Into the Unknown is a book in a strange place. The edition it’s part of is on it’s way out the door. All the attention is on D&D Next, but 4E books are still coming out. The last one wasn’t so hot. This one is much better by virtue of being less about 4E and more about story and setting.
Even if 4E wasn’t a lame duck edition, putting out books of powers would be pointless because it this point they’re all the same. This book, thankfully, has hardly any stat blocks. There are some utility powers, and the ones you get are about as innovative as 4E powers can be at this point. Gain cover from some terrain, or gain a nice bonus on checks made to find a certain item. Not bad.
The bulk of the book is about building characters that were born in or live most of their lives in the Underdark. The Underdark is not just a big dungeon, of course — it’s the World Below, with its own ecosystem, economy, politics and religion. There are three new player races, goblins, kobolds and svirfneblin. I don’t know anyone who’s ever wanted to actually play a kobold, but to each his own. It’s a little weird how monsters get more human and “sexy” as soon as they become playable classes. Sorry, I doubt svirfneblin are cute by human standards, or that any female goblin would be as curvy as the one depicted.
One of the more popular elements of the D&D Next playtest appears to be the use of character themes, templates that let you add a new dimension to your basic race/class combos. Into the Unknown uses the pre-existing idea of 4E themes and offers up a big selection of them, all tied to the Underdark. Escaped Thrall, Trapsmith, Outcast…all interesting ideas to focus on a campaign on. The themes also create something of a bridge between 4E and D&D Next, at least conceptually.
As an example of how crunch-free this book is, there’s a chapter on Denizens of the Underdark. Among the list of classic monsters (mind flayers, otyughs, rust monsters), there’s not a single stat block. No variant forms. No numbers at all. It’s like a bunch of short “Ecology of…” articles on each one. And the whole book is laced with “grey box” sidebars that mostly provide a bit of in-world flavor, like an excerpt from an adventurer’s journal.
My favorite part is a series of explorations of classic dungeons from D&D’s rich past. They don’t really fit the Underdark theme (Ravenloft?), but I love reading this stuff. There’s a brief publication history explaining all the various versions of each dungeon that have been published over the years, and I only wish they were longer. I’d read a whole of this stuff. Interviews with the designers, explanations of subsequent revisions, weird trivia…yes, I’ll take it. It’s interesting to discover that I’ve actually played very few of the classic dungeons, though I’ve perhaps spent enough time in Castle Ravenloft to make up for it.
The last section is aimed at DMs and offers tips on dungeon design and adventure building. It’s not quite the legendary grey Campaign Sourcebook & Catacomb Guide, but offers a lot of good advice for DMs. It might even be better advice, since the art of game design has advanced significantly over the years.
The capstone here is an appendix full of tables for building random dungeons. Random tables are awesome, of course. A whole set of them that you can use to whip up a dungeon? Sweet.