The Magic of Arcanum

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.


7 responses

  1. And here I thought you were going to talk about the PC game. (hit my username for a link)

  2. Apparently they released a 2nd and 3rd edition of Arcanum. Have you looked into those?

  3. The version I had was the second edition…

    It said so in HUGE letters right on the cover. The two editions were only a year apart and didn’t change that much. I have the whole series of these Atlantis products, and my time playing them was filled with awesome!

    I really do need to just say to heck with it and run this again… now I just need some old school gamers.

  4. Perhaps I glossed over this, but I think a very important point of the magic system design I was talking about above is the idea that even though every type of magic using class uses the same exact mechanics, the classes and their magic still manage to feel very different in play.

    I’ve tried to take this to heart as I’ve thought about writing games, and I think it’s one of the things I like about 4E D&D. The mechanics and balance for the classes is nearly the same, but they really do manage to feel different at the table. It’s why, when I see all these silly arguments about “The Runepriest is just a re-flavored Battle Cleric” and such on the D&D forums, I get so frustrated. Yeah, they’re similar, but try it out at the table and it feels very different.

    1. I can see where that argument might come from if you just skimmed over the runepriest description, but even reading a couple pages into the abilities makes a different impression. I haven’t yet had a chance to play anything out of PHB3, though I’m hoping to be able to hop into one of the “D&D Encounters” games that our local gaming store runs every Wednesday, and I’ll probably try to bring my Knight (fighter/warlord)…since I don’t think they’ll let me play a gnoll.

  5. That’s a big problem with gamers though. They are so quick to voice opinions that aren’t even fully formed, let alone fully INformed. If they actually tried out the characters in a one shot or something, maybe they would feel differently. I don’t know much about the structuring of mechanics though, maybe I’m not educated enough on the game to have an opinion… I feel like you have to actually play a character to get the full feel for it. And roleplaying has a lot to do with variation. If I made “Generic gnome sorcerer #1” and “Generic gnome sorcerer #2” I would get bored (probably not, because they’re awesome) but if I made “Nox, the flighty, chaotic, good natured sorcerer gnome” and “Flyara, the angry, silent, determined sorcerer bird-child (reflavored gnome?)” I could have a completely different gaming experience.

    Even if the runepriest and the battle cleric are very similar mechanically, it’s the way you play them that make them different yes? Maybe I need elaboration. How do you mean when you “try it out at the table it feels very different?”

  6. @theloplace

    A big part of the problem is that, in D&D4e terms, both the Runepriest and the Battle Cleric are “Divine Leaders with Strength as their prime attribute and using melee attacks for the majority of their powers.” This makes them seem very similar.

    The differences are in the way those two roles are presented mechanically. I think they have a very different flavor and will present well at the table. Some may feel otherwise, but this is the internet, and as you said, “opinions that aren’t even fully formed” are the order of the day.

    I know I sound like I bash the 4e Forums a lot, but I really believe that the majority of posters there do not actually enjoy the game, they just enjoy talking about (by which I meaning angrily yelling at) the game.

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