Sunday, 12 September 2021

Review & Comparisons of Underground Aventures Old & New

Playing fallout 4 sorry so posting infrequently. I didn't have DLC before.
Plus I have Tadpoles I'm rearing to distract me.
Playing several games which is nice.
Using years of old stuff so not much urge to make new stuff.
Another review shortly.
Post on undead of all alignments and post apoc traders coming

Underground and ruin exploration was always an interest of mine and was my gateway to dnd (Brit Juve historic horror fantasy tv and books too). The dungeoneers survival guide wasn't what I expected. Not really dungeons but about caves and vast subterranean worlds which was better as I loved steam era SF Journey to the Centre of the Earth and At the Earths Core. It takes the gygaxian ideas in the D series modules and expands them to vast kingdoms. 

Since then we have had a few other works of note and most recently the new Survivalist's guides.  

Dungeoneers Survival Guide
Shadow Elves & Hollow World for Mystara
Veins of the Earth
Operation Unfathomable
Survivalists Guide To Spelunking

Dungeoneers Survival Guide
This was the only book from my original D&D collection I purged in early 90s and have mostly recovered (updated my want page). I have ones I most want now and drive-through versions are fine. I kept this book as it had useful stuff that wasn't in any of my D&D gear and I played just Cthulhu, RQ and TSR MSH Marvel for over 20 years. I got back into D&D 2012 as it known by name to get players when I had not played a while and because it has easy record keeping in the form of monster stat blocks. 

Anyway, I had gone from basic D&D to advanced mixing them a bit and AD&D to me peaked 85 with non-weapon skills and basic DnD gazetteers had skills too. Oriental Adventures and Dungeoneers Guide were my favourite books. OA as time went on seemed flawed but I disagree with an opening on that book and think lots of abilities should have been in the occidental world also and not about specific ethnicity. OA was gateway as a teen to better stuff and I really don't think Samurai culture is so wonderful even if it has some nice aesthetics sometimes. So Dungeoneers book won out as the one book I kept.
This book has lots of nice art, some hark back to 79 style module art and some more contemporary and I like it quite a bit as between several eras. It has one artist I didn't like so much but mostly classic DnD. The mapping stuff dealing with isometric maps in vogue at the time, a guide to making geomorphs is good too. The Underdark as detailed here was amazing to me and I used it in my games for a long time and inspired my later and current ideas. So I kept this book for certain sections but I found it a constant well of inspiration and still do. I was 15 at a time so was the perfect target group for current TSR,

The overview section has great illustrations and guides to cave types. Movement rules that should have been core to the game, like how far you can jump, climbing rules, etc. Cave in rules for using a rock to mud on roofs of caves was thrilling - keep rolling to see if collapse continues until it stops is good dice drama. The skills section was great at the time bit petty -2 Stat roll on this seemed petty and why I just don't like lots of petty mods. Environmental survival stuff is great. Mining rules Id probably still use and fed into campaign building and domain play of higher level. The DM section has more lore which came to be the underdark of later products but here leans more into gygaxian and lacks the over detail of later works. Like current Midderlands, it describes a skeleton and you can detail it as you like. As a setting its inspirational and loose enough you can do stuff with it nit feel blocked by official lore. 

The culture section is more of this setting basics and there are 31 megacaves described as part of a multi-levelled system under a fantasy city. Waterdeep came to be more like this in print but this was a generic fantasy city and you could drop it under your city. There are story ideas and DM tips for the campaign too. 

So basically I love this book and give it 4 stars. I think today its worth a look but so many assumptions of the Underdark in D&D was here independent of forgotten realms. It probably would have worked better in Greyhawk and the vice of modules written over six years before it. Today its less essential work for rules but more about adding the flavour of the cave crawl. Dungeons, caves, ruins and wilderness are four of the big environments in game. I never read the wilderness guide as it seemed to repeat lots of content and making people suffer in wilderness gets boring faster than caving. If only Ad&d did a book in this style on cities as environment with geomorphs, mapping tips, social skills and interactions and some of DMG content but coherant.  

Shadow Elves & Hollow World for Mystara
Ive reviewed both before and these are more an honourable mention. So after you get really deep in your 80s DnD world these products offer new vistas. The Hollow earth book is pretty good and is basically a lost world using fairly classic hollow-earther theory and maps as a fantasy setting with Greeks, Egyptians and Aztecs inside and dinos and cave people. They go into some interesting detail but the framework is so generic on the genre you could chuck more stuff in here and be more gonzo than mere Edwardian pseudoscience cults and pulp. If you are so on genre anyone could make a similar setting without seeing yours from reading same pop culture you need to be weirder. Maybe Darksun might be a good hollow world but this box set (or book on drive-through) is an ok starting point. Blackmoor style technology would be great.

