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Dungeon Survival Guide

From Castle Greyhawk to Castle Ravenloft, the Tomb of Horrors, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and every danger-filled deathtrap in between—this month, we speak with Bill Slavicsek and Chris Perkins, two names familiar to anyone following the 4th Edition announcement—about the dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons. The Dungeon Survival Guide releases this October, exploring thirty years of adventure!

Wizards of the Coast: How did the idea for the Dungeon Survival Guide come about?

Bill Slavicsek: We were brainstorming ideas for products that could weather the storm of the edition change, and the idea of the Survival Guides came out of that. We wanted to do something along the lines of the Practical Guide to Dragons, but written to our usual college-age audience instead of to young readers. We brainstormed a whole series of these kinds of books, and the dungeon theme screamed to be the first one we tackled. As a new type of product, it only made sense that Chris and I write it so that we could set the format for future Survival Guides from the beginning.

Chris Perkins: We wanted something that would entertain both new readers and old-school D&D players. Over the years, we’ve created lots of cool dungeons that have become part of D&D’s “common experience.” What a great opportunity to take a nostalgic stroll down memory lane and re-experience some “classic” adventure settings.

For more on the Dungeon Survival Guide, check out the following excerpts:

Wizards of the Coast: As a survey of some of the game’s more famous dungeons, how did you select which ones went into the Guide?

Bill: Chris did the initial pass on the dungeons, scouring his encyclopedic memory and our extensive games library here at the office. Then we discussed the list, adding a couple and removing a couple as space considerations were examined.

Chris: I tried to pick adventure locations from every edition of the D&D game. All of the dungeons on my initial list were plucked from adventures that I ran as a DM or otherwise played in, so I was already quite familiar with their designs and trappings. It was easy to write about them because I still remember the fun of playing through them.

Wizards of the Coast: Any favorite dungeons of yours that just missed the cut?

Bill: There are loads of dungeons that have been designed for D&D over the years. We could literally write a sequel tomorrow with those we couldn’t fit into this volume. The one that comes immediately to mind for me is the Caves of the Howling Horde from the recent Scourge of the Howling Horde adventure. I edited that adventure and wanted to see it make it into the Survival Guide, but we ran out of space.

Chris: I’m rather fond of the dungeons in modules B7: Rahasia and X8: Drums on Fire Mountain. However, these two old-school adventures don’t have the same “common experience” as the other dungeons that made the list, so I guess they’ll have to wait. Similarly, there are a number of dungeons from Dungeon magazine that could’ve easily made the list, but they must also wait.

Wizards of the Coast: The dungeons highlighted in the Survival Guide include both classics of 1st Edition as well as new classics of the current edition. How would you compare the dungeons of each edition, in terms of their design and playability? Do 1st Edition “killer” dungeons still have a place in the game?

Bill: Many of the 1st Edition adventures have great nostalgic appeal and amazing presence in our collective memories. Some of these memories are deserved, others not so much. In most cases, it falls to the Dungeon Master to make a mediocre adventure design great and a great adventure design outstanding. That’s the role of the DM, and it’s what makes D&D a unique entertainment experience.

Chris: So much of a dungeon’s success comes not from what’s actually written on the page but, as Bill says, what the DM puts into the adventure… not to mention the decisions and actions of the players! However, all of these classic adventures have some things in common. First, the locations have character, from the labyrinthine Castle Ravenloft to the sweltering volcanic dungeon beneath White Plume Mountain. Second, these adventures feature unique challenges that test the mettle of even the most seasoned adventurers, from King Snurre Iron-Belly to the demilich Acererak in Tomb of Horrors. Any dungeon can be a “killer dungeon” if the players aren’t careful, but there will always be DMs who take perverse delight in watching their players squirm. However, I prefer dungeons that have some internal logic to them and aren’t just random assortments of traps and monsters.

Wizards of the Coast: From your years playing (and DMing!) the game, do you have fond memories of exploring or running any of the Survival Guide’s dungeons in particular? On the other, do you harbor resentment toward any of the dungeons that may have offed you or your party?

Bill: I have plenty of memories playing and running all of these adventures. It was while running Tomb of Horrors many years ago that one of my players decided that the altar had to serve some purpose in the adventure other than as a death trap.

