Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Retrospective: The Complete Fighter's Handbook

AD&D 2nd Edition catches a lot of flak among old schoolers and I completely understand why that is. Nevertheless, as I've stated before, I don't think it's nearly as bad as its somewhat exaggerated reputation would suggest. I played 2e happily for many years and have fond memories of the adventures and campaigns in which I participated. For that matter, I probably wouldn't hesitate to play 2e again if someone I knew were starting up a new campaign using those rules. In short, I think 2nd Edition is just fine, even if it's not my preferred version of Dungeons & Dragons.

That's not to say 2e is not without problems – or, at least, that the larger 2e game line is not without problems and big ones at that. One of the biggest can be seen in its inordinate fondness for bloated (and frequently mechanically dubious) supplements, like 1989's The Complete Fighter's Handbook by Aaron Allston. This was the book that launched a thousand supplements, inaugurating not just the "PHBR" series, which would eventually include fifteen different volumes, but also the "DMGR" (9 volumes) and the "HR" (7 volumes) series as well. These supplements were of varying quality and entirely optional, but, as is so often the case, their mere existence placed a lot of pressure on referees to allow their use in their campaigns, often with disastrous results.

At 124 pages in length, The Complete Fighter's Handbook is an eclectic mix of new and optional rules for use by players of the fighter class and by Dungeon Masters wishing to include additional levels of details with regards to armor, weapons, combat, and related topics. In principle, it's not a bad idea for a supplement, akin in some respects to Traveller's Mercenary, both in terms of its content and the way that its publication changed the game forever. Once The Complete Fighter's Handbook was published, it was inevitable that there'd eventually be Complete Handbooks for every class and race in the game, each one adding further complexity and ever greater demands on the referee.

The book begins with a lengthy, eight-page treatment of armor and weapon smithing in the context of 2e's non-weapon proficiency system. On the one hand, that's a genuinely useful and even interesting subject for players and referees who want that level of detail in their campaign. On the other, it's also a lot of new rules material that most players and referees simply won't want. Ultimately, that's the paradox of this book: there's some good stuff in here, but I'm not sure the juice is worth the squeeze. It's also, as I've said, the first step on the supplement treadmill that would come to characterize AD&D 2nd Edition – not to mention undermining the edition's very raison d'être of making AD&D clearer, simpler, and more accessible. Alas, the need to keep selling books trumps all.

Next up are 24 pages devoted to 14 different "kits," a concept first introduced in Time of the Dragon, along with guidelines for modifying the kits or creating one's own. Unlike the kits from Time of Dragon, those presented here are mostly rather "generic" – gladiator, peasant hero, pirate, etc. – rather than being immersed in a specific cultural or social context. This is the same problem that would later befall 3e's prestige classes and probably for the same reason: it's harder to sell game material that is tied to a specific setting than it is to sell material usable by anyone who pays their $15. 

Then there's a similarly long section devoted to "roleplaying" that is a mixture of the banal ("warrior personalities"), the basic (campaign structure), and the half-interesting ("one-warrior type campaigns"). In many ways, this section exemplifies the Complete Handbook series as a whole: an overwritten mix of good and bad, with much of it unnecessary. The remaining half of the book is like this, too – lots of rules options relating to weapon proficiencies, combat, and equipment, mixed up with occasional bits of advice regarding their implementation. There's simply so much of it that I shudder at the thought of any referee making use of more than just a tiny percentage, because I imagine the effects of using more than that in a campaign would be confusion at best and catastrophe at worst.

That, ultimately, is my primary criticism of The Complete Fighter's Handbook and the books it inspired: it's too much and to little good end. There are a few good ideas scattered throughout but finding them is like looking for a diamond among a mountain of coal. Worse, as I've said, is the way that this book laid the groundwork for a new philosophy not just of play but of publishing that would hobble AD&D 2nd Edition until its – and TSR's – demise. I genuinely wish that weren't the case, because I think there's the germ of a good idea behind this book, but it's buried under so much dross that I find it hard to render a positive judgment in the end – a pity!

22 comments:

  1. Just to echo others on a previous post, keep writing this material! 2E is a blindspot for me, so it's nice to get another gamer's take on potentially interesting publications whose original release passed me by (probably because we switched from 1E to WHFRP at the time).

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  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. I bought eight of those "Complete" books and much later sold most of them off. I kept the Arms & Equipment guide (which still gets referred to at times), and the Book of Elves, and Dwarves. Those three got a lot of use, whereas the rest I found not really worth the expenditure.

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  3. I found the PHBR, DMGR and other splatbooks generally offensive of good taste, but the Complete Fighter had a few things I found genuinely useful (the style specializations and a few other bits about running combat) that made it as standard rules of my campaigns at the time. The same goes for the Complete Thief and Cleric.
    The only book I wholeheartedly accepted front-to-back at the time was the Complete Book of Humanoids.
    More than the Complete series (while tiresome in the end), it's the 2.5 books I really found annoying.

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  4. IIRC the only splatbooks I bought from this overall range were some of the HR series historicals. Played a fair bit of 2e overall - mostly Spelljammer and Planescape - but the bulk of the splatbooks left me uninterested. I mostly remember them from all the complaints about cheap shoddy bindings that started shedding pages before you'd even finished the first read-through. I was luck enough to avoid that on any of the few HR boks I bought but I've sure seen enough disintegrating PHBR and DMGR books over the years to know it was just that - luck.

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  5. I was very inspired by this book. The idea presented of an all fighter campaign and Kits making small but fun distinctions between characters of the same class.

