Mini-Dungeon Tome (5e)
This massive compilation and expansion of AAW Games‘ beloved Mini-Dungeon-series clocks in at 294 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial,2 pages of ToC, 4 pages of KS-backer thanks, 1 page SRD, 4 pages of advertisement, leaving us with a mighty 281 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Full Disclaimer: I have, over the years, reviewed 81 of the mini-dungeons contained within this book prior to their respective revisions herein. I have also contributed two mini-dungeons to this book. As such, this differs from my usual review-style in that, being a contributing author, I will refrain from providing a final verdict and instead will endeavor to provide an unbiased view of this book. That being said, bit was requested that I take a look at this book by one of my patreon supporters, and I gladly obliged.
Now, first things first: Beyond the phenomenal, new artwork, the reader familiar with the series will note a steep increase in quality regarding the maps. Don’t get me wrong, the regular mini-dungeon series, for the most part, had rather impressive cartography. However, there were also quite a few instances early in the series (and later on), where it was obvious that funds were tight for a bit, sporting a more barebones presentation. Those are GONE, replaced with absolutely gorgeous, revised and improved iterations that sport small details like statues, blood-spatters, glyphs, etc. Right off the bat, this represents one of the aesthetic improvements of the book and should be commended – the new maps are simply better in every way –just look at, for example, Stephen Yeardley’s “There are more Things in the Planes and the Earth” – the new map is stunning and conveys its own atmosphere. Additionally, the book now sports a rather significant selection of fantastic, cover level of quality artwork; while some pieces have been taken from the original mini-dungeons (those that were really amazing in the first place), the book now sports more, and often significantly more expansive, artworks. So, this massive book is, at least aesthetically, not just a compilation.
But what about immediate usefulness at the table? See, this is where this book knocks the whole series so far out of the water. First of all, the layout makes using the book easier. On the left-hand side of a two-page spread, you’ll have the map and, on the top left corner, the suggested number of PCs for the adventure. On the top of the right hand side, you’ll have a similar little bubble, noting the suggested PC levels, which renders flipping through the book to find a proper mini-dungeon pretty simple. Furthermore, the book employs color in a smart manner: We follow the colors of the rainbow, differentiating between levels. Low-level modules of up to level 5 are red, level 5+ becomes orange, level 8+ yellow…you get the idea. Mini-Dungeons available for all levels instead get a full rainbow of colors, setting them apart and generating a holistic form of visual identity. – your consciousness may not have picked that up, but your subconscious did. This color-coding also stretches to the bolded components, which is a nice touch.
Another improvement that was rather welcome, would pertain to previously-released content. Where many a publisher would have just taken the text and parsed it into the new book, the AAW Games crew obviously did another editing pass – from goofy glitches in the previous releases like “Feischkammer” (which was missing an “l” in its name to make it the intended “Fleischkammer” – which translates to “flesh-chamber in German; “Feischkammer” was not a proper word…) to rules-relevant hiccups, the book has cleaned up the previous content. Where previously, for example, we had an erroneous reference to divine damage, the book now properly references the radiant damage type. While the vast majority of these have been caught, e.g. “Sepulcher of the Witching Sage” still has a reference to negative energy damage, when that should be necrotic damage. The mummy lord’s abbreviated statblock should refer to channel divinity, not channel negative energy…but that’s me nitpicking.
Some problematic DCs have been adjusted, and I also noticed some erroneous saves in the originals have been taken care of – only one of these remain, in “Doubt Not That Stars are Fire.” Considering how huge this book is, that is one impressive feat indeed.
Among the illustrious cadre of guest authors to supplement AAW Games’ already insanely talented core-cadre, we have a great selection of industry veterans that present new material. If you, for example, like your Derro, you may enjoy Ben McFarland’s take on the insane dwarves attempting to summon their fungal god; alternatively, one of the modules I made casts them in the role of insane toll-collectors on an aquatic trade-route in the underworld, complete with cave-fisher like force-strands to lift vessels past sandbanks…if you pay up and their insanity happens to allow you to pass, that is…
Want a fire-themed adventure that doesn’t suck or bog down your campaign? Tim Hitchcock has you covered. None other than legend Lou Agresta offers a neat trip to a mad druid’s lair, Rone Barton invites you to his “Sanctuary of the Slaughtered”, while Michael Allen (who penned a ton of modules that made my Top Ten!) pits the PCs versus mighty vampire masters. Did I mention Stormbunny Studios’ Jay Sonia providing a trip to a necromancer, who is experimenting with tiefling hearts? There also would be an exploration of a living dungeon penned by Brian Suskind…and if you’re like me, you may have encountered this one before: Your PCs have that level where a stronghold would make sense, and that module you just ran intended one as a reward…however. I, at least, suck at drawing maps. And I dislike handing my PCs something for free. Well, none other than Richard Develyn, legendary author of 4 Dollar Dungeons (He made several 1st level slots on my Top Ten!), has you covered: There is a module that is all about claiming your lavishly-mapped castle, requiring that your PCs WORK for the boons they receive.
