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

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I want to make it clear that I'm not going to try to be even remotely dispassionate about PHBR5 The Complete Psionics Handbook. And that's for a very good reason: I love psionics. I mean I love, love, love psionics, and this book is why.

Now, to be fair to those who don't, I can understand why. Even leaving aside issues of tone and balance, the way psionics was depicted in AD&D 1E was...less than ideal. Things like having the basic information appear in the Players Handbook while the attack matrices appeared in the Dungeon Master's Guide, while par for the course for a lot of things, couldn't have helped simplify what was already a complicated subset of rules, especially since power points were split into multiple pools and the psionic encounter tables seemed designed to bring monsters down on you if you put your powers to use. And even that wasn't as unforgiving as how psionics were presented in OD&D's Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry, where you had to give up spell slots or points in your ability scores (if I remember correctly) to balance out having psionic powers. Brutal!

But I didn't know any of that when I stumbled upon this book. All I knew was that the psionicist presented a fifth class in the four meta-class groups (i.e. warrior, rogue, priest, and wizard), and that alone was enough to impress me. Likewise, the possibility of gaining a wild talent - that is, gaining a psionic power, potentially several psionic powers, for free - was enough to appeal to my munchkin power-gamer heart. That the possibility of that was notably small mattered not at all, and I barely made note of the fact that a bad roll to check for wild talents could actually reduce your ability scores. In fact, that remains perhaps the only way to die during character creation in AD&D 2E. Tell 'em, Spoony!


It also helped that this was the point where psionics were getting their own integrated setting, as found in the Dark Sun Boxed Set. Here was a setting where you didn't check for wild talents, because everyone had them outright (unless you played a psionicist proper). It's no surprise that the official errata sheet for The Complete Psionics Handbook was found in that boxed set!

Dark Sun was also where this book became part of a trilogy. I mean, not really, but that was how I thought of it. The fact that Dragon Kings had a bunch of new psionic powers, alongside rules for psionicists of 21st-30th level, made it a must-buy for me, along with The Will and the Way, which was a dedicated psionic expansion book. Oddly enough, I remember being absolutely convinced that the latter book was also a leatherette product (green, I believe I thought it was). Why I had that in my head I don't know, but with the World Wide Web still being in its infancy, it was some time before I became disabused of that notion. As it was, I eagerly snatched up the Deck of Psionic Powers, as it was the closest thing AD&D 2E psionics got to the Wizard's Spell Compendium or Priest's Spell Compendium, having powers from all three books in "the trilogy."

Of course, psionics would get a massive revamp soon enough anyway. We'd see it radically overhauled in the Dark Sun Campaign Setting (Expanded and Revised Edition), with those rules also appearing in Player's Option - Skills & Powers. Then Third Edition would make them much more Vancian in presentation as of the 3.0 Psionics Handbook (which, everyone forgets, actually brought the "psionic combat" system to Third Edition), and while they got some decent expansions in the Expanded Psionics Handbook and Complete Psionic, wouldn't get much official support after that. (Even if The Mind's Eye articles on the WotC website oftentimes turned up gems, such as the articles on Sardior, the god of the psionic gem dragons. Or the "subpsionics" that mirrored the Forgotten Realms' shadow magic. Or the expanded material about psionic tattoos. You get the idea.)

Still, it was among the third-party community where psionics really shined, such as with Malhavoc Press's Hyperconscious: Explorations in Psionics or Fiery Dragon's Of Sound Mind. But the real leaders in that particular category were Dreamscarred Press, whose carved out their niche as the premiere producers of psionic content, starting when their first book had the innovative society mind class (which got a lot of supporting material, all of which can be found in the excellent compilation product Untapped Classes: Complete Society Mind. Disclaimer: I wrote some of the material that was collected in there), and going on through to Pathfinder 1E, eventually making their Ultimate Psionics book a landmark for those who wanted to keep using psionics in that system.

