RPGs that time forgot... Arcanum

Arcanum (2nd Edition)
Tag Line: Fantasy Role-Playing Supplement (which is odd because it's the game's rules system)
Makers: Bard Games, 1985.

What is it?
Just what the tag line says, really. Though largely disconnected from a background setting (to be found in The Lexicon and The Beastiary), it's still meant to be used in the world before the sinking of Atlantis (and Mu, and Lemuria, and Ys, etc.). The system itself could be described as a streamlined, but skill-based, AD&D with many more chargen options. It may also interest you to know it's the ancestor of Talislanta.

Neat Stuff
-Playable races are a bit more diverse than AD&D's, and include the winged Zephir and animalistic Andamen. There are gigantish Aesir for Viking lovers as well.
-32 classes (sorry, professions) easily trumps AD&D's measly handful, though to be fair, many are just combinations of other professions, or things AD&D 2nd ed. later worked in as "kits". Still, back in '85, my group and I loved the variety, including Alchemist, Beastmaster, Martial Artist and Witch Hunter. and the pool of magic-users is widened by...
-9 kinds of magic meant not only "schools", but different ways of casting and looking at the magical universe. There's both High and Low Magic, Black Magic, Astrology, Mysticism and more. Not to mention Alchemy (but see below).
-The system is a bit simpler than AD&D, with a well-developed skill system that covers special combat moves, and yet entirely recognizable as a D&D derivative (alignments, saving throws, similar attributes, etc.) though armor works by deducting damage rather than affecting "to hit".

Bad Stuff
-The last 50 pages or so are more a grab-bag than anything substantial, as if they ran out of space and started throwing stuff in there. Unfortunately, that means Alchemy isn't as fleshed-out as I would have liked, thrown in with lackluster magic items, optional rules charts, inventory sheets and lists of things that make no sens without the Beastiary (which I never owned).
-There are a number of pages given over to astrological/alchemical symbols and runes, but these aren't necessary for the game, or even integrated into the rules. It felt like a flashback to Fantasy Wargaming.
-I'm not gonna say anything about the very simply layout, because you know what? It's very readable even if I can do better with my home computer today. But I do find fault with The Lexicon (the world book) being totally different. They don't look like they're for the same game, and the Lexicon is so devoid of references to the system, that it still feels like you need to adapt it.

"In fact, they are quite fond of Dwarves, whom the Aesir call their 'little brothers'."

How I've used it
Found this book during one of my Texan summers, and my dad wanted to immediately find out what this role-playing business was and made me run a small game for the whole family. I don't remember anything about it except that my 6-year-old sister insisted on playing a Zephir with 18 Intelligence. When I got home, Arcanum became the system of choice for all our D&Ding, seeing as I didn't have all the AD&D books (mostly just the Monster Manuals) and we were mostly running homebrews. The new professions worked out well for us since we'd been adopting optional classes out of Dragon magazines anyway, and I know at least one player enjoyed the hell out of the Zen Archery skill. Just invented the world as we went along though. My Arcanum is dog-eared, but my Lexicon is pristine.

In conclusion
Bettered many times over by an evolving medium, the Arcanum is still, to my eyes today, quite playable. I'm almost sorry I didn't do more with it in my adult years (I can now see how to integrate a lot of the flotsam, for example). If you can find a copy, I'd still call it a fine introduction to D&D-style (i.e. old school) role-playing, certainly easier to figure out than today's DnD for the beginner, and with more character options up front. AD&D beat it on that front with 2nd edition kits, but let's just say those required a major investment.


Anonymous said...

OMG, this one just kept bringing back memories but nothing was really concrete until you mentionned Zen Archery. That is the skill where you can fire arrows from horseback, blindfolded or while falling (presumably off the aforementioned horse). Now I remember this system and yes we played quite a bit of it. And good times it was.

Thanks for winking at me. At least I think its me. Oh, my! Delusions of grandeur!

Siskoid said...

It's either you or our resident ninja, if you know who I mean ;).

Unknown said...

I still use Arcanum and can still get copies of the Arcanum (still new unused!) of the 3rd Edition, or you can find it regularly on ebay. If you want a copy of 3rd ed, drop me an email
james gresley (at) gmail (dot) com


Blog Archive


5 Things to Like Activities Advice Alien Nation Aliens Say the Darndest Things Alpha Flight Amalgam Ambush Bug Animal Man anime Aquaman Archetypes Archie Heroes Arrowed Asterix Atom Avengers Awards Babylon 5 Batman Battle Shovel Battlestar Galactica Black Canary BnB 2-in1 Books Booster Gold Buffy Canada Captain America Captain Marvel Cat CCGs Charlton Circles of Hell Class Comics Comics Code Approved Conan Contest Cooking Crisis Daredevil Dating Kara Zor-El Dating Lois Lane Dating Lucy Lane Dating Princess Diana DCAU Deadman Dial H Dice Dinosaur Island Dinosaurs Director Profiles Doctor Who Doom Patrol Down the Rabbit Hole Dr. Strange Encyclopedia Fantastic Four Fashion Nightmares Fiasco Films Within Films Flash Flushpoint Foldees French Friday Night Fights Fun with Covers FW Team-Up Galleries Game design Gaming Geekly roundup Geeks Anonymous Geekwear Gimme That Star Trek Godzilla Golden Age Grant Morrison Great Match-Ups of Science Fiction Green Arrow Green Lantern Hawkman Hero Points Podcast Holidays House of Mystery Hulk Human Target Improv Inspiration Intersect Invasion Invasion Podcast Iron Man Jack Kirby Jimmy Olsen JLA JSA Judge Dredd K9 the Series Kirby Motivationals Krypto Kung Fu Learning to Fly Legion Letters pages Liveblog Lonely Hearts Podcast Lord of the Rings Machine Man Motivationals Man-Thing Marquee Masters of the Universe Memes Memorable Moments Metal Men Metamorpho Micronauts Millennium Mini-Comics Monday Morning Macking Movies Mr. Terrific Music Nelvana of the Northern Lights Nightmare Fuel Number Ones Obituaries oHOTmu OR NOT? Old52 One Panel Outsiders Panels from Sheena Paper Dolls Play Podcast Polls Questionable Fridays Radio Rants Reaganocomics Recollected Red Bee Red Tornado Reign Retro-Comics Reviews Rom RPGs Sandman Sapphire & Steel Sarah Jane Adventures Saturday Morning Cartoons SBG for Girls Seasons of DWAITAS Secret Origins Podcast Secret Wars SF Shut Up Star Boy Silver Age Siskoid as Editor Siskoid's Mailbox Space 1999 Spectre Spider-Man Spring Cleaning ST non-fiction ST novels: DS9 ST novels: S.C.E. ST novels: The Shat ST novels: TNG ST novels: TOS Star Trek Streaky Suicide Squad Supergirl Superman Supershill Swamp Thing Tales from Earth-Prime Team Horrible Teen Titans That Franchise I Never Talk About The Prisoner The Thing Then and Now Theory Thor Thursdays of Two Worlds Time Capsule Timeslip Tintin Torchwood Tourist Traps of the Forgotten Realms Toys Turnarounds TV V Waking Life Warehouse 13 Websites What If? Who's This? Whoniverse-B Wikileaked Wonder Woman X-Files X-Men Zero Hour Strikes Zine