D&D Alumni06/02/2006

A Look Back at Player's Handbooks

Player's Handbook II released this May – and those of you versed in the game's history will recognize the cover art as a throwback to the 1st edition PHB. To help celebrate the release, we wanted to take a fond look back at the various iterations of the Player's Handbooks, especially at how character creation has changed -- at times dramatically, at times not at all -- over the years.

"0" Edition (or, First-First Edition)

Before hardcover 1st edition sourcebooks appeared, even earlier forms of Dungeons & Dragons existed -- booklets subtitled "Rules for Fantastic Medieval Role Playing Adventure Campaigns, Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures." A mouthful, but those books provided the essential concept of D&D.

Even then, the first step of character creation was what it has always been -- rolling up the ability scores:

"There are six basic abilities for each character: strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity and charisma. Each player starts a character by rolling three 6-sided dice for each characteristic. 18 is as high as one can get with three dice, so a character with a strength of 18 would be super-powerful, one with a strength of 3 (lowest possible dice roll) would barely be able to lift his sword off the ground."

These earliest booklets also laid the roots for D&D's class system with fighting-men, magic-users, clerics, and thieves. Initially, the non-human races (elves, dwarves and halflings) were treated as separate classes rather than races. All other classes were human by default.

1st Edition PHB

In 1978, the 1st edition Player's Handbook was released, and with it the divergence between race and class. After rolling ability scores from one of four principal methods put forth in the DMG, characters chose from among five core classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, thief, and monk) and five sub-classes (druid, paladin, ranger, illusionist, and assassin). They also chose from among seven races (dwarf, elf, half-elf, gnome, halfling, half-orc, and of course human). Class, race, and ability scores then interacted in a complex, love-hate triangle in which each aspect restricted or promoted the others.

As in the earlier booklets, ability scores functioned as class prerequisites. To become a fighter, for instance, you had to clear the relatively simple hurdles of having at least a 9 Strength and 7 Constitution. The more discriminating paladin required a 12 Strength, 9 Intelligence, 13 Wisdom, 9 Constitution and 17 Charisma, while the monk ("the most unusual of all characters, the hardest to qualify for, and perhaps, the most deadly") required a 15 Strength, 15 Wisdom, 15 Dexterity, and 11 Constitution.

Moderately low ability scores prevented characters from choosing certain classes, and truly low ability scores actually determined what class you had to play -- a character with a 5 or lower Intelligence could only be a fighter, a 5 or lower Wisdom could only be a thief, and so on. While low scores barred entry into certain classes, high ability scores were used to reward classes. In a sort of "rich get richer" system, fighters with high Strength (above 15), for instance, received a +10% bonus every time they earned experience points.

The truly hardest class to qualify for might have been Appendix II's bard -- not for any ability score prerequisite but for its class prerequisites:

"Bards begin play as fighters… until they have achieved at least 5th level of experience. Anytime thereafter, and in any event prior to attaining the 8th level, they must change their class to that of thieves. Again, sometime between 5th and 9th level of ability, bards must leave off thieving and begin clerical studies as druids; but at this time they are actually bards under druidical tutelage."

Race also played a limiting factor, because not every race could play every class. There were no (legal) 1st edition dwarven druids, elven monks, or halfling rangers. Even then, certain races could advance only so far in certain classes. Dwarves could play as clerics, but only up to 8th level; elf clerics could reach only 7th level; and half-orcs only 4th.

Then there was the interaction between race and ability scores, which had its own prerequisites and restrictions. To play a half-orc, for instance, you needed a minimum 6 Strength and 13 Constitution; at the same time, a half-orc could only possess a maximum 17 Intelligence, 14 Wisdom, 17 Dexterity, and 12 Charisma.

The unrestricted free agents of 1st edition? Humans. While humans received none of the ability score bonuses, infravision, extra languages, or other racial benefits, they were also the only race that had no minimum or maximum ability score restrictions (except for women!) and could play any class up to its maximum level.

2nd Edition PHB

When the 2nd edition Player's Handbook came along in 1989, the Foreword outlined its goals:

"To make it easier to find things, to make the rules easier to understand, to fix the things that did not work, to add the best new ideas from the expansions and other sources, and, most important of all, to make sure the game was still the one you knew and enjoyed."

