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Review of Underdark by Wizards of the Coast

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” ~ Albert Einstein

It’s hard to break habits, especially ones that seem like common sense.

Even after more than a year of playing D&D 4E, I am amazed at how many “3.5isms” I find myself retaining.  I suppose it is only natural, as I have been playing the “old” way for a lot longer than I have the “new” way.  Despite the fact that D&D 4E is such a vastly different game than all the previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons, there is still enough similarity that even when you read a rule or peruse a sourcebook, you sometimes find yourself just mentally “padding” 4E rules with their older versions.

A perfect example of this happened this past weekend in Boston at PAX East, and I am almost a bit sheepish about admitting this.  I was playing in the D&D Encounters, and our Defender Battlemind performed a Move Action to get into a better position, and then he charged as his Standard Action.  I actually felt my eyes widen when he did that, and almost made a comment about it, wondering if that was a “house rule” or something.

And then it hit me – I had thoroughly read the 4E rules about Move Actions and about the charge Standard Action, but my brain had taken what I read and just applied a common sense “3.5ism”.  When I DM’d, my monsters performed a charge as a move and an attack, just like the old 3.5 “common sense” rules told me they should.  And since my Players had been with me in my 3.5 Edition games, they never questioned the rule either.  So for about a year, I had been “house ruling” how a charge was performed in 4E, and essentially denying my monsters and my Players their Move Action.

Needless to say, we won’t be “house ruling” charge attacks in my campaign anymore.
underdark cover
The weekend at PAX East also showed me another fallacious “3.5ism” that I had been letting into my D&D 4E campaigns.  I had the opportunity to play in the DM’s Challenge: Horrors of the Underdark Event.  This event was designed to test the participating Dungeon Masters’ ability to create an Underdark adventure for six 6th Level Characters.

Now when I got my copy of Underdark in February, I skimmed through it and thought, “Well that’s pretty nifty, I’ll have to use this stuff when my Characters get high level.”

And there it was again – that pesky “3.5ism” rearing its ugly head!  This past weekend, the DMs in the Challenge came up with great adventures, demonstrating that the 4E Underdark is not the same Underdark of previous versions.  Where once only high level Characters dared to tread, it was possible to run Underdark adventures for Heroic Tier Characters.

So upon returning home, I realized I had not given the sourcebook all the consideration it was due.  So I dragged my copy of Underdark back off the bookshelf, and gave the it a thorough read.

Underdark
  • Authors: Rob Heinsoo & Andy Collins
  • Cover Illustrator:  Eva Widermann (front); Vincent Dutrait (back)
  • Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
  • Year: 2010
  • Media: Book (160 pages)
  • Cost: $29.95 MSRP (Amazon, $19.77)

Underdark is a sourcebook detailing the vast and interconnected underground realm that lies beneath the surface of most D&D 4E campaign worlds.  The sourcebook consists of six chapters, detailing first the origins and nature of the Underdark (Chapter 1), the Shallows and the Deeps (Chapters 2  & 3), the Feydark and the Shadowdark (Chapters 4 & 5), and finally New Monsters (Chapter 6).  Three sample encounters are provided for each of the major geographical regions, giving Dungeon Masters twelve total encounters to potentially use in their campaigns.  There is a considerable amount of source material and adventure hooks to inspire DMs when creating their own Underdark adventures.

The Underdark sourcebook has superb production quality, and over a dozen artists provided the illustrations to enhance the reading experience.  The sourcebook has a very logical layout, and easy to read.  Numerous sidebars provide additional information where needed in each chapter.

When reading Underdark, it is sometimes hard to believe how much source material has been accumulating over the years since the original AD&D adventure “D” series: D1 Descent Into the Depths of the Earth and D2 Shrine of the Kuo To - not to mention Q1 Vault of the Drow.  But it is clear from the first three Chapters of Underdark that nothing is ever forgotten from the “old days of TSR” by Wizards of the Coast.  Creatures from monster manuals of previous editions, old adventure modules, and other materials have been mixed with new content from the D&D 4E cosmology, and then re-forged to help create this sourcebook.  “Old school” D&D gamers reading the Underdark sourcebook will know exactly what I mean when I say that this is one book that has been about thirty years in the making.

And I’m not suggesting that the sourcebook is a simple re-hashing of old AD&D, 2nd Edition, and 3rd Edition material.  Quite far from it, in fact.  But I would be remiss if I did not point out that, like the Underdark itself, the material in the sourcebook has very old roots in the “primordial” days of D&D.

Chapter 1 of Underdark contains the story of the god Torog, and how he created the realm, along with the Feydark and Shadowdark, during the Dawn War against the Primordials.  The story of Torog’s “fall” is important because it sets the tone for how the Underdark consists of interconnected tunnels, and how those tunnels can connect to the Shadowfell and Feywild via the Shadowdark and Feydark.  There is also considerable information about the effects and hazards that can befall adventurers as they travel the “King’s Highway” – the tunnels left by the wounded and mad god’s burrowing – as well adventure “seeds” for campaigns at various Tier Levels.

