Product Review: Underdark

No anecdotal tale comes to my mind today, so I decided I would instead review one of the many books in my collection. At this rate, I’ll eventually review them all…

Today’s entry is Underdark, from Wizards of the Coast. A 4e supplement, this book weighs in at 159 pages and covers the titular environment known as the Underdark. This area is nothing new to veterans of the game, but it’s never bad to get more information about it.

Before I begin, I feel a bit of a disclaimer is in order. See, I may have been following Dungeons & Dragons for a good 20 years now, but my knowledge of the “canon” over those years has been limited. Back when the game was obsessively getting new products, during the reign of TSR? I wasn’t buying them. I didn’t really start until 3e, and I didn’t even buy a good quarter of the books that were available. Mostly, I bought what interested me, and I urge anyone who follows this deceptively expensive hobby to do the same.

What’s the point of all this? I often hear as a criticism, “We’ve seen this information before,” usually in some obscure and out of print resource from the late TSR/early Wizards era. A similar whine comes in the form of the information presented being wrong; incorrect as the “established canon” goes.

As opinions, both these statements are fine. Narrow minded and elitist, but fine. As points in a review, however, they are entirely too partial and exclusionary. In the first instance, if I had the choice between paying $30 for a new book, or $100 for an older, out of print book, I would likely buy the new book and not think twice about it. On the second point, I feel the canon is meant to be mutable and changing. By definition, it cannot truly be “wrong.” It is meant to be a guide, not the damn Decalogues.

With that out of the way, it should come as little surprise that I liked this book. I found it full of campaign seeds, campaign arcs, encounters, and locations that both, speak of the exotic and match the epic, world-shaking feel that 4e tries so hard to embrace.

Like many 4e products, Underdark is peppered with sidebars containing various chunks of information. One of my personal favorites is early on in the book: “Reality Versus Fun,” a brief warning about overtaxing the players with the “reality” of plunging into the subterranean world of the Underdark, insisting that any challenges you throw at the players should be used to heighten excitement and enhance storytelling, and not just to make them miserable. Yes, it reads an awful lot like my recent rants on this matter, and I can’t say I mind having a voice in the halls of power that echoes my opinions.

Of course, this brings with it the possible counter that Wizards of the Coast’s stance on 4th Edition, that the players should feel heroic and epic as often as possible, and that the menace of death should be a threat and not a promise has defeated the Gygaxian standards the game was built on. Though I will likely answer this particular gripe in full at a later date, I will say for now that Gygaxian gaming was never a good idea, and deserves to be defeated. The game should be about finding a compromise between all players involved, not about hammering square pegs into round holes. I find Gygaxian gaming to be good for amusing anecdotes, less cohesive narratives.

On to the book itself, it’s the fairly standard mix of encounters, locales, campaign arcs, monsters and recycled art one has come to expect from a 4e product. One of the more interesting bits is that this is the first product to provide detailed information on one of 4th Edition’s newest deities, Torog, the King that Crawls. His role as the creator and ruler of the Underdark is explored in detail, and again as an ongoing tradition of 4e, stats are provided for him, that he might menace your players in one final showdown.

This is another thing I happen to like about 4e, and one thing many probably do not: The providing of big name villains (such as Orcus and Drmogorgon) and deities (including Torog and Tiamat) as “final boss” encounters for your campaign. I, personally, can think of nothing more epic than ridding the universe of one of its oldest and most powerful evils. Indeed, fighting Orcus was the goal of at least one of my players in my first campaign. Sadly, that never came to pass, but the sentiment remains. I never really liked D&D having “sacred cows” that could never be touched. I mean, what’s the point of providing an enemy if nothing can ever defeat him?

Of course, going up against him might not be the best idea, either, and Underdark covers Torog’s role as torturer and jailer quite well. Would-be heroes should be ware, lest their actions in “protecting” the world unleash greater horrors upon it…

Overall, I enjoyed this book for what it brings, and if you’re a Dungeon Master for 4e and in the habit of picking up books for it, this is a good addition. I might even suggest it to people not running 4e, but you should probably see if it really interests you first.

Man I own a lot of books. This could take awhile…

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