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.