Shadow Elves details a great chasm area under the city of Glantri one of the D&D known world Gazetteers. It is a race of thanking Lolth not drow so you could stick their interesting civilisation described in beautiful art in any underground area ad-hoc or deliberately under the campaign. It has links to remnant ideas of Blackmoor and Glantri with a magical reactor from a crashed spacecraft the source of radiance and a school of magic. The elves here are different to D&D basic elves. I like these gloomy big-eared derp elves and they are refreshing. I like Gygax drow into demon porn and drugs and slaves vs the current drow engaging in light consensual bondage in Mad Mage Dungeon. I like drow as having jet black shiny skin with white hair and purple eyes not like any humans ever. I'm not into all must be evil trope but their main best-known civilisation is. But If you want to not deal with the legacy of Drow problems these shadow elves might be worth a shot. Personally, I'm all for every bunch of elves you meet being some weird alien freaks claiming to be the one and only proper elves.

Veins of the Earth
So this brings us into the modern era and Patric Stewart's Bible of cavern adventures. I have discussed this before and written things directly inspired by it. Basically, this takes underground exploring to a new extreme. I would use for the deepest darkest lower caverns with most prehistoric remnants, older than known civilisations or humans. This book is a very rare thing for an rpg I describe as a work of art. Not in the sense of the art of game design but as a book with outstanding art and writing that is physically beautiful. Actually, I dislike the art has come from a brit comic realism studio workplace but here it is evocative, violent and shadowy so it works. Text and art and book as an artefact all work.

It starts with monsters. These are weird and evocative and scary and weird. Some are alien and might fit in an SF or horror rpg. If you need nightmare entities and or beings of darkness there are amazing ones here. After monsters, we get darkness itself a topic and environment. Light as a currency and resource is detailed. It is quite complete but surprised no luminous dried deep-sea fish which really were used in mines. Light as a currency is interesting. Sections on getting lost, exploration, encumbrance and climbing in detail. The next section details mapping, cave generating and sample caves and flavour. Provides good symbolic notation systems. These are also weird magic items, flavour text generators, dark spells you find in the deep long forgotten by the surface. It also has a sample complex generated using the book. 

It is specifically Its own thing and not like other products here or part of D&D depictions of cave crawls. It is oozing with flavour and resource horror of early D&D dialled up to 11. If you wanted to use it in your regular game with an Underdark use this for the deepest oldest strangest caves or the deep or drop in things from here time to time when people are too comfortable with the alien environment. Aboleth fit in here well strangely. Old weird mindflayes full of mystery might work, modern overdeveloped ones nope. You can run this as given or use it for adding flavour or the worst places in your Underdark or pilfer titbits of prehistoric esoterica in some dungeon. Using a bunch of this after tunnels of glum gnomes and highway tunnels and shops would be a good contrast. If I ran a gritty historic fantasy D&D I might just use this as given to contrast with regular D&D expectations. 

Operation Unfathomable
This is a very different flavour and is different from the above products. It is also one of those works with great comic book pulp and grunge art synergising with text. It is full of gonzo strangeness. So much so you might want to steal bits from this and spread them out. Lots of interesting races and beings to meet. You could possibly talk through quite a bit or just witness strange stuff a tourist sty;e gamer will enjoy. In its native setting, it's just a typical strange cave I presume. For a one-off mini-campaign as given would be a few sessions of strange and memorable play but you wouldn't drop it say in most published settings as-is. Very pulp and weird in a more playful and less horrible than Veins of the Earth. Lots of weird races and encounters you could use elsewhere but some might need more work to fit into other genres. 

There is a players guide I've not got. This would fit fine with other Hydra Cooperative game stuff.

