The 2E era of D&D is known for having simultaneously the greatest emphasis on distinctive settings in the game’s history and the greatest downplaying of the classic dungeon-crawling mode of play on the part of the game’s publisher ever seen. This makes sense given the general ethos of the era.
For one thing, in gaming circles it was fashionable to run down playstyles you considered less sophisticated, and dungeon crawling was considered to be nonsense for babies who hadn’t grown up to do something more oriented around exploring a distinctive setting or playing through a GM’s preplanned story; whilst I don’t think TSR’s management at the time paid attention to such things, I could believe that their designers did. Another factor, which I think would have been much more on the mind of the Lorraine Williams-helmed board of directors, was that a large chunk of TSR’s D&D-related profits arose not from the game itself but from the various ranges of tie-in novels based on the various settings that had emerged ever since Weis and Hickman had turned the Dragonlance trilogy into an unlikely hit.
Infamously, it was the novels that put paid to TSR. They were published through an arrangement with Random House, who handled the process of getting them into the distribution chain and as such were the link between TSR and the major book shops. This had the advantage of being able to leverage Random House’s much better connections in the world of traditional book shops (as opposed to hobby stores), putting the novels and other TSR products in front of an audience other game publishers could only dream of.
The disadvantage of the arrangement, of course, is that TSR was keeping the book stores at arm’s length, and as a result they were less able to keep an eye on how many of the books were being returned unsold by the stores. The way the publishing industry worked at the time – I have no idea whether it still works the same way in these devastated post-Amazon/ebook years – was that unsold books would get returned to the publisher by distributors in return for a full or partial refund. This means that a problem could arise – as it did for TSR – if you ended up shipping far more product to the distributor than they and the bookstores they serve were actually able to sell, and especially could be a problem if the end-of-year returns from a distributor ends up being much larger than you expected.
That’s exactly what happened to TSR: Random House returned a massive amount of stuff to them at the end of 1996, and presented them with a huge bill for it. This wrecked their cashflow, in turn meaning that they couldn’t afford to print new runs of the material which was selling, making business impossible, and in 1997 Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR.
Wizards kept the old branding alive for the remainder of 2E’s run and then retired it, releasing 3E under their own name. Whilst 3E is sometimes held up, not without justification, as seeing a new embrace of dungeon crawling as a legitimate focus of play, at the same time if you take a close look at Wizards’ output after acquiring TSR you can kind of see that ongoing gear shift in process. The two supplements I’m going to be reviewing for this article include one of the last really great releases put out by TSR, and an early Wizards contribution to the game line; they form a two-book set which between them offer both the peak of the 2E ethos and the beginnings of 3E’s back-to-the-dungeon movement.
World Builder’s Guidebook
Penned by Richard Baker and released in October 1996, the World Builder’s Guidebook is not the last product released by pre-buyout TSR, but it might just have a claim to be the last truly great product they put out before going bust.
The Guidebook is, in effect, the natural outcome of applying a very setting-oriented approach to a product line which has a DIY ethos hardwired into it so intrinsically that no number of highly railroaded Dragonlance modules can quite root it out. Whilst by this point TSR had put out a wide variety of fantasy settings, DMs still loved to create their own campaign worlds, and the Guidebook offers you tools and support to do just that.
Baker was a good pick to write the book, since he had proven his chops recently by co-designing the Birthright setting, which aside from its ambitious “the PCs are all national leaders” premise also had one of the more original game worlds associated with it, largely out of the necessity to make each kingdom deep and detailed enough to be interesting as a PC’s potential holding. Baker crams this thin volume to the gills both with useful guidance and pointers and handy tables to roll on for random inspiration, covering worldbuilding at every stage ranging from looking at big-picture questions like detailing planetary geography and cosmology to tackling the layout and culture of a single kingdom or filling out the details of a local region. A handy pad of blank hex maps allowed you to easily scale up or scale down sections of map so you could zoom in or out as you wished, and accompanying advice on designing plausible-seeming geography helps the reader avoid pratfalls like rivers that run uphill or go in circles; the book even sqeeuezes in discussion of cultures, history, religions and types of government that ensures that the worldbuilding process is not exclusively about physical geography and climate.
