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

TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
I played in a 2E Lankhmar "City of Thieves" campaign where all of the six PC's were built from different kits from the Complete Book of Thieves. That was fun.
 

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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
With PHBR12 The Complete Paladin's Handbook, we come to one of the most iconic D&D character classes. While the big four (fighters, thieves, wizards, and clerics) are archetypes unto themselves, the other classes all have specific things that they're known for, such as bard's having bardic music, druids being able to change into animals, and rangers using weaponized racism.

But paladins are different. While they have a suite of powers that make up a lot of their image, they're also a class that's defined by their restrictions as much as their abilities. While various editions would play around with exactly how stringent their alignment and paladin's code are, the idea of the holy warrior who must be Lawful Good and stick to a special set of behavioral guidelines remains an enduring one. So much so that it's inconceivable that someone would need to ask "what's a paladin?" (NSFW warning for mild language)


Now, at a glance through D&D's published products, paladins might not seem to be too notable. We have a few titles that name-drop them, such as the epic adventure A Paladin in Hell, the subtitle for Defenders of the Faith is "A Guidebook to Clerics and Paladins," much like Divine Power's "Options for Avengers, Clerics, Invokers, and Paladins," and of course I'll talk about HR2 Charlemagne's Paladins later on. But while they don't get explicitly called out in too many titles besides these, the idea of the paladin remains a resonant one...as do the potential drawbacks of playing one.

But let's turn our attention to this book specifically.

One of the first things PHBR12 opens with is an acknowledgment of just how hard it is to qualify to play a paladin in the first place in AD&D 2E. It's not just that they're alignment-locked, or that they're limited to humans, but because the 3d6-in-order presumption of AD&D 2E means that meeting the ability score requirements (Strength 12, Constitution 9, Wisdom 13, Charisma 17) necessarily makes paladins quite rare, even among PCs. While the book offers a set of pre-fab ability score arrays if you want to bypass this, it flat-out admits that this is because paladins aren't balanced. These guys are just better than most other classes (certainly than other martial classes), and makes no bones about that. This was indeed a different time in the annals of D&D.

Now, this particular book wasn't one that really resonated with me, because even as a lad I preferred spellcasters to fighters (and even with the smattering of clerical spells they got starting at 8th level, nobody considered paladins to be spellcasters). However, I suspect that another part of it is simply that I'm not a fan of Rick Swan's writing style. Much like in the previous volume, he spends some time going over the existing abilities of paladins and fleshing them out.

To be absolutely clear, this isn't a bad thing. Being able to clarify the limits on how paladins detect evil, for example, or saying how their ability to cure diseases operates against magical diseases like lycanthropy (e.g. it's actually a curse, so it doesn't help) do provide some much-needed insight. It's just that this always felt like something that the main rules for the class should have made clear. It's nice to have it all in one place, of course, but I think even back then I had the nagging suspicion that pages upon pages of clarification shouldn't have been needed to begin with.

I can't quite say the same for the clarifications about the paladin's ethos, however. This one has long been a point of contention among gamers, largely due to the perception (rightly or wrongly) that you were constantly walking a tightrope, one bad decision (or vindictive episode on the part of the DM) away from losing your class features, if not permanently then at least temporarily. Here, we get some general softening of those penalties...somewhat. For instance, a division is made between chaotic violations and evil violations, with the former not having anywhere near as harsh penalties as the latter. Alternatively, four categories of potential violations are listed (in ascending orders of egregiousness), which likewise have scaled penalties and requirements for atoning.

It's here we also get a sidebar that talks about the absence of the anti-paladin in AD&D 2E. Long story short, the idea of the paladin is that goodness is supposed to be few in quantity but high in quality, whereas evil is the opposite of that. So while a paladin might stand alone against a goblin horde, the idea of singular champions for the cause of evil runs afoul of that. And this was apparently a mission statement that was followed to the letter, since other than an adventure in Dungeon #75 (where you had to prevent a "fallen" anti-paladin from completing his "redemption" quest), we never got an anti-paladin in Second Edition.

