Dungeon of the Unknown (2013)
Geoffry McKinney (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
Level 1 – 10
Dungeon of the Unknown is Geoffry Mckinney’s follow up on his troublesome and strange Isle of the Unknown weird/mythological sandbox. The glades and pines of a bizarre, faded Atlantis are traded in for a Minoan labyrinth, inhabited by all manner of strange, often nonsensical inhabitants. One should think the tighter focus of a Dungeon over a Sandbox would give the work a little more coherence overall, but little could be farther from the truth. Dungeon of the Unknown is messy, perhaps A mess. It is a springboard for an actual dungeon, but it needs and indeed, demands YOU to do some heavy lifting yourself.
Dungeon of the Unknown is a 32-page 2-floor dungeon for characters of lvl 1 (but ample guidelines are provided to adjust it so it becomes suitable for players up to the 10th level, since anyone entering Isle of the Unknown at lvl 1 will fucking die), presented in a troublesome format and bearing the most resemblance to the superb B1: In Search of the Unknown in terms of content. Rather then keying the dungeon room by room as one would expect, we are presented with a list of treasure, a list of weird, a random monster (more on that later), a list of chimerical monstrosities, a list of NPC inhabitants and a minimally keyed dungeon map so you know where to place most of them. Each room is given a descriptive name but little more then this. Do the rest yourself, says Mckinney. Goddammit.
We open with a list of legends/rumors. Most of them concern actual things within the dungeon, some concern possible things (say, a Dragon lairs within the dungeon or the dungeon has a dozen levels etc. etc.). Let us start with one of the most predominant monsters of the Dungeon. The Goop/Glob/Glop! A randomly colored ooze with random immunities and hit dice based on the average party level. Oh boy. I will give reluctant credit for actually putting an Alchemist on the second floor that creates these things as by-products for his magical experiments. Anyway, the point is thus that every encounter with the enemy is unknown, in the strictest sense of the word, but I would venture that a drawback is that every encounter is meaningless, yielding no new information, treasure, or triumph. The oozes are an obstacle, simple as that. As a random ooze generation table, this thing is actually not bad. Kudos.
The Treasure, to be placed according to the vague map key or distributed by the benevolent and all-knowing GM, is actually really good (though the author prefers to use a different standard of precious metals, ensuring that everyone has about 1/100th of the gold/silver normally available to adventurers. The game gives you an easy way to fix this however). A chest of fake coins that are actually chocolate wrapped in gold foil. A 1st level spell that allows the party to travel on the back of a trout in pimple form in an uncontrolled random direction along the river. Greek statues worth money only to the right collector. An Amphora with a kraken on it. A mule in stasis that will come to life if you feed it. An arrow that will encase a single monster from a single hex on the Isle in impenetrable ice. There is a strange, primal sort of beauty to these treasure entries. It makes me think that Geoffry could probably make really good adventures if only he could convey them more effectively. There is something here.
Next up is a list of weird. It is good weird. Possibly great weird. A statue that if touched changes you into an unnaturally beautiful (Cha 18) member of the opposite sex. A font that vomits forth an endless tide of glowing polyhedral shapes that have random effects. A beautiful statue of a nymph that, if kissed, will have different effects depending on charisma. An illusionary treasure trove! Strange, ancient locations whose power may be invoked after figuring out a cryptic riddle. Goddammnit this is what I am talking about. This is what makes DnD work!
The monsters are similar to the ones found in Isle of the Unknown. Unlike Isle, each monster has guidelines on increasing its HD based on the level of the party, with new abilities for increases. They are an odd bunch, but the abilities are interesting and I can see unique monsters in a dungeon setting to be a lot of fun. The design is a bit better too. You still get silly ones: Man-sized glossy black dolphin-dog hybrid. Slimy Orangutan Manatee monster with Noise manipulation powers (ventriloquism and silence!). A bee made of oranges?
Some are kind of awesome in a bizarre way. They seem more thought out then some of the entries in the Isle. A peacock with a snail-shell that hypnotizes anyone who gaze upon the radiant interior of its shell. A flying nautilus with eyes at the tip of each tentacle that drips milk with healing powers?!? An elephant made of fungus. A red-hot glowing carapace bull. They suffer from the same benefits and problems as the monsters in the Isle, although I think they work better in the dungeon, which has some fixed opponents as well to prevent the weirdness from turning into bland sameness.
The dungeon also has its share of human inhabitants, again baffling choices and hampered by sparse and generic descriptions. 4 factions, each seeking to acquire the lost treasure of the Electrum King. The problem is that nearly all of them are generic. Bandits. Brigands. That doesn’t tell us anything more. Buccanneers that look and act like they jumped straight out of Stevenson’s treasure Island is better, although it still makes little sense. I guess that is the point.
3 NPCs also inhabit the dungeon, and while they are, again, minimally described, they are all good fun. An alchemist that inadvertently spawns all the goops by pouring his potion experiments down the drain. A bizarre jester wizard that can avoid attacks by cartwheeling and throws knives and globes of gas with strange effects (victims act like mimes, deliver odd soliloquies, falls asleep with a smile on his face etc). A taxidermist wizard whose creations have come to inhabit the dungeon. Even if the wizard is slain and his taxidermied animals taken off to the city and sold there is still a small chance they will come to life. While they need more details, something to flesh them out, these are cool ideas.
The map itself is good too. Nonlinear, multiple routes of exploration, ample secret doors. The problem is minimum keying and too much randomness. I respect the attempt to make the GM’s mind do most of the work. Rooms are often keyed thus:
48. Black Museum
62. Dancing Crystal Swords
41. Walls of Obsidian Mirrors
Nice, but that is all you get (sometimes the location is keyed).
Pros: Good treasure, weird, NPCs and some decent monsters.
Cons: Needs to be assembled by the GM. Meaning needs to be imprinted upon the Dungeon. Random monster dungeons are dull.
Dungeon of the unknown has good ideas in it, but it will take a very dedicated, specific sort of GM to get anything out of it I imagine. As it stands, it is an outline, maddeningly incomplete. If B1: In Search of the Unknown was a puzzle and you had to assemble the pieces yourself Dungeon of the Unknown is pieces of three different puzzles thrown haphazardly together, and leaves it up to you and your trusty scissors, glue and colouring markers to make something coherent out of this mess. It pains me to do so, but I cannot give Dungeon any higher then 4 out of 10, despite some very good entries.