Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Unearthed Arcana

I have particularly strong memories associated with issue #100 of Dragon (August 1985). Firstly, it was one of the last issues I received as a subscriber. I'd continue to buy issues of the magazine singly till about 1987 or thereabouts, but I often missed them, sometimes for many many months. Consequently, I found myself less plugged into what was happening at TSR and indeed the wider community of the hobby. Secondly, issue #100 came out at the same time as the last "game day" I attended at a local library. These game days had been a staple of my gaming experience since the early '80s. They were where I met other gamers and got exposed to RPGs I might otherwise not have played. After 1985, they just ended and so, too, did my connection to game groups other than my own. Thirdly, this issue appeared just as I was about to start Grade 10, thus coinciding with the break-up of my original game group and the general decline in my regular play of D&D (or any RPG, as it turned out) till the mid-90s.

Finally, there was Unearthed Arcana, an advertisement for which appeared in issue #100:
Unearthed Arcana was a book I'd been expecting for years. I'd read and enjoyed Gary Gygax's "From the Sorcerer's Scroll" columns and often incorporated the new rules he presented there into my campaign. Not all of the rules, of course, but some of them, especially the new spells. So, when UA finally appeared, I was very excited and grabbed the first copy I could find (from a B. Dalton Bookseller, as I recall). Somehow, when all of Gary's new rules were collected together under one cover, they lost the shine seemed to have when presented individually. Taken together, I found myself starting to dislike even those rules additions I'd previously liked. It made no sense and yet that's how I felt.

Unearthed Arcana was thus a huge disappointment to me. It marked the first time that I actively disliked an AD&D hardcover, a feeling made all the stronger by the book's poor editing and poor binding. It was an "emperor's clothes" moment and, in one book, D&D, TSR, and Gary Gygax were lessened in my eyes. It seems silly to say that, in retrospect, but it was true nonetheless. At 14, I was a huge fanboy of all three of them and Unearthed Arcana made me realize how foolish such an attitude was. I continued to buy TSR books after that, of course, but never with the same fervor and certainly with a lot more cynicism about their quality.

So, issue #100 seems a good place to stop this particular series of posts. I could continue, but, since I read Dragon less and less after this milestone issue, I'd also have a lot less to cogent commentary to offer about the ads I'd choose to highlight. Instead, I'm starting a new Dragon-related series next week in place of this one. Look for it on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


  1. Really? I have only positive feelings about this book, but I don't own a copy to give another look. I remember it as a pivotal argument in my "there aren't RIGHT rules!" stance, breaking out of the mold of some perceived "canon." Then again, I didn't have a subscription to Dragon (or "what is this satanic stuff?" as it might have otherwise been called by my mother) so it was all fresh to me.

    To this day, these sorts of books are my bread & butter-- I was just leafing through the "World of Darkness: Mirrors" this morning in fact.

  2. I remember that issue well - it was double-length IIRC, had a neat paper sculpture cover of a faerie dragon, a Gygax short story, and a very-rare-for-Dragon article on my beloved Villains and Vigilantes.

    But mostly I remember a poorly-conceived 'PCs travel to 20th c. London!' module. That was a groaner...

    Thanks for the shout out on my Trampier piece, BTW!

  3. That is exactly what happened with me. Something about Unearthed Arcana was just wrong.

    That said, it can still be mined for stuff, like spells and magic items.

  4. I was only starting to play AD&D when this book came out, but it was a few years before I got my hands on it. I was probably about 12, and I had the same experience: at first, I read what was going to be in the book, and I thought it might be great -- but I couldn't help feel like the link between the cartoon characters and the book's new classes was a sign of mediocrity.

    I can't remember, in retrospect, anything at all that I liked in the book... so I just looked it over again. Good grief! All those polearms!

    I will say that I still have no beef with cantrips. Other than that... Unearthed Arcana is, to me, an extreme example the "more is more" design of AD&D that has sent me back to B/X for my old school game.

  5. I remember liking UA* quite a bit (even got my copy signed by Gary at GenCon in 1985 (I think)). Though I never used the new classes (I was getting more and more dissatisfied with class and level by then), I loved the new spells. I'll have to pull out my copy and see what I think of it with 20+ years of distance.

    *(Of course, I'm a heretic who likes a lot of the Fiend Folio. Except Flumphs. Never Flumphs.)

