The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide for AD&D
Forgotten Realms: Underdark for 3.5e
and now, Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook for D&D 4e.
If this book is any indication of the evolution of tabletop RPGs, then I want my 1st edition AD&D books back. Yes, I know that is harsh, but instead of playing to the strengths and possibilities of a book with this name, the book immediately falls into the 4th edition pitfall of game crunch. Instead of flavor, knowledge, and survival techniques we get new classes, races, and abilities. Instead of gypsum, stalagmites, and underground rivers we get Trapsmith, Treasure Hunter, and Hurl-Snatcher. Granted, there is a section on traveling in the Underdark, and there is a lot of detail, but it does nothing to actually educate me about what real travel is like underground.
When I GM, I want my players to become so involved in the game that they forget it’s a game. I want to see their faces wrenched into twisted, contorted expressions of horror, see their skin turn pale at the description of a strange creature of the underworld spilling out of a cave up ahead, see the glimmer of inspiration of they explore a new group of caves and engage the local flora and fauna to learn all that they can. This book just doesn’t do that. It’s funny really, just when I think WotC gets it, they put out something like this. They also have the audacity to attempt to appeal to old school gamers (such as myself) by referencing ancient popular dungeon and cave crawls of yesteryear. Yes, I admit, it was pretty cool to see Castle Ravenloft, White Plume Mountain, and the Temple of Elemental Evil pictures and described in a more intimate and personal way than before, and I’m not trying to dissuade Wizards from doing this in the future. I just found it a bit contrived to do so in a book which pays little (if any) homage to the products from which this book was supposedly inspired.
If I were to create a new version of the classic “Underdark Survival” book I would start with the maps and illustrations of the places you are to explore. Take out the colorful action sequences, take out the new classes and races, and put the flavor and mystery of the underworld back in! When we wrote the RISE OF THE DROW trilogy at Adventureaweek.com we didn’t reference this book, nor any of the other newer incarnations. We read actual books about spelunking and life found in caves all over the world, then we used the AD&D Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide for further study on how travel in the Underdark affects adventurers carrying large amounts of gear and heavy weapons, and wearing constraining and heavy armor. These points are quite valid and very important to consider. Spelunking in plate mail is surely impossible unless it has some kind of enchantment to make it light as a feather, and even then, it still would constrain you when climbing.
Bottom line? I give this book 1 out of 5 stars. That solitary star comes from a few of the beautiful LOCATION illustrations which could be used for development of original locations by a creative and inspired GM (specifically the illustration on page 49 by Noah Bradley). Also, there are rules detailing travel in the Underdark, just not as in depth as I would like to have seen. Ultimately I would recommend to those running 4th edition that they locate and purchase the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and use it for reference when running games underground. Even though the game terms are not compatible, it is still a very valuable product, which is what truly sets apart the best from the rest, the test of time.
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