The Complete Fighter's Handbook, Book Review


A video blogger, user-named Mittierim, recently reviewed the classic book, The Complete Fighter’sHandbook on his Youtube channel, Mittierim gave a fair assessment of the book from a modern perspective; I had tried to comment, but apparently, for whatever reason, Google has deemed it necessary to ban me from commenting on Youtube. I had sent him a message, telling him that I enjoyed the video, and about my feelings in regards to the book in question. It actually stirred up more feelings about the book than I thought were really there, which was surprising to me; so today, I’d like to write my own review about the book, from my perspective.


The Complete Fighter’s Handbook is a very important book: It was the very first supplement for the 2nd Edition. The original goal of 2e, was to put all information needed to play the game in 2 core books, but it quickly became evident that this was an impossible task, if all information was added, then the cover price of the Player’s Handbook would be priced over $50, which would be the equivalent of around $100 today, so nobody would buy the book. It’s also harder to properly bind extremely large books. Dave Cook, the man put in charge of the 2e project, had broken the news early, and asked the users what classes that they wanted kept, as there were cuts that had to be made. People responded in bulk! But that couldn’t stop the fact that the player’s handbook still had a limited amount of page space. It was decided to publish additional books (the irony is lost on nobody, the book count for 2e was, and still is the most enormous of any edition), this being the very first one! Today, a lot of the information seems blunted, additional books came out which did a better job, but what one has to know is that this was the first time that users got this information. It had a big job to fulfill! It had a lot to add to the core mechanics, and it also addressed things that there just wasn’t enough space for in the PHB.

CHAPTER 1
Character Creation

In the PHB, the descriptions for the new skill system, called Non-Weapon Proficiencies, was good enough for most skills, but for others, there just wasn’t enough information present to actually be useful. This book addressed a couple of the big ones, namely Armorer, and Weaponsmithing; presenting rules on these skills that are incredibly helpful to not just players, but Dungeon Masters as well.  It provided a solid base so that we can more accurately simulate the time, cost, and construction of stuff that 95% of the users know nothing about. Sure, we go to Ren Fairs, and watch the blacksmiths and craftsmen do their thing, but that is a skill that is an art form. While the book probably isn’t all that accurate, it does allow us to better assess things in a fair way.

As far as usefulness today, I still use this system above all others presented later. I find it to be incredibly quick and uniform; the information is presented in table form with additional commentary that one can read if they need further information. It also makes sense that this information is in this book; when a question like this appears, it is logical to find the best info on the subject in the Fighter’s Handbook.

CHAPTER 2
Warrior Kits

This was it! This was probably why you bought the book. I was expecting more information: Stuff like what one found when cracking open the old Unearthed Arcana, instead what we got wasn’t that at all, but ways to modify the existing class into different archetypes. While, technically, it did try to add classes lost in the update, namely the Barbarian and Cavalier classes, it did it in a way that seemed to neuter their potential. I’m not sure if play-testers found the two classes to be over-powered compared to the other classes, or to powerful in regards to the updated monster stats, or what, as this change has never been truly explained, but it feels like the kits were just an after thought; phoned in, if you will. To new players, though, this was a radical concept. 

I have played many of the kits in this handbook, and I still use them to fill out major NPCs. Today I have mixed feelings about kits, I don’t really think that they are all that necessary to play the game, one can create a better character just by  focusing on skills alone. Most of the modifiers in the kits presented simply changed how NPCs treated you, giving you bonuses to Charisma that really doesn’t matter all that much during game play. These are all just role-playing decisions to me: At the end of the day, a barbarian is still a fighter. BUT! When this book came out, new players had not yet learned this. Fighters weren’t all that desirable at many tables. We always played just regular classes, and while fighters could use armor, and dish out a lot more damage, it was always more exciting to cast spells, or pick somebody’s pockets! This book showed us that we didn’t have to play fighters like that, that we could create unique ones and give them a depth of character that previously new users didn’t know about. A fighter could be more than just a tank, but a fully realized character.