  6. James, is it possible your discontent also was a product of your age, a time when many young people begin to question things they once held dear? Many adolescents begin to look for avenue of rebellion or abandon old hobbies as they try to "grow up."

  7. I always felt like Unearthed Arcana was the apocrypha of AD&D, some of the stuff was good and inspired AD&D worthy, mostly the spells and items, some of it was never again allowed at my games after the initial wave of Cavaliers and Barbarians broke my campaign.

  8. Personally, I find it surprising that a 14 year old DIDN'T love Unearthed Arcana! I was almost the same age and I positively devoured anything written by Gygax, especially a whole book of new classes, equipment, and spells. (The idea of simplifying my D&D game didn't occur to me until much later in adulthood. I always wanted MORE stuff.) TSR didn't go off the rails for me until they booted Gygax and started producing the 2nd edition. That's when I quit them altogether.

    By the way... the pole-arm pictures in the back were one of my favorite parts of the book (still is). Finally I could see what all those weird-named weapons actually looked like!

  9. Yeah, I like Unearthed Arcana. It added the barbarian class to the game, for one. It broadened the conception of thieves with the Thief Acrobat. The cavalier and the polearm stuff added a lot of pseudo-historical interest even if the mechanics of the former were broken. Weapon specialization made fighters more interesting to play. It added some new races that moved the game away from the Tolkien template (and sure, eventually spawned too many races for the tastes of many.)

    The only thing that really stunk in the book (though I'd have to pull out my copy to see if there's more) was Comeliness. That was just plain dumb. The cover art was also a bit silly.

    I think if they had the good stuff for a new edition with Gygax still involved in development (but with better editorial standards to check some of his shortcomings as a writer), it would have been received and remembered better.

  10. I'm right there with you on the leaving public groups behind to focus for decades on playing with friends and such in regular private groups. As negative as some of my experiences were as a kid hanging out in a game shop, I'm happy I got exposed to things I never would have tried. Runequest, Traveller, Bushido, Champions, etc (and also helping playtest the second, and worst, superhero game ever "Supergame" with the creators). But as I got into my older teens it was time for serious, long term private campaigns on my own. That to me was true GM joy.

    As far as UA goes, we were thrilled with it. Mostly for the expanded "official spells," but we loved the new classes and such despite the fact they would be finding little use in my games by the time the 90's rolled around. It remains in the D&D game bag to this day for the spells alone.

  11. Release of the Unearthed Arcana never caused any stir in me. I was Amazed and overwhelmed by the Oriental Adventure instead, and I think that it's a much better book as far as Gary Gygax's writing is concerned. I found Polearm Appendix useful. Hads no use, and hence ignored Comelines. UA is one of the books that I use in my DMing and players are welcome to choose character classes from the UA. Funny, that ever since I bought US, NOT ONE PLAYER, has ever chosen to play an UA character class.

  12. I have such a fond memory of this book. I remember I had to write a paper in 10th grade regarding the time period of the Canterbury tales and for some damn reason my teach allowed me to write a paper on weapons. I wrote an entire paper on the various types of pole arms, using the UA as well as many of the various books used as reference in the UA... My aunt was a librarian for the U of Mass and had access to tons of books, so I just sent her a list of books from the bibliography from the UA and she checked out the books for me.

    It was the most fun paper I ever wrote in High School... It went all downhill from there on the fun factor!

    Far as the usefulness of UA in AD&D, I can't remember... Like a previous comment stated, the pictures of pole arms were great! Comeliness was just plain ugly ;)

  13. My friends and I were a bit younger than 14, and we ate everything up, though the barbarian class was easily everyone's favorite. I do remember, however, rolling up some ridiculously powerful characters with the alternate ability generation rules, and feeling a little guilty about it, as if I was cheating a little.

  14. I played a Thief Acrobat for a couple years and had a lot of fun with him. Barbarian was a really popular choice for a couple guys in my group in high school. I honestly don't remember playing in a group with a single Cavalier in the two decades I've been playing.
    My favorite AD&D class to play has been Illusionist for years. This book introduced the spell I abused the hell out of for years, Chromatic Orb.

  15. My reaction to the Barbarian was, "This is incredibly stupid. They can't regularly associate with magic-users? How can you play them?"

  16. Attempt four to post:)

    I picked up Unearthed Arcana thinking Oriental Adventures was Awesome...more is better :)

    @Steven: You played your Barbarian thusly -

    "Baah! His magic did nothing I have not seen Khitai Alchemists do with foul smelling powders crushed from rocks and charcoal."

