In Part 1 of this blog post, I described nine general supplements which have been useful to me multiple times in multiple campaigns. In this second part, I add another eleven must-have supplements.
I should explain that this top twenty are not presented in any sort of ranking – they were originally listed (along with the honourable mentions that will follow) in the order they came to hand, and once the list was cut down to 20 names, simply grouped by subject matter into the four categories I’m using.
As before, I’ll do my best to explain why each item is on my list, and what it contributes to my campaign to earn its place in this exalted company. Where possible, I’ve given a cover image, linked to the Amazon page for that particular supplement.
I should also add that just because a given company’s product isn’t on this list should not give anyone offence; beyond the 48 supplements I’m listing in this 5-part/3-post article, there are at least a dozen more that didn’t get considered simply because I haven’t had time to read them yet, and over twenty beyond that which are on my shopping list but that I have not been able to purchase yet. This is a dynamic, ever-changing list.
I’d like nothing more than to be forced to expand it (though it gets very heavy to transport all the supplements to my games as it is!), and sincerely hope that everything on that unread list, and the new purchases that I intend to make as soon as I can afford to, are so ubiquitously useful that they mandate their inclusion.
And don’t get me started about the (literally) hundreds of supplements and articles that I’ve downloaded over the years from the net, but havn’t had time to read, but which will eventually force themselves onto any comprehensive list of this sort, probably as a whole new brace of categories…
Part 2: Three Planar Supplements
An awful lot of campaign genres involve travel to or from other dimensions. D&D/Fantasy, Superhero, Pulp/Cthulhu/Victorian Horror, Science Fiction… Since I run games that fit all four of these broad categories, supplements about “Planes of Existance” tend to be of immediate interest. The wonder is that only 3 supplements in this category made the cut…
This has been the foundation of more scenarios in my campaigns than any other single supplement. I’ve brought extra-planar disruptions to the prime material plane, opened unexpected windows into other planes, and created mini-planes and demi-planes; I’ve inverted and twisted cosmologies; I’ve had refugees and escapees from, and escapes into, the outer planes. And nothing beats a “Gate” spell at the bottom of a 10′ pit trap! What makes this supplement so useful are the descriptions of the individual planes; while you can use the cosmology provided (and there are lots of ways to interpret it), you can also string the planes together in any way that makes sense to you (or even, in a chaotic universe, in an irrational order!) I’ve used this for referance in more than just D&D, it’s that useful.
(Fantasy Flight Games)
Whenever I start reading a new supplement, especially one that I’ve been loaned by a friend, I skim through it and make notes about which pages I want to read in detail and take notes on. I list these pages on the cardboard bookmarks that I use. Here’s the tally, for this supplement, of the pages that were instantly inspiring, of immediate interest, or of particular relevance to one of my campaigns: pages 16, 17, 18; 23, 24, 25, 26; 27, 28, 29, 30; 31, 32, 33, 34; 36; 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42; 43, 44, 45, 46, 47; 48, 49, 50, 51, and 52 – at which point I gave up listing them, since I wasn’t yet 1/3 of the way through the book! The supplement is divided into four parts: Planar Adventuring, Gates To Other Worlds, Worlds Beyond, and Threats & Civilizations; or, to put it another way, character prep and advice, getting there, what the place is like when you do, and what you might run across. This is such a logical sequence that it makes the supplement easy to read and easy to integrate into whatever campaign you’re running. This was pretty much the first supplement to go into this top 20 list, and it would take a nuclear weapon to shift it.
Part 3: Four Arcane Supplements
Magic is such an integral part of the fantasy genre – and an essential add-on to so many other game genres, including pulp and superhero – that supplements detailing specialisations within the subject are rarely a complete waste of time, even if they don’t suit any of my immediate campaigns. Even so, there are a few that are head-and-shoulders above the rest that I’ve read (I have several more waiting, most of which will be listed in my honourable mentions).
