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

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
And now we come to that most infamous entry in the PHBR series, PHBR8 The Complete Book of Elves. Strap yours-elves in folks, we're about to look at the book that everyone enjoys dumping on. You know it must be bad if the guy who wrote it issued an apology years after the fact, right?


Of course, as Colin's video makes clear, he's not really apologizing for what's in the book, and you know what? I'm right there with him on that one.

Now, I've brought it up before how Gary Gygax always maintained that his elves (like his dwarves) weren't inspired by Tolkien; rather, they were inspired by the same sources that Tolkien drew upon. And in this particular instance, I believe him. After all, while elves (like all demihumans) had a bunch of advantages compared to your average human, they weren't the mystical Übermensch that Tolkien portrayed them as. They had their class restrictions and level limits like every other demihuman, letting the Homo Sapiens rocket by them when it came time to hit the high levels.

But, as with the dwarves, everyone else who wrote for D&D wanted to make them a race that just stepped straight out of Middle-Earth, and it shows. You know that Evermeet place, from FOR5 Elves of Evermeet? Yeah, that's another "mystical land to the west" that the elves are retreating to. Dragonlance's Silvanesti and Qualinesti lean even harder into the "chosen people" theme (even if they played up the negative repercussions of that), to the point where the Kagonesti of DLS4 Wild Elves felt like they were breaking the mold just by stepping back from that. Birthright's elves always struck me as more grounded than their counterparts on other campaign worlds, but you can still find a lot of the same themes surrounding them in Player's Secrets of Tuarhievel. And don't even get me started on the "High Magic" in Cormanthyr: Empire of the Elves!

All of which is to say that, if Colin McComb can be blamed for anything, it was following through on what everyone clearly expected elves to be like when he wrote this book.

And make no mistake: Colin leans into that hard. From flavor text talking about how, at an elven funeral, the sounds the mourners made was so heartbreaking to hear that the visiting humans dropped dead on the spot, to racial characteristics that sort of had game mechanics (i.e. "manifestation," a force of presence elves have which is suggested to be represented by a +/-3 modifier to reaction rolls), elves get boosted in various small ways that collectively make them seem better than humans in every way. While most of these would quietly be forgotten, I'll note that the idea of the "reverie" - where elves don't go to sleep and dream, but rather slip into a trance and relive portions of their memories - has stuck around in terms of elven lore in D&D (presuming that this is where it originated).

I also got a kick out of how, unlike The Complete Book of Dwarves, this one openly acknowledges the other campaign worlds, talking about how elves are presented in each one. Since I couldn't afford to pick up most of those campaign setting boxed sets, I read these sections over and over, appreciating the glimpse into the myriad worlds of D&D.

Of course, I suspect that the major complaints about the book being broken come from Chapter 9, which strikes me as odd considering that it's not only titled "Optional Rules," but then goes on to say in its second paragraph:

However, the reader must understand that any changes proposed in this chapter are purely optional. The DM may allow or forbid any of these rules as is appropriate to his or her campaign.

So all the stuff therein, the expanded level limits, special archery tricks, bladesinging, etc. wasn't exactly something a power-gamer could wave under the DM's nose and demand that it be allowed by the Rules As Written.

I suppose they could have done that for the kits, but in all honesty these didn't seem quite as bad to me. I mean, the bladesinger kit has a bunch of bonuses to be sure, but unlike what it says in the optional rules section for bladesingers, their drawbacks go beyond "they're loners" (albeit not much, but they do).

Also, the Monstrous Compendium entries at the end for the avariel (winged elves) and cooshee (elven hounds) were pretty awesome, so I say it's all good. Certainly enough that Colin didn't need to apologize a second time:


Freakin' elves, man.

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Voadam

Legend
I think I glanced at it in a store and eventually got it on the 2e core rules CD, but not something I ever dove into and only heard about really in references that it went hard into elves are awesome and superior in every way. I think it also might have introduced bladesinging.

