PHBR6 The Complete Dwarves Handbook review

By 1991 the four Complete Class Handbooks had been completed, and they had made TSR lots of money. It was a great idea! Up to that point, TSR had only been able to target Dungeon Masters, but with this series of books, they were targeting their whole audience. I did find them to be incredibly helpful: there was a large influx of new players entering the market, and they needed direction. One can also say that the Handbooks changed how we think in regards to what the product was, and what it could do.

The Class series offered options; that is all; and it didn’t try to say otherwise! I think that it also showed respect for the DM. Yes, they could substitute for a lazy DM, but they also fit well within a setting, any setting; and it made sure that the players knew that if the DM said that Swashbucklers weren’t available, then they weren’t available.

The Class series also restored what the PHB had taken away . . . not that it mattered. If people wanted to play a barbarian then they are going to play a barbarian. They explained things in detail, so that we all understood our options; and they took novice players, and instantly helped them become more experienced ones.

Next, they wanted to do for the races, what they had done for the classes, which would be great! Right? Well, let’s just look at the first of this series. PHBR6 The Complete Dwarves Handbook was released in November of 1991. It was designed by JimBambra, a contributor to Dragon Magazine, and a designer of modules; however, this book would be his greatest contribution to AD&D.

Chapter 1: The Creation of Dwarves

The Dwarf is one of the great fantasy races, and one that has been with the game since the beginning. Most of us are familiar with the Tolkien dwarfs, but there was a problem with this, as TSR wanted to separate themselves from the Tolkien properties for a variety of reasons; mostly financial, but I think that it  kind of worked in our (the consumer’s) favor since it encouraged us to make our own way. This chapter was a collection of myths, identifying a core AD&D dwarf that could be used for any setting, including home-brewed ones, even if it is just a place holder until we can get around to really working on this fantasy race.

Personally, I feel that there is a lot of text here that really doesn’t do anything.  Sure, it gets you to think, but it can cause some confusion at the table, especially if the DM has developed his own dwarves, or he prefers the Tolkien genus. This seems so innocent, but it does step on the Dungeon Master’s toes, and it really was the first shot across the bow which ended up getting the entire Complete Handbook series banned from some clubs. The DM couldn’t read everything, and just knowing that TSR did this was considered an intrusion. An advanced DM builds worlds through play, not through products. It might seem unfair, but it brought the attention of the DM that they didn’t know what else was in these books, so they were dismissed; which was kind of sad because there is stuff in them that could improve even an advanced user’s game.

CHAPTER 2: The Dwarf Sub-races

The Player’s Handbook entry for Hill Dwarves was a great start, further entries were added to the Monstrous Compendium which allowed the DM to create these sub-races; however, that information was for DM eyes only, so this chapter put the information into the hands of the players, by identifying the different varieties discussed in this book.

CHAPTER 3: Your Life as a Dwarf

This was another chapter that defined the AD&D Dwarf, and could be used if no dwarf races where defined by the DM. Intermediate users could use it to get an idea on how to create their own dwarf cultures, but I think that this chapter is just overly precise and may not be true to the campaign. It implies that all dwarves are the same, and that they have only one culture; which is really limited.

CHAPTER 4: Character Creation

Another functional chapter which expands on ideas in the Player’s Handbook, it even adds a nice alternative for altering the Maximum levels that a dwarf can obtain. Many players complain about this limitation; I am not one of them. Level limits are options, ignore it if you don’t like it, but I do like how this book gives you a nice way to compromise.

CHAPTER 5: Proficiencies

This chapter is a mess, and once again it steps on the reader’s toes. While the Class Handbooks offered new proficiencies, or corrected mistakes made in the books; this chapter hides the new proficiencies in with existing proficiencies that have been redefined to fit the author’s view of dwarfs. Do these entries make sense? Yes, but they add rules where no rules are really needed. I suppose that it helps a player play with an inexperienced DM, but when the DM is advanced, this chapter will be inaccurate.   

CHAPTER 6: Dwarf Kits

This is the longest section of the book, and it details further ways to customize a character. This chapter is passable, but overall the kits are more limiting and short-sighted than anything, but they are options! Honestly, I see most of these kits as being more suited as NPCs, and the ones aimed at players are min/maxed. Once again you have the author making assumptions that probably aren’t true, and trying to make a market where there is no demand. Did we buy these books to get kits? I suppose that a lot ofpeople probably did. I liked them because they offered ideas, but I really don’t think that any of these kits are all that inventive, nor practical for long term play.

