Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Retrospective: Dungeoneer's Survival Guide

If the Silver Age had a paradigmatic book, 1986's Dungeoneer's Survival Guide is a good candidate. Despite its name, the DSG wasn't really all that focused on "dungeons" in the traditional sense. Rather, its subject matter was subterranean locales, specifically caves and cave complexes -- the "wilderness" beneath the surface of the world. A better name would have been the Spelunker's Survival Guide, but I admit that it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. The DSG is also notable for having first introduced the term "Underdark" to D&D, which has proven remarkably resilient, surviving both as an appellation and as a concept virtually unchanged through multiple editions of the game, a feat even the Outer Planes have not managed.

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide covers a lot of ground, offering up an overview of the many obstacles adventurers might encounter underground, along with rules for adjudicating them. So, we're treated to discussions of cave-ins, subterranean waterways (and flooding), poisonous gas, vulcanism, oxygen deprivation, and more. These discussions all go a long way toward bringing the Underdark to life as a physical environment rather than as merely a backdrop against which to battle the drow or mind flayers. The Underdark itself is thus the biggest "monster" of them all and the DSG does an excellent job of making all these details seem integral to the creation of a challenging subterranean adventure.

When this was released, I was entranced by it. I very quickly became an advocate of the DSG and attempted to employ it in my home campaign. Being a fan of Verne and Burroughs, the visions author Doug Niles conjured up of the Underdark were difficult to resist -- a perfect antidote for a young man tired of "boring old dungeons" and looking for new and exciting ways to challenge his players in subterranean locales. In practice, all the detail and advice Niles provided was easily forgotten, however, because it (mostly) got in the way. Nice as it was to know, for example, how long a character could hold his breath or leap across a chasm, never mind the effects of underground lava flows, it was just too much for me and proved quite dispensable in play.

I still adored the book, which was fun to read and quite inspirational, but very little of its contents ever found a permanent home in my game. The exception, of course, was non-weapon proficiencies, which eventually became an integral part of AD&D. Though originally introduced in Oriental Adventures, it was in the DSG (and its 1986 twin, the Wilderness Survival Guide) that concept really took hold. Again, at the time, I thought non-weapon proficiencies were brilliant and added much needed depth to characters. In retrospect, I can see that they were a well-intentioned mistake that laid the groundwork for many of the worst excesses of 2e. But I wasn't alone in my love for them, which is why, despite their optional status in the Zeb Cook-edited Players Handbook, I never met a single player or referee who did not use them and lean increasingly on them for adjudicating almost any non-combat action in the game.

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide is also notable for popularizing another indulgence of the Silver Age: isometric maps. The DSG promoted this style of "3-D" mapping as the best way to represent the complexities of subterranean environments. And, again, I won't deny that I was much impressed with them. These maps really were beautiful to behold and did seem to make it easier to design "realistic" underworlds, with multiple elevations and the like. As with much of the Silver Age, though, functionality was sacrificed in the name of esthetics. Nice as isometric maps are to look at, they're much less useful in actual play, not to mention much more time consuming to produce than traditional orthographic maps. Nevertheless, TSR regularly used isometric maps in their products during this period.

In the final analysis, Dungeoneer's Survival Guide was a brilliant failure and emblematic of many of the trends I eventually came to dislike about the direction of AD&D in the later years of TSR. It was -- and is, I'd still contend -- an inspirational book, one whose text often conveys the beauty and wonder and horror of subterranean locales so well. As a rulebook, though, it's less than ideal, simultaneously being too nitpicky and too easily cast aside. And its intention of adding new depths (no pun intended) to both the physical environment of adventures and to adventurers themselves was another nail in the coffin of the Old Ways. It's a pity, because, despite it all, I still have a fondness for this book, even though its publication was another step down a path whose ultimate destination I strongly dislike these days.


  1. ha! I remember even now that I had exactly the same response to the DSG. LIke a guinea pig - lovable but useless. I don't know if I used non-weapon proficiencies, but I did try to use the isometric maps (failed!) and never once tried to use any of the other rules. Evocative but useless.