    "Men are talking here Witch!"

    "One twitch of a finger in my direction Sorcerer and I will be using your hand to scratch my arse!"

  17. I loved UA at the time, but in retrospect . . . it introduce a lot of things that fundamentally changed the power balance of AD&D. Thief-Acrobats were fun but had that odd "choose at 6th level or never" thing about them. Some of the magic items (+6 swords?) were too much. We had a very fun cavalier-based Paladin in my games but having a 4th level barbarian with 78 hp (he rolled annoyingly well) made a joke out of most fights. So did Double Specialization.

    It was just too much of too much, and it's that kind of "Later book breaks earlier books" thing I desperately try to avoid in my own writing.

  18. "My favorite AD&D class to play has been Illusionist for years."

    - so you're the guy. I knew there had to be someone who played that class - in 30 years, I've never played with one. Pity too, seems like it would be fun with the right people.

  19. Personally, I never minded UA. I did think the Cavalier was unbalanced, but I figure if you're a competent enough DM, you can handle virtually anything. I didn't really like that Paladins became a sub-class of the Cavalier.

  20. @ Nilonim:

    I love the Illusionist. That and the Ranger are my two favorites.

    I was just looking through UA and was reminded of one of my favorite spells: Item. In a battle with a dragon from from civilization, one of our party was turned into a "crispy critter." To reserve the body until we could get to a cleric with a Raise Dead, I turned our charcoaled mighty Elf wizard into a small cloth doll. Oh, the fun we had with that doll on the way back (It was the height of the "Mr. Bill" craze.). The player was really annoyed with us by the time we found a cleric.

    Yep, I like UA. :)

  21. I liked it, but we never used all of it. I was in love with the Cavalier; we had no idea what "broken" or "unbalanced" meant. The Barbarian was used once or twice, but the anti-wizard thing got old, and so did Comeliness, and they went by the wayside.

  22. My gaming group gets on an AD&D kick every few years, but one constant is 'no Unearthed Arcana'.

  23. Great series, and very nice way to end it.

    For me, the weaknesses of UA weren't apparent at first; they came later, through experience struggling with trying to integrate those rules.

    Probably the weirdest thing for me (which people rarely mention) is the breaking of the "Big Four" class categories, making Cavalier a 5th top-level class (not a a Fighter subclass). And with Paladins then being a sub-class of Cavalier, subject to all combined ability requirements, making them insanely impossible to qualify for (under standard methods). That's nuts.

  24. I remember seeing UA the first time: it was at a friend's place and we were playing Top Secret. I think I had just played (Finnish) D&D and had just heard rumours of AD&D.

    Seeing this awesome book and leafing through it was very exciting. More classes! More... stuff. Escpecially polearms. I remember being very excited about the polearms.

    I did buy AD&D 2e some time after and we played that, but I didn't get a hold of UA until years later. In a completely different group we played a mix of 1e and 2e AD&D, and used the comeliness and some other stuff from the UA. Wasn't the "roll 9d6 - 8d6 -7d6 and so on" chargen method in the UA? We didn't use the polearms that much, though...

    We also used the barbarians from the Oriental Adventures. Nothing seemed to be more game-breaking than korobokuru barbarians... though we didn't play that much combat any more at that point, and that class-race combination isn't that good in social settings.

  25. Brooser Bear: I was Amazed and overwhelmed by the Oriental Adventure instead, and I think that it's a much better book as far as Gary Gygax's writing is concerned.

    That's because Oriental Adventures was written by David Cook. (Gygax's credit on the cover notwithstanding; see the small print on the copyright page.)

    Our gaming group loved UA at the time, but the cavalier class is seriously broken. The stats needed encourage cheating, or generation systems (like UA's Method VI) that may as well be cheating. Add the gradual stat improvement mechanic and you have a class with decent odds of three 18s in the physical stats. Ridiculous. And that's not even touching the weapon of choice mechanics, full plate, etc.

    The cavalier is just the most egregious example of UA's problem: it was a collection of house rules. Individually, any one of those rules might have been harmless. Collectively, as an "official AD&D" hardcover, it was fubar. Basically AD&D 1.5, accelerating the powergaming / rules lawyering / new editioning arms race.

    But I still like Roslof's art for the new classes.

