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Reviews of 'Unearthed Arcana'

Unearthed Arcana

by Andy Collins, Jesse Decker, Rich Redman, David Noonan
D&D Supplements, Volume 6

Reviews of 'Unearthed Arcana'

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Reviewer: Matt

Rating: Stars

If you've ever played the Dungeons & Dragons game for any length of time, it's very likely that your gaming group has developed some "house" rules that were used in addition to or in place of the rules presented in the three core rulebooks. Unearthed Arcana takes the house rule system one step further—the book could just as well be known as the Alternate Rules Handbook. In addition to presenting variations on the standard rules, sidebars throughout the book also include some notes on how Wizards of the Coast designers have incorporated some of the rules into their own campaigns.

Unearthed Arcana is divided into six chapters: Races, Classes, Building Characters, Adventuring, Magic and Campaigns, with rules specific to each area documented under the appropriate heading. The variant rules presented in Unearthed Arcana aren't for everybody, but should appeal to anyone looking for some new ways to play D&D, and the variations can easily be integrated into any campaign setting.

Unearthed Arcana opens with a chapter that focuses on environmental racial variants to the standard D&D races. These include variants for the aquatic, arctic, desert and jungle environments, and the modified ability scores for each "environmental" race. Likewise, there are elemental versions—air, fire, earth, water—of each race, appropriate for use on the various elemental planes.

Bloodlines and bloodline levels are also introduced. The idea behind this variant system is that a character may be, say, part vampire and could take levels in vampire at various points during her adventuring career in order to gain certain bonuses at appropriate intervals. Finally, the idea of racial paragons is introduced at the end of the races chapter. In short, each race can take up to three levels in their racial paragon class and further hone their racial abilities—such as improved darkvision, in the case of a dwarven paragon.

Like the races chapter, the second chapter introduces multiple variant character classes. The variants generally allow a particular class to focus on one aspect of the class and sacrifice some of the other abilities—an urban ranger, for example, sacrifices his wilderness abilities for those specific to cities. A savage bard, druidic avenger, several paladin and ranger variants, a battle sorcerer and a domain wizard are also included, as well as rules for specialist wizard variants (with specific guidelines for each school). Prestige base classes recognize the idea that a character should not necessarily be able to progress to a specific class (like a bard) from the outset and instead make these classes prestige classes.

The idea of gestalt characters is also introduced—that is, characters that progress in two classes and take the best of both worlds as their statistics. A fighter/wizard, for example, would take the best saving throw from the fighter (fortitude) and mix it with the wizard's best save (wisdom). That character would also get the fighter's d10 every level, and advance in the wizard spell progression as well. Naturally, Unearthed Arcana also suggests that the challenge ratings of encounters presented to these types of characters be increased, with specific recommendations on how to fit this powerful combination into your campaign.

Chapter three covers building characters. The idea of complex skill checks (multiple checks are required to guarantee success) is introduced, along with the concept of character traits—a polite character gains a slight bonus on diplomacy checks but takes a penalty on intimidate roles, for example. Character flaws take traits one step further and are the opposite of feats, seriously hampering a character's ability to perform (such as taking a permanent -2 penalty on attack roles). Weapon group feats are also introduced, the idea being that if a character is familiar with one weapon they have familiarity with a group of related weapons (like crossbows, for example). Craft points, which provide a variant item creation system, and character backgrounds, such as the wilderness or nature background are also introduced and provide their own unique twist on how starting characters interact with the game world.

Adventuring and its variants are presented in the fourth chapter of Unearthed Arcana. The concept of a defense bonus—effectively class armor that improves every level—can be used to replace armor. Rules governing armor as damage reduction (the idea being that armor doesn't prevent you from getting hit so much as it takes some of the blow) and damage conversion follow. Variant rules for injury and the introduction of vitality and wound points (from the Star Wars Roleplaying Game) finally make an appearance in the traditional D&D game.

Action points, reserve points, massive damage, death and dying, combat facing, the use of a hex grid, bell curve rolls, and players rolling all the dice (including the DM's!) round out the chapter.

Magic is the main focus of chapter five. A magic rating system to replace the idea of caster level is presented first, followed by variations on monster summoning like themed summoning lists. Rules for powerful spell components that replace mundane components, allow the powerful components to apply metamagic feats (such as widen or empower) to a spell without it taking a higher level spell slot. Spontaneous metamagic rules—the ability to use enhanced spells without preparation in advance—are next, followed by this reviewer's personal favorite: spell points.

One feature of the D&D system that I have disliked since my introduction years ago was the idea of spell slots, in that a wizard gets five first level and four second level slots per day. I much prefer the magic or spell point system used by the Final Fantasy series, where wizards are given a pool of spell points and each spell is assigned a point value. The wizard can then cast any combination of spells (fireball ten times per day, for example) she desires so long as she has spell points available. Another variant allows spellcasters to cast as many spells as they wish but requires "recharge" times between usages. Finally, legendary weapons, item familiars and incantations round out the chapter.

Unearthed Arcana's final chapter covers the various aspects of campaigns. The idea of character contacts (information, influence, etc.) and rules governing character reputation open the chapter, followed by rules governing how honor works in the campaign. Character taint and tainted prestige classes, as well as character sanity, insanity and psychological disorders are fully documented for use in your campaign. The chapter also includes suggestions for test-based prerequisites for prestige classes and level-independent experience point rewards close the book.

Unearthed Arcana can be easily integrated into virtually any campaign or campaign world, and since all the rules are presented as variants, DMs can either choose to allow (or not) any variant into their game. The sheer volume of variant rules provide the DM a huge number of possibilities to further expand the game, but that may also be one of the weaknesses of the book—the sheer number of rules and variations will make it virtually impossible for players and DMs to use everything in the book, even over the course of several years.

Still, if Unearthed Arcana does nothing else, it will get every player and DM's mind running over the myriad possibilities to the core D&D rule set. Unearthed Arcana will be a worthy addition to any campaign, especially for DMs looking to try something new with the traditional D&D rules, or for those looking for more detailed and realistic game play.

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