Thursday, 14 March 2013

Dungeoneer's Handbook

Longtime players of Dungeons and Dragons will probably recognize the name Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. This book was published back in the mid-80’s for the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game. It’s a fondly remembered rulebook, but oddly enough, one of the few first edition rulebooks I never owned (the only other being the Wilderness Survival Guide). For whatever reason, I simply wasn’t interested in the book at the time it came out, even though I was certainly more interested in dungeon-delving adventures then than I am now. It was the first book to introduce proficiencies (i.e. skills) into the game, something that later made me heavily regret not getting the book. The latest book in the Pathfinder Player Companion series, the Dungeoneer’s Handbook is clearly named to evoke memories of that earlier book. Of course, it is still its own book and provides options for Pathfinder players to create characters geared towards exploring the dungeons of Golarion.

This is definitely a “crunch” heavy book. It contains a lot of new mechanical options for characters with only a smattering of fluff details throughout. There are quite a few new feats (considerably more than have been in most recent Player Companion books), new archetypes, spells, equipment, and magic items. Notably absent are roles (suggested ways of building particular kinds of characters that first appeared in Varisia, Birthplace of Legends), which were also not included in Animal Archive. I’m not sure if this is because roles have proven unpopular or if there simply haven’t been any appropriate roles for the last two books. Whatever the case, even though I feel they are a good and useful addition for beginning players new to Golarion (albeit not very useful for experienced players), I haven’t missed them in these last two books. Indeed, I didn’t even notice their absence in Animal Archive at first. The lack of roles in these books has certainly made room for a lot of other things. And just like Animal Archive, the Dungeoneer’s Handbook is packed with useful things.

The book opens with an overview of dungeons—basically what exactly qualifies as a dungeon, as the game’s use of the term doesn’t always coincide exactly with common usage (an entirely above-ground tower can qualify as a dungeon, for example). This opening section also breaks the term up into different types of dungeons, from fortress dungeons to natural dungeons to ruins, plus a few more unusual kinds, including living dungeons and magical dungeons. There is also a brief description of “megadungeons”, dungeons of immense size consisting of hundreds and hundreds of chambers. Megadungeons have been a somewhat common thing in the game over the years and are very popular with some players, so naturally, Golarion has a few to satiate the appetites of those hungry for them. This section is one of the few in the book to contain no crunch and focuses just on basic description. The only other fluff-only section is the later section on “Famous Dungeons of Golarion”, which provides single-paragraph descriptions of some of the most notable dungeons in the Inner Sea region (despite “of Golarion” in the title, none of the dungeons here are from areas of the world other than the Inner Sea region). This section compliments a map found on the inside front cover of the book. The map there shows the locations of all the dungeons mentioned in this section, plus a few more.

Following the overview of dungeons, the next section gives advice on how to prepare for journeying into a dungeon, offering suggestions for appropriate equipment to buy and questions to ask when researching the dungeon. It also contains three new equipment kits—collections of items that can be bought together. All of these kits are more expensive than first-level characters will be able to afford, but higher-level characters may find them useful. Of course, all the items in each kit can also be bought individually. The kits do have oddly specific prices, so I decided to compare the price of one kit to the total price of the items bought individually. The breaker’s kit (which include items helpful for breaking into things) has a price of 353 gp. Its individual items add up to 1 sp less, so characters aren’t actually getting any kind of a deal on this item. I haven’t checked the other two kits as closely, but given their prices of 121 gp for a diver’s kit and 263 gp for a trapper’s kit, I suspect it’s the same situation with the other kit. This would seem to defeat the purpose of buying these items as a kit (where one would expect a bit of a discount); however, they do provide players with a good idea of what kinds of items are useful for these three kinds of tasks.

After this, the book gets into some of the most interesting sections, beginning with traps. There are three new feats for dealing with traps. (As an aside, as with many Golarion books, the feats in this book are spread throughout the book, appearing in the sections that fit their individual themes. This is a tendency that sometimes aggravates me. When you’re reading through a book in order, it works extremely well, but when you need to go back later in search of feat ideas for your character, it involves a lot of searching. For some reason, this bothers me more with feats than it does with things like traits and spells, which sometimes get the same treatment. Luckily there is a rules index at the beginning of this book to help you find all the feats, spells, etc. in the book.) Most notable of these is Arcane Trap Suppressor, which allows spellcasters using dispel magic to extend the length of time they can disable the trap using the rules for temporarily disabling magic items. I suspect there are a number of people out there who have never actually considered using dispel magic in this way before. This section also contains advice on when to search for traps, as well as information on “traps that aren’t traps” (natural hazards such as cave-ins and moulds, or certain monsters). Next up are sections on monsters and treasure, each containing new feats and advice (about things like bargaining with monsters or how to carry more treasure).
There is an interesting section on “Dungeon Guides”, books (or other written works) that can provide PCs with information about a specific dungeon. Some guides are more accurate than others, so the section contains a system for determining whether or not a particular guide has information on what the PCs want to know and, if it does, whether that information is correct. This basically involves making a d20 roll modified by the guide’s accuracy score to beat a certain DC, just like a skill check. Knowledge checks made by PCs can help adjust this roll as well. I can certainly see how this system could prove useful as it provides a way for GMs to rule on a book’s precise contents without having to write out the entire book. Much like Knowledge checks, it has the potential for some bizarre results at times (situations where it is extremely detailed and knowledgeable about one obscure thing, and then having no information or being outright wrong about something much simpler and more common), but overall, it’s a system I can see working well. Most important, it’s not complicated and doesn’t require anyone to learn a whole new set of rules.

