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D&D 2E Looking back at the leatherette series: PHBR, DMGR, HR and more!

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Back in the days of AD&D 2nd Edition, there were several series of supplements that had a particularly distinctive trade dress to them. Wrapped in "leatherette" (which was the first time I'd ever heard of the term) of varying colors, these books focused on successive areas of their overall theme, be it PC races or classes, Dungeon Mastering, game-ifying areas of real-world history, and various other topics. While these wouldn't be the only books to get the leatherette treatment (the Encyclopedia Magica series would get the same cover treatment, even if the overall style wasn't the same), they were iconic in their look, to the point where, years later, Mongoose Publishing would try to invoke their appearance for their Quintessential line of supplements.

While far from the first supplements for D&D, in my mind these were the products that really came to represent "splatbooks." That's purely a judgment call on my part, and not an all an indictment of these books: I loved them so much that I went out of my way to track them all down, one by one, even long after my days of playing AD&D 2E came to an end. It's just that these were the first time D&D had gotten non-adventure, non-bestiary rules-focused supplements in what would be a self-evident multipart series of releases. Of course, we'd see more of these very soon, with things like the WGR series and the FOR series. But the leatherette books got there first!

(And by "first," I mean "almost sorta kinda first" since they were in fact preceded by the Gazetteer series for the Basic D&D's Known World, the FR series for the Forgotten Realms, and even the short-lived LC series of products for the Living City, the Forgotten Realms-based setting for the RPGA's organized play campaign.)

So, taking some inspiration from Goonalan's massive reading of Forgotten Realms novels, I wanted to start a look-back thread at the leatherette books. This won't be a "let's read" thread, nor will it be any sort of deep dive into their history or their rules. It's just me waxing nostalgia about the various books, since I'm fortunate enough to have physical copies of them all (and really just want an excuse to pull them off my shelf and flip through them again). I look forward to everyone else sharing their own takes and memories on these books.

For a quick overview, the leatherette series are as follows:

Player's Handbook Reference series
  1. PHBR1 The Complete Fighter’s Handbook
  2. PHBR2 The Complete Thief’s Handbook
  3. PHBR3 The Complete Priest’s Handbook
  4. PHBR4 The Complete Wizard’s Handbook
  5. PHBR5 The Complete Psionics Handbook
  6. PHBR6 The Complete Book of Dwarves
  7. PHBR7 The Complete Bard’s Handbook
  8. PHBR8 The Complete Book of Elves
  9. PHBR9 The Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings
  10. PHBR10 The Complete Book of Humanoids
  11. PHBR11 The Complete Ranger’s Handbook
  12. PHBR12 The Complete Paladin’s Handbook
  13. PHBR13 The Complete Druid’s Handbook
  14. PHBR14 The Complete Barbarian’s Handbook
  15. PHBR15 The Complete Ninja’s Handbook
Dungeon Master's Guide Reference series
  1. DMGR1 Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide
  2. DMGR2 The Castle Guide
  3. DMGR3 Arms and Equipment Guide
  4. DMGR4 Monster Mythology
  5. DMGR5 Creative Campaigning
  6. DMGR6 The Complete Book of Villains
  7. DMGR7 The Complete Book of Necromancers
  8. DMGR8 Sages & Specialists
  9. DMGR9 Of Ships and the Sea
Historical Reference series
  1. HR1 Vikings Campaign Sourcebook
  2. HR2 Charlemagne’s Paladins Campaign Sourcebook
  3. HR3 Celts Campaign Sourcebook
  4. HR4 A Mighty Fortress Campaign Sourcebook
  5. HR5 The Glory of Rome Campaign Sourcebook
  6. HR6 Age of Heroes Campaign Sourcebook
  7. HR7 The Crusades Campaign Sourcebook
Campaign Guide Reference series
  1. CGR1 The Complete Spacefarer's Handbook
  2. CGR2 The Complete Gladiator's Handbook
  3. CGR3 The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook
Player's Guide series
  1. PG1 Player's Guide to the Dragonlance Campaign
  2. PG2 Player's Guide to the Forgotten Realms Campaign
Miscellaneous
  1. FOR9 Wizards and Rogues of the Realms
  2. FOR10 Warriors and Priests of the Realms
  3. FOR12 Demihumans of the Realms
I'll go over each of these in order, albeit in no particular time-frame. Each subsequent post will be linked back here for ease of reference. So with all of that said, let's start the nostalgia-trip!

