Periodically, I'm going to review stuff on this blog. It may be old stuff I found and liked a lot, new stuff regardless of whether I liked it or not, or anything in between. I'm going to try to err on the side of stuff useful to anyone in any system, but it really depends on what I find!
The Dungeon Alphabet
by Michael Curtis
Goodman Games 2009
Dungeon Alphabet is a system-neutral sourcebook for old-school style dungeon crawling games. The book's central idea is the alphabet, with a dungeon-themed word for each letter of the alphabet. It runs from "A is for Altar" to "Z is for Zowie" (okay, some are a bit of a stretch) and the other 24 letters in between.
Each of the 26 entries has some introductory text discussing why the term fits in dungeons and how it fits. This text is well written and gives you a really inspiring sense of why you need altars, undead, statues, or jewels in your dungeon. Next is a very old-school style element: random tables. Each entry has a table with a corresponding bit of text attached to every random result. These range from random book titles for "B is for Books" to different forms of gold for "G is for Gold" and the strange effects of drinking from the titular bodies of water in "P is for Pools."
Some people might scoff at random tables, but this is a great way to either leave bits of your dungeon up to the universe or just inspire you. A quick roll on the Altar table might give you something to inspire your own version, or you could just stick with what turns up. For folks running a system heavy on the random generation side (say, white box D&D), it'll fit right in. For folks running systems that pretty much demand you decide what you want and then build it, this might be new. Or old - very, very old school. I'm just amused to no end, and I'm going to get a d30 just to use with a table or two in this book.
Speaking of dice and system neutrality, "system neutral" does need to be clarified a bit. While The Dungeon Alphabet will work for any dungeon-based fantasy game, it is really "any class and level system neutral" instead. You are expected to have a full range of polyhedral dice (including a d30) and there are lots of references are to going up or down a level or otherwise reference classes. So while it'll work best for games like OD&D and its clones, it will work just as well with a non-class and level system such as GURPS.
The entries are generally excellent. The only weak entry, in my opinion, was K is for Kobolds - with a die roll for unique kobold tribes. While it does have a reference to "Tucker's Kobolds" and a Jim Holloway illustration, it just felt merely "good" in a book full of "great." I know many low-level types cut their teeth on kobolds, and I'm not averse to using them myself, but are they that interesting that they need an entry? Or that boring-yet-required that they need an entry to spice them up? In either case the entry works, it's just not as strong as true gems like the lever table, the random book titles, or the creepy table entries for "Y is for Yellow."
The book is lavishly illustrated and the art is generally good. Some of the art is excellent. It is awesome beyond words to see "Erol Otus '09" on the front cover, but the goodness doesn't stop there. The illustration fo "L is for Lever" is so Paranoia-like that you could swap hapless clones for the hapless adventurers and it wouldn't need a single other change. There is the Holloway piece mentioned above, a few good setpiece illustrations showing the letter in action ("V for Vermin" and "U for Undead" work especially well).
Content: 5 out of 5. None of the alphabetic entries are wasted, all of the table entries are meaty adventure seeds, hooks, or just answers to player's questions.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Not even counting the Erol Otus cover, this book is well done. The text is easy to read and clear, the tables are equally easy to use, and the book is attractively illustrated.
Overall: This is a book I wish I'd written, and I'm sorry I took so long to find it and buy it. Outstanding stuff, and any dungeon fantasy GM (from OD&D DMs to GURPS DF GMs) can make use of this. It's better for a class-and-level, gold-and-dungeons game, but it'll work for any variation of fantasy world underground delving for treasure. Highly recommended.