Level limits in AD&D were the big thing holding elves back, along with the normal -1 con. Other than that they were a fantastic D&D race, lots of options for roleplay hooks (foresty, fey, magical, fairly human but a bit alien, noble and elitist, long lived perspective, chaotic) and cool racial abilities (finding secret doors, infravision, lots of languages, stealthiness, lifespan). For low level games they were mechanically a great choice.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Level limits in AD&D were the big thing holding elves back, along with the normal -1 con.
There were also class restrictions. You couldn't be a paladin or a druid, among other classes, if you were an elf (even if the various PHBR books rolled a lot of those restrictions back via specialized kits).
 


There were also class restrictions. You couldn't be a paladin or a druid, among other classes, if you were an elf (even if the various PHBR books rolled a lot of those restrictions back via specialized kits).

It was always one of the more nonsensical things about 2e.

Elves are really, really nature oriented and have a supernaturally powerful tie to the land and nature. . .but they can't be Druids.

Elves are really, really magical and have an innate understanding of magic that transcends anything a human could comprehend. . .but they hit a hard upper cap on progression as a Wizard and Humans can go far higher in level.

Dwarves are all about duty and honor and come from a Lawful Good society. . .but they can't be Paladins.

2e had a lot of awesome stuff about it, especially setting and lore materials. . .but there were places where the "fluff" and the "crunch" did NOT line up well at all.
 

Stormonu

Legend
Elves....shudder - I hated that book, it was the only one I ever told players straight-faced they couldn't use in my game. I'm still upset that Trance has carried over to 5E.
 

cbwjm

Hero
I thought the elf book was great, one of my favourites. It was the first time I think that I saw different types of elves (or maybe that was dragonlance...) before the book I just had high elves. Then there were the multiclass character kits instead of just single class kits.

I'd already done away with level limits so that was nothing special. The rest of the options weren't that overpowered in my opinion but it seems I'm one of the few holding that opinion.
 

Davies

Explorer
While most of these would quietly be forgotten, I'll note that the idea of the "reverie" - where elves don't go to sleep and dream, but rather slip into a trance and relive portions of their memories - has stuck around in terms of elven lore in D&D (presuming that this is where it originated).
Nope. First showed up in Roger Moore's "The Elven Point of View" article in Dragon.
 

Voadam

Legend
There were also class restrictions. You couldn't be a paladin or a druid, among other classes, if you were an elf (even if the various PHBR books rolled a lot of those restrictions back via specialized kits).
I thought of that as the other way around, those classes are generally human only (though half-elves could be druids too).

Elves had a wider range of classes than any other full PC demihuman (though half-elves again got the druid added on).
 


TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
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.
It's interesting to contrast this with some of our current discussions around how the changes in Tasha's represent a clear change in design philosophy that we all expect to carry over into future products. Whereas this book (which I agree with you is a high point of 2.0 design) really never seemed to influence any other book of the PHBR series. I certainly can't think of a 2E book that allowed such deep tinkering within a class, outside of some of the setting books. And when the 2.5 trilogy hit (C&T, S&P, S&M), they moved away from kits as the main tool of class customization entirely.
 

Ah, excellent catch there! (Though I'll note it's never actually called "reverie" in that article, even if it's clearly the same thing.)
Even if it first came from the Dragon article, I think The Complete Book of Elves made the idea a lot more mainstream. I'm willing to bet a lot more people read about it in Complete Book of Elves than in a Dragon article from 1982.

If anything, being repeated in Complete Book of Elves certainly made it a much more accepted bit of elven lore, hence why it became part of the core rules in 3e, unlike a LOT of other concepts of elven lore in that book that have never really been heard from again.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
I'm worried that my take on this next book might come up a little short.

Okay, I know everyone makes that joke, but there's really not much that can be said about PHBR9 The Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings. I mean, besides the obvious, what with the self-evident humor that comes from the two pint-sized PC races not having enough material to each fill out their own book, requiring them to be put together in one. It's almost sublime, when you think about it.

But all kidding aside, what I found notable here is how these races represent polar opposites in terms of their associations with Tolkien. Whereas D&D's elves and dwarves are stuck in a permanent liminal space with regard to how much their depictions owe to the Professor, we know exactly what the answers are with regard to halflings and gnomes, since the former and undeniably his creations whereas the latter are inarguably not. That likewise puts its own, subtler spin on those two races being packaged in the same book.

