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


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Orius

Adventurer
I never even bothered with Crusades. It's pretty much full blown High Middle Ages, which is very close to the standard psuedo-medieval setting D&D gets shoehorned into. My interest in the HR series were the more unusual settings, and I certainly didn't think I'd find anything useful here. Even throwing in Middle Eastern aspects, that's ground that's hardly been ignored by D&D in the past, and I do have the Arabian Adventures book as well.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Having finished the Historical Reference series, it's with great glee that I turn my attention over to a book whose gonzo zaniness is the polar opposite of those staid sourcebooks: CGR1 The Complete Spacefarer's Handbook.

You can probably already tell this is going to be one of those overviews where I gush a lot. :D

I picked this book up fairly early in my D&D career, as it was part of my frantic attempts to get all things Spelljammer. While I managed to nab quite a few of the modules and sourcebooks (I recall being quite enthralled with SJA4 Under the Dark Fist, wishing that it had been a boxed set rather than The Astromundi Cluster), it would take me years to eventually get a copy of the actual Spelljammer: Adventures in Space boxed set. Fortunately, CGR1 seemed like the next best thing.

The reason it does is because this book presents a hodgepodge of Spelljammer material, something which sits oddly next to the other books in the Campaign Guide Reference series. While only three supplements long, both subsequent volumes focus in on a character class specific to those campaigns, something which Spelljammer doesn't have. As such, it instead goes for numerous bits and pieces, almost as though what's here was meant to be in the Adventures in Space boxed set, but got cut for, well, space. There's nothing to suggest that's actually the case, but it's the impression that I've long had (even if the War Captain's Companion is probably a more proper "expansion set" to the campaign setting...though the obvious lack of coordination between the non-weapon proficiencies in that boxed set and this book still makes me frown).

So what's in this book that I love it so much? Well for one thing, Spelljammer has always been the original "D&D crossover" setting, with a mishmash of elements from its various campaign worlds. I love that, because it provides a built-in excuse for mixing and matching various sourcebooks and supplements. Naturally, the fact that this book's opening chapter talks about how the "groundling" characters from Krynn, Oerth, and Toril view wildspace - and how various unusual PC races such as kender, minotaurs, and hengeyokai take to spelljamming - hooked me from the get-go. Plus, is this the only direct acknowledgment we'd get regarding Ravenloft and Spelljammer! ...even if it wasn't very much. (There was also some about Dark Sun and Spelljammer, but it demurred on saying why there were no spelljammers in or around Athas; I preferred the more definitive statement presented in Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas.)

There's also the fact that this book then turns right around and provides PC racial stats for a whole bunch of the wackier creatures that made the setting so out of this world! (And yes, that pun was obligatory.) Giff PCs! Hadozee PCs! Scro PCs! It's great! Who doesn't want to play a dragon-centaur, a gorilla with flying squirrel-esque membranes, or an eight-foot tall hippo-man? Spelljammer was crazy fun with an emphasis on crazy, and this was before I knew about the giant space hamsters! It's like all Boo without the Minsc!

It's just too bad we never got that Wildspace TV show:


The kits in the book left me a little cold, mostly for how generic the bulk of them were. I mean, an evangelist priest kit? Is that really any more or less appropriate for a spelljamming priest than a terrestrial one? An Imposter wizard kit who's really good as using illusions to disguise himself? Again, it's not a bad idea, but it's not really Spelljammer in what it presents. I think the only one that made an impression on me was the Aperusa kit, if only because that seemed like it was splicing an odd line between a race and a culture; for those who don't know, the Aperusa are essentially the Vistani in space (albeit presented as less mystical and more whimsical), and were also present in MC9 Monstrous Compendium Spelljammer Appendix II.

What captivated me far more was the chapter on the spacefaring organizations found throughout the spheres. The priestly ones in particular, as there were several which flat-out stated that their adherents regained spells in every known sphere! I'd find out later that wasn't really such a big deal, since even if your god wasn't worshiped in a sphere you can still regain spells of up to 2nd level, and contact home power lets you make a channel to your god from any sphere anyway, regaining your full complement of spells (and detect powers lets you determine if your god, or any potentially friendly gods who might lend you power on your god's behalf, were worshiped in that sphere; also level 2).

