Arcana Unearthed: A Variant Players Handbook
Before I get into this review, I need to point out: this is not about the Unearthed Arcana book from Wizards of the Coast. This is Arcana Unearthed; the transposed words does in fact represent a completely different book, although for the D20 line of products.
What is it?
Arcana Unearthed is advertised as a variant players handbook for the D20/D&D system, following the Open Gaming License. It was written by Monte Cook (one of the designers of 3rd edition, if you weren't aware), published by his own company Malhavoc Press.
It was written to be a book for non-tolkienian fantasy. Or in other words, not all fantasy novels have elves and dwarves and such, yet most RPGs are saturated with them. AU was heavily inspired by the chronicles of Thomas Covenant and A Wizard of Earthsea; therefore, the races do not follow those of the tolien lineage, and such powers as that of true names are embedded in the game.
What the book has are some tweaks and minor changes to a few rules, new races to replace the current ones, new classes as a replacement to the old ones, etc.
It was written a few months before 3.5 came out. It therefore more closely resembles 3rd edition. It is also compatible with 3rd edition; in other words, you should be able to play races and classes from both 3rd edition and AU with only minor work to be done.
The Rules Changes
Arcana Unearthed takes you on a walk through several rules, and makes some changes that I thought were in fact very nice.
This list isn't utterly comprehensive, but it will give you a good idea of what to expect.
Unconsciousness and Dying
Characters do not (necessarily) go unconscious at 0 and die at -10 hitpoints any more. Instead, they go unconscious at either 0, or a negative value equal to their positive con modifier. whatever is better. So... if your constitution is 11 or less, you go unconscious at 0 hitpoints. However, if your constitution is 15 (with a con modifier of +2), then you go unconscious at -2.
Furthermore, you die at a negative value equal to your constitution score. So, the aforementioned con 15 character dies at -15, rather than -10.
Flexible Moral Codes
There are no alignments in AU. Monte threw them out. Alignments, he suggests, straightjackets a character's actions. Why not just play the character as you see them! This allows you to be able to play much more in a shades of grey style campaign, too.
To reflect this, any spells regarding alignment are also thrown out; no detect evils, no protection from Evils. Now, you cannot simply have your paladin focus his thoughts and shout "Aha! That man trying to trick us is a villain!" now you have to find out the hard way.
Morality is now something to be viewed from the personal angle, instead of from a compass of order versus chaos, and good versus evil.
One of the things I hated most azbout D&D was the magic system. Sure, it worked, but really it didn't feel like I was playing a wizard out of fantasy. Other games did better than D&D in this regard (with Ars Magica having the best magic system thus far), but D&D being so much more popular often leaves one with little choice.
Well, AU doesn't exactly write an entirely brand new magic system, but it certainly revoluntionizes the system used by D&D. In fact, this was a major selling point... the changes were so profound that... that I'm going to be saving a seperate major section for this near the end of this review. :)
No longer are there favored classes and penalties for multiclassing. Multiclass in any way and combination you want! Feel free to take any levels in any combination you can imagine! Have fun with it!
Skills and Feats
There were some changes in skills, feats, and other stuff, as well as new material. For example, the hide and move silently skills were combined into a single skill called Sneak. Ambidexterity and Two Weapons Fighting was improved: If you have both, fighting with one medium and one small weapon has no penalties, and if fighting with two medium weapons is -2/-2; taking the feat Massive Two Weapons Fighting even erases this penalty.
The idea of Truenames was introduced in the game. Aside from the magical implications (see below), it also makes a determination on what kinds of feats you can have.
The idea of Truenames is that you have a name you use in the world, and a Truename, that represents your core being. As such, there are many feats, called Ceremonial feats, that you can only get if you have a Truename. When your character is first made, you decide if you have a Truename or are Unbound. If you have a Truename, one of your feats you select at first level is a Ceremonial feat. These are generally better than the rest of the feats in the list.
A character starts out with two feats instead of one, by the way. Humans get 3.
Another type are Talents. Talents are only taken at first level.
The rest are pretty much like the book. An Unbound selects a Talent instead of a ceremonial feat.
Some weapon details were changed. For example, exotic weapons are broken up between Heavy and Agile exotic weapons, with implications for each being different. Also, now, there is exotic armors....
