Part 1 of this blog post listed nine general supplements. Parts 2, 3, and 4 added three planar supplements, four supplements about magic, and four supplements about game settings and gaming environments.
That makes a full twenty-count by my tally. This fifth part is all about honourable mentions: supplements that didn’t make the final list, but deserve some recognition, and some explanation of why, and of why they didn’t crack the big time. I agonised over the selection process used to determine the top twenty for quite some time, cutting this and adding that, and debating back and forth over the relative merits of volumes that were as distinctly different as Picasso and Beethoven (they may both be artists, but that’s where the similarity ends)!
Ultimately, I evolved a loose criteria based on the number of campaigns in which the supplement has been useful, then threw in a couple of ringers that I simply could NOT leave out. Right up to the day before making this compilation public, the final list was in a state of flux and revision. The only things excluded were the three core rulebooks.
Like the top 20 that preceeded them, they are not presented in any sort of ranking; they are listed in the order they came to hand, once the top 20 were culled from the list of candidates (except that I’ve lumped one big bunch together, because I use them as one BIG supplement in multiple volumes). Where possible, I’ve given a cover image, linked to the Amazon page for that particular supplement. If that isn’t possible, I’ve pointed the link to the wesbite of the company responsible.
Just because a given product isn’t listed either here, or in the main list, should not give anyone offence; beyond the 40+ supplements I’m listing, there are at least a dozen more that didn’t get considered simply because I haven’t had time to read them yet, and more than twenty beyond those which are on my shopping list but that I have not been able to purchase. This is a dynamic, ever-changing list, and last week’s favorite might be in next week’s doghouse simply because it stops being relevant to my immediate campaigns, or because I feel I’ve exhausted its ideas and need to bring in something new to keep the campaign fresh. Examples include the products collectively represented by the Masterwork Anthology, (which is listed below but for the first twenty-two iterations of the finished list was in the top twenty), and Books by AEG, and Mongoose, and WOTC, and Malhavoc Press, and Green Ronin, and FFG.
Part 5: 28 Honorable Mentions
The only real reason why this supplement, which I’ve reviewed here, didn’t make the top 20 is that it’s so new that it has not yet made an impact on my campaign. Aside from being relevant to the next Fumanor campaign (once the current two are wrapped up, about 3-5 years from now), there are a number of other campaign ideas that sprang to mind when I read it. In terms of quality and as a source of inspiration in depth, it absolutely deserves a place in the top 20.
(Fantasy Flight Games)
I had this volume listed in the top twenty for the longest time. Essentially a sampler put out by Fantasy Flight Games containing selected extracts from ten of their supplements, I got idea after idea from this book, including devising an entire campaign for two players from a pair of prestige classes from Path Of Shadow. I have bought no less than three copies of this supplement: I bought my first one, lent it out to someone who didn’t return it, bought another, misplaced it, and bought still another to replace the lost volume (only to have it turn up again)!
You don’t buy a game supplement – ANY game supplement – three times unless it’s incredibly valuable to you. To date, I’ve been able to buy only two of the ten volumes excerpted (the others ARE on my shopping list) and both of those are in my top twenty (Monster’s Handbook and Spells & Spellcraft).
Ultimately, it was the fact that 20% of this volume is already in the top twenty that led to the removal of Masterwork Anthology to the honourable mentions list, to make way for another, equally-deserving game supplement. And that’s the ONLY reason it isn’t in the top twenty.
I urge you: if you (a) Run a 3.x campaign, or might run one at some point; and (b) Don’t already have the FFG suite of supplements; then seek out a copy of this volume. It’s getting hard to come by, but there are still some out there. And, once you have the full set of FFG volumes (and you will buy them after reading the anthology), put it up for sale on Amazon or E-bay so that someone else can benefit!
