Saturday, November 8, 2008

Why Unearthed Arcana Sucked

With apologies to the K&K Alehouse thread that inspired this post.

Unearthed Arcana was published in 1985 and it's the last AD&D rulebook to bear the name of Gary Gygax on its front cover. It's also one of my least favorite of all AD&D books and reminder to me that perhaps it's just as well that Gary's version of 2e never came to pass. If UA is any indication, a Gygaxian 2e would have sold its birthright for bowl of pottage. It doesn't help matters that the book was poorly edited and riddled with errors that make many of its already bad ideas even worse.

I'll grant that there are some cool spells in this book, as well as some nifty magic items. Beyond that, though, I can't find a lot to like. What don't I like? Let's see.

Comeliness: A needless new ability score that undermined the value of Charisma and gave players yet another stat in which they felt they needed to have a high score.

Fortunately, UA obliges with even more ridiculous methods for rolling up you're character.

New Races: I didn't mind the expansion of class options for demihumans; some of the limitations in AD&D seemed nonsensical to me. I didn't even mind the raising of level limits in exceptional cases (though, again, it did contribute to the perceived need for high ability scores, a crime to which AD&D in general is prone). I'm come to think that level limits are a poor way to model humanocentrism, but I'm not a zealot on this point. However, UA contributed to the festishization of the drow that's now part and parcel of D&D. And don't even get me started on the svirfneblin ...

The Cavalier: I used to love this class in my foolish, younger days, but I eventually grew to hate every bit of it, from the way that it undermined the logic of the existing class system to the way it (again -- see a pattern?) contributed to the inflation of ability scores. The Cavalier also did violence to the paladin class by claiming it as its sub-class and that's a misstep I can't easily forgive.

The Barbarian: Another class that undermines the logic of the existing class system, the barbarian is worse than the cavalier because it's an incoherent class -- one part historical barbarian and one part Conan, with some additional oddities thrown in.

Thief-Acrobat: I don't hate this proto-prestige class as much as either the cavalier or babrbarian. I actually like it for the fact that its abilities are not things that an ordinary adventurer is likely to possess, thereby avoiding my issues with the thief. That said, it's a rather specialized class with limited appeal.

Weapon Specialization: Just say no. Overpowered and absurd, the entire system contributes to bonus inflation and lays the groundwork for much nonsense in future editions of the game.

Field Plate and Full Plate: Their implementation here is incoherent and makes a mockery any attempts to rationalize the Armor Class system fruitless.

Social Class Tables: I love random tables, as you know, but this goes too far.

Non-Human Deities: I'd like to go on record as hating this stuff (shocking, I know). Don't get me wrong: I am huge fan of Roger E. Moore and I thought his Demihuman "Point of View" series in Dragon was one of the best things ever published in the magazine. However, I dislike the canonization of his sample pantheons. Not only am I not a fan of "racial" gods, I also think that the addition of "D&D gods," which is to say, gods tied not to a specific campaign setting but to the game itself, is a bad precedent that has born evil fruit.

Art: It would have been nice if this book had had some.

All in all, it's a very weak book that, in retrospect, did more harm than good to the development of D&D. That it was also Gygax's swansong as far as rulebooks gives it a very melancholy feel for me. I know that's not really a knock against the book itself so much as a judgment on its place in the history of the game. Still, I can't help but feel that Unearthed Arcana was a huge mistake, both for TSR and for the direction of Dungeons & Dragons.

37 comments:

  1. ... and that wonderful, quality binding.

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  2. I dunno. It's all entirely optional. It's a view in to the things people can do for themselves. I have to admit I'm somewhat biased because I did enjoy UA. That being said, I do see it as the precursor for what was to become AD&D 2E (the rule bloat).

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  3. ... and that wonderful, quality binding.

    I thought the pages came out for ease of reference!

    I have a personal beef with UA. I started in 82-83 with the DMG, MM and PH. At the time it was released I was too young to know any better. Written by GG, UA was canon. However, the quality of our games quickly took a nosedive and it took me a long time to figure out why. In fact, we retreated to D&D after a while, not entirely aware of why we did. Before long D&D grew stale and our group stopped gaming altogether.

    That book almost killed the game for me. If it weren't for a move and finding a new gaming group, I might have abandoned the hobby in 87.

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  4. Boo! Down with Unearthed Arcana detractors! :)

    I have to admit, I have no idea what you are talking about with regard to field and full plate armour.