As part of the carryover, classes still had ability score and racial requirements. Paladins required 12 Strength, 13 Wisdom, 9 Constitution, and 17 Charisma, and could still be played only by humans. Non-human races still had ability score minimums, though the most onerous were a mere 11 Constitution for dwarves and 10 Con for Halflings. These races could now advance most of their ability scores to 18 (the exceptions being a 17 Dexterity and Charisma for dwarves, and 17 Wisdom for halflings).

Humans were still the unrestricted free agents of the game … and half-orcs? Where were the half-orcs? This race was dropped from the core rulebook, along with the monk and assassin classes. The term "magic-user" also disappeared. The newly formed "wizard" group included the mage and illusionist.

While these elements were dropped from the game, new aspects were brought in. 1st edition's weapon proficiency system was expanded in 2nd edition to non-weapon proficiencies. As a precursor to 3rd edition's Skill system, characters received a number of proficiency slots at various levels. Weapon proficiencies could be spent on weapons from each class's available list (not every class could learn every weapon -- fighters could spend weapon proficiency slots however they liked, while mages were forever limited to the dagger, staff, dart, knife, and sling). Non-weapon proficiencies could be spent on either a general or a class-specific list, such as brewing, weather sense, and rogues' gaming, gem cutting, and disguise, with ability score checks to use these proficiencies.

3.0/3.5 Edition PHB

So far, we've mainly looked at past "regulations" when it came to character creation. Although they restricted character creation, they were simply the rules of the game … at least, as formerly written. However, look all the way back to the earlier booklets and you'll find written proof of how many of us played the game all along, restrictions be damned --

"At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be…. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halfling-ish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man."

In 2000, the 3rd edition Player's Handbook was released (and the 3.5 edition in 2003). The latest edition provided a very modular character creation system, that was all about choice. In essence, past restrictions were scrapped so a character could be any class, any race, and played to any level -- and, for better or worse, with any set of ability scores.

Gone were the ability score requirements for class and race. Gone were level caps. Back were the half-orc race and the monk class. Plus, new classes were added -- the barbarian (originally appearing in Dragon Magazine #63) and sorcerer. Magic-users were renamed yet again, this time as wizards, and were given functional schools of magic that provided not just for the illusionist but even more specialized wizards. As for the assassin, this was reintroduced as its own prestige class, a system that grew out of 2nd edition's kits (class variations with specialized roles and options -- for example, the 2nd edition assassin was a thief kit introduced in The Complete Thief's Handbook).

Player's Handbook II

The PHB II released this May. While we'll leave its specifics to the web enhancements, excerpts, and art galleries appearing later on the website, we do want to highlight one aspect of this book that concerns character creation -- Chapter 8: Rebuilding Your Character.

"It's true that part of the D&D game's challenge is making smart choices in creating or advancing your character. But a DM who forces someone to play a character he doesn't find enjoyable isn't making the game fun for that player or the others at the table… With this [rebuilding] system, you can modify elements of your character to better fit your vision of who your character should be -- both to meet the needs of the party and to face the threats presented during the course of an entire campaign."

Expanding character options, the rebuilding chapter allows a character to retrain class features, feats, skills -- any number of components, swapping an undesirable choice for a more desirable one. It also allows characters to rebuild at a more fundamental level, altering ability scores, class, or even race… though doing so requires the undertaking of a special quest. As always, discussion and agreement between the player and DM is required (and for a good discussion of this process, take a look at the most recent Sibling Rivalry).

In essence, this chapter adds to the freedom of character creation, not just when a character first starts out, but all throughout his or her career.

And then there's the PHB II's cover, paying homage to the 1st edition Player's Handbook. As the PHB II ad says, after all this time everyone still wants those gems. Which raises a number of questions -- whatever happened to that first expedition? What guards the gemstones now? And should the current thief find success, just how much can he get for those eyes?

Do you have your own stories of your character creation? Opinions on the past or present character creation rules? Favorite characters that looked past, or made creative use of these rules? We'd love to hear, either on the message boards or sent directly to us at: dndcolumn@wizards.com.

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