Many of these kits depended upon DM cooperation, which also gave a hint to new DMs about how to tailor an adventure to the people who are actually at the table. Some kits were harder to tailor than others; the Swashbuckler, for instance, is a character that just doesn’t fit into all campaigns, and it instructs the DM to focus too much attention catering to just one PC. As a 1-on-1 campaign, the swashbuckler is an awesome experience, but during standard, cooperative game play, not so much.

Once again, this book just gave information, without stating its intent. Is the Swashbuckler good for all games? No! But it did present the information to show us that we can play in different settings other than the ones published at the time, even a character like Zorro or a musketeer.

This information was ground breaking at the time, but was later replaced by different character systems. A modern user who looks at this stuff will find it not even worth their time to play, as it has become seen as under-powered clichés, but they weren’t at the time of its release, these kits were imagination fuel that taught us that we shouldn’t be content with just the information offered in the PHB, but to push it into different directions. We weren’t limited to just the kits in this book, we were taught how to create our own kits, which was empowering and got players more involved in the creative process of campaign design.

CHAPTER 3
Role-playing

This section is probably the most dated. Today we take for granted that everybody knows what a role-playing game is, but this wasn’t always the case. 2nd Edition had an unstated mission to make role-playing and story more important to the game. There was also a new trend in the hobby, AD&D saw a very large boom in new players who were interested in the game, but who didn’t have access to a table of experienced players who were willing to teach them how to play. You also had war-gamers who were playing the game and their games tended to be more combat oriented. It wasn’t uncommon to have all of your characters be the exact same character with a different name. The player’s handbook mentions roleplaying and defines it, but didn’t really offer any suggestions in regards to how to do it, or why you would even want to. This section changed that, it provided some examples of adding motivations to your character. Tools that help the player get inside of a characters head and make them more interesting to play.

Once again, it did provide a hint of insight on how to DM, and tailor a campaign to fit the individuals who were playing in it, and inspired players to create more than just a tough character, but a unique one who was more than just a tank. Reading this section back when the book came out was mind-blowing and incredibly exciting. It changed the way that we saw the game, it gave players a chance to create something unique and exciting. As a new player, this was probably my favorite chapter, but it isn’t necessary today. It did it’s job, and it did it well! All of the other Complete Class Handbooks had this section in them, but none were so revealing and as inspiring as this one was.

CHAPTER 4
Combat Rules

This section is why the book is still on my table on game day. The Core handbooks described basic combat, and included a bunch of optional material, but this book, THIS BOOK really expanded upon it. When users first purchased this thing, all shrink wrapped and mysterious, they expected rules for new player classes, but instead, they got this section, which was amazing! This book greatly expanded upon optional fighting rules. It added fighting styles to Weapon Specializations, updated a weird martial arts and hand to hand combat section, and had even more rules for things that DM’s might want to add to their games. It elaborated upon many details that were briefly discussed in the Core manuals, and is still a very helpful section to have, which makes this book useful to everyone who still plays the 2nd Edition system.

Some of the topics in this book were kind of game breakers, such as adding called shots, which players used to kill powerful villains with 1 hit, so a DM has to really read this section carefully before allowing these optional rules into their games, and being specific about what these rules can and can’t accomplish. It did force “true hits” into a very abstract combat system that may not support them.

All of these rules were replaced with the Player’s Options series of books that came out many years after this book was released, but I’ve got to tell you, as far as mechanics go, I still prefer this book to the Players Option’s Combat & Tactics. I guess that it is probably because I have this book better memorized, and thoroughly play-tested with house rules that are just automatic and excepted by everybody at the table that keeps me using this section, newer players do prefer the stuff in Players Options.

Again, to the original buyers of this book, this stuff was gold! It gave players more options, and even more ways to customize a unique fighter. Today reading the Fighter’s Handbook is boring, as this information is common knowledge and old hat, but I can’t express enough how exciting this book was at the time . . . and I should stop trying as by now I’m sure that you get it.

