Thursday, March 14, 2013

In Retrospect: The Complete Book of Elves

I accept your apology, Colin McComb. I was one of those DMs who kept getting hassled by his players to include the overpowered stuff in The Complete Book of Elves. But I was also one of those DMs who'd say "no" to his players. Everytime a player said, "Can my character be a Bladesinger?" I'd say "no."

Besides, Mr. McComb, it all worked out for the better. You went on to create other cool products for TSR like Hellbound: The Bloodwar. And because of my players repeated putting The Complete Book of Elves in my face, I got rid of elves in my homebrew campaign, Domikka, and haven't missed them since.
Art by Terry Dykstra,
from the Complete Book of Elves

So was The Complete Book of Elves really that bad? Yes and no.

About half of the book covers how roleplay an elf. McComb addresses the elven stereotypes of being merry and yet aloof. Many elves, except for dark elves, are both. Yet they are less apt to be merry around other races, of even fearful, developing an almost Vulcan-like rationality so they don't appear weak.

Elven marriage and sexuality, yearly holidays and celebrations, and myths and legends are also covered.

McComb even describes even how elves behave in different campaign settings. There's a lot of interesting stuff in here, like the elven racial "Family Trees." One shows how high, grey, dark, sylvan, and aquatic elves came to be across the history of the planes and in different campaign settings. You learn more about how Lolth convinced the more "martial" of the elves to split with their brethren.

Time is also on the side of an elf. Vengeful elves "can wait for years before exacting revenge--after their prey has been lulled into a false sense of security. Or they can hunt their enemy over the years, never faltering or slowing in the pursuit of their quarry." (page 42)

So, if you looking for a book on how to roleplay an elf beyond "the human in a funny hat syndrome," you can do worse than consult The Complete Book of Elves. My only qualm about the book from the roleplaying stand point is that doesn't have a table of elven names. But then again, you can just find an obscure name from Tolkien and use that.

The problem is, McComb made elves even more powerful than their standard D&D/AD&D counterparts. They are more resistant to heat and cold, suffering no ill effects from temperatures between 32 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, even if fully encumbered.

On of the more controversial abilities is the Bladesong. For expending 3 proficiency slots, a character can have +2 to AC, +2 to Hit, or get a free parry each round. Well, now that's not so bad, right? This is in addition to the normal +1 to hit with a longsword, the elven weapon of choice.

Now enter the Bladesinger, the fighter/mage kit. Bladesingers can cast spells one-handed, while in studded leather or elven chain armor, and can even parry melee attacks while they're casting the spell:

"Their defense is equal to their level divided by 2, plus 1. All fractions are rounded down. Thus, a 6th-level Bladesinger gains +4 to AC (6th level/2 = 3 + 1 = 4)." So, an AC 7 (studded leather, not including any other benefits), becomes an AC 3 (platemail). Yeah, and they also get blindfighting for free. Why bother playing a human wizard? Heck, why bother playing a human at all?

(Also, I've never been able to discern what McComb meant by "Bladesinger Level." Aren't Bladesingers fighter/mages, having to split their experience points between each?)

In those days, I wasn't too concerned about balance. I usually let players use stuff from the spatbooks. In fact, I encouraged it because I wanted the material to be used. I wasn't too concerned about balance, but The Complete Book of Elves made me take a closer look at what might be brought to the table. While Bladesingers could only specialize in a single weapon (probably the longsword), they could still use other weapons, although with a -1 to hit, I still don't think this compensates for their Bladesong powers. Because, not only are they fighter/mages, they are better. 

Yet I do accept Colin McComb's apology (even though it comes 20 years late). He was 22 when he wrote The Complete Book of Elves struggling, like so many game designers before him, to balance elven literary awesomeness with game mechanics.

I recommend using this book if you want to run an all elven campaign. Leave out the kits and other special things you might consider broken if your running a mixed group.


  1. Frank over at The Gaming Den did a hilarious drunk review of this very book only a little while ago.

    Sample quote: "This is the thing by which Elves can get together in groups of up to four and do special bee dances where they share experiences and then all know how to get to the pollen sources. What is this? I don't even..."

  2. That's hilarious.

    Yet I find it interesting how something written twenty years ago still has people upset about it or making fun of it today. But maybe I shouldn't talk given some of the rants I've made here about things have happened years ago. Heck, back around the time McComb was writing The Complete Book of Elves I was making fun of my older brother for a dungeon he wrote back in the early 1980s.

    It was meant for 8th level characters, but had a handful of archdevils like Asmodeus hanging out in it. I'd laugh and make fun of him. What's Asmodeus and his archdevils doing on the Prime Material Plane? That doesn't make any sense! Yet could I do better?

    Take a look at my earliers surviving adventure: Death and the Genesis of the Jewel. lol

  3. Yeah The CBofE got me to kick them out of every campaign setting I've made since. I use halfling and gnome subraces to bring back the "elf" for players who are insistent - and the reason? Bladsingers and THIS book!

  4. "While Bladesingers could only specialize in a single weapon (probably the longsword), they could still use other weapons, although with a -1 to hit"

    They can only be proficient in a single weapon, the kit specifically states that they only learn one weapon. This means they have a -3 to hit with other weapons.

    I actually just covered this on my blog:

  5. With the addition of combat and tactics, the bladesinger is not that overpowered. I know of many dwarf and human fighters that can beat one in hand to hand combat. I think the thing one must do as DM is work with his players when they want to create characters like this so you don't have cases of the dreaded power gamer.

    Consider the bladesong fighting style: for three slots you get the option to have +2 to attack, +2 to AC, parry and attack, or with bladesingers cast a spell with a +2 initiative penalty and parry. This is a fighting style which according to the players option rules allows you to only use one at a time so they can not use bladesong and two-weapon fighting style or one handed style. While using the parry maneuver, it is considered a no move action so 5' of movement at most and it will only affect opponent in front not flank or rear. With the addition of Player Option books, you can get some good fighting styles just not as versatile as bladesong but in some ways better. Weapon and shield as well as the shield proficiency (not a style) work really good together AC bonus and another attack option. Even when you allow them to gain weapon expertise or even up to mastery level, with the extra cost of doing so will usually prevent high mastery or grand mastery to all but very high level character. Plus as DM you have control over the bladesong weapon choices which must be one handed with the rest being your discretion. I know I have generally disallowed the style to be used with two weapons but that is becomes optional.

    Even if you allow them to master which I have under the player's option rules turning their +1/+1 back to chosen weapon, they are not too much different then another multiclass character but then again the campaign setting can make all the difference. In a Forgotten Realms campaign, most PC's are can make quite good characters that can compare to a bladesinger just limit how many you have in your campaign.


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