The Complete Priest's Handbook book review

Six months after the release of The Complete Thief’s Handbook, TSR finally released, in June of 1990, PHBR3: The Complete Priest’s Handbook. Written by Aaron Allston, this title was unlike the other books in the series, and a lot was expected of it. Of all the core classes, the most effected was the Cleric, with the inclusion of Spheres dictating spells, this book had to bridge all of the products that had been released previously, and in this task, the Priest’s Handbook went above and beyond the call of duty, becoming not just a Player’s aid, but one that was used by the DM as well. One could almost say that the Priest’s Handbook should had had a blue cover, instead of the brown!

Priests, Gods, & the World

Unlike the other Complete Class Books, this one focuses on world building; and this chapter immediately get down to business of helping you create a pantheon. Even in published settings, the gods can sometimes be ignored, and they really shouldn’t be. Besides evil gods which the players may come into more contact with, the NPCs need gods, including ones that don’t matter much to the players . . . at least on the outside. What this book seeks to do is help you make a more advanced world with more opportunities for adventure. If you are starting a world from scratch, or just trying to make up for the fact that you don’t own some supplement that examines the pantheons, this book has you covered. It also has a worksheet at the end of the chapter that helps you organize your thoughts, which is always helpful.

Its primary concern is with giving your world background. An epic past, detailing things that had come before!

Designing Faiths

Again, more world building, but this chapter details, not specific gods themselves, but how they are seen. It does not force you to make every campaign world controlled by pagan deities, which is available if you want, but it offers more suggestions. Religion can be philosophical only, or one god can control every aspect of faith. Through Faiths we can insert conflict, and it is nice to see such a detailed chapter. TSR did a fantastic job of offering multiple options, which really sets it apart from later supplements, and it doesn’t stop there!

Of all the classes in the Core PHB, it is the cleric that leaves the players wanting. As the PHB is a reference book, many people who use it, don’t actually read it. You learn the game by playing the game, not necessarily by reading. There is a little itty bitty passage in the first paragraph that tells you the powers of a generic cleric, and it is so short and sweet that many players who have played this game for years still haven’t seen it, what one does see is some large lists of suggestions that are all dictated to the player by the DM. A good question is if the cleric really gets to pick from that stuff at all, or are those suggestions all within the domain of a priest? Where does a cleric fit into the system? Is he just under the paladin? This is all lines of questions which must be figured out by the Dungeon Master.

There is also an old joke which refers to the Cleric as a medic. I don’t think that anybody thinks that that is really true, as the cleric is a competent fighter, but TSR and players did want this class to be a bit more advanced. Sure, he was the only character who could restore lost hit points, but he should also be role-played. He is a teacher of faith! He is a religious and pious man, and one can’t properly play that if one has no religion to be found in the game.

Sample Priesthoods
This is a poorly named chapter which makes this book such a workhorse. At this point in time, the reference manual for gods and goddesses was still the 1e Legends & Lore, which is a great book! However since the 2e system altered the class by adding Spheres of Power, the DM was left to figure this stuff out on his own, which isn’t impossible, but not something that a new DM could easily do. It also goes back to the Lazy DM who didn’t create religions, or a table which didn’t own or care to own a book that’s only purpose was to talk about gods.

This book was an incredible tool while playing Greyhawk. Personally, when playing a setting, I just want to use the original boxset material, everything else I create myself. I never owned anything beyond the original Greyhawk box, so all of the gods and goddesses were up to me to flesh out, and it was this chapter that made it possible to do so with consistency. That is the beauty of a generic product!

I have also used this product as a player, not all DM’s want to work on this stuff, so I could easily submit powers for an adventuring cleric that was balanced enough so that any DM could say yes to, without worrying about me pulling any munchkin tricks later on.

As a DM, it helps us quickly make gods which are aimed towards the mundane aspects of my worlds, or Gods for the Every Man. Religions which probably aren’t all that well suited for adventuring, but adventurers will run into them from time to time in their own travels. It saves time and gives the illusion of a complete world.