It’s rare for a game supplement to hold my attention long enough for a cover-to-cover reading. Normally, I just don’t have that sort of time or attention span to dedicate to the task. Libris Mortis is not one of the supplements I would have expected to be so engrossing that it demanded that I Make the time. Undeath and Necromancy are another of those near-universal subjects that almost any genre can take to the party every now and then, and this supplement, even though aimed purely at D&D, is full of information that can be applied more generally.
One of the key objectives that I have for the Drow in any of my D&D games is to distinguish them from Elves. I don’t just mean with attitude and ritual and dwelling and so on, I mean the way it feels to PCs when they interact with the race. Unfortunately, tying them to the same rules system as everyone else, and in particular to the same magic system, tends to evaporate any alien flavour very quickly. This supplement was the starting point of the solution in my Fumanor campaigns. I’ve also used it for ideas for alien cultures in my superhero campaign, and for a death cult in that same campaign, and even for Nazi black magic in my Pulp Campaign. I just wish there was more of it! Warning: some of the content may be unsuitable for children. I don’t think there’s a problem, but the publishers have seen fit to splash a warning on the cover.
The Amazon link (click on the cover image) is to the “Brdgm Edition” which has a different cover and no mature content warning. I’m not sure what the differences in content are, if any.
(Fantasy Flight Games)
This book is all about Elementals. My PCs were the first to notice that any time I pulled something from its pages for an encounter or situation, the result always gave them a hard time without doing it through sheer brute force. In part, that was because I was augmenting situations with environmental factors and other supplements, but the fact remains that opening this always brings a metaphoric intake of breath from my players. I’ve also used this as a starting point for enemies in my superhero campaign, and in my space opera / superhero campaign, and intend to pull it out in the Pulp campaign sometime in the near future. Anything that is that universal deserves a place on this list.
But this supplement has been far more than just a source of encounters. It’s content has gotten me thinking about just what and why elementals are, and about the types of elementals that there can be, beyond the obvious ones that derive from the elemental planes. Death Elementals, Life Elementals, Sound Elementals, Lava Elementals, Honor Elementals… I havn’t hit anyone with a Time Elemental yet, but it will happen eventually!
All of that inspiration has, in turn, fed back into my concepts of the Elemental Planes themselves and the cosmology in general, and on the nature of magic itself, and those ideas were absolutely fundamental to the various D&D campaigns that I run. That’s why this is in the Arcane Supplements section.
(Swords & Sorcery Studios)
The same could be said for this supplement, except that I have taken ideas from it already. In particular, uniting the ritual magic ideas from this volume with that of the Drow supplement from Mongoose (above) worked wonders for making the Drow feel as alien as they should. These pages have also influanced the Elves in my D&D campaigns, the Dwarves in my Shards Of Divinity campaign, Cthulhu/Alien-Horror cults in Pulp, Supervillain organisations in my Superhero campaign, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this volume has to offer. Including it was a no-brainer.
Part 4: Four Setting & Environment Supplements
Only an extremely localised campaign can’t benefit from a supplement detailing a particular unique environment. Of course, you can fake it if you don’t have such a supplement; but your credibility always surges ahead in leaps and bounds when your flavour text is reinforced with specific referance and environmentally-tailored rules. There are more supplements available in this department than just about any other, in some respects, simply because they are relatively easy to write. Unfortunately, they are very hard to write WELL. It’s easy to write a description of a campaign setting, but much harder to make it original and unique; and much much harder to imbue the text with that uniqueness, to convey it to the reading audiance; and much much much harder to examine the causes and implications and fundamental distinctions that are the real foundation of the game setting being described. It’s one thing to be fantastic, that only requires imagination; it’s quite another to be plausibly fantastic, that requires factual knowledge and an ability to link the fruits of your imagination to a logical foundation.
That’s where these five setting and environmental supplements come in. They not only give you the solid foundations apon which to build your own structures, they give you the logical implications and ramifications to support those structures.