In Chapters 2 and 3, the Shallows and the Deeps of the Underdark are discussed in great detail, and offers Dungeon Masters a wealth of information on the various inhabitants of those realms.  The Authors offer a number of fascinating locales in the Shallows and the Deeps which are appropriate for Characters of a variety of levels and powers.  For instance, there is a dwarven city called Forgehome in the Shallows that can be used as a forward base for Player-Characters to venture deeper into the Underdark.  Other Shallows locales include the troglodyte realm of Hraak Azul, the “taken” city of Maelbrathyr, and colonies of grell and myconids.  The Authors describe each of the areas quite well, including major features, inhabitants, and even the recommended Tier for Characters to experience the locale.

Many of the Shallows areas are reasonable challenges for Heroic and Paragon Tier Characters, and the three sample encounters in Chapter 2 are designed for Levels 7-9.  The Deeps, on the other hand, are considerably more deadly, and only serious adventurers of the Paragon and Epic Tier should venture into that dark realm.

As in the chapter concerning the Shallows, the Authors do an excellent job of describing locales that are home to the nastiest and foulest of the Underdark inhabitants.  Many aberrations make their home in the Deeps, so Characters might encounter the aboleth city of Xarcorr, or mind flayers venturing from the fallen empire of Nihilath.  The birthplace of beholders can be found in the Deeps, along with the infamous Erelhei-Cinlu, the great drow city.  Clearly these are some very dangerous areas, and not to be undertaken by Heroic Tier adventurers!

There is an amazing amount of adventure material provided for a Deeps campaign, and Dungeon Masters will not find it difficult to create an adventure or an entire campaign arc from what the Authors provide.  I was particularly taken with the description of the mind-flayer realm of Nihilath, which was very evocative of something one might experience in a “Call of Cthulhu” adventure:

A few of Nihilath’s secrets were not lost. Illithids grow their walls and battlements from ritually altered organisms imported from the Far Realm. Their towers breathe and perspire. Pulsing veins run across the surfaces ofdoors, which bleed when cut. Homes nourish themselves on insects and vermin, which the dwellings catch with lashing, gluey tongues.

The desiccated, long-dead structures in ruins left over from Nihilath indicate that the empire’s buildings, particularly its great fortresses, were stranger and more powerful than the domes, bulbous towers, and filamentous tubes that mind flayers grow in their present cities. Some sages believe that certain creatures, such as ropers and oozes, trace their origins back to the living fortresses of Nihilath.

Chapters 5 and 6 detail the realms of the Feydark and the Shadowdark, and while these realms bear a resemblance to the Underdark, they are very much influenced by the D&D 4E cosmology.  As with the previous chapters, the Feydark and Shadowdark have areas not unlike the Shallows and the Deeps, but what creatures live in those areas differs greatly from the Underdark.  Fomorians and cyclops are the bad guys of the Feydark, with gnomes filling in the role similar to that of the dwarves in the Underdark.  While in the Shadowdark, the Incanabula are the major threat, being essentially a cult devoted to the lich-deity Vecna.

Again, the Authors do an exceptional job at describing various locations within the Fey and Shadow versions of the Underdark, and there are plenty of adventure hooks for Dungeon Masters to use to begin their campaigns in these realms.   Admittedly, the number of locations, and the variety of denizens described in the Chapters on the Feydark and Shadowdark are not as detailed as the locales discussed in the Shallows and the Deeps, but they are more than sufficient to create some worthwhile quests and adventures.

The final Chapter, New Monsters, is fairly self-explanatory, and offers new creatures not seen in the monster manuals, but which had appeared in previous editions of D&D.  Monsters such as quaggoth, grimlock, and kuo-toa are all detailed here, as well as new variant versions of existing creatures, such as gnomes and mind flayers.  While I am not a fan of WotC’s seemingly reflexive need to add new monsters to every sourcebook, I think that the new monsters in Underdark round out the ecology fairly nicely.

Overall Grade: A-

I can find very little I did not like about this book, and a ton of things I absolutely love in the Underdark.  The sourcebook provides so many adventure hooks and potential plotlines, that even a neophyte 4E DM will be able to buy this book and craft a decent Underdark campaign arc in no time.  There is great material in the book for all levels of play, in all three Tiers.

I’m just thankful I discovered my Underdark “3.5ism” in time – now I can tempt my Heroic Tier campaigns to take a little vacation under the ground…

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Grade Card

  • Presentation: A
  • - Design: A
  • - Illustrations: A+
  • Content: A
  • - Crunch: A
  • - Fluff: A
  • Value: B+

About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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