Even so, I found the explanations behind these religious organizations fascinating for what they suggested about the metaphysics of the AD&D multiverse. The Celestians worship the Greyhawk deity of the same name, and are unsure if they're able to regain spells everywhere because space is their deity's area of control or if it's because he dwells in the Astral Plane (which is "closer" to the Prime Material Plane than the Outer Planes are). The Temple of Ptah hold that their Pharaonic deity is the creator of the universe (not a mere artisan like it says in Legends & Lore) and that's why he can grant spells everywhere; detractors say his spacefaring clergy has been around so long that they've just set up temples in every sphere, is all.

Imagine one of these guys adventuring on Krynn. Yeah, I know a lot of people consider that to break the tone of the settings, but I love it!

Also, a big shout-out to priest icons in the equipment section. There's no way to regain divine spells above 2nd level while you're in the Phlogiston, regardless of what order you belong to. But with an icon, you can bank higher-level spells ahead of time! There are different icons, and even the strongest can't store spells above 5th level (remember, back in AD&D, divine spells only went up to 7th level, quest spells notwithstanding), but I love that someone thought of this to begin with. Resource management at its finest.

I also got a kick out of the chapter that discussed the various changes to magic in wildspace/the Phlogiston. Much like with Ravenloft, the way magic worked differently was extremely evocative, and helped set the tone for the setting. Of course, the spells listed here weren't from the PHB, since that was covered in the campaign setting. Instead, we got a list compiled from the sourcebooks for Dragonlance, Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, the The Tome of Magic, Arabian Adventures, Oriental Adventures, and even PHBR4 The Complete Wizard's Handbook. Talk about having your bases covered!

Now, people who've read this book cover to cover will note that I've overlooked or skimped on several sections, such as the coverage for personality types or spacefaring logistics. Those parts of the book simply didn't capture me, and for the most part still don't know. I will note, however, that it wasn't until I sat down to re-read this that I noted that the section on constructing forts in space was meant to be used with DMGR2 The Castle Guide; interesting tidbit, there.

Finally, let me just say that the cover of this particular book (and the next one) is described on the DriveThruRPG sales page as being black. I'd always thought it was a really, really dark blue. Like, way more so than the DMGR supplements. Can anyone confirm, or am I completely out to lunch on that?

Also, I'm still of two minds about the boxed quotes along the bottom of most of the pages. On the one hand, they help set the tone of the setting (and a few of them aren't quotes at all, but rather provide some supplementary game rules). On the other hand, I kind of wonder if they were meant to pad out the page count, since the amount of space they take up has got to be worth at least a few pages between them.

So yeah, this book was good stuff then, and remains so now. Like so many Spelljammer supplements, it really does a great job pushing the feel of the setting, and it its lovably loony lists of options still puts a smile on my face to this day.

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 



Orius

Adventurer
This one is completely unfamiliar to me. Spelljammer stuff was all out of print when I started getting into the game. I knew of the setting of course, and I thought it would be cool, but there was never anything available for it.
 

AuldDragon

Explorer
Speaking of the Greek gods, I have to give this book major props: it actually introduces a new god. I don't mean in a brief overview the way HR5 did (though it does do that for the rest of the pantheon), but it actually presents a new, full-page write-up in the style of L&L for Asclepius, god of healing. That has to mean this guy is in the Great Wheel cosmology, right? Here's hoping @AuldDragon remembers to cover Asclepius after finishing with the monstrous deities!

A keen observer may note he has been mentioned in a couple of the deities I've written up so far (namely Kheiron and Naralis); I definitely haven't forgotten him. :D

Jeff
 

delericho

Legend
I've been away, and missed a few of these...

Rome, Greece, and the Crusades are the three HR books I own. I never made much use of them, but they were all pretty decent, IMO. (They actually saw more use in a long-running Vampire campaign I ran, which stretched right from Rome to the 22nd century - the same campaign that provided the origin of my username.)