There are others, but this pretty much shows you some things the book accomplishes. A few other tweaks will shine through, but you will find this list and magic, below, summarizes the vast majority of changes.
The experience chart used in AU is around 10% higher than those used by the phb; so, it takes 1100 to reach second level rather than 1000.
It was originally speculated that the suspicion was that the classes in this book are more powerful than those of the core book, but as it turns out, the experience table is not Open Gaming License; therefore, Monte could not use it.
However, with the additional feat, and the ceremonials, they might be a bit more powerful anyway. If you choose to blend them, you might want to allow all core phb characters the bonus feat and ceremonial options too.
Humans were kept as a race. The rest of the races from the core PHB are not presented here. Instead, you get:
The Giants: Large, gentle, wise caretakers, tall and powerful, wise and intelligent, they saved the continent from a terrible evil, and now rule it from the Diamond Throne with a firm but caring hand. Additionally, giants can take up to three levels in their race, if they want, improving themselves in their "giantness"; at third level giant, this makes them Large creatures.
The Faen (Divided into loresongs and quicklings): Two races of the fey, these creatures are small and lithe. The Loresongs are fascinated and skilled with magic, while Quicklings are agile and limber. Eventually, a Faen can choose to evolve into a winged but tiny Spryte. Additionally, Sprytes can take up to three levels in their race, if they want, improving themselves in their racial attributes
The Mojh: Once humans, these half human-half dragon hybrids possess great intellect and magical ability, at a cost to their humanity. Additionally, Mojh can take up to three levels in their race, if they want, improving themselves in their racial attributes
The Litorians: These proud lion-like humanoids protect their plainslands with great ferocity. Additionally, Litorians can take up to three levels in their race, if they want, improving themselves in their racial attributes.
The Sibeccai: Once nothing but animals, these jackal-like humanoids were evolved into intelligence by the great magics of the Giants. Now, although somewhat feral still, they have become a major force in civilization. Additionally, Sibeccai can take up to three levels in their race, if they want, improving themselves in their racial attributes
Additionally, a template called the Runechildren is presented: it is not so much a race as a modifer to a character who proves to be utterly heroic. Then, the natural forces of the planet evolve him, magic inscribing runes onto his skin as he becomes more powerful.
Gone are the fighter, wizard, and cleric of the core handbook. Instead, presented in the book are classes that, for the most part, reflected what I'd like to see in fantasy far more:
Able to access the Akashic Records, the gestalt memory of the cosmos, the Akashic can access information; if anyone ever knew the information in question, the Akashic can also learn it. As such, ALL skills are class skills for the Akashic; he also gains all armor and weapon abilities.
However, their hit points and BAB are weak; instead, they gain a large number of rather nice abilities as they level; in many cases, gaining a list of abilities to choose from.
Tired of having the Paladin as the only designated crusader in the game, without getting a prestige class? Here comes the Champion! The champion is a mystical warrior class that has the feel of the paladin.
However, instead of simply having the "thing" you champion for predefined, the Champion was designed to be a kind of "build-your-own-paladin." Several abilities all champions get, such as the ability to temporarily summon magical weapons and shields.
In addition, each champion gets a new ability every 5th level; these abilities are pre-defined by your champion type - but there are a theoretical infinite number. As such, 6 examples are given, along with guidelines on how to invent more. The 6 examples are the champions of Life, Death, Darkness, Light, Magic, and Freedom.
Additionally, at 10th level a Champion may become a champion of a specific place, person, race, or what have you... gaining more fine-tuned abilities on the specific object he protects.
I've never really been fond of the Cleric or Druid. So, when I saw this class, I was prepared to dislike it. Imagine my surprise to discover how much fun I thought he would be!
The Greenbond is a kind of blend of druid and cleric. They are more treehugger types, like the druid; however, their focus is more on the plant world than the animal world of the druid. Their spell access is the second best in the game, with only the magister being superior.
Furthermore, they can use a healing touch power that heals a set number of dice, which improves as they gain levels. They can use this touch a number of times per day equal to their wisdom modifier.
Although they can wear armors, they are not the Battle Priests that clerics are. All in all, a rather fun class.