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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The first book in the series, as well as the largest expansion to non-magical combat that we'd see until Player's Option - Combat & Tactics came along, PHBR1 The Complete Fighter’s Handbook was supplement that I borrowed long before I owned a copy.

I distinctly recall being pleased by what could be done with the fighter specializations found herein. I’d been reading some of the earlier Drizzt Do’Urden books, and recalled a passage where Artemis Entreri (fighting a few other drow) “marveled at how they could fight with two weapons of equal length.” Given that I was a rules lawyer even then, I was quite happy to note that this book made that possible if you put a weapon proficiency slot toward Ambidexterity and specialized (something this book made possible) in the two-weapon fighting style.

Kits, however, left me somewhat cold. My eyes quickly learned to shift immediately toward the end of each listing, where it outlined what mechanical benefits you gained and what drawbacks you had to accept in exchange for them. I also quickly learned to glance at the proficiencies section (both which ones you had to take in order to use the kit, and which ones it gave you for free), but the rest of it was quite secondary to my mind, and not just in terms of skills…that’s a pun, y’all (since each kit has a “Secondary Skills” section, in case you used those instead of proficiencies; both were technically optional under the AD&D 2E rules, but the former were quickly forgotten by almost everyone, while the latter kept inching their way closer to being mandatory parts of the game).

I actually did make an effort to learn this book’s “punching, wrestling, and martial arts” maneuvers, absolutely none of which has stayed in my mind through to now. I can only assume I did this because my younger self saw “martial arts” and immediately dove in. As it stands, this was nothing like the wuxia-flavored fighters, ninjas, or monks that we’d see later (or, for that matter, in AD&D 1E). Even so, I eagerly lapped it up.

The same couldn’t be said for things like the hit location rules or the outline for tournaments. The former struck me as too cumbersome even then, and the latter just seemed boring. Why would my fighter be winning a jousting tournament instead of exploring ancient tombs and battling goblin hordes? The sections on crafting your own armor and weapons were a little more interesting, in that they had a practical use, but were so downtime-heavy that I just figured I’d buy what I needed. It wasn’t like these were rules for enchanting them or anything. Speaking of which, I appreciated the new weapons and armor quite a bit; more variety with the tools of the trade was always a good thing.

Overall, it was good stuff.

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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Wasn't Pirates of the Fallen Stars one of these books (FR themed?)

Anyway, I still have a bunch of these (I loved kits and the "fluff"), but the power-creep was real and books like the Complete Book of Elves were not remotely balanced with the class books or even the earlier race books.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Wasn't Pirates of the Fallen Stars one of these books (FR themed?)
While several of the FOR books had covers with stylized designs, titles like FOR3 Pirates of the Fallen Stars or FOR5 Elves of Evermeet weren't quite the same as the leatherette books. Why they chose to have some of the last few books in the line make a stylistic jump to the same trade dress (and even color) as the PHBR books is beyond me.

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 



Even though the some of the kits were terribly balanced, the series still gives me warm fuzzies. If I had to pick favorites, it'd be the Thief's, Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, and Arms & Equipment Guide. The Thief's because it actually made low level rogues decent at a few things, something they sorely needed. The Campaign Sourcebook was some of the earliest codified official DMing advice that made sense and moved beyond the antagonistic early relationship. And the Arms & Equipment guide because I have a love of gear books when they add flavor text (See also Shadowrun's original Street Samurai Catalog).

And also:

 

Voadam

Legend
I felt the style specializations of Complete Fighter were the best part, a lot more flavorful than a straight bonus to hit, damage, and better attack rate. Weapon group proficiency I also remember as an improvement over individual ones. AD&D out of the PH had different proficiencies for one-handed longsword and one-handed broadsword for instance.

The kits were very hit or miss, the amazon in particular with men underestimating them as their power was particularly disappointing.

I built my eponymous viking wizard shortly after this came out using the myrmidon elite merc kit that gave you survival NWP and I think a free weapon specialization.
 