But Spacefarer's was awesome.
 

RFB Dan

Podcast host, 6-edition DM, and guy with a pulse.
Great books! The racial books & Humanoids were great for coming up with good RP concepts for characters. And the DMGR series I still use for ideas, even for latter editions.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
More than once over this series of retrospectives, I've played the "I was remembering this wrong" card. But heading into CGR2 The Complete Gladiator's Handbook, I found myself in a new situation: I had no memory of what was in this sourcebook at all.

Given that this was one I knew I'd picked up and read this one quite some time ago, that wasn't a good sign going back to it now.

Of course, I was well aware that this was "the fighter book" for Dark Sun. While it might be focused on the gladiator class, even without recalling its specific contents it was easy enough to figure out that - as a martial class - the sourcebook would have to have a lot of content that other martial characters could make use of as well. Moreover, as this book's sales page notes, there were several Dark Sun sourcebooks that were unusually clear in demarcating what class group they were for (even if quite a few of them came out after CGR2). For instance, DSS2 Earth, Air, Fire, and Water was the priest book, covering (para-)elemental clerics, druids, and templars. The Will and the Way covered psionicists. Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas was about...well, you can tell. Even Dragon Kings, despite its name, was a book for all characters of high level. DSR2 Dune Trader was basically one big introductory sourcebook for its new trader class (which was eventually migrated over to the Dark Sun Campaign Setting (Revised and Expanded Edition), and even had some unofficial expansion in Gygax Magazine #5). Even Psionic Artifacts of Athas had a clearly-delineated role, as it was the "magic item book" for the campaign setting in all but name.

Of course, the trader class notwithstanding, this left Athas's bards and rogues out in the cold. But that's a sacrifice I feel comfortable with them making.

So what's actually in this book? Honestly, exactly what you'd expect...and that's kind of the problem.

My issue with the gladiator class is that it doesn't do a very good job of differentiating itself from the mainline fighter class. It tries to do so, both with a stricter narrative definition (an arena fighter) and a tighter mechanical focus (improved usage of weapons, unarmed combat, and armor), but I'm dubious about how well it succeeds. Even then, that's largely because the class is unabashedly "the fighter, but better," as evidenced by its higher ability score prerequisites.

This leads to one of my earliest complaints about this book, which is that it doesn't reprint the basic gladiator class information from the Dark Sun campaign setting. Now, I feel like a huge hypocrite saying that, but hear me out: the PHBR books were focused on expanding classes from the Player's Handbook (and those that weren't, such as The Complete Barbarian's Handbook or The Complete Ninja's Handbook, had their class information right there anyway), which was the book you knew would be right there anyway, making reference a minor issue at best. You could say that's true for the Dark Sun campaign setting as well, since where else would you use CGR2 if not a Dark Sun game, but that doesn't seem the same; most of the time, you're not going to be flipping through the booklets in the boxed set the way you would the PHB.

But I digress. We start off which a bunch of kits which are okay, but nothing too spectacular. I mean, several of them have interesting abilities (e.g. how the Blind Fighter kit is generous with overcoming the penalties for not being able to see, or the Jazst's ability to kill via numerous small cuts), but overall there's only so many ways you can create niche themes in what's already a niche-themed class. I did like how the kits had "special notes" at the end with various tidbits (even if they were sometimes head-scratchers; female gladiators with the Arena Champion kit sometimes receive special accolades from the fans...what does that mean, exactly?). More notable was the quick overview of NPCs with each kit at the end. While lacking even abbreviated stats, the small-scale nature of Dark Sun meant that these names and descriptions were a good way to generate some quick NPCs on the fly.

The gladiator abilities chapter is short, and doesn't really expand on the gladiator class's abilities all that much, which isn't surprising. Instead, it mostly focuses on new non-weapon profiencies, which are presumably part of the Warrior NWP group. Unlike a lot of splatbooks, there aren't a lot of these here, which is probably why this entire chapter is only four pages long.

