In the comments to a recent blogpost (“The More Things Change: An essay on the future of RPGs”) that I wrote, Johnn suggested that he’d like to see a list of my top twenty D&D supplements. It wasn’t easy, but I finally narrowed the choice down to a mere 20 choices – with an additional 27 honourable mentions, that almost made the list! And another dozen or so that I at least thought about including but havn’t read yet. And another twenty more that I have on my shopping list but havn’t been able to afford yet. I deliberately excluded the three core rulebooks.
Having decided on the contents of the list, I then started to think about what I should say about them. The more I considered it, the less reasonable it seemed to just give a list with no annotation. I thought I should explain why each item was on the list, and why I found these particular supplements so valuable. I don’t know whether or not others would agree with my choices, nor do I know whether or not I would make the same choices after buying a few more items on that wishlist, or reading some of the stack awaiting my attention. But as of right now, these are the indispensible volumes (excluding the core rules); hopefully, other GMs will discover something they either didn’t know about, or will find a reason to actually buy something they’ve been wondering about.
It didn’t take long for the results to exceed any reasonable single post, so I’ve broken it up into 3 parts, representing 4 broad categories of supplements (plus those honourable mentions). Where possible, I’ve given a cover image, linked to the Amazon page for that particular supplement.
Part 1: 8 General Supplements
These supplements are not useful for any one subject or topic, and as such they are often useful in campaigns other than D&D. They may be about Rules, or be useful tools or referances. But they’ve all earned their place on my bookshelves, and at least 4 of them get taken to every D&D game that I run.
For anyone who contemplates a campaign with evil PCs, this supplement is essential reading. It’s only slightly less useful and important for anyone who merely wants to have NPCs to throw at their players. Hey, what do you know – that’s just about everyone. Even if you aren’t using 3.x; Even if your campaign isn’t fantasy, it’s Sci-Fi or Wild West or whatever; Even if you’re playing a choose-your-own-adventure!, this is still reccomended reading.
…And A 10-foot pole
This supplement is incredibly hard to find these days. Originally published in 1999, this supplement is one of only two products that made the top-20 without actually being intended to be a 3.x supplement (it was designed for Rolemaster). It lists prices for commonly available goods in various time periods from modern times back to Imperial Rome, and all points in between. You will need to work out a conversion rate for the relevant era to the currency in use within your game; it’s then ready to use. And indispensible.
Finding a copy can be tricky, because the title is made up of common terms; do a search on Amazon and all you will find is a heap of stuff about people of Polish descent. No offence to them, but that’s not what we’re looking for. The best technique is to search for the authors, M Bernhardt and John Curtis.
In a future blog, I’ll look at converting the prices from the Rolemaster coinage system to the D&D standard (and at coinage for RPGs in general).
(Fantasy Flight Games)
I’ve mentioned this supplement before, for example in discussing
The Flói Af Loft & The Ryk Bolti. It details how to adjust the CR of any creature to match any changes you make to it. Usually, these are upgrades, but the system works equally well when “de-tuning” creatures to make them more suitable for PCs, or for the creation of new monsters based on existing ones. And that’s just the first chapter or two! The rest gives detailed advice by creature type, in effect permitting the GM to do the sort of min-maxing for his encounters that players do for their PCs. Every time I use it, I wonder how I managed without it.
I write house rules as necessary and as inspired. Genre-specific. Game-System Specific. Campaign-Specific. Even – when it’s appropriate – scenario-specific. (I won’tgo into details on this subject now, as I expect to write a number of blogs on it in the future, the subject is that big). Before you can effectively change the rules, you have to understand the existing ones – in depth, and in detail. That’s where the Rules Compendium comes in; it not only does it explain some of the most-misunderstood rules in 3.x, it incorporates all the errata on those subjects that had been released at the time of writing, and it also gives explanatory glimpses behind the curtain to explain why certain rules are what they are.
Strongholds & Dynasties
I don’t use this book anywhere near it’s full potential. Yet. Or, to put it another way, I’m still discovering ways in which it can enhance my campaigns. Superficially, its a system for the design and construction of strongholds, castles, and so on. But it also gives details of how characters (and NPCs) might use magic to shortcut construction, and that information comes in handy so many times and in so many ways that it’s just not funny. In my Rings Of Time campaign (now shut down due to a shortage of time), at one point an erupting volcano threatened the Kingdom of one the PCs – this was a problem vastly beyond their capacity to affect directly through magic, so they came up with the idea of a series of trenches to control the lava flow and redirect it into a swamp containing nothing and no-one of value (so far as they knew at the time, but that’s another story). How many Dig spells were necessary? Was it more effective to use Wish spells, despite the costs? How about Miracles? Combinations of the above? How much could be done by the citizens? S&D gave the numbers needed to prevent hand-waving the encounter with the lava and turned it into one of the most memorable sessions of that campaign, as the PCs struggled to get the ditch dug in time!