Personally, I find that explanation to be something of a square peg in a round hole. It alludes to a quasi-Christian allegory of Goodness (with a capital "g") being the natural state of things, whereas Evil is a sort of cosmic aberration, one that's able to corrupt, but with that corruption ultimately representing a loss compared to the untainted aspects of Creation. D&D, by contrast, is all about parallelism, with no substantive suggestion that any particular alignment is somehow more correct (morally or otherwise) than any other. Not to mention, you can have evil high priests, warlords, necromancers, assassins, and lots of other characters who can gain levels to match a paladin anyway. So this explanation feels kind of hollow to me.

Plus, not giving D&D its own version of Darth Vader just seems like a missed opportunity.


Moving on, the kits in this book are, for lack of a better word, "swingy." What I mean by that is that some offer very little alteration to the core paladin class (such as how the chevalier is basically just a paladin with a formal military ranking), while others make some fairly expansive changes (the ghosthunter, for instance, loses the ability to cast spells, lay on hands, and immunity to/cure disease in favor of being able to dispel evil, paralysis immunity, and a much stronger ability to turn undead). We also get rules for "demi-paladins" here, which are completely unlike the demihuman bards or rangers we've seen in previous books. Instead, if a Lawful Good demihuman multiclasses as a fighter/cleric, meets the paladin class's ability score requirements, takes a paladin kit from this book, and observes a paladin's ethos, they may take on special religious quests (once every odd-numbered level, starting at 3rd...and only as long as they can keep gaining levels in both classes) to gain paladin abilities (one per quest). It's sort of like their own version of how you became a bard in AD&D 1E.

There are also some new proficiencies and items here, but other than the alternative holy swords (which I'll confess earned my interest), most of these seem fairly forgettable. One exception (notwithstanding the aforementioned swords) is the Poetry proficiency, which is called out for how a paladin can potentially compose an poem (either lyric or narrative, wow!) in lieu of religious tithing. This just seems like a gold-mine for jokes in your campaign group, to the point where every DM should mandate that their paladins try this. I can't see how hilarity wouldn't ensue.

After this are several guidelines on playing paladins, most of which seem either convoluted or too obvious to deserve as much space as they got. To be fair, the book tries to spice these up by offering mechanical aspects to them. Fun fact: courtly love between a paladin and the object of their affection gives the paladin bonuses to a lot of die rolls, but these fade away after getting married. But at least they gain proficiency with a ball-and-chain, amirite?

So yeah, overall The Complete Paladin's Handbook wasn't one that did much for me. While it's not a bad book, there wasn't much to it that really redefined the class in my eyes, offering little in the way of enticement to play the class or alternative ways to do so.

Ultimately, I paladidn't need what was here.

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Orius

Adventurer
Paladin is probably the weakest of the more specialized PHB class splats. Barbarian is IMO even weaker, but it's an update of the 1e class, and not a standard 2e class, but we'll get to that in a bit.

The holy swords were pretty good, and the NWPs weren't bad either, as they were the sort of skills that felt appropriate for an aristocratic or religious warrior. The kits were fairly hit or miss though, with some creative elements and stuff that was fairly obvious. Demihumans got shafted here though, because Bard and Ranger (and upcoming Druids IIRC) had actual kits while Paladin was just a warmed over variant rule for Fighter/Clerics.

The biggest weakness though was something that plagued 2e for a good long while, namely the insistance that campaigns should stick as close to a historical medieval Europe model as possible (and I'm saving a rant up for this when we get to the DMGR books). Now while Paladin should have at least given some nod to the medieval romances that are the primary source material for the class archetype, particularly the Matters of Britain and France, the sections on the development of knighthood in medieval Europe was little more than padding IMO, particularly since the book does give a decent bibliography of inspirational works on the Paladin. (I'd add Edding's Elenium and Tamuli trilogies to that list since they provide some excellent examples of paladins who are not Lawful Stupid, though of course those books were being published in the same timeframe as the Paladin's Handbook.)
 