    I think I pined after it for ages before I bought it too...

  2. I remember having this one, but never using it. It was a fun book, but definitely was a leap towards the "no more three core books for you" mindset of the game.

  3. I recently sold-off my copy of this book. It offered a lot of promise that it never quite got around to delivering on, and at the same time cluttered-up things with a lot of evocative inspirational stuff that was more often than not better handled via narrative than dice-rolling, in my experience. The essential core of this book is worth having around, and is probably as close to required reading as you're going to get for anyone wanting to design an effective Underdark and who finds that most of what has come afterwards in this respect is pretty weak and uninspiring to say the least. I have always considered this book to be a very real candidate for re-writing, combining it with the Wilderness Survival Guide and maybe roll all of the best ideas from the WOTC Environment books into one mega-tome...but done as an OGL-derived Old School Guide...that would be cool.

  4. Put me down as another fan of this book. What you say above is true, but I still find the DSG as a great source of inspiration, despite the abundance of rules.

    I could be wrong, but I think the "Underground Adventures: Campaign Considerations" section might be one of the first sources of DM advice in a TSR hardback (apart from the DMG, obviously). I think the whole "Dungeon Master's Section" is full of great stuff.

  5. I was tempted to make an isometric map as part of the attempt to understand how the staircases in Blackmoor Dungeon fit together, and pulled out the 2E Catacomb Builder's Guide for instructions on doing so. I'd be interested to hear more about experiences using isometric maps, and other examples of how to diagram 3D relationships in dungeons. (The one thing I can contribute is that just adding a note on the map detailing where cross-level or cross-map connections wind up is simple but surprisingly often overlooked; adding this to the maps in Caverns of Thracia or Night of the Walking Wet makes them much easier to use.)
    - Tavis

  6. I ate it the DSG when it first came out but over time it showed its flaws certainly so when used with other books. Few mention this but OA, DSG and WSG all used a different resolution system for resolving actions with NWPs.

    Seldom noted but I just have to now, from the DSG:
    "Use of proficiencies by player characters does not result in experience point awards. Since PCs spend their lives adventuring, any uses of nonweapon proficiencies serve primarily to augment the adventuring, and thus do not warrant experience awards.
    Non-player characters who make a living through the use of nonweapon proficiencies may gain experience points from proficiency use, in order to go up in level. Such characters should gain 1 d4 hit points for each level. The primary purpose of advancing is to gain additional proficiency slots, and the NPCs can thus improve their performance as their careers advance.
    If NPCs are advanced this way, simply use the level advancement table for fighters to determine the intervals between each level. The NPC should gain one experience point for every two gp of income netted by his business. "

    no exp for NWP checks for adventurers. Also Non-adventuring NPC level advancement 14 years before 3rd edition.

  7. Locally (at least at the gaming clubs and universities), I don't think I saw anyone ever actually used the non-weapon proficiencies. The definitely weren't a part of any tournaments I saw run at the time.

    I think the idea of adding skills to D&D was just too alien to the simplicity and spirit of D&D. After all, we had other game systems for that.

    That being said, the idea of variant and home-brewed character classes were fairly popular in many of the established campaigns, and that usually provided sufficient character variability.

  8. I loved the book, particularly the advice from a seasoned Dungeoneer.

  9. About nonweapon proficiencies:

    Skill systems are not a mistake. Unless you are going to play a cinematic game (that sounds cool, you succeed) or limit yourself to combat-only encounters, you have to have them to resolve challenged actions. I have played heavy infiltration games since the dawn of the "Silver Age" and it is very hard to adjudicate these if stealth and scouting mechanics only apply to the thief character and no other class.

    Skill systems existed in many of the major competitors to D&D at the time, and their lack in D&D is what caused many of my circle to gravitate to other systems. In of themselve, they are not an evil.

    The problem is getting them right, because of the ways in which skills interact with one another. D&D 3e is actually one of the better skill systems out there (far better than that mess that Call of Cthulhu continues to use). The combat in 3e is a complicated mess, but the skill system is quite streamlined.