A difficult subject, time travel. I’ve seen it done well only once, in the rules to a completely different game, but even those rules only addressed one possible mode of time travel, one possible theory of time. So I approached this supplement with a healthy dose of skepticism, it must be said. To my astonishment, it avoided all the pitfalls of letting time-based magic loose in a D&D campaign. I havn’t actually used it for much as yet, but it forms one of the central hubs of a future campaign that I’m planning once the current Fumanor campaigns wind up, and was also pivotal in shaping my Shards Of Divinity campaign.
I’ve also referred to it once or twice in relation to my superheros campaign and it’s spin-off space opera campaign, but the concepts, techniques, and limitations of time travel in those campaigns are well-established by now. I still havn’t read it in as much detail as I’d like, but even so it was in the top-twenty until the last-possible milliseconds (when I realised I’d miscounted the number of entries in the first part of this series)!
Tests Of Skill
(Skirmisher Game Development Group)
This is a collection of small scenarios that generally need skill and roleplay to resolve and not just beating on something with a weapon. Beginner GMs should buy it to learn how that sort of thing can be done, experienced GMs should buy it because there’s some interesting stuff in it. Mostly of the mid- to low-fantasy nature, I think these would also translate fairly well to Ars Magica and other fantasy systems. In fact, that’s my biggest criticism of it – that it doesn’t fit too well with the high-fantasy subgenre that is my usual stomping ground. Having said that, it will be a great resource for low-level character scenarios, which can be very difficult to write. So I expect to get quite a lot of value from it in the long run. It’s also worth noting that an updated version, Tests Of Skill 3.5, is available as an e-book.
Dezzavold, Fortress Of The Drow
(Green Ronin Publishing)
This is the first real multicultural, multiracial, interpretation of the Drow that I’ve seen. The concepts both bring the Drow closer to the Elves and move them farther away at the same time, a duality that fascinates me. More importantly, it makes Drow and their society seem both more real and more plausible by expanding their domestic horizons beyond the isolationism that most GMs (myself included) make central to the racial and social concept of the Drow.
If the two volumes listed in the top twenty inform you about Dungeon design, this volume tells you how to implement those designs. This was also in the top twenty for a long time – so much so that I was contemplating making the list a top-25 in order to keep it there! Some of it is redundant once you have the Dungeons and Dungeoncraft, which between them do a better job in those areas where they overlap with this supplement. As with Masterwork Anthology, it was that redundancy that ultimately dropped Dungeonscape out of the top twenty. It’s still strongly recommended.
I have three books on sea-settings for RPGs – this, and two supplements for Rolemaster. I know of one more, Seafarer’s Handbook from FFG (excerpted in Masterwork Anthology), but I don’t have a copy of it – yet! Those four, plus the material available for Seventh Sea, comprise the sum total of the game supplements relating to sea-based adventures that I’m aware of (but there are undoubtedly a couple of GURPS supplements that would be relevant as well, there almost always are)! Rarity alone makes this a potentially valuable resource.
Only one of my fantasy campaigns has yet taken to the high seas, and that only briefly – the equivalent of a voyage from Britain to Spain – but two of them will do so in a more extended way, in due course. On that brief excursion, this was an invaluable resource, so those longer sea journeys should be when this supplement comes into its own (hopefully joined by Seafarer’s Handbook). So it’s good enough for the top-twenty, but doesn’t get enough use in my current campaigns to stay there – yet. Until that changes, this volume sits and waits.
The only reason this didn’t make the top-20 (probably displacing Sandstorm) is that I have had more scenarios take place in desert climes than I have in icy terrain. On the one occasion when a scenario did take place in a frigid setting, this was exceptionally useful.
Current plans do involve using an arctic setting for a future scenario or two in the Shards Of Divinity campaign, at which point this supplement will again take centre stage. (It really should be in the top-twenty, darn it…)
The Complete Guide To Fey
This supplement is excellent, as far as it goes. But before I could really get a grip on Fey in my Shards Of Divinity campaign, for which this was explicitly purchased, I had to extract fundamental concepts from the Seventh Sea material on the Fey, and from the Merlin telemovie made a couple of years ago with Sam Neill. So it falls a little short in some measure, but it was hard to pin down what was missing because what IS here is fundamental to the Fey as they appear in that campaign. Finally, it came to me: this volume is too matter-of-fact, too mundane in it’s implementation of the Fey. What’s there is excellant, but simply not enough to elevate the Fey beyond ordinary fantasy-fodder.