So, his first character touched it and sent a bolt of deadly lightning through the party. When they returned, his second character touched it again. This went on for three or four visits before the rest of the group refused to allow his character to touch anything else in the dungeon. (This was also the origin of Elfy, Elfy II, Elfy III, and Elfy IV, names which may have also contributed to the death of his characters.) Ravenloft is also a personal favorite, and an example of adventure design at its finest. I’ve run the original module many times and in many game systems over the years.

Chris: I’m honored that many of these dungeons still contain the bones of some of my old characters. There’s no shame in being eaten by the roper in the Forge of Fury or smashed to a pulp by the blind mountain troll in Slaughtergarde.

Wizards of the Coast: When designing current adventures, what lessons have you taken from the Guide’s dungeons? In essence, what goes into creating an enjoyable, memorable dungeon?

Bill: For me, great adventures require fantastic locations, memorable villains, and storylines that can easily be adapted for use in any campaign. Many of the dungeons we singled out have at least two of these three elements. Another important aspect of good adventure design is to remember that you’re not writing a story or a novel. The DM and the player characters do that when they play. Instead, you’re setting up all of the elements that allow the DM and PCs to accomplish that through play. And make sure that the PCs always have something active and fun to do—watching NPCs save the day in the climactic scene isn’t the way to end an adventure.

Wizards of the Coast: If we can turn to 4th Edition for a moment, what elements of successful dungeons can we expect in the game’s future? In other words, how will you be approaching dungeon and adventure design moving forward? Will any classic dungeons throughout the editions make their return in 4E?

Bill: Expect to see everything I mentioned above in 4th Edition adventures. Moreover, we’re working to make encounters more dynamic, versatile, and memorable in the new edition, with more monsters, more exciting terrain and environments, and more fun. By building from the encounter up, we’re crafting amazing adventure experiences. As for classic dungeons, we plan for all of them to exist in the new edition. We’ll talk more about that in the near future.

Chris: In addition to publishing new adventures, we have a long tradition of publishing adventures in Dungeon magazine, which now lives online. Some of the best adventures of previous editions appeared in Dungeon magazine, and that trend will continue with 4th Edition. Through D&D Insider and our published product, we’ll be presenting dungeons that capture the imagination with their clever layouts and villainous occupants. 4th Edition dungeons will feel like dangerously real places filled terrible monsters, insidious traps, and fabulous treasure. Some things never change.

Wizards of the Coast: And now, for the lightening round:

  • Given the choice, would you take Wave, Whelm, or Blackrazor?

Bill: Give me Blackrazor any day. It just sounds coolest.

Chris: Tough to beat the life-stealing sword!

 Now, for the readers' turn. What would be your choice?  

  • Would you rather face the Underdark or Undermountain?

Bill: If I have to go into any of these places in real life, I guess I’d opt for the Underdark. Undermountain is just a little too wild, too random, and too crazy for me to figure out a survival strategy that might have a chance of working.

Chris: Again, I must agree with Bill. Not everything in the Underdark is out to kill you. I don’t feel the same way about Undermountain.

 Your turn again. What would be your choice?  

  • Have you (as the bumper sticker says), survived the Tomb of Horrors?

Bill: I’ve only experienced the Tomb of Horrors as a Dungeon Master, but I did come out of it okay in the end.

Chris: I’ve died three times as a player. I’ve killed upwards of 15 characters as a DM.

Wizards of the Coast: And finally, to end with a hardball: When it comes to the earlier modules explored, the Dungeon Survival Guide covers S1: Tomb of Horrors, S2: White Plume Mountain, and S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth…. I can’t help but wonder, where’s the love for S3 in the series, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks? Will we ever see revised power armor and vegepygmies return to the game?

Bill: Not on my watch. Barrier Peaks is a wonderful adventure, but to me it isn’t a D&D adventure. Once you add ray guns and power armor to the game, you have a fundamentally different experience. Now, presenting it as a d20 Modern adventure? I can see that happening at some point.

Chris: Bill is my boss; of course he’s right. Far be it for me to offer a different point of view.... Froghemoths forever!

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