Monday, January 13, 2014

The 18 Most Rewarding 3e D&D Books for Pathfinder GMs (Part 1)

I’m still getting my life in order after my recent basement flood debacle, but I don’t want to leave you all without any content.  So here’s something I submitted to Reddit’s r/rpg subreddit last March.  Many of you have read this before (I haven’t exactly been shy about linking to it), but for those who haven’t, I hope it makes your next trip to the used bookstore a little more fun.

TL;DR Version: I love Pathfinder. A lot. But these are the 3rd edition D&D books that live by my bedside—and I think they should live by yours, too, because they each have lots to offer the Pathfinder GM. Other books may or may not be more useful at the gaming table, but for worldbuilding inspiration and as flat-out good reads, these books are the canon. And seriously, check out #2.

Long Version: You’re a Pathfinder GM. You’ve read every Golarion book you can get your hands on. But you are insatiable. You want more.

A friend says, “Have you tried the 3rd Edition D&D books? They’re roughly compatible. Here, you can borrow some of mine.” And he guides you over to his shelf.

There is a trove here. But which books do you borrow first?

This list is for you.

Warning: The following list is heavily influenced by my preferences and proclivities. That means heavier on story, concept, races, and world building, lighter on crunch.
It’s also predicated on the scenario outlined above: 3.0 and 3.5 books that have something to offer the Pathfinder GM.

For instance, most of the 3e. “Best of” lists I’ve seen out there rave about the 3.5 class-focused hardcovers. But Pathfinder has plenty of class and crunch options. So if you’ve got Pathfinder’s Advanced Players Guide and Ultimate Magic, picking up 3.5’s Complete Arcane or Complete Mage isn’t really a priority. Plus, as useful to a player as lists of feats and spells can be, those books often don’t have tons of re-read value for the GM.

(Also, the more Paizo publishes, the less utility some of these older books have. I’m positively addicted to finding interesting PC races and subraces, so a year ago Races of Faerûn would have been on the list. But the Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide is even more stacked with goodies, making RoF only an optional read.)

I’m also a big fan of what I call “Core +1” books—single books, that, when added to the core, can fuel an entire campaign—delivering races, classes, feats, spells, gear, monsters, and setting in one fell swoop.

The keyword is rewarding. As a GM, what are the books that will bring you back again and again? What inspire your own worlds? What books will be your bedside and vacation reading? And what will add something to your Pathfinder or Golarion experience?

So, on to the list. But first, some Important Caveats and Honorable Mentions…

Important Caveats: I own a lot of 3.5 books. But I don’t own them all. Among the conspicuous absences: The Book of Nine Swords, Heroes of Battle, and Weapons of Legacy, all of which have been recommended to me but I don’t yet own.

I also don’t know jack about third-party books. Green Ronin books were hard to find where I was (though I do have the excellent Legions of Hell), and most of the other publishers I either knew nothing about or couldn’t get past the bad page layouts and editing. So aside from one huge exception (see below), I’m only referencing Wizard of the Coast’s D&D material.

Okay, here we go…

Honorable Mentions:

Honorable Mention #4) Tome and Blood Bruce R. Cordell and Skip Williams
The original 3.0 class books were overpriced ($19.95 in 2001 dollars for a 96-page softcover), not always well edited (Tome and Blood’s errata included the entire bladesinger prestige class), and quickly replaced by not just one, but two rounds of class hardcovers.

Q: So why mention T&B at all, then, especially since I just said that Pathfinder GMs don’t need D&D class books?

A: Because T&B shows the difference between an ordinary book and an inspirational book.

Defenders of the Faith, for instance, is a fine book from the same series. It takes the role of faith seriously. It gives good role-playing tips. And it has cleric and paladin prestige classes that sound like a glossary straight out of the Middle Ages: inquisitor, contemplative, oracle, hospitaler, knight, templar, warpriest. It does its job well—there’s even a section on training dragon mounts, and what paladin doesn’t want that?

Now look at T&B. You would expect that one of the first classes would be some kind of conjuror or demonologist, right? Bingo…except the acolyte of the skin grafts a demon directly to his own flesh.

Um, wait—what? And: cool!

The alienist flirts with the Far Realm…and her familiar gets warped in the process, growing pseudopods. The candle caster uses candles like potions. The mage of the Arcane Order class actually makes your local wizards’ guild relevant at the game table. There are two different takes on necromancer, one featuring bone armor and sporting an undead prosthesis. And the blood magus can teleport anywhere in the world through any creature that has blood—with the option to wound on the way out!

