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Sunday, 17th April, 2005, 04:59 PM #1
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved (PDF)
By Monte Cook
A full-color hardcover variant player's handbook for all levels
Cover illustration by JP Targete Interior illustrations by Andrew Brase, Mark Brooks, Kari Christensen, Jason Engle, Patrick Keith, Michael Komarck, Eric Lofgren, Jennifer Meyer, Terese Nielsen, Michael Phillippi, James Ryman Sam Wood, and Kieran Yanner
Print book and eBook on sale now!.
Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed takes a huge leap forward when the long absent dragons return to wrest from the giants the lands they once ruled.
The "Director's Cut" Edition!
This new variant player’s handbook from 3rd Edition codesigner Monte Cook takes everything that you loved about Arcana Unearthed, gives it a deluxe full-color treatment—then adds in lots of new bonus material!
Discover a new PC race, the dragonlike dracha; a new class, the ritual warrior; new champion types and totem warrior abilities; new prestige classes; combat rites; and dozens of new spells, spell templates, feats, manifestations, equipment, and more.
Then get ready to evolve! Arcana Evolved introduces exciting new storyline elements that evolve naturally from the return of the dragons. Plus, check out evolved versions of all races, new 10th-level spells, and high-level play with characters up to 25th level! Now you can do more with your characters than ever before.
Arcana Evolved holds all the innovative and thrilling material from Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed, The Diamond Throne, and the Player’s Guide, updated with errata corrections in one convenient full-color volume This variant player’s handbook, with hundreds of options and rules, can either replace or supplement the official core rules Player’s Handbook to offer fresh excitement and energy to OGL roleplaying.
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Monday, 18th April, 2005, 01:19 PM #2
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
Evolved is the right word!
This review is of Arcana Evolved's PDF version. I received this PDF as a review copy. While a bit of my work appeared in Legacy of the Dragons, I have no affiliation with Malhavoc Press.
Arcana Evolved is Monte Cook’s further development of the Arcana Unearthed milieu. Its 432 pages are packed with what Cook calls his “director’s cut” of his variant player’s handbook. The book retails for $24 in PDF or $49.99 retail.
From looks alone, Arcana Evolved’s asking price seems reasonable. It’s big. The type size suggests a slew of information is packed in these pages. Some of the art is breathtaking, and the graphic sensibilities of Lisa Chido served the book well. Her type is easy to read and provides an eye-pleasing page color. Monte’s writing is equally smooth and “invisible,” getting across complex topics and rules in a way that is both comprehensible and entertaining. Not only does the PDF have a great table of contents and index (neither of them linked), but it’s also extensively bookmarked, easily searched. As an owner of the PDF, one can cut and paste until one’s heart is content.
Like its predecessor, Arcana Evolved is about playing d20 fantasy in a different way. It’s designed for experienced d20 players, but it doesn’t give itself permission to cut corners on rules explanations and completeness. The races are unusual, the classes are unique and innovative, and the rules, especially for magic, are appropriate, inventive, and fun. And, while the rules are not entirely compatible with core D&D without some (sometimes serious) work, Monte has provided tools to make conversions.
Disparate races are a staple of fantasy gaming, and Monte provides some real color in this section of his work. An assortment of eight races appear in Arcana Evolved, with one race (the faen) including three subspecies and a ninth “race” that’s really a template applicable to any of the other races (runechildren). The races are humanoid and include humans, dracha, faen, giants, litorians, mohj, sibeccai, and verrik.
Enigmatic are the verrik and runechildren. Yet, the verrik are more or less humans with red skin, a longsighted outlook, and a penchant for witchery and psionic prowess. In fact, these inscrutable humanoids invented witchery (and the witch class), along with the akashic class. Runechildren, on the other hand, are messianic figures with powers forged in greatness and coupled with a will to bring justice and peace to the world. Becoming a runechild is a choice that costs one character level.
Most of the races have options for transformation and customization built in. The faen, a sprightly race of feylike humanoids, have the charm and feel of fairies from fables. They can even magically metamorphose into tiny, gossamer-winged sprytes, allowing a player to explore that role. Giants, much like overlarge humans, are noble caretakers and staunch ritualists. Like the faen, through magic rites (and the gaining of giant racial levels) a giant can grow to 12 feet in height. And the mohj, once-humans who chose to transform (also via magic) into a form more draconic, are a sterile race both mysterious and reviled.