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  5. Jim called it on the binding. Geez.

    That said, I still hold a soft spot for the Cavalier. One of my favorite classes when first playing our D&D hodgepodge.

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  6. I use UA as an example of how _not_ to do a game supplement. In that capacity I refer to it often.

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  7. I had an awesome Thief Acrobat back in the day that lasted through level 15 or so. The only thing other than that extremely niche class I like are the spells. All the spellcasters got to add more variety to their lists, adn that's a good thing.
    Pretty much every other point (except for the one about the plate armors, where I'm in the same boat as MJS) I agree with.

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  8. I rather enjoyed the stat generation system... Let's see, role 18d6 and keep the highest 3... Tell ya what, flip a coin. Tails you have a 17, heads and 18... :-)

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  9. Yeah, Binding, what binding....

    I have a fondess for the Cavalier and Barbarian....but yeah they were over the top.

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  10. Yeah, Binding, what binding....

    I have a fondess for the Cavalier and Barbarian....but yeah they were over the top.

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  11. The current copy I have (which is #4 or 5 all time) I recently poured about an ounce of Elmer's glue down the spine, and I swear that binding will outlast anything short of severe flooding at this point.

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  12. "I'll grant that there are some cool spells in this book, as well as some nifty magic items."

    So you're saying that if you just ignore 85 of the 128 pages, it's terrible?

    Uh...

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  13. This is odd ; I never had any problems at all with the binding of UA, only its contents. I had the Games Workshop PHB and MM which fell apart at a glance, but my copy of UA is still going strong.

    I'm not sure if I was going to run a 1e AD&D game now that I'd use any of it, except possibly the spells. The races and classes it introduced possibly might have been balanced if you actually played with all the restrictions as written, but I'm not convinced that they would ever add anything much to the game.

    I would really be interested in knowing how Gary used any of these things in his own home campaign, if indeed he did. Has anyone ever come across anything like that?

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  14. Hm. Corellon, Moradin, et al never existed before UA? I never noticed that. Honestly, I can't imagine D&D without them (though I have always had a habit of generalizing somewhat. When I use the four racial gods, Corellon is the god of craftsmanship, Moradin is the god of the forge, Yondalla is the goddess of the hearth, and Garl is the god of cleverness, they just happen to be popular patrons for the race associated with them. The same treatment extends to other later racial gods. In fact I tend to use something based largely around the core pantheon used in 3.5 (that being my first game), with stuff plucked from other sources as necessary, or else using a general mishmash of classical gods.)

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  15. Yeah, the binding on my UA hasn't failed yet (many many moons later).

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  16. I have to admit, I have no idea what you are talking about with regard to field and full plate armour.

    Damage reduction mechanics. The AD&D AC system already models this; that's why high AC targets are harder "to hit" (i.e. hit hard enough to deal damage to the wearer). An additional damage reduction mechanic calls into question what AC means even more seriously than Dex bonuses do.

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  17. So you're saying that if you just ignore 85 of the 128 pages, it's terrible?

    I said that "some" of the spells and magic items were worthwhile, not all of them. That aside, I think the other 43 pages are bad enough that they do in fact make the book too terrible to use.

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  18. I would really be interested in knowing how Gary used any of these things in his own home campaign, if indeed he did. Has anyone ever come across anything like that?

    So far as I can tell, Gary never even played AD&D, so I expect it's unlikely he ever used any of the material from UA. My understanding is that his home games were closer to OD&D + supplements (which is admittedly proto-AD&D anyway).

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  19. Hm. Corellon, Moradin, et al never existed before UA?

    The chief deities of each of the demihuman pantheons come from the DDG originally, but the other members of these pantheons were created by Roger E. Moore for a series of articles in Dragon and then included in UA, because Gary liked them so much.

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  20. It's a source of sadness to me that when I started playing AD&D, as my first real RPG, the shop guy told me I needed Unearthed Arcana. I think I'd have run a better and more fun game all those years in high school if I'd never heard of UA. As it was, my campaign was perenially full of Drow and Cavaliers, PCs who could slaughter the Monster Manual critters in droves.

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  21. Some of the spells and items broke down older game checks. For example, teleport without error made scry-and-teleport practical, while elixir of youth became a safe and reliable way to counteract aging.

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  22. I was disappointed in UA because all the best material had been reprinted in my well-worn copy of Best of Dragon vol 3!