Unfortunately, that would be the high point for psionics. In 4E, they were just another power source, and ended up getting only a single dedicated book from WotC: Psionic Power. 5E has been even less forthcoming where psionics are concerned, covering it in a few Unearthed Arcana articles but so far not bringing it into any print releases, something that will hopefully change soon. (EDIT: I'm told that Tasha's Cauldron of Everything has some options that could be considered psionic, such as the aberrant mind sorcerer, or the Telekinetic and Telepathic feats. If so, the bar has certainly been lowered on what constitutes "psionics" being their own distinct thing.)

Did I mention that I really love psionics?

So, about this book in particular. I remember gleefully looking into making a psionicist character only to sit down and eventually realize that they were far more "utility character" than "blaster" type. Most of the psionic powers in this book simply didn't lend themselves to direct damage-dealing. Even powers like detonate or death field tended to be the exception rather than the rule, and quite often had limitations that made them difficult to use with impunity (even aside from how, in this edition, you needed to make a check to use your powers correctly). They just weren't focused on battle, aside from psionic combat (i.e. mind-to-mind mental combat).

I was, however, fascinated by the all-too-brief section on how psionics and magic interacted. Contrary to popular belief, they weren't completely divorced from each other, which lent to some fascinating instances of the rules being tweaked (e.g. a psionicist used their combined Wisdom and Constitution for the differential modifier when targeted by a magic jar spell). Also, the psionic monsters were fascinating. Remember how the thought eater looked like a psiduck that someone forgot to feed in 1E?

ThoughtEater-1e.jpg


Well here's how he looked in PHBR5:

ThoughtEater-2e.jpg


Much
more badass!

Oh, and the fact that the book had an overview of psionics in the various AD&D campaign worlds was intriguing to boot, mostly because I didn't have many campaign-specific materials at the time (except Ravenloft, which already covered psionic-specific changes as of Forbidden Lore and the Ravenloft Revised Boxed Set). Dragonlance having no psionics while the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk did? There were all kinds of interesting ideas you could draw from that.

So yeah, this book rates very highly among the leatherettes for me. It sparked my love for D&D's weird psychic powers, and I've had them on my mind ever since. ;)

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 
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Voadam

Legend
I had seen the 1e psionics in action with the 10X faster psionic combat and weird maybe just a single power random system and power points. PH5 was an innovative improvement with its own dedicated class in a non-Dragon Magazine context but you are right that their attack powers were pretty poor requiring points, an activation roll, and then sometimes a saving throw or other roll, and could be variable such as a save or die save. Also the psionic combat requiring 3 touches before getting in and then having access to really mess around with your target meant it was not great when facing a dozen 3 hp goblins, that only really came into its own when fighting a huge high hp combat beast that would normally take a long fight to take down.

My favorite was the 3.5 soulknife class and the Dreamscarred Pathfinder adaptation and played a number of them. I loved the psionic focus mechanic using move actions to recharge and felt it was a great action economy resource management system for low to mid levels until iterative attacks really started to be a major factor for physical combatants. Soulknives also had the same problem as monks and rogues and psychic warriors being 3/4 BAB attack roll based combatants going against monsters designed for full BAB combatants.

2e had a lot of nifty flavor powers and interesting psionic schools and I had a lot of fun with the psionicist in my Ravenloft campaign. Introducing GURPS Cyberpunk and Cthulhypunk combat and psychic temporary boosting drugs worked out well in that campaign.
 


Stormonu

Legend
Of the complete books, I probably got the most use out of the Complete Psionics Handbook - it certainly was a breath of fresh air after the mangled monkey meat of 1E. I primarily got use out of it via Dark Sun, and the repeated psionic characters my wife made.

Unfortunately, I didn't keep up with it too much, as wasn't aware it was revised in the DS 2 set and don't remember using any psionic content from skills and powers. It didn't help I was always on the lookout for more magic options (more of a fan of Complete Wizard, myself) and psionics were 3rd rung in concern below Cleric magic.