CHAPTER 7: Role Playing and Personalities

I always preferred this chapter of the Class books over the Kit sections. This stuff is more practical, and offers more to the game. These ideas are good, because they are ideas. They don’t tell you how to play, they give the readers ideas on how to play which they can use or not use. These concepts also don’t interfere with anything: They aren’t backed up by stats or preconceived notions. These work and are well written.

CHAPTER 8: Mining

This chapter is just weird. Let’s gather up our friends and play a nice game of mining! Who does that?  I suppose that this chapter could be helpful but it is full of random tables of things that I’ve never needed. I do kind of like the idea of this section, it’s just that I don’t think that it was well executed nor all that functional.  It is mind-candy. I wonder if anybody actually played the game like this? Running businesses and figuring out profit is difficult, and I think that there was some false advertising on TSR’s part in regards to what this chapter allows you to do.

CHAPTER 9: Equipment

On a mechanical level, the dwarf has gone through some changes, and one that I feel did him harm was removing his exclusive ability to wield +3 war hammers. This meant that a cleric of a different race couldn’t achieve anything better than a +2. It might be a +5 weapon in dwarven hands, but he’d never know it. It helped offset the dwarf and make him unique. Dwarves are known to be strong fighters, but this really isn’t reflected in the 2e system.  This book does not correct this issue, but it does add a two handed battle axe! That is just as good, right? Not really. It does add some cool ideas though, such as dwarven war machines, however I question if these things were ever play-tested properly.

CHAPTER 10: Strongholds

This chapter is fun for all users. It adds to the Castle Guide and is more for the DM than players; there are perhaps a bit too much attention given to treating it as a random encounter, as there are some strange tables here as well, but there are some really good ones too! This is entertaining stuff, it helps a DM generate a history of the place fairly quickly. I’m not sure of how functional it would be on the fly, but during prep it can help you achieve results which you might not expect. It reminds me of a Gygax Appendix, which I love.

CHAPTER 11: Designing Dwarf Campaigns

This is another of my favorite chapters, it encourages and helps the DM design his own dwarven cultures which are unique to his gaming world. This has always been what makes the game fun for me, and a lot of this can be determined during play, allowing the DM and the player to figure out the dwarf’s world.  It encourages the DM to make the game more about the players and less about outside influences, which provides a deeper and richer experience, even if one isn’t playing a dwarf.


You can figure out the details of this book on your own, so it isn’t required at all to play the game. I think that it still works on multiple levels; the book targeted the novice user, but it is also something that one can use to strengthen their world regardless of DM skill level. It does send mixed messages, but I suppose that that is the nature of the game.

I think that there is a bit too much fiction in this product; while it is fun to read, at the table, that stuff tends to get in the way. Novice and Intermediate DM’s can drop this into any campaign, and if it is used, it will strengthen your game. Advanced users will enjoy the templates for culture building, as they can be used for more than just dwarves, and they'll get a kick out of the stronghold section which can really come in handy during prep.

I tend to be kind of hard on the race series, but overall the first entry in it is a helpful one. Other reviews complain that it is anugly book, but what do you want? These things were made cheap to sell cheap. I dare say that if they were given a hard cover and treated like a core handbook than they wouldn’t be as popular as they got. Today it isn’t uncommon to see designers over-producing their books, which forces the consumer to pay more, or the consumer passes it up completely because he just can’t afford it.

This book, while it was marketed to players, is really a DM aid: Mind candy. I would consider this to be more of a luxury item; it does handle boring work that a DM probably doesn’t want to do himself, which makes for a great product. As I said, many of the Kits seem to be more practical as NPCs, it doesn’t attempt to be core, but offers suggestions to modify play, and offers lots of options that if used all at the same time would bog the game down, but if picked through judiciously, can add an element to the game that might not be there without it.

I give this book a B-.

As far as value goes, this thing can be had rather cheaply in physical form, from $10-$20. I have seen PDFs of this book which were actually stripped of some of the content; it comes with lots of goodies at the end of the book, such as character sheets and design templates, so if you do buy the PDF make sure that it an official one, scanned from the book itself, vs. reformatted. I would definitely prefer the hard-copy though, as it will more than likely be used during prepping sessions, and it is nice to have everything right there in front of you. Since the book is so cluttered, it can be helpful to mark the pages with paper clips, and highlight the text that you want to use to maximize its usefulness.


Jason Reilly said...

I just wanted to let you know the chapter on mining inspired a full dwarf only campaign when I was in high school :) - and yes, we thought it was the coolest thing ever! Ended up being a grunge match between our dwarf character, their followers, and various humanoid armies.

Ripper X said...

I love being wrong. That actually sounds like a lot of fun, Jason. I have been thinking about high level play, you can either go epic, or use domain based adventures, such as you guys did with the mine. I think that I am kind of leaning more on the domain based.

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