The subsequent chapter is where it starts to get interesting, because it's basically the original Player's Option: Combat & Tactics. It introduces a not-inconsiderable expansion to the combat rules, along with new weapons, new armor, and more, including gladiator-specific expansions to the martial arts rules from PHBR1 The Complete Fighter's Handbook, which makes me wonder how well they sit next to the tweaks and revisions from PHBR15 The Complete Ninja's Handbook. It's fairly modular, and I suspect that using the bleeding rules or hit locations would do a lot to play up the brutality involved in a Dark Sun game.

It's after this, however, that the book rapidly lost me. I don't mind lore, but a section on the arenas of each city-state was enough to make my eyes glaze over. I've always found this sort of information to be more fun when taken piecemeal, like if I was trying to find all of the information I could about Draj, then the section on Draj's arena would be useful. But reading about all seven back-to-back was just enervating.

There are rules for actual arena games - as well as discussions of the practices, norms, and conventions surrounding those games as well (e.g. gambling) - but to me that misses the point. Way back when I was overviewing The Complete Fighter's Handbook, I mentioned how playing tournaments always struck me as boring compared to adventuring; the same principle applies here. Yes, a gladiatorial death match against killers and monsters, with an angry crowd watching (all of whom have some sort of psionic power) isn't your usual jousting match, but it's also not the same as defeating a group of raiders attacking a settlement or thwarting a sorcerer-king plot, either. As such, it should be no surprise that the chapters on gladiatorial campaigns and various arena games just didn't do it for me.

Overall, this book comes across as doing the best it can with what it has to work with, but in the course of doing so is forced to tacitly admit to what strikes me as a cardinal sin of class design: it works best when it's the center of the campaign. Playing up the idea of having the gladiator fight as a method of public entertainment is one thing, but with roughly half the book talking about running gladiatorial sessions (or associated activities), tournaments thereof, and even entire campaigns around that theme, it seems all too easy for such a setup to overshadow characters playing other classes (unless they're gladiators without the gladiator class, which might work, but gladiator characters have some decent niche protection in that regard).

And for that matter, does anyone else think that's kind of a waste of Dark Sun as a setting? Rikus and Neeva were both gladiators, but they stopped participating in performance combat early on in the Prism Pentad, moving on to bigger and grander adventures. I suspect most PCs will feel the same way early into a gladiatorial campaign.

This book's new rules are okay, but looking back on it now, it's easy to see why it slipped my mind so easily: it's putting a lot of attention on a campaign framework that I found markedly uninteresting.

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cbwjm

Hero
I can't recall if I've read the Gladiator's handbook, I do recall thinking that the gladiator was just a better fighter. Looking back at them both, the gladiator was proficient in every weapon, could specialise as often as they had weapon proficiencies, has bonuses with unarmed combat (which admittedly were kind of janky in 2e), and gained bonuses to AC while wearing armour. The fighter was able to teach weapon proficiencies (over and above the regular amount), operate siege equipment, was better at building defences, and was slightly better at being a warlord. Most of the fighters abilities really amounted to the old transition from single adventuring party to lord of a domain.
 


Orius

Adventurer
Never played Dark Sun, so didn't touch this. Not even sure if it was still in print when I was building my library TBH.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Just about a week ago, I was pulling out my Dark Sun stuff when I came across the Gladiator's handbook and was, "I forgot this existed." My second thought was I wondered if it'd be covered here. Glad to see it was, but I think why I don't remember it was it was overall so inferior to Combat & Tactics at the time.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
While it seems obvious in hindsight, I'm not sure just how much I realized that the Campaign Guide Reference books are supposed to be campaign-specific iterations of the Player's Handbook Reference series.

The major parallel is that these books - or at least the latter two - are focused on a particular class, just like the PHBRs are. Except in this case it's a class specific to that campaign setting, which unlike the broad classes in the PHB, are narrow enough that they need to expand their focus beyond the class and flesh out parts of the campaign world itself in order to flesh out the book (with CGR1 doing nothing but that, since Spelljammer has no class to focus on). In that regard, the CGRs are most similar to The Complete Barbarian's Handbook and The Complete Ninja's Handbook.