Within it’s quite narrow terms of referance, this is an excellant supplement. But without a context for the Fey and their society, it lacks usefulness. Once allied with the Goodman Games supplement listed above, and the Seventh Sea material referred to, it becomes incredibly useful material. The three sources in combination make one Great supplement.
This supplement compiles spells from a number of other WOTC supplements. This is both its blessing and its curse. For example, I had a number of issues with the contents of The Book Of Vile Darkness and The Book Of Exalted Deeds – too many of the Spells and Feats and Prestige Classes seemed overpowered in comparison with comparable equivalents from the PHB. As a result, those supplements were banned from my campaigns except where I gave explicit permission for an item to be included. Since those spells are amongst those incorporated into this supplement, without indicating their origins, I now have to either accept them into the campaign despite that ban, or ban this otherwise-useful book.
For the moment, I have chosen the latter course, without making a definitive ruling – but it means that every time it is referred to during play, I get suspicious and uncomfortable and unhappy. That alone is enough to keep it out of the top twenty. But even if that weren’t the case, it contains one absolutely unforgivable and totally inexplicable flaw: it’s spell lists are not unified, ie they don’t include those listed in the PHB. Even if WOTC didn’t want to reproduce the spell descriptions, they should at least give a complete spell list. This so handicaps the usefulness of the supplement that it would not make the top twenty. And finally, it’s incomplete, again for no good reason. It doesn’t include the spells from Sandstorm, for example. So it even fails in it’s primary mission of being a complete spell compendium!
With one dissapointment after another, it can even be questioned whether this supplement deserves a place even amongst the Honourable Mentions. Only one thing earns it that place: the sheer number of spells that it DOES include. It reduces the number of supplements that I have to carry when I game, and that is both the only reason why I use it, and why it earns a place in this list.
Magic Item Compendium
I’m only starting to use this supplement in my campaigns, and that’s the only reason it didn’t force it’s way into the top twenty – though heavens knows what I would have bumped to make room for it (Maybe that top-twenty-five notion should make a comeback…)
This doesn’t suffer from the complaints of the Spell Compendium, and it was the fact that it integrated so seamlessly with the DMG, providing new, unified tables, that I bought the Spell Compendium. Even more usefully, it supplements the DMG with additional rules (which I still havn’t had time to read). This is strongly recommended for any 3.x Campaign, adding more than a thousand items to the DM’s repetoire.
At the same time, they make more work for the GM in outfitting NPCs – simply because there is no master list that says “This is good for rogues, and this for mages, and this for druids, and…”. To use it, you have to read and remember what each and every item does. It might have been useful to generate a 1-line summary of each item the same way that has been done with spells…
A volume that I’ve only had the chance to skim through so far, it has earned its place here on promise alone (plus a couple of ideas that leaped off the page and into immediate use in the Shards Of Divinity campaign background). How much of the content will supplement that of Libris Mortism and how much of the two will be redundant, I don’t know. This is another item that, like several others listed here, could force their way into my top-20 in the future.
The Unholy Warriors Handbook
(Green Ronin Publishing)
It used to be the case, back in the AD&D days, that the first variant class that was introduced to almost every campaign was the Anti-Paladin, a Dark Warrior that exemplified the “other side” and stood in opposition to the Paladin, which was one of the toughest classes at lower levels.
3.x fixed that game balance issue fairly well, and the Blackguard became an official incarnation of the Anti-Paladin, which – by and large – seemed to conclude the issue of providing an opposition force. A balance of power was established which provides opposition significant enough for interesting adventures to take place.