Of course, that doesn't make either of them truly significant, within the wider context of D&D. Whereas it wasn't that hard to find products that explicitly touted their focus on elves or dwarves, gnomes and halflings get far less of the spotlight. BECMI gave us GAZ8 The Five Shires, and PC2 Creature Crucible: Top Ballista is sort of about gnomes, but beyond that I'm drawing a blank. Neither of these little guys were apparently much of a draw. Hence why it's not too surprising that the most notable examples of gnomes and halflings were the settings that radically redefined them, such as Dark Sun's cannibal halflings, Dragonlance's tinker gnomes and kender, etc. And even those never got their own racial books.

So what's this book about? Well, for one thing, it takes the idea of "two books mashed together" rather seriously. Each race has an introduction and five chapters, with the numbering of the chapters resetting after it goes from gnomes to halflings. Since the corresponding chapters cover the same area, we can look at their treatment of each race together.

The first chapter for each opens with a look at their creation myths and some brief coverage of their gods, and this is something I can get behind. The previous racial books' being silent on the role of their gods felt like an oversight to me, so it's nice that the pantheons of Garl Glittergold and Yondala are overviewed here (though it saves game stats for DMGR4 Monster Mythology, of which I'll speak more later).

Both respective second chapters cover sub-races, and in doing so splits the difference for how the previous racial splatbooks (for elves and dwarves) handled things. Here, there's no particular attempt to avoid mentioning the campaign settings where particular sub-races come from (the way The Complete Book of Dwarves did). At the same time, it presents the various sub-races in a manner that abets using them in any particular campaign world (which wasn't how The Complete Book of Elves came across, at least to me), something that it explicitly says is optional when it overviews the kender!

Chapters three (that's not a typo) go all-in with presenting the flavor text of stereotypical gnome/halfling cultures. I won't say that they do bad jobs of it, and there are a few notable points (such as the halfling chapter covering their take on the term "halfling"), but for the most part these chapters are bound by the generic presentation each race has. To be fair, they try and lean into it, hoping to flesh out more details rather than break the mold, but if you weren't the biggest fans of either race, nothing here will change your mind.

The fourth chapters are where we get the majority of the book's new crunch, presenting upwards of two dozen new kits. I can't help but note the bit of awkwardness when each chapter notes there are are a few gnome- and halfling-specific kits in some other books (i.e. The Complete Bard's Handbook); that makes The Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings feel, well...not so complete. It doesn't help that the kits themselves are bland. Even the multiclass-specific kits can't do better than, for instance, the Buffoon, a gnome thief/illusionist whose major kit abilities are being able to say something distracting and being able to use two minor bard abilities ("influence reactions" and "countersong"). The kit's special hindrance, meanwhile, is (and this is the totality of what's written there): "He or she has to walk around looking ridiculous."

And here I thought that was the default state for gnomes and halflings.

The final chapters present sample communities for each race, but they come across as little more than filler. The book closes out with some paragraph-long suggestions for adventures specifically focused around gnomes and halflings. None struck me as particularly memorable.

Even before I picked this book up, I found myself unimpressed with the shorter PC races, and what was here did little to change my mind, either when I got it or when I re-read it now. While not bad per se, what's here simply offers no real surprises. While there are one or two points of interest (I think the furchin - polar halflings from a distant world called Falakyr who spread out via spelljamming - were original to this book), most of the time you're receiving exactly what you expected, no more and no less.

Right now, we have an active thread going on titled "why do we have halflings and gnomes?" I feel like this book's answer to that question would be to point behind you, and then run away while your back is turned.

Ultimately, my opinion of PHBR9 can be summed up with a song:


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Voadam

Legend
3e followed up with the Kalamar dual race book on gnomes and kobolds. Kalamar was an official D&D set of books thanks to the Dragon magazine rights settlement that Kenzer negotiated with WotC. Kalamar also had a dual race book for elves and bugbears, while sticking with single race books for orcs, hobgoblins, and drow, but they never came out with one for halflings or even dwarves.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
The funny thing is that, once the license expired, most of those books were re-released with the Dungeons & Dragons logo taken off. But good catch on the Kalamar book; I knew there had to be one or two more products about the small folks that I was overlooking!
 

