What Do I Know About Reviews? Mirt’s Undermountain Survival Guide (Dungeon Masters Guild Product, D&D 5e)

It’s time to dig into another Dungeon Masters Guild product. This is one that I meant to pick up a while ago, so I circled back around to it recently. I will always have a special place in my heart for Undermountain, Mirt, and Durnan, because I ran a pretty extensive 2nd Edition AD&D game that was set in Waterdeep, and featured the players staying at the Yawning Portal, where they would end up getting used as agents of Mirt, Laeral, and Khelben to varying degrees.

That brings us to Mirt’s Undermountain Survival Guide, which is tied into the Waterdeep Dungeon of the Mad Mage product that was released last year. Contributors to this product include the DMs Guild Adepts M.T. Black, Greg Marks, and James Introcaso. It’s a collection of general “Undermountain Themed” tools to use in a campaign.

Chapbook Descriptions

This product is a 42 page PDF, which includes a Table of Contents/Credits/Legal page, an introduction, and two pages of Mirt’s “in-world” dungeon-delving advice, with the rest of the product split between new races, archetypes, classes, hirelings, terrain rules, spells, and magic items.

If you have seen what any of the official WOTC D&D books look like, the formatting of this product is very similar. The full-color art pulls a few pieces from relevant entries in 5e books (for example, images of Mirt and the Giff). The formatting of Mirt’s Dungeon Delving Tips looks more like a reproduced document than the rest of the book. There are also a few notes from Mirt scattered throughout the book like Volo’s, Xanathar’s, and Mordenkainen’s notes in other products.

Character Races

Upfront, I’ll address this . . . as Guild Adepts, I’m pretty sure the authors are expected to hew closer to the official terminology used in WOTC’s official books, and the term, as it stands in D&D, is still race, so that’s what we get in this section. The races presented are the following:

  • Giff
  • Half-Ogre
  • Illithid
  • Nimblewright
  • Sprite

None of the races detailed have subraces. I’m not sure any of them needed that division, but it’s worth noting that none of them use that mechanical distinction. Sprites are particularly noteworthy as actually being a tiny race. As far as creature types go, only nimblewrights are noted as having a special creature type, being considered constructs. While I’m not surprised that Half-Ogres aren’t giants, I’m a little surprised there isn’t a note on illithids being aberrations or sprites being fey, especially since centaurs, as an example, have the fey type.

  • Giff come across a bit more physically impressive than just about any other “bruiser” race in D&D, with a +2 to both strength and constitution. They have a charge ability, but it has a rest recharge, so it’s not an ongoing special attack like minotaurs receive. They are proficient with guns and get powerful build.
  • Half-ogres get a +2 strength, +1 constitution, and, unfortunately, a -1 on intelligence. They also get powerful build, darkvision, and proficiency in intimidation, but not automatic weapon training or inborn natural attacks.
  • Illithids get a +2 bonus to intelligence, resistance to charm, a natural attack with their tentacles, darkvision, and a per rest mind blast. They also get to eat brains if they take a character to 0 hit points with a tentacle attack.
  • Nimblewrights get a +2 bonus to dexterity and +1 to constitution, all the benefits you would assume they would get from the construct type (although you are only resistant to poison, not immune). While there are no subraces, there are three components that a nimblewright gets which they can mix and match from six components listed.
  • Sprites get a bonus to dexterity and intelligence at +2, and a -4 hit to strength. In addition to this hit, there are rules for sprite weapons that shift all weapon damage down a die type, to a minimum of 1 hit point of damage. They can fly, get proficiency with bows and rapiers, and cast a few spells including invisibility, with more coming at higher levels. Sprites have proficiency with a poisoner’s kit and also get special rules for making poison arrows during downtime.

Other races get different bonuses in other areas of competency, but giff feel just slightly too good for martial classes. The main irony is they like guns, but are way better wading into a fight with a big weapon in heavy armor. Illithids are oddly compelling as presented, especially with mind blast being limited to per rest and removing automatic spells and spell resistance. I like that nimblewrights show you can have another “construct-or-construct-adjacent” race that feels distinct from warforged. In fact, as written, nimblewrights feel much more like custom-built counterparts to mass-produced warforged.

