Saturday, August 29, 2015

Splat Book Review: The Complete Wizard's Handbook

  This is the first in a series of reviews of the various splat books for AD&D 2nd Edition. This series was prompted by comments on my blog post about AD&D 2e found here.

Nuts and Bolts
  The first book was picked by careful thought and taking the one closest to the top of the 'my sons read it and think 'putting it close' is the same as 'putting it back'' pile.

  The Complete Wizard's Handbook has a 1990 copyright, contains 125 numbered pages, and is in trade paperback format. I have owned my copy for 25 years and it is still in excellent shape after a quarter century of routine use, so the print and binding quality is time tested. There is some yellowing of the pages, but no loss of readability, etc.

  Rick Swan has the 'designed by' credit. Mr. Swan did a fair bit of writing for TSR between about '89 and '94.

  The book is in 9 chapters which are, in order: Schools of Magic; Creating New Schools; Wizard Kits; Role-Playing; Combat and the Wizard; Casting Spells in Unusual Conditions; Advanced Procedures; New Spells; Wizardly Lists. The end also has maps and play aids.

Chapter 1: Schools of Magic
  This section starts with a solid discussion of the pros and cons of becoming a specialist mage that is aimed at new-ish players. Mr. Swan points out that specialization is of most benefit to magic-users with a lower intelligence score because of the boost specialists have in learning new spells, a point that a fair number of people seem to have missed, back in the day.
  The book then goes over each school of magic and reviews everything from a general description to the ability requirements. Each school description includes a list of 'most desirable spells' and 'ethos'.
  I found the Most Desirable Spells sections to be OK, although I disagreed with some of the selection (as one does). But the 'Ethos' sections struck me as a bit over the line transitioning from 'resource' to 'proselytizing'. For example, in the section on Abjuration the book states,
  "Because of their kind hearts and generous spirits, abjurers are held in high esteem...."
  Wait- is Mr. Swan telling us abjurors must be generous and kind? What of I want to have a socially-awkward, nervous wizard who is an abjuror because he is well-nigh paranoid and comes off as distant, cold, and aloof? 
  While Mr. Swan may have intended these sections to be suggestions, they are presented as statements and not only does that annoy me personally I have encountered more than one person who thought that the personality traits from this book were canonical.
  And that is a problem.
  The chapter ends with a discussion of how to abandon a school of magic and of minor schools of magic.

Opinion- The stuff on mechanics was solid, the discussion of 'ethos' should have been edited out or transformed into 2-3 suggested personality types per school. 

Chapter 2: Creating New Schools of Magic
  This chapter starts with a discussion of types of magic, contrasting mages and clerics, etc. The details of the suggested minimums and maximums for new schools of magic are good and the discussion of making new spells is a highlight and should be read more widely as good advice for the OSR and beyond on spell building. 
  And then... back to the 'Ethos' thing again where the book does everything but print in 18 point, bold font ''All specialist mages share a common personality so closely they even have similar preferences on where they live'. 

Opinion- Ignore the discussion on personalities and focus on mechanics and this is great stuff.

Chapter 3: Wizard Kits
  The chapter starts well by discussing kits as optional, culturally (i.e., campaign-) based, and reminding the DM that he has veto power, the ability to modify the kits, make his own, etc.  I appreciate that this was put here as a reminder that the DM has the power to modify or veto anything from a splatbook. In my opinion, this needs frequent repeating. The chapter continues to a very good reminder on how reaction modifiers actually work in 2e.

  On to the kits! 

