When the Player’s Handbook II was announced, it raised a lot of eyebrows. What is to be expected from a sequel to the single most essential sourcebook in all of Dungeons and Dragons? Should it follow the template of the first, offering new races, new classes, new uses for skills, new feats, new tips on describing your character, new equipment, new adventuring, combat and magic rules, and finally new spells? Or should it provide new options with the same feel as the original, the essentials of fantasy fiction?
What do you put in a book that’s a sequel to the basics?
At a Glance
I hate PH II’s cover. WotC was presented an opportunity to create another memorable tome-theme along the same lines as the original PH and other core books. Instead, we get a mostly brown cover formatted like a reject from Complete Adventurer. I realize it’s a reference to the original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons PH cover [thanks to jaelis from the Gleemax boards for the information] but the old finick in me likes consistency of design, and this is not consistent at all with what I consider a core rulebook cover. Granted, neither it nor the Dungeon Master’s Guide II before it are core and they have similar covers, but that never stopped the Monster Manual sequels from delivering fantastic full cover artwork.
Inside the art is very mixed. A lot is flat and amateurish, like page 69’s battle scene. And yet these poor pieces of art share space with some of my favourite pieces, like page 81’s Master Manipulator by Steven Belledin and page 146’s Gimble Demands the Spotlight by Franz Vohwinkel. And I appreciate seeing what our familiar heroes would have been like with different backgrounds, like Lidda as a Savage by Ron Spencer on page 139.
The PH II offers a lot of options that expand on existing material, mostly what was introduced in the original PH. This book is largely credited with introducing Alternate Class Features to the game, but it actually took an idea seen in the Races Of series, Racial Class Features, and broadened it. Regardless of where the idea originated, it is a perfect fit for the PH II, giving optional new direction the core classes (as well as some base classes introduced in other sourcebooks). Also, many of the new Feats branch PH Feat Trees further, or make unpopular options more useful (like shields and reach weapons).
Beyond just expanding on options, the PH II features a chapter on rebuilding your character. This is exactly why this book exists. It’s a whole new set of rules to cover an aspect of character advancement never before acknowledged. It’s extremely useful for players that find a prestige class that’s perfect for their character but it will take them several levels to qualify for because of the Feats they’ve already picked or Skills they haven’t assigned enough points to. It also allows a whole new flexibility to character creation. Some options are only good up to a certain level. Now instead of ignoring them completely, they can be taken for a few levels and then swapped for ultimately more useful choices.
There are a lot of really cool new options in the PH II. Starting with the first of the four new base classes, the Beguiler. Every first Complete series book introduced a new caster/warrior class, but only the spellthief from Complete Adventurer brought us a new caster/rogue. The Beguiler specializes in illusion and enchantment, with a little divination thrown in to compliment his rogue skills. The Duskblade class is a wicked new caster/warrior hybrid heavy on the warrior (although I don’t care for the name). Finally, a class that allows the character to channel spells through its melee attacks. However I have to point out there is a problem with the Duckblade’s Spell List. According to page 98, they only have access to new spells introduced in this book. But the sample Duskblade has spells from the PH and Spell Compendium. There’s never been an official PH II errata to clarify this. (EDIT: Since this review was written, it has been errataed)
I am a big fan of alternate class features, and a lot of PH II’s are excellent. The Druid’s Shapeshift and Rogue’s Disruptive Attack are perfect choices for emphasizing the combat effectiveness of those classes. And the Sorcerer’s Metamagic Specialist and Wizard’s Immediate Magic reshape the class, as long as you’re willing to give up your familiar.
Something for Everyone
This isn’t a Complete book. The PH II really does offer new options for any player. By accounting for popular base classes from the first Complete series (Hexblade, Swashbuckler, and Warlock) as well as others (somehow the obscure Marshal class from the often overlooked Miniatures Handbook made the cut), they cement these options as supported classes. And if you need help defining your character or separating him from other characters you’ve played, Chapter Five: Building Your Identity is a pleasant and insightful read, expanding on the disappointingly short chapter in the original PH.
Not Sequelly Enough
There are plenty of options that share the flavour of the original PH or continue trends that start there. But there is also a lot of content that feels thrown in, and missing content that would have been ideal. Of the four classes, the only one that feels thematically as basic as the PH classes is the Knight, which is actually the class I like the least (more on that later). The spells doesn’t cover basics that the PH overlooked, and there isn’t much reason to flip through these spells if you have a Spell Compendium, which was released five months earlier.
Moreover, where are the new special attacks, or new options and clarifications for the existing ones? I’ll never understand why there have never been rules for severing limbs (even though the Regeneration spell exists to reattach those that somehow are lost), as much as I’ll never understand grapple. But from what I do understand of grapple, it certainly feels like there is room for more options, in particular for the defender.