    I am with you on the claim that 2e mechanics had many horrid excesses. 2e is what you get when you have a rules-heavy system designed by people who don't bother to understand the mathematics (whereas 3e is what happens when the mathematicians run unchecked). But skill systems had to come, and had they not, I and many others would have permanently given up on D&D.

  10. As a kid, I was really drawn to the realistic approach to cave exploration, but even then I could see the problems with the rest of the book. Nevermind that half of it was a mediocre module disguised as a core rulebook, but even at 16 I called B.S. on some of the half-baked rules (things like how long you could hold your breath, IIRC, seemed a bit dodgy). Those parts didn't seem any more credible than your average Dragon article.

  11. Love that book! It was a pretty essential part of our Jr.High roleplaying library.I can't recall what we used from it because I didn't DM at the time. The art was pretty awesome in this book too, loved that cover-that urgent sense of desperation.

  12. Great review, I totally agree and would be somewhat more harsh. To me, the real paradigmatic book is its companion WSG, which almost single-handedly destroyed my fledgling college campaign.

    - Long, blathering narrative discussions of natural phenomena without mechanical in-game effects. (Easy to bulk up page count this way, without time-consuming playtests.)
    - Nonweapon proficiencies, fundamentally derailing the D&D core system and making NPCs time-consuming to stat up and record.
    - Isometric mapping which raises the "barrier to entry" of DMs, making for beautiful high-quality book products from TSR, but massive time wastes or giving-up points for individual DM creations.

    At least the DSG does have the evocative examples, locations, and fey quality of the Underdark presentation. The WSG lacks even that. These 2 books together marked the grave of my AD&D play at the time.

  13. Walker: "Skill systems are not a mistake."

    They are.

    Skill systems are the greatest blind alley followed in RPG game design.

  14. Over time, as I acquired them, I concatenated all the NWP lists form DSG, WSG, UA, and 2E. I also converted some of the 1E sub-class characters to NWP-packs, if it seemed logical. The Barbarian being the most memorable. I mostly ignored the innumerable 2E class/race books.

    I found them (NWP) quite helpful. Making rules/systems/decisions on the fly is always going to be a part of DMing. But, I really don't want to spend my skull-sweat on adjudicating the likelihood a spell-caster can cast a particular spell while his horse is moving at a canter or some such.

    My groups of players were generally quite unpredictable and resourceful. By default, I had to abandon the ridiculous "invisible railroad" and every adventure was a locale-style. I spent my prep time figuring out what was going on, mapping key locations, and on developing quality NPCs with real personalities, motivations, etc. There might be a faint trail of bread crumbs into the locale, but it was improv after that. Wise play/decisions resulted in few losses. Unwise choices resulted in blood, lots of it.

  15. DSG was one of my favorite late-1E books, but that was just from reading. In 1986, I migrated to WFRP and never looked back. My DM of the time used it, and I recall we used the NWPs. Personally, I liked them, but my tastes tend to lie more toward skills systems such as BRP than class-and-level.

    Regarding maps, I love isometric maps, but I could never draw them by hand: if I try to draw a straight line, the result is an amoeba. I think modern mapping software such as Fractal Mapper and Campaign Cartographer can do them... I think.

    Security word: "rhibi," a bullywug NPC.

  16. Denis "Maldin" Tetreault posted some wonderful maps that take the drowic underworld from the G/D modules and adds in Night Below and the various environments outlines in DSG. See for the downloadable .pdf and elevations maps, as well as high-level details about each area.


  17. Wow. Denis' work is impressive.

  18. I wrote a harsher critique a few years ago.

    The "it sucks" is a joking reference to the entirety of a previous "reviewer's" locked review.

    If I had it to do over, I'd revise the middle part, as I seem to have completely lost my train of thought and began to blabber.