Academician: A great kit to show what they are for, this one trades minor penalties in melee/missile combat for minor bonuses with scholarly skills. A great way to reflect the bookworm mage and a good launch for 'what are kits ?' discussions. I have always called kits like this the 'flavor text kits'. In my experience it is fairly popular.
Amazon Sorceress: An OK kit it trades a minor bonus against chauvinists with a minor penalty - with chauvinists. A good example of 'kits that reflect cultures'. 
Anagakok: Or 'Eskimo Wizard' this is another 'culture kit' with guidelines on how to change it to reflect different cultures with a connection (in this case, climate). They trade reaction penalties (they have an unusual experience) for abilities to find food and survive extreme weather.
Militant Wizard: One of the most discussed, the militant wizard trades spell power for the ability to use better weapons in combat. I have always seen this as 'fighter/magic-user for humans' but not as flexible as a real f/m-u. I have seen a few people try it and their common reaction is 'it is great until 3rd level, then you quickly become mediocre at combat and casting'. A friend of mine once discussed having a campaign with only human PCs where kits like this would replace multi-classing, but I have no idea if he ever did it.
Mystic: Another flavor text kit like the Academician, the mystic is less Absent Minded Professor and more Altered States. The mystic trades a requirement that he meditate a specific 2 hours every day and for it he gains the ability to Levitate, Feign Death, and send out a Ghost Form like Doctor Strange. I've never seen one played, but they are an interesting idea.
Patrician: Flavor text kit. He gets more money and respect but has to spend more money. I can't find any real reason to ever forbid this kit and it is a great shortcut for a nice backstory of "Dad is rich".
Peasant Hero: Like the mystic to the academician so is the peasant hero to the patrician. This flavor text kit is 'local farm kid done good' that trades off never being rich to get the love and support of the Common Man in return. Easy to modify to your campaign, in my opinion, and as fun and inoffensive as the patrician.
Savage Wizard: A culture kit. Great for a MayIncaTec, AmeriAborigini, or other 'primitive culture' 'witch doctor' type. The text suggests that the kit be played as a 'fish out of water' with the suggestion it be played "baffled and intimidated" by crossbows and oil lamps and such. When I read that I want to play an Unfrozen Caveman Savage Wizard style mage. 
  They get magic charms and voodoo dolls and has a reaction penalty. I think the benefits far outweigh the penalties unless the penalties are bad enough they can affect the party's ability to trade. I've never had anyone interested in this kit but I might, might, forbid it or get rid of the bonuses and replace them with an immunity to disease or something.
Witch: This is an interesting one. Almost a 'multiclass kit' like militant wizard, it is really a type of magic-user/cleric. The witch gets familiars, poisons, charms, and a curse ability. In return she has a reaction penalty, varying penalties as she 'struggles with extra-dimensional forces', and might attract a torches-and-pitchforks mob.
  The witch kit is a debacle and I have always banned it. The benefits are good but the fact is - the witch has willingly become the tool of a demon, devil, or other powerful extra-dimensional force. Why would any non-crazy PC even adventure with a witch? They have penalties to combat and saves at least part of the time. NPCs flat-out don't like them. It is an NPC only kit, IMO.
  And there is a section of the text that baffles me. On page 48 it says,
"...if the witch lingers in a superstitious or culturally unsophisticated community for more than a day, she runs the risk of facing a mob of hostile citizens..."
  OK. In a D&D campaign world the people who immediately attack a witch are called 'smart and sophisticated'. See, in Real Life the people who believe in witches are 'superstitious or culturally unsophisticated'. In a D&D campaign the people who believe in witches are absolutely correct! That section makes sense in, oh, Beyond the Supernatural or Call of Cthulhu. But in a typical AD&D campaign it makes no sense whatsoever.
Wu Jen: Cultural kit, in this case 'wizard from Japanland'. At mid-level and above he gets the ability to boost 1 spell a day to maximum effect and in return he has some taboo (can't eat eggs, must wear red, etc.). A fairly good example of 'from another land' style kits.

  The chapter ends with notes on modifying these kits or making new ones.

Opinion- A good chapter with some good examples of kits.

Chapter 4: Role-Playing
  This chapter covers personalities for wizards and has some samples like brooder and mystery man.  A section on backstory is next, followed by 'wizardly careers'. This is all good, basic stuff and great for new players to use to get a better grip on role-playing.
  Next is a section on suggested adventures for solo wizards or all-wizard groups; then a section about the level and type of magic in the campaign; then discussion of wizard-centric campaigns. Like the first part, this is more good stuff but for new DMs rather than new players.

Opinion- Simple, basic, and great for newbies.

Chapter 5: Combat and the Wizard
  This chapter is rather short and a high-level look at how some spells are offensive, others are defensive, and some are for reconnaissance, while others aren't any of these. It then talks about how wizards have limited access to weapons and a mix of spells is probably best.

Opinion- It feels almost like someone at HQ said 'there has to be a section on wizards and combat' and Mr. Swan said 'OK'. There is nothing wrong, bad, or upsetting here but there is nothing very interesting, either.

Chapter 6:Casting Spells in Unusual Conditions
  A nice shout-out to the 1e DMG this chapter catalogs how spells act differently underwater. It also covers casting on the inner and outer planes and has some interesting ideas about how the Chaos aligned planes might change certain types of spells. The last section covers wizards that are blind, deaf, etc. 

Opinion- Great chapter with good discussion of impairments, planes, etc. Useful for any edition and even other systems.

Chapter 7: Advanced Procedures
  This section starts with the perennial 'above 20th level/spells above 9th level' stuff. Thankfully, the book is totally reasonable about these topics!  Bravo!
  It goes on to a commentary on a lot of spells. This is broad if not exhaustive and a good primer for DMs thinking about the implications of other spells.
  There is then a section talking about adjudicating illusions that is also good, if not great.
  The chapter goes on to magical research. This is another good section and goes into detail on time and costs as well as detailing the require library value needed to research spells of a particular level, the needs of a laboratory, etc. Solid stuff that can be used to add to a campaign, a backstory, and various adventures.

Opinion- Good, solid stuff that can add to your game.

Chapter 8: New Spells
  I know a lot of guys that buy splatbooks for spells and items.
  for a number of reasons I have my own unique spells with names similar or identical to some in this book, so this can confuse my players.
  Some of these spells are good (I am personally fond of Choke) and there aren't any terrible ones.

Opinion- New spells are always welcome, especially when you enforce the odds of learning spells, etc. 

Chapter 9: Wizardly Lists
  This chapter has lists of: 25 familiars; new sources of spells; magic items that should be made; wizardly illnesses; a suggested code of conduct for a magic academy; and a lot more. There are even a few adventure locations and, of course, new magic items. 

Opinion- Magic items, locations, and just raw ideas are always welcome and useful. Good section.

Overall Opinion
  The Complete Wizard's Handbook is a good resource, especially for new players and DMs. It has plenty of things that can be fitted into any campaign and is well use buying, reading, and using.