I dislike the Dragon Shaman and Knight as much as I love the Beguiler and Duskblade. The Dragon Shaman is redundant, essentially a base class to replace the Dragon Disciple prestige class (DMG). The Knight is just heartbreaking. The word knight is synonymous with medieval literature and should have functioned like a non-casting paladin. But it’s complete lack of flexibility, along with its play-unfriendly abilities, make it a huge let down, and my least favourite base class in the game.
I can’t let WotC off the hook about the rebuild quest idea introduced in Chapter 8: Rebuilding Your Character. The rules for retraining feats, skills and the like are simple and efficient, basic enough to have been house-ruled, but now they’re official. But the rules for rebuilding character level or race are ludicrous. PH II essentially says the only way to rebuild options like those is to go on a rebuild quest, the goal of which is to win a wish that can be used to change your class or race. I suppose a player is supposed to tell his DM “My character is a bard trapped in a fighter’s body. I’m going on a rebuild quest.” And just like that, the DM has to stop all his plans to write this solo side quest, or make an adventure of it that drags the rest of the party along?
Rebuild quest isn’t a rule, it’s an idea, and a terrible one. Character creation should be handled by a player with a character sheet and a pencil with a decent eraser. Character rebuilding should be the same, and not a section of the Player’s Handbook II (emphasis on Player) that includes a note telling players that this section is intended for the DM. If WotC could not come up with a more substantial system of rebuilding class, race, they should have dropped the idea completely. As it is, the rebuild quest is the worst official rule ever, and the ten pages wasted on it should only be read for amusement purposes.
A Lot of Wasted Paper
Some people might debate the usefulness of Chapter 5: Building Your Identity. I think it has its place. It may go a bit long, but there are gamers that can benefit very much from this information. Chapter 6: The Adventuring Group is harder to justify, as it goes into details of the group as a whole, which should be agreed upon by everyone involved, or established by the DM before the first session. However, the thirty pages that make up Chapter 7: Affiliations belongs in a new Complete book: Complete Waste. Who exactly would use this information? If a DM includes it in his game, it’s very likely the PCs will gloss over it and eventually pass. If a PH wants to join an affiliation, he is thrusting work upon the DM that ultimately has little payoff.
The Quick PC and NPC Creation appendix is a great tool for a DM and a handy guideline for a Player. The charts include options from both Complete and Races Of series, but emphasize PH and PH II options.
The Beguiler and Duskblade are exciting new options for players to consider.
Short Haft is a feat that allows a player to attack adjacent opponents with his reach weapon.
Surprisingly a lot. When my group decided to play our original 3.5 characters in an epic campaign, epic Karkerkast, Gnome Giant-Slayer took Bounding Assault, a continuation of the Spring Attack tree, which brought high-level use to the Spring Attack feat.
When we ran the Red Hand of Doom canned adventure, Horncarver, a goliath cleric, took the Cometary Collision, a counter attack that lets a character counter charge a charging opponent. There were several problems with this feat, the most visceral of which was the DM knowing I’m setting up a counter attack when the NPC plainly doesn’t. In the end, the few times it worked were fun, but it would have been more worth it as one maneuver made available by a tactical feat.
In a Halloween one-shot I DMed, a prominent NPC was a dwarf knight. The first encounter of the campaign featured a the NPC issuing a knight’s challenge to a PC assassin. Right off the bat I had a combat neither player or DM wanted to seemingly count not end until one was dead, and no other player could interfere with.
Finally, my current human Hexblade, The Scales of St. Cuthbert, chose the Dark Companion Alternate Class Feature. Instead of a familiar, which didn’t fit my view of the character, I have an animal illusion manifestation of my curse ability. It’s a bit overpowered, it’s radial curse seemingly stacks with a Hexblade’s normal curse- and under written –How does an obvious illusion occupy a five foot space?- but I love the image of this translucent blue panther always near my side.
The PH II could be compared to a good movie with actors you like but with a few awful twists. So much of it is innovative or useful. And yet there are also inductees into the 3.5 Hall of Shame. If there were a half-dozen writer’s working on this book, I’d understand. But David Noonan is given sole credit. I have to assume he wrote some of the book sober, and some stinking drunk off rum, recovering from a bad break-up and with three pounds of glass shards imbedded into various parts of his body. I don’t want to assume that, I have to.
Frankly, I would recommend the book for the Feats and Alternate Class Features alone. Ideally, I’d like to have seen a book like this, maybe a hundred pages lighter and soft covered, released annually with an official errata and a few new rules. Call it the D&D PH Annual or somesuch. Because a lot of this book’s content is valuable but doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere else.
If You Liked This Book…
The Miniatures Handbook is surprisingly similar, offering little bits of a large variety. But keep in mind, less than half the Miniature’s Handbook relates to the D&D RPG rather than the tabletop miniatures game.
You might like the DMG II, which follows a similar format of useful new options and valuable insight mixed in with evident filler and missed opportunities.
Finally, check out the first Complete Series, especially if one of the referenced options strikes your fancy.
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