CHAPTER 5
Equipment

This section was an emergency must have. Again, because of the limited page count of the core books, a lot of information was left on the cutting board, this section gave a quick patch to users which helped hold us over until the full Equipment Guide could be completed and published. Oddly enough, I don’t actually own the Equipment guide anymore. I don’t know if I had lost it, or if I never bought it because another player owned it and we all just used his copy. I really need to pick that book up, but for years, this little section has been helpful enough. Not everybody is a history major, in fact, D&D provided the entry point for a lot of future history geeks. This section kind of helped players even the playing field, it also changed how we looked at armor. This chapter is far from perfect, but it did serve the purpose of helping us out until a better book could be completed.

OTHER STUFF
The binding of the book varied by year it was printed, my copy is the Faux Leather softbound with shiny gold lettering on the cover, which has held up very well through the years. The binding is strong, I’ve flipped through this book thousands of times and haven’t lost any pages. The one thing wrong with the binding is that the book won’t sit flat on the table, so you need to weigh it down with something if you want to keep a specific page open for quick reference.

There are some helpful tables at the back of the book, and pages that you have permission to photocopy and use. It supplies Character Sheets for Fighters, a players cheat sheet to the supplemental combat section, a helpful sheet for DMs to use during combat, and a Warrior Kit Creation worksheet which can help you add your own kits.
There is not an actual index for the book, but the Table of Contents does provide double duty as it does a good job of describing the subsections by topic for fast reference.
Artwork is minimal, and all of it recycled from previously released modules, but it is helpful and fun to look at none the less. The tables are all highlighted in blue, and the book is easy to flip through for experienced users who already know roughly what they are looking for.

OVERVIEW

Today, this book is an archaic antique from a much earlier time in the games history. Much of the material has been mined and rewritten elsewhere, but the concepts which it contains are still useful to those who own the book. Collectors should have this on their shelves, as it is a very important historical document in regards to AD&D, a fact that is lost to most players of the game. For modern players who want to return to 2e, or play the game for the first time, this book really isn’t necessary anymore. One would get much more use out of the Player’s Option series.

I personally love this book; it really changed how I saw the game, and how I continue to play it. While I don’t sit down and read this book, I do use it still, not because it is better than the Player’s Option series, just because I know the layout better and enjoy the mechanics that it has to offer.

Overall, this book is really easy to find and incredibly cheap to own, but since the information presented is rather dated, its usefulness compared to page-count is very limited. If I remove my sentimentality from the equation, I’d probably rate the book a C-. Some of the concepts can confuse new players, and appears to offer very little to even the modern novice; however if you allow me to judge the book on what it did for me personally? I’d give the book an easy B+.  



11 comments:

Unknown said...

Love the review! I'm a new DM, preparing to run my group through 2e for the first time ever (I've played and DM'ed 4e and 5e, but have fallen in love with the 2e rules and feel) so your blog has been a tremendous help to me.

Ripper X said...

Thank you for such kind words! It is really nice to hear from like-minded individuals. Let us know how your game turns out! If you've got any questions or comments about the system I'd be happy to try and help.

Brooser Bear said...

I have every book and supplement from this series. This is one of the better ones. Second edition lost me on the artwork, though.

Ripper X said...

I love the artwork of the 2e period, Elwood, of course, being my favorite. Years before actually playing the game, I flipped through the books that he had collected, and it was the art that planted the seeds.

I am not a fan of the later stuff; namely the art style of the reprintings, but the early stuff I love. I still use my original PHB and DMG because of the art in the book. The errata was done by me, and done by hand, and there is info that isn't in my copy but I prefer it anyway. I suppose that it helps me find the page that I need to find more quickly?

The newer artwork seems flat and uninspired to me, and I hate that brown border that they put around text to introduce new chapters, it just seems like such a waste of space.

Rob said...

The Fighters handbook fills me with RAGE. This was the first book in a long line of books and accessories that were put out by TSR that made it go from needing just a few books (PHB, DMG, Monster Manual) if you were the DM and just ONE book if you were the player. I think it started making the game inaccessible for new players and is one of the reasons for its dwindling popularity into the 90's.

Thanks for the excellent and thought provoking blog!

Brooser Bear said...