The Mage Blade is the character all of us dreamed of playing when we played wizard-fighter combinations.
The mage blade is a hybrid fighter and spellcaster. He would suffer spell failure due to armor... unless he wields his Athame.
The Athame is a bladed weapon that the mage blade bonds with, much as a wizard would bond with a familiar. from that point onward, as long as the Mage Blade wields his athame, he can cast spells and ignore spell failure.
Additionally, he gains the ability to effect spells with his blade; he can parry spells, slice through wards, etc, as he gains in levels of power.
He also gains a myriad of other abilities, such as the ability to summon a magical shield to protect him, or to move at full speed in medium armor.
However, he does pay for this combination of power. His spellcasting ability is amonng the weakest in the book; his combat abilities are not the best either. He truly is a hybrid: better fighter than the magister, better spellcaster than the warmain, and all in armor. But not a master of either.
When I see a wizard in my mind, I always seem them with a great staff. Images of the Lords of the Land of Thomas covenant, or of Merlin and Gandalf swirl through my mind, and I never see them without it.
The Magister is a class that realizes this view of the spellcaster. The Magister is the AU version of the Wizard, and has the best spellcasting access in the entire book. He must, however, always have his staff with him; it focues his power. Without it, he is penalized in his spellcasting.
However, he needs no spellbook; grand and powerful, he is a threat to all who oppose him.
The Oathsworn is AU's version of the Monk. It is, however, inspired by the Bloodguard from the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen R Donaldson.
The Oathsworn at first glance is a clone of the monk. In fact, many of their abilities are similar if not identical. Fast movement, greater hand to hand damage, things like this, are all the same.
Ah, but the differences is where it stands out.
While the Oathsworn does not get an AC bonus for wisdom, he does get a much higher AC bonus due to his class. At first level, he gets a +1 to his AC. Each odd level it goes up by +1, so that his AC ends up being +10 by 20th level. This means that while he gains no benefit from a high wisdom, neither is he dependant on a high wisdom score, and gets a very good AC without aid from a high wisdom therefore.
Instead of gaining magical fists that have +1 ratings (in 3rd edition), he gains the ability to simply ignore a certain amount of DR. In te beginning, he can take a full round action for a single strike that ignores 1 point of DR per level; by 20th level, its raised to ignoring 1 pt per level for each strike. The advantage of this is that the Oathsworn may not completely nullify a DR rating, but he does ignore at least some of ANY creature's DR. This ability, unlike the monk's, also ignore hardness. Combined with Sunder, the Oathsworn can become a weapon-shattering powerhouse.
The Oathsworn does not gain such things as the monk's falling ability or the full evasion ability, the Oathsworn does start racking up a variety of immunities. At first, he can ignore the need to eat and drink; later, he can ignore the need to breath and sleep, and levels of environmental damage (such as being inside a volcano or naked in a snowstorm); eventually he can ignore poisons and disease of even magical origins, level drain, paralysis, ability damage, and become truly immortal (and unlike the monk will not die of old age).
The Runethane is something I always wanted in D&D. See, for a time I played Palladium Fantasy RPG; its rules weren't as good, but it had a lot more flavor. The Diabolists runic-like magic was one solid example of this.
While the Runethane doesnt utterly address this, it comes close. The Runethane is much like the magister. However, he requires no staff, and he sacrifices a great deal of his magical power in order to be able to create runes.
Runes are things he gains pretty much every level; they are like spells in that he learns them and uses them. However, he inscribes them on surfaces, or items, or creatures. Depending on the situation, they trigger when the time is right, generating an effect.
The runes are their own seperate list, not a modifier to standard spells. A runethane can have a number of rune levels active at any one time equal to his class level. For instance, lesser runes are worth 1 level each; so a 3rd level Runethane could have three of these active.
He can create one of a particular rune per hour. Once created, the duration of any touch trigger rune is "until discharged"; meaning it could last a long long time; others, designed to confer abilities on items or creatures, activate the moment they are complete, with a set duration.