But perhaps that’s too old-school-y for you? Well, Justin Andrew Mason, who not only contributed a bunch of the adventures herein, but who also handled graphic design of the book, has something special for you: The Flight of the Gryphonwind, a fully depicted and mapped airship, with crew an all, which may well provide a means to set your PCs apart from the get-go, which could be anything from a campaign-seed to a weird interlude of fantastic proportions! It’s also one of the few double-sized mini-dungeons herein – while the vast majority of them cover the usual two pages, this one is 4 pages long, and better off for it. Have I mentioned that it’s designated for any level, suitable for low or high level characters or anything in between, depending on the needs of your campaign? Yeah, that is pretty interesting.
It should also be noted that, while there are plenty of traditional mini-dungeons herein, we also have basically a couple of free-form adventure-sketches with a more cinematic feel – like high-level PCs foiling the plans of none other than Hastur! (If you need a follow up for Dark naga’s Haunting of Hastur-series, this should be noted!) And yes, after counting down in super-lethal (and actually funny, in a macabre way) challenges, this one has the PCs duke it out with the Great Old One. Yeah, Stephen Yeardley knocked the ball out of the park with this one! Speaking of whom – a couple of the mini-dungeons herein that he penned*CAN* be linked to generate brief mini-series, should you be inclined to do so, though such sequences are not required to employ any of the modules herein.
It should also be noted that there are mini-dungeons for different skill sets. I noted free-form adventure sketches, and e.g. a region where vampires rule and vampire hunters may cause more collateral damage than their undead adversaries would be one that needs fleshing out, but which is also hilarious in the vampire hunter’s over-the-top-plan. If you require something to play as you go, I’d very much suggest e.g. Liz Courts’s “Clockwork Vault of Caina”, as this one not only sports interesting ability modifications for the main antagonists, it also comes with read-aloud text. Rachel Ventura’s offerings also tend to offer this help for the GM. Speaking of clockworks – Dan Dillon can do PFRPG just as well as 5e, and his “lair of the clockwork mage” basically begs to be inserted into Kobold Press’ Midgard setting. I probably don’t have to explain that a Nicholas Logue mini-dungeon is awesome news, right? Want something a bit weird? What about something I penned, a mini-dungeon that can has you temporarily becoming undead, where gravity may be tilted by 90° by uttering the wrong word at the table? Did I mention the spatial anomaly that can be carried around? Did I mention Colin Stricklin’s trip into a gigantic behemoth, which looms in a harbor? Yeah, if you needed a nice way to get your PCs an inconvenient mech, this’ll do!
Notice something? All of the modules I briefly mentioned in but a sentence are NEW. Indeed, I have not covered all of them at this point – not even close. That being said, there is another aspect of this book that I feel obliged to comment on, one of the most important components of this book, at least for me. Yes, each of the mini-dungeons is properly hyperlinked. No Surprise there. However, the hyperlinks don’t point towards an SRD, but rather to the MASSIVE Creature/hazard/etc.-appendix. This beast is a thing of beauty as far as I’m concerned, and eliminates the one crucial weakness that the single mini-dungeons, as a system-immanent issue of their kind, had. You see, we get stats. Hard stats.
Sans having to look up everything on the internet/mobile device.
If you’re like me and prefer to impose a ban on the use of devices at the table for the sake of immersion, then this is a godsend. Ditto if you’re a bit of a grognard and don’t like players distracted by their phones/tablets. It’s really cool, convenient and a true joy to witness. But wait. 5e-stats can be rather long, so why is this book not a bulky 500+ page monstrosity? See, here things become rather interesting. We get shorthand stats. They are condensed and provide what you need; they manage to do this by virtue of employing a system of sensible short-hand glyphs as a visual element, which might take a second to get used to, but oh boy does it beat looking up stuff on the internet! This makes the book a truly holistic experience, one that does not need an external element to properly use. It, in short, cuts down your preparation time. While at a con, for example, you can just whip out the book and play. Now yes, you still need to be able to read statblocks and know the basics, obviously, but still – this is genius and a huge improvement over the individual installments; one that exponentially increases the immediate usefulness. Much like Raging Swan Press’ by now legendary compilation of Dungeon and Wilderness Dressing, this makes the book vastly more useful.
