KISMET'S FIVE MINUTE GAMING BOOK REVIEWS [3.0 & 3.5]
After spending years using some of the same books repeatedly, I've decided to offer quick reviews and highlights of some that might help you. Although they're out of print and older now, they're still on my shelves for a reason: I know I'll come back around to them again.
The Player's Handbook II can be useful for players, but it also provides some good options for Dungeon Masters to take advantage of. The character background and archetype section can be a great quick reference when creating characters (roll a d10 in the first section for a random background, and/or play with matching backgrounds and personalities for some interesting results). The section on affiliations can be a fun way for the PCs to create their very own official group with specified benefits and obligations, and the details can help the DM keep the power level in check. For long-term games, the retraining section can help to undo poor choices made months or even years ago in an organized fashion.
The environmentally-based Frostburn and Sandstorm are fine references, even if you're only using them for short stints through extreme temperatures. Not only can their information work for a basic fantasy world (or at least regions within that world), but the additional dangers can make great changes of pace for planehopping campaigns. There are also unique monsters in both books that can go a long way in setting the tone of desolate wastes, whether they're freezing crusts or burning under an unforgiving sun.
Seafaring campaigns can be a lot of fun and the Monster Manuals have aquatic creatures listed, but the details needed for spending a lot of time on a ship were reserved for Stormwrack. Rules for maelstroms, naval combat, and navigation are spelled out, as well as shipworthy applications of the normal skills. The maps of various vessels can help set up your battles nicely, too. The selection of seabound creatures adds more possibilities to the relatively limited number found elsewhere.
After spending a lot of time in the wilderness or in underground tombs, it can be difficult to bring a campaign back to civilization and figure out what to do in a locale without dragon lairs. Cityscape has support for the city as its own dungeon or as a collection of potential dungeons, but it also takes a look at cultures, districts, governments, and organizations. The section dedicated to running the city environment (covering things like town history, race relations, and crime) is admittedly brief but at the very least the book can spark ideas, even if you're not interested in mapping out your city district by district.
If undead have become old hat or you haven't used them in a while and you'd like to beef them up, Libris Mortis can help. I recall some of the feats being rather useful and more creatures are always good. It also has some monsters broken down as monster classes, in case you wanted to run an undead campaign using the monster classes from Savage Species. (While I was never quite thrilled with the execution of that concept, I could appreciate what it was trying to do for making nearly any race playable even at low levels.)
The Forgotten Realms 3.0 Campaign Setting book takes decades of classes and lore and condenses it beautifully into an easily referenceable Bible of the Realms. I have spent years in awe of how well this book was put together, not only for navigation but also for inspiration. The differences of the Realms are outlined in classes, feats, equipment, and languages, and the richness of the history is apparent from the first pages without being utterly overwhelming. The clerical domains of the Realms are awesome, many of the feats are neat, and the details of the continent are easy to use or ignore, as needed. The quick summaries of Faerun gods and history in the back of the book give enough to run with, but excellent resources cover both aspects in greater depth later on.
Faiths and Pantheons is one of the keys to a rich and rewarding Faerunian experience, particularly if you enjoy the variety of deities available in the setting and/or if you enjoy details that will bring different religions alive in your game. Each entry gives history, dogma, and details about that god's worship, from laypeople to high clergy. I've always been partial to the art and the holy symbols, and the prestige classes in the book are worth their weight, by and large, which is difficult to say of most books. I've never wanted or used the stats given for each of the major gods, but if you wanted to have them for an epic-level, god-fighting campaign, they're there.
Races of Faerun is a nice support piece for playing in Faerun, since it gives more information on the various races and what makes them different from each other and from the standard races.
Magic of Faerun can be useful even if you're not playing in the Realms and the villainous organizations in Lords of Darkness could make appearances in nearly any campaign, with just a little alteration. Each group comes with an encounter and a related map, too. If you're into the lore or if you're a fan of the video games, Lords of Darkness gives even more information about old favorites.
As far as I've seen, Silver Marches is the most compelling of the regional supplements for the Forgotten Realms, even though it's the only softcover in a handful of hardcover regional books. I can't help but think that Ed Greenwood's influence might have made a vital difference and given it that extra touch of loving elaboration (which was reined in nicely before it became tedious). It's packed full of vivid details about the land, the settlements, and all the dangers in between. The pull-out map is decent but not exactly necessary.
Lost Empires of Faerun helps Dungeon Masters access the considerable history of the Realms in a more direct and engaging fashion. It starts with the history, as much of the Forgotten Realms books do, but moves on to sites and enemies. As far as I'm concerned, one of the greatest attractions of Faerun is the sense of all that's gone before; this book helps you run things from the ancient past.
The Grand History of the Realms is a more distant kind of resource, if only because it provides so much information that it's printed in smaller type in many places. If you want to run in earlier eras of the setting, this book is a must. It has some good maps taken from previous ages and list of dynastic rulers of major kingdoms. But even if you don't think you'll use much of the history, you can mine the events of the past for ideas about the present and future.