Kessler’s Guide to Dungeons is the eighth of Chamomile’s guides to everything. In a change of pace, this book is devoted to a single topic. Dungeons. It’s a big topic in D&D (one of the D’s even) and so it makes sense that there’s a lot to say here. Even more, considering there is both a ton, and dearth of information on the subject. Every edition has a Dungeonomicon, or Dungeonscape, or Guide to the Spookydark, filling shelves with content, but they rarely actually spend time in the dungeon itself. Minimal rules for navigating mazes, and getting lost, and no advice for how to run a game underground, instead focusing on yet another city of jerks who will rob you if you go in it. As always, I’ve still got a hard copy for the review with screenshots cropped from the pdf (with permission). You can pick one up at Drivethrough or itch, in physical or digital versions.
As always, Chamomile includes some new races for play, and I’m a sucker for them. I’ve played enough dwarves and elves to last a lifetime, and always go for something a little more fun. Here we have a new Drider, in the vein of the other advanced races. He takes a few minutes and fixes the perpetually dumb fluff from every core edition while he is at it. Core, a Drider is a Drow who was cursed to become way more powerful, and more like their deity. Thats clearly backwards, and Kessler’s swaps the lore. It’s a status symbol and blessing, and power up. The other big race inclusions are playable Devils and Demons, which of course I want, and Myconids, and Deep Ones which, while cool, aren’t as cool IMO as the previous 3.
One major drawback of playing D&D is that Demons, and Devils are some of the coolest monsters, and their lore is perpetually dumb. You’ll notice a theme in this book, as Kessler’s redoes a lot of that, and puts together a system that makes sense. It won’t be what you expect, and it will look different, but it’s also not silly at face value. The framework provided transforms demons into what are called Cosmic Entities. Cosmic Demons are essentially beings that exist outside the mortal and divine and have no interest, or ability to have interest in the affairs of mortals. Instead, each demonic entity is tied to a concept and a plane (not infinite) and spawns both rank and file demons and singular demon princes that act as named avatars for the demonic entity. These cosmic entities will look a lot like Mythos creatures, and that’s on purpose, even including a sidebar about doing it directly. Mythos love got real popular in the early 2000’s and suddenly D&D had to retroactively add a whole bunch to the product. It was kind of slapdash, and since demons needed a rework, this was a good way to bring it in. Devils get a similar treatment, although less drastic. They essentially keep the existing lore but refocus it into a war with the divine and away from Demons. Two takes are presented, and while I prefer the cult aspect, the empire is certainly workable.
Following this, are an explanation and reworking of the Sanity from the DMG. Its more playable, and nuanced than core, but still a system I usually bypass. There is a good explanation of what the rules do and don’t cover, and it seems like it wouldn’t ever make your character unplayable like most systems in this nature do, but its just not a thing I care for in a high action, fantasy RPG.
Running Underground is the advice on dungeon crawls section. Like normal for a Chamomile book, the focus is on how to actually sit at a table and do this with friends, starting with a ground up approach of what you do, when you do it, and why. This is the meat of the book, and frankly, why you should buy it. He breaks dungeon crawls down into three main parts, believability, viability, and non-linearity, and provides guidance for each.
What would a book with playable Demons and Devils be, without a section on Evil Campaigns, and in true Chamomile faction, this one is less about how to roll on a table and find out what sinister properties your weapon deals, and more on how to set expectations at the table. He walks us through some common assumptions, and how important it is to get the player base on the same page.
The last big section of this one focuses on The Spider Matriarchs. Drow are a tricky subject, that’s never really been done well and usually dance in and out of a variety of taboo subjects for the sake of it, without a coherent reason why. Chamomile’s approach is to redo it, and make something that could actually exist, while keeping the cool aspects that people like. The most interesting part to me, is the Blood Web concept, which adds some logic and reasoning to the dark elves traditional intrigue of “be secretive and betray everyone” mantra from D&D, replacing it with a cultural hierarchy of alliances and a strict order of succession. There’s now a reason for all the backstabbing, with clear motivations and goals, which makes actually running an espionage game or setting in the Drow capital possible and easy.
Kessler’s is a solid contribution to the series, and while it doesn’t have as much for the player to get involved with as some of the others, it tackles some lore that has never been workable, and revisits it so you can actually use it. Thats a big lift, and I think those sections on their own are worth the price of admission. That I get some playable Devils and some monster stats are just a bonus.