I was thinking back the other day to some of the awesome D&D supplements I’ve used in the past and how they are just collecting dust now (in my hard drive or on my shelf). Usually this is because I’m not really playing the games they were written for anymore (old editions, settings I haven’t been back to, etc) but there are some really awesome ones that I think I should have back in my repertoire anyways! Today I want to talk about five older books that you might not have heard of that you should check out anyways.
Underdark (D&D 3e)
It pains me to say it but a lot people probably think of Third Edition D&D as “the old days” when they even think about it at all. Having cut my teeth on AD&D (or “2e” as the kids say) a part of me will always squirm at that but regardless of how you think about it there is a whole trove of awesome resources that most players don’t know much about. For me, the Underdark supplement for the Forgotten Realms setting is one of the best products of that era, and I say that as someone who is lukewarm on the Forgotten Realms at best. The reason is because of two awesome sections in the book.
The first is Chapter 7, “Exploring the Underdark.” This might seem like one of those boring chapters full of ten-foot poles and backpacks of various sizes. In reality, though, it’s twenty pages of detail on underground environments. Subterranean conditions, geologic formations, and much more are here with some practical applications of how it can play out for your player characters. If your characters spend any time below ground (say, in a dungeon) this section of the book alone is worth a look.
On top of that, though, there’s Chapter 8 which is the geography of the Underdark in Faerûn and some particular sites of interest. Now I just said above that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Forgotten Realms so this chapter might seem like a weird recommendation from me. In reality, though, it’s a great collection of some sixty (!) locations in the Underdark that are easily portable into whatever other setting you might like. More work might be required, of course, for some strange settings like Dark Sun or Ravenloft but in general these are fantastic sites with interesting inhabitants that will keep your next jaunt underground from being just “Cavern #51.” There are even ties between them if you want to explore a longer campaign underground (which is obviously what the book is all about anyways). Whether a one-shot or a campaign arc, this book can add some interesting variety.
Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (D&D 4e)
This one isn’t so old, but since it was the second DMG of the edition and it came out at the height of the edition wars not everyone may be aware of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2. Even if they are, the book came out nine years ago (!) so it isn’t likely to be at the top of your mind. Despite this, I think the DMG2 was the spiritual successor to the Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you’ve played earlier editions you might be used to DMGs that are full of tables and rules for dangerous environments or creating encounters or building foes. These days those are increasingly contained in other core rulebooks and the DM’s book (or section) is filled with advice and campaign tools.
This all started with the DMG2 close to a decade ago which is chock full of great advice and framework tools. Some of it is specific to 4e but a lot of the concepts including traps, fantastic terrain, monster themes, and alternative rewards are pretty timeless. This definitely is rules heavy and you’d need to make up your own to use it in other editions but the advice and the idea behind these sections can be used for any D&D game.
Powers of Faerûn (D&D 3e)
Another gem from Third Edition Forgotten Realms (look, the heart wants what the heart wants) Power of Faerûn is designed to give epic play more nuanced plots than walking up to the nearest balor and punching him in his smug face. From the Introduction: “This book gives players suggested tactics, and descriptions of possible pitfalls and opportunities, for guiding their characters into dominance in a campaign set in Faerûn. Its lore and mechanics can readily be used in Dungeons & Dragons games that use other settings.” I would extend this to other editions as well but I will say that I have used this a lot in 3.Xe campaigns set in Eberron and found it immensely useful.
So what is in this book? Well, kind of everything. Chapter 1: Order in the Court is lots of options for running court-centered campaigns with the PCs as highly influential movers and shakers and powers behind the throne. Chapter 2: Win the Battlefield is about how to keep high-level player characters busy in a wartime setting; basically, when they can go toe-to-toe with a dragon throw a freakin’ army at them! Chapter 3: Keep the Faith is about the authority of various churches and how you can be politically and schismatic in a setting where gods are very tangible. Chapter 4: Play the Market is about expanding trade empires while Chapter 5: Tame the Frontier is about expanding physical empires. Chapter 6: King of the Road is about those one-person, high-powered marshals and heralds who keep the peace in the space between cities.
All in all there’s more than a hundred pages of well-written, solid advice for running high-powered campaigns that still allow for exploration, excitement, and threat. If you’re playing in the Forgotten Realms there are two more chapters that have specific Fearûnian enemies to challenge players and a region of the Realms that is ready to form your own pocket kingdom in. The best part about this book is that the actual mechanics used in the book are pretty minimal (I guess that’s an optimistic way to look at it but there we are) so you can use the vast majority of this book straight off the page no matter what edition you’re playing (including Pathfinder). For mechanics on running kingdoms or armies, I recommend the “Ultimate Plug-Ins” books by Legendary Games (I actually mentioned them earlier for my Adventures in Middle-earth campaign). If you do want to use the rules in Power of Faerûn I would think you just need to adjust the DCs to reflect the flattened math of 5th Edition. If you’re still on 4th Edition you can use them freely.
World Builder’s Guidebook (D&D 2e)
I use World Builder’s Guidebook a lot and have pretty consistently since I got it fifteen years ago. This book is close to one hundred pages of random tables and different options for making campaign settings. There are a dozen different types of governments, a system for making realistic geographies, and charts with all sorts of different races and monsters to populate your world. The best part is that it’s system agnostic so you can freely use it with whatever edition you’re using, or even with a non-D&D game.
Some of the stuff in here is a little weird and you’re sure to get a strange world if you just follow things blindly, so you certainly want to use your judgement and adjust things to make a world you and your players are excited to play in. Most of the time I use just isolated sections of this book but it also has some wonderful self-correction so if you do just follow what the tables tell you then you’ll end up with something coherent at least. The results won’t have glaciers at the equator or anything like that, but you probably want to prune out the kingdoms that seem too out there for what you want.
Aside from the wonkiness of some table results, 99% of this book is pure gold. If you want to create your own campaign world, add a new city or region to an existing world, or just play around with different setting aspects that you aren’t already familiar with, then I highly recommend this book.
Cityscape (D&D 3e)
This is another book that I constantly go back to. Cityscape was in the line of 3e books dedicated to particular environments (including Stormwrack and Frostburn) and all of those have something to offer your current campaigns with options, ideas, and equipment for the environment of your choice. Cityscape, however, also has fantastic tools for the GM with various neighborhoods and sections to fill out their city. This makes it very easy to have a fun, varied city that also has enough places and people that you it doesn’t feel like a ghost town. This is the framework used for the Sharn sourcebook for Eberron and (not coincidentally) what I use for making cities in my Cities of Khorvaire project.
It should be noted that this series has some mixed reviews out there. I think the issue is that some people wanted some plugins to flesh out a region of their world or to allow for a campaign that they wanted to build. Other people wanted a fully-functional campaign setting and these are most certainly not those. These are toolboxes that you can pull out, sift through, and utilize the best parts for your campaign (plus any mechanical issues are negated when you’re converting to a new edition). In any case, Cityscape is probably the best-received title so I can make this recommendation without worry!