Sprites feel like they would be kind of challenging to do anything but use them for spellcasting, but rogue sneak attack damage wouldn’t be too badly harmed by downsizing weapon dice. It does make me think that 5e keeping most official offerings to small or medium is kind of a wise choice for avoiding too many special rules to cover these corner cases.

I saved half-ogres for last, not because they present any mechanical issues, but they embrace some of the worst of D&D’s presentation of race, and how racial traits are presented. I don’t think this was an intentional issue from the designers of this product, but it is the legacy of what 5e has brought forward, and it does need to be addressed.

While giff, illithids, and sprites have traits that often describe their cultures, and how adventurers may or may not engage with the norms of those cultures, half-ogres have traits that are described as being intrinsic to their inherited ogre traits. They don’t come from a culture that promotes X or Y that can be embraced or rejected, they, themselves, are gluttonous, avaricious, stupid, and lazy. They have an inborn limitation on intelligence. The heading “Impenetrable Stupidity” in their entry starts off “as a rule.”

Even if a half-ogre is good, he has all of these natural bad traits he is constantly fighting against. His ogre blood is bad and a thing to be ashamed of and fought against. That’s some serious, deeply flawed narrative that D&D needs to move beyond, and this half-ogre section makes me cringe.

It’s really weird when the literal alien creature that comes from a hive mind society that survives on brains and reproduces by mutating humanoids into a different species feels like it has more room for open-ended, non-judgmental character development.

Archetypes and Classes

This section introduces several subclasses that are themed around caverns and dungeon delving, and also reintroduces the Factotum, a character class that was first introduced in the 3.5 product Dungeonscape. At the time, I wasn’t a big fan of the factotum, but now, I’m kind of fascinated to see its implementation in the context of 5e rules. Before we get there, however, let’s look at our subclasses:

  • Cleric Domain: Cavern
  • Druid Circle: Stone
  • Ranger Archetype: Wayfarer
  • Rogue Archetype: Trapsmith
  • Warlock Pact: The Dark

Let’s look at all of these in more depth, starting with our friends, the Cavern loving clerics:

  • I like the concept of the Cavern domain because I’ve got a great deal of respect for the obscure god of caverns in the Realms, Ibrandul. You get heavy armor, bonuses to knowing about stonework, and an AC bonus underground. As a channel divinity, you can gain blindsight, but you have to be underground and touching the earth. You can also use channel divinity to give someone resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, poison, or slashing until the end of your next turn, which can be handy, but it’s a way short term use of the ability. You get the “melee” option for cleric at 8th level, in this case going 3rd edition old school and associating acid with earth for your bonus damage. At 17th level, you get a burrow speed and tremorsense.
  • Stone Circle druids get a few extra earth-based spells that draw from the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, and once per long rest at 2ndlevel, they can roll d6s equal to their level to shrug off damage. Their wild shape additional option is a gargoyle (which is an elemental, and sometimes I forget that), they can speak with stones at 10th level, and they can move through stone, but not stay inside it, so they get ejected from stone if they don’t manage to move all the way through it.
  • Wayfarer rangers are kind of Underdark diplomats. They gain an extra language and a bonus chance to understand people whose language they don’t already know. They can give advantage to others within 30 feet for athletics, acrobatics, or anyone whose language they understand. At 7th level, they get advantage on dexterity saves versus traps and on perception checks to avoid surprise. At 11th level, they can use a reaction against someone attacking an ally, and if they hit, the ally is attacked with disadvantage. At 15th level, people within 10 feet of you gain your danger sense ability.
  • The Trapsmith Rogue gets advantage to disarm traps, and can fast craft traps in about a minute, picking from a range of options, which cost 10 gp and may have some other requirements, depending on what trap types the trapsmith learns. At 9th level, they get advantage to save against traps going off, and traps are at disadvantage to hit them, and at 13thlevel, they gain the ability to dispel magic, but only against a few trap like spells. At 17th level, when an ally springs a trap, you can use a reaction to disarm it before it goes off.
  • The Dark Warlocks get whispering, poisonous, and dark spells added to their spell lists. When someone drops to 0 hit points in your presence, you can cloak yourself with darkness that gives you a bonus on stealth checks. You can expend your cloak of darkness to do psychic damage to enemies, which does extra damage if you harm an ally as well. At 6th level, you get extra damage to poison and psychic damage, and also gain the option of damaging an ally to automatically affect another target, and cause them ongoing damage. At 11th level, you can see into the ethereal and invisible creatures, but nothing else, when you activate the ability. At 14th level, you can convince an enemy that their allies are against them, which can be boosted if you curse an ally with disadvantage.