Voadam

Legend
It's not just that they're alignment locked, or that they're limited to humans, but because the 3d6-in-order presumption of AD&D 2E means that meeting the ability score requirements (Strength 12, Constitution 9, Wisdom 13, Charisma 17) necessarily makes paladins quite rare, even among PCs.
The 2e PH had 3d6 in order as method I, but there were five other alternative dice rolling methods in the PH to generate scores. Not the same as the 1e human rolls but I would still say 2e's presumption is generally more than 3d6 in order as a baseline.

Even with these alt methods though the 17 Charisma was a real gatekeeper. Even if you rolled a 17 or 18, assigning that to Charisma would not get your combat oriented warrior character nearly the same combat bonuses as applying it to Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution.
 

Stormonu

Legend
The 2e PH had 3d6 in order as method I, but there were five other alternative dice rolling methods in the PH to generate scores. Not the same as the 1e human rolls but I would still say 2e's presumption is generally more than 3d6 in order as a baseline.

Even with these alt methods though the 17 Charisma was a real gatekeeper. Even if you rolled a 17 or 18, assigning that to Charisma would not get your combat oriented warrior character nearly the same combat bonuses as applying it to Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution.
Was anybody using that back in 2E? At our table we used 4d6, drop lowest and arrange to taste.
 

Mannahnin

Adventurer
Was anybody using that back in 2E? At our table we used 4d6, drop lowest and arrange to taste.
I think a whole lot of people did, as that was the default system in 1E.

I presume at least SOME people must have used 3d6 in 2E, though, as that was the primary prescribed method. Just as 4d6 drop lowest, arrange to taste was the primary prescribed method for 1E.
 

cbwjm

Hero
Just reading through the book of humanoids and realised how redundant some of the kits were. Wilderness warrior is a kit that effectively makes the humanoid a ranger. They have all the requirements, abilities, and restrictions of the ranger class. Who can choose it? All of those humanoid races who have ranger as an option...

I also noticed that the saurial paladin kit can't turn undead or cast cleric spells, despite the advantages section stating that they can do both of these things...
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Having come to PHBR13 The Complete Druid's Handbook, we've hit something of a milestone. Not only are we now one-third of the way through this retrospective, we've also reached the end of the races and classes presented in the Player's Handbook (plus, you know, psionics and humanoids). While we're not quite at the end of the PHBRs yet - we still have two more books focused on bringing older classes back into AD&D 2E - the end of this largest selection of the leatherette books is in sight!

But for now: druids. AD&D's own hippy-dippy tree-huggers, these are the guys who know where the wackiest of the tabaccy grows. Of course, the game never really portrayed them that way, instead presenting them as nature priests apart from clerics, who as a consequence of their focus on the natural world have to be strictly True Neutral. The druid is also, I'm fairly confident, the only class that carried the whole "you have to win a duel to advance to the next higher level" bit into AD&D 2E. The prior edition had a few other instances of that (monks, as I recall), but here it's a requirement that only druids need to fulfill (albeit only for 13th, 14th, and 15th level). That's because the druidic hierarchy is baked into that part of the class, and there can only be so many characters occupying the attendant slots of Senior Vice President Arch-Druid, Great Druid, and Grand Druid.

To be fair, there was a caveat about advancing without a fight if someone squatting in those positions themselves advanced. But on a similar token, the PCs who reached those levels were at risk of being challenged by up-and-comers, and if you lost that fight you were kicked down a level. That part came across as being somewhat downplayed, by which I mean the possibility always seemed like something the books only passingly acknowledged, but it was still there. Needless to say, the whole "fight your way up the totem pole" thing was quickly discarded when Third Edition came out.