3E did a fairly good job with psionics, but I'm really unhappy with the anemic state of 5E psionics in Tasha's.
 

cbwjm

Hero
One of the things I liked about the psionics book was that the powers could all basically crit. Hit the power score on your roll and you get a boosted effect, something magic spells didn't do. It was one of the things that differentiated them.
 

Fighter book and psionics were our favorite. We bought the ones we could afford and devoured the content within. In the end (although memories are generally highlighted in gold of D&D stuff back then), I think the entire table liked every single leather book we bought. Whether useful or not, I remember almost always pulling at least one thing out of them as DM.
 

Orius

Adventurer
The main problem with the Priest's Handbook is that it's a bad splat for players. At least half of the material is aimed at the DM for building and running campaigns, and the player material is weak at best. It didn't help that spheres were a decent idea on paper that was implemented poorly. The kits in general are pretty bland as well.

The Wizard's Handbook is decent. It made an attempt to flesh out the specialist wizards beyond the PHB's nerfed illusionists and other clases approach. It had a nice selection of spells, but a good number of them were 1e updates rather than completely new. Some kits like the wu jen and witch were also pretty much updates, while others were the same generic concept from Fighter and Priest.

Psionics is good, if you want to use psionics. At least it was an attempt to to have a coherent set of rules. I think the later approach from Skills and Powers and revised Dark Sun looks easier to use, or at least would be if the system wasn't broken as written.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
As if to balance out how much I enjoyed the last entry in the series, PHBR6 The Complete Book of Dwarves is one that I've never had very much use for. I have a vague recollection of walking into game store after game store and seeing it available (sometimes at a discount) and having the impression that I wasn't the only one who felt that way, either. I think I eventually picked it up just for the sake of completeness.

Leaving aside that this is where these books introduced an alternative titling mechanism ("The Complete Book of X" rather than "The Complete X Handbook") for no reason that I can tell, dwarves have never really done much for me. In all honesty, I don't think that D&D has had much use for them either. Back in the pre-3E days, how many books were really all about dwarves, besides this one? I mean, sure, the Known World had GAZ6 The Dwarves of Rockhome, and the Forgotten Realms had FR11 Dwarves Deep, and Dragonlance had the Dwarven Kingdoms of Krynn boxed set, and there was that Axe of Dwarvish Lords adventure, and there was L3 Deep Dwarven Delve (an AD&D 1E adventure that was only published in 1999)...but other than those what have the Romans ever done for us? how popular have dwarves ever really been?

...okay, so it's probably just me, but I've never been a fan of dwarves! While Gary Gygax wrote (back in Dragon #95, if I recall correctly) that his dwarves were not derivative of Tolkien (something he'd repeat many years later on these very forums), everyone else who wrote them for D&D seemed to make them the same cut-rate Gimli in terms of their presentation, and that seemed to be the case with this book. While it tried to add some depth, some nuance, and even a little expansion, the end result seemed largely the same: your typical dwarf was a full-bearded, hard-fighting, hard-drinking, crafts-loving, goblin-hating, underground-dwelling, jolly-when-happy-but-either-taciturn-or-berserk-when-angry archetype, with only the names changing.

But I suppose I should try and focus more about this book in particular, shouldn't I?

It opens with a brief section on the creation of the dwarves, and then moves on to the dwarven subraces, and already I'm frowning. I know that the actual dwarven pantheon wouldn't be detailed until DMGR4 Monster Mythology (which I'll talk about later) and expanded upon (with a Realms-specific twist) in Demihuman Deities, but it just feels weird how the traditional D&D dwarven gods are sidelined, not just in the opening section, but throughout the entire book. I understand that it's because this is trying to be world-neutral, as well as maintaining a more terrestrial focus, but it just comes off as being incomplete.

