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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Arcana Unearthed Offers a Fantastic Alternative to the PHB

by Ken Newquist / May 10, 2004
  • Arcana Unearthed
  • By Monte Cooke
  • Sword & Sorcery / Malhavoc Press
  • 254 pages
  • MSRP: $29.99
  • Nukeshop: Buy it from Amazon

To me, Arcana Unearthed represents the road not traveled for Wizards of the Coast. It was released at about the same time as WotC's Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. In my perfect world, there would never have been a D&D 3.5, instead there would have been just a revised version of the PHB with the errata added and problem rules (like grapple) clarified. Instead of fracturing their fan base and gutting their creative department, they would retained people like Monte Cooke, and published cool books like this one, that people were actually interested in.

And Arcana Unearthed is interesting. Very interesting in fact.

It's pitched as an alternative Player's Handbook -- a vision of what the PHB could have been if it hadn't been bound by traditional fantasy archetypes -- and that's pretty much what it delivers. The books published under the Open Gaming License, rather than as a d20 imprint, so it doesn't require the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 or 3.5 books to use, and it includes the all important level advancement (experience) charts. As with the standard Player's Handbook, Arcana Unearthed is divided into chapters for Abilities, Races, Classes, Skills, Feats, Equipment, Magic, and Spells. But while the names may be similar, the specifics are very different. As befits its name, everything about Arcana Unearthed is magical and exotic. It's never enough for it to just re-create something from the PHB -- in almost every case (skills being the sole exception) it needs to tweak or enhance the rules. The end result provides DMs and players with an experience that's familiar, yet still very different.

There's a heck of a lot I like about this book, so much in fact that I could spend pages writing about it. Instead, I'll just bullet the high points:

  • Races: Humans are the only archetypal race imported from the PHB. The others read like a list of all the creatures that folks have always wanted to play, but never had the chance. There are giants and sprytes, half-dragons and half-lions, as well as the halfling-like faen. The thing I liked most about these races are the additional "racial levels" that players can choose to take, allowing them to gain additional powers as they progress. It's a welcome alternative to the typical base and prestige class advancements (the later of which is overused in d20 products).

  • True Names: D&D's always include passing references to true names -- the name of one's soul -- but they were limited to a handful of spells. In Arcana Unearthed, it's an integral part of the game -- almost every character has one, its used in ceremonies that grant feats, and its integral to many spells. Characters can choose not to learn their true name, and are thus known as "Unbound".

  • Classes: Oh, the classes! There are eleven core classes in this book, most of which are vaguely reminiscent of the core classes in the PHB, but which have wholly new powers and capabilities. The "champions" a similar to paladins, but they can swear fealty to any number of different ideals (including freedom, goodness, tyranny). Witches are spell casters, but they can do much more than just cast spells. Exactly what they can do depends on what type of "witchery" they choose -- "winter witches", for example, get cold resistance 20 and the ability to wield weapons crafted from ice. Many of the classes have this sort of "sub-class" set-up, and the end result is to provide players with a staggering number of choices when it comes to playing characters.

  • Feats: In addition to the normal feats, two new kinds are introduced: "Ceremonial" and "Talent". Ceremonial feats are conducted during special rituals, and provide effects like allowing mages to apply templates to their spells or providing fighters with the ability to bind weapons to their will. Talents are inborn abilities that characters can gain at first level -- most characters can take one, but the Unbound can choose two. In a d20 environment where feats are a dime a dozen, having two new kinds of feats really serves to differentiate this book from all the others.

  • Weapons: While D&D 3.5 spent its time messing up weapons by allowing things like "tiny" greatswords, Monte introduces something that players should really enjoy: "dire" weapons. These are more brutal versions of conventional weapons that count as exotic and do an extra two points of damage. It's not a big thing, but it demonstrates the inherent exotic nature of the tome.