The advantage of this is that it gives a few spell effects a bit faster than the Magister; and they could be used over and over. For example, a lesser rune gained at first level can conjure a creature that is normally summoned from the second level spell list, of which even the magister doesnt gain until 3rd level. Furthermore, since one of a particular rune can be created every hour, a runethane can create one every hour of the day. while he can have only a limited number of runes active at one time, if he created and activated this conjuration rune each hour, he can have the effect of having summoned monsters from the level 2 list 24 times in a day in theory.
It also allows the Runethane to create traps. Set a rune down and wait for an enemy to cross/trigger it. Runethanes also gain a good set of skills and skill points to work with.
In essence, the Totem warrior is AU's version of a ranger. A wilderness master, the totem warrior is bonded to an animal type, and gains abilities based on said animal.
In practice, this is much like the Champion. There are guidelines for creating a Totem Warrior; they get a certain select standard list of abilities, and the rest are defined by animal type.
As such, 6 different examples are listed: the Bear, Wolverine, Shark, Snake, Hawk, and Wolf totem warriors, with guidelines on how to create more.
This class also has the typical wilderness survival abilities and skills.
The unfettered is another one of those classes many of us wanted and yet could not really create. They are lightly armored, lightly armed fighters.
Swashbucklers, duelists, and perhaps even fast armed martial artists could be represented by this class.
They have lesser hit points than the below warmain, and cannot wear as great a set of armor. However, they gain a cumulative bonus much like, although not quite as good as, the Oathsworn. Coupled with light armor, they can also parry: gain an AC bonus equal to their int modifier against a single opponent in a round.
As they advance, they gain a modest sneak attack ability, bonus feats, the ability to parry missile attacks and, like the mage blade, magic (although nowhere near as well for that last).
Also highly skilled....
The Warmain is the heavy fighter of this book, and boy is he a heavy fighter! With a d12 hit die, he slightly outclasses the fighter here. He also gains bonus feats, although at half the speed of the fighter.
In exchange for that, during the periods that a regular fighter would gain a feat and the warmain does not, the warmain gains special abilities of his own. Some examples include: Crushing Blow once per day - the ability to automatically perform a critical hit; armor specialization - increase AC for armor 1 point for light or medium, or two points for heavy; or Reduce Weapon Size - this is a fun one, treat large weapons for you as if they are mediums, using them one handed, and huge weapons for you as if they were large, using them two-handed.
The witch is their version of a sorcerer. With eldritch fire buring in their soul, the Witch can use magic from their bodies. Although their spellcasting power is less than that of the Magister or Greenbond, they make up for this by having access to a list of special abilities.
First, one must choose the type of witch they wish to play. There are currently listed the Iron, Wind, Winter, Mind, Wood, and Sea. Notice how like the Champion and Totem warrior, there are 6 types? Well, this class does not list guidelines for inventing more but, following the Champion and Totem Warrior examples and with these 6 types, it is easy to see how to create more here, too.
The Witches then get access to 5 different powers to select from as they advance in level. These abilites are defined as Blade, Song, Word, Storm, and Fire.
For example, the Mind Witch's blade power summons a blade of psionic energy, which is used as a Touch Attack, although its damage is subdual, and it does something like 1d6 damage +1 per level, and is usable infinitely over the day. The Iron Witch's Storm power summons a Hail of Metal usable once per day, at range for a 20' diameter, dealing like 1d6 per two levels, usable once per day. (I dont remember the EXACT numbers and my book isnt in front of me; sorry).
Additionally, the witches gain other abilites as they level. As an example, the Wood Witch starts out with +1 luck AC bonus against any weapon containing Wood; later, she gains access to improved plant spells, etc etc.
The world is interesting, but not finely detailed. In essence, the continent where the "main" setting is placed is one that until a few hundred years ago was under the thrall of the Dramojh: terrible, half-dragon half-demon things that have 6 spider-like legs and chitonous alien-like skin. They look somewhat like this:
The other races were effectively enslaved. Until the Dragons, driven by proophecy, landed on the continent's shores and over a few hundred years drove the Dramojh into utter extinction.
The world is only vaguely detailed; more info can be had from the Diamond Throne sourcebook, but really, this book was designed with the same idea the Players Handbook was: to be a variant players handbook to be used in YOUR games. Not as a worldbook.
Therefore, they give you just enough info to run with it if you wish, or to use it in your own.