It’s thinking like that that takes a book from solid class support to an essential read. When these were published DotF had classes, but this book had surprises. We hadn’t seen mages like this in D&D before.

Finally, part of “rewarding” is ROI: return on investment. The hardcover Complete Arcane and Complete Mage are the bigger, more up-to-date 3.5 books…and are going to knock you back at least 27 bucks. Each. At time of writing, used copies of T&B sell for as little as $2.16. You spend more than that on a decent cup of coffee.

So even though this book was both a) flawed and b) later replaced, it still gets an Honorable Mention. It’s not worth buying separately (you’ll pay more than it’s worth on shipping), but if you see it on the shelf or can bundle it with a bigger order, get it. (See a copy of Masters of the Wild? Grab that, too.)

Honorable Mention #3: Tome of Magic Matthew Sernett, Ari Marmell, David Noonan, Robert J. Schwalb

What a weird-ass book this is.

Remember what I said about surprises? This book’s first surprise was its format: three sections, each exploring a completely new magic system.

The second was the binder class. So unexpected, so undeniably cool. Binders are a completely new take on magic in role-playing—that certain personalities and intellects are so powerful that they persist after the body and even the soul have been extinguished. Binders make arrangements with these vestiges, tapping their powers but suffering problematic side effects. Each vestige has its own personality as well, that can play into how willing one is to be bound and which vestiges can be combined at higher levels.

This is awesome, because that means the binder class appeals to both crunch and lore players. The binder magic system, while new, is so simple that the first time I read it I immediately wanted to start figuring out cool combos and min/maxing—something I rarely do. Meanwhile, the vestiges themselves are a grab bag of names old and new from all over the D&D mythos, which tickles my lore side immensely (and is what brings me back to this book over and over—I could read vestige descriptions all day).

Finally—and one of the reasons I recommend it to Pathfinder GMs—is that the binder is a perfect addition for small groups and groups that prefer acting to dice-rolling. Because sometimes, you just can’t get four other people in a room. The binder class can add some much needed flexibility. And if you’re only playing with two or three other players, you’ve also got more time at the table for things like role-playing vestige negotiations. If you and your friends like trying out new voices and chewing the scenery, the binder is the class for you. (In fact, it might be a great way to lure some White Wolf World of Darkness-playing friends to your table…) [Edit: In response to this, many readers also recommended the third-party Secrets of Pact Magic and Path Magic Unbound.]

So what about the rest of the book? After such a strong start, the shadow magic section has a lot of work to do…and it never quite gets there. Having a whole new magic system rather than making shadow magic a specialization school seemed like an odd choice at the time—and in retrospect, it looks like this book was a trial run for 4th Edition. Also, a deeper exploration of the Plane of Shadow would have been nice rather than three brief encounters sites.

And after the evocativeness of the first two sections, truename magic comes off as really abstract, like something best for experienced players who feel they are just done with the traditional magic system.

This book also has the dubious distinction of having possibly the worst monsters of any D&D hardcover. This is not just me saying this: the roving mauler made Cracked’s worst monsters list, and the dark template joins a game that already has a shadow and umbral creature templates. I don’t want to speculate too deeply into the writing process, but the monsters feel like they were forced in via some directive from on high:

“D&D books have monsters.”
“But it’s a class book; it doesn’t—”
“Monst. Ers.”

So this book is really problematic, hence the Honorable Mention. You’ll come back to it again and again…but only for the first 100 pages.

Honorable Mentions #2 & #1) Creature Collection & Ghelspad

White Wolf’s Sword & Sorcery imprint did not mess around. When the Open Gaming License came out, S&S was one of the first to take advantage of it, dropping the first Scarred Lands book, Creature Collection, almost before Wizards of the Coast’s presses had spat out the Monster Manual. Not only that, many of the monsters had more life than WotC’s (a page per monster was a good decision) and the flavor text suggested a full world was on its way.

Fortunately, it was, and plenty of more books followed for a good three years or so.

Eventually Sword & Sorcery’s Scarred Lands seemed to run out of steam…I’m not sure if that’s because WotC got its Forgotten Realms and Eberron engines up and running or what. But for a while, those books were gold—full of big mythologies and dark terrors and new life while WotC was trying to convince us that Greyhawk was still a thing.

My advice: Get the first Creature Collection (the edition revised for 3.5 probably makes for more seamless conversion, but I don’t think it matters much) and the Ghelspad gazetteer. That gives you a great set of monsters and a setting to put them in. If you like those, get the second Creature Collection and the Termana gazetteer, then explore from there with books like The Divine and the Defeated and Strange Lands. [Edit: Strange Lands is sitting next to my bed but I have a stack of Pathfinder books to get through first.] As with most White Wolf products, the rule of thumb is “Hardbound good, softbound ehhhhhh.”