These three examples show a synergistic strength that plays throughout Arcana Evolved. The races presented are balanced with each other to work as 1st-level characters, but each race has a particular set of possibilities for development. By taking levels in a racial “class,” a mohj can become more and more truly mohj, while a giant becomes more giantish and literally gigantic. Magic is carefully intertwined with the mechanics, so the explanation for a giant’s growth or a fean’s metamorphosis is satisfying on a storytelling level. Those familiar with monster “classes” from other sources, such as Savage Species, may find this integrated approach more pleasing.
One may also fine oneself familiar with some of the races in Arcana Evolved, even if one isn’t acquainted with Arcana Unearthed. A version of the animal-headed litorians (lion-headed) and the sibeccai (jackal-headed) appeared long ago in Monte’s work for Iron Crown Enterprises. Unfortunately, these two races are the least inspired in the book, even considering the clear similarity of the dracha to the dragonkin of Monsters of Faerûn and the draconians of Dragonlance. The sibeccai and dracha are somewhat redeemed by their history as created creatures (sibeccai by the giants, dracha by the dragons), but litorians are given no nonphysical distinctions to suggest they’re anything more or less than noble, barbaric humans.
Speaking of humans, one could wonder where humans fit among these wondrous and varied nonhumans. That ubiquitous race with which we are most intimate is still the most versatile and potentially powerful in the game. Further, even humans can evolve.
Evolution, an option new to Arcana Evolved, can only occur with the aid of a dragon and the mysterious tenebrian seeds. Consumption of a tenebrian seed forces a character to take the next available racial level (if any). If none are available, the character must take the next level as an evolved level.
Evolved levels work like racial levels in that they are taken in lieu of normal class levels. A creature comes to “exemplify and exaggerate the essence” of its race or kind when it evolves. So, a human becomes more human than human, so to speak. The evolved levels do offer power, but the tenebrian seeds carry with them the irrevocable connotation of being thought to be a servant to the dragons and the possibility of madness. Since evolution requires taking levels in the evolved racial class, it’s balanced with characters that simply choose to follow other paths.
Those paths, of course, take the form of classes.
As with the races, Arcana Evolved gives us a lot of new ground mingled with familiar concepts. It’s clear Monte considered the roles people wanted in a fantasy game and provided those roles. You want a fighter? Well, you can be a fast-on-your-feet swashbuckler sort (unfettered), the martial-arts master (oathsworn), or the armored tank (warmain). Oh, magic is your style? Do you prefer the staff-carrying Gandalf type (magister), the freewheeling, power-within approach (witch), an artificer (runethane), or a character with a connection to the spiritual (greenbond)? The paladinlike champion, the rangerlike totem warrior, the fighter-mage mage blade, and the ceremonially focused ritual warrior find their places in the middle ground. Only the akashic stands alone, providing the catchall category for the skilled rogue, wily thief, and a sort of psychic sensitive.
Don’t let my simplification and categorization of the classes fool you, though. This is sophisticated class design, and each class is chocked full of so many options you might get giddy with the possibilities. Where core D&D gives the cookie-cutter paladin, Arcana Evolved presents the champion and its nigh countless causes to fight for. Other classes, such as the witch, offer similar options. Multiclassing, racial levels, and evolved levels all serve to widen the possibilities into the infinite.
Infinity can seem daunting, but even though Arcana Evolved is for the experienced d20 gamer, Monte saw fit to provide some archetypes for modeling characters. The list is by no means exhaustive. It does, however, cover the ground of common concepts, from archer to woodsman, in such a way as to simplify character creation.
Like character creation, the rules of Arcana Evolved are familiar but streamlined and often specific to the wondrous world Cook has created. From the combining of Move Silently and Hide into one skill (Sneak) to the rules that very logically base character survival below 0 hit points on Constitution, from middle save progressions (neither good nor poor) to feats designed to describe a character’s history or heritage (talents), this variant player’s handbook shows the author’s insight and creativity. Play can enter very high levels, with spells to match. And hero points, which allow characters to modify rolls like action points from Eberron or d20 Modern, were in their infancy in the d20 arena with Arcana Unearthed. Arcana Evolved still uses them. Without sacrificing playability, these small changes from the core rules make the mechanics both distinctive and rich.
More resonant is Arcana Evolved’s magic. The setting is steeped in magic and ritual, and the mechanics support this idea. While power level is toned down from the core rules, magic regains some of its mystique and grandeur from the change. Spellcasters don’t prepare spells in a “fire-and-forget” sort of way—prepared spells act as a daily, customizable list of spells known. Mighty spells are reserved for the truly potent by rules that distinguish between commonplace sorceries and rare eldritch powers. Most spells have heightened and diminished effects that a spellcaster can choose while casting. Spell slots can be “woven” to power lower- or higher-level spells, providing more options for use of spellcasting energy. Moreover, magic can be customized in a way light years more flexible than the metamagic feats from the core rules—spell templates that alter a spell’s essence as it is cast.
