D&D 2E [COMPLETE] Looking back at the limited series: Player's Option, Monstrous Arcana, Odyssey, and more!


Absolutely true. I've mentioned this before, but my Planescape game where everyone ran clerics using Spells and Magic rules (and the Dragon Magazine article for Planescape races) was the best experience I had running AD&D, and in my top-tier for best RPG experience. I've always had a soft spot for point-buy type abilities since then.

Do you recall which dragon magazine the Planescape races article was in?

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The EN World kitten
Up next is the proof of concept for the "Option" line, The Gates of Firestorm Peak.

This particular product is one that I paid little attention to at the time it came out. That wasn't because of anything about the adventure itself, and more that I had very little money for game-related purchases, and tended to spend that on sourcebooks and supplements rather than adventures. As I wasn't able to put a regular group together until I went to college, just as 3E was coming out, it just made more sense; the mechanics (and, for the products that had them, lore) were simply more conducive to making builds for fun, investigations into the canon of various settings, and all the other solitary ways that RPGs can be enjoyed.

As much as it seems to be a thing of the past now, that sort of engagement with the hobby is something I still enjoy now, despite my current group having met for weekly games for over a decade now (pandemic interruptions notwithstanding). And of course, in hindsight I missed out on a lot of content in various adventures, though I've been doing my best to go back and get them now.

Bringing things back around, this is an adventure that I only picked up several years ago, despite having skimmed a copy of it at a friend's house back in the latter half of the 90s. If nothing else, Bruce Cordell's name on the cover got me interested in a hurry. I was already aware of the subtle connections he'd been slipping into various products such as College of Wizardry and Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and I couldn't help but wonder if there was anything like that here (though I'm not aware of anything to that effect now).

Of course, as the product's sales page notes, there's one thing that this adventure did which was undeniably notable in terms of added lore: this is where the Far Realm was added to the D&D's cosmology. Not just a one-off, this plane (though it always struck me as more of a breakdown of reality than a distinct plane unto itself) would be referenced repeatedly after this, from being the "Outside" mentioned in the Illithiad to being the plane of Xoriat in Eberron's cosmology to being the home of the Abolethic Sovereignty in the Forgotten Realms, etc.

I feel compelled to note that TGoFP isn't the first time that 2E expanded on D&D's planar structure. Both The Nightmare Lands and Doors to the Unknown described how there are four "levels" of reality. The former product dealt with dreams (instances of level 1 reality) and the more notable dreamscapes (level 2 realities), both of which take place in the color curtain that separates the various Border Ethereals from the Deep Ethereal. Standard reality is level 3. And Doors to the Unknown features an instance of reality level 4, "hyper-reality," including the mercurials who live there. Of course, unlike the Far Realm, these didn't see any further use in D&D's cosmology, which is a shame.

Beyond that, there was a blurb about a potential new plane of existence called Macrocosm in the monster entry for the chososion, in the Monstrous Compendium Planescape Appendix III, but even that was presented as an in-character theory, so it can't really be counted. Although, speaking of new monsters, TGoFP introduced the dharculus, though I recall first seeing it in the Monstrous Compendium Annual Vol. 4. I'm not sure the elder elves mentioned in this adventure were ever given a proper write-up, however.

As for the adventure itself...never having played through it, there's little that I can offer. The presentation of Player's Option materials, where they came up, as separate entries was probably the best way to do it, simply because this book had the unenviable task of showcasing the series while still being accessible to the wider D&D audience. To that end, I think it did a decent job, but if the purpose of this module was to show off the "Option" materials in order to wow people into buying them - it even included two double-sided poster maps and some counters to bring in players - it didn't manage to pull that off. This is by no means a bad adventure, but there's a reason why most people don't seem to think of it as their favorite.

While the "Option" moniker would be resurrected for one more title, The Gates of Firestorm Peak ultimately feels like an addendum which proves what I said about Spells & Magic coming across as the end of the series. This is simply an epilogue to that end, one which ends with a whimper more than a bang. It's ironic that, for how much it's overlooked now, it's planar contribution is its most enduring one. For that, if nothing else, it deserves to be acknowledged.

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I never was much into buying modules myself, so I'm not familiar with The Gates of Firestorm Peak. But I agree that it's most notable for the introduction of the Far Realm.


For a very long time I had a foolish aversion to published adventures, something I now regret. (It also didn't help that a great many of the early-mid 2nd Ed adventures had a pretty poor reputation.) So I skipped "Gates of Firestorm Peak", something I now regret... though not enough to go get it on DM's Guild. :)

That being the case, the only other thing I have to add is that this adventure was #11 in Dungeon's countdown of D&D's 30 greatest adventures way back when. (That said, I question quite a few of the inclusions, rankings, and omissions, so take that with a pinch of salt. :) )


Elder Thing
I absolutely love High Level Campaigns and Spells & Magic, to this day. HLC has some of the best DM advice I've ever read, and S&M is part of why I've really grown to dislike 5e's subclass system (the other part is Al-Qadim character kits, many of which fundamentally change what spell slots mean and can be used for and therefore are conceptually completely anathema to 5e's rigid and locked mechanical structure. /rant).