I like both the Cavern and Stone Circle subclasses. I actually love The Dark subclass, but I think it needs a sidebar explaining that as a player option, you really need to have a discussion, out of character, with the group about how you are going to play this, because it can so easily screw over other players. It really begs for a discussion of how much fun the group will have if this character is present, and potentially causing them misfortune to power their abilities.

I like the concept of the Wayfarer ranger, and I think there are going to be players that will have fun with it, but it also feels strange to have a ranger that is a front line fighter, in theory, that has a subclass where all of its abilities push for it to be a support character, with non-combat support abilities. It almost makes me think that rangers that gain abilities that don’t play into combat should get some kind of protective “kicker” for combat for each of these non-combat abilities. I love the disorienting blow feature, but that doesn’t kick in until 11th level. More recent rangers have also been picking up extra spells based on their subclass theme, and I think this one could use that treatment as well.

The Trapsmith ranger has a similar issue, where a lot of what makes them shine doesn’t happen in combat, and is going to be very situational to how the DM adjudicates wandering opponents happening upon traps. I think a class like this needs more abilities that trigger within combat rounds, for multiple reasons. “Fast crafting” just opens up discussions of how long it would take for someone that isn’t the rogue to craft something similar. One minute crafting feels like it’s just outside of what would be useful to set up within a combat. I think this might work better taking an almost artificer approach of allowing the rogue to spend an action to set up a trap X number of times per rest as an action, and maybe even getting to add sneak attack damage to the trap as a higher-level ability.

The Factotum

If you never saw it during the 3.5 days, the Factotum is meant to be a character that picks up a little bit of everything, so if you don’t have someone to pick a lock, heal you, or cast knock on a closed door, they can step in and help. They were sort of the same niche as bards, but even more so, and not tied to telling tales or singing songs.

As framed in this product, they are actually kind of the inverse of bards, consuming all kinds of information about adventuring from various sources to pick up tricks. They are a d8, light armor class. Their primary class ability is ingenuity points, which get spent to emulate a lot of other abilities. Ingenuity points can be spent to cast arcane spells or to add your intelligence modifier to a roll. As you go up in level, you get access to higher-level spells that you can cast, and eventually you can spend ingenuity points to get sneak attack damage, to heal, or to turn undead.

At 3rd level, the Factotum picks a “Lore” as a subclass, either the Lore of the Hero or the Lore of the Theurge. The Lore of the Hero unlocks the ability to spend Ingenuity points on abilities similar to fighter, monk, and barbarian abilities. They also gain a fighting style and an extra attack (although at 15th level, way later than other characters pick up the ability). The Lore of the Theurge grants the ability to spend Ingenuity points to emulate Warlock, Sorcerer, and Druid abilities, and gives you more spells known and spell slots, which can now draw from more than wizard lists.

This whole thing is pretty fascinating to me, and while I want to see it in action before getting too far ahead of myself, it “feels” solid. The thing I think will take the most to get accustomed to is that most abilities are limited on multiple axes. For example, some abilities cost ingenuity points, and can only be used a limited number of times per day. Spells cost an ingenuity point each time they are used, and also use a spell slot. That means everything is pulling from your pool of ingenuity, and also has another hard limit, which also means dual tracking when you use your abilities.

Part of me thinks there is a way to streamline this a little, but a louder part of my brain likes it as it is, because the mechanics reinforce that feeling that you are scraping together resources to do whatever it is you are currently focused on, and you could easily run out of options without a plan.

Porters, Guides, and Other Hirelings

This next section gives you the names and personalities for ten NPCs, as well as what rates they charge and what statblock they use. I like this idea, although I kind of want a product that expands this a little, with full ideal, bonds, traits, and flaws for each NPC, and maybe a per round and per short rest ability that they can easily contribute to the group when hired.

