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Matt James is an award-winning game designer from Washington, DC. He has designed and developed game content for companies such as Privateer Press, Paizo, Kobold Press, and Wizards of the Coast. In his spare time he authors short stories and other speculative fiction. Matt is also a disabled combat veteran, having earned the Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart during his service in Iraq back in 2005.
It's tough to get a good read on this book. It almost feels like a few underdark- and dungeon-themed articles and an editionless fluff book got sewn together into a single product. On the up side, the content here is solid. On the downside, it's of questionable value to both players and DMs; there's not enough of value for either to justify the full cover price. I also found it a tad unfocused... The player information is mostly underdark-oriented, rather than dungeon-crawly, as if it escaped from the upcoming Menzoberranzan supplement. [Edit: It appears that it very well might have, because Menzoberranzan is now an "editionless" supplement.]
Anyway, let's start with the good - the player stuff, which is found (mostly) in the front half of the book. As has become the norm, we begin with themes - 7, here, to be precise, in a mix of dungeon-focused and underdark-themed adventurers. Do we really need more themes? Ummm... No, not really. Are they still good to have? Sure! As long as they're good.
And these, fortunately, are good. They are generally fairly potent, mechanically, which is fine by me... Top of the potency list are the Bloodsworn, who get a slightly less-powerful Elven Accuracy at 1st, second-wind-based features at 5th, and initiative at 10th. Deep Delvers are also notable - they make up for some lackluster low-level features with a whammy - Blindsight - at 10th level. Trapsmiths are pretty cool too - they have evocative flavor, and an interesting off-turn Reaction attack which can pick up control effects. There's even a largely out-of-combat theme in the Treasure Hunter, but while their 10th level feature is interesting, it's overall kind of underwhelming.Read more ›
Since the debut of Heroes of the Feywild, the bar has been set very high for subsequent 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Supplements. Can the Dungeon Survival Handbook meet the challenge?
The first sign that this is a different sort of book is the lack of the words "Player's Option" in the title. This book isn't just for players, and that lack of focus makes for some odd design choices. But the first chapter is all player goodness. Character themes include the bloodsworn (a single-minded slayer out for revenge), deep delver (specializing in subterranean survival), escaped thrall (a psychically-damaged and possibly insane survivor of eldritch torture), trapsmith, treasure hunter, and the uninspired Underdark envoy (bard-type) and Underdark outcast (rogue-type). All of these themes include optional powers and a sample character, sans stats. Why are these characters presented without stats? Is it assumed players will adopt the character or is it left for Dungeon Masters to use as a non-player character...in which case stats would have been useful?
The best part of the book includes new races: goblins, kobolds, and the hard-to-pronounce svirfneblin. It's interesting to see how 4th Edition handles the svirfneblin as a race, who have traditionally been very powerful opponents. The presentation seems balanced, with the opportunity to even summon earth elementals at higher levels.
Dungeon-Themed Powers follow next, an overview of powers grouped by different concepts. So for example, you might have powers from the Vault of the Drow. Curiously, there's no drow race. The exclusion is peculiar given that the skull-bodied spider symbol of the drow invasion is on the cover of the book.Read more ›
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If your group enjoys reality-based, hardcore delving- being pushed to the limits of their ingenuity and endurance- than I would wholly recommend this book. If your group is a bit more casual, the book contains advice on dungeon design, character building, and more. All in all, I'd say there is something in here for every group.
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