Among the numerous feats introduced in the Dungeoneer’s Handbook, perhaps the most noteworthy is the Torchbearer feat. This feat appears in the section on hirelings, which also lists a few new types of NPCs (such as a chronicler or fence) that PCs can hire services from. The Torchbearer feat works very similarly to the Squire feat from Knights of the Inner Sea in that it is a modified form of Leadership—available earlier than Leadership, but having more restrictions as a result. As I said in my review of Knights of the Inner Sea, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Leadership. Torchbearer provides you with a cohort who, quite literally, carries your torch for you. Such cohorts always have Torch Handling (another new feat introduced in this section), which gives them the ability to treat torches as simple weapons and increases the light range of torches. Upon reaching 8th level, the Torchbearer feat automatically becomes Leadership. I’m not quite as on-the-fence about Torchbearer as I was about Squire. Torchbearers just don’t have the same level of mythos surrounding them that squires do. Stories of knights often mention their squires; stories of spelunkers only occasionally mention their torchbearers. As such, torchbearers don’t really have a needed place in the game the way squires do (and yes, I am well aware of the “old-school” D&D tradition of hirelings and a torchbearer sort of fits into that; however, I feel my point still stands). Still, much like the Squire feat, I feel the Torchbearer feat is about as good or bad as Leadership is, and individual groups need to make that decision for themselves. The hirelings section also provides three archetypes for torchbearers.

The Dungeoneer’s Handbook contains quite an extensive collection of new equipment, from mundane dungeoneering gear to new alchemical items and new magic items. Some of these are a little odd with limited practical application (such as the key-wound rattler, essentially a wind-up clockwork rattlesnake), but there are also many items that will prove useful on a much more regular basis, such as thieves’ tools extenders (which allow the use of Disable Device from a greater-than-normal distance) or the toxin sponge (a magic item that absorbs poisonous gases from the air). There is also a selection of new spells, all supposedly from an in-game book called Redwing’s Dungeon Companion, which provides a nice little hint of fluff to this otherwise crunch-heavy section.

My recent reviews of Player Companion books have made a big deal about the centre two pages, which have recently all been two-page spreads. I was very happy that Animal Archive reversed a slightly annoying trend of forcing these spreads even when there was nothing particularly logical to fill them with. In the Dungeoneer’s Handbook, the centre two pages contain fragments of maps for four dungeons. All of these maps appear as they would in-game, complete with annotations made by some former user. All four of these dungeons have appeared in previous Pathfinder products and can work as player handouts for adventures taking place in them. The maps here make for a great bit of flavour, giving players a wonderful taste of what their characters are seeing and making use of. On the other hand, I can see the presence of these maps bothering some GMs who might want to use any of these dungeons without providing handouts. Their presence here in a player book gives players a free glimpse that some GMs might not want to provide. Still, the maps aren’t one hundred percent accurate, so while they reveal some things to players, they also give some false information and players have no way of knowing what is correct and what is not until they venture into the dungeons to find out for themselves. Overall, I think this balances things out well; however, GMs may want to be wary of these two pages.

Rounding out the book, there are a few new archetypes, as well as a few traits on the inside back cover. None of the archetypes really stand out to me as either brilliant or terrible. They’re not ones I see myself ever using, but I can see other people using them. In addition to the new archetypes though, there is also a sidebar listing archetypes from other sources that work particularly well for dungeon delvers. This is a useful touch.

Overall, the Dungeoneer’s Handbook is a useful resource for players with characters about to embark on a little bit of dungeon exploration. It’s not the most exciting book in the line, but it provides players (and gamemasters) with a lot of important tools that will enhance gameplay and help keep their characters alive.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your review, Michael, which I stumbled upon after writing my own on my blog Delver's Diary ( I enjoyed seeing someone else's detailed review - we differ on a few interesting points, but we did both seem to like the dungeon guides concept!