Tabletop Review: Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons)

Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 159
Cost: $29.99 ($19.77 on
Release Date: 05/15/2012
Get it Here:

I’m not really a big fan of the Underdark or Drow, so I’ve been sitting out a lot of the recent Dungeons & Dragons products and encounters. I was more than happy to review Into the Unknown, however, as I haven’t had the opportunity since Heroes of the Elemental Chaos. I also loved the idea of a Dungeon Survival Handbook. In my mind, it brought me back to the days of First Edition and both the Wilderness and Outdoor Survival Handbooks. I’m surprised they haven’t done a book like this before, and after reading it, I’m hoping this becomes a book for D&D Next as well. Lately, the things I’ve seen come out for Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Labyrinth Lord and other D&D derivatives have been about big deep dungeons with little to no story. It’s as if all people for those lines wants is one big long hack and slash experience. That’s not what I want from a tabletop game – that’s what I get from video games. I want a thematically interesting dungeon. Why is the dungeon there? What purpose does it serve? Why am I going into this dank dark pit in the first place? Well, apparently I’m not in the minority, because the entirety of Into the Unknown is about making a memorable dungeon that is all about Role-Playing rather than roll-playing.

The book is divided into three chapters and two appendices. Let’s take a look at each one and see what makes a book a must buy for any 4e fan.

Chapter 1: Dungeon Delvers

This chapter highlights seven new Character Themes, three new playable character races and then wraps up with nearly twenty pages of new powers for various classes, skills and themes. Wizards of the Coast has gone all out here, and this chapter is the one that players and DMs alike will want to read through.

The new character themes are Bloodsworn, Deep Delver, Escaped Thrall, Trapsmith, Treasure Hunter, Underdark Envoy and Underdark Outcast. Remember that Themes do not replace core concepts like race and character class. Instead, a theme is just added onto the overall character, and lets you have a few new options for powers as you level up. Bloodsworn reminds me a lot of the old “favored enemy” aspect of the Ranger, although you don’t actually get bonuses against one specific race. Instead, attacks are just more likely to hit, and when they do, they are accompanied by more damage. A Deep Delver is specifically someone who goes dungeon diving. This class really gets the most benefit out of a high Dungeoneering skill, as you can re-roll missed checks, and even use it instead of a few other skill rolls instead. An Escaped Thrall is just what you think: Someone who once worked for a mind flayer or something other aberration and managed to break free of its control. Choosing this theme lets you have an emo background, along with some nice psychic bonuses. Definitely consider tying this theme into a psion. A Trapsmith is an expert at building and dismantling traps. In-game, this nets you special benefits towards resisting traps and even inflicting some on attacking enemies. A Treasure Hunter is self explanatory. The core bonuses with this theme aren’t combat related at all, which surprised me, as I thought they would be things like faster movement in a room with obvious treasure or a free action of taking items in addition to move and attack. Instead, it’s a free Skill Focus or bonuses checks related to ONE specific item at a time. Treasure Hunter is definitely the weakest of the new themes. Underdark Envoy is all about political intrigue. With this Theme, you get bonuses to things like Streetwise, Bluff and diplomacy. It’s a neat choice for the talker in your group. Finally, we have the Underdark Outcast. This is basically a person who is cast out from his original home, village, clan or whatever and is forced to take up residence in the Underdark. The powers here are more than a little odd, as the first one nets you a bonus to attacks when you are all alone from allies. That can come in handy at times, but we all know the “Don’t Split the Party” rule. At later levels, you get bonuses to healing, Endurance and Dungeoneering checks.

All in all, five of the seven new themes are pretty good. Treasure Hunter is pretty much crap and Trapsmith is cute but not very useful compared to the others. Underdark Enovy and Dungeon Delver are my favorites in terms of what you get as Utility and Optional Powers, but remember that the theme you choose also is a big part of your character’s past, so go for what fits the story you want to tell rather than power-gaming.

The three new character races listed in Chapter One are goblin, kobold and Svirfneblin (Deep Gnome). I was very intrigued by the Deep Gnome because you rarely see that as a PC race. I think I’ve only seen it in The Book of Humanoids and 3Es Forgotten Realms handbook. I’m more shocked that it took until now to get stats, powers and the like for a PC goblin and/or kobold. That seems like something that should have happened towards the start of 4e, not the tail end of it. Well, better late than never. Goblins basically get a lot of dirty fighting attacks, some of which even cause fellow PCs to take damage for them! Kobold Utility Powers are all about movement and grid management. Deep Gnome racial powers are all over the place, from temporary hit points and camouflage to outright turning invisible and summoning earth elementals! Wow. The Deep Gnome is definitely overpowered, but also pretty awesome.

The last twenty pages of Chapter One contain forty different powers for previous classes. I wish they were organized by class, skill or something other than theme because players and DMs will have to flip repeatedly through these pages to find what they are looking for. It’s just not very organized.

Chapter 2: Strive to Survive

Chapter Two is all about helping the DM craft a memorable dungeon-based experience. PCs can get use out of some sections, but really it’s all about setting the mood and setting up a dungeon for play. There aren’t any stats or rules in Chapter Two to speak of, but it’s all very heavy on substance. Think of it as a collection of essays from industry vets on how to make and play a dungeon that your players will talk about long after they have finished (or died in) the adventure. A lot of this chapter might feel like fluff or like it doesn’t cover the topic contained therein too deeply, and that’s a valid opinion. After reading it a few times, I believe it was written this way to get you interested in purchasing other books on the topic. After all, if the bit on Beholders interests you, there’s always a Monster Manual or three you can buy that goes into more depth about these aberrations.

