Thursday, May 11, 2023

(D&D 3e) Hero Builder's Guidebook

It's good every once in a while to be reminded of my potential for hubris. Why did I buy Hero Builder's Guidebook (Ryan Dancey, David Noonan, John D Ratecliff)? What was I hoping to get out of it?

I'm not sure. There was something like a week and a half where the D&D 3rd Edition books on my Amazon wishlist were a little lower priced than usual and I had the wild idea that I could potentially collect the whole set. So I started with the cheapest ones and then by the time my next paycheck came around I realized that I was not willing to commit the time, money, and shelf space to this particular collection.

I think on some level, I must have known that I was not the target audience for this book. If I was, then it would have been much more expensive, because it would have been the sort of book that people like me (i.e. collectors who are willing to pay a premium for out of print roleplaying books, provided they have interesting rules or lore implications) would have bought and held on to. However, it's one thing to suspect something intellectually, and another to have those suspicions verified.

As near as I can tell, the purpose of the Hero Builder's Guidebook is to indoctrinate new players into the "mainstream" D&D mindset. I mean, I'm sure the authors and developers wouldn't have put it in such stark terms, but it's the only thing I can think of that would explain why this book straight up lied about Dwarf Wizards.

You see, the book as a whole is supposed to walk you through the character creation process, offering setting details and roleplaying advice that aims to turn the bland stats on your character sheet into a vibrant and interesting character. And half the book (30 out of 64 pages) is taken up by a long chapter that systematically goes through every combination of race and class, giving advice about traits, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Some of that advice is good. Some of it is bad. And a few examples, most notably the Dwarf Wizard, but also the Halfling Monk and Elf Rogue, are so bad that it's unclear whether the author actually read the core book.

The Dwarf Wizard lists its racial advantages as "none," which of course is simply not true. The Dwarf Constitution bonus gives a significant increase to the Wizard's d4 hit dice, their bonuses to craft and appraise are good for both assessing spell components and magic item creation, and their save bonuses give the class some much needed defense. Plus, from a roleplaying perspective, their long lives give them plenty of time to study.

And the other half of it, the racial disadvantage, is completely confabulated. The book says, "Loss of the +2 saving throw bonus against spells is just the beginning of the drawbacks for dwarven wizards." Except you don't lose your save bonus for being a wizard. I have no idea where they're getting this from. Maybe a previous version of the rules, one with a bunch of annoying fiddly bits.

The key probably lies in the entry's wrap-up. Instead of the usual "variant" class (for example, the Human Rogue has a "Spy" variant), the end section is labeled "uniqueness." And it tells us, "Your choice to be a dwarven wizard is a choice to violate some of the most deep-seated assumptions in the game."

That rings true to me. That there are some deep-seated assumptions at work here. So deep-seated, in fact, that they couldn't see the actual rules of the game. If you're coming in from AD&D 2nd Edition, then obviously dwarves are an anti-wizard race. They can't even take the Wizard class at all. And Elves are a pro-wizard race, because they've got a high racial level limit for the Wizard class. And when those arbitrary rules were removed, no one really bothered to check if the rest of the races' mechanics supported the old lore.

It's a particularly poor mark for Hero Builder's Guidebook, because without someone coming out and reiterating that bit of lore, no one would have inferred it purely from the PHB. 

That's really just me picking out an example and then harping on it though. This book will often run into trouble when it tries to get mechanical (it suggested that a good way to build a swashbuckler character would be a fighter/monk multiclass!), but when it's not, there's some useful stuff. There's a whole chapter's worth of useful tables to help you flesh out your character's backstory (though, since the tables do not influence each other, it's not properly a life-path) and a cute little quiz to determine your character's alignment. 

I'm pretty torn. Hero Builder's Guidebook has a lot to offer brand new roleplayers, who may have trouble connecting the rules to the fiction, but it's bundled with plenty of bad mechanical advice, which is likely to hamper the process of building a really effective hero.

I can't say whether or not it's worth it. I haven't needed a book like this since 1996.

Ukss Contribution: Gnome barbarians follow the Way of the Badger. Cute.

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