That's really the main thing I came away with, after settling down to re-read CGR3 The Complete Sha'ir's Handbook.

That and this book has a white cover, the second-rarest among the leatherette books (since the next two are white also, compared to the super-dark blue covers, which are only found among the previous two).

I picked this book up quite some time ago, long before I bought either Arabian Adventures or Land of Fate, the former being the rules book for the Al-Qadim setting (including the basic rules for the sha'ir class) and the latter presenting the flavor text and campaign overview of the setting itself. (Similar to how, in 1E, Oriental Adventures was rules-focused while Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms gave us the eponymous setting.)

I mention that because, the same way CGR2 didn't overview the basic information for gladiators, this one has the same lack of basic information on the sha'ir (i.e. their THAC0 progression, saving throw progression, experience tables, etc.). As with the gladiator, I find that to be a missed opportunity to make this book into a one-stop resource if you want to play a sha'ir character, especially since Zakhara, Al-Qadim's geographic region, is part of the Forgotten Realms. That makes it much easier to use what's here if you're playing a mainstream FR game, or a game set in Kara-Tur, or in Maztica. Heck, or even on another plane; Toril is nowhere near as isolated as Athas, after all.

Of course, that lack of information about the sha'ir is basically emblematic of the entire book...

Now, that may sound like an uncharitable statement, but if it is, it's because I regard this supplement with more than a little frustration. The sha'ir class is one that eschews virtually all of the traditional wizard weaknesses in AD&D 2E. There's no limit on how many spells you can cast per day, no hard limits on what level of spell you can cast, and no maximum number of spells known (side note: while the AD&D 2E PHB had you being able to learn any number of spells once your Intelligence hit 19, this was rolled back - albeit as an optional rule - in the Wizard's Spell Compendium). It sounded like a dream come true for a budding young powergamer! Of course, at the time I didn't quite realize that the sha'ir balanced this by introducing a lot of other weaknesses, like how long it took your gen (i.e. elemental genie familiar) to fetch each spell you wanted, or how you could only hold one spell that had been so retrieved at a time, etc.

The reason I didn't know that, of course, was because this book wasn't really about the sha'ir class much at all. Instead, it was more of a generic arcane spellcaster sourcebook for the Al-Qadim setting, more similar to Birthright's The Book of Magecraft or Dark Sun's Defilers and Preservers: The Wizards of Athas than The Complete Wizard's Handbook. Needless to say, I was quite irked when I found that out.

I can only presume that I either received this as a gift, or bought it sight-unseen, however, because a quick glance at the table of contents would have made that obvious. The book only has four chapters: the first one overviews the basic sha'ir, but also elemental mages and Zakharan sorcerers. The second presents a whole bunch of wizards kits, which - spoiler alert - are the best part of the book due to how wildly different they are. The third chapter is an overview of wizardly organizations in Zakhara. The final chapter is a modest collection of new spells. So in other words, the sha'ir-specific information is roughly one-third of one-fourth of this book.

To this day, I still can't get over this, simply because it seems to leave so much potential on the cutting room floor. Insofar as the sha'ir class goes, half of what we get here is about the various restrictions on how much a sha'ir's gen can be put to use. The text goes on for quite a bit about how they need to be given time off, must be paid for their work, told that they're doing a good job, etc. I'm already seeing a D&D version of Office Space in the making here, where the various gens hate the wizards they're working for (especially if one of them is a mage named Lumbergh). Though that might be pretty funny...

space office GIF


...yeah, maybe not.

You can give your gen various permanent upgrades based on various rituals that are here, but these are difficult to pull off (e.g. various factors go into a percentage chance, which unless you're already high level are going to only have small chances of success) and the penalties for failure are...not inconsiderable. I suspect that this is something used more for NPCs than PCs, since then the GM can just rule that the sha'ir in question succeeded at some point in the past, off-camera.

