|I have the Second Edition, but|
I first played the First. I love
the understated covers.
Like many of these D&D variants, The Arcanum is explicitly tied to a specific setting, in this case, the Atlantean world, where Atlantis has not yet sunk beneath the waves, and rules most of the known world with a velvet glove cast in iron. Most of the setting information is contained in the second and third books in the series (The Lexicon and The Bestiary, later published under one cover as Atlantis: The Lost World, including art by Bill Sienkiewicz), though, and I won't hash it out here.
|The First Edition cover was also|
Characteristics give various benefits to the character when they are at high enough level (usually 15+), such as Perception allowing a Detect Invisibility percent check, Constitution giving even more Hit Points (and that bonus is given each level, like the Combat Capability bonus), and so forth. Then we come to the core of the system. Like D20/3.X and Original Edition Delta will later do, The Arcanum simplifies saving throws and combat "to hit" checks down to a d20. Success is achieved with a total of 11+ after modifiers are applied, so if there's a +4, a roll of 7+ will succeed.
Money is treated in the usual D&D manner of gold, silver, and copper pieces, with about 100 coins to the pound. Characters roll on a table to determine their starting economic situation ("Down and Out", giving 20+1d10 GP, to "Flourishing", with 10 times as much).
Characters get experience points for a number of reasons, starting with the traditional D&D pair of 100xp per level of a defeated monster and 1xp per GP acquired, but also "Avoiding or deactivating any trap, figuring out any riddle or puzzle, overcoming any obstacle or hazzardous [sic] situation, or making any discovery of note", "Saving, rescuing, or aiding any character or creature" (which nets the same xp as defeating a foe), successfully turning undead (again, as defeating a foe), converting an individual to one's own religion (a flat 100xp per individual, regardless of level), making a magical or alchemical item, binding a spirit into service, or "influencing any individual or creature by non-magical means" (as defeating a foe). In addition, during down time, the character can gain xp by study or practice, either solitary or under a teacher. There's also an optional 10% bonus for funny voices and such ("Game Judges who would like to improve the quality of role-playing in their campaigns can adopt a policy of awarding a + 10% X.P. bonus for players who make an effort to role-play their game personas. This simple rule can go a long way towards improving the game by giving players a real incentive to think and role-play, instead of just hacking away at everything they see.")
Before getting to skills, there are listed 8 abilities that are common to all characters: Climbing, Finding a Track or Trail (but not following it), Hiding, Keeping Afloat (not swimming), Moving Silently (though the Stealth skill makes this awesomer), Noticing Hidden Persons or Creatures, Leaping, and Brawling.
Skills include all the usual stuff you see in games, from Languages and Haggling (which is different than Barter for whatever reason) and the like to unusual options like Internal Alchemy (increased lifespan for Mystics) and Inventing. Some skills have two levels (like Acrobatics I and Acrobatics II), which give more advanced abilities when the second skill is acquired after the first one. For no apparent reason, skills do not use the "d20 for 11+" system, but instead use a percentage chance set by the skill and the levels the character has gained since acquiring the skill.
Combat, as noted above, relies on a base 11+ to hit, and targets get to make a defense roll. Hits do damage based on weapon type. Simple, basic, D&D stuff. Armor absorbs damage (1 to 6 points, depending on type, heavy cloth to plate), with an optional rule for armor damage (requiring two percent checks in various circumstances, from immersion in salt water or long-term exposure to wet weather, to taking a fall from 20' or more or taking 20+ points of damage from a single attack).
Spellcasters can cast spells from lists determined by their particular profession (so, a Priest gets to use Divine Magic, while a Magician uses Enchantment, and so on). The character can learn spells of a spell level no higher than half (rounded up) of the level in the profession. A character can cast (level+1) spells per day, chosen at the time of casting. There are fiddly bits, like learning spells from other professions and casting spells in combat, but most of it is common sense. The oddest, most metagame-y, restriction is that no character may carry more than 7 magic items.
Alchemy gets a full treatment in the game, with a long list of alchemical operations that can be attempted. There's also discussion of summoning spirits and demons, and making a pact with them. There's a section where a character with the Runes skill can inscribe runes and effectively make minor magic items (they count against the limit of magic items, plus they have an additional limit of no more than 3 for those classes not associated with Rune Magic).