In the broader context of D&D, my personal opinion was that druids were very much second-stringers, mostly because their niche was so pigeonholed that they couldn't really be used for anything else. They could still be used in highly specific areas of various campaign worlds, but even then they tended to be part of the backdrop, such as in the Forgotten Realm's FR2 Moonshae, Ravenloft's Castles Forlorn, or HR3 Celts (which I'll talk more about later). It was only after later editions genericized them (which wasn't necessarily a bad thing) that they started being name-dropped in the secondary titles of books like 3E's Masters of the Wild and 4E's Primal Power.

And with that really long lead-in out of the way, let's look at this book specifically.

PHBR13 opens with the by-now-obligatory overview of the druid's powers. But before I could properly formulate my usual "I understand why it's here, but it shouldn't have to be" reaction, the book completely pulled the rug out from under me by turning around and immediately introducing "druidic branches." These are very much like Pathfinder's class archetypes in that they're thematic packages of abilities and drawbacks that replace the standard druid abilities, with the themes being different natural environments. So you have your desert druid, your mountain druid, your gray (i.e. subterranean) druid, etc. While none of these alter the base class too much, this is still an excellent - and unexpected - set of variant options for the standard druid class (which is here presented as the "forest druid"). Right away, I like what I'm seeing.

Interestingly, this is where we find a sidebar which contains the only thing this book has to say about expanding racial access to the druid class. Whereas other books created special kits to allow demihumans (i.e. bards, rangers) or gave limited class options if you followed esoteric restrictions (i.e. paladins), this book takes a more conservative approach. It notes which races from The Complete Book of Humanoids can become druids, and then lists six additional races - dryads, satyrs, elves, halflings, lizardmen, and giant-kin - that could possibly be accepted as druids (with level limits, of course). So I'm still not clear on how Pikel Bouldershoulder got away with being a "doo-dad."

And then we come to a, thankfully brief, section on - I kid you not - expanded rules for agriculture. I'm going to quote the opening sentence here, so you can see why I just stared at this when I read it:
The DM may use this expansion of the agriculture proficiency when druid characters assist a small village facing tough times or if a PC takes up farming.

"If a PC takes up farming." If your character has any inclination to do this, then I hate to break it to you, but even if you're not the DM, you're playing an NPC.

Next come the actual kits, with the book helpfully noting that yes, you can take a kit in addition to a druidic branch (though a few are restricted to particular branches). The kits themselves are a mixed bag, with kits like the Advisor or the Outlaw being "meh" in the extreme, whereas the Shapeshifter and the Totemic Druid get some impressive new/altered powers. The Lost Druid is a cool "druid goes to the dark side" kit, but it level-caps the class (and notes that if you're beyond the cap, you can't take the kit). The most PC-friendly seems like the Wanderer kit, since it gives you an excuse for being itinerant and not tied to a particular location (even if that seems like a bit of an awkward fit with all of those environmentally-focused druidic branch options). I'll also note that, in an odd tonal shift, the kits all make mention of their own sample character; no stats or anything are given, but when they talk about how the kit alters the class, they'll say "a Totemic Druid like Vanier can shapechange into the forms of his totem animal a number of times per day equal to his experience level divided by three (rounded down) plus one" instead of phrasing it in the second person. It's very odd.

The next chapter is druidic orders, and while I didn't read this book much when I first got it way back when, I recall that it was the one that blew my mind, simply because it put forward the idea that the worldwide druidic organization was monolithic only in terms of the 15th-level Grand Druid; below that, they were sub-divided into geographic regions, each of which had their own hierarchy. So rather than there only being (IIRC) three 14th-level Great Druids in the whole world, there were only three for a particular region. It opened up a lot of space - both creative and in terms of advancement - to my mind. (In fact, I have a vague recollection that I thought this was the case for Great Druids also, but the book makes it clear that's not the case; there's still just one of these guys in each campaign world.)