Players have many ways to make their magician characters unique. Arcana Evolved also works better than the core rules in allowing a spellcasting character to fulfill the role of spellcaster in a more satisfying way.
But martial characters aren’t left out in the cold. Smart multiclassing and varying ability choices work together to make the nonmagician a viable partner to the spellcaster. If that’s not enough, many classes have access to a concept entirely new in Arcana Evolved—the combat rite.
Combat rites are abilities accessed by oathsworn, ritual warriors, and warmains. (The ritual warrior gets the most.) These nonmagical abilities seem strange in that they provide featlike abilities that are interchangeable. While its hard to see how they might work outside the Arcana Evolved, they do provide a limited resource that fighter types can use to do something special, reinforcing the role of a combat specialist. They also play on and buttress the Arcana Evolved setting’s ceremonial nature yet again.
That’s a good thing, because Serran, Arcana Evolved’s world, is lush with fantastic places, creatures, and possibilities. The setting material itself has evolved from its earlier incarnation in the book The Diamond Throne. It describes a land once enslaved, liberated by war, and facing an uncertain future with the return of the potent and unfathomable dragons. A wider world is presented than the one detailed in older books. Closely intertwined with that world are creatures and prestige classes, much unlike the generic bric-a-brac stuffing so many d20 accessories. (One must remember that Monte Cook was one of the creators [if not the inventor] of the prestige class.)
While the setting is explicated in some detail, nothing is written as absolute canon. The desires and needs of each group using Arcana Evolved are meant to mold the lands of the Diamond Throne (and its neighboring regions) through play and creativity. Tools are provided for an authentic otherworldly experience, from rituals and religion to language and customs. The setting’s main areas are detailed briefly, but this is meant to be your campaign world.
Rules and material not explicitly tied to the setting are easily transferable, as a whole, to another geography.
Arcana Evolved considers this in a small section on conversions. Covered are both using Arcana Evolved concepts in other d20 games and using other d20 game material in Arcana Evolved. The latter is favored, though. You might have considerable work to do if you try to take just one Arcana Evolved element and append it to an otherwise core D&D game. The reverse is less true.
Arcana Evolved is a veritable lesson in thoughtful design. This one book presents everything needed to play in the world of Monte Cook’s vision. Everything. And the content goes beyond the norm by providing truly pleasing alternatives to core d20 concepts. In a product full of d20 jewels, the magic system is the biggest treasure on the pile.
Arcana Evolved is not full-color, as the marketing material suggests. A considerable number of the illustrations are monochrome. Like in Arcana Unearthed, the aesthetic quality of some of the illustrations leaves much to be desired.
Coup de Grace
Arcana Evolved is an evocative exploration of the broader possibilities in fantasy roleplaying game design and setting construction. As one might expect, the mechanics are smooth and full of tasty options. The concepts and setting are very original, with only a few bland elements. While Arcana Evolved is designed to be a self-contained game and campaign world for players and DMs alike, it can be used for other d20 games with varying levels of labor. Presentation is head-and-shoulders above the industry standard, but it takes a very minor ding from both black-and-white artwork and a few poor illustrations. Including everything needed to play, besides the dice and pencils, makes Arcana Evolved a valuable resource for anyone who wants to play in Monte Cook’s setting. It offers much to other gamers, as well. Grab a copy and let your d20 experience evolve beyond the core.
Final Grade: 4.65 (rounded up to 5 for playability and general high quality)
Arcana Evolved is available at DriveThru RPG (PDF) and the ENWorld Store (print).
This review originally appeared at d20 Magazine Rack.
Tuesday, 26th April, 2005, 08:36 PM #3
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
Arcana Evolved is not a normal product. Most times books do not get updated so dramatically. This book is Arcana Unearthed plus some of the info from other supplements mixed in with expanded and new material. Now when Arcana Unearthed first came out I was not the biggest fan. It seemed neat but did not grab me right away. But it did grow on me over the months and when I saw some of the classes in action. When I heard of the update I was more intrigued then excited. I already had all the other books o I was really not sure if it would be worth while to upgrade to another book that contained a lot of the material I already had. I am impressed by the new book though and am glad I did get it.
This review covers the PDF version but it is also applicable for the print version. Arcana Evolved is by Malhavok Press one of the front runners in the d20 market and one of the more respected companies for product support, quality of products, and creativity. This is one of the biggest role playing books I have seen being four hundred and thirty four pages long. The sheer length can make it difficult to use on a computer screen. It does have one of the most complete set of book marks I have seen that do help considerable. The book is full color with great art. If one wants to print it out it might be better just to get the print version of the book. Printing this PDF would eat my ink cartridges alive. The look of the book is just fantastic. It has a very good table of contents and Index making it very easy to use for its size.