And guess what? That's really it, insofar as the new sha'ir options go. I mean, we get some stuff about free gens, genie prisons, etc. but for the most part there's not much else here specific to the class. The stuff about Zakharan sorcerers (who can use two elements, and don't believe in "opposed" elements) and elemental wizards takes up the rest of the chapter. It's not uninteresting, but it's not exactly what I signed on for.

Neither are the new kits, and I feel bad saying that because as I noted previously, these are the best part of the book. Almost all of them are a departure from the standard D&D wizard in terms of how their magic works, sometimes wildly so. The Ghul Lord kit can only cast a few necromantic spells (since they have to be spells that are only of the necromancy school), along with several other serious drawbacks, but receive a bunch of negative energy powers to offset that. The Mystic of Nog permanently gives up spell slots in order to gain (likewise permanent) increases to their ability scores, or other permanent powers. The Clockwork Mage (also called the Mechanician) essentially introduces an entirely new sub-system for creating their clockwork companion, which casts their spells for them. Between things like the sorcerers and the sha'irs, this really makes Al-Qadim look like the setting where arcane spellcasters were at their most avant-garde.

I really couldn't get excited about the various societies presented here, unfortunately. Part of it was that these were firmly grounded in Zakhara to one degree or another, and I went into this (both when I originally read it and now) with an eye toward cherry-picking for cross-campaign shenanigans. As it is, I find it only a little ironic that the discussion of sha'irs in wildspace was limited to CGR1 (where it didn't really talk about how gens are restricted from retrieving spells in the Phlogiston, though it strongly implied it; Dragon magazine's "Sage Advice" column would later say that gens could get spells there anyway, in a clear sop to preserving the class's playability).

The handful of new spells at the end are okay, but there's nothing too iconic here. More notable is the expanded list of what spells are appropriate for an Al-Qadim campaign, expanding on what's in Arabian Adventures.

Overall, this isn't a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, but it's one that drives home how the CGRs are - like their abbreviation implies - about their respective campaign settings first, and the new classes introduced therein second. Again, that's no real surprise since the first book in this short series has no new class at all, but I still thought that this book would have more meat on its bones when it came to the sha'ir.

If PHBR15 can present us with two different ways to reskin the ninja class - one of which has kits to add mechanical support - why can't this book give us sha'irs by another name, who have imps instead of gens and bind devils instead of genies? Or pixies for familiars and bind fairies? You could keep the basic concept and swap out the specific creature types with comparatively little difficulty, I would think. For a book that seems to go broadly afield in what wizards can do, it's surprisingly tame when it comes to reskinning the class whose name is in the title.

On the other hand, if you're looking for a generic sourcebook about arcane spellcasters in Zakhara, this is a pretty good resource. Or heck, if you just want to introduce some truly weird wizards, regardless of where you set them; most of these kits change things up considerably. As far as send-offs go, this isn't a bad one for the short-lived CGRs, but it could have been better.

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Voadam

Legend
I agree with you, the shai'ir and gladiator books should have spent a few pages to present the complete titular class on its own and provide readers an option for them outside of their settings even if the books were mostly about the class in the setting and associated thematics. If I was playing a Sha'ir in Al-Qadim I would prefer to be able to just bring this book to the table and not this plus the main one.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The first of the short-lived Player's Guide series, PG1 Player's Guide to the Dragonlance Campaign was a book I had mixed feelings about back when I first read it.

I'm given to understand that a lot of people find Dragonlance to be a world that's easier to read about than play in. The vivid personalities of the established characters, and the cohesive chronology their adventures present, give the impression (correct or not) that there isn't much room for original PCs to tell their own stories. But for me, it was kind of a non-starter from the beginning; I knew that Dragonlance had a campaign setting boxed set - it was practically a requirement that every campaign world had one, back in the days of AD&D 2E - but I couldn't for the life of me find a copy of Tales of the Lance anywhere.

