I have accumulated a lot of roleplaying game books over the years. A lot. As you can see, they’re back to fitting in my 5×5 IKEA shelf after I kicked out all of the Pathfinder Pawn sets. But you may also notice an unorthodox arrangement to the books. You see, I’m tall. I used to sort all of the books alphabetically – first by publisher, then by game, then by book title. Unfortunately, while this worked out well for the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game (published until this year by Alderac Entertainment Group), it meant that anything “White Wolf” or “Wizards of the Coast” was down near the floor (and, in particular, D&D 5E was a pain to get at). So, because I want my favorite books to be more readily visible and accessible, I sorted things into columns, and then within each column I put my favorite stuff on top (note: I reserve the right to change my preferences at any time without warning; this is just how the shelf is arranged right now). Dungeons & Dragons has a column, Legend of the Five Rings has a column, White Wolf/Onyx Path has two columns, and everything else gets put into the final column (at this point, the plurality of that fifth column is Pathfinder). The White Wolf columns are divided into two sections – modern age Vampire (Masquerade and Requiem) and everything else (the historical Vampire books like Dark Ages and Victorian Age, the similar-to-but-not-the-same Kindred of the East, other World of Darkness or new World of Darkness books, and Exalted).
In each of these five Top Shelf articles, I will be taking a brief look at quite literally the top shelf of each of those columns – what are the books that I chose to put there, and why? Some of those reasons will be personal. Some will be more ‘objective’ (to the extent that any opinion on the better book can be objective). Part 1 covered Vampire: The Masquerade. This is part 2 (Dungeons & Dragons) Here’s what we’re looking at today:
Similar to how I started off my V:tM article, let me note that there is a real limit on what can be on this shelf. This is an actual shelf of my actual books – if I don’t own a physical copy of it, I can’t put it on the shelf. You may, for example, note an absence of the really, really old stuff, because I don’t go back quite that far.
Rules Cyclopedia – I don’t know if I’d ever want to play old basic Dungeons & Dragons again, with its regimented “if you aren’t human, then your race is your class” character creation. Maybe on a lark for a one-shot. But it was the first Dungeons & Dragons system I played, and the Rules Cyclopedia was this really exciting complete version of it, with rules up to a ridiculous 36th level (and you thought balancing characters in the high teens was hard). But I also want to give a shout-out to The New Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons box set, which I believe was my very first Dungeons & Dragons product (astute readers may note that, as this was released in 1991 and I got it then, I was indeed playing D&D before I was playing Vampire). However, it does not appear on this particular shelf because it is in a pretty big box that couldn’t possibly fit in the shelf. So it’s on top of the shelf instead (you can see it if you look at the picture of the whole shelf at the start of this article). Information was so restricted back then as compared to now that I didn’t even know the box set had ‘expansions,’ but the learn-to-play adventure in it – escaping from the dungeon of Zanzer Tem – will always be near and dear to my heart. It wasn’t just my first Dungeons & Dragons adventure, it was my first roleplaying adventure, period.
Wrath of the Immortals – A world-shattering epic campaign for basic Dungeons & Dragons, Wrath of the Immortals significantly remade Mystara, the campaign setting for basic D&D. It isn’t kidding about that ‘immortals’ thing either – there was actually more about gods/immortals in a setting book than the campaign book itself (which is only 96 pages long; although to be fair it’s really three adventures spread across the lifespan of the characters, rather than attempting to provide dungeons for 16 levels of play). The climax involved a spaceship, so I strongly suspect I would roll my eyes if Wrath of the Immortals was released today – but 14-year-old Chris loved it, and so on the shelf it stays. Also, I have to apologize for the condition of these basic D&D releases – you can really see the damage on the Rules Cyclopedia, but the box for Wrath of the Immortals isn’t in great shape either.
AD&D 2E Player’s Handbook and Dungeons Master’s Guide – While plain old “Dungeons & Dragons” was represented by the Rules Cyclopedia, this was the era when there was both “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” and the evolution of D&D after this point in time really derived from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I played both versions of D&D when I was in high school, and AD&D through undergrad until the release of 3.0, so these make up the ‘old school’ D&D for me.
Planescape Campaign Setting – Planescape is, by far, my favorite Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting (you may also recognize it as the setting for one of the best cRPGs of all time, Planescape: Torment). Planescape was, as one might guess from the name, a planar setting. It was hinged around Sigil, the City of Doors, a cross-dimensional, cosmopolitan hub sitting at the center of the multiverse (I still almost squeal in delight whenever Sigil gets a shout-out in a modern D&D product). The powers in the city (after the mysterious Lady of Pain, its ultimate ruler) were the factions – groups organized around philosophies and competing to influence the opinions of the citizens of the multiverse (which could have actual physical effects, up to and including shifting entire chunks from one plane to another if the people on that chunk came to align with the receiving plane). One detail that really caught me was the relatively extensive lexicon provided for the citizens of Sigil – so if I ever tell you to “pike it, berk,” well, now you know where that comes from. It also had a distinctively cool art style, led by Tony DiTerlizzi. Don’t get me wrong – it’s quirky, and even though it’s my favorite I’m not saying it should be the D&D campaign setting – a more standard fantasy setting like the Forgotten Realms is much more classic D&D and has to be there. But Planescape was great. (Note: at the time of writing, you can buy the PDF version of the boxes set for only $10 on DriveThruRPG, which is a great deal if you want to see what Planescape is all about).
