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Review: Arcana Unearthed

So... having read and/or skimmed through this over the weekend, I thought I'd put up a synopsis and/review.

Also, I've tried to present new or different information than what you can get from the Web site, or at least coalesce a few salient details that I picked up from scattered sources, but some things (like the magic system) require some explanation.

Up Front: "Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed" (AU for short) by Malhavoc Press, published by Sword & Sorcery, written by Monte Cook — co-designer of D&D 3rd Edition, but not involved in 3.5. 256 pages, with a crisp, black hardcover for $29.95. In stock locally at Pegasus Games (as of Friday, anyhow). Also available from as three separate PDF modules for $6-9 apiece. Insides are stark black & white (ie, no color) with some illustrations. The font size is quite small, but good leading makes it fairly readable.

The book is billed as a 'Variant Player's Guide', which I think is an unusual description, so I'll start there. The book presents a sort-of "alternate universe D&D". The core rules are fundamentally the same as those of 3e, but the races, classes, spells and some feats are completely different. It's specifically aimed at those who (like me) find Tolkien-influenced fantasy over-done and/or (like me) feel that traditional D&D is a little bland or generic.

The structure, layout and contents of the book are quite similar to the core Player's Handbook, to an extent that those of you who own that book already may feel becomes duplicative, since it does nearly duplicate PHB chapters on things like basic abilities and combat. The PDFs seem to address this issue, because they are split up as 'Combat related classes and feats', 'Magic related classes and feats' and 'Magic and spell list'. If you're thinking of going this route, you may want to note that, at least according to posts in Monte's forums, none of the PDFs include AU's chapter on Equipment, presumably since 90% of that is standard 3e stuff (though there are some new items).

I picked this up because the basic premise seems written almost directly for me. From reading the reviews and Monte's "Design Diary" columns on his Web site, I could tell that the book was written with a great deal more flexibility and flair than the standard D&D set. There are no Elves, no Fighters, no Clerics. This is D&D, if written from the ground up without Tolkien's influence (or as much of it, anyway), or the influence from earlier editions. Or, more precisely, as much of that as you can change and still be a d20 product, apparently.

To borrow a metaphor I came up with while describing the book to Liz: Standard D&D feels (to me) like having a box of 8 standard crayons — primary colors, bold and solid, but a tad boring. Arcana Unearthed feels like a box of 64 crayons, but someone took out the primary colors and replaced them with 8 new hues. As I mentioned above, standard races like Elves, Halflings and Gnomes are gone, replaced by Giants, Faen (faeries, basically, including an option to play a very Tinkerbell-ish Spryte — 18 inches high, with translucent fairy wings), Verrik (sorta like Vulcans), Mojh (transcendent lizard-people), Sibeccai (jackal-people) and Litorians (lion-people). That is to say, actually, allthe standard D&D races are gone (except for humans) and Arcana Unearthed introduces a whole new set.

The race selection is, in some ways, one of the more disappointing aspects of the book, in the sense that they aren't quite as "different" as the rest of the changed material. Monte addresses this (and the slight tendency to feel like a "furry game") on his site, saying that there's really only so much you can do with humanoids and the challenges of non-humanoid options (ie, separate equipment means segregated treasure) outweighs the benefit of that diversity. That said, Monte does an excellent job of providing nuances and subtleties to the races and their interaction within the game world. (Contrast: In regular D&D, Dwarves hate Orcs; in AU, the Sibeccai feel inferior and indepted to the Giants, while many-but-not-all Humans feel resentful of their Giant rulers.)

That said, the classes are where AU starts to really shine, for me anyway. While some are more appealling than others, I'd play any of these over 'standard' D&D anyday. As with the races, there are plentiful 'hooks' for role-playing with any of the classes (rituals, ceremonies, goals, views of magic, etc). Compared to standard options, I feel like AU's classes are dripping with flavor. There are no alignments and no separation between Divine and Arcane spells; therefore no separate classes for Cleric and Wizard spellcasters. (Although, concepts like 'good' and 'evil' do establish foot-holds in some of the classes, but not in the stark terms of the core books, usually things like 'positive energy' and 'negative energy'.)