Oh, and did you know that there's a "Shadow Circle" within the druid organization? Yeah, the book puts forward that there's a cabal of druids (who are still True Neutral, mind you) who are staunchly anti-civilization and are trying to get their own people into positions of power. This has no mechanical representation whatsoever, and only gets a few pages of coverage before the book moves on. I wonder if their leader is the (Pipeweed-)Smoking Man.

The section on role-playing druids hits most of the expected notes. There's a bit here about worshiping Nature-with-a-capital-N versus nature deities, but that doesn't get as much coverage as I'd like, instead talking about playing your druid via various personality types, etc. It's not bad, but doesn't put a new spin on anything the way previous chapters did.

The chapter on druid magic, by contrast, gives us herbal magic. We still get new spells and magic items (with some cool options for allowing druids to link their life force to a tree, or even to become a treant), but the herbal magic section is...kind of like alchemy, actually. A tea that induces amnesia since the last time you slept? Pretty cool. Not exactly major magic, but that's kind of what you expect from herbalism.

Sacred groves are the subject of the final chapter, and these are honestly pretty cool too. It only seems to remember halfway through that these can also be magical, spending a lot of time talking about how druids will maintain and care for these places, but the powers they can have range from things like inducing prophetic dreams to natural scrying pools. And a section on cursed groves as well? Yes, please!

I'd be remiss if I didn't note that, in the book's section on references, it says that Nausicaä - the titular character from Hayao Miyazaki's film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - is a gray druid with the Hivemaster kit. No stats for Ohms, unfortunately.

Overall, this book was much better than I remember it being, and stands out as one of the better PHBRs. Almost every section tries to introduce some new twist on what druids are, do, or can be. It's a great example of "coloring within the lines," in terms of fleshing out more options without needing to invalidate the restrictions that are already here (though it does expand them sometimes). It would leaf that to future editions.

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Voadam

Legend
The druid is also, I'm fairly confident, the only class that carried the whole "you have to win a duel to advance to the next higher level" bit into AD&D 2E. The prior edition had a few other instances of that (monks, as I recall), but here it's a requirement that only druids need to fulfill (albeit only for 13th, 14th, and 15th level). That's because the druidic hierarchy is baked into that part of the class, and there can only be so many characters occupying the attendant slots of Senior Vice President Arch-Druid, Great Druid, and Grand Druid.
1e also had the assassin.

PH page 30:
In order for an assassin character to gain experience levels above the 13th (Prime Assassin), he or she must have the requisite experience points and then either assassinate the local Guildmaster Assassin (14th level) or challenge him or her to a duel to the death. Likewise, a 14th level player character assassin can journey to the place where the Grandfather of Assassins (15th level) has his or her headquarters and slay him or her by assassination or in a duel. Note that duplicity, trickery, ambush, and all forms of treachery are considered as fair by assassins. A higher level character can accept a challenge and then have the challenger slain by archers, for instance.
And assassins similarly only went up to level 15.
 


Voadam

Legend
Did it have any discussion of being True Neutral? Balancing evil against good or chaos versus law? That was a Moorcockian balance type concept in 2e that was explained in a way to suggest weird roleplaying requirements which impacted druids in particular.

2e PH page 65-66:

True Neutral: True neutral characters believe in the ultimate balance of forces, and they refuse to see actions as either good or evil. Since the majority of people in the world make judgments, true neutral characters are extremely rare. True neutrals do their best to avoid siding with the forces of either good or evil, law or chaos. It is their duty to see that all of these forces remain in balanced contention.
True neutral characters sometimes find themselves forced into rather peculiar alliances. To a great extent, they are compelled to side with the underdog in any given situation, sometimes even changing sides as the previous loser becomes the winner. A true neutral druid might join the local barony to put down a tribe of evil gnolls, only to drop out or switch sides when the gnolls were brought to the brink of destruction. He would seek to prevent either side from becoming too powerful. Clearly, there are very few true neutral characters in the world.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Did it have any discussion of being True Neutral? Balancing evil against good or chaos versus law? That was a Moorcockian balance type concept in 2e that was explained in a way to suggest weird roleplaying requirements which impacted druids in particular.
That comes up on pg. 59-62.