    Combined with the even better Complete Thiefs handbook I was all about D&D with just these two classes and leaning into the low magic campaign.

    Sure eventually the books had power keep and worse content just to fill space and sell products, but inreally enjoyed the first two and ran innumerable urban campaigns where thief and fighter were the only PC classes and magic was for enemies.

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    1. I have long wanted to run an all-thief campaign.

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    2. All thiefs was 3/4th of our 90s D&D.

      If you are doing 2e stuff the Lankhmar Orange Box, is a 2e starter set that is underrated as a stripped down version of the 2e rules with some tweaks.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Leiber%27s_Lankhmar:_The_New_Adventures_of_Fafhrd_and_Gray_Mouser

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    3. I suspect they probably work best as sourcebooks for an All-X campaign.

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  6. My memory of the Complete Fighter's Handbook was that I really liked it when it was published, but later recognized the Pandora's box that it opened. My groups used the kits a lot, and in generally we really liked them, but the Fighting Styles and additional combat rules had mixed reaction. We used some rules but not others, which became problematic to keep track of. Using the kits became kind of necessary as they tended to up the power level of the characters, and over time that really changed character creation process in AD&D. I think many of us were blind to that because so many other RPGs at the time had complex character creation and combat systems. Some of the mechanics from the Complete Fighter's Handbook found their way into the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale PC games, and the added complexity and variety was welcome in those sorts of games where the computer can take care of keep track of all of the rules. But at the tabletop these sorts of "optional" rules are unwieldy and were ultimately why 2E gets a bad reputation.

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  7. well, 2e is basically 1e, cleaned up. I know there is a list of differences, but they are all tweaks (except maybe assassins). it played the same, ran the same modules, and was waaaaaay better organized.

    until the splatbooks showed up. Then GMs got sideswiped every week when a player whipped one out, and said "Today I want to play a HupMobile!" leaving the gamerunner trying to figure out what that meant. and of course, the players were VERY good at remembering the plusses, but conveniently forgot the negatives for each kit.

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  8. In my opinion two of DMGR handbook are the best: Complete Book of Necromancers and Monster's Mithology. Very good products

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  9. I would have liked to have seen all the complete handbooks trimmed down to just the kits bundled into a single book for each campaign setting. All class kits customized for Greyhawk. All class kits customized for Dark Sun, etc. As is they were too generic.

    Either that or keep them by class but have kits for each setting included, then it might have worked as a mini-advert for the setting.

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  10. As someone who started with 3e, so experienced the prestige class bloat (even if, as a kid, it seemed super awesome. A constant stream of new, cool prestige classes? 13 year old me was all for that), it's interesting how the same problem keeps coming up. In 3e, prestige classes were explicitly stated as being something the DM would pick and choose to fit the theme of their setting, and just like kits were a mix of very specific to an established setting and kinda generic. But when put into actual practice, people tend towards maximalism and adopt as many of the optional rules as they can, so something that was supposed to be a small and flavorful spice becomes overwhelming.

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  11. That's because at the end of the day:

    You don't need that much crap to play role playing games. TSR realized creating bloat made money. Nerds love data. To be the smartest guy in the room is the easiest Faustian deal of all-time for a lot of gamers. Before that what was TSR going to farm players with after the peak of the hobby plateaued and began to decline?

    And let's not forget that MOST industries do this.

    The entire hobby in general thrives on bloated amounts of systems, tweaks, twists, re-boots, digging up corpses and putting new makeup on them, etc.

    Even nerdy media is filled with bloat. Marvel and Star Wars at the moment just create back fill bloat to hook nerds that are addicted to info and trivia over actual visionary writing and radically new products.

    You really only need baseline products... whether it's D&D... or Star Wars. The rest is bloat.

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  12. The historical books were pretty good, and I always had a bit of a soft spot for the Complete Humanoids book, although I seem to remember that Swanmays were overpowered.

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  13. From my experience, the four character class splat books got the most mileage in my gaming group at the time (mid-90s). The Complete Book of Humanoids was interesting. Laying out character classes for various humanoids was a novel concept. also the Psionics Handbook, which was a double edged sword: it finally laid out a workable psionics system BUT in practice showed how unbelievably broken psionics were.

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    1. I have a friend who to this day almost always plays a psionic. As a DM you really needed to sit down and establish limits for psionic powers, most of them are extremely vague and can be abused easily.

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  14. I got a lot of use out of the historical books, even if we were pretty much running 1e, with a couple of 2e mechanics bolted on.

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    1. I must admit I liked some of the historical books, too.

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  15. I started playing in the 90s with the second edition and owned most of these complete x handbooks; Some were really good and others were pretty bad. The fighters handbook in particular for me was very useful because of the fighting style specialization rules, me and and my players use them to this day and I think these are far better at making characters unique than the kits.

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  16. This is completely unjustified criticism.
    The goal of the book was set out from the first pages which was "to differentiate between Bob the Fighter and Rob the fighter" which in older rulesets played out the same with no customisation.

    By the way I need to point out that early handbooks were written with 1e in mind. Psionics assumes 10gp to the pound which was changed in 2e. Thief's assumes that surprise is rolled on a d6 (in 2e a d10 is used). Wizard's assumes that items have a selling price. They don't have one in 2e!
    This changed in subsequent handbooks in which they started to experiment with the limits of game design with mixed results.

    Also I can't understand this peculiar fascination others posters have with the Humanoids handbook. Most of it was a complete unplayable mess.

    Finally I can't do anything else but sing praise for the Fighter's book. It is IMHO the best of the series and a must buy.

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