Survivalists Guide To Spelunking
So this is the new one partly credited to Douglas Niles. I guess its a spiritual successor to the Dungeoneers Survival Guide. As a book it is an impressive artifact. My postie asked my why so heavy. Solid binding with thick glossy paper. Solid but musta hit post costs somewhere. The cover is nice but some people would look hard for fantasy and might think it a real book on real spelunking. It's an attractive book to touch. It has lots of good art evocative of original. It has lots od tiny spot illustrations on page bottoms with various characters in very dnd situations that reminded me of gutter art in mad magazine. They are quite appealing as art but the anecdotal writings in games not my thing. Many illustrations will inspire ideas to drop into a ad-ho cave trip. Basics of survival and darkness are brief. Has some good detail on cave types. The Undererworld (referred to here and physically comes close to hell) as a whole chapter very similar to Dungeoneers entry. Has some novelty climbing technology ideas. It has a chapter on a momentum system I wont touch including 5th ed feats using it, this merges into initiative, spellcasting which goes on for 11 pages, then chase rules follow from last bit, and its quite a major game rule and complexity ad on.  Mapping is briefly touched and survival chapter has good camsite and foraging tables. Has section on lighting technology that is fine and some additional hazards and influence of the darkness. Elaborate breathe holding rules for quite a few pages. Im only interested in rules that simplify game not make more complex. A large section on underworld hazards. I kind of like the damage per level guide tables which dive for each character level what is minor and major damage and saving throws I do like. Hazard section has good ideas and tables but wants number crunchy systems I guess to help you make game balance and with lots of permutations. 

One of the best elements of this book is especially by the end is tables. Lots of flavours here and there are in the last sections' tables to cover elemental planar influence and hazards. A great campsite table with problems and benefits. Foraging and hunting tables for various regions of underworld from fungi jungle or water cave. Borderland of hell encounters, fungal infections, hyperthermia, crystal and darkness influences.

So If you played DnD5 the extra rules might or might not interest you. Most of the book is not too system-specific. It does touch lots of topics. Sometimes I feel they could be grouped in better chapters rather than flipping between survival stuff and other stuff. All planar and influence and hell stuff could have all been the same section. There are good ideas and art is inspirational and plentiful. It hints at ideas in some above works but doesn't have a strong setting feel. There are no cultures detailed here at all despite hundreds of pics of mushroom people doing interesting things. So feels more like wilderness and without the stratigraphic approach to history as you get deeper.

So the tables and the art are the main assets here and the book is one of the most impressive artifact in own right. It feels nice and some paper I find repulses me to the touch even If I liked the PDF). I got this book in hopes of adding to the flavour of the original Dungeoneers book. It doesn't tug my heartstrings and a fair amount of text seems overly crunchy and I like crunchy realism quite often but not so much in my D&D. To add some new ideas onto other underdark stuff there is some good stuff for exploring and ideas for underground environments. The tables would help. The darkness vibe isn't as nasty as Veins of the Earth but is there and has some juice. I like the planes and hell borderlands stuff most. Of course, as I have written many of my own tables this book I would use the hunting and foraging contents too. The quality is high my main problem is some of the complexity that feels like 80s AD&D. The lack of culture and civilisation and not going full-on horror makes this underworld kind of quiet and I don't know why I would go there. Like the illustration, it seems to detail what a wandering dwarf surviving and prospecting and hazard-based obstacles over violence. Some topics it talks to many other ideas are hinted at and not taken further. It does straddle the old and new DnD vibe. Id recommends looking through it before buying to see if you would use it. I will use tables if I get to run a good underground campaign. Its a fairly good book but Im not sure If it really is like the original Dungeoneers guide even if it covers similar territory. The Crystal stuff as given is interesting but would only be a small % of magic crystal stuff. I guess this book hasn't changed anything for me and while would tweak some campaign stuff it wouldn't really influence or change anything.

A small more indy book on Drive-through POD I got when I got skycrawl. It makes detailing underground journeys rather than building a whole world look appealing as a method. Has some fungus fun effects, a simple resource system, generating weird one use races and random caverns, flavour text tables, simple campaign ideas and more. It does more in 58 pages than many other books do in 300 pages. It favours a simple creation system you can build up as needed on the fly easily.  It has fresh ideas I will use and examples ready to use or snatch.

Finally Notes
As caving a favourite D&D campaign setting of mine I have enjoyed all the above products and you could mash them all up. The tone in all these products is quite different. There is some replication of rules and ideas. Some are complimentary some wouldn't work freely together. 

I think using Dungeoneers guide for your close to the surface worlds levels and Veins for the deepest ones with less human and ancient inhabitants. I like the Gygax story of evil cultures driven underground and mutated. I want baroque evil kingdoms and fungus jungles. I have written a campaign where parties move a civilian population through an underground kingdom to safety - do they get out or do they settle down in the deep? One day hope to use it, possibly after Slavelords A1-4 they flee underground with the free slaves as has surface apocalypse. I also have a huge chasm complex under the sea between two major landmasses you can cross without a ship. It has islands on the surface connected also. I have run it and would like to revise - as was published I agreed to hold off for a few years so on my to-do list and lots in my Goblin Mine book. 

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