Main menu

"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

Uncover Variant D&D Rules With Unearthed Arcana

by Ken Newquist / May 11, 2005
  • Unearthed Arcana
  • by Andy Collins, Jesse Decker, David Noonan and Rich Redman
  • Wizards of the Coast
  • 224 pages
  • ISBN: 0-7869-3131-0
  • MSRP: $34.95
  • Buy it from Amazon.com

The thing that Dungeons & Dragons 3.0/3.5 excels at most is its flexibility: its possible to play the same class for years and never play the same kind of character twice. Unearthed Arcana expands that flexibility by adding hundreds of new options to the game.

Unearthed Arcana (Web Site | Amazon) is not the sort of rulebook that game masters can import directly into their campaign; indeed, the effects of such an import would be disastrous, if not outright impossible. Unearthed Arcana is designed as an RPG smorgasbord, a vast buffet of optional rules that can be imported as needed to do everything from merely tweaking a campaign to radically transforming it.

A Multiverse of Options

The book starts off by presenting numerous variant races based on climate, offering alternatives for all the core races and a few of the monstrous ones, for climes such as forest, desert, and water. It then introduces the concept of "bloodlines" -- the idea that characters might be descended from some monstrous or extraplaner creature, like a troll, giant, elemental or dragon. These bloodlines offer additional bonuses and abilities and span three power levels: weak, minor and major, with the enhancements increasing with the strength of the ancestral blood. Characters "pay" for these abilities by taking special bloodline levels; more powerful bloodlines require more of these specialized levels.

Existing races get a boost through "paragon" classes, which allow a player to "evolve" their character into a perfect example of his race (for example, a dwarven paragon becomes better at crafting, stonecunning and receives advanced darkvision). Classes are revisited, and rules are given for re-casting some traditional classes -- like bard, ranger and paladin -- as prestige classes. Touching on a sensitive subject among gamers, the book even gives variant "paladin" classes, allowing for champions of evil and individuality. Numerous other variant classes abound, including specialist wizards with variant powers (they gain powers in return for forsaking familiars and/or bonus feats) and spontaneous divine spellcasters.

The "Building Characters" chapter introduces complex skill checks (checks that require successive skill rolls to complete), character traits (personality quirks that grant minor positive and negative bonuses), character flaws (which impose negative modifiers in exchange for a bonus feat) and spelltouched feats (feats that build upon exposure to certain spells).

Further on, the "Adventuring" chapter draws in concepts seen in other d20/OGL games, such as "Armor as Damage Reduction" (seen in Conan d20), defense bonuses (Call of Cthulhu d20, ) and vitality and wound points (Star Wars d20, Spycraft) while "Magic" presents alternative ways of using magic in a D&D game, including spell points, incantations, and metamagic components. The final chapter "Campaigns" presents a variety of optional campaign-level rules, like reputation, taint and sanity.

Mix and Match Realities

When Unearthed Arcana first came out, I held off buying it largely because of a spate of bad reviews on Amazon.com. Reviewers there didn't like the way some things were implemented, and felt that too much of it had already been done elsewhere. Picking it up at the book store and giving it a once-over myself, I found myself disagreeing with them. Yes, this book does cover a lot that's been done elsewhere in d20, but for me, that's a strength, not a weakness. It pulls together all of these variant systems into one central reference book while offers advice on the strengths and weaknesses of each one.

Looking over the book's content, it offers two schools of variants. The first are those that are largely cosmetic changes, like the environmental and elemental racial variants or the bloodlines. These can easily be dropped into any campaign as needed without too much concern that it will unbalance the game. They're ideal, for example, if you want to introduce an exotic new race of halflings or kobolds, but don't want them to appear or have identical abilities to those found in the Player's Handbook or Monster Manual. Bloodlines are excellent for beefing up NPCs in unexpected ways; imagine a cult of dragon worshipers who all have a touch of the draconic in their blood.

The other class of variants are the structural ones; the sort of thing you need to give careful thought to before you introduce, since they can radically change the nature of your campaign. Anyone who suffered through the "Player's Option" days of Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition knows how quickly personality traits and flaws (particularly flaws) can screw up a campaign. I would strongly recommend play testing any of these structural variants before launching a full-blown campaign with them; taken individually they may be fine, but combined they could have unexpected consequences.

Having said that, these variants are great to have around. Just about every complaint about 3rd edition -- from armor granting a defense bonus to the unrealistic nature of "hit points" to the square-based adventuring grid to how player's gain experience points -- can be addressed using this book. About the only thing it doesn't do is destroy the D&D's class-based system entirely and replace it with a point buy, which is something we've seen done in d20 games like Mutants and Masterminds.

The book isn't perfect. In particular, I found the "item familiar" section to be all-but-unworkable; reading through it you can clearly see that the initial draft was re-written, and not all the text was changed to reflect the re-write. As a result, some sections reference abilities that don't exist, other abilities are useless, and some abilities contradict others. For example, you must be 3rd level in order to gain the "item familiar" feat, but the special abilities progression chart starts at 1st level, indicating that in the initial draft, you could take the feat at first level).

Paragon classes were slammed by some because a very similar concept appears in Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed alternate player's handbook, but according to an interview with Cook on Mortality Radio, that was just a question of parallel evolution; both teams of writers had decided to do the same thing independently of one another.

Some reviews have attacked the book for not being comprehensive enough in its explanation of optional rules like "vitality and wound points". While I see where they're coming from, the book only has so many pages to cover a huge number of variants. Some areas could have been covered in more detail, but I think there's enough there to run with (though again, playtest everything before committing to it in your own campaign).

Final Analysis

Unearthed Arcana has its flaws, but they don't prevent it from being an excellent reference book for creative Dungeon Masters. If you're looking to spice up your game, or want to create a unique campaign that varies greatly from standard Dungeons & Dragons, I strongly recommend picking it up.