Green Ronin released The Book Of The Righteous in 2002, containing a customisable core class for the construction of specialised Paladins. To balance the scales, 2003 brought the release of The Unholy Warrior’s Handbook to define the Paladins and Champions of evil gods.
This supplement saw extensive use as a referance in the formative stages of my Shards Of Divinity campaign, and that earned it a place in this list. It also inspired me to construct my own specialist Paladins in Fumanor – something that might have been better done if I had The Book Of The Righteous as referance, but I didn’t – that’s still on my shopping list.
Beyond these initial usages, the supplement has yet to have a measurable in-game impact (though that will change in the fullness of time if all goes according to plan), and so it doesn’t yet warrant a place in the top twenty.
The Monster Manual is a huge collection of creatures and opponants, all the more so when you’re talking about the 3.5 version. It has one huge flaw: my players know it cover to cover, often better than I do. They instantly recognise everything in it, and can recite strengths and weaknesses at the drop of a d20.
Now, I like to surprise them and have them think on their feet a lot of the time. I use four techniques to achieve this:
- Tricky situations involving ‘known’ creatures;
- altering (often with great subtlety) the nature of creatures;
- creating a lot of completely original opponant creatures; and
- expanding my repetoire of source creatures with additional supplements.
To put it bluntly, you can never have too many sources of foes with which to confound and confront your players. They should feel like they are confronting the unknown at every turn, and only feel confident when their characters are tough enough to take on that unknown without flinching. But, even beyond that entirely worthwhile objective, you can subtly alter the flavour of an entire campaign just by favoring one source over the others.
No one of these stands out as deserving a place in the top twenty; I mix and match between them shamelessly. But collectively, they are all worth having, especially when joined with the Monster’s Handbook (which DID make the top twenty) to permit the raising and lowering of creature capabilities.
A special comment concerning the Creature Collection: this was rushed out just in time to beat the official Monster Manual to publication, and as a result it contains numerous stat block errors. A second edition fixed those errors, is in a more user-friendly format, and updated the creatures to 3.5 rules. Oh, and it has a different cover.
The Vortex Of Madness (AD&D supplement)
Every list needs a ringer or two to truly comprehensive. This list of honourable mentions contains two, both of which will play a pivotal role in my D&D campaigns in the future, and one of which has done so in the past. The Vortex Of Madness is the first of these; it contains the descriptions and history of five interesting and unique extraplanar locations. The rules may be AD&D, but the combination of The Manual Of The Planes and The Book Of The Planes (both listed in the top twenty) gives you all the tools you need to convert them. I bought this book for ideas and the inspiration, and those are provided in such abundance that they are enough to carry it this far; the work needed to adjust them to 3.x rules prevents it from reaching the top twenty.
Creatures Of Orrorsh
(West End Games)
The last item on the list, the second of the two ringers, and the one that’s seen past service in my campaigns. This supplement was written and released for TORG; it’s another creatures source, specialising in Gothic Horror. One or two of the creatures are inappropriate (for example, The Rotary Mower Of Doom), and a couple are too “cutesy” for a serious campaign (such as the Kangaware), but most of them suffer from no such problem. What I find particularly useful about this supplement is that many of these creatures have existing analogues in the Monster Manual or related volumes; simply taking the flavour text and the abilities described in the TORG supplement and reinterpreting them builds nasty curve balls into encounters with which to surprise players, and impart a little horrific subtext into the world.
Conclusion and call for input
I wanted to include these ‘honourable mentions’ because under other circumstances, in different campaigns (or even in the futures of my existing campaigns), several are likely to crowd their way into the top twenty (even if it has to grow to accommodate them), and because they are all worth having.
So it’s over to you, the readers: Have a favorite that’s not listed? The odds are that it’s on my shopping list, or that I already have it but havn’t had time to read it yet; but there’s also a chance that I’ve never heard of it. So TELL me about it! What else should be in the top twenty – even if it has to grow? What else should rate an honourable mention? What do you find indispensible, time and time again? And, most importantly, Why?
- 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)