I saved this for last, because this was the single most significant change from 3rd edition, and the best.
First of all, all spells were combined into a single master list, that are subdivided into three classifications of Simple, Complex, and Exotic spells (Still keeping 0-9th level though).
All spellcasting classes get a certain availability of spells, first in levels, then in simple to exotic.
For example, the Magister gets access up to level 9 spells, and learns all simple and complex spells. Greenbonds also learn up to level 9 spells, but only learn simple spells... and spells of any type that possess the Plant or Positive Energy descriptors.
Meanwhile Mageblades get up to level 7 spells, of simple only.
Second, each class specifies what kinds of components they use. If they use somatic components, they worry about armor spell failure. For example, the Greenbond uses verbal only; the mageblade uses verbal and somatic, although he can ignore spell failure while using his athame; the magister uses verbal and somatic, and is penalized without his staff; and the witch uses verbal, somatic, and material, although they can make a spell effectively psionic by quadrupling the spellcasting time and ignoring all components needed.
Thirdly, almost all spells in their descriptions have a diminished and heightened version; a diminished version is weaker but burns a spell slot one level lower, while the heightened one is more powerful but burns a slot one level higher.
Fourthly, and this is the very cool part: spellcasters, all of them, prepare spells somewhat like wizards, but cast spells like sorcerers!
Let me explain. A spellcaster may take an hour (and not just once a day, but any time) to prepare a number of spells as dictated for their class. Due to how spellcasting works, they never prepare more than one copy of a spell.
A second chart shows how many spells they can cast per day. Each time, they burn a spell slot and select the spell they will cast. The prepared spell doesnt disappear, just the slot. So, you could cast one spell multiple times or a different spell each.
In other words, you are like a sorcerer that can change his spells from day to day - or even hour to hour.
Also, there are a wide variety of feats that let you play around with the spells, usually at a cost. For example, the Psion feat says you get enhanced access to spells with the psionic descriptors: this means a greenbond would gain access to complex psionic spells instead of just simple psionic spells.
Then, it lets you apply the Psionic template to any spell; the psionic template lets you cast the spell with no components, just conentrating and firing off. This ladens the spell unless the spell already had the psionic descriptor. Ladened spells burn two slots of their level instead of 1.
Finally, spellcasters can do whats called Spellweaving: a spellcater can weave three slots of a lower level to gain a higher slot of the next higher level, or break up a slot of one level to gain two slots of the next lower.
Between all of these, the flexibility of the spellcasters are nothing short of phenominal!
This flexibility comes at a cost, however. In general, the spells are weaker. There are no instant-death spells (although a few come real close), healing spells are weaker, etc.
For instance... there is no magic missile. the attack spells of first level exist, but are weaker without a doubt. This allows you to keep these guys balanced with Core classes should you ever mix the two.
Also, the idea of true names: if you chose to be unbound, certain hostile magics cannot attack you. For instance, most curses require your knowing someone's true name (which is hard, but not impossible, to learn); if they are unbound, this is obviously impossible. However, most curses are also INCREDIBLY long duration, many in essence never going away unless a remove curse is cast - which also requires a true name.
By the same token, however, if you are unbound, you don't get access to the better Ceremonial feats, and you cannot be targetted by certain beneficial spells... such as any spell that would raise you from the dead.
Finally, spellcasters can do whats called Spellweaving: a spellcater can weave three slots of a lower level to gain a higher slot of the next higher level, or break up a slot of one level to gain two slots of the next lower.
Layout and Artwork
Just to show you I'm not a fanboy, all is not golden here. The artwork... well, some of the artwork is pretty good, but some of it is so so and some are just close to being awful. I don't get it: some of their artwork was great! And this is Monte Cook! He could have shelled out the dough to get some fantastic artwork, but for some reason he chose not to.
And the layout is... well, its so so. Nothing fabulous, but its kinda dull too. Readable, but not exciting.
Frankly, this product is incredible. If you are a D&D player and are not one of those types that pound the "If it ain't WotC we ain't playing in!" stick, then this is not only one of the best third party D&D products ever made, its, in my opinion, the best version of D&D to date - and far better than either 3.0 or 3.5.