Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 12 February 2010

Baby's First Labyrinth

Between the publication of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition and the advent of the Old School Renaissance, one of the good things that Goodman Games did was keep alive a style of gaming that had been on the wane for as much as a decade or more... With the Dungeon Crawl Classics line the publisher released scenarios that harked back to the play style of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition while still using the latest version of the rules, and the publisher continues to do so today, although some that flavour I feel has been lost in the adventures written for the more complex Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. The latest release from Goodman Games more than makes up for that loss though, and not only that, because The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design is written by Michael Curtis, who under his company, Three-Headed Monster Monsters has begun publishing Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, a megadungeon written for use with one of the Old School Renaissance’s leading RPGs, Labyrinth Lord. Indeed, each of the dungeon elements described in this book originally appeared on the author's blog.

Part of the publisher’s “systems-neutral” line of supplements suitable for any version of Dungeons & Dragons (or one of various variants), The Dungeon Alphabet comes as a very reasonably priced hardback – or at a “Great Price” as the book’s spine garishly proclaims. Behind its similarly garish, but also cartoonish cover, The Dungeon Alphabet turns out to be as simple as A, B, C. Over the course of twenty-six one or two page entries – one for each letter of alphabet, of course – the author discusses elements to be found in the classic Old School style dungeon, not only suggesting how such elements can be used by a Dungeon Master in his dungeon, but also giving a table whose contents are intended to provide inspiration for said DM. Said DM is free to roll his dice and consult a table to determine the inspiration for this dungeon – so the standard panoply of polyhedral dice will be required if this is the chosen method – or to just read through a table’s contents and decide himself which entry is the most inspiring.

The entries cover things to be found in an Old School classic dungeon. Everything and anything from room types (Caves and Halls) and their inhabitants (Kobolds and Oozes) to treasure (Gold and Jewels) and dungeon dressings (Doors and Levers) via room dressings (Altars and Pools) and the downright odd (the Weird and one last category, Zowie!). The write-ups under each entry are quite short, essentially a description of said entry and the how and the why of its use in some underground labyrinth. Some of the tables are short. For example, the “E is for Echoes” and “X is for Xenophobia” tables have only six entries each, but then again, how many times can you make an echo interesting? Other tables are much longer or require dice rolls on multiple tables such as those given for “A is for Altars” or “R is for Rooms.” In other words, the more use the DM is going to make of one of the elements described in The Dungeon Alphabet, the bigger its table and the wider its inspiration.

What makes The Dungeon Alphabet stand out more than the average Dungeons & Dungeons supplement though, is its artwork. The front cover might not to be everyone’s taste (it is not to mine, if I am honest), but inside this slim hardback is lavishly and slavishly illustrated by some of the classic Dungeons & Dragons artists, including Erol Otis and Jeff Easly, who are joined by more contemporary artists such as Brad McDevitt, Peter Mullen, and Chad Sergesketter. From inside the front cover to the last entry, there is hardly a page without a piece of evocative art. Not all of it is good, but neither was it that good back in the day, but not once does it fail to evoke that Old School feel.

One claim The Dungeon Alphabet does not live up to is that of its back cover blurb, that “DESIGNING DUNGEONS IS AS EASY AS A, B, C!” Dungeon design is an art that takes time to learn, and if it was easy as this claim, then everyone and their grandmother would be doing it, even considering the fact that grandmothers are of an age to really remember the Old School dungeon and the Old School style of play. What this does highlight though, is the fact that there is still room on our gaming shelves for a book devoted to the art of Old School dungeon design – though delve back into the back catalogues of magazines such as Dragon and White Dwarf and you will doubtless find a fistful or two of articles devoted to this art, but The Dungeon Alphabet is at the very least the first step towards that. Nevertheless, this supplement is as good an introduction to the mien of the Old School Renaissance as any, and deserves to find a place on the shelves of every discerning Dungeon Master. Entertaining, thoughtful, and evocative, from the moment that you crack open its pages, The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design delivers a critical hit to your nostalgia button.