Planescape: Planes of Chaos and Faction War – Not only do I like Planescape enough to make it the only campaign setting to get a spot on the top shelf, but I then eat up even more space with a couple of supplements. Faction War is an adventure supplement – there were many of these for Planescape, but Faction War was a thicker one that wrought actual changes in the setting. If you know Planes of Chaos, you might have a hard time spotting it on the shelf, because it’s a box set and there’s only the one Planescape box on the shelf. This is one of those “what I have is what I have” things – although Planescape is my favorite setting, it also came out at a time when I was not in a financial position to just buy all the things. And it isn’t particularly affordable now, for product that would basically exist just to go on my RPG shelf (you can get it on DTRPG, but I can’t put PDFs on a shelf). Although I do promise, WotC, that I will buy anything Planescape you choose to put out for Fifth Edition – the book, a GM screen, special dice, whatever you’ve got, if I can use it with the modern rules. So there’s a lot of Planescape I don’t have. I do have all of Planes of Chaos – except the box. And so on my top shelf sits all of the booklets that made up the box set.
The Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Slipcase Set – For all my love of Planescape and Zanzer’s Dungeon, my feelings about editions of Dungeons & Dragons follow a somewhat similar path as my feelings about editions of Vampire: the Masquerade (as discussed in the first Top Shelf article). The Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D2E were my first. But then came out a superior third edition product – Revised Edition for Vampire, and 3.0 for Dungeons & Dragons. I was in undergraduate when they both came out (although the D&D came out a couple of years later, so most of my actual D&D play in undergrad was in AD&D2E; which is probably why there’s a lot more AD&D2E material here than there is Vampire second edition stuff there). For D&D 3.0, I was working for the summer at Purdue (working on some specialized coding for a sub-component of a sub-component of the Large Hadron Collider). I went to a midnight release event for the Player’s Handbook, and I was in love. We geeks and gamers can be super-nostalgic for the past, but 3.0 was, I thought (and think), basically better than its predecessor in every way (and I was young enough that I can still feel the flames of nostalgia for it now). I mean, just realizing that having a higher target number when something is harder to hit in combat just makes sense was an improvement. Of course, that was a story about the original release, while the books on my shelf are 3.5, but to be fair 3.5 was just a gradual improvement on 3.0, so it has gotten the spot. Although I have to admit that writing about the original 3.0 kind of makes me want to move it up. Indeed, moving it all the way up here would free up some space, since the only reason that the 3.5 Monster Manual is on the shelf is because it’s in the slipcase (monster manuals are necessary, but there’s really no chance that one will ever be one of my favorite books – the 5E one isn’t here, even though I described it as nearly perfect).
Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition Character Options Supplements – One of D&D 3.0’s big innovations was the interlocking character options that made for endless customization and a nearly endless ability to print mechanical supplements. And, as you can see from the photo, my favorite supplements for this edition were the ones that were just nothing but more options for normal old characters – Complete Adventurer, Complete Arcane, Complete Divine, Complete Mage, and Complete Warrior (these supplements were far superior to the original dual-class character supplements, which were pretty weak). More prestige classes. More Feats. More endless options that you would have a hard time getting to the table because, let’s face it, you generally don’t make a new character every week/month (well, unless you’re the DM). I will grant, however, that these books have the most tenuous hold on the top shelf – I used them a lot, but with no story/setting elements at all, they have less resonance than the others. But they were just really, really good at what they were. And if I let myself rearrange books in the middle of writing these articles, they would never get finished.
Let me pause here to confirm that there are exactly zero Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition books on this shelf. Let us never speak of it again.
Player’s Handbook (Fifth Edition) – Fifth Edition has kicked off a massive Dungeons & Dragons renaissance. It’s way too recent to be nostalgic, but it is really good at what it does – a streamlined, classic Dungeons & Dragons. Not only does the gameplay hearken back to glories of yesteryear, it has opened Dungeons & Dragons up to a massive new audience and to extensive media exposure. However, the release model has some effect on the dearth of 5E books on the shelf – while Wrath of the Immortals and Faction War are here, the shelf has a lot of mechanical options and a hunk of Planescape campaign setting material. But because D&D5E is designed to be streamlined, there aren’t a plethora of character options and campaign setting books. If I rearrange and demote those third edition character option books, the biggest beneficiary would be D&D 5E, which would probably see Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes and the Dungeon Master’s Guide come up (the older I get, the less I care about the contents of the DMG as compared to the PHB, which is why the 2E DMG is still there right now but 5E isn’t). And I’m really looking forward to the Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica – with the (probably overdue) collision of Magic: the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, in a book that should have both a lot of campaign setting material and some character options, it seems a likely candidate to climb to the top shelf.
P.S. Also there should really be something Dragonlance on the top shelf. Those 3E option books are doomed, aren’t they? Speaking of which, here’s what’s currently residing on the second shelf (out of six; the bookcase is only five cubes high, but the D&D overflows into the L5R column):