You got links to any of the Elwood's artwork, I'd like to see it. You knew him personally? I chose 1st Edition AD&D over Second because the Second edition became the Kitchen Sink - Gygax had a vision and a design philosophy, that I saw and appreciated. Second edition had a multitude of writers who made D&D fit every conceivable setting. Renaissance Musketeers, Ancient Romans; some of the ideas were seemed to have been invented on the spot and were ridiculous, such as the Parliament of Fish from the Ranger's Handbook, and the ridiculous illustration of the Cleric choosing monasticism over social life while staring at a bunch of geometric shapes that were supposed to be Holy Symbols, these were not real world holy symbols and neither were they evocative of any symbolism. The artist's lack of imagination was on the level of the frontal lobotomy. Yes, TSR was shamelessly trying to cash in, the way WOTC did with the planned obsolescence of the D&D editions. I got all of the supplement books on e-bay in 2003-2005 for pennies on the dollar.

Ripper X said...

Rob, I totally get you. The Complete Handbook series got crazy. The first four were helpful and added stuff to the game, it wasn't needed!

At the time that they were all out there, many DMs ignored them, and if you wanted to use something inside of these books, you had to first ask permision and then explain what exactly you want to use in the book, so that the DM could say yes or no. Most Dungeon Masters at the time were too busy reading and writing other things, and they tended to take offense when a book that they didn't want or need put crazy things into players heads.

I think that the first 4 true class books were excepted more readily, as they didn't try to be bossy; but once the racial books started coming out, they dictated to the DM what these races were supposed to be, and it wasn't their place to do that.

Ripper X said...

Do I know Elwood personally? NO! I'm a poop-kickin hillbilly, Brooser. You've seen his stuff, I post a lot of it. Chances are, if it is full color and beautiful, than it was painted by Elwood. He drew the cover art for all of the core books.

The reasons why you don't like 2e is exactly why I do. I don't want to learn a totally new system when I change settings. With this version of AD&D I have the tools that I need to tell billions of stories, and explore unlimited places and times. I really like that!

1e was pretty versatile as well, you had Gamma World, Boot Hill, Marvel Superheroes, didn't they all use the AD&D engine for their base mechanics?

Brooser Bear said...

Regarding the AD&D sister games, Gamma World and Boot Hill, the ones I know and played, not at all. There was a section in the First Edition DMG on how to interface between the AD&D and the other systems, but the game systems were different at the core. Especially the Boot Hill. It had no hit points, you subtracted damage from strength, and like in real world - you either died on the spot or went down unconscious, or took a light or serious gunshot. Serious gunshot meant that you pretty much needed others to help you get up on your feet and walk. Boot Hill was poor on setting and game aids.

Gamma World (First and second editions) was also, a very different system. No levels. No skills, experience improved stats. Combat was different and deadly went by Weapon class - swords, clubs, firearms, lasers, death rays, poison weapons, which anyone could wield regardless of level or hit points. First edition was hard core sci-fi, second edition was more colorful comic book action game with touched of the Moldway Red Box, introduced Tech levels - TL 1 Stone age, TL 2 D&D level, TL 3 modern day technology, TL 4 - near futuristic. I also played Top Secret, game was awful, basically D&D set in James Bond - esque 20th Century Cold War, with the D&D style charater classes - Thief, Assassin, and then Thug, Investigator, and Spy, I believe. I found it ridiculous. ALL TSR game systems of the day featured HP, AC, Six Ability scores with minor variation, but beyond that, core rules were very different. Top Secret was agead of its day, because it had elegant rules for creating encounter based adventures - if you want to run a node-based encounter based adventure instead of a site-based adventure, then a copy of the Top Secret rulebook is essential.

Touche on Second Edition's versatility. My mindset was to go to games other than D&D for gaming in other settings.

Ripper X said...

I had seen these games advertised in Dragon, and always wondered about them, but by the time that I saw them, they were already out of print.

I'd like to find a copy of Metamorphose Alpha and see if I can't update it to 2e. Of all of the old games, this one stands out as the best! At least to me it does.

Brooser Bear said...

Metamorphosis Alpha was a board game forerunner to Gamma World. You can still get all if the out of print stuff on e-bay for pennies on the dollar. Best 2 Iconic TSR board games are the Dungeon, and Escape From New York (great forgotten classic!)

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