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Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Most Useless Dungeons & Dragons Supplement Ever?

In the space of four months, beginning in October, 2007 and ending in January, 2008, Wizards of the Coast published what were arguably the worst three books ever released for Dungeons & Dragons. The first was the Dungeon Survival Guide and it would be followed by Wizards Presents: Races and Classes in December 2007 and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters in January 2008. Now Wizards Presents: Races and Classes and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters were essentially previews of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, the new edition of the game to launched in June, 2008. They were essentially advertising that the reader paid for, because once read, neither added anything to the game. What then, of the Dungeon Survival Guide?

It is not anything akin to the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, which published in 1986, was one of the last supplements to be released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. In fact, it was systems neutral, describing dungeons and the art of dungeoneering, but without game stats or mechanics. Indeed, Shannon Appelcline, writing in Designers & Dragons, noted that it was “pure fluff [...] with no stats at all”, noting that Wizards did not want to produce books that would be out of date within a year as they were preparing D&D 4th edition. Yet, even when it was published in 2007, the Dungeon Survival Guide could not have been considered be in any way, shape, or form, ‘in date’, and as we shall see, it would not be ‘in date’ for almost a decade.

As a product, the Dungeon Survival Guide can be divided into two parts. The first part is about dungeons in general and the second part is about specific dungeons. Of its sixty-four pages, roughly a third is devoted to the former and two thirds to the latter, each entry typically consisting of just a two-page spread. The first part, in seven sections, looks at dungeons, who would dare delve into them, what gear they carry with them, and what to find below. The latter covers everything from the types of dungeons to be found from one world to the next, what terrain and other features to be found below as well as hazards to be avoided and treasure—mundane, magical, and legendary. The coverage of these subjects gets off to an odd start in that the first section, ‘The Dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons’ is more about the dungeoneers, the adventurers who would brave the depths, than it is about dungeons. Even then it is a little odd in that it only really looks at the four core Classes—Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard—and the four core Races—Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings—than it does at the wider selection available in Dungeons & Dragons, both in 2007 and now. Although several other Classes get mentioned, this overview feels as if it owes more to Basic Dungeons & Dragons than it does Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5, the edition available in 2007. In addition, the section introduces the five archetypal player characters—a Human Fighter, a Human Cleric, a Halfling Rogue, an Elf Wizard, and a Dwarf Fighter—who in turn provide advice and reminiscences about their time in the classic dungeons described in the book’s second part.

Once past the oddity of the subject matter of ‘The Dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons’, The Dungeon Survival Guide settles down and sticks to the subject matters suggested by the titles of the sections. ‘Dungeon Survival Gear’ is an all too brief at barely half a page of text and lots of art. It really is a missed opportunity to look what use adventurers can put their gear to whilst in a dungeon and it really would have been nice to hear what the five archetypal player characters carry and why. Really, both sections could have been better handled by being put under a ‘dungeon preparation’ or ‘adventuring preparation’ section before delving into what a dungeon actually is. 

‘Dungeon Environments’ and ‘Dungeon Hazards’ are really where the description of what dungeons are like begins in the Dungeon Survival Guide. At four pages in length each, both are the longest sections on the book and both complement each other. ‘Dungeon Environments’ examines the basic types of dungeon—ruined structures, occupied structures, safe storage facilities, and natural cavern complexes—and their common features. This includes walls, floors, doors, and rooms, whilst ‘Dungeon Hazards’ looks at dungeon denizens, traps, natural hazards, and so on. It is only here that the advice from the archetypal player characters begins. Much like the descriptions, the advice is informative and useful, but both descriptions and advice are useful. This continues with the ‘Dungeon Treasure’, including the types to be found, such as money, gems, arts, and mundane items, plus magic items. So far, so good, for the content of the Dungeon Survival Guide is useful, if basic, which all points to the book being an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons.