Voadam

Legend
I always felt the 1e gnome pantheon as presented in Dragon and Unearthed Arcana had a lot of great flavor. The halfling ones less so, though the art in Dragon was pretty evocative.

I remember the gods of the halflings and gnomes showing up in the FR specific Demihuman Deities but not Monster Mythology.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
The Book of Elves and the Book of Gnomes and Halfling were two of my favorites. I offer no apologies.

I saw all these books as modular groups of rules to mess with. Rarely did a kit enter my game without being tweaked to keep them in line with others and generally I had groups that had no problem RPing disadvantages (though I understand why generally speaking it might be a bad idea to balance mechanical benefits with RP disadvantages).

Ultimately, the flavor stuff in these books and inspiration of the mechanical parts was more important to me than some weird notion that one must accept all the rules as written in a supplement (that's not even true of core rules!). I still use these books a lot for world building and thinking about homebrew/house ruled rules stuff.
 

The thing I remember about The Complete Book of Gnomes & Halflings is having to buy half a book I wasn't interested in.

On that score, 3e's Races of Stone was a better deal for me. Got my gnomes, dwarves, and the brand new goliaths (which seem to have some longevity).

Never did pick up Races of the Wild, which featured elves, halflings and the now forgotten raptorans.
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
It was always one of the more nonsensical things about 2e.

Elves are really, really nature oriented and have a supernaturally powerful tie to the land and nature. . .but they can't be Druids.

Elves are really, really magical and have an innate understanding of magic that transcends anything a human could comprehend. . .but they hit a hard upper cap on progression as a Wizard and Humans can go far higher in level.

Dwarves are all about duty and honor and come from a Lawful Good society. . .but they can't be Paladins.

2e had a lot of awesome stuff about it, especially setting and lore materials. . .but there were places where the "fluff" and the "crunch" did NOT line up well at all.

Consider that in 1st edition, only humans and half-elves could be player character druids, and only humans, half-elves, and half-orcs could be player character clerics. The game was still enforcing a very human-centric perspective in 1st edition, and having adventuring priests was very much a "human" thing, likely as a way of channeling some of the literature that D&D was based on (e.g. Poul Anderson and the whole humanity = Law, faerie = Chaos thing). Some of this (such as Druidry being a Celtic-inspired, specifically human belief system that only humans and half-elves engaged in, not "generic nature-worship"; and paladins being human-only warriors for Good and Law) held over into the 2nd edition. There was no reason to allow elves to be druids or dwarves to be paladins, because elves and dwarves weren't supposed to be human enough to belong to those classes.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Consider that in 1st edition, only humans and half-elves could be player character druids, and only humans, half-elves, and half-orcs could be player character clerics. The game was still enforcing a very human-centric perspective in 1st edition, and having adventuring priests was very much a "human" thing, likely as a way of channeling some of the literature that D&D was based on (e.g. Poul Anderson and the whole humanity = Law, faerie = Chaos thing). Some of this (such as Druidry being a Celtic-inspired, specifically human belief system that only humans and half-elves engaged in, not "generic nature-worship"; and paladins being human-only warriors for Good and Law) held over into the 2nd edition. There was no reason to allow elves to be druids or dwarves to be paladins, because elves and dwarves weren't supposed to be human enough to belong to those classes.
It's funny, I knew about the humanocentricism of AD&D (something which Gygax mentions explicitly in the 1E DMG), and I knew about the influence of Poul Anderson's work (listed in Appendix N), but I never put two and two together to realize the significance of only humans, half-elves, and half-orcs being able to be PC clerics. Kudos to you for pointing that out! Little things like that are why I still find AD&D fascinating, even all these years later.

Given that there are parenthetical notes allowing elves, dwarves, and gnomes to be NPC clerics in AD&D 1E, I'm wondering why that was allowed? Was Gygax trying to slice it both ways, letting them be clerics but not as PCs? And why is it that halflings are disallowed to be clerics in any regard, but are allowed to be druids (NPC only), something no other demihumans (notwithstanding half-elves, who are able to be PC druids) can do?
 

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