The subraces strike me as odd too, with there being six of them: hill dwarves, mountain dwarves, deep dwarves, sundered dwarves, duergar (i.e. gray dwarves), and gully dwarves. Now, hill and mountain dwarves I understand: they're both front and center in MC1 Monstrous Compendium Volume One (don't ask me if they're in the Player's Handbook, however). Though I'll make a confession here: despite the name signifying geographical areas of division (and creating the interesting idea that demihumans, unlike humans, develop pronounced biological differences after sufficient generations live in a given environment long enough), I somehow got it in my head that hill dwarves lived only "a little" underground, and mountain dwarves lived "deeper" underground, though not in the Underdark.

Deep dwarves, by contrast, actually do live in the Underdark, though to be fair it doesn't ever come right out and say that here. Even so, I'm curious how these guys were so completely forgotten as D&D moved on. Even before subraces fell out of vogue (drow quite obviously notwithstanding), deep dwarves seemed like they were on their way out, which is a shame because other than svirfneblin they seemed like the only non-hostile civilization living that deep underground. Presumably the duergar, who have always been the dwarven equivalent of drow (except not as cool, despite them having a penchant for psionics that was also ignored here) wiped them out; the book says they "sometimes" lived below the deep dwarves, but I'm calling propaganda.

The sundered dwarves are a mystery to me, even now. These are surface-dwelling dwarves who are quite clearly not from there originally, but now have claustrophobia. I'm honestly tempted to guess that these are transplants from a particular campaign world, repackaged with a generic presentation, but if that's the case I can't find from where. As it is, the gully dwarves are such transplants, from Dragonlance, and I'm honestly shocked that they tried to make these guys suitable for any world. I mean, tinker gnomes in Spelljammer is one thing, but gully dwarves outside of Krynn? It just feels weird somehow.

Now, dwarves can be fighters, thieves, or clerics, which does give them some leeway outside of the usual "battlerager" type...oh, wait, there's the battlerager kit. This is the one that everyone knows thanks to Salvatore's archetypal character Thibbledorf Pwent from the Drizzt books. Don't be a Pwent, folks. There's also some nice new gear, but not much, and the proficiencies...I know the DriveThruRPG history mentions some of the worst ones, but there's a reason for that. A "pest control" proficiency? Really?

Overall, this book does the best it can, but simply doesn't have the space to do much besides lean into stereotypes. I mean, I'm one of the people who think that racial level limits and class restrictions had a point (long story short: they made humans the saiyans of the game world), and even I think there simply wasn't much to do with dwarves in terms of workable material. Unless you wanted to play up a clerical or thieving angle (and both could be multi-classed with fighter), you were everyone's conception of a dwarf.

Though I'll add that, as an industrious people with strong crafting skills and a love of alcohol, I still don't see why dwarves don't speak with German accents rather than Scottish ones.

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 
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The sundered dwarves are a mystery to me, even now. These are surface-dwelling dwarves who are quite clearly not from there originally, but now have claustrophobia. I'm honestly tempted to guess that these are transplants from a particular campaign world, repackaged with a generic presentation, but if that's the case I can't find from where.
At a guess: from Terry Brooks's Shannara setting.
 

Voadam

Legend
but other than those what have the Romans ever done for us? how popular have dwarves ever really been?
You beat me to the exact joke I was thinking of. There was also a 1e Role Aids Dwarves supplement.

I liked dwarves a lot but did not end up getting this one. I saw it a few times and was glad they had a kit for WFRP Trollslayers even though I was not a fan of the mechanics balance.

The dwarven pantheon had been detailed in 1e in Dragon Magazine and then in an appendix in 1e's Unearthed Arcana.
 


Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The dwarven pantheon had been detailed in 1e in Dragon Magazine and then in an appendix in 1e's Unearthed Arcana.
I knew that they'd been detailed before, it just felt like an oversight that a book that covered dwarves so thoroughly wouldn't mention any of D&D's "generic" dwarven pantheon (I say "generic" as opposed to gods like Dragonlance's Reorx, who are campaign-specific).
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
The Complete Book of Dwarves was the first one I ever got and I made a lot of use of it. There have always been players in my groups who like to play dwarves and I have played one or two myself.
 

3E did a fairly good job with psionics, but I'm really unhappy with the anemic state of 5E psionics in Tasha's
3E, via Dreamscarred and DND Psionics books, were probably the best version of Psionics.

*5E's approach: as shown via the UA that had the Psi-Knight, 2020 Soul Knife, and Aberrant Mind, seemed to be a very well done take for 5E Psionics. The idea of the Wild Talent being separate from your class level, with each class getting Talents specific for those classes, seemed completely perfect. And it was a nice shout out to how Psionics developed alongside your class level.

But with people not being onboard with that idea OR the Psi-Talent Die(despite it's questionable change in the eyes of D20 mechanics) Not being well received (which is another talk for another time) kinda put a dampen on everything.

The "Psionics" in 5E now, via Tasha's Psi Warrior(Knight is better), Soul Knife, and Aberrant Mind, seem like they wanted A: Shut everybody asking for Psionics up and B: Testing the waters to see how people like em anyway regardless.*
 

Orius

Adventurer
Dwarves isn't too bad, or at least it's always favorably compared to Elves. D&D has always had decent coverage of dwarves, and you know what you're going to get with dwarves anyway ; short, sturdy creatures fond of drink and industry. I've always liked this one, it's dwarves, and plenty of Larry Elmore's art.

Some of the material was recycled from 1e's Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, particularly the NWPs and the mining rules.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
So now we come to PHBR7 The Complete Bard's Handbook...and I'm already confused. The book's storefront says this is PHBR7, but the code in the upper-left corner of the cover says it's PHBR8, and the book's interior (pg. 5-6) says it's PHBR6. So...is the storefront listing some sort of compromise? Or is this an object lesson in how bards are natural hoodwinkers? Is "hoodwinkers" even a word? I just don't know what's going on!

So anyway, bards...D&D's own red mages. These guys are kind of good at a whole bunch of stuff, but not outstanding in anything, which makes them a perennial second choice. That doesn't sound so bad, until you remember that the archetypal D&D party is made up of four classes that have their respective niches covered, and that all too often there's no need for a second-stringer, which I imagine must cause the bard some pathos. But at least they can sing a catchy tune about their discontent, since that's the one thing that no one exceeds them at! Take it away, boys!


But getting back to this book in particular, I didn't give it much of a look back in the day, my younger self already having internalized the idea that the pantyhose-wearing lute-strummer wasn't worthy of respect, and so this book needed to be mined for its new spells and magic items and then returned to the shelf. Which is exactly what I did. And in hindsight, that was a grievous mistake, for one very simple reason:

This book is awesome!

I really can't overstate how much I've come to like this book since I sat down to reread it. The sheer creativity and usefulness that it brings to the table, both proverbially and literally, cannot be overstated. This just might be the single best volume out of the Player's Handbook Resource series, I kid you not.

The book's first chapter essentially reprints what's in the PHB, albeit expanding things like the thieving skill adjustment tables for the various kits we'll see later, and this is something I found myself approving of. I know a lot of people consider it a waste of space, since you're going to have the PHB right there with you anyway, but I like to reduce page-flipping, so I thought it was a good thing. But it's the next chapter, where the kits come in, that we start to see the real genius of the book.

The kits here aren't like any kits that I remember from elsewhere in AD&D 2E. Whereas your standard kit is essentially a mini-template, adding some small bonuses in exchange for some equally small penalties and a few guidelines on how to role-play whatever thematic adjustment(s) it connotes, these kits are something different. They're all essentially 5E-style subclasses (or Pathfinder-style archetypes, as you prefer), swapping out features of the basic bard for a new suite of abilities. It standardizes this by having the "true bard" kit that represents your bog-standard bard, and then essentially tells you to remove that kit in favor of one of the new ones listed then.