After calling True Neutral "the most misunderstood of all alignments," it eschews the idea that TN characters will seek a balance by acting one way and then the opposite shortly thereafter, saying that sort of unpredictability creates only chaos. Instead, it puts forward that druids consider each alignment to be "equally valid in a cosmic sense," remaining themselves "nonjudgmental and uncommitted" to such things. Instead, they concern themselves with the pragmatics of what's best for Nature over the long term.

It gives some examples of this, such as a druid who joins a party to kill an evil dragon not because they care that the dragon is evil, but because it's a threat to the local ecosystem, or because they can sell its treasure to procure resources to better protect/nurture the environment, or because she wants the party to owe her a favor in exchange for her help (which she'll use to send them on a quest that will help her protect the environment).
 

Voadam

Legend
Druids were always their own cult in D&D. 1e Dragonlance Adventures relegated them to offworld visitors only, Greyhawk had them as the Old Faith, Forgotten Realms assigned them a lot to the Nature gods. My favorite is probably Eberron's different orders with neat philosophies like protecting nature form aberrations and supernatural evils and a black dragon with orc followers being huge figures in the tradition.

The 1e PH says to think of them as the ancient celtic druid cult if it survived to medieval times. In 2e they emphasize that druids are only loosely tied to the historical ones and players are not required to try to emulate historical ones. The 2e PH also says they are an example of a priest class designed for a specific mythos.

It can fit a witch archetype, a merlin archetype, an advisor, a nature priest, a cultist of ancient Cthulhuian entities, a knowledge bard, a shaman, and others. In my current 5e game one player is using the druid class to effectuate a World of Darkness Werewolf concept. I've thought of using them to do a Bjornaer (sp?) mage concept from Ars Magica.
 


Orius

Adventurer
Druid is one of the better PHB splats, and I give a good deal of the credit here to the various alternate terrain druids instead of tying then all into forests. It helps to broaden them a bit.

There's a lot of crunchy stuff to work with here, and the herbalism stuff is something I've always wanted to expand on but never really got around to.

The real problem with druid flavor goes back to the origin of the cleric IMO. The cleric started out as a Van Helsing type character to counter a vampire PC that was wreaking havoc in Dave's campaign. Then I believe Gary morphed it into a more generic medieval Christian warrior monk. Around the time the game was first published, clerics were pretty much lawful, with chaotic demon worshipping "anti-clerics" functioning as their opposite counterparts. Druids first showed up in 1976, and I think their whole neutrality thing was due to them not being a Christian analog, but still opposed to Chaos, kind of serving in the virtuous pagan role. One of the things I like about this book is that it makes an effort to put the druid into a nature priest role that is its own thing. The Christian vs. devil worshipper plus romanticized old faith that D&D essentially started out is harder to work with when the game increasingly assumed polytheistic societies, and it's also harder to work with if you're doing a campaign that isn't strongly grounded in European cultural tropes.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Sounds like the herbalism magic section might be good to poach for ideas when using a herbalism kit in 5e.
Just be prepared to expand on what's there quite a bit. The actual number of herbal concoctions it presents is surprisingly small.
 

I really love the Complete Book of Druids. I enjoy the fluff that it adds to the Druids as a whole for RPing purposes. And yes I quite dig the whole "Highlander/Pokemon Gym Trainer" aspect where you have to fight your way to the top of the Hierarchy. I actually like using it in my DND games, although I make the upgrading of rank into more of a fluff thing while still allowing the level up to happen regularly. (So even if you do reach level 20 as an Druid, your technically not an Arch Druid until you actually fight and beat one. You just keep the Druid capstone for class mechanics sakes.)

