, The Lost City, the Pyramid of Amun-Re from Pharaoh, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and other locales. But the authors offer more than just an overview of these old school dungeon crawls, and include ways to tie current characters to these old settings using backgrounds and even feats. It’s a pretty nifty idea, and will almost certainly inspire a look at older D&D gaming material.
This chapter closes up with a selection of new dungeoneering tools (mundane items), as well as new alchemical items which can be useful during a dungeon delve. Certainly, delving Alchemists will want to get the recipes for Longbreath (water breathing), Stone Eater (a rock dissolving acid), and Violet Phosphor (a light source!) when considering a trip to the depths.
The final chapter, entitled Master of the Dungeon, details a number of considerations for DMs to ponder when creating a delve or an Underdark series of adventures. The authors begin with some examples of ways to tie-in Character Themes from Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook using hooks and plot devices, much like was done with the themes in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting. There are some good ideas here for getting player-characters involved, although the scope is limited just to the theme found in this source book.
Following the theme hooks, there are some tips on elements to include in exploration dungeons, as well as how to create an Underdark adventure. There’s some pretty solid advice here, albeit only covering nine pages, but certainly worth reading through with The Underdark setting close by for reference to get a decent primer for creating these sorts of adventures.
I particularly liked the next section on Dungeon Makers, and was a bit chagrined it was just shy of being a dozen pages in length. Here the authors take a look at the various racial builders of dungeons, and the nature of their construction, styles, and likely locations and chamber uses one might find in them. I would have expected to see a far more expansive section on this topic, but even the ten or so pages will be useful for many DMs (myself included) when considering how a dungeon was designed.
The special rewards section on the Scrolls of Power was definitely some cool new content, and I like that powers like Mass Heal, Polymorph, Power Word Kill, and Wish are now back in D&D again under 4E rules. Clearly, these one-shot scrolls can have serious effects on campaigns, and make for some great treasures to find in the depths of the Underdark. The authors also provide some Dungeon Companions to use as guides and NPC contacts in delves, including the infamous Meepo , as well as other NPCs like adrow, a troglydyte, and an umber hulk.
Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook closes with two appendices to assist DMs in designing delves. The first contains mainly advice on design, but the second is a set of random tables for generating hooks and twists for the plot, and then random tables for who made the dungeon, its locale and type, its purpose, and its defenses, weaknesses, motifs, and even monster populations. I really liked that the authors included these appendices at the end, as I know I will be using them now and then when my heroes run off the beaten track and into uncharted adventures, or if I need something fast to fill in for a session or two.
Overall Score: 3.75 out of 5.0
While I can’t exactly call Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook a disappointment - because there is quite a bit of cool material here - I nevertheless came away from reading the book, well, disappointed as a Dungeon Master. For players, there’s a ton of new material here for creating characters with a Underdark flair, but sadly there is little here regarding Drow, although I expect that will be remedied by the upcoming Menzoberranzan release in August. There is a lot of fluff as well as crunch for making interesting new heroes, although the book lacks the Paragon Path content and Epic Destiny content one would expect reading a book that might as well be a Player’s Option book. For DMs, the material is scanty, but there are some true gems in amongst the pages, but seemingly too few and marginalized to be truly treasured.
I’d definitely recommend this book far more often to players than Dungeon Masters given the mix of content. Personally, I’d recommend DMs seek out a copy of the old Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, and adopt some of the contents therein to 4E for a better source of Underdark rules crunch. But I suppose that overall, Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook is a decent enough book to pick up at a discount… but as a DM, I definitely wouldn’t pay full retail for it.
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Reviewer’s Note: This reviewer received a complimentary advanced copy of this product for use in writing the review above.
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Design: 4.25 (Awesome layout, very good writing, easy to use.)
- Illustrations: 4.0 (Great cover and internal illustrations; needed more maps though.)
- Crunch: 3.5 (Great new themes and powers; odd editing of the kobold; scanty DM content.)
- Fluff: 3.5 (Some decent content here, but a dearth in sections where one expected a plentitude.)
Value: 3.5 (Decent price; expected more DM content, but at least a lot of new player content here.)