  • Spell Templates: Arcana Unearthed introduces numerous new templates that can be applied to spells after learning the appropriate feats. They have varying effects -- "earth" templated spells, for example, gain +4 hardness and doubles its hit points. Fire templates do an extra 1d6 points of damage (twice that if the spell is a fire spell to start) while Blessed templates provides enhancements to any spell that has beneficial effects. There are twenty templates in all. These are just two freaking cool -- as a player who typically plays mages, I love the idea of being able to customize my magic-users even more mere specialization permits.

  • Tiered Spells: These are the three classes of spells in Arcana Unearthed: Simple, Complex and Exotic. Simple spells can be case by any spellcaster; complex ones however, can only be cast by the magister class or those who take a specific feat. Exotic spells are exceptionally rare and are usually used as signature spells. The mundane nature of spell casting in default D&D is grating to me (though remedying it by importing large number of d20 spells also worries me, but that is a subject for another day). AU's tiered approach to spells reinforces its exotic nature, making powerful magic truly rare, and allowing the further individualization of characters.

  • Laden, Diminished and Heightened Spells: Arcana Unearthed has a built in mechanic for varying the strength and power of spells, ensuring that a fireball doesn't always have to be just a fireball. "Laden" spells require two slots of a given spell level (i.e. a laden 3rd level spell takes two 3rd level slots) and increase the power of the spell accordingly. "Diminished" spells are cast at a lower-level than normal (i.e. a 2nd level fireball) with reduced effects; "Heightened" are the same spell cast at higher level. A similar technique was in the Wheel of Time source book -- I liked it there, and I like it just as much here. It provides casters with greatly enhanced flexibility, more in line with the sort of combat options that a properly-built fighter.

A Universe of Choices

For me, Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 was all about choices and personalization. Prior editions of the game always restricted players to the classes included in the core rules, played as those rules demanded. Kits offered some degree of customization, but some characters -- like a capable fighter/rogue/wizard -- were extremely difficult to pull off, and were never as effective as their single classed counter parts (in some cases, far less effective). 3.0 changed all that, creating a ruleset that complemented a players vision, and made possible all manner of previously unplayable characters.

Arcana Unearthed continues the 3.0 tradition of customization, and improves on it, shattering the archetypes of traditional Dungeons & Dragons in the process. This game is all about choice -- heck, with this game you could choose to play the same race and the same class 20 times, and end up with radically different characters with every new incarnation. Yes, D&D 3.0 offers similar flexibility through feats and skills, but Arcana's racial levels and sub-classes take this to the extreme, and in a good way! This degree of choice is invigorating, and it makes me want to ditch my Greyhawk campaign immediately and jump right one based on Arcana Unearthed (at least until I pause and realize the folly of ditching an 8 year campaign for a new book -- but I do want to at least run a one shot).

Visually, the book is stunning. It eschews the overly-used "jeweled tome" approach of the core D&D books and myriad d20 publishers in favor of a black cover with beautifully-rendered full-color illustrations of various figures displayed in arcane-looking crystal balls. It's the sort of cover you pick up and admire for a moment or two before plunging into the contents. Inside, the book's pages feature a crisp, refreshing layout with no distracting margin illustrations -- what borders it has are tastefully done. The page text is small, perhaps too small for older eyes, but I'd gladly done reading glasses to peer at this amount of content.

My only qualm with the presentation comes in the Skills chart, which unfortunately does not list the ability score abbreviation for each skill. As a DM and as a player, that's information I've memorized most of it of course, but occasionally I'll forget, and I'd rather be able to look at the skill list for the information rather than have to go digging for the actual spell.

Those looking for a strictly utilitarian book with rules they can import wholesale into their existing campaigns will be disappointed. This is not Unearthed Arcana -- it's not a set of optional rules that DMs can pick and choose from. Rather, it's a self-contained work all its own, and to do it justice, I think it's best played that way. That having been said, the book is largely divorced from its default Diamond Throne campaign setting, making it very easy for DMs to grab classes, feats, and spells from this book for use in their own campaigns.

Final Analysis: This is a great book that fully demonstrates the flexibility and capabilities of the d20 system. It deserves a place of honor on any gamer's bookshelf.