Alchemical operations include making simple potions (taking a few hours and requiring some easily-acquired ingredients) and more complex potions (taking a day or so, and requiring some more expensive ingredients), special devices (secret compartment rings, prisms, lenses, puzzle locks, whatever), scrolls, and such, on up to major operations like making Alchahest (a universal solvent), essences like Variable Mercury (the Philosopher's Stone) or True Copper (provides defensive benefits), Golems and Machina, or even the secrets of Life. Itself!
There isn't a lot of material on the traditional endgame, but there are some "NPC Professions" listed, which basically tell how much it costs to hire various professionals.
OK, let me list and briefly describe the 32 Professions of the game:
Alchemist - Pretty self-explanatory, actually. Learns how to make magic stuff using the principles of Alchemy.
Assassin - Pretty much a ninja, but no funky ninja magic.
Astrologer - A magic-using type who specializes in the powers of the celestial bodies.
Beastmaster - YES! You can play Dar in The Arcanum! Gets the ability to communicate and bond with animals.
Bounty Hunter - Hunts people down for the reward.
Charlatan - Another awesome option, the Charlatan gets some minor magical ability (limited to first level spells), but mainly relies on being a con artist. Though limited to first level spells, can learn more spell lists as the character goes up in level.
Corsair - Another self-explanatory profession. These are pirates.
Druid - Pretty much the traditional RPG depiction. Nature-loving hippies who can shape shift. There are some good limits on the shape-shifting (no bigger than 2' in length or height per level of the character, no smaller than a sparrow or mouse).
Enchantress/Enchanter (found in Second Edition only) - A little bit like bards in some games, these are artist- or musician-magicians.
Gladiator - A particular type of fighter.
Harlequin - Actors, musicians, performers, whatever.
Hunter - Like Rangers, but without the magical abilities.
Mage - There are actually three different sorts of Mage. All use Astrology (see Astrologer, above), but the Magus also uses Divine Magic, the Cabalist also gets High Magic, and the Archimage gets Enchantment.
Magician - The basic magic-using profession. Uses the Enchantment list.
Martial Artist - Chop Sockey!
Monk - Martial Artists who also learn to cast Mysticism spells.
Mystic - The main Mysticism spell-users.
Necromancer - Use Black Magic to summon demons and create undead monstrosities.
Paladin - Champions of Goodness and Justice. You know. Use Divine Magic.
Priest - The main spell-user that gets Divine Magic, plus can turn undead and convert the heathen.
Rogue - The basic thief profession.
Savant - There are two types of these. Both learn obscure facts (like the Scholar, below), but one gets Divine Magic and the other learns Mysticism. The latter tend to be hermits.
Scholar - Ivory-tower intellectuals. They learn stuff.
Shaman - The primary spell-user of the Low Magic list, they get to bind spirits to their service and have a Power Animal.
Sorcerer - Not only do they get the Sorcery spell list (with lots of pseudo-science-y spells like Negate Gravity or Structural Analysis), they also choose either Enchantment or Black Magic as a back-up.
Spy - Ever wanted the disguise ability of the AD&D Assassin without the requirement to be Evil? This is what you wanted to be. Basically, this is the AD&D Assassin, though (the Assassin profession in The Arcanum is all ninja-y, with Martial Arts skillz).
Thaumaturge (the other class new to Second Edition) - This is like the alchemist, but uses a different way of going about it that is somehow more related to what other spell-using professions do. Instead of gaining the ability "Projection of Will" like Alchemists get, they cast a spell called "Thaumaturgic Enchantment". They have some limits in what they can do compared to Alchemists, but they can do it way more often.
Warrior - Your basic fighter.
Witch/Warlock - They get Elemental Magic, like Druids, plus either Black Magic (for Evil Witches) or Enchantment (for the rest).
Witchdoctor - Like Shamans, they use Low Magic, but they also use Black Magic. There are no Good Witchdoctors. Which is kinda racist, given that the person in the picture is one of only two black guys in the book (other than the Druas, who are not dark elves; the other black guy is the Gladiator).
Witch Hunter - Like a Bounty Hunter, but specializing in spell-users. They learn to use the Mysticism spell list.
Wizard - The main users of High Magic, they also learn either Enchantment or Black Magic.
Anyway, if you've gotten this far, let me just say that, if you're looking for a game that is like D&D, but not, then The Arcanum is an excellent choice.