  19. I still have my copy of the book. The NWProficiencies add a nice detail to the characters- the thing is to keep it simple. Can Kanathos swim or not? Can he cook or not? Because he is now stuck in a deserted island filled with live dodoes, all alone. Such things can be important to know when circumstance arise. The key is not to let it be a big block of game mechanics that slow down the game. 'cause if you let some players, suddenly they can do all those little things.
    As for the rest of the book, some stuff is inspirational, but alot of it is kind of bland.

  20. Skill systems existed in many of the major competitors to D&D at the time, and their lack in D&D is what caused many of my circle to gravitate to other systems. In of themselve, they are not an evil.

    Skill systems are, I think, an unnecessary addition in a class-based game. I like skill system just fine in games without classes (like RQ or CoC), but, to my mind, they're gilding the lily in a game like D&D.

  21. These 2 books together marked the grave of my AD&D play at the time.

    Mine as well. I intermittently picked the game up again after the advent of 2e, but none of my campaigns lasted as long as did my earlier ones. I don't think that's entirely the fault of books like these, but they certainly didn't help.

  22. "Skill systems are, I think, an unnecessary addition in a class-based game. I like skill system just fine in games without classes (like RQ or CoC)..."

    You beat me to saying the exact same thing. I've had a very good time with a skill system (Star Frontiers). Seems to fit better for me in a modern/future milieu where formal education is important.

    Bolting universal skills onto a class-based system creates a lurching, diabolical monstrosity.

  23. "It was -- and is, I'd still contend -- an inspirational book"

    Here's where I can't follow you. The Survival Guides are anything but inspirational to me. I always felt like the "Where's the beef!?" lady from the old Wendy's commercials, except I was saying "Where's the fantasy!?"

    Reams and reams of dry, dry detail on subjects like spelunking, hiking, mountain-climbing, foraging for food, etc. It's like somebody took my old Boy Scout Handbook and randomly-pasted some workmanlike but completely unnecessary RPG rules throughout.

    So see something so...aggressively mundane...bearing the D&D name always bugged me.

    Give me polymorph spells, gelatinous cubes, and talking pools of water that grant Wishes, dammit!

  24. As usual, Will has stolen words directly from my brain several minutes in the future.

    With one caveat: The very back-end part of the DSG has a lot of evocative stuff (and nice illustrations), and I think that sticks in folks' memory and the mass of ungamely crud fades.

  25. The DSG was my first AD&D book, and I think it was my first English-language RPG book, too.

    I had played the Finnish translation of Red box and Blue box D&D as that was mostly what was available in Finnish. Then I saw this book in a regular bookstore (alongside with at least Monster Manual II) and decided to buy it, to spice up the games we had.
    I think I must have been 12 or 13 at the time.

    I soon found out that it was quite impossible to use all those rules in our D&D. I did get my first impressions of AD&D from this book - I remember I had to deduce that it had both race *and* class from the tables in the book. There was a table listing all the races and the tunnel diameters they could squeeze themselves through, and classes were listed in the proficiency table.

    I never used it much, even when we played AD&D. I think I used some cave-in rules somewhere, and of course the Underdark was somewhere near Waterdeep. More lasting was the impression of the underground as a cool environment.

    I re-read some parts of the book the other day, mostly from inspiration from this blog. Thanks for writing it, I think I might run a D&D game at some point again.

  26. I dig isometric maps. They are helpful in some situations. For others they don't work out well.

  27. I HATE this book. It was the last 1st edition book I ever bought and I found it's lack of functionality to be a huge disappointment.

    Even more than Oriental Adventures (which I see as an "optional campaign guide") I find this particular work to be incredibly abhorrent and the sign of the apocalypse for TSR. I'm still disappointed with Doug Niles for it.

    But that's just me.

  28. I liked this book a lot. Found it very inspirational. I don't think I ever tried incorporating every rule, but had some fun with a lot of it.

    I like the mapping system too, but then again, my degree is in Art, so it didn't present any problems for me.

    I've expressed my opinion on nwp before, so no need to go into all the reasons again. We used them, and if I chose to play this game again, I would use them still. Although with some work.


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