So, I’ve been reading a lot of posts tied to the OSR (or, Old School Renaissance) and it led to thinking about the influences which have really shaped me as a gamer, and how my games develop. Along with certain stories and songs I have used for inspiration I tried to think about what games influence me the most. The single most dominant influence is what I want to talk about this week. Just another D&D clone when it came out in 1984. Looking back, it was ahead of its time. In fact, it may just be reaching its time, 20 years later. Thanks to the good folks of the OSR.
The game is called Arcanum, by Bard Games. I doubt very highly if many of you know of this game – but many of you will recognize another major title of Bard Games from about the same time: Talislanta. Arcanum is in many ways your basic fantasy game. The world has elves and dwarves, there are classes and levels, it uses d20’s, d10’s, and all the others, even d8’s, as the damage for a sword. Arcanum is also very different. First off, no halflings. The other races were all fantastic, from the Aesir Giants, to the bestial Andamen, with the heads of animals, right to the Zephyr, a PC race of winged humanoids.
The game included a wide variety of character classes ranging from the Astrologer and Beastmaster to the Witch-hunter and Wizard (who is not much like his D&D counterpart). The reason such a wide variety of character classes work comes from two elements of the game that were revolutionary for the time. Arcanum has a very detailed skills system, including not only a wide array of skills, but also several abilities the game calls “skills” but look amazingly like what D&D 3e players would come to know and love as Feats. This game had Feats in 1984!
The other major point of interest is magic. In the game there are a huge number of different spellcasting classes. Each has its own unique flavor. This can happen because Arcanum has one of the coolest magic designs I’ve ever seen. First off all, the caster has a number of spells they know, and they may cast them as certain number of times per day, much like the sorcerer in D&D. Also, many different styles of magic are represented, with a unique spell set. Astrology, Black Magic, Divine Magic, Elemental Magic, Enchantment, High Magic, Low Magic, Mysticism and Sorcery. All these different sorts of magic co-existing to represent the vastly different types available, such as Wizards with High Magic learning the great words of power and Shaman and Witch-doctors using Low Magic to commune with and draw power from spirits. The same basic mechanic is used for all of the types of spellcasters, but each is unique. The art is in the amount of flavor the different types conjure up. The beauty lay in the roleplaying opportunities of all the different character types, from the Astrologer or Mage in their observatories to the Sorcerer with a magic much more like a science… calculated and efficient.
The current incarnation of D&D keeps throwing options at players. In 4E we have even have, with PH3, Hybrid Classes. The designers and writers keep saying, “It’s about options.” I love this part of the new D&D, but back in 1984, one game existed that already had this idea. It’s the greatest game you’ve never played. Maybe I’ll run it this year at Madicon for kicks.
All of this also makes me question, what, exactly, is “old school” when it comes to gaming. I mean, Arcanum is certainly not just a D&D clone, and Talislanta was even more different. What do you think?
PostScript: Interestingly enough, I remember the day I bought Arcanum. It’s one of the clearest memories I have of my grandfather. It’s also funny because one of my few other really clear memories of him is the time I spent a week with him one summer and I was going crazy for something to read; he gave me a Bible. But gamers and religion are another topic altogether.