The chapter starts off with the “Five Rules of Dungeon Delving.” These rules actually apply to any tabletop RPG. They are: Don’t split the party, map everything, gear up, track in-game time & know when to turn back. These are as applicable in something like Shadowrun or Call of Cthulhu as they are ion Dungeons & Dragons.

Expert Delving Tactics covers the basics of dungeon exploring. You might think this is all common sense, but remember: Common sense isn’t all that common. This section talks about dealing with natural darkness, finding secret doors, remembering to stop for rest and food, and the importance of stealth in a never before explored location o’ doom. I also really enjoyed how the chapter picked apart some of the stupider ploys PCs will try to get through a dungeon safely, like bring a herd of animals in to set off traps and the like.

Dungeon Types just gives you a long list of various dungeons and what the inherent dangers and rewards of each are. After all, a crypt will be a very different experience from a ruined castle that phases between two different planes of reality which in turn will be different still from an underground labyrinth. This is ten pages of pure information to help your imagination soar as you design the perfect test of your PCs skill and strength.

Dungeon Denizens is simply a brief rundown of monsters that tend to live in dungeons, especially underground ones. You’ve got aboleths, carrion crawlers, hook horrors, mind flayers, various oozes, purple worms, rust monsters, stirges, umber hulks and more here. Each monster gets between one and three paragraphs of description. It’s not much, but this is meant to help a DM realize what creatures should go where. Nothing more and nothing less.

Infamous Dungeons is my favorite section of the entire book. Not only does it discuss the eight most memorable dungeons from all corners of the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse, but it gives you their history and evolution from old school basic D&D to modern day play. You’re getting a taste of how the story for each starts, but then the book encourages you to either go out and get the old adventures, or take the plot hook and make your own adventures with them. I have to admit, when I turned to this section and saw the old school First Edition art from Ravenloft, my heart skipped a beat. So wonderful. What are the dungeons included in this book? Well in order you have: Castle Ravenloft, the Ghost Tower of Inverness, The Lost City, The Pyramid of Amun-Re, White Plume Mountain, The Tomb of Horrors, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and The Gates of Firestorm Peak. Wow. It was so much fun to read about each of these and how they have changed from their original incarnation to their last remake (if there have been any). It’s no surprise, with D&D Next being more a throwback to first and second edition AD&D, that Wizards felt like giving a little history lesson here.

Chapter Two concludes with a section entitled Dungeoneers’ Tools, which contains a list of all the important items to take with you in a dungeon, along with some new items for use in your game. All in all, this is a pretty good chapter, and although there isn’t a lot of in-game information here, this chapter is fertile ground for any DM worth their salt.

Chapter 3: Master of the Dungeon

Chapter Three is comprised of four sections: Involving the Characters, Creating an Underdark Adventure, Dungeon Makers and Special Rewards. All of these are exactly what they sound like, but it’s worth taking a quick look at each of them.

Involving the Characters reinforces the themes of the book – that a truly great dungeon needs a truly great story to go with it. Otherwise it won’t be memorable or stand the test of time. This section helps you hook character themes to the story and how to make sure characters have choices instead of just going from room to room in a linear fashion. I also liked the two pages devoted towards how to make interesting puzzles/mysteries for PCs to solve rather than obscure crap that only makes sense to the one who created them. As a long time point and click PC adventure game fan, this section felt like it was plucked directly out of that gaming genre. It was also great to see the book talk about how to get around puzzles PCs can’t solve rather than saying, “Well, adventure’s over.”

Creating an Underdark Adventure is similar to the previous section, but it is specifically tailored to, well… playing in the Underdark. As I’m not a fan of the setting, nothing here interested me personally, but it was well-written and should be of help to DMs that really love to use the Drow. It contains ideas for stories, skill challenges, issues with light sources and more.

Dungeon Makers is a ten page section on the races or groups that might make a dungeon and why they do it. I loved that they devoted a piece to minotaurs, as they usually get overlooked. They also threw in Yuan-Ti and Kou-Toa, which I thought was a nice touch, as well as outside the box. The other races are the usual fare: Drow, Dwarves, Duegar, insane cults and wizards looking for a place to research or hold weird experiments.

The final section in Chapter Three is Special Rewards. It is divided into two topics. The first are rare but powerful scrolls like Mass Heal and Wish. I think this is the first appearance of Wish in 4e, and it’s interesting to see it here. The other topic is about dungeon companions, where you gain a special ally to serve/work/ally with your character. A few examples are given, but perhaps the most famous is Meepo, a kobold that gained particular prominence in 3e.

Appendix 1: Build Your Own Dungeon

This is just four pages on tips and tricks to help you figure out what you want out of a homebrew dungeon. It’s exceptionally informative, but perhaps the best part is that half page sidebar to close things out by the late, great Gary Gygax. In those two paragraphs he puts the art of combining a story with a dungeon crawl better than nearly everyone before or after him. I can’t think of a better way to end this section.

Appendix 2: Random Dungeons

Okay, this is pretty cool. The last five pages of the book are devoted to a random dungeon generator> I loved all the tables here. Not only did it remind me of old school First Edition AD&D where there was a table for everything, it really explains how to use a random generator rather than just simply rolling as an equivalent to throwing crap at a wall and seeing what sticks. This should be a lot of help to younger or less experienced DMs or anyone that prefers to use premade adventures and has never really tried to create their own. Using this won’t be the most amazing dungeon crawl ever devised, but it will help you take those first steps into adventure design.

All in all, I’m very happy with this book. Even if 4e isn’t your D&D edition of choice, there’s a lot of great ideas in this book that can be used by any DM. It’s very friendly to any fantasy RPG of choice (save for the specific game mechanics in the first chapter). If you’re a 4e fan, you’ll definitely want to consider picking up this book for the sheer wealth of ideas it contains. Even if you’re not using Fourth Edition, flip through Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook; you might just like what you see.



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