Some highlights:

  • I like the imagery used to distinguish the spellcasting classes. While the Magister is a pretty standard wizard-type (very Gandalf-y), the others take deliberate steps away from the stock "arcane gestures" style of D&D. The Mage Blade channels magic through a weapon (in later levels, gaining access to spells and feats that can cut through other magic — yeah, it's just Dispel Magic, but it feels different), while the Runethane paints, etches or tattoos their spells on any surface (and the "arcane gestures" they do occasionally make are specified to be in the form of runes).
  • The more "generic feeling" standard classes are exploded into more specialized parts. For example, instead of "Fighter", you have: The Unfettered is a quick-on-his-feet, lightly-armed swashbuckler, while the Warmain is a tactical, heavily-armored battle tank (picture Sauron from FotR's prologue). Other classes get a similar "split apart" feel: there's no Paladin, but there's Oathsworn (sort of Paladin+Monk) and Champion of [Fill-in-the-Blank] (sort of a do-it-your-self-Paladin).
  • Choices, choices, choices! Many classes are sort of "catch-all" classes for similarly themed, but highly modular, sub-classes. The Champion chooses to be a Champion of Light, of Dark, of Life, of Death and so on. The Witch (sort of a Sorceror-type) chooses between six elements (wood, fire, etc) and five "manifestations" (blade, shield, etc) for a total of 30 sub-types. The Totem Warrior (sort of a cross between Ranger and Barbarian) chooses a totem animal, which defines the class (snakes are sneaky, sharks are hunters, bears are fighters, etc). Many of these include rules or suggestions (with back-up from the Web site, often) for creating additional sub-types.

The magic system is absolutely my favorite part, and I'm quite anxious to see how it fares in a real game. There are still nine levels of spells, which characters still gain access to by class level, and there are still limits on how many spells one can cast or prepare in a day, but that's the end of the similarities. (Well, many of the spells have similar effects, if not names, but they are not exactly the same spell.)

Within each level of spell, the list is split into Simple spells, Complex spells and Exotic spells. Many spells also have a Descriptor, like [Positive Energy] or [Psionic]. Most spellcaster classes have access to all the simple spells, but a limited array of Complex spells, usually based on Descriptors (for example, a Mind Witch has access to Complex [Psionic] spells, while a Greenbond — a sort of Druid — has access to Complex [Positive Energy] spells). Beyond that, access to other spells require special Feats.

Casting spells with AU is best thought of as "think like Cleric, cast like Sorceror". Each class has a limited number of "Spells Readied at One Time" (and it takes an hour to change these), which are selected from the set of spells that the caster has access to (again, usually all Simple spells and some Complex spells of certain levels) and there's no point in preparing the same spell twice, because, like a Sorceror, you can (usually) cast any prepared spell a number of times. A separate chart provides "Spell Slots per Day", which are also by level.

So, again, it's like "Cleric meets Sorceror": From a (long-ish) list of possible spells, prepare (or "ready") a sub-set for the day's adventure, but then when you go to cast them, you can cast as you wish, Sorceror-style, from the list of those you've readied. For example, if you have 2 level-1 slots and 2 level-1 spells readied, you can cast each of them once, or either of them twice.

But wait, there's more! Each spell comes in three flavors: Normal, Diminished and Heightened. You prepare them as normal, but you can use a lower-level slot to cast a Diminished spell (with lessened effects, like half-damage, or "targets caster only") or a higher-level slot to cast a Heightened spell (again, usually more damage, but sometimes a rather different effect, like "targets a group" or "bursts into flame"). Since you prepare them as normal, you can't cast a Diminished spell that you couldn't cast as a normal spell at your level, but I think this system gives spellcasters a lot more to do with lower-level slots than "Mend" and "Light".