The book starts out with a good introduction and information on what the book is and how it is used. The book is not complete in and of itself while it does have things like attribute bonus characters it does not reprint the CR system for instance. It does contain a lot of information though making the need to reference other books very minimal. The first chapter on attributes is good but pretty basic. However, one great small change they did was include the how much a person can carry chart next to strength. It is a very logical and easy place to remember for that chart.
Races are where the interesting things happen. First the races here except human are all nice and different. Each except for the human has three race levels that can be taken. All the races also have evolved levels, these are three additional levels that can only be taken once the first three racial levels are done and with the help of the Tenebrian Seeds. It is a little odd that there are evolved levels for all the races since some of the races should be dead against the evolved levels given their backgrounds.
The classes are where I found some of the coolest ideas in the game. One thing though is the classes seems a little to specific compared to the more general classes of the players handbook. So, it at first seems a little to think that lots of people have these classes walking around the world but with time that does go away some. The classes in here all go up twenty fifth level instead of twenty reminding me of the Spinal Tap and how their amps go to eleven. Gaining levels is a little slower here as they require eleven hundred experience times the current level to gain a new level instead of just a thousand experience in the basic Dungeons and Dragons game. The classes though do get some impressive powers in the last five levels and it seems that taking racial levels really robs a character of these high abilities. My favorite class is the Akashic. This is a very skill oriented class. It gets practically all skills as class skill, gaining eight skill points a level compared to none of the other classes getting more then four and gets lots of bonuses to skills a and other things as they gain levels., It is a very malleable class gaining a variety of class options to pick from. For the most part the classes are much more interesting then the core classes of the Players Handbook and I want to play these classes a lot more. They have more to offer, more creativity, and really expand the game with options brilliantly.
The skills and feats are mostly the same. There are some differences like the skills of hide and move silently have been combined into sneak. Lots of the feats from the players handbook are reprinted here but things like met magic are changed and I will cover more of that in the magic section. Characters still gain about the same amount of skill points and feats as in other games so that has not changed. The basic descriptions and explanations in this book though are usually superior to that if the PHB. The feats do have some new types of feat bringing in Traits which are feats that can only be taken at first level and ceremonial feats which require a character to have a True Name. True Names are literally someone’s true name. They can be used by caster to make spells more beneficial or hurtful towards the person whose True Name is known.
The Playing the Game section is just nice. It is well organized, clearly written, and easy to use. It is basically the same stuff people have seen before but just a little better done and organized.
Magic is a great improvement of the core magic rules. There are some nice changes but not drastic ones. There are still spell levels of zero through ten. Classes though do not have their own spell lists they just get access to simple, complex, or exotic spells. All the spells are divided into one of those three categories. Characters prepare spells from what they know then cast from what they prepare. They do not place specific spells in specific slots. They prepare say five first level spells and can cast 4 first levels spells from those they prepared in ant combination. Also, spells can be cast a spell level lower or higher and that alters its strength. One can even burn two slots of the level of the spell to make it a little more powerful. Not all spells benefit from these options but it is in each spell description what the spells options are and what they do. On top of that there are spell templates that give certain descriptors to the spells making them fire or cold or something else when used. Not all are elemental in nature there is a lot of variety in what the spells can do without a hugely complex system. I really like this magic system and it might be the best created for the d20 system.
There are also combat rites, small maneuvers certain classes gain that offer a small bonus to their fighting for a round or so. The rites are based off of wisdom like spells but they are not spells and are not affected by things that prevent or hinder spell casting. For the most part I find the combat rites a little weak though I have yet to actually see them in use.
The world information is really good and intriguing with lots of adventure ideas here. However, there is more of a set up with no resolution presented here then some people might like. There are lots of things to use as a spring board for campaigns and adventures and some pretty big world mysteries shown here. But there are no answers leaving it up to the particular DM to figure out for himself. Some people work well being able to do that others prefer solid answers. So, that might be seen as a negative to those people. The book ends with conversion notes that seem simple to use.
This is a revolutionary product. The ideas in presentation of a world and game design presented here are really, really good. There is creativity in here that is almost unequaled. Some of the differences though may be a little too much for people that are just rigid d20 players. The classes and races are a little odd at first but upon reading them through all the way their place in the world and how to use them became readily apparent. This book is easily worth the price tag as both a PDF and in Print.