Worse, the original adventures of the War of the Lance were all 1st Edition products, and back then I wasn't interested in an edition that was "obsolete" (a way of thinking I've since abandoned; ah, the follies of youth), not realizing that the Dragonlance Classics had been reprinted for 2nd Edition, since back then we didn't have things like the TSR Archive where we could look product lines up (or even an Internet connection, for that matter).

What I was able to find at my local hobby shop was a series of products that really didn't feel like Dragonlance to me. I mean, Time of the Dragon was set on another continent where the conventions of the novels were eschewed. DLS1 New Beginnings was apparently one of several adventures set on that same continent. DLR1 Otherlands went even further afield. In hindsight, it was obvious that these were trying to open up space for adventuring on Krynn, but they went too far in the opposite direction. By moving outside of virtually everything familiar, they negated the draw of giving those and other products the Dragonlance label in the first place.

Now obviously, that's a hard needle to thread - products that tread too close to the novels feel stifling, and those that move too far away feel like they're not Dragonlance at all - and I confess I'm not entirely sure how to square that particular circle. In that regard, PG1 is probably one of the better attempts to bring the fiction to the game world together, being a mixture of an original story and also an overview of the campaign world, all without game stats.

Even so, re-reading this now, the best word I can think of to describe this sourcebook is "clumsy."

Let's start with the framing fiction. After openly admitting that its main character, Abbra - a Kagonesti (i.e. wild elf) who wants to learn magic, presumably so she can evolve into a Kadabra - is unfamiliar with the wider world, and so serves as the reader's proxy, we launch into her story. It's nothing particularly special; Abbra is a bright young girl whose master, a Silvanesti (i.e. one of the most stuck-up high elves) is indulging her magical pursuits largely as a lark while he grooms her to be his servant/concubine, leading to her abandoning him and taking up with some new friends as she tries to find the Tower of High Sorcery to take the Test and become a fully-fledged mage.

Now, you'd think that Abbra's adventures would serve as the framing fiction for the various parts of the book. And it sort of does, but not very well. Abbra's story takes up twenty-five pages (roughly a fifth of the total page-count), and is broken up into four sections. Despite being interspersed between the overviews of the various countries and regions, the fiction doesn't really try to cover them. You'd think that the story would try to invent excuses for the heroes to wander through various locales, describing them from an in-character perspective - leading into the out-of-character presentations that make up most of the book - but that's not the case here.

Instead, the story feels almost like an unrelated piece of fiction that was broken up into chunks and dispersed almost randomly throughout the book. It's not a bad tale, though it's not what I would call gripping, but neither the story itself nor its presentation do much to abet the reader's understanding of how things work on Krynn, besides tidbits like "gnome devices are always unreliable contraptions" and "kender are kleptomaniacs, but they mean well."

The rest of the book does a decent job of going over the setting (by which I mean Ansalon, thankfully), to the point where it almost feels like you're reading a campaign setting with the game mechanics excised.

...which, as it turns out, is exactly what the rest of the book is: a reprint of the Tales of the Lance boxed set.

I actually sat down and did some side by side comparisons to check. Sure enough, outside of the fiction, the rest of this book is almost 100% a reprint of the "World Book of Ansalon" from that boxed set. While there might be a few places where a sentence was rephrased or some paragraphs were rearranged, almost all of what's here looks like a straight copypasta (as the young people say) of what's there, minus the stats.

So basically, PG1 is the Dragonlance campaign setting, trading game mechanics for some new fiction. It's kind of like the Chinese release of Deadpool 2, which gave us a minute or so of Fred Savage in exchange for cutting out the worst of the violence.

Annoyed GIF by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment


I'm sure I would have found that to be a poor trade-off back then, and I still do now. As it stands, this sourcebook does serve as a decent reference book for Dragonlance (at least before the Summer of Chaos and similar developments), but if it was trying to help people who'd read the novels make the jump to buying the game products, I wonder how well it worked.

Overall, this is a flawed work, and I can't help but think that that seems to be reflective of the Dragonlance line as a whole.

