Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast asked me to review the Into the Unknown book and provided a review copy. Because I already bought my own copy, the review copy has been donated to a member of the UK community who is currently unemployed.
Into The Unknown: Dungeoneers Survival Handbook
Into The Unknown is not the first book in 4e’s history to look at Dungeon Survival. The previous one was written by Bill Slavicsek and Chris Perkins (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dungeon-Survival-Guide-Dungeons-Dragons/dp/0786947306/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top) in the run up to 4e’s launch, and featured no rules materials. Much of that books contents can be found within the new book, expanded and improved.
Into The Unknown contains a mixture of player material and DM’s material, with plenty of rules material backed up by oodles of well written and imaginative background material. This background material surfaces in the character themes section, presenting us with 7 personalities, one for each of the new themes presented in the book, and expanding on their backstory, history, thoughts, and experiences throughout the book. I was dubious about this when it was first announced, but it works really well, and as they suggest in the book, gives you ideas to base your own roleplaying on.
The seven new themes follow the structure of those from Neverwinter and Dragon #399 contain the bulk of the new player material.
* Bloodsworn are adventures who seek to destroy one creature or one species at the expense of all others. Their starting feature is a once per encounter re-roll when you are bloodied. Unlike most themes that give a skill bonus at level 5, bloodsworn strengthens your attacks when you second wind, and instead gives the bonuses at level 10. The background material covers Meliera, an eladrin who once tried to help oppressed drow, but after one murdered her husband, she has vowed to seek out the drow involved and wipe them out.
* Deep Delvers are experts at exploring the Underdark. Gaining bonuses to dungeoneering skills and the ability to re-roll their dungeoneering checks, it’s a great theme for more skill based campaigns rather than combat focused ones. The background for Karl Deepwalker is that him and his caravan guide company were betrayed from within, with Karl only surviving by fleeing deeper into the caverns of the underdark.
* Escaped Thrall’s are the altered, warped individuals captured by aboleths or illithids. A perfect theme for players wanting a psionic theme that isn’t Dark Sun based, you gain an extra power point, and a powerful interrupt against charm and psychic attacks. Its background is of Mord, captured as a child by aboleths, and still under their influence. It’s my favourite theme out of the seven, having probably the most flavour out of all the themes we’ve seen so far.
* The Trapsmith theme does what it says on the tin. It’s a theme thats a long time coming, but I feel its massively flawed. Unlike other themes that use your highest statistic, the Trapsmith is solely based on Intelligence, making it a great theme for mages and artificers, but not many other classes. In addition, at the themes heart it is a single encounter power with minimal damage, even the optional utility powers are weak, being dailies. Its background, of Thorry the Unlucky, a svirfneblin with a knack for dealing with traps is poor… if he is so good, how come he’s managed to lose two fingers to traps?
* Treasure Hunter’s are viewed as selfish money grabbing fools, thrill seekers, mercenaries… Again, its features are better suited to a skill based game. It’s got some of the best optional utility powers in the book and of the themes that have been released. It’s also got a brilliant background for Ella, showing exactly how a warlock pact can be used to form a character.
* I suspect Underdark Envoy will be a popular theme in the upcoming Encounters season, as it gives a reason for surface dwellers to deal with the Underdark and vice versa. Its also got a great Combat Advantage granting starting power. Khiira’s background is not quite what I was expecting, but works well, with her betraying her drow roots to form a relationship with a duergar, and now lives on the run.
* The Underdark Outcast covers a wide range of characters, exiled beings, people lost in the underdark who have survived on their own etc. It’s starting power reflects this, giving characters who move away from the rest of the group a bonus, while its later features cement the characters ability to survive. Korag the Clanless is another good background, a dwarf who disgraced his clan, and was shaved, branded and exiled. He’s got plenty of roleplaying potential.
Next up in player material are the races. Much like Heroes of Shadow, we get some rehashed races and some new ones. The goblin and kobold races have been updated, gaining the essentials idea of a primary and option of secondary stat bonuses, while the kobolds overpowered racial ability has been replaced with a slightly more balanced version. We get a great choice of racial utilities and more importantly, and a massive improvement over the Heroes of Shadow, we get a nice selection of racial feats for these.
The one new race we get is the Svirfneblin, a race of deep gnomes. I know the name is a part of classic D&D lore, but come on, can you honestly tell me that everyone round a gaming table is going to be able to pronounce that without it sounding stupid? The svirfneblin are not inherently evil, have a strange speech pattern, and their racial powers are generally earth based. It’s not a particularly exciting race, but conversely it should suit a lot of the essentials classes allowed for the Encounters season.
