There’s a degree of irony to the fact that the Old School Renaissance is producing some of the best and hottest artwork, modules, and GM resources in the tabletop roleplaying game industry right now–isn’t “old school” by definition staid and played out? As with all gaming communities, there’s a component of tabletop RPG culture that is grounded in nostalgia; the best OSR content is like a classic car that’s been retooled with all-new parts, parts that have emerged from thirty to forty years of deep thought, experimentation, and winnowing on the topic of game mechanics. The folks behind that movement might have grown up on AD&D or the white box, but me and mine, we grew up on version 3.0 or 3.5.
From my rose-colored vantage point, the years of 3.5 were the halcyon days of Dungeons and Dragons, the golden era before 4.0 came along and caused the Schism that led to the rise of Pathfinder and, eventually, the forging of 5.0, the system I use nearly exclusively today. Ask any twentysomething tabletop gamer to sing you the saga, and I’m sure they’ll be glad to oblige. From a critical perspective, it’s clear that 5.0 is the superior game: in comparison, 3.5 feels bloated, and deeply, needlessly granular, a daunting mountain of rules for any prospective new player (despite its superior indexing). My perspective and tastes have changed with the times, but there are still an armful of 3.5 splatbooks, a fraction of the backbreaking load that I once possessed, that I hold onto, that still hold value to me as a game master or that I simply can’t bear to turn into a few dollars of store credit. Here they are, and here’s why I love them:
Draconomicon: This one is purely for the art. I mean, occasionally I’ll run something with some dragons, but 80% of the rules in the Draconomicon were never of use to me, and that’s being generous. The art, though! Todd Lockwood’s dragons adorn so many pages of this visual feast. If it were for the endpaper alone, I’d keep this book, but the detailed illustrations of dragon identifiers, flight patterns, lairs, and musculoskeletal anatomy make this a must-keep. The planar dragons in the monster section have also sparked plenty of ideas for bespoke dragon taxonomies, and even the draconic deities and custom spells have gotten my gears turning. I mean, imagine a dragon that breathes not just fire, but fire elementals. That’s cool as heck.
Manual of the Planes: One interesting thing I’ve noticed about the kids I play D&D with is that they take the lore presented in the 5e core and splatbooks as orthodoxy: if I tell them they’re fighting an orc, they automatically assume that this orc is a fanatic for one of the orc gods, probably Gruumsh, and, if accompanied by other orcs, is part of a patriarchal war-band that seeks out a fortification and decorates it with the bodies of its victims as it secures a hold on the region, just like the Monster Manual says. Then they’re surprised when I tell them that Gruumsh doesn’t necessarily exist in this campaign world, and that orcs can have diverse motivations just like other people. When I was new to D&D, I ate up the Forgotten Realms-derived lore that comes in the books, just like the kids do, but I don’t think I ever ran a game where what the book told me about “The D&D Universe” was of any concern. That said, Manual of the Planes, which is just a big ol’ treatise of precisely this kind of D&D lore, is probably the 3.5 splatbook that I get the most use out of today–probably because, unlike most other lore-driven splats, it’s willing to play fast and loose with some of the most basic assumptions about the nature of reality in any given D&D setting. I never owned the Planar Handbook, the player-centric counterpart to the Manual, and I’m sure it would’ve landed in the sell-for-credit pile long ago if I had, but the Manual is such a treasure trove of world-building material, and is chock-full of minutiae to populate those worlds with. A chaotic evil wizard on a quest for penance in the land of the angels? Check. A big ol’ walking machine city that I’m sure influenced Mortal Engines and Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan series? Check. Weirdly muscley astral creatures that will slurp up your silver cord like so much spaghetti? Check. Crack open Manual of the Planes to a random page and I bet there’ll be something cool on it.
Heroes of Horror: I have a very clear memory of being thirteen or so and crashed out on a cheap mattress in the basement (we must have had guests or something), surrounded by Lego bricks and listening to Korn on a mix CD with the recently-released Heroes of Horror open in front of me and just letting that book soak into me in the way that young people do. Once again, I’m not sure I used any of the mechanics in this book in any of the games I ran, but the instructive text in Heroes of Horror is pure gold. Moreso than any other splat I owned, I think Heroes of Horror got me thinking about precisely how I DM, how to evoke specific emotions and reactions from my players, to transform the game from location and combat encounters into true theatre of the mind, to make it an art form rather than just a hobby. The Creepy Effects table, the essays on the use and purpose of alignment (and the concept of doing away with it), the section on running encounters in dreams, and the sections on prophecies and curses are all great stuff.
Tome of Magic: I think I got this one before I got the Epic Level Handbook, which I no longer own. I don’t open up Tome of Magic as often as I do the other books on this list, but it’s useful as a mental construct, as a reminder of the way it primed me for the revelation the ELH contained: Vancian magic is only one way to do magic in RPGs, and it’s kinda boring by comparison. Two out of the three classes featured in Tome of Magic use the fire-and-forget system that Jack Vance inspired, but there’s still enough aesthetic trapping going on there, and enough cool variation on the concept (truename reversals, a concept dating back to OD&D) to make those classes seem fresh to a young player like I was. But the binder was where it was at. Wielding sigils straight out of the Goetia, the binder’s magic was easily obtained, but as with all too-good-to-be-true deals, sharing your body with spirits from beyond the planes came with a bit of a cost. The binder went on to inspire 5e’s warlock class and felt like the most cutting-edge development I’d seen yet back in the 3.5 days. It got me thinking about other magic tropes that D&D just didn’t have that I thought were exciting: novice wizards summoning demons way past their ability to control them and paying for it, desperate casters using their life force as backup power when their magic reserves had run dry, stuff like that. And once I’d realized that I wanted rules for those tropes, the natural solution was to write them myself, and the rest is history.