The subsequent kits therefore bring much heavier alterations to your character than most other kits would. I kit you not (see what I did there?), these are like what specialty priests did to clerics for the changes they bring. You still use the same THAC0, saving throw, and experience tables, and the same size Hit Dice, but anything else (e.g. allowable weapons, class features, proficiencies) are up for being altered, sometimes drastically. It's impressive how much creative space this opens up.

Speaking of opening up creative space, we then come to the chapter on "demi-bards." Here, the author basically says, "remember how the PHB says that only humans or half-elves can be bards? Yeah, not so much anymore." Furthermore, he doesn't stop there; he not only recommends that demi-human bards be limited to certain kits, he actually provides four new kits that are specific to demihumans; one for dwarves, one for elves, one for gnomes, and one for halflings. That essentially means that each race's bards will be unique to them, which is outstanding.

While the new proficiencies didn't do much for me on their own (Proficiency in chanting? Poetry? Whistling/humming?), and the sections of modifiers for the thieving skills felt like an awkward intrusion into The Complete Thief's Handbook (though it was still nicely comprehensive), the spells and magic items were useful, if a bit brief.

But then we come to the music chapter, and my complaints once again fall away. We get an expansive list of instruments that not only gives us their cost, weight, and a brief description, but also codifies them to particular historical eras (helping with thematic cohesion) and gives illustrations! It then gives a brief primer on types of music (i.e. terms and definitions), types of songs, and even a few sample songs as well. Hm, do you ever suppose a bard might be able to use "The Minstrel Boy" to defuse a violent encounter?


And there's still more! The chapter on role-playing bards has handy tables for things like reputation and performance-based income (which will never be a lot, but at least categorizes the return you get), while the following chapter on bardic associations has rules for patrons and followers, both of which are very useful. Finally, the appendix has...the AD&D 1E rules for bards? I'm...not sure why those are here; this is the bard from the AD&D 1st Edition Player's Handbook, which goes from being a thief to being a fighter to being a druid, at which point they gain bardic abilities to boot. I'm not sure why that's being reprinted here (even if it wouldn't be that hard to reproduce in 2E); maybe it's to make sure we all have an appropriate appreciation for just how trippy that was?

Either way, this is an excellent sourcebook for bard characters, to the point where I'd call it mandatory for anyone who wants to play one in Second Edition.

Please note my use of affiliate links in this post.
 
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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Bard's book was a great one!

That said, I have never played in or run a D&D game in which there was a high level bard. The games either collapsed early or no one wanted to play one (or they died).
 

Voadam

Legend
2e bards had a mechanics thing where even though they had slower spell progression than mages, they had a lot of the same spells and faster xp track so you could have a bard throwing more magic missiles than an equal xp mage. Which was a lot of the standard magic user firepower.
 

cbwjm

Hero
The 2e complete bard's book was another of the complete handbooks I actually managed to buy a physical copy of (I have wizard, psionics, ninja, bard, and elf) and I thought it was really neat, the kits really helped differentiate the bard, though I only recall the blade. I think this book also made me realise just how sinister a bard could be rather than the flamboyant bard that everyone thinks of. I think the description of the blade had a story about an assassin or blackmailer breaking in to someone's home and casting sound bubble (the only spell I recall from the book) so that they can talk but others can't hear them. It was pretty cool.
 

cbwjm

Hero
Been reading through these old books again because of this thread (at least the few I have from dmsguild) and I'd forgotten how restrictive they could be for multiclass characters choosing kits. Instead of choosing one, you can pick up the skills (rather than getting them as bonus skills). You might still have the hindrances for identifying as them but you get none of the bonuses. I don't recall it coming up but I kinda feel like in that instance they could just pick a kit and run with it rather than jumping through hoops.
 

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