Voadam

Legend
I distinctly recall being pleased by what could be done with the fighter specializations found herein. I’d been reading some of the earlier Drizzt Do’Urden books, and recalled a passage where Artemis Entreri (fighting a few other drow) “marveled at how they could fight with two weapons of equal length.” Given that I was a rules lawyer even then, I was quite happy to note that this book made that possible if you put a weapon proficiency slot toward Ambidexterity and specialized (something this book made possible) in the two-weapon fighting style.
The drow two weapon fighting was a 1e drow racial thing mentioned in the drow monster entries in modules, the Fiend Folio, and the 1e Unearthed Arcana when you could play them as an official player race.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The drow two weapon fighting was a 1e drow racial thing mentioned in the drow monster entries in modules, the Fiend Folio, and the 1e Unearthed Arcana when you could play them as an official player race.
I have a vague memory of stumbling onto that much later. I got my start with BECMI-era Basic D&D, and then made the jump to AD&D Second Edition; it took quite a few years before I went back and started collecting AD&D 1E products.
 

Voadam

Legend
The surprising part of Drizzt was the scimitars, normally the drow used daggers, light maces, and short swords.

From UA:
Dark elves do not gain the combat bonuses of the surface elves with regard to sword and bow, but may fight with two weapons without penalty, provided each weapon may be easily wielded in one hand. They cannot use a shield when performing this type of combat, but may use a spiked buckler as one of their two weapons.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Probably the worst of those books was the Humanoid book, followed by the Gnome & Halfling book. The humanoid book suffered from "we don't really want you to play these races, but if you do, we'll make you miserable you did". The Gnome & Halfling book, was entirely uninspired - it had to be made, but the authors didn't know what to do with these races.

Complete Bard and Wizard were my favorite. Always loved the Blade, and my longest-running character was a Witch kit.
 

pukunui

Legend
I loved these books (and their thematic covers) as well! I still have most of my copies. I’ve got most of the PHBR series, some of the DMGR series, the Gladiator book (which is Dark Sun themed), and the FR Player’s Guide.

I used to have the Celts historical campaign book, but I’m not sure what happened to it.

I think my favorite was probably the Complete Book of Dwarves. I probably spent hours making dwarf characters using the random tables (like the dwarf name generators).

I can remember playing a blade bard! 5e’s College of Swords does a pretty good job recreating it.
 

The "green book" Historical Reference series are favorites of mine.

I always loved D&D played in a pseudo-historical setting. I've long been sad that WotC has stepped more and more away from that over the years. AD&D 1e and 2e always seemed to be "Medieval Europe with Tolkien influences and magic and monsters added", which seems about the right default tone for D&D to me. 3e went into Dungeonpunk and pseudo-historical games and the idea that D&D had any roots in historic settings and culture showed up in some early 3e era Dragon articles, but faded quickly. I ran so many games set in the Roman Empire, or during the Crusades, or among Vikings with those books.

The brown splatbooks were very hit-or-miss. The Complete Book of Elves was cool, but full of broken, cheesy stuff. The Complete Priest's Handbook was pretty much a waste, it was more a DM's guide on creating religions and priesthoods for games with very little for players or DM's who were using an established setting.

I remember Complete Ninja's Handbook being the closest we really got to a 2nd Edition version of Oriental Adventures.

The Dark Blue/Grey covered DM's handbooks were good. Sage and Specialists basically introduced the first implementation of the NPC class concept that would be a core part of 3e. The Castle Guide was a great book, and was definitely also rooted in the idea of D&D as pseudo-historic gaming, as it was basically how to implement historically accurate castles into a D&D game and the society that would function around such a castle.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
The Gnome & Halfling book, was entirely uninspired - it had to be made, but the authors didn't know what to do with these races.

Just goes to show mileage varies. The Gnome and Halfling book is one of my faves and I even recommended a current 5E player in my group playing a gnome read some of it for flavor.

I don't remember much about the humanoid book, but the one I remember being the worst was the Priest's book.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I'd figure I'd stick with my usual schtick here on ENWorld and share a pic of the ones I still have (a couple are missing - not sure if I sold or gave them away) 🤷‍♂️

splatbooks-2e.jpg
 

Just goes to show mileage varies. The Gnome and Halfling book is one of my faves and I even recommended a current 5E player in my group playing a gnome read some of it for flavor.

I don't remember much about the humanoid book, but the one I remember being the worst was the Priest's book.
Did you read the complete munchkin manual called "Complete Book of Elves"? The author apologised for it years later!
 


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