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  23. Damage reduction mechanics. The AD&D AC system already models this; that's why high AC targets are harder "to hit" (i.e. hit hard enough to deal damage to the wearer). An additional damage reduction mechanic calls into question what AC means even more seriously than Dex bonuses do.

    Disagree strongly on that score, but likely a topic of its own.

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  24. I seem to remember it having some Holloway art as well. Yet another strike against it.

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  25. The chief deities of each of the demihuman pantheons come from the DDG originally, but the other members of these pantheons were created by Roger E. Moore for a series of articles in Dragon and then included in UA, because Gary liked them so much.
    Oh. That worries me less.

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  26. by the time UA came out I'd been playing for long enough to know that both the cavalier and the barbarian were going to screw up any games I put them in, that they were on a different power level from the basic AD&D classes, and that adding them would guarantee that I would never see another "basic" fighter. Between them and the dice rolling system for stats, I realised quickly that the book hadn't been adequately edited, that it was full of childish foolishness, and that I could do better writing supplements on my own. In some sense, it was probably influential on my decision that I could be a professional game designer.

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  27. Barbarian class: "one part historical barbarian and one part Conan, with some additional oddities thrown in."

    Actually, it's practically all Conan (as Gygax saw him). I recently came across Gygax's writeup of Conan in an early Dragon magazine, and was struck by how the list of abilities was very clearly the progenitor of the later Barbarian class.

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  28. Some of the spells and items broke down older game checks. For example, teleport without error made scry-and-teleport practical, while elixir of youth became a safe and reliable way to counteract aging.

    Very much agreed. UA was the primary 1e book where I saw the "one step too far" syndrome that a lot of longstanding games suffer from.

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  29. Disagree strongly on that score, but likely a topic of its own.

    It's one I plan to tackle sometime in the next week or so, assuming I can remember to do so.

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  30. I seem to remember it having some Holloway art as well. Yet another strike against it.

    There is Holloway art in it, along a few others, but it's extremely sparse and it gives the book a very different look and feel from the other 1e books, which were quite lavishly illustrated overall.

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  31. Actually, it's practically all Conan (as Gygax saw him).

    I was thinking primarily of the specific additional abilities according to terrain/locale -- an attempt to "de-Conanize" the class and make it more generally applicable to barbarians from a variety of circumstances, not just the northern reaches.

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  32. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who had binding issues with this book. None of my other AD&D books had this problem.

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  33. So are you going to tackle Oriental Adventures? The two appeared at my FLGS simultaneously, and I always suspected that OA never got a fair shake because of being associated with UA. That said, although I read and liked it, I never got around to running an OA game...

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  34. I have very mixed feelings about OA. There's a lot of very good material in it, but it also contains many cobblestones on the road to hell, chief among them being the non-weapon proficiency system. I also lament that it was a lot more quasi-historical in its approach than I'd expected, given the original promotion of it by Gygax in Dragon. I asked the Man himself years later and he explained that it was David Cook who was mostly responsible for the book we got and that at least some of the work he and Francois Marcela-Froideval did for it was not included. A pity.

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  35. I might go so far as to say that there was nothing wrong with Oriental Adventures . . . if viewed as a worked example to DMs of how to adapt AD&D to another milieu (in this case, quasi-historical Asia), not part of the AD&D core rules.

    You'll note than none of the OA NWPs (with rare exceptions) are going to be of any use on wilderness/dungeon adventures; they serve almost entirely social roles. It's not until the WSG and DSG that the concept is extended much past the milieu-specific idea that a samurai is expected to be a gentleman with knowledge of the arts.

    Similarly, things like the honor system and social class make sense in a worked example of adaption to a specific world, while the social class stuff in UA is over-specified for D&D.

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  36. Our UAs keep falling apart. We duct tape them back together. I saw one US that someone had drilled through the binding and reinforced it with strips, the whole held together with big metal bolts. To this day when I see a UA with decent binding in a used bookstore I consider picking it up. We have bought 4 copies, one of which has completely fallen apart into separate pages.

    For some reason, the 2E brown / blue / green splatbooks had binding problems that snapped the covers off but kept the pages together. We've bought three copies of the Psionics Handbook and one of them has its pages all split up and stuck in a 3-hole binder.

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  37. K&K Alehouse broke inbound links. For anyone curious, this appears to be the correct thread: http://www.knights-n-knaves.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?t=5074

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