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Friday 7 February 2020

Friday Fantasy: Dungeons & Tombs

There is no denying the continued and growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, with it having appeared on the television series Stranger Things and the YouTube series, Critical Role, it no longer being seen as a hobby solely the preserve of typically male, nerdy teenagers and young adults. Yet as acceptable a hobby as roleplaying and in particular, playing Dungeons & Dragons has become, getting into the hobby is still a daunting prospect. Imagine if you will, being faced with making your first character for your first game of Dungeons & Dragons? Then what monsters will face? What adventures will you have? For nearly all of us, answering these questions are not all that far from being a challenge, for all started somewhere and we all had to make that first step—making our first character, entering our first dungeon, and encountering our first monster. As well written as both Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook are, both still present the prospective reader and player with a lot of choices, but without really answering these questions in an easy to read and reference fashion.

Step forward the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ published by Ten Speed Press. This is a series of introductory guides to Dungeons & Dragons, designed as primers to various aspects of the world’s leading roleplaying game. Each in the series is profusely illustrated, no page consisting entirely of text. The artwork is all drawn from and matches the style of Dungeon & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so as much as it provides an introduction to the different aspects of the roleplaying game covered in each book in the series, it provides an introduction to the look of the roleplaying game, so providing continuity between the other books in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ and the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the core rulebooks. This use of art and the digest size of the book means that from the start, every entry in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ is an attractive little package.

The first in the series, Warriors & Weapons provided an introduction to the various Races of Dungeons & Dragons, the martial character Classes, and the equipment they use. Second is not Wizards & Spells, the companion to Warriors & Weapons which covers Clerics, Sorcerers, and Wizards, or indeed any of the other spellcasting character types in Dungeons & Dragons. Instead the second book in the series is Monsters & Creatures. As the title suggests, this presents an introduction to the monsters, creatures, and animals that the prospective player may well have his character encounter on his adventures, many of them—like the Beholder, the Mind Flayer, the Owl Bear, and more—iconic to Dungeons & Dragons. Equally, the third in the series is not the eagerly anticipated Wizards & Spells, but Dungeons & Tombs, a guide to the dungeons, tombs, castles, crypts, cave networks, and other complexes which populate the many fantasy words of Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Tombs begins in promising fashion, warning of the dangers of dungeon delving, but highlighting also that they are places of mystery and adventure before discussing a little just some of the preparations necessary to venture into such places. Then the book leaps into the first of its three parts, ‘The Most Dangerous Dungeons’ which looks at six of the strange, sinister places ready to be explored by the adventurers. These are Ironslag from Storm King's Thunder, The Temple of Elemental Evil from Princes of the Apocalypse, The Sea Ghost from Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Ravenloft from Curse of Strahd, Chult from Tomb of Annihilation, and Undermountain from Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Each is given an overview, highlights its important places, shines a spotlight on a specific area, and outlines a key encounter in the dungeon where the adventurers will have to make a critical choice.

So for example, Ironslag is a former iron mine and fortress which has been reopened by the Fire Giant, Duke Zalto, who wants to construct a mighty warmachine. Besides Duke Zalto himself, other threats include the treacherous Yakfolk, salamanders, and other Fire Giants, as well getting into the dungeon itself—behind a high cliff face protected by the village of the Yakfolk. The latter is included listed in the dungeon’s important places, alongside the mines, the foundry, assembly hall, and at last, the Adamantite Forge. The spotlight is on The Foundry where Fire Giants are smelting iron and Duke Zalto’s son, Zaltember is about to toss a prisoner into the molten metal! Here is a chance for the adventurers to intervene, story prompts suggesting an idea for the Dungeon Master and an idea for the player characters. Lastly, the Encounter is presented in a short piece of fiction, here describing the final scenes in the dungeon and asking the reader what the character in the fiction should do next.

Now there is nothing wrong in Dungeons & Tombs showcasing the dungeons and campaigns available for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and it has the benefit of all six ‘Most Dangerous Dungeons’ actually being in print—unlike the last time that Wizards of the Coast did something similar with the near useless, Dungeon Survival Guide. Yet Dungeons & Tombs only highlights six of the campaigns when at the time of publication there are ten available and it ignores the excellent Lost Mine of Phandelver from the excellent Dungeons & Dragons, Starter Set. Further, it exposes secrets (spoilers?) about each of these dungeons when perhaps the write-ups could have been more circumspect in what was revealed. Nevertheless, the six do showcase various types of dungeons—a ship, a mine, a castle, and so on.

The middle section returns to the territory of Monsters & Creatures, but specifically focusing on creatures found underground with the ‘Dungeon Bestiary’. Some fifteen monsters are detailed, each entry accorded a double page spread, the left hand page showing an illustration of the creature or monster, a listing of its special powers, a description of its size, and an indication of its Danger Level, from ‘0’ or harmless to ‘5’ for really nasty. On the right hand page there is a description of the monster or creature and its lair, accompanied by a list of things to do or not do when dealing with it. Many of the entries are Dungeons & Dragons classics, like the Basilisk, Mimic, Oozes like Black Puddings and Gelatinous Cubes, and Ropers. Others, like the Grung, the Sea Elf, and the Yikaria, are simply not, leaving the reader to wonder why such a random selection was included. The simple reason is that these monsters and creatures appear in the ‘Most Dangerous Dungeons’ rather than because they are classic Dungeons & Dragons creatures.

The last of the three parts in Dungeons & Tombs, is ‘Building Your Own Dungeon’, a relatively short guide for the potential Dungeon Master wanting to create her own dungeon. This looks at potential concepts—location, creator, and purpose; populating a dungeon with inhabitants and traps; mapmaking with examples and map symbols; quests and exploring dungeons; and using dungeons to tell stories. All of this is good advice, a solid introduction to designing dungeons and running them, but it is all for the Dungeon Master. The fundamental problem with Dungeons & Tombs is that it does not do the same for the potential player. There is no equivalent introduction to dungeoneering and its dangers for the player and his character, because instead, Dungeons & Tombs is focusing on specific dungeons and their dangers, which both player and character are likely to encounter just the once.

Now there is nothing wrong with a book for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition examining dungeons or adventures and their dangers for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Yet in devoting over half of the book to specific dungeons, including the monsters and creatures which are specific to those dungeons, it forgoes the opportunity to give more general advice on dungeoneering for the prospective player and Dungeon Master. General advice which would enhance the utility of Dungeons & Tombs, potentially serving as general reference which could sit on the playing table or close at hand, ready to be checked for advice and hints. Much like the Monsters & Creatures book can work.

Physically, Dungeons & Tombs is an attractive little hardback. It is bright, it is breezy, and it shows a prospective player what his character might face, both in the art and the writing. Further, the art shows lots of adventuring scenes which can only spur the prospective player’s imagination.

The problem with Dungeons & Tombs is that it does not deliver on its tagline of ‘Explore the Magical Worlds of D&D’, but rather the bulk of it delivers ‘Explore SIX of the Magical Worlds of D&D’. Apart from the last section, the last fifth of Dungeons & Tombs, which is specifically written for the Dungeon Master, its approach to its subject matter is just not general enough to be useful in the long term. Dungeons & Tombs is disappointingly specific and the least useful, least interesting of the three Young Adventurer’s Guide’ titles to date.

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