The last of the players material are the dungeon themed powers, which see’s the return of psionic powers and skill powers from PHB3. While the other Heroes of books have given new powers to fairly specific classes, Into the Unknown turns it on it’s head, offering a random selection of power types to a random collection of classes at a random selection of levels.
It works however, because the powers are collected into categories with added background material to explain their grouping and uses the new layout style with additional flavour text per power. The categories are Fear of the Dark, Secrets of the Deep Guides, Shadow of the Ziggurat, Seekers of the Lost Lore, Thieves Guide of Maelbrathyr, From the Vault of the Drow and Battle Tactics of Cor Talcor. I tend to play at much lower level than most of these powers are given at, so this section is of limited use to me.
While much of the rest of the book is aimed at DM’s, its also got plenty of player related material. From sidebars about why not to use herd animals to check for traps, to advice on what rituals should be used, to looking at different dungeon types. I really like the dungeon types section, I’d never considered that a floating castle dungeon would require similar exploration tactics as an ice palace or a mine.
Dungeon Dwellers is where the player backgrounds from the themes section really begin to shape this book. Each monster is introduced with a quote from one of the seven, and then an explanation of the creatures place in the underdark’s food chain. I felt this section could have been better, a second quote and a brief passage on tactics for dealing with the creature in question would have been nice to see.
Infamous Dungeons is where the majority of the earlier Dungeon Survival Guide resurfaces, with the classic dungeons of D&D lore highlighted, and a background or feat related to characters linked to that dungeon is given. I’d have liked to see Castle Ravenloft’s mention here give the castle a definitive place in Nerath or the Shadowfell, but with D&D Next on the horizon, that was never going to happen…
Dungeoneers Tools highlights a flaw in 4e, that mundane equipment has a minimal impact on the combat side of the game. The tools here, like those in other books, give plenty of flavour and skill bonuses, but how many characters entering the Underdark will really worry about carrying a hacksaw when their 22 strength slayer can smash through anything… The Alchemical items are a nice touch, but suffer the usual problem of these items, their attack bonuses are often 3 or 4 less than your normal attacks.
Masters of the Dungeon is the last chapter, an immense 50+ page section designed for DM’s, covering lots of different aspects of creating an adventure, and it’s advice is solid, whether you’re designing one for the Underdark or a standard adventure. Its such good advice that I’d say this section is essential for any 4e DM, as it show you how you can improve your game with better adventure hooks, skill challenges, and environments suited to the monsters you’ve chosen. The sidebars give an example of how handouts can improve a dungeons backstory, and it show how to link themes into the adventure, which is something that has been lacking given themes are a relatively new addition to the game.
This chapter, also covers special rewards, and its nice to see Power Word Kill and Wish, almost legendary aspects of the game when I started in 1990, see their 4e return, and I admire the way they’ve been incorporated into the game. Dungeon Companions gives us 4 monstrous companions, including the iconic Meepo from 3rd edition. I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting this section, and while its brief (3 pages) its pretty good.
The books ends with 2 appendices. The first, Build Your Own Dungeon, reminds me of the DM’ing advice I first saw in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia regarding drawing it out and detailing it. The second appendix gives us random tables… For some, these might seem out of place, but I love this nod to the past, and I’m hoping that the trend of including some random elements continues into D&D Next.
With the Heroes of Shadow, I felt the lack of racial feats was a mistake. With Heroes of Feywild, it was the lack of lycanthrope or fey related clerical domains, with Heroes of the Elemental Chaos, i’d have liked to see the genasi reprinted with added racial options… So what’s missing in Into the Unknown?
The Drow… While mentioned lots of time, their is a distinct lack of Drow related goodness. This book would have been a perfect time to print the racial utilities that were featured in Dragon, and add in some new feats or make ones like the Xendrik Weapon Training from Eberron a core feat.
Paragon Paths… Presumably, the new powers are meant to replace these and Epic Destinies, and maybe there’s an assumption that Underdark adventures are only used in the Heroic tier?
Tactics… Monsters are mentioned but no real advice from the seven npc’s on how to deal with these threats is given.
New Monsters… As a DM, I always love new critters to throw at players, and it would have been nice to see some new Grimlock options for example.
NPC’s… Our seven NPC’s are given backgrounds and quotes, but we never actually see their abilities. I’d have tied this into D&DI, with the NPC’s available on the website for use in the Encounters season.
In summary, if you’re a 4e player, this book once again gives you plenty of new material that can be used in the current Encounters season, which is a great benefit. Outside of this season, its usage is much more home campaign focused and may take months of play before its benefits become obvious. For DM’s I’d put this book up there with Neverwinter as being an essential purchase for its advice on how to build better adventures.