Tuesday, January 26, 2010

REVIEW: The Dungeon Alphabet

There are some reviews I look forward to writing; this is not one of them. I say that not because The Dungeon Alphabet by Michael Curtis, author of the excellent Stonehell Dungeon, is a bad product -- quite the contrary! It is in fact a well-written, beautifully illustrated, and inspirational volume. Indeed, it may be the single best statement of the Old Ways yet put into print, a feat that's all the more remarkable because it's not presented as a philosophical manifesto but rather as an abecedarian syllabus, employing the principle of "show, don't tell" to sidestep the usual litany of complaints about how "old school" can't be defined and any attempt to do so is both wrongheaded and doomed to failure. If anyone, after absorbing The Dungeon Alphabet's 48 compendious pages, still claims not to understand what is meant by "old school," the fault will lie not with Curtis but the reader.

It's precisely because there's so much right about The Dungeon Alphabet that I didn't look forward to writing this review. Any compliments I pay to it will seem banal and any criticisms I make of it will seem petty. The book presents us with 26 entries -- one for each letter of the alphabet -- each of which is ostensibly connected to some topic pertaining to dungeons, such as altars, doors, oozes, or traps. Each entry is a brief, two or three paragraph, meditation on the topic in question, providing both practical advice on using the subject matter in designing a dungeon and "philosophical" musings on the whys and wherefores of doing so. It's a potent combination and Curtis's writing is straightforward without being vapid and detailed without being pedantic. Each entry is rounded out with a random table of some kind to jumpstart one's imagination about the topic (such unusual jewel properties or thirty results of a pulled lever).

The Dungeon Alphabet is lavishly illustrated, boasting a full color cover by Erol Otus. The interior art contains a mix of artists associated with earlier editions of D&D -- Jeff Easley, Jim Holloway, Jim Roslof, the aforementioned Otus -- and a number of newcomers, including old school renaissance favorite Peter Mullen. In my opinion, there's not a single bad piece of art in the book and that includes the illustrations done by Easley and Roslof, two artists I never much liked back in the day. Roslof in particular impressed me with the quality of his work, something I'd never have expected. The book also includes a foreword by David Cook in which he extols the virtues of whimsy and randomness in both game design and game playing -- a fitting entré for this volume.

The Dungeon Alphabet is a thin hardcover retailing for $9.99, which is an excellent price, but allow me to nitpick nonetheless. Given its subject matter and method of presentation, I wish it had been published as a smaller book, perhaps adopting the format of a children's book. That would have, I think, better suited it and made it a more interesting artifact to boot. I suspect that the ironclad demands of retail shelf space dictated the book's format, which is a shame. I also think that the random tables are somewhat uneven in quality. The original blog posts on which the book is based had no random tables (that I can recall -- someone can correct me if I am mistaken); they're new to this version of the text. While some are really excellent (the random book titles, for example) and would prove quite useful in play, others (such as thirty fiendish traps) are fairly uninspired. Again, I suspect the demands of retail sale dictated that the book be expanded to a greater length. I certainly don't regret the inclusion of the random tables, as many are as inspiring as the text, but they're not as consistently excellent as the rest of the book.

In the end, it's Michael Curtis's terrific little entries that are the heart and soul of this product and they never once disappoint. Each one of them is a tiny masterpiece, a succinct elucidation of not just what makes a good old school dungeon but also what distinguishes the Old Ways from the new. Long ago, I printed out the blog posts on which The Dungeon Alphabet is based and, whenever I lacked for inspiration in detailing Dwimmermount, I re-read the posts and carried on. Now that I have the whole thing in "proper" book form, along with random tables, you can be sure that it'll always be close at hand, ready to give me more great ideas to inflict on my players.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
Utility: 9 out of 10

Get This If:
You're looking for a nice summation of old school dungeon principles to inspire you.
Don't Get This If: You have no interest in the Old Ways or in attempting to understand them.


  1. I know what you mean about reviewing this work. This is the primary reason my review is so brief. You have hit the nail on the head, sir. Usually, when people ask me about "Old School" I either tell them that I "know it when I see it" or I wax on about my theory that it is primarily an aesthetic movement...in both imagery and system. However, I could be full of it...heh.
    As for the Dungeon Alphabet...I would have bought it merely for the content, or merely for the artwork...but we get both. Amazing in a world of diminishing return.

  2. You are spot-on with this review. This is a simple, elegant book that does what it set out to do and manages to sneak in a bit more.

  3. This is indeed a great product. I was just reviewing my copy over the weekend. (Off topic: Did you receive my email, James, about reviewing Tricky Owlbear's new S&W pdf?).

  4. I got my copy last week, and I would have to say it's a wonderful resource. The Dungeon Alphabet truly captures the "old school" concept of dungeoneering.

    I got tremendous inspiration out of it. It wants me to DM a completely random, whacked-out dungeon. Without rhyme or reason to the layout, the Players will be hard pressed.

    As it should be.

    But then again, there are some passages in the Dungeon Alphabet which can be mined for entire plots and campaigns.

    Such is the genius of the book.

  5. Any idea if it is coming out in PDF?

    [International Freight from the US is abominably expensive.]

  6. Glad to hear you like it James. It's sure to become a classic!

  7. I followed some of the development on Michael's blog, and I really really need to get a copy. Great review (and as others have said) for a great game product!

  8. (Off topic: Did you receive my email, James, about reviewing Tricky Owlbear's new S&W pdf?)

    I did and it's in the ever-growing queue of products to be reviewed.

  9. Huzzah! Just happy to know you received it. Thanks, James!