PHBR1: The Complete Fighter’s Handbook (1989) is, love it or hate it, probably the defining book of second edition AD&D in a philosophical sense. The idea here is to spice up the fighter, the least mechanically interesting character class in the roster. This is partly accomplished through new combat rules — there are fighting styles, special maneuvers, a whole new martial arts system. I don’t find these particularly interesting, but they are sturdy enough if you want some extra crunch.

More than the extra rules, PHBR1 introduces character kits. These are sort of a collection of aesthetics, roleplaying cues and perhaps a single special mechanic tweak in exchange for some sort of hindrance. In sum, at this point, they’re the illusion of variety with very little mechanical impact. Thus, the generic fighter can become a swashbuckler, a pirate, a gladiator, a cavalier and so on, without knocking the game out of balance with a billion different rules and powers. For now.

Illusion or not, kits become pretty central to the 2E experience almost immediately, which is pretty neat, because, as I said, they’re primarily packages of vibes instead of weighty mechanical options. Much of their ambiance is derived from the non-weapon proficiencies — in the main rules these were optional, but their use in defining character kits really solidified their place in the core play experience, even if, as a skill system, proficiencies are inadequate.

All of this is pretty formative, I think, to 3E, as well, where the tinkering with character builds mutate kits into prestige classes with significant mechanical impact (ironically while removing any real reason to play a fighter past prestige level). This book also lays the ground work for the tactical focus and feats of the later Players Option book that in turn is a clear prediction of 3E combat.

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