Armagideon Time

It’s only fitting that I follow up last week’s post about the Best of Dragon with a sourcebook that was essentially an officially sanctioned, hardbound edition of those “house rules” anthologies.

I picked up Unearthed Arcana at Toys R Us for a tenner. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of the book. Thirty years later, I’m still a bit baffled by it.

In theory, the sourcebook was assortment of revisions and additions purportedly aimed at shepherding Advanced Dungeons & Dragons onto a new and more robust level. In practice, it was a haphazard mess which only served to muddy the games already murky waters even further. There actually was a lot of interesting stuff going on between its covers, though pulling those scattered items of value from the overall train-wreck was no small task.

The contents were was split into two sections — one for players and one for Dungeonmasters — with some oddly left field appendices about polearms and non-human deities tacked on for semi-adequate measure. Though blessed and helmed by (the soon to be deposed) Lord Gygax himself, much of the additions leaned toward the unbalanced side of the spectrum. New character classes such as cavaliers and barbarians incorporated special abilities which offered extremely generous benefits at the cost of some nonsensical and disruptive restrictions aimed at making the DM and other players experience a living hell. This was also the book that provided rules for the Drow (“Dark Elf”) PC in all their problematic yet popular glory.

Unearthed Arcana‘s most egregious examples of upwards “power creep” was its infamous “Method V” rules for rolling up characters.

The fistfuls of dice and spike in the statistical mean for ability scores was met by more purist DM with complete horror and by White Dwarf Magazine’s games reviewer with utter scorn. For those of us who didn’t give a shit about game balance or tradeoffs, however, it was a powergamer’s wet dream.

The remainder of the book mostly consisted of expanded spell lists (including “zero level” cantrips for which Gygax sported weird hard-on), an expanded armory for players to pick through, and a slew of new magic items of varying utility. These — along with the new character classes — were the big draw for me, as they were most easily adaptable to the bastard hybrid of the basic and advanced rules I was using at the time.

My purchase of Unearthed Arcana also happened to coincide with a new exciting chapter of my role-playing experiences. Up until that time, my gaming group consisted of my brother and which ever of his friends I could press-gang into playing an adventure. The irregularity of that arrangement ruled out the possibility of running an actual long-form campaign.

That changed up when I reconnected with Mike, a friend of a friend who was one of the other players during my first D&D session. Mike was a fellow Skinny Blonde Geekboy who shared my fondness for GI Joe toys and other bits of Reagan Era militaristic ephemera. He was also a huge D&D fan and was looking for a regular group he could join.

That group, such as it was, ended up being Mike and my brother, with me continuing in my role as DM. Mike made up for the lack of numbers by running three characters simultaneously, some half-elf multi-classed triplets which weren’t even’t remotely compliant with the official rules. I coaxed my brother into rolling up (via Method V, natually) a fresh character for the campaign, a human cavalier named Stephan Holgrim that he stuck with through the remainder of our D&D salad days.

The nature of campaign still hewed closely to the slash-n-lootfests of my earlier runs, but Mike’s (selective) knowledge of the rules helped me get a better handle on how things were supposed to work while easing the transition into AD&D proper. The spare Dungeon Master’s Screen he gifted me was an invaluable resource, as was the comprehensive character sheet template he crafted on his Apple II and would be photocopied scores of times by me over the following year at the local library.

I’m pretty sure I still have a few of them — used and blank, the eighth generation reproduction of the original dot matrix printing almost indecipherable — folded up and wedged into various sourcebooks in my grandmother’s attic.

Not in my copy of Unearthed Arcana, though. The binding gave out after a month. What’s left of the book exists in the form of pages scattered throughout the depths of a blue plastic storage crate.

One Response to “Role-Playing with the Changes: Yes, arcana”

  1. Kid Kyoto

    My God, that was a horrible book.

    The only good thing I have to say about it was the pole arm appendix finally taught me what a billy hook was.

    Um yay?

    And the binding, that and the Oriental Adventures book fell apart after one read, I have books from the first wave of AD&D that are still in great shape, I don’t remember any problems with the Wilderness and Dungeon Survival Guides that followed, but UA and OA were just awful.

    2nd edition did not come too soon!

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