What does it have to offer your Pathfinder game? The Scarred Lands is a fun setting with lots of evil that needs thwarting, where oppressive Cheliax-like nations are the norm rather than the exception. It has monsters with great names like the inn wight, bottle imp, and wrack dragon (y’know, real names, not Forgotten Realmsian clots of syllables). It has fresh takes on many of your favorite demihumans—you’ll learn to fear evil dwarves more than anything, and the Scarred Lands’ version of drow are the least of your worries, elf-wise.

Also, the Scarred Lands knows what to do with elements of the game that other settings struggle with. Druids, for instance, are central players in the setting: Titan-worshippers that often stand in opposition to the Gods and their clerics. Gnomes don’t even exist in Ghelspad—problem solved—then appear as psionic cannibals on the continent of Termana. (At least you won’t mistake them for dwarves or halflings.)

And most importantly, the Scarred Lands has a coherent mythology and origin story. This almost never happens in role-playing games—which is bizarre, given how much your average role-player also loves Greek, Norse, and Egyptian myths. Typically, gods get invented to check off alignments and dispense domain spells, but any family trees, relationships, pantheon ties, or origin stories get retrofitted late in the design phase. Not so with the Scarred Lands, which borrows the bare essentials from Greece—the Titans created the world, their children the Gods rebelled, and mortals now live in the messy aftermath. The mythology and the setting support each other from page one, and the PCs can’t help but be caught in and contend with the fallout. It’s a great series.

That’s it for honorable mentions. (Even though I’ve probably horribly neglected Green Ronin and Freeport—I promise to get my hands on some of those books soon!) [Edit: As I recently posted, I’ve since read the original Freeport trilogy and loved it.] And you’re probably getting a sense for the criteria by which I judge these books.

Still with me? Good. Let’s start the countdown proper.

The List

18) Underdark Bruce R. Cordell, Gwendolyn F.M. Kestrel, Jeff Quick
James Jacobs and Greg A. Vaughan’s Into the Darklands is a great Golarion book…and a great (little-u) underdark book, period. But are you really going to say, “No, I don’t need another underdark book”? Especially one about the (big-U) Underdark? Of course not.

This is a Forgotten Realms book, so obviously a lot of this book is Realms-specific. Many of the monsters are D&D-only, and if you’re missing the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting or Monsters of Faerûn, bits of it won’t make sense. But who cares? Treat this book like the junker you keep around for spare parts to keep your vintage car going—use what you can, and let the rest rust in your garage. Need a duergar, drow, or cloaker city on the fly? Borrow one from here. Are you planning a Darklands campaign but one of your players loves fey? Try out the gloaming PC race. Need a big nasty beast fast? An ineffable horror, maur, kuo-toa leviathan, or mindwitness will work, and put a unique magic item in its treasure horde as a reward.

Basically, I could read Underdark city descriptions all day, and I bet you could to. You may not need this book, but you’ll also never be sorry you have it.

(PS: What if I’d wanted to make this an even Top 20? Most likely I would have added Unearthed Arcana and Power of Faerûn. PoF I like because it addresses those big questions of what to do late in the campaign when PCs are now movers and shakers on the world stage. But I hesitate to list it, because I have a feeling it is going to be knocked off by Paizo’s forthcoming Ultimate Campaign, and because it’s a recent purchase—I only just got my copy in a used bookstore over Christmas break, so it hasn’t settled into brain yet…it might just be a read-once-and-forget book. [Edit: And in fact, I still haven’t finished it—it’s still in my half-read pile awaiting completion. Though to be fair, I haven’t read UC either.]

Unearthed Arcana I can’t deny the appeal of: It’s a big toolkit bristling with options, many of which might work for your Pathfinder campaign. So before starting a new campaign, it’s very worth browsing through, to see if it sparks any ideas or encourages you to tinker with your rules and setting a bit. But at the same time…I’m never actually excited to browse Unearthed Arcana. It’s more a last-resort source of ideas, a place I go because I feel stuck, not because I’m eager to explore. And with my reading table already straining from Pathfinder Player Companions and half-read Ultimate hardcovers, I’ve got enough widgets in my toolkit I’m not using already.)

Stay tuned for Part 2...

More to come tomorrow.  Here’s the original thread if you want to see redditors' comments.  And I’d love to hear your feedback or top –whatever-number lists!

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