Pros & Cons: Dungeon Delve

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Dungeon DelveI’ve completed a micro sliced review of this over at RPGnet, but I thought it worth compiling my thoughts on the book as a whole.

Now, there’s not much of a tradition of RPGs putting together books of one shots. There are some, and they’ve always (by their very nature I suppose) been a mixed bag. This one is no exception, but it’s still a superb resource for the harried DM, and who isn’t one of those?

Under the hardback covers we get 190 pages and 30 small adventures, called delves, for D&D 4e. My copy cost me exactly the same as the WotC adventures already on the market such as Keep on the Shadowfell. That makes it a whole lot of adventure for your money in comparison.


The cover is a Wayne Reynolds piece showing a male tiefling wizard (?) And a female human (?) fighter(?). Nicely done but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the books contents. I get the feeling this was one of his pitches for the PHB cover, and FWIW I prefer it to that book.

On the cover we have the authors listed as David Noonan and Bill Slavicsek. I guess this must be one of Dave’s last bits of work before he got the chop before Xmas? It adds a touch of poignancy to be honest. Must be very strange for him to see this on the shelves. Actually this is a real team book as there are 4 other writers listed (what do you have to do to get a cover credit?) And the usual passle of editors, artists etc.

First we get an overview of the history of the Dungeon Delve. Did you know it’s been around in one form or another since 1998? That’s 10 years! Wow. It’s good to get an insight on how WotC has demo’ed it’s game since it took over D&D from TSR. Here’s a direct quote worth seeing in full:

“With this book, the Dungeon Delve concept finally takes center stage as a core D&D product. It was a long time coming, but we needed that time to test concepts, try out new formats, and eventually get to the point where this product was not only viable, but in many ways necessary to the evolution of the D&D game.”

That puts paid to any doubts about the way that WotC see some games being played. If you’re one of those who see this edition as a step too far, then there’s little comfort in this book. WotC are unapologetic for their vision, and I think that’s fair enough, at least they have a vision. The fact that it might not be shared by a proportion of their fanbase is neither here nor there.

Next we get into what a Delve actually is. In essence it’s a one shot game of D&D. It’s made up of three encounters, with very little in the way of backstory or narration. You’re expected to show up with your character, bust in the door, kill monsters and take their stuff. Four hours later you divvy up the XP and that’s that. No messing, just gaming. This is almost a distillation, or concentration, of a typical D&D experience. There’s lots of ways to use a Delve, suggestions range from using them to give your usual DM a break for a week or two, to using it as a teaching tool for new DMs. One of the interesting takes is that you can play a delve as a pure competitive set up. No need for narration, or flavour, or trying to tell much of a story. The DM in this respect becomes the opposition, and is expected to play to ‘win’. This is suggested as a great first step for new DMs. I’m not convinced. The DMG is slightly at odds with this, surely the first emphasis is on cooperative fun at the table? Going after unconscious PCs to get a kill is a bit, well, hardcore no?

There’s slew of advice for customising the Delves, for more or less players, for higher or lower levels, for expanding the concepts into a full adventure, all sorts. Finally there’s a listing of all the new monsters in the book, of which there are about 40, nicely spread through out the levels. There’s also a note of where some of the creatures made their first appearance, whether from Open Grave, Draconomicon or Manual of the Planes. You won’t need any of those books as all the stats are included, but a visual might help.

As you’d expect the delves themselves run the gamut from dull to inspired, from functional to ambitious. Generally, they are of a high standard, there’s far more ‘good to great’ delves than ‘poor to rubbish’. The vast majority of encounters are combats, although there are a few skill challenges and plenty of ways to interact with the environment. If you don’t enjoy fighting then this isn’t for you (neither id D&D arguably). You could say these delves are a distillation of D&Ds best assets.

The best single delve award is split between The Raiders Hideout (level 4) and Shadowfell Schism (level 26). The worst are Orc Stronghold (level 3), Emerald Dawn (level 12) and Smouldering Flames of war (level 22). Two of those are by Greg Marks, oh dear. Best tier? It goes, heroic, paragon and epic from lowest to highest. This surprises me as I thought I enjoyed the lower tiered delves more… Mind you, there wasn’t a lot between them, they all had highs and lows.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it. There’s so much pure gaming in here, I don’t know if it’s possible to use it all. For dipping in and out of, it can’t be beaten. In a perfect world this would have been one of the initial releases, along with the character builder. Who doesn’t want to use these delves as one shots to try out character concepts? I for one am desperate to see what the PHB II classes make of these.

Sure, some of them got a bit samey after a while, and I wish there had been more tilesets used, but considering how little play time the authors probably had, this book doesn’t deserve to be as good as it is.

Dungeon Delve II is surely inevitable. What lessons should it learn? Expand the environments to include wilderness and cities please. Don’t be tempted to put in bizarre rules for every image on every tile. Braziers don’t always have to be trapped. Have good hooks, and decent expansion notes. Use skill challenges more, and better examples thereof please. If you’re going to include new monsters, a picture would be nice.

If you’re planning for a Convention game you could do far worse than look at thiis book for inspiration, or even go as far as running one as is. Certainly the format works well, and I’ll be using it myself to build my adventures.

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