Yet in the ‘Dungeon Treasure’ section there is a single line which sticks out like a sore thumb. It is a line which will be familiar to every Dungeon Master and every player—a line which gives the exchange rates for the coins in the most famous roleplaying game in the world—copper pieces and silver pieces into gold pieces, and gold pieces into platinum pieces, but it comes without an explanation of what the terms ‘cp’, ‘sp’, ‘gp’, and ‘pp’ stand for. The problem is that they are so ubiquitous and so common that most Dungeon Masters and players will read that line and not raise an eyebrow, whereas anyone new to Dungeons & Dragons will not have a clue as to their meaning. Which raises the question, just who is this book at actually aimed at? Sadly, the answer to this question remains unclear…

Fortunately, the Dungeon Survival Guide gets back on track and gets more interesting with ‘Treasures of Legend’. This last section of the book’s first half is where it begins to get specific and get interesting. ‘Treasures of Legend’ describes seven of the signature treasures in Dungeons & Dragons, including the Book of Exalted Deeds, Deck of Many Things, Hammer of Thunderbolts, Sphere of Annihilation, Staff of the Magi, the Hand and Eye of Vecna,* and the Orbs of Dragonkind. Again, these are nice summations and if you are new to Dungeons & Dragons, then they more intriguing than what has come before, but they also serve as a taster for what comes next.

*Not the head though...

The second half—or rather the last two thirds—of the Dungeon Survival Guide is devoted to ‘Famous Dungeons’. Some nineteen are described, each accorded a short introduction, a description of just a few of its secrets, some advice from the archetypal player characters, some survival tips, plus a little bit about the scenario that the dungeon comes from—when it was published, the authors, its history, and so on. Some of the dungeon spreads also include a section devoted to the memories of the archetypal player characters, this in addition to the advice freely given out. Of the nineteen, there is just the one entry each from the era of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. These are, respectively, The Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and Firestorm Peak from The Gates of Firestorm Peak. The remaining entries are divided between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition/Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5

So from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, they are the Dungeon of the Slave Lords from A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords—recently reprinted as Against the Slave Lords, Ghost Tower of Inverness from C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl from G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Hall of the Fire Giant King from G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King, the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan from C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth from S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, The Pyramid of Amun-Re from I3 Pharaoh, The Tomb of Horrors from S1 Tomb of Horrors, and White Plume Mountain from S2 White Plume Mountain. From Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition/Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5 they are Castle Greyhawk from Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, Castle Ravenloft from Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, The Demonweb Pits from Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, The Forge of Fury from The Forge of Fury, The Temple of Elemental Evil from Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Slaughtergarde from The Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde, The Sunless Citadel from The Sunless Citadel, and Undermountain from Expedition to Undermountain.

Of the nineteen, just eight were published during the period of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition/Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5, but only three of them truly date from this era of the roleplaying game. The other five—Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, and Expedition to Undermountain—are all returns to old dungeons and all dungeons dating back to the era of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. Which only serves to highlight what a golden era that period was for the creation of dungeons and adventures for the game.

Physically, the Dungeon Survival Guide is a beautiful book. The slim—almost too slim!—black hardback is lavishly illustrated such that it almost overwhelms the relatively light text. The art is also very well used and it highlights some of the great colour artwork which graced the pages of Dungeons & Dragons some twenty years ago.

So back in 2007, the Dungeon Survival Guide was an odd product. It was sort of an introductory product, an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, but what it did not do was introduce a specific edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There was no advice for the reader as to what to do next, what books to buy, and so on. So essentially, it never followed through on its introduction. The issue here was that the Dungeon Survival Guide was released at the fag end of Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5 with the Wizards Presents: Races and Classes and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters books waiting round the corner to herald the arrival of the Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition.

Worse, and this was the biggest flaw with the Dungeon Survival Guide, it described dungeons and adventures that were not available in 2007. In fact, the majority of the adventures and dungeons described in the Dungeon Survival Guide were not available and had not been in print, in some cases, for decades. Further, Wizards of the Coast was not supporting these dungeons and was not making them available via PDF. Although the publisher would revisit some of the adventures during the era of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, the approach was piecemeal and often through the instore gaming events rather than in actual physical products.

With no gaming support or real content, the Dungeon Survival Guide added nothing to Dungeons & Dragons and it did not support Dungeons & Dragons. It was part introduction, part nostalgia trip, without any specific audience, but if you were old enough to have owned or played the many adventures listed, then you could at least enjoy that nostalgia. If you had never played or owned those dungeons, then the Dungeon Survival Guide was all promise, but none of the fulfillment. It was was essentially a frippery. 

That though was in 2007.

A decade on and the Dungeon Survival Guide is a whole different beast. That is all thanks to the Dungeon Master’s Guild. All of the dungeons and adventures listed in the Dungeon Survival Guide are available once again as PDFs to purchase and download. Even the Dungeon Survival Guide is available (although the price is ridiculously high). Now it supports the nostalgia to be found in its pages with the dungeon descriptions because those dungeons are available and they recognised for what they are. In other words, although the Dungeon Survival Guide is still a frippery, in 2018, it has the purpose it should have had in 2007.