The Arcanum, 2nd edition
The Arcanum, 2nd edition Capsule Review by Papyrus on 16/02/03
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Age has not diminished this gem from a time when smaller publishers rarely could muster attention, and demonstrates a quality of content today's small press efforts rarely meet.
Product: The Arcanum, 2nd edition
Author: Stephan Michael Sechi and Vernie Taylor
Company/Publisher: Bard Games
Page count: 174
Year published: 1985
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Papyrus on 16/02/03
Genre tags: Fantasy
Before Talislanta, Bard Games published a set of FRPG supplements that lead to the Atlantis FRPG supplements and independent game system. Originally published as 3 books, The Arcanum is the main rulebook (the other 2 were combined under a single title in the 2nd edition). Perfect bound, with a cover made to resemble that of a magic tome, black with artistic metal studs and a red pentagram, in a circle in the center. The interior art is all black and white, a little amateurish but appropriate enough. The layout never over uses the space on a page, and only under-utilizes the space when it keeps information together, like maintaining each character class on a single page. The text covers character creation and magic, each covered in their entirety, magic for example including not only spells but alchemy, potions and magic items of all sorts. As stated in the first few pages, the book is intended to be used as a resource for other game systems, and in pieces or entirely as a separate game system for gaming in the Atlantean world or any other fantasy setting.
The rules themselves are very close the contemporary AD&D, and therefore easily understood by users of, and used with, all versions of D&D and AD&D (including d20/D&D3e, Gamma World, and XXVc). Most of the differences from AD&D are highlighted with a comment like "in the Atlantean system" in the rules descriptions. For example, armor absorbs damage rather than making it harder to be hit, and high "to hit" rolls can result in damaged, less effective armor. All of the differences are really cosmetic, very familiar to anyone who has been exposed to AD&D and house rules or improvements published over the years. In my opinion, none work any better or worse than the contemporary AD&D rules they deviate from. With that said, it was fun to read and easy to get comfortable with, even where the reader might intend to use different rules themselves, AD&D or some other. Notes are provided in the first few pages that describe how any fantasy game can use elements of The Arcanum's rules.
Character races include three of the standards, dwarves, elves, and humans, plus some very notable exceptions. The Aesir are Norse giants, the Andaman are feline humanoids and the Zephyr who look like nothing more than humans with wings. The mysterious Druas are very much like drow elves, in fact their language is called drow, and the Nethermen are a human/goblin cross that mimic the half-orc of AD&D. In whole or in part, any of these can be used in one of the above mentioned AD&D-type games, or others.
Character classes exist in an explosive expansion of what might be considered standard. Classes are split into single and dual classed categories, which corresponds to which of the rule's two experience point level progression charts they use. Single class types include; alchemist, astrologer, beastmaster, charlatan, druid, gladiator, harlequin, hunter, magician, martial artist, mystic, necromancer, priest, rogue, scholar, shaman, spy, and warrior. Dual class types are really just separate classes that combine the powers and capabilities of two single classes; assassin (martial artist/spy), bounty hunter (hunter/spy), corsair (warrior/rogue), enchanter (magician/harlequin), monk (martial artist/mystic), paladin (warrior/priest), savant (scholar/mystic), thaumaturge (magician/alchemist), and witch hunter (hunter/mystic), wizard. Some dual classed spell casters (mage, sorcerer, witch/warlock, witchdoctor, wizard) receive the dual class designation because they can easily learn magic from two or more disciplines normally associated with a single classed spell caster.
Skills are covered next. The best way to describe them is to think of them as a cross between AD&D2's non-weapon proficiencies and DragonQuest's skill levels by experience point expenditure. Certain skills are attained by certain classes at specific levels, without additional experience point expenditure. Other skills can be purchased using experience points within a character's class designated list of available skills, or at a higher price if outside that list. Some lists have pre-requisite skills and others can be improved upon themselves with additional expenditures of experience. The skills listed are of adventuring use and the entire system makes a nice alternative to non-weapon proficiencies or an add on to them as well.
Magic is covered, using the entire second half of the book's pages. The spell system is simplified, memorized spells are just that and are usable without daily studying/memorizing of them. Although the names are different, the spells are very AD&D familiar. They are grouped by type, and much like AD&D2, spell casters are mostly restricted to the types their class is allowed, though there are exceptions. Alchemy, ritual and rune magic get a tremendous amount of detail. Distinctions are made between potions, elixirs and philters, as well as wands, rods and staves and their creation (as well as other magic items) is outlined with precision. Demon, devil and spirit summoning are given an in-depth treatment without over exposing questions of morality and religion. All in all, a very deep and detailed treatment of magic, rivaling all of the breadth of AD&D/D&D rules history.
In the end I am impressed by this book,, especially for its time. I am taken back by its older taste and made nostalgic for a different time in the hobby. D20 players would do well to pick this up if they can find it, and the other two Atlantean books (Lexicon and Bestiary, or combined into Atlantis for the 2nd edition). Age has not diminished this gem from a time when smaller publishers rarely could muster attention, and demonstrates a quality of content today's small press efforts rarely meet.
This review appears in Alarums & Excursions #332, and appears here with permission.