An RPG Resource Review:
Dungeons: A Guide to Survival in the Realms Below is a fascinating read, a thorough exploration of the places that so many adventurers like to explore... these underground complexes both natural and manmade that are lumped together as 'dungeons.'
The Introduction is an analysis of the reasons why 'dungeons' are so fascinating for the average adventurer... and how they can become stale if that's all you ever explore. For the writers, the dungeon is a place unknown, a mysterious place in which adventure can occur; and without them role-playing could degenerate into little more than die-rolls and movie quotes with a bit of history thrown in. Hmmm. While dungeons have their place in fantasy games, they too can degenerate into formulaic 'enter room, hit monster, defeat trap, steal treasure, repeat' if the designer isn't very careful. We are ROLE-playing after all, not running a combat simulation. The announced intention of this book is indeed to step beyond the formula dungeon and look at ways of both making them fun places to explore and providing advice for surviving them!
Section 1: Tips and Tricks looks - mainly from the adventurers' viewpoint - at the very nature of dungeons. It starts with the sort of preparations that the prudent adventurer can take, the equipment that will be useful and why it's important to map the place. Presented in the form of a lecture from a renowed wizard and explorer, it begins by classifying dungeons into 3 sorts - the natural cave system, the labyrinth (nasty, it's the sort that's designed to get you) and the construct (which probably started off as a castle or some such but fell into disrepair later). Then comes a detailed look at the sort of gear you ought to be taking with you. Obvious things like food, water and rope; the uses of light sources (not just illumination: you can burn things, test for air quality and even check - very cautiously - for natural gas!) and so on. Well worth a read, as is the next bit: the questions you ought to be asking yourself about the place you are about to enter. Who made it, and why? Do some research before you go in, and be prepared to pop out to check on something if necessary.
While this first part is written in character, addressed to an adventurer contemplating some dungeon-delving, the next bit is addressed to the player. The key point is: don't let yourself be rushed through whatever is there. Take your time. Figure things out, test things, be cautious. Work out how traps are triggered, and what they do if they are, and it will become easier to avoid them.
The focus then shifts to the DM - how do you make good dungeons with intriguing but ultimately survivable traps? Again, like questioning players, the DM should think about WHY the dungeon is there in the first place. Who built it? Or did it just happen? What's in there now, and are they the original inhabitants or later arrivals? Just as important is why the DM expects the characters to go down there: pure loot (in terms of gold, magic items or XP), or something else - knowledge, perhaps, or a quest to deal with some evil that may have personal implications for the party, or a search for a cure to a disease or poison that threatens the land, or an individual for whom the characters care. Ultimately, it's all about giving that dungeon as much of a place in history, in space and time within your campaign setting, as anything or anybody else. Then there's a purpose, a reason, a whole existance to make use of, not just an instantaneous place that is there only for the time that the characters are wandering through it!
This discussion of how to build an 'ecological' dungeon, where everything has its place and a reason for being there, continues on to wider issues. These include analysis of what the monsters eat when there are no tasty adventurers around, and even a discussion of the different sorts of societies that can arise amongst the sentient inhabitants. Chaotic evil is put in its place: despite the common belief that it's the baddest alignment, a well-played lawful evil group is far worse... And as for neutral evil, well, you just never know with them, they'll do whatever it takes to achieve their own ends.
Next comes an analysis of tricks and traps: the architectural and mechanical means that the owner of the dungeon might use to protect his property and keep the adventurers out. There's a whole bunch of stuff, of course; from secret doors and panels to hide things behind (i.e. keeping the treasure safe) to infernal devices designed to maim or kill people who shouldn't be there. But all these things have to work somehow - however it may seem to the hapless adventurer, they don't go off at random but are specifically triggered... and so can also with some intelligent thought, be bypassed, circumvented or disarmed. The average trap works in one of three ways: balance, trigger or magic. The first two can be explained - or, for a good dungeon design, ought to be able to be explained - using standard physical principles. They might be difficult to build, but they can be built. Magic, of course, requires the application of the appropriate spells and should be consistent with the 'alternate reality' of your world, even if it won't work in the real one. Again, the results of the trap once set off need to be explained, and probably cleaned up after as well. Should the trap be in an area that's used, do the locals know how to bypass or disarm it? Or is there a steady stream of injured minions to contend with? The chapter winds up with a discussion on the sorts of treasures you might find once you've battled your way through, and how the quirky, strange, exotic and even useless items have a place alongside more conventional loot.
