Among grognards of a certain generation the hardbacks of 1E AD&D are looked on especially fondly. At first they just consisted of the three generally-embraced core books plus Deities & Demigods (pushed as a core book by Gary Gygax himself when it first came out) and Fiend Folio, consisting largely of monsters submitted to White Dwarf by British gamers with all the wild and wacky variation in quality which comes from that. After Gary came back from his stint in Hollywood pushing for the production of a D&D movie in order to take the reins again and turn around TSR’s flagging sales, he made the periodic publication of new hardbacks a top priority. This process began with Monster Manual II, a decent monster supplement largely dedicated to providing a whole mess of lawful neutral, neutral good, chaotic neutral and neutral evil monsters, since those categories hadn’t been formally included in the alignment system when the first Monster Manual was being composed, plus further embellishing the ranks of devils and demons and other such monster categories; it then led to products with rather mixed receptions like Unearthed Arcana, Oriental Adventures, and the Manual of the Planes and by the end of the line the hardback series varied between putting out highly setting-specific stuff like Dragonlance Adventures and corresponding books for Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms on the one hand and on the other hand churning out poorly-received content-light books like the Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, which aside from restating the proficiency rules introduced in Oriental Adventures really didn’t merit being presented as a major supplement.
Less celebrated or acknowledged is the way that the approach of putting out a series of hardback books with trade dress to match the core rulebooks providing major, central expansions to the system continued during 2E. Some of these books have been widely commented on; Legends & Lore gets attention as the direct 2E sequel to Deities & Demigods, whilst the Player’s Option books provided a range of extremely controversial alternate systems which many have characterised as the rise of a “2.5E” comparable to 3.5E, but the comparison there doesn’t quite work – not only am I not aware of anyone implementing all the Player’s Option rules (indeed, I think some of the options presented were mutually exclusive), but on top of that almost no subsequent products assumed that you were using Player’s Option, more or less guaranteeing that the proposed tweaks to the system would gain no traction.
For this article, I’m going to take a look at three hardbacks which to my knowledge haven’t been commented on that much – despite being interesting insights into the development and approach of early 2E and the system’s drift in the mid-1990s.
Tome of Magic
Compiled by “Zeb” Cook following on from his work producing the core 2E books, Zeb’s introduction talks about how he didn’t just want to produce a book which was a big list of extra spells, but for the most part that (along with a grab-bag of whimsical new magic items) is what the Tome is. That said, some of the new ideas that Cook throws in for good measure do help to flesh out the 2E magic system.
Although the infamous wild mage stands out here, additional options for wizards are also given. In particular, there’s guidelines on playing an elementalist, providing a nice showcase of how you don’t have to be limited by the standard division of spells into schools when coming up with specialist mages for 2E purposes. The book also introduces the idea of “metamagic” – subject of so much unfortunate power gaming and character build optimisation in its 3E implementation – but it’s moderated somewhat by the fact that metamagic effects arise not from some sort of Feats equivalent but by casting spells, so if you want to do a bunch of metamagic stuff you will need to devote some spell slots to the metamagic spells which allow you to modify other spells.
There’s also a range of nice new options for priests – new spheres are proposed and filled out with spells which will help anyone trying to round out a pantheon (the spheres of Law, War, and Wards are particularly appropriate and welcome in this respect), and guidelines are offered on Quest spells – off-the-scale priest spells of incredible power that are given out not on request like other priest spells but are bestowed under particular circumstances at the discretion of a priest’s deity. On top of that, the book introduces the possibility of clerics with a shared faith (or at least allied gods) coming together to perform group ceremonies of greater collective power than they could have accomplished individually, and provides appropriate spells to enable and support that, explicitly underlining that this is a special thing that priests can do but wizards can’t.
The really nice thing about these various additions is that they really help underscore the demarcation between wizardly and clerical magic, emphasising how one involves personal manipulation of occult forces (exemplified by the wild mage, who isn’t entirely in control of their own power, and users of metamagic who use their knowledge to modify their capabilities on the fly), whilst the other involves personal service to a higher power with its own priorities and agenda (Quest spells) and a faith shared with a wider community (collective spellcasting). I wouldn’t necessarily want to make all the options in Tome of Magic available at once – like any game supplement, I’d want to exercise a lot of discretion as to what features actually make the cut in my campaigns – but equally I think it’s a useful resource to have to hand.
Book of Artifacts
Another Zeb Cook contribution, this consists largely of a book-length treatment of the subject of magical artifacts. Taking in all the old favourites from the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide and throwing in a bunch of new artifacts, in keeping with the general “context is king” approach of this period of 2E the individual entries not only concentrate a lot on the histories of the items in question but also throw in suggestions for thematically-appropriate ways to destroy the items in question. There’s also a good essay on how D&D artifacts are designed and what pitfalls to avoid and what to remember to include, as well as a detailed bit at the end describing how PCs can construct and recharge their own magic items – covering a bit of a disappointing gap in the 2E Dungeon Master’s Guide. Since the supplement spends a lot of time talking about general system-independent considerations in artifact design and in presenting the artifacts in question, this is a supplement which can find use in pretty much any edition of D&D, or any game in which powerful-but-perilous artifacts like those in D&D are thematically appropriate.
