ne of the first D&D books I ever worked on was all about dungeon-delving—Dungeonscape for the 3.5 rules—so working on Into the Unknown: The Dungeon Survival Handbook was like coming full circle. The first time around, I was filling in some blanks and tying up some loose ends on work that Jason Bulmahn and Rich Burlew had put together. This time I was working off a foundation laid by 4E's mad genius, Rob Schwalb.
Only rarely does Wizards assign the work of leading a product to someone outside their core group of designers, so before I came on board they put Rob to work developing the outline and making some samples to go with the different sections of the book. Rob created a sample character theme, dungeon lore section, and snippets of each of the other sections. His outline was highly detailed and gave us plenty to work with and get inspired by. I guided the project and wrote about the same amount as Rob had. Freelance designers Matt James and Jeff Morgenroth wrote the remaining 75% of the book.
I used an assignment drafting system to determine who would write what. Armed with a list of all the sections and page counts, I got on a Skype call with Jeff and Matt and we took turns drafting which parts we wanted to write. After I made a few adjustments to make the assignments a bit more manageable and consistent, we had the book broken out!
The goal of Into the Unknown was to make players excited to send their PCs dungeon crawling, DMs inspired to run dungeon crawls, and everyone to get a strong sense of the feel and excitement of dungeon exploration. A big, big part of this was showcasing the type of characters who go on dungeon delves. To this end, the book includes a cast of iconic characters built to be quintessential dungeoneers of one stripe or another. Rob created the backstories, looks, and personalities of the eight characters who illustrate the themes and dungeon lore entries. They cover all sorts of motivations, from revenge to atonement to good, old-fashioned treasure hunting. We even had concept illustrations for some of these iconic characters.
One of the more ambitious ideas of the book was to create iconic characters interesting enough that D&D players would want to take their backstories and goals and adapt them for their own PCs. They got fleshed out far more than most sample characters, with detailed life stories, goals, and personalities. We integrated them into the way the DM designs campaigns (as I'll talk about more in the "Dungeon Master" section below).
One of the things we noticed late in the process, as we began revisions and editing, was that we needed to shed a little extra light on our characters. I worked up some quotes from these characters to spread throughout the book and add color commentary to the entries about creatures, dungeon details, and the Underdark.
We also noticed that the characters were pretty dark, by and large. (I figure Rob was working out his personal demons, or he just has a thing for tortured, grim characters.) We injected a bit more levity and enthusiasm into a few of the characters to make them appealing to a broader variety of player preferences and play styles.
Our iconic characters weren't the only ones that needed to have interesting things to say. One of the biggest goals of the book was to make it not just good for reference, not even merely inspiring for games, but truly fun to read. One of the decisions we came to early in the writing process was to twist the writing style to a more casual tone than most D&D books use. We wanted it to feel like an informal guide that adventurers might own in the game world and share with one another—like the book was written by a veteran explorer with a bit of attitude.
This meant that we included more informality, idioms, and wit into the writing. D&D books can sometimes be pretty stodgy reads, and we wanted to push the needle over to the other side, though not quite into the red.
The Survival Guide
The biggest place we brought in this tone was the "Survival Guide" section. This part is largely devoid of mechanics, and is the most "in-world" section of the book. The text talks about the creatures living in dungeons, how to explore dungeons, and a few famous dungeons in the D&D world. (And you, as a D&D fan, just might have heard of some of these.) All this is presented as though other adventurers were relaying the information straight to your characters.
The final chapter is a toolbox to help the DM create dungeons, populate them, theme the dungeons to match the creatures that created them, and place interesting, appropriate treasure and other rewards within them. There's also a 4-page section of tables to generate random dungeons, fill them, flesh out the little details, and even introduce plot twists.
Why is this in here? Because I love tables like this (and I bet a lot of you do, too)!
One of the sections in this chapter ties back to our desire to really flesh out our themes and sample characters. The "Involving the Characters" section includes guidance for the different types of connections and hooks you can make to get your players interested. It breaks adventure seeds into different types—some announce their presence outright, while other instead subvert, foil, misdirect, or foreshadow the adventure ahead. More importantly, it includes examples of how you can appeal to characters that have each of the themes discussed in Chapter 1. It even includes detailed plot hooks for each of the sample characters. These are helpful to illustrate the point, but directly useful if your players play as (or base their NPCs on) the iconics.
In other words, the book comes full circle to make the whole dungeon crawling experience fit together.
I hope you'll take a look at Into the Unknown and find some new ways to look at dungeon crawling in your game! Oh, and one last piece of advice: If you see a grinning demon head on the wall, let someone else touch it first.