I am finally holding a copy of the Dungeon Survival Handbook in my hands. I’ve been planning to write a review for this since before it came out, however my copy was coming through the post. I won’t bore you with diatribes of just how bad Royal Mail is, I’m sure you all know this, and will instead just tell you that it was very late and move on to the review itself. After having read it, I have this sort of funny feeling about it. I can just about imagine this book yelling at other DnD sourcebooks, “anything you can do, I can do better.” Quality of writing, presentation and content is an ongoing theme. Whilst it is lacking in focus, it excels at execution.
I remember first spotting this on the DnD product catalog. There was a vague description that revealed only what I already knew from the title – this book is about dungeons. After the previews hit Dragon and Dungeon magazines, I knew there would be six themes and three new races – Kobolds, Goblins and Svirfneblin (someone please teach me how to pronounce this) – but the concept of the book was still shrouded in a veil. Is this targeted for players? Dungeon Masters? It seemed like a player oriented book but I wasn’t sure. Even after reading through it, this feeling still sort of lingers, but I very quickly learned to push it away and simply enjoy the book for what it is.
So what is it? Well, it’s a bit of everything really. There are new themes, races, powers, items, locations, monster descriptions, dungeon descriptions and DM tips on how to build dungeons or Underdark campaigns. Sounds like a huge book you say? Not really, it’s pretty much the size of a regular DnD sourcebook. My initial worry was that with so much variety in content, there wouldn’t be enough space for detail, but actually, this is one of the most in-depth fourth edition supplements out there, coupled with great artwork, and a cover laden with spiderwebs, and the Rise of the Underdark logo.
The entire book is split into three chapters. The first two are dedicated to players and the third to the DM, although I believe that the DM will find the second chapter just as useful as the players. The first chapter covers the themes, races and new powers. Whilst there are only six themes (Bloodsworn, Trapsmith, Deep Delver, Escaped Thrall and Treasure Hunter), they are covered in great detail and seem to be tailored to the sort of player that wants to make the theme the focus of his or her character. It presents a detailed overview of how such a character would think, act and develop – useful tips and a treasure trove of information for anyone looking for some inspiration. The themes themselves are interesting and tie together well with the new races – who wouldn’t want to play a Kobold Trapsmith Rogue? We also get some sample character backgrounds tied to each theme.
Races, like themes, get a better treatment than in any other book before. The write-ups are twice the size of the ones in Player’s Handbooks and come with a plethora of racial feats and utility powers – a great way to make sure the races are playable in a game that has so many options already. The racial backgrounds seem to be written in a way that lends itself to some interesting roleplaying opportunities for each other. For example, goblins are greedy and selfish, not understanding the concept of sharing, whilst svirfneblin are communal and always look out for the good of their group. A roleplaying situation waiting to happen. The racial feats are useful and make me want to play the new races. Goblins, for example, can get +1 bonus to damage against anyone larger than them, or can gain combat advantage against anyone who attacks them with a melee attack and misses. Powers have distinct race specific flavor and names – the Kobold power “Load Slingpot” being a prime example. Finally, I get to roll that D6 as a player, and see if I can hit someone with a gluepot.
New powers are tailored around various Underdark organizations, be it the Deep Delvers or Seekers of Lost Lore – every class will find some options here, together with more character background ideas.
Chapter Two is devoted to learning about how to survive a dungeon. This chapter feels the most representative of the book’s title. It gives players ideas on how to find secret doors, avoid traps, navigate dangerous terrain, solve puzzles and even explains how certain monsters act – without spoiling the stat blocks. DMs that don’t have much experience will find this just as useful, as it will give them an idea of what to expect from their players and prepare accordingly. The end of the chapter offers some mundane and magical items. Personally, I love mundane items. I feel like 4th edition is over saturated with magic, and sometimes, simple equipment options can lead to better roleplaying, so this is a welcome addition to the adventuring gear list.
I’ve only had a brief skim of Chapter Three but I am saving the best for last – I’ve found some great dungeon mastering tips but I won’t spoil them – I couldn’t recommend this book more, just get it yourself and you’ll see how great it is. DnD Next seems to be heading in a direction where dungeoneering will be very important so this supplement will be a great addition to your collection whether you intend to keep playing 4E or move on to Next – the tips in the last chapter are definitely transferable to different editions or even different games.
Sidenote: I was very surprised to find mentions, and even images of covers of products from previous editions of DnD. It seemed like fourth edition was avoiding this, but this is a step in the right direction – let the players find out about past products. After all, if they hunt them down on eBay it will only increase their passion for this game!