Dungeon Master Option: High-Level Campaigns
This came out in 1995, alongside the much more controversial Player’s Option books, and was written by Skip Williams who would go on to be one of the co-designers of 3E (and the one who had served at TSR/Wizards the longest out of the team of Williams, Tweet and Cook). The Player’s Option books were controversial mainly for offering a bunch of highly divergent options for radically changing major D&D systems, and are sometimes seen as being testbeds for experimental game systems – a way for TSR to test the ground for a prospective third edition of D&D. Many of their innovations didn’t make the cut, like the spell point system. Conversely, there’s a bunch of ideas in here which would eventually creep into 3E; for instance, Williams provides guidelines for assigning full PC-style ability scores to monsters, a shift which would become standard in 3E, and provides a replacement system for magic item creation which seems easier to handle, is less reliant on the DM feeling generous, and generally seems to make it a bit easier for PCs to craft magic items on a regular basis.
In principle, Williams is trying to address the issues of high-level play that make it difficult to handle. In practice, however, the results seemed a bit mixed. A lot of the advice offered consists of broadly good ideas which you should be applying at lower levels anyway, like crediting opponents with the level of intelligent they are supposed to have rather than playing monsters as utter idiots who don’t know their own strengths and weaknesses and don’t come up with sensible tactics and don’t have any sense of self-preservation. Other contributions seem to be counter-productive; if you want to convince DMs that high-level play is viable and won’t degenerate into the PCs utterly steamrolling everything, tacking on rules to take PCs up to 30th level and adding amazing new powers they get on the way there kind of isn’t the way to do it.
Skip Williams was, for a long time, in charge of the Sage Advice column in Dragon which would answer people’s rules queries. This, perhaps, ended up shaping his approach to design; for instance one section in the book consists of a bunch of what are effectively patch notes for existing spells from the core books and Tome of Magic, adding new constraints and details on them to deal with edge cases and potential exploits. This feels to me like the start of the “system as software” approach which would result in 3.5E emerging to patch perceived problems in 3E and, eventually, the endless rolling releases of errata for 4E – in other words, features of Wizards-era D&D which turned me off their versions and which 5E has thankfully dialled back on. Then again, this also seems to be an artifact of TSR apparently trying to have their cake and eat it when it came to the rollout of these Player’s/DM Option books, in that they seem to have not wanted to do a third edition but at the same time clearly want to make sweeping changes and tweaks to the game of the sort which you’d really want to roll out a new edition to implement.
Perhaps the most damning feature of the book is that, despite of all its talk about the necessary thinking behind running high-level adventures, it doesn’t really come up with a model for them that isn’t just a more garish and high-stakes version of the “adventuring party wanders around righting wrongs” model for lower-level play – which I suppose explains why so much of the advice is actually equally applicable to earlier phases in a campaign. The assumption that adventuring looks the same no matter what level you are seems to be axiomatic to Wizards-era D&D, but there’s fairly clear evidence here that the attitude was spreading in TSR even before Wizards bought them out.
What I find absolutely maddening about this is that up until around this point D&D actually had offered a range of propositions and models for how high-level play could work as a distinctive style from low-level play, both in the AD&D line and in BECMI, which this book almost completely ignores. There’s some redundant discussion of ascending to godhood which doesn’t really add much to what’s offered in Legends & Lore, but there is, so far as I can tell, absolutely no reference to domain management. Making your own temple, castle, or thieves’ guild and gathering a bunch of lower-level followers had been a feature of D&D since its original publication, but which ironically had enjoyed far better support in BECMI than in the Advanced line, so this was a golden opportunity to address that that Skip completely blows.
To be fair, it might not be entirely his fault. The same year this came out saw the debut of Birthright, a campaign setting specifically designed around and focused on domain management. However, the domain management rules there were extremely closely tied to the campaign setting (to the point where if I remember right players were expected to have the ruler’s supplement for their domain handy in order to play the game), and as such wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for a straight port to, say, Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. Given that this book is already extremely happy to revisit mechanics published elsewhere, you’d think that providing a more generic take on the Birthright domain management system for use with other settings would be a good idea, but perhaps management decided to keep that exclusive to Birthright.
At the end of the day, I rather think that if you end up playing 2E to the extent that you’d need to do to get characters up to these stratospheric heights, over time you would become versed enough with the system that you wouldn’t need a guidebook to tell you how to handle your PCs anyway; nor does Skip really convince me that the best thing to do isn’t to just retire PCs when they hit the level where they break the game and start over. This DM opts not to use this book.