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Orius

Adventurer
I've only glanced at the Sha'ir's Handbook a hanful of times, but since it's about wizard characters, it's one of those things I'm going to like. Even if it's tied pretty strongly into al-Qadim, some of those ideas might still be useful. I tend to favor wizards, so wizard material it what I like to read the most.

Not at all familiar with the DL book. DL always had the problem of the Heroes of the Lance overshadowing everything, and it never really developed any decent post War of the Lance plot hooks.
 

The Martian woodpecker.

Now, this tells us that woodpeckers were sacred to the god Mars, but my brain fused out at the sight of that name, meaning that I wasn't able to move on and read that explanation. Instead, I just stopped and stared, imagining some mixture of Woody Woodpecker and Martian Manhunter. I have no idea what such a character would be like, and I don't think I want to know: the ideas are so incompatible that they boggle the mind. But ultimately, the sheer mindfreakery (to put it nicely) earns mad props in my book.
I mean, obviously they would be something like this:
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Okay, now this is more like it!

While PG2 Player's Guide to the Forgotten Realms keeps to the same overall style as its predecessor volume - overviewing a game world, a lack of stats or mechanics, the use of fiction as a framing device, etc. - it makes use of those things in an altogether different manner than PG1 did. The result is a volume that, to my mind, is more accessible.

One of the things I complained about with regard to the last volume was that it should have used the fiction as a framing device for the various localities that it covered. The alternative suggestion wasn't idle on my part: I actually read PG2 long before I read the Dragonlance version, and that's how it sets itself up. Unlike that book, this one doesn't use reprinted text the way PG1 does (as far as I know, nothing here is lifted from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting), and the result is a book that strikes me as being much more worthwhile for it.

The book is written in a vaguely-epistolary format. While not truly put down as letters, we're presented with the journal of Furian Arcanus, a half-elf multiclass wizard/priest of Mystra from back when advancing in two character classes was still viable. On a point of pedantry, I'll note that while Furian describes himself as a priest of Mystra - and uses several clerical spells, such as silence 15' radius and even resurrects a fallen companion at one point - he also uses arcane spellcasting, i.e. casting a lightning bolt, so I stand by the idea that he's a multiclass character. Take that, Forgotten Realms wiki.

Furian's journal isn't particularly concerned with dates, but it does detail the adventures of his group, the Seekers, to recover the Tear of Selune artifact. In that regard, it's mostly an excuse for them to wander from place to place, giving us a tour of the Forgotten Realms. I'll note with some amusement that Furian's adventuring party just so happens to have one member of each PC race - a human, a half-elf, an elf, a dwarf, a gnome, and a halfling - which lets the book start off (after a surprisingly nice map of Faerun) with an overview of the people of the Realms.

What makes this more than just a collection of adventures is that each entry comes with a blue boxed text that serves to focus on some aspect of what Furian's journal is discussing. Visually, this helps create a very nice contrast between the in-game and meta-game context, so you can ignore the characters' adventures and just focus on the bits of Realmslore if you want, or vice versa. Similarly, the boxed text isn't limited to overviews of races or places, often going over things like notable mercenary companies, the nature of the elven Retreat, or even cheeses of the Realms!

I also have to give a shout-out to how the book ended, mostly because it's a combination of downer/cliffhanger that openly invites the reader to act as the backup to save Furian and his party. Given that you've spent over a hundred pages following along on the surprisingly-engrossing adventures they've had, it's more effective than I expected it to be. While I wasn't surprised to find confirmation that we never hear from these characters again, I confess that I was a bit disappointed. Would a companion adventure really have been too much to ask? Or maybe tie it into something like The Complete Starter Set? Given how this book really seemed to do a good job of drawing the reader in, more should have been done.

As it stands, this was also the last of the Player's Guide series. Whether that was because TSR felt that the other campaign worlds weren't developed enough to warrant one (though I am reminded of "The Wanderer's Journal" in the Dark Sun Boxed Set), that it wasn't cost-effective, or something else again is something we'll probably never know. But if they would have been like this, that's kind of a shame.

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