Both books had ideas for days, and I really miss that kind of mold-breaking. In the WotC era, we never have and probably never will see anything like it.
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The EN World kitten
The last book in the "Option" line is one that wasn't originally part of the line at all, since I doubt many people overlooked how, when it came out in 1999, Campaign Option: Council of Wyrms Setting had already been released five years prior as the Council of Wyrms boxed set.

Now, reading over the two products' histories on their sales pages, this was apparently done because the original boxed set was highly popular, and reprinting it in a more economical book format was apparently fairly cheap for WotC (particularly since the writing, editing, and development was already complete), but at the time all I saw was the "updated and expanded from the original boxed set" tagline on the cover. I was an absolute sucker for things like that - and, to be fair, I was pretty stoked about being able to play a dragon PC anyway - and so I snatched it up immediately, since I hadn't gotten the original boxed set yet.

In hindsight, and having since picked up said boxed set, the updates and expansions are somewhat overblown. They basically consist of folding in some articles from Dragon magazine, and they also removed some of the key NPC statistics that were found on the back of the cardstock inserts that the boxed set had, along with the clan overview poster. Plus, the huge poster map of Io's Blood Isles from the original is much more aesthetically pleasing than the tinier, black and white reprint in the hardcover (also, notice that the hardcover has rotated the orientation of the Isles ninety degrees counterclockwise!).

The "campaignlet" - I can't think of it in any other term, since it's "you can drop this setting into any major ocean in your campaign world" presentation struck me as being a little too stark - that was Io's Blood Isles was, unto itself, something of a point of frustration for me. While I loved how much it showcased all the ways in which a dragon society would work, its remoteness seemed to work against it, at least in terms of interesting developments. To be fair, it plays this up, as the entire premise of the setting is that the dragons exist in an uneasy truce now after Io, the supreme dragon god, sent human dragonslayers from the other side of the world on a holy war against them, knowing that the dragons would have to unite against such dangerous enemies. And it worked, but I couldn't get over the idea that this ended up keeping the dragons constrained in their isolationist stance.

For comparison, I loved Fantasy Flight Games' Dragonstar setting, which basically was a fusion of Council of Wyrms and Spelljammer. That product took the underlying ideas here - that of a dragon society that was barely held together in a truce - and took it to its natural conclusion, which was that when the dragons could actually bring themselves to put aside their differences (however begrudgingly) and work together, they were unstoppable. In that case, they created an empire that had already been around for millennia and was expanding throughout the galaxy...and had just now discovered your campaign world.

Don't get me wrong, the adventures here aren't bad - though I personally liked "The Sleeping Dragon" in Dungeons #48 better (it had a magic item that allowed you to summon, and maybe control, the Tarrasque!) - but somehow the politics involved always seemed too small. Worse, it seemed almost impossible to transport most of what was here outside of a potential Council of Wyrms campaign; power-gamer that I was, not even I could seriously entertain the notion of playing a dragon PC in an otherwise standard game.

Of course, the same couldn't be said of half-dragons (which, to be fair, I also first read about in the "Part Dragon, All Hero" article in Dragon #206, and the fact that I remember all of those supporting articles in D&D's magazines is all the proof you need as to how much I liked the ideas herein, even if I would later find the presentation imperfect). I loved the idea of them, and apparently I wasn't the only one, since 3E's half-dragon template (which, unlike the 2E race, could be for any dragon type, not just those with a natural ability to take a humanoid form) quickly became ubiquitous to the point of being a meme. Personally, my favorite riff on the concept is in Casey Brown's LG BK Classics 2: Love Letter, where, while delivering the eponymous love letter for a horny red dragon suitor to a nearby green wyrm, you encounter some of his children, which are, wait for it...red half-dragon sheep!

But to bring things back around, this book was a great idea with fairly good execution...but only with regard to the mechanical level. In terms of a setting, they did the best they could, but the constraints of not taking what was here to their natural conclusion showed, and I can't help but find myself wishing that this re-release had pushed back against that, even if I understand why it didn't. In the end, this book deserves to be part of the "Option" series because it really is exactly what it says in the title: a campaign option, rather than a full campaign unto itself.

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The EN World kitten
The Magic Encyclopedia, volumes one and two, are fairly infamous...at least, among those who know of them at all.

That's really not saying much, as these are easily some of the most forgettable products from the entire AD&D 2nd Edition era. That's largely because the two-volume set, despite being titled as an encyclopedia, is anything but. While it includes a single-paragraph description and black-and-white illustration for each item category that it showcases, this is far and away more of an index than an encyclopedia, referring readers to various other D&D products that were made up through the end of 1991 (or 1992; the books disagree with themselves about that) for the magic items that they catalogue.

Given that, it's not hard to see why this particular pair of products is perpetually panned by plenty of players. After all, if you don't have sourcebook X, then being told to go consult it to find out more about a given magic item isn't very helpful. That's not even getting into just how badly these books have aged; nowadays, if I want to know more about a plumalitter, I can just type it into Google, which will direct me to the relevant wiki. Or even just buy the PDF of the Maztica Campaign Setting, where they appear in full.