What makes the book really stellar, though, is Baker’s appreciation that there is no one true starting point for worldbuilding; the book is set up such that you can start at any point and fill in the gaps from there. You can begin with a global overview and zoom in, or start out with the local area your campaign starts in and zoom out, or begin with a particular historical, social, or theological schtick you want to bring in and fill it out from there; Baker not only suggests a range of different starting point, but also gives tips on directions you can go from there.
As such, the Guidebook is not solely useful for those who want to craft an entire campaign world, but is also handy if you just want to whip up a smaller setting, or if you want idea to help you fill in the gaps in an existing setting. It won’t make a full-fledged Tolkien out of you in the span of its 96 pages, but it will at least give you a set of tools that can give you a good shot at cooking up something interestingly distinctive. Thanks to Wizards making the book available on PDF – complete with the pad of forms – this late-TSR treasure is, thanks to not relying too much on the 2E system, worth looking at for DMs of any edition, and will be helpful for anyone wanting to cook up a fantasy world even for non-gaming purposes.
Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook
It isn’t necessarily the case that Wizards were exclusively responsible for drifting D&D back in the direction of embracing dungeon crawls rather than being faintly embarrassed of them; when TSR did reprints of the 2E Player’s Handbook and Dungeon-Master’s Guide the (grotesque, awful, absolutely no good) cover art was very much dungeon-focused. Nonetheless, even if the seeds of the back-to-the-dungeon approach had been sown by TSR, it was still Wizards that cultivated them and harvested the results. Part of their early encouragement of this trend was allowing Bruce Cordell to do the Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook as a follow-up to the World Builder’s equivalent. Cordell certainly seems grateful for Wizards’ rescue of TSR, since he makes sure to thank Peter Adkison for brokering that deal.
It’s an open question as to whether the version of the book that was actually published resembles the version that would have come out under the oversight of the previous TSR management – or even whether the old guard would have greenlit the project in the first place – but what we actually get here is not just a top-notch batch of dungeon design advice but also, I’d argue, a foundational document of Wizards’ approach to the dungeon concept, espousing a philosophy of dungeon design that would be reflected in later 2E, 3E, 4E and 5E products.
Cordell is very much not working in the mode of the “megadungeon”, a tradition running from Gary’s old Castle Greyhawk dungeon to latter-day OSR efforts. He does acknowledge it as a thing briefly in his opening chapter (though not using the “megadungeon” term, which hadn’t come into common currency yet), and he does show an understanding of how megadungeons tend not to worry much about such things as consistent ecosystems or logic in favour of providing a deep, varied adventuring environment which can act as the central “tentpole” of a campaign. Nonetheless, the bulk of the advice here is oriented towards designing more contextualised dungeons, based either around a particular history or an ecological niche or otherwise serving either as a thematically appropriate node of a story or as a believable, plausible setting feature, which is not only how they’re deployed in most Wizards products going forwards from this, but also seems to have been the design philosophy behind the dungeons in Baldur’s Gate and other games in the new generation of D&D videogames Wizards were able to cultivate after taking away the tie-in licence to SSI and giving it to fresher faces.
In the ends of supporting producing such dungeons, Cordell works through various examples – interdimensional hellholes, castles, sky realms in the clouds, and of course your classic caves and underground complexes all get a treatment. He also provides two things that TSR hadn’t shown much interest in for quite some times – namely, dungeon geomorphs to act as aides for dungeon design, as well as a random dungeon generation system based on an extensive revision of the one from the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide. The World Builder’s Guidebook‘s advice on government types and the like had gone some way to putting back into the game features that Gary had provided and later generations had left out, but this supplement embraces a design approach which had gone out of fashion after Gary left so extensively that it feels like with this information 2E is finally complete – the various bits and bobs left out of the 2E Dungeon Master’s Guide having finally slipped out in this and a range of other supplements.
Under Wizards, the differing portfolios of Baker and Cordell would reveal their different strengths – Baker seems to have consistently been a setting guy, acting as Creative Director on the 3E Forgotten Realms setting, whilst Cordell has penned various notable dungeon modules, including the extremely well-regarded Sunless Citadel. But it’s these two guides which, in my eyes, stand as the clinching proof of their particular merits as designers. Between the two of them, these products not only provide for 2E purposes a wealth of tools of a sort that had been provided in the 1E Dungeon Master’s Guide but had been left out of the 2E equivalent, but also provide a much improved and more robust toolkit that goes much deeper than Gygax’s original offerings ever did.