Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 15

Time for another roundup of my twitter threads on old school Dungeons & Dragons products! Let’s jump right in:

The Complete Fighter’s Handbook (1989), by Aaron Allston. I haven’t yet touched any of the “handbook” supplements that were made for 2nd edition AD&D!

The Complete Fighter’s Handbook was the first in a long line of handbooks intended to expand the variety of options for characters, races and campaigns in 2nd edition AD&D. It would introduce new character options, equipment, and combat rules.

This book introduced the idea of character “kits,” that could create specialized characters, in this case specialized fighters. 1st edition AD&D, especially with Unearthed Arcana, had added lots of new classes, creating a rather cumbersome and random selection. 2nd edition AD&D chopped things down to fundamentals, removing some beloved classes like the barbarian and cavalier. This was annoying to many players (like me), but they were implemented as specialized kits for the basic fighter class. (Ranger and paladin remained separate.)

The kits include, among others: barbarian, berserker, cavalier, gladiators, samurais, swashbucklers, and amazons. Each kit came with specialized abilities to distinguish them from the others. For example: amazons get a bonus to their first attack against any new male opponent, who is assumed to underestimate their fighting ability.

IMHO, the kit abilities were a bit unbalanced, and some got better powers than others. The berserker rage, which boosts HP and damage, is a much better ability than the gladiator’s extra weapon proficiencies. But the kits gave players options to distinguish their characters.

The Handbook also gives a LOT of new combat rules, including rules for “called shots” (targeting a specific body part) and lots of new unarmed combat options. Equipment includes new weapons, largely gladiator and Japanese weapons, and rules for making “piecemeal” armor.

New roleplaying rules are also included, such as suggestions for running campaigns where everyone plays a fighter! This was a big departure from traditional party thinking back in the day.

And the Fighter’s Handbook is a high-quality production! It included both B&W art as well as a few full-color pages. The last one is a personal favorite. (Which I believe was also used as a Dragon Magazine cover.)

Overall the “Complete” series of books ended up being very successful. There were 15 volumes alone on classes and races, ending with The Complete Ninja’s Handbook in 1995, and just as many historical reference and DM reference books!

X9: The Savage Coast (1985), by Merle and Jackie Rasmussen and Anne C. Gray. Up next: a return to look at another entry in the “Expert” series of modules, many of which were what I grew up with!

The Savage Coast, part of the long-running X series for “basic” Dungeons and Dragons, is a bit of a weird adventure: it is more a setting than an adventure with a specific quest. It lays out the “savage” lands of the world of Mystara far to the west of the main campaign setting.

The Savage Coast, of which a map is included, is a strange land filled with new monsters and unusual races, such as the tortles (tortoise men), lupins (dog men) and cay-men (little lizard men).

The plot? Basically: each of the characters hears a story about fabulous treasures in the “unexplored” frontier. (I put unexplored in quotes because, of course, there are intelligent nonhuman races there!) Characters are each given different tales, some false, to lure them.

The adventure consists of a scattered collection of wilderness encounters, usually centered on the settlements and nests of the native inhabitants. The entire module is more of an outline than a full-fledged adventure.

The adventure *does* have a climax, of sorts: the discovery of the lost city of Risilvar, where the PCs can fight against a new type of undead! The joke, however, is that the module provides almost no treasure at this location!

The Savage Coast module is perhaps most noteworthy for introducing the setting that would later be explored in more detail, and with dramatic changes, in the Red Steel boxed set introduced in 1995. In the Red Steel setting, the Savage Coast has gone from an unexplored frontier to a violent and lawless collection of colonies and primitive city states, all vying for control, with dog-men, cat-men, spider-men, and cay-men leading the non-human civilizations.

Overall, The Savage Coast isn’t particular memorable as an adventure! It *did* present a nice change of pace from the original, rather civilized, Mystara setting!

Night of the Vampire (1994), by Richard Baker.  I pretty much fell out of playing D&D regularly in the early 90s when I graduated college and headed to graduate school, which means that I missed a lot of wild and fascinating products!