I bought this about six months ago, but had so many other game supplements to read and assimilate that I’m only getting to it now. And I only have another 40 or so to go after it. Unless I buy more in the meantime – which I probably will. And that’s ignoring the hundreds of downloaded ebooks that I have – some free, some paid for – that are also awaiting attention. It takes a pretty special game supplement to make a top-20 “best” list before I’ve even started using it, but Experts 3.5 is THAT good.
The supplement is all about NPC experts, but it tackles its subject matter in a more comprehensive manner than any other game supplement I’ve ever read. The system it offers defines what it calls metaclasses, which profile generic types of expert, then constructs 33 specific types of expert within these profiles, in such a way that they are far quicker to generate on the fly – and in far greater detail – than most GMs are capable of. The supplement is 90 pages long – and then adds another 86 pages of appendices on the top! Their system WORKS, and that’s the bottom line.
This takes the most difficult (and potentially rewarding) creation tasks of the GM and provides additional referances and resources to make the process easier. Highest on the list is the creation of cities and other urban landscapes, and for the information on that subject alone, this supplement would make my top 20. Throw in the material on archetypical locations and magic items and NPCs and general advice on campaigns and this was an easy choice for the top 20!
Through Dungeons Deep by Robert Plamondon
(Norton Creek Press)
This is the book that taught me how to be a Good player and GM. It’s my recollection that I bought it based on a review in an early issue of Dragon Magazine. Before I encountered this, I had no notion of executing a contextual background, of how a collection of statistics could be interpreted into a personality, or of the fidelity of plausibility within a game. I had constructed a multilevel dungeon that had no rhyme or reason (which I still have, filed away) and the beginnings of some good ideas for cultural uniqueness in different species – the sort of thing that Johnn wrote about in Races Should Make A Difference (opens in a new window) but had not really figured out how to manifest those ideas in any concrete way.
Later, I was able to reverse-engineer the processes described to find ways of expressing a personality as a set of statistics, which became the foundation of a process of character generation that I use to this day.
While I long ago moved beyond the scope of the book in many ways, it is fondly remembered to this day (I can only remember it, as I lent my copy to someone else who never returned it). Recently republished, a replacement copy is high on my wish list at Amazon.
Deities & Demigods (AD&D first edition)
I first got into D&D back when it was AD&D, and shortly before this game supplement first appeared. As a result, I bought a copy of the first edition – the one with the Cthulhu and Melnibonean mythoses – and it has played a vital role in every campaign I’ve run since. I’ve used it in AD&D, in 2nd Edition AD&D, in my Champions campaign, in five different 3.x campaigns, and in my eight-year TORG campaign. Pretty much every time, I’ve had to translate the statistics block into a different game system and campaign context.
I cannot begin to tell you how dissappointed I was by the 3.x supplement of the same name; instead of a dozen or so pantheons, it had just three (plus the “official” one and one or two more made-up ones). And, most critically of all, it had NO integration with the Epic Levels Handbook. None, Nada, Zip. And the Deities in it started to look pretty pathetic when the PCs hit 50th level in my Rings Of Time campaign. A lot of the time, I find the 3.x version to be suffocating and more hinderance than help, given that the first thing I had to do was add 10 levels to all the demigods and minor deities, 20 levels to all the intermediate-level deities, and 45 levels to all the greater deities, for that campaign. It turned out to be more work starting from the “official” seeds than it was to work from a clean sheet of paper.
Sure, I’ve learned a lot since then about various mythologies and narratives and myths and legends, and have a great many other ‘real-world’ referance books that I draw on, but time after time, the most succinct summary and starting point, the touchstone that brings everything else into focus, turns out to be that first edition AD&D supplement.
There are still copies available through Amazon (just click on the cover image). From the price, these are probably later editions without the Cthulhu and Melnibonean Mythologies. Search Amazon and you will sometimes locate a first edition – there were several there when I sourced the link, for example – costing US$100+. Be warned that some people will list the price as though it was the rare version when it’s not, usually (to give them the benefit of the doubt) because they don’t know why those copies are so collectable and just assume that’s the market price; always check for an explicit statement that this is the complete version. The second printing had the Melnibonean but no Cthulhu mythos, both are absent from the 3rd printing on.
This List will continue with parts 2, 3, and 4 in a week or two.
- The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (part 1)
- The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (parts 2, 3 & 4)
- The Gold Standard: Mike’s Top Twenty 3.x Supplements (part 5)