The only other book that I enjoy, which adds to the Fluff similar to Complete Druids, would be the Complete Book of Necromancers.
 

cbwjm

Hero
I really love the Complete Book of Druids. I enjoy the fluff that it adds to the Druids as a whole for RPing purposes. And yes I quite dig the whole "Highlander/Pokemon Gym Trainer" aspect where you have to fight your way to the top of the Hierarchy. I actually like using it in my DND games, although I make the upgrading of rank into more of a fluff thing while still allowing the level up to happen regularly. (So even if you do reach level 20 as an Druid, your technically not an Arch Druid until you actually fight and beat one. You just keep the Druid capstone for class mechanics sakes.)

The only other book that I enjoy, which adds to the Fluff similar to Complete Druids, would be the Complete Book of Necromancers.
Complete book of necromancers was an incredible book, I was flicking through it before and it has some great ideas in it
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Everyone make ready! There are barbarians at the gates!

PHBR14 The Complete Barbarian's Handbook was something of a sea-change for this particular line. Up until now, it had been about taking a closer look at extant options for AD&D Second Edition characters rather than breaking new ground (psionics and humanoids notwithstanding). Here, however, we get brand new character options; or at least, brand new to Second Edition.

The barbarian comes to AD&D by way of the 1985 Unearthed Arcana (and amazingly, the 1E incarnation isn't reprinted here), which the book acknowledges as part of its disclaimer that this is a supplement for 2E rather than its precedessor, something which left me scratching my head since this came out in 1995, six years into Second Edition's lifespan. Was there anyone out there who looked at this and thought "oh wow! A new supplement for AD&D 1E"? The "2nd Edition" logo is still right there on the cover, you know.

As it is, barbarians always struck me as something of an odd fit anyway. I know that there's a never-ending debate about whether certain archetypes deserve their own class or can be represented with some lesser degree of mechanics, but for me barbarians were something to be fought rather than played. Notwithstanding the intuitive multiplicity of options that tabletop RPGs allow for, the implicit rejection of civilization seemed like it made for an adversarial stance with the underpinning assumptions of a lot of AD&D. I mean, unless you gave them golem-mechs and ritualized lycanthropy and all the other stuff that made Jakandor: Island of War's Knorr barbarians so different from your standard fantasy fare. Or I suppose you could have played The Horde: Barbarian Campaign Setting, in which case...actually, you know what? I'm not even going to say anything.

Moving on, this book smartly opens by trying to tackle the question of what defines a barbarian, not in terms of the game's playable niche but rather what typifies their conceptual archetype. It comes up with four characteristics: they come from areas that civilization considers uninhabitable (i.e. deep jungles, frigid mountains, any any other areas that result in an isolated society), that their homeland is unsuitable for agriculture (thus abetting a hunter-gatherer lifestyle), that they don't have what could broadly be termed "industrial" skills (not just a lack of metallurgy, engineering, or mining, but also only very basic carpentry, seamanship, or leatherworking), and a strong focus on survival - both in practical and religious activities - which keeps them from focusing on recreational activities (such as learning to read).

I admit, I thought that the quintessential barbarian characteristics would be something different:

200.gif


Moving on, I remember being quite surprised back when I first read this book, because the barbarian class was actually two classes: the "barbarian fighter" and the shaman (no relation to the Shaman book). These fall under different meta-class groups, with the former being a Warrior and the latter being a Priest.

The barbarian fighter struck me as a bit of an odd duck. I was expecting some sort of "barbarian rage" mechanic when I read it (though for the life of me, I can't figure out where I'd picked up the idea that such a thing was supposed to be there in the first place, especially as I hadn't read the 1E class when I first picked this book up), but there's none to be found in the standard class listing. While the barbarian fighter is a lot like a normal fighter in terms of attack progression and saves (except with a d12 Hit Die), his class abilities - as we'd refer to them now - include "leaping and springing" of all things. Apparently barbarians jumped like jackrabbits back in the day. They were also adept climbers the same way thieves were (some sort of reference to climbing trees?) and had "back protection," which was essentially an anti-backstab provision that let them not only avoid being struck from behind, but let them get a retaliatory strike in when someone tried.