Now, I have already talked, in detail, about how much the formal qualities, from the aesthetic to the editing/formatting have improved; I have touched upon plenty of the ideas realized in this collection. There is one more thing to note, and that is to give the authors their due. The following folks created this tome: Louis Agresta, Michael Allen, Rone Barton, Liz Courts, Richard Develyn, Dan Dillon, Jonathan Ely, Thilo Graf, Tim Hitchcock, Michael Holland, Nicolas Logue, Justin Andrew Mason, Michael McCarthy, Ben McFarland, Brian Wïborg Mønster, Will Myers, Jonathan G. Nelson, Stefanos Patelis, Michael Smith, Jaye Sonia, Colin Stricklin, Brian Suskind, Rory Toma, Rachel Ventura, Stephen Yeardley.
If you’re a bit familiar with good 3pp-authors, you’ll recognize them. So yeah, this book has a lot of flavor and panache. It also is probably the most useful adventure and set-piece anthology I know of. You see, with so many high-quality, fully mapped modules, it should come as no surprise that you’ll find something for every taste, from the horrific to the fairy tale-esque, from the gritty to high-fantasy. Furthermore, the mini-dungeons know their place – they are not here to intrude upon your campaign; they do not require much fidgeting to introduce for the most part (exceptions to the rule exist, but these set-piece wilderness-regions are isolated and easily slotted into the world…); the modules herein are there to provide transitions, to provide a shaking up of your adventure-design aesthetics. There are adventures herein that focus on hack and slash, sure…but there also are some that may be resolved sans killing anything! The diversity of authors and different narrative voices enrich the overall experience, ranging from narrative focus to the intensely technical and clever use of creatures and terrain.
In short, even if I did not contribute my own paltry two MDs, I’d consider this to be very much worth owning, and I consider myself humbled to be featured among the prestigious cadre of authors. The improvements made to the formula of the series are significant, and from the fantastic to the weird, the mini-dungeons within are not content with just being there and delivering functionality. They do that, but many of them also have the creative spark that we expect to see from good one-page-dungeons and similar offerings, making this one of the most useful books of adventures to own. In spite of the limitations of the mini-dungeon formula, this offers plenty of modules that actually manage to be inspiring.
*ähem* I’m sorry. I try, particularly when I’ve contributed to a book, to remain more down to earth, more matter-of-factly, but frankly, I was and still am very much excited about this tome, and reading it makes it tough to remain in review-bot mode.
What immediately brought me out of this jubilant mode? The realization that this has an errata! Gasp! I have a policy of NOT including errata in my reviews, as I usually reward books to be properly updated. Here’s the thing: This is NOT an errata in the traditional sense, in spite of the name. The errata does not contain fixed glitches or the like, and instead features a couple of full-blown 5e-statblocks collected for your edification….including a collection of diverse full-color artworks. Similarly, hazards like paralytic fleas and the like are provided here. While this bonus file (think of it more as of a web-enhancement rather than an errata) is neat, it does have a couple formatting snafus – but for better or worse, I won’t take it into account for this discussion. Still – most folks will consider this to be a nice bonus.
What to think of this? Well, this gets a nomination as a Top Ten candidate of 2018. The book is simply too useful, too vast, too beautiful, to not acknowledge what this represents. The maps alone make this worth having, even if you have the previously-released MDs. Heck, the care that went into streamlining the previously-released ones, as well as the further polish for the maps makes this a godsend for folks like yours truly that suck at maps. Considering how much content can be found within, it’s super impressive to see how few minor hiccups I could find.
Speaking of which: If you’re like me and want GM and player-friendly maps for full VTT-compatibility, you can get the massive map-pack. Oh yes. As per the writing of this review, I can’t comment on the virtues of the print version, but I have yet to be disappointed by AAW Games’ hardcovers.
So yeah, this is a super-useful book that manages to transcend the limitations of the series; it is no mere compilation, but a celebration and evolution of the series. It is a book that can enrich any GM’s arsenal. Highly recommended!
You can get this tome here on OBS!
You can get the map-pack here on OBS!
Can’t get enough mini-dungeons? AAW Games is currently kickstarting a mini-dungeon ‘zine for 5e! You can check it out here!