The funny thing is, though, that this type of product wasn't always the sort of thing that made people wonder "what were they thinking?" Back before the advent of the World Wide Web, when role-playing was a niche hobby which was popularly regarded with fiery condemnation or complete bafflement, things of this sort were more common. For reference, see Dave Arneson's own Dungeonmaster's Index, which sought to do much the same thing as The Magic Encyclopedia, except for Original D&D.

Of course, that product, like this one, was published at exactly the wrong time. Just as the popularization of the Internet spelled the beginning of the end of paper indexes, the advent of AD&D made Dave's own index outdated even as it came out. But for TME, at least, there were a few saving graces. Namely, that it was more than "just" an index. There were actually a lot of brand new magic items here...albeit in very abbreviated form. While each type of item had a basic description (e.g. the entry for "Saber" overviewed what a saber was), with each listing - the name, XP value, gp value, and source - appearing under it, there were plenty of these that were tagged as being new items. It was just that virtually all of them were prosaic expansions of existing items, rather than anything truly new. So, for instance, you had "saber +1" (as opposed to a scimitar +1 or a sword +1) given here as an all-new item.

I'll admit that sounds crazy to me now, since from the 3E days onward we've treated magic item abilities as being mini-templates in their own right, able to be plopped onto almost anything that fits their basic function. A +1 weapon can be any weapon now, but it wasn't always like that; back in the day, things like a frost brand or a holy avenger were always assumed to be swords - and swords of particular types - for that matter; having them appear as something like a scimitar, let along an axe or a spear, was very much outside the norm. Hence all of these "new" magic items.

More notable was the inclusion of Chemcheaux - the world-spanning franchise of magic item shops - and its proprietor, Prismal the Outrageous.

Now, being that Prismal is a 35th-level wizard/35th-level priest, I can only assume that he's the personal character of Dale "Slade" Henson, who wrote these books. I take it as supporting evidence that several of the new items that we'd see in Encyclopedia Magica were attributed to him (e.g. "Holy Symbol, Prismal's" in volume two). As a young player, this fascinated me, because it seemed like there was a story there, and when I got my hands on volume one of this set, Prismal's personal history was indeed to be found here...but its casually referencing the world of Pangaea (no, not pre-historic Earth; rather, it's the world where Prismal's father was from, despite his Shou mother being from Kara-Tur in the Forgotten Realms) and its cities of Electropolis and Chamshaea, convinced me that there had to be more about these places than mere name-drops. After years of reading through various Spelljammer and Planescape products, however, I'm now certain that I was wrong on that front. As much as I was tantalized by the allure of another, little-known campaign world, there's virtually nothing else out there about these exotic-sounding locations.

More notable is that, Prismal is the owner of Chemcheaux ("KEM-show"), a set of magic item shops that serve two functions: each shop is solely responsible for the production of a single type of magic item (e.g. so to make up an example, Chemcheaux #47, located in Waterdeep, makes nothing but longswords +4), and each also has a teleportation pad that goes to the central hub, where they turn in orders from customers for particular item types, and receive the requested items from whichever Chemcheaux branches produce them. So if someone at Chemcheaux #47 wants a carpet of flying, the proprietor will send off the order, and receive one from Chemcheaux #314 over in the Free City of Greyhawk by way of the central hub.

And people think that 3E invented magic item shops.

The book doesn't even stop there, telling is how Prismal himself hangs out at Chemcheaux #223 in Ravens Bluff, which presents us with a map of the place, a history lesson about how the city - under pressure from local magic item shop owners who didn't want to be undercut by a big retail chain - forced that particular Chemcheaux to be a wholesaler only, and even a copy of the eleven-point charter relating to magic item sales in the city.

Now, this last point makes a lot more sense when you take into account that it was meant to outline the availability of magic items in the RPGA's Living City campaign. What I want to know is what changed, because there's a particular issue of Polyhedron (I can't remember the issue number, though I've tried; somewhere in the early triple digits, I think) where it outlines how the Chemcheaux #223 suddenly and inexplicably blew up one day, with Prismal missing in the aftermath. You can find mention of that in 1998's The City of Ravens Bluff.

So yeah, overall this product doesn't quite deserve the bad reputation that it gets, nor should it be consigned to the dustbin of history so easily (there's also game stats for a few of Prismal's associates here, one of his new spells, and the teleportation pad used to go between stores). Don't get me wrong, it's very much a dated relic now, but there's still reason to take notice of it beyond simple historical curiosity.

Even so, it will be near-totally upstaged by the next entry on our list...

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The Magic Encyclopedia WAS crap. It's just a glorified index, and that stuff about Prismal and his interplanar magic shops are more than just a little over the top for 2e. Outrageous is a pretty good epithet for him. The most notable thing about these two books was that they originally brought back the gp values for magic items.


The EN World kitten
The most notable thing about these two books was that they originally brought back the gp values for magic items.
Ah, I recalled that when I was re-reading those, and then forgot to mention it here. In truth, I've consulted the Encyclopedia Magica books so much (which also put gp values on their items) that I'd forgotten that they originally didn't have them until I read that!

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