This chapter also gives us a very useful template for creating our own religious aspects, which quite often, a template is a more useful tool then the charts themselves! It allows the users to be creative more productively, which is definitely the case here. You can either use the material as written, or create your own, that is, once again, offering options to the user, which makes this book so useful!

Priest Kits

At this point, the book begins falling in line with the rest of the books of the PHBR series.  This chapter gives players ideas for stepping outside of the bounds of the PHB, but in a fair way, to make a completely unique character. Of all of the player classes, I think that it is pretty safe to say that each character really is its own kit anyway, but this helps us with themes which can be interesting. It is sometimes a rare thing for a player to willingly play a cleric. Sometimes he is press-ganged into it by the other players as the group really needs one, or the campaign is getting so difficult that they may need more than one, so players who don’t normally want to play this class, have options which get them interested right away.

I think that it also separates clerics in our worlds even further, a barbarian priest who can get plants to grow in the inhospitable north would be seen with greater reverence than a priest who does the same in a fertile environment. Also, within one church, clerics of the same deity would have different jobs and bring different sets of skills to the table.

This chapter also returned to players the Monk class, which had been initially edited out of the PHB, not because Mom said so, but for budget reasons, and the limited amount of space which Dave Cook had to work with.


I’ve mentioned this before. Today this chapter sounds silly, but at the time, and for new players, this chapter is a game changer. It is easy to roll up a cleric, and play it exactly the same way as the last one. It is the rare player, indeed, who plays the cleric as it is supposed to be run. Of all the core classes, this one depends heavily on the role-playing aspect of the game, because he probably doesn’t have the same thought process or beliefs as the player does.  Even how he interacts with the other players would be different. Is he going to heal the heathen fighter whose been stricken by disease? While he may not demand payment in gold, he will demand payment of something else. He may heal his body, but he will also want to heal his soul.

Besides different styles of role-playing, this chapter gets more involved than the version in the Fighters and the Thief’s Handbooks, as a cleric’s power doesn’t truly come from himself, but from a deity, and, if he displeases the deity in any way, he may lose his powers until he appeases the god once again.

It also makes suggestions for power structures found within a church, as well as suggesting that the DM create a calendar, and/or add religious days and festivals which would be important for this class to observe. Thus, we go pretty deep into aspects of this class, which really set it apart from all the others.

Yes, all classes involve role-playing, but role-players love this class! Thus, this chapter is helpful to even advanced players of the game.

Equipment & Combat

The last chapter of the book helps flesh out items which were only briefly defined in the PHB, such as the holy symbol, but it also adds some new weapons which were brought up within the book, or added some weapons that were left out of the PHB.

Since the Monk class is restored to 2e, martial arts were also restored, and this was the 2nd Editions first attempt at doing so. This system isn’t perfect, but it is functional! I played a fighting monk as written in this book and had a blast! I personally don’t think that AD&D has ever found a decent way to handle hand to hand combat, as it is an elusive thing, but the system invented by Aaron Allston is sound, as it can be used in two ways, to either knock-out or to do harm. What makes it such an elusive mechanic is that hit points are not defined (which I see as a good thing), but in unarmed combat, a hit is most definitely a hit. What Allston didn’t do was add a critical hit chart, which I’m sure that Mom wouldn’t approve of, as we always see in Kung Fu movies, instant kills and broken limbs, which breaks the rules of AD&D, as we don’t want to be forced to deal with violence in our games if we don’t want to, but this is something that can easily be fixed by the DM if that is the style of game that he wants to run, and he can still use this chart to get the job done.
I have heard that a later book in this series called The Complete Ninja’s Handbook offers a better matrix for handling this sort of thing, but I’ve not seen it, nor have I used it myself. This table has always been good enough.


This books original function was to replace or help the DM/Player modify the information found in older books. This predates the 2e Legends and Lore book by only 2 months, but compared to PHBR3, Legends and Lore is a very limited book.

