Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Obscure Games - The Arcanum

I have the Second Edition, but
I first played the First. I love
the understated covers.
Bard Games started their roleplaying products with a series including The Compleat Alchemist, along with some other The Compleat… titles. Those were intended as optional expansions for use with Dungeons & Dragons, but eventually they were expanded into a full game. This is a really common situation, actually, in the late '70s and early '80s, where someone would publish what amounted to their own house rules for D&D. There are people now who complain about the glut of retroclones and such, but we've always had those, from The Palladium Roleplaying Game and Arduin to Thieves' Guild and The Arcanum, among many, many others. Even RuneQuest began as the Perrin Conventions for D&D combat and Empire of the Petal Throne is self-evidently based on D&D.

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
pretty cool.
Character creation involves choosing a race from the usual suspects and a few unusual ones (Druas are a little like dark elves, but will be later found in Talislanta as the Ariane, so they aren't elves at all, nosiree; Aesir are half-giants; Andamen are animal-headed humanoids; Nethermen are a lot like half-orcs; Zephyr are winged humans; plus Elves and Dwarves), then dividing 100+2d6 points among the 8 characteristics, sticking to the limits set by the chosen race of the character. Next, select a "Profession" (aka character class) from among the 32 possibilities, 2 of which are found in the Second Edition but not the First. Each of these is described as either "single-classed" or "dual-classed", which determines which experience point chart the character will use for increasing in level, and as "untrained", "skilled", or "highly trained" in Combat Capabilities. Each profession gives a special ability or two, plus some free skills. As the character rises in level, it will gain more free skills, and can choose to spend experience points on other skills instead of increasing level. Combat ability is handled in this way, by giving the character who can become better at fighting an accumulating +1 to hit at various levels. Like Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role Playing, non-fighters don't generally get these bonuses. There are some other refinements, such as Background and Hit Points (start equal to Constitution, plus a bonus for the Combat Capability of the class of 2, 4, or 6 points and a possible additional bonus for 15+ Constitution), but this is basically all there is to it.

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.


  1. I had the second edition of this book and converted the Aesir and Zephyr races over for use in AD&D. I also remember liking the concept of the Witch Hunter character class, but never wound up playing one.

    1. I neglected to mention that one of the best things about the game is that it is explicit about also being useful as a sourcebook for "your favorite game system" (by which, of course, they mean D&D). There's a section which discusses specific subsystems that are particularly suitable to being incorporated in "your favorite game system".

  2. That's a great rundown of the game's features! I'm now going to have to go digging through my storage to find those original books. Thanks!

    1. No problem. It's one of my favorite D&D variants. Thank you for requesting it!

  3. I played one of the best fantasy campaigns of my 30+ years of playing RPGs in this system. It was an incredible experience because it was very easy to run from a rules perspective. Combat made sense (Armor protects from Damage, Dexterity makes you harder to hit) and the campaign world and character classes made for some incredible role playing experiences. Can't recommend this more!

    1. I completely agree. It's one of the maybe five best versions of D&D published to date. Hm, maybe I should blog on D&D versions and what is good and bad about them…