But wait, there's even more!! Some classes (or by taking a Feat) allow access to "spell templates" which allow you to further modularize spells. For example, there's a Fire template which turns a somewhat-generic "Energy Attack" spell into "Flaming Attack" and a similar Psion template, which turns the same basic spell into "Psionic Attack" and so on. Some of these templates consume an additional spell slot (in AU's terms, it becomes "laden"), but many of them can be used freely. And you aren't locked-in to a certain template until you cast the spell, so you can prepare "Energy Attack" and (assuming you have access to multiple templates) decide whether to make it Icy or Flaming, Blessed or Corrupting, etc. at the time you cast it.

But wait, there's still more!!! You can exchange spell slots up and down as needed. Three lower-level slots can be exchanged for a higher-level slot (and recursively, so you can do this repeatedly, up the chart), or a higher-level slot can be turned in for two lower-level slots (but you're not allowed to do this recursively, one trade at a time going down). Along with Diminished and Heightened spells, this gives spellcasters more to do with their spells (especially the lower-levels) and a great flavor (the magister reaches deep within, pulling out his last ounce of energy).

This is not a system for those new to role-playing games (sorry, Liz!) or those who take a long time to consider every tactical implication — having all these options gives spellcasters a huge number of decisions at game-time — but I really, really like all the flexibility. This has aspects (especially the spell templates) that feel like my favoriate RPG 'magik' system (from Mage: The Ascension) in letting the player create interesting spell effects, rather than prescribing them in the book. (There are no "Bigby's Smelly Feet" spells in AU.)

There are other aspects of this book that strongly suggest it's for a more seasoned role-player. For instance, there's a good deal more interaction with the DM than there is in the standard books. Things like the 'design your own totem animal' bits, that definitely need individual DM input. (Monte addresses this on his site in more detail, and I get the sense from his writings on the site that he likes empowering DMs to make decisions and shape their games.) And the larger array of character creation choices may be challenging for some. Also, AU's more relativistic morals and subtler interactions are probably better to suited to more veteran players — or at least, more mature players.

Other than that, there are only a few, minor downsides in my mind. One, while running the AU as its own campaign has some appeal (there are already two pre-fab adventures and a full-scale world-book), the short-term challenge might be to integrate these characters into a standard game. The general consensus on the message boards is that the book is internally well balanced, so placing a character that's all-AU in the normal D&D universe — or vice-versa — shouldn't be a big concern (there is a general consensus, though, that choosing bits from the two worlds — a spryte rogue/mage blade, say — quickly leads to brokenness).

Another issue on this front is compatibilty with 3.5. Monte likes to call AU "3.Monte" — it incorporates changes to things he felt, looking back were "legitimate errors" in 3e, but isn't exactly identical to 3.5. Then again, the biggest changes in 3.5 were to spells and classes, neither of which appear in AU at all. The other changes I can think of (damage reduction, some changes in combat) wouldn't be hard to combine with AU. Again, from the message boards, AU seems to fit as well in 3e as in 3.5, with little-to-no difficulty.

Incidentally, after some searching in various forums, it looks like PCGen support is definitely in the works. Monte wanted approval before CodeMonkeys released the data sets, there were some initial slow-downs — like getting PCGen to run on his wife's laptop — and they seem to be at stage two of the back-and-forths. There's a quote from Monte on the 15th that "the ball is in [CodeMonkey's] court now." So, hopefully, there might be something soon on that front.

For me, personally, this is the most excited I've been about D&D yet. I find all of the classes and many of the races rather tantalizing (I even want to play a Spryte — despite a personal distaste for all of regular D&D's midget characters). It may still not have the fine granularity of a point-based system (in the crayon metaphor, GURPS is something like Photoshop's color-picker) but just having more choices, as well as the flexibility and freedom of choice in AU, makes up for it quite nicely.

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