The Forgotten Realm’s book, Adventures, does a great job of beautifully updating and identifying the gods, but honestly, it can’t compete with this book's generic usefulness; it replaces it, as well as religious based supplements found in later products. Is it as fun to read? No. But it is still a superior product to those who are on a budget or wish to handle these details themselves. I also want to point out that the information within this book is not aimed at any specific civilization, so it can be used for any time period, and any setting. If the players wish to space jam, or dimension jump, by using the tools in this book, a DM can very quickly set parameters and prep an entire world in one session.

This book not only clarifies rules, mechanics, and items found in core products, but it also offers options and suggestions so that it doesn’t leave one hanging in the wind. It asks questions before your players do, it allows content to be created during play, and it is can be used by both players and DM. When a reference book does this much, it is no longer just a supplement, it is core. It is a great companion to the Dungeon Master's Reference series, & a must have for world-builders of all skill levels.

At the time that this book came out, I think that we all bought it, but we all didn’t quite understand just how much was actually in there. Even today one can say that it is still ahead of its time. The Generic aspect of the book can cause it to be dismissed,  admittedly, it isn’t a beautiful book to look at and there was confusion about if it was written for players or for DM’s, which led to both ignoring the thing. It was a book that expected to be read prior to adding it to the game, which turns people off as well, but if you can get over the cosmetic aspects, and sit down and read it, you will see it as the tool that it is. Unlike the Fighters, the Thief’s, and the Wizards Guides, which I see as supplemental, I consider this book to be a core rule book. In later years, setting guides sought to replace this title, but they never have.

Back in the day I’d give this book a C-, I played under more than one DM who disallowed all of the PBHR books right off the bat because they hadn’t read them nor did they have any intention of doing so. Once the players who had read it began DMing games, THEN it became more and more excepted.

Today, my opinion of it has definitely improved. Instead of grabbing Forgotten Realms Adventures when dealing with religious matters, I grab this book first and foremost. It is faster and more accurate, and allows more creative freedom to those of us who now consider it core. I give it an A-, it isn’t all that useful if you aren’t playing with 2e rules, as the most important aspect of the book was to supply you with suggestions for spheres, and it did predate the Tome of Magic, so those spheres are not included in this title (which really isn’t that big of a loss as far as I’m concerned). It isn’t perfect, but it is a title that is in the stack of my prep material. Can it be used to prep 1e games? I would think so. I, like many AD&D users blend the two editions together. I would think that the formula and worksheets would be backwards compatible, even if you aren’t using the NWP-system, which this book really doesn’t depend upon too heavily.

What Aaron Allston did was write one of the most complete and helpful titles in a DM’s tool chest, and it isn’t just this title either, as he also wrote PHBR1 The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, as well as the RPG Masterpiece, The Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia. For some odd reason, Wikipedia does not credit him for PHBR3, but he is listed as the only writer in the book’s credits, so why Wikipedia left this title out is kind of a mystery to me.

As far as PDF vs. Hardcopy, this book is readily available, and not collectable in any way. I wouldn’t spend more than $15 on it, but I would highly recommend the hardcopy. It is one of those books that I find myself reaching for more often than I give it credit for.


Brooser Bear said...

I think that the DM disallowed the complete books of series was because these books allowed the players to customize their PC's and make them more powerful. This was the TSR's marketing shift from DM to the Munchkin Player as a core buyer. I have this book. I didn't need it to design a pantheon of my own deities that embody greater spirituality than stuff in D&D publications. What really turned me off about this book was the illustration of a priest on page 20. Obviously a stereotypical medieval catholic monk, the dude wears some corny contrived "Holy" symbol. That book lacked any imagination and humor about medieval priests and shied away from any historic realism. If you want depth to your clerics, why not introduce the real world religions, Christianity, Islam, and a few other things from antiquity as I have? I notice the name Aaron Alston again. He wrote the Grand Duchy of Karameikos for B/X and he seems to have imitated pop fiction tropes of his day into his D&D writing and did not come up with any original ideas. I know nothing about him, he is deceased, and I keep wandering, if it's just me or if there is something real to justify my dislike of him as an author of D&D writing.