This one is a gorgeous treat: it was a high-quality product at the height of TSR’s success, and it shows in its production values. It is also one of the unusual products that came with an audio CD!

The CD possesses atmospheric music and dialogue that would set the stage and help the Dungeon Master run the adventure. The adventure book tells the DM which tracks to play, and when.

This audio accompaniment was part of TSR’s method of making the game both easier to get into and more competitive with computer games, that were starting to eat into their market. The discs started with “First Quest,” in 1994, a self-contained introduction to D&D.

But what do you do after finishing First Quest? Then you could get the Karameikos: Kingdom of Adventure campaign setting. Night of the Vampire was the second adventure set in this retooled D&D Basic setting.

The plot: the player characters are shipwrecked near the Vandevicsny Manor, where they are invited to shelter by the gracious hosts and even stay for the wedding of their daughter to local lord Iajo Moubotka. But some of the guests have hidden scores to settle, and a number of sinister plots are underway that the PCs must thwart, if they can. But worst of all, as the module title says, there is a vampire among them!

As low-level characters (1st-3rd level), the PCs can’t fight the vampire directly, but must instead use their wits and tools at hand to survive the night, after which they can hunt the monster in his lair! Because of this, the module really runs much more like a classic vampire horror movie, with PCs waving garlic and holy symbols and trying to keep people alive, when attacks can come without warning.

The module is really well-written, though the identity of the vampire is pretty obvious! Of course, this is designed as an entry level adventure, and I’m guessing playtesting indicated players needed a lot of help. Heck, even the map loudly tells the players what they’re in for!

That map, though, shows the incredibly gorgeous design that went into the product. See also the interior art and color, which really adds to the atmosphere.

And I really love this partly colored illustrations that are peppered throughout the book.

There are a number of handouts also included, such as this invitation to the betrothal party!

Overall, Night of the Vampire is a gorgeous little product. I haven’t listened to the audio yet, but I understand it is hilariously bad. See this link for more!

The Book of Shamans (1978), by Ed Lipsett. We end today with a tale of two products, one very old, the other one of the last TSR D&D products!

This one looks old, and it is: keep in mind that 1977-1979 was when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released! So this was a product by an independent small press right near the beginning of D&D’s explosive popularity!

Obviously, the book is designed to introduce the concept of shamans to D&D, as a new type of spell-caster. The back cover tells a little story to give readers the gist of it.

The author really tried to make the shaman very distinct from other character classes, and this is reflected in the spells they have available, such as “scapulomancy.” (Which is a word that doesn’t get used very often.)

Most of the shaman’s powers are related to the protection, rescue, and destruction of souls, however. Even at a relatively low level they can enter the netherworld to retrieve the soul of a dying creature.

And at the highest levels, they can do cool things, like transfer their souls to their shadows, making their body impervious to damage!

Reading the book, one gets the feeling that things aren’t super-well balanced, even for that era. But this was clearly a passion project; it includes representations of native art scattered throughout the book.

And, like a lot of earlier RPG products, the book contains a bibliography! The author clearly tried to do proper research on the subject. (Though, not surprising for the time, it doesn’t include any actual native voices.)

It’s fun to contrast this book with the first official AD&D product about shamans, written by Kevin Hassall and published in 1995!

This TSR book on shamans was another product originally developed by Mayfair Games for their Role Aids line of RPG products; however, after TSR acquired the line, they published a couple of “in the pipeline” products: Shaman and Chronomancer, which I’ve written about before.

Like the earlier Book of Shamans, Shaman includes a helpful little story text to give players an inkling of what the whole idea is:

The spells of the newer book focus more on dealing with spirits, as opposed to souls, as well as communing with nature.

And new stat blocks are given for those spirits, for players to summon, fight and/or deal with!

It is interesting how TSR did not develop in-house its own shaman work, which is an illustration of how strongly western-focused D&D was at that time (with exceptions like Oriental Adventures and Al-Qadim).

When Wizards of the Coast took over, they would eventually make shamans a big part of the 4th edition of D&D, where they would appear in the Player’s Handbook 2 as a major class in 2009!

Okay, that’s it for this edition of old school D&D! More to come soon, I hope!

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