Desert locations are some of the most varied and iconic fantasy locations, second only to forests, thanks largely to the love affair the western world has had in modern times with the colourful and oftentimes mythic culture of ancient egypt. It’s no coincidence that one of the earliest and most famous computer art images ever rendered by PC as demonstrations of their colour capabilities was the exquisitely beautiful death mask of Tutenkhamen! From the archeological expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the sensationalist stories of plagues and tomb robbers to the horror movies based around mummies and mummification to the more modern fascination with pyramid power and the even more recent association with high technology through TV series such as Stargate SG1 and the Doctor Who episodes “The Pyramid Of Mars” and it’s mysterious villain, “Sutekh” – scratch the surface of just about any genre and you will find a desert location, an Egyptian connection, or both.
That environment, possibly THE most ubiquitous generic locale in all gaming, is what this supplement is all about. It contains essential information and – if using the d20 system – game mechanics that have a place in just about any campaign. It was a close contest between this supplement and its companion volumes, Stormwrack and Frostburn for a place in this list, but the ubiquity of deserts vs ocean and icy settings won out. I just wish there were more of these – one on mountains, and one on swamps, and one on tropical settings…
Boy, talk about your ubiquitous locales. The concept of a treasure-laden dungeon is so much at the heart of D&D that it’s in the name – and by way of comparison, how often do Dragons turn up? Small wonder that there are a couple of volumes on the subject that have made this list. Amazingly, even though they are by different publishers, there is astonishingly little overlap in content between this volume from AEG and the FFG supplement Dungeoncraft listed below it. This supplement has a section on giving your dungeon an internal logic and a sense of style, a section on types of ‘dungeon’ which includes Fortresses, Madmen’s Lairs, Mines, Natural Caverns, Sewers, Temples, Tombs, and Subterranean Communities. Then there’s a section on modifying the rules with new skills, feats, mundane items, spells, and prestige classes specifically relating for dungeon delving. These cover the sort of things that any sort of society that routinely clears dungeons would evolve. Finally, there’s a section on new monsters, new magic items, new traps, and some sample dungeons. So it’s heavy on the conceptual and creative side of things, and it has an excellent section on the social and professional developments that would result.
But the utility of these supplements goes way beyond the obvious. Supervillain lairs owe something in concept to the essential idea of a D&D-style dungeon – many of the same concepts can be applied to both. Some dungeons can easily be recast as silver mines in a Pulp-style game. Even space stations can be designed using dungeon-style concepts and methodologies.
To be honest, I couldn’t tell you where this volume ends and the FFG supplement begins – I think of them so totally as one combined work. Throw in the advice in the DMG and DMG II, and in the WOTC product Dungeonscape and you have a masterclass on the subject. Which made it very hard to select just a couple of them from the list, but I went with the two that I refer to most often and got the best ideas from.
(Fantasy Flight Games)
I guess you could say that Dungeons (above) is more generalised, while Dungeoncraft picks four or five specific subtopics within the subject of Dungeon creation and focusses on them. The first deals with characters, dealing with how different classes can contribute to dungeon expeditions. It also offers some prestige classes, some new feats, and so on, but there is (as I said above) surprisingly little overlap between these areas of the two supplements. The second is all about magic – new spells and magic items, to be more specific. These could all have been written using the philosophical framework developed in the AEG supplement, they dovetail with that supplement so well. It was at this point in looking at the supplements that I went looking at the credits and noticed one name common to the writing of both: Mike Mearls. He’s the sole author listed as writing this supplement and one of 11 authors credited with Dungeons. The third section goes into dungeon hazards – how to design them, administer them, and run them. It doesn’t just describe one system for handling most of them, it offers alternatives for the GM to consider. Finally, there are sections on dungeon and encounter design and operation. Again, these are not so much redundant to the AEG supplement as complimentary.
One of the hardest things to do is to create a fully fleshed out city, with history and depth and society and customs and people and commerce and architecture. That’s one reason why so much of my four part article earlier this year on Distilled Cultural Essence focussed on these subjects. (You can read it here:
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. Links open in a new window).
This supplement helps with all of that, as well as with the creation and execution of urban scenarios. I don’t find it indispensible all the time, because a lot of scenarios have no urban componant, but whenever I’m in anything even marginally resembling an urban environment, this is the first product that I reach for.
This List will conclude with part 5.
- 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)