RipperX said...

I have never found them over powered at all. If you give up your ability to turn the undead, you can have a power equally as strong. A warrior priest is not able to specialize, nor does he have access to many spheres of magic, but he can use a sword. It is trading one thing for another, such as what one can do with a thief. I have never ran into a single problem with balance at all with this book, and I have used it quite a bit.

The book also addresses basing priest magic on reality based based religions and adjusting the availability and power of magic to fit your campaign.

I LOVE this book! The art is crap, and it's ugly as sin, but the content was way before its time, and it did change how people played. Alston was a great writer of source material, to suggest that he was a hack just isn't fair. Players WANT to play pop fiction tropes. That would be like suggesting that Quentin Tarantino, or Rob Zombie films aren't original. That all Westerns are the same, that . . . well, you get my point.

He is most famous for his work on the Star Wars RPG, I doubt that everything that he wrote was gold, but some of it really was!

Brooser Bear said...

I think that all of the Complete Books Of... had awesome source material, I still have each and every book in my collection - the Brown players' books, the Blue DM's source books and the Green books trying to make D&D fit different historical eras, and I guess make it more competitive with Chivalry and Sorcery and Rune Quest. I think that they have taken the game in the direction in which you and a few other DM's play the game, like that awesome Western Weird Tayxis campaign, which I don't think was ever published and which is all but unrecognizable as a Second Edition D&D. What ticks me off about Alston is that, for instance, there was a major modern lit classic Portnoy's Complaint novel published in 1969. In Allston's Grand Duchy of Karameikos, he has a major campaign corner stone, titled "Davinos' Complaint". That kind of cherry picking ticks me off, especially when something is lifted from a deeper work of greater merit.

RipperX said...

I kick my self in the behind because I didn't pick up those Green books, now they are priced beyond what I can afford. I always figured that I could do that stuff myself, and I could! But now I think that they are neat as hell.

Brooser Bear said...

I wasn't too impressed with Green Books. It was a D&D with fewer spells and classes to reflect the primitiveness of the antique societies they portrayed (Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Charlemaigne's Empire, Cromwell's England, Crusades, Celts, and Vikings). The biggest problem I had with these books, is that like all D&D (with the exception of Gary Gygax's DMG and PH), it was Pop History LIGHT adapted for play, and did not really capture the feel of each of these ages that is available from history and from historical fiction (if we go by the model that Swords and Sorcery genre was the source material for Gygax's AD&D and he encoded it as a default setting for that game).

RipperX said...

I don't see anything wrong with Pop History Light adapted for play. It is the DM's job to capture the "feel" of the ages. The film "Excalibur" was never historically accurate, but that is the feeling that we go for in our games, and that can be accomplished by altering a few rules. Do you need a Green Book to do it? No. I've played "historical" settings before and had a blast, and we didn't have access to them. The Green Books are probably just Luxury Items, not something that you need to play the game, but it is something cool to use if you have it.

Brooser Bear said...

The Green books lay out what characters you can and can not play in the setting, what spells you can and can not cast, and what equipment is available. It won't let you create an adventure appropriate for the setting. What I mean is, you can use Gary Gygax' text, the DMG supplements, his tables and create and create an adventure out of the swords and sorcery fantasy genre. That's because Gugax adapted his text to do it for you. You CAN NOT do the same with the Green Books. You have to do Gary Gygax' legwork and actually develop a historical setting. What good are the green books if you already done your own legwork? That's why they are poorly written.

RipperX said...

You make a very valid point, and one that I cannot argue with.

Brooser Bear said...

That's what marks Gary Gygax's genius. He had no literary knowledge, talent or education, and yet his AD&D can be considered a work of experimental literature, in as much as Choose Your Own Adventure Books, other game books and CRPG's and video games are really alternative forms of storytelling. What Gygax did was lay out some procedures, algorithms, and narrative randomizers to create adventures in the swords and sorcery genre. The so-called OSR people, tried to create knock off simpler versions of the original AD&D customized for a specific setting without any clue as to the original framework.

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