Sometimes, you'll just be reading a fun little book about rogues and bards, then BAM! Nine pages worth of musical instruments. It wasn't an entirely terrible experience, but it did kill the book's momentum. It's that weird overlap between rpg-books and encyclopedias. Maybe more useful in 2001, when Song and Silence (David Noonan and John D Rateliff) was published, but kind of obsolete these days, when anyone can just google "unusual bard instruments" and find dozens of listicles and forum posts that cover all this same ground. Song and Silence does redeem itself a bit by giving its example instruments unique rpg mechanics (for example, playing bardic music through a masterwork alphorn allows you to inspire people several miles away), but at the same time, they had to know that some of these instruments would never see use. You're giving me the option to play a bard that specializes in the harpsichord? Gee, thanks, that'll be really useful in all the encounters that take place inside a noble's parlor (but nowhere else on the estate). That's a great use of my skill points.
But that's only 10 percent of the book. And then you've also got the 10 percent devoted to expanding the trap creation rules, which perhaps should have been something for a DM-facing book instead of a character class guide. But the other 80 percent is solid.
The highlight, for me, was the magic items. You've got a sword that loves singing, a bottle that breaks when you say the command word (it's no more durable than a regular bottle, but it does mean that you can use a steel flask instead of a fragile glass vial to deliver your contact poison), and a possum pouch that will graft to your skin. Not sure it was necessary to make the Jumping Caltrops as cute as they were (when deployed they "immediately try to scurry under the interloper's feet"), but I appreciate the whimsy.
The actual most useful part of the book was another GM-facing section where it talked about different types of thieves' guilds and bardic colleges. Players could get some use out of it if they wanted to have "renegade fantasy mafioso" as part of their background, but mostly it's just a section full of adventure hooks and setting background. I might find fault with it for being a little obvious, but that's just the thing with the musical instruments all over again - when you can't rely on two decades' worth of archived conversations and think-pieces, it can be useful to have the obvious written down.
Now, for the part that is less useful in retrospect, but which was my primary draw for buying the book all those years ago - the prestige classes. They're all pretty decent, but they seem trapped in an early-3rd edition mentality where they haven't quite worked out what a prestige class is supposed to be. So you've got a couple that should just be builds for the base class, like the thief-acrobat, dungeon delver, and most egregious of all, the virtuoso bard (it's the prestige class you take if you're a bard who wants to specialize in music, though, strangely, the best virtuoso build might be a wizard who dips one level into rogue to meet the skill requirements). And then there are the classes that have a good central idea, but make questionable mechanical choices - the spymaster is just generally worse at being a spy than 10 levels of rogue or bard would be, thanks to its requirement that you spend 2 skill points per level in buying craft, knowledge, or profession skills for your cover identities. I get what they were going for, but it's actually a problem that's solved by the Jack of All Trades feat, printed for the first time in this very book, and which would have felt like a power boost to get for free.
But there are some gems. The Temple-Raiders of Olidammara are exactly what a prestige class should be. They're sacred thieves who specialize in robbing the temples of rival gods. I'd quibble that they should get "+1 in spellcasting class" instead of their own limited spell progression, but they're a fun character concept that can't be built, even approximately, with the base class, and they add something interesting to the world's lore.
Likewise, the Fangs of Lolth explore some intriguing design space. They're rogues who pick up a cursed magic item that grafts to their skin and gradually turns them into weird spider-creatures.It's probably too specific of a concept to really merit one of the book's limited prestige class slots because, seriously, there's no way there's ever going to be two of these guys in the same campaign (and even in successive campaigns it would feel weird to have a different player going through the exact same arc, again), but I like the idea of a spell or magic item whose effects are so profound that they become your class progression.
Overall, I liked this book, but I'm wondering if maybe I'm reading the series in a bad order. This is the second one of these thin class guides that's felt like it was a solution in search of a problem, like they were going to do a book about all the core classes, whether they had ideas or not. I shouldn't complain, though, because I know that books like this used to be an important revenue stream for rpgs, back before big full-color prestige books became the norm. And besides, there's still plenty of time for amazing things to grow out of the seeds planted here. Onward! Towards 3.5!
Ukss Contribution: We learn something quite shocking about elf-run thieves guilds. Sometimes, they "case a location for decades." It's a detail meant to demonstrate the patience born of their long lives, but I couldn't help thinking that maybe they needed to work on upping their throughput. But the more I lingered on the idea, the more it charmed me - immortal thieves, planning heists that can be measured against the rise and fall of nations. What sort of treasure is worth that kind of effort? What sort of treasure even stays in one place long enough to make decades of planning useful? And what sort of defenses would make decades of planning necessary? It's an intriguing idea for a campaign, and thus a worthy challenge to put in a campaign setting.