Special Rules

This section is a nice dungeon building toolkit. It details some phenomenon that might be encountered in a dungeon, and what the effect might be. You get fog that anchors people from using magical translocation magic, stone that drinks blood and promotes critical hits, and construction material that might magnify a specific damage type.
As a fan of the modular effects given to various locations in the Adventures in Middle-earth Loremaster’s guide, I really like these “area builder” discreet rules for livening up an area where the PCs might have an encounter.

Moving Around Undermountain

This section contains some different summaries and suggestions for adjudicating rules that revolve around climbing, falling, swimming, tying things up, and digging around in a dungeon. I like the reminders that are built into some of these sections, and I appreciate the “what if you don’t know how far you fell” adjudication advice. Part of me, heroic story or not, still wants some kind of check to see if someone breaks the surface tension of the water instead of just buffering damage, however, but that may just be me.

Spells

There are five pages of new spells introduced, with a total of 24 new spells, which appear to varying degrees on the bard, cleric, druid, paladin, ranger, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard spell lists.

A few of these seem like updates of previous edition spells, although some concepts may be common enough that it just happens to be a reinvention of a similar concept (Claws of Darkness, Fist of Stone). There are several spells that cloak a character in some kind of effect that they can expend later, as well as a lot of spells that make rocks hostile to your enemies.
Tenser’s Expedient Pit gives me flashbacks to a very bad Pathfinder session where a pit spell went off, caused the PCs and their enemies to not be able to engage one another, and the spell couldn’t be dispelled, so everyone just glared at one another across the pit until the spell ended. Beware your placement of 10 x 10 pits in dungeons with limited space, is all I’m saying.

New Magic Items

There are six pages of magic items included, with about 50 new magic items. There is a list that details the new items alphabetically, and also notes their rarity. There aren’t many traditional weapons or armors in this section, although there are a few items that can transform into weapons and armor.

There are a lot of wearable items that trigger a beneficial effect a limited number of times, multiple whistle and musical instruments, and several recreations of magic items from previous editions of the game. There is a strong angle towards being practical in a dungeon setting.

While there are items that can kill and raise enemies as zombies, there are also canes that turn into rapiers, wax that can be put in the ears and used to listen at a distance, items that can charm, hobble, or incapacitate enemies, and items that can eliminate an adventuring party’s tracks.

Comfortable Retirement

There is a lot to like about this product. There is such a wide range of material, I can’t easily say how well it all stacks up to similar material, but my initial read through and examination makes me want to allow a lot of these options in a game to see how they play out. Many of the new races, the subclasses, and the factotum seem like a lot of fun, and the spells and magic items seem to introduce variety without falling too far outside of the range of what the game can tolerate. I love the imagination in this book, and really want to throw some of the special construction materials into various scenes to spice them up in the future.

Welcome to the Mass Grave

I like the section on hirelings, but I have to admit it was enough to make me want a deeper treatment on the subject, which may have been outside of the scope of this supplement. The ranger and rogue subclasses weren’t bad, and actually follow in the footsteps of a lot of similar material even in WOTC products, but aren’t as exciting as some of the other items in the book.Giff may be a wee bit too good, although I’m not sure if that deserves a serious ding. However, the half-ogre deserves a special note. The flavor text is not good, and reinforces a lot of what has been ill-thought out in Dungeons and Dragons over the years. It’s probably the race presented in this book that will make the most sense for the widest range of campaigns, and it has some of the most reflexively regressive text.

Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

I’m generally really excited about this product, and like so much of what is in it. It’s a fun toolbox, and if you enjoy general adventuring in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, you will likely find a lot to like, but I can’t endorse it as strongly as I want.

I really want us to move forward and think about what we say when we use the term race, and when we imply that traits are endemic to a people. The half-ogre entry really bothers me compared to the rest of the content, and I wish it didn’t exist in the form that it currently constitutes.

Update (5/26/2020): There is an errata link posted in this product on the Dungeon Masters Guild at this time which amends the half-ogre entry.

Mirt’s Undermountain Survival Guide Errata

This does a lot to move the half-ogre entry from absolutes and inborn traits, although none of the mechanics of the race change. I still wish the -1 intelligence could be removed, and I hope that this is eventually incorporated into the text of the product, as well as being available as separate errata.

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