Section 2 is entitled 'Dungeon Types' and looks in more detail at what sorts of dungeons you can design and which are best depending on your purposes. This is done by a kind of example system, starting by talking about fortresses in general and then discussing all the different things that you'd need to have there (and why), and how they might have decayed or changed as the fortress either fell into disuse or was used for another purpose. The next type to be explored is the madman's lair - possibly more common in other genres than the fantasy one, but effective enough if used well, perhaps even more so as it isn't quite what the adventurers will expect. However mad the architect may appear to you, he himself is going to have some kind of rationale behind what he's created, so you'll need to understand it to design it. You also need to know who it is that the place is designed for: even most lunatics do not build deathtraps for just anyone who passes by, nor is it likely that said passers-by will enter, they need to be lured in! Or of course you can have great amusement by having the whole edifice set up to trap someone else, and the mad owner stomping around in annoyance that the wrong set of adventurers are down there.
Similar discussions follow for mines, natural caverns, sewers, subterranean communities, temples and tombs. Mines, of course, tend to simple yet sprawling layouts - they are dug in the direction of whatever the original delver was trying to find. Of course, who knows what has been disturbed, or has moved in since mining ceased? If the mine is still in operation, the owners may not be impressed with adventurers wandering through, particularly if they are mining something valuable and easily portable like gemstones. Just because natural caverns were not built by someone does not mean that they are empty and safe - far from it. Creatures, intelligent or otherwise, may be living there... and as far as they are concerned, the adventurers are the wandering monsters which need to be dealt with! Sewers can prove mighty unpleasant, especially if they are still in use - for an example of this, see Sundered Faith. There are also problems posed by creatures living there - likely the slimes, fungi and moulds - as well as any down-and-outs who may have taken up residence, and the danger of flooding. The one thing not mentioned is disease. Properly organised subterranean communities will regard adventurers as intruders, and likely deal with them accordingly. Temples are - or were - someone's place of worship, and if they are there they are unlikely to welcome visitors who have not come to venerate their deity. Each 'type' of dungeon gets a whole bunch of suggestions and examples, so whichever you fancy there should be plenty to spawn ideas.
Section 3 is devoted to the 'Player' and provides the character with useful resources. New skills - such as Contortionist, Intuit Depth, Intuit Distance... and a neat new use for Knowledge - 'Dungeon Lore' where a character has spent time researching the stories and legends about the subterranean places that he might visit, and can then apply this knowledge while he is underground. You can even study Trap Design - useful in getting around them, as well as for building them. There are also new feats that might prove useful to the dedicated dungeoneer, such as Blind Casting (you can target spells without needing to see what you are aiming at), Grace Under Pressure (you don't flap easily), Improved Alertness, Light Sleeper and Tinker (again useful with traps, you have a mechanical bent and a pocket-full of tools!). There are also useful items (the Tool Staff looks handy) and some spells. Then comes some Prestige Classes - the Crusader, the Demolitionist (if you allow explosives in your campaign), the Shock Trooper and the Treasure Hunter. All in all, a chapter full of rules to use to your advantage when delving.
The final section is intended for the Dungeon Master (with the usual note that players should read no further... when will publishers realise that most of us both play and DM?). It starts off with a selection of dungeon monsters, some variants on a theme like the floor trapper and others quite novel. This is followed by a listing of magic items again with an underground theme. The assortment of magic marbles is rather fun, while the Scroll of Mapping is a godsend for any character who cannot draw! Next comes a selection of traps for you to visit upon your players... and then, three sample dungeons to give you an idea of what can be done.
Overall, an enlightening read, especially for those who are or wish to be DMs - and even if you don't particularly like the 'dungeon crawl' it's recommended because it might just change your mind!