Those are...interesting choices, but don't really play to my understanding of a barbarian is, especially given the lack of berserker abilities, my love for which is like a truck.

Barbarian shamans aren't much different than their fighter counterparts. They have a slightly smaller Hit Die, a worse THAC0, etc., but have the same class abilities (they can leap moderate obstacles in a single bound!) along with clerical spellcasting and turning undead. I confess that I sort of expected some greater differences here; do these guys learn to avoid being stabbed in the back as part of their spiritual training?

There's also a section on the advantages barbarians have when in their favored terrain that goes for both classes, but I'm going to skip slightly ahead to talk about the racial applicability of this class beyond humans...which is that it has none. Except it does. A little. You see, despite the base class descriptions saying that they're human only, we get rules for "demi-barbarians" later on, which can only be elves or dwarves, and only if they take certain kits (also present in this book), and only up to certain levels which, oddly, are slightly different if they multiclass. The entire thing seems somewhat pointless. Why not just say all that up-front?

Now, there's more to both classes than I initially covered; the entire second chapter expands on the first chapter's presentation of both the barbarian fighter and the shaman, with the various options straddling the line between supplementary information (e.g. more information about the talisman shamans use) and new rules (e.g. barbarian followers, XP bonuses for barbarian-esque activities). It's sort of a hodge-podge, but fairly modular in overall presentation, and I'll admit it does a good job in offering tools to try and make barbarians more than just a collection of ideas with no mechanical interface.

The kits likewise do a decent job in rounding out what's here. None of them stray too far from the basic barbarian archetype (e.g. we get more than one "battle rage" kit, with the Brute and the Ravager), but some of them are fairly surprising in the abilities they offer. An Islander, for instance, has limited shapechanging abilities, while the Wizard Slayer...well, does what it says on the tin, but don't expect this guy to play well with others when he gets XP bonuses from destroying magic items. The shaman kits range a bit further afield as a matter of course, with the Spiritist being my favorite; it eschews those odd class abilities, gains some pretty decent buffs, and even its primary drawback ("spirit war," where you go and fight a spirit battle in your dreams) has a chance of actually giving you a benefit instead of a penalty. Now that's the sort of drawback I like!

Of course, the book likewise notes that there are several kits from other books that are thematic fits for barbarians as well. (It even calls out how The Complete Wizard's Handbook has a "barbarian wizard" kit, despite this book talking about how non-shamanic magic is viewed with suspicion among barbarian tribes!)

There's little to say about the proficiencies chapter, simply because there isn't much there that's new. That's only somewhat hyperbolic to say; a lot of this chapter is talking about barbarian uses of existing proficiencies (sometimes with new ways to use them).

The book closes out with a pair of chapters that go over barbarian societies and tips for role-playing barbarians, respectively, but just like when I first read them, I simply couldn't get too excited over them. While the information here isn't bad for what it offers (deeper discussions of shamanic spirits, barbarian weaponry, social organization among barbarian tribes, etc.) it all hinges around a barbarian-centric campaign, presumably where all of the PCs are playing barbarian characters (either the new classes here, or other classes with barbarian-focused kits). That just seemed too far outside of my wheelhouse to really draw me in.

To be clear, this book succeeds in what it sets out to do, it's just that what it sets out to do is explore the idea of the barbarian as a sort of campaign template as much as it is a character class. It's similar to how, as was noted earlier, The Complete Priest's Handbook came across as having a lot of DM-focused information in a player-focused book. That's how this one felt as well.

Though I suppose a barbarian campaign could be fun if it was done right...


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

Moderator Emeritus
The Barbarian book was one I skipped. We already had a Barbarian kit in the Fighter's Handbook, so a whole book or new class didn't seem necessary to me.
 

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