  26. I remember loving UA at the time. More stuff for AD&D! Yay! Then again, in my early teens I wasn't thinking too critically yet about such things, and unfortunately I also wasn't in a regular gaming group where we could experience the game-breaking awesomeness of the Barbarian or Cavalier.


  27. I did not like UA because it was very poorly put together and found not the same quality that was even in Dragon articles, as it was a mishmash. I ascribed it to the fact that it would be a transitional product to AD&D2 and ignorant of the maneuverings at TSR. When AD&D2 and Gary was turfed and the 2e looking nothing like the game that I loved 1e was a betrayal that I sold my entire AD&D library for a song.

  28. UA seriously disappointed me, too - it was the first mainline game book we decided not to use. We liked the polearms... but never used them either. I remember my group looking over the classes and just saying "no," except to the thief-acrobat, and still nobody ever played one.

    OA was great and evocative but a harder sell for my gaming group, and coming out at the same time as UA, I think UA tainted it for my players, making them reluctant to try it. So I always wanted to run OA but never got the chance.

  29. @yellowdingo: That's nice after you've survived to 8th level. But UA barbarians can't associate with magic-users at all at 5th and lower level, and only if it's "necessary" at 6th and 7th.

    And before you attempt any twisting on the word "associate", remember it's the same word used in the paladin rules. If you twist the definitions to let a 1st through 5th-level barbarian knowingly adventure with a magic-user, the same twist allows a paladin to adventure in the same party as an assassin.

    Me, I firmly believe the barbarian class was almost never actually played as written.

  30. I recall my whole gaming group loving UA and using a lot of the classes, cavalier and barbarian especially. Plus, any teenager with a ninja fetish suddenly had a way in to AD&D, We used it a lot and it's true, with decent DMing you can overcome the comparatively maxed-out classes. Looking back, it is a decent addition with some interesting additions (funny, I barely remember the pole arms at all, much less ever used them) but I agree with a lot of the above comments. Leafing through my copy now, it's shockingly edited and seems to be kowtowing to potential new players rather than catering for established gamers which I guess must have been part of the pressure higher up.

  31. I never got Unearthed Arcana back-in-the-day. By the time it came out, the only D&D I still played then was as an unholy mishmash of AD&D & Traveller approximating Star Wars.

    As for being disappointed by Unearthed Arcana, I think I might've been, too, if I'd gotten it back then. The reason why is that it seems to me that Unearthed Arcana might possibly have been the straw that shifted AD&D from being D&D 1.5 to D&D 1.51 -- beginning its ultimate slide down to D&D 2.0: 2nd Edition AD&D.

  32. I don't begrudge anyone not liking it for their own reasons but I loved it and still think its great to this day.It was written at a time when fun and story were paramount. And the game was still pretty loose. Rulings not rules. Take or leave whatever you want. Rules truly are just suggestions. Sure, if you look at it from a balance perspective it may have problems but that's not the way AD&D was ever designed so I don't look at it that way. I still have my original 1986 Waldenbooks purchase. Binding is tight and strong. I'm sure I'll have it another 30 years. I wish my newer books would stand up like my original AD&D hardbacks. I still love the paper stock they used.

  33. I loved it back in the day.

    As another fan of Illusionists* (represent!), this tome gave them some much needed extra firepower.

    I never cared much about the extra classes, not did much with the new weapons, but I LOVED the polearm section and the new magic items.

    My biggest gripe was mostly that much of the "new" content came from the pages of Dragon and elsewhere.

    We did have a guy who convinced the DM to allow his elf ranger to have 2 levels of barbarian, as his backstory said he was raised by barbarians. Not broken at all!

    * My love of illusionists never transcended 1E, the uniqueness lost among the other specialist wizards. Also, my illusionist character never referred to himself as an illusionist, but a conjurer -- I mean, why would you tell people you just cast illusions?

  34. James, is it possible your discontent also was a product of your age, a time when many young people begin to question things they once held dear?

    Anything is possible, but, if so, it was very unconscious on my part. I'm by nature a traditionalist and a respecter of elders, so I never really went through a rebellious stage like most teenagers. If anything, I think it was more likely that I was in love with a very specific idea of D&D, an idea that Gygax himself was moving on from.

  35. Probably the weirdest thing for me (which people rarely mention) is the breaking of the "Big Four" class categories, making Cavalier a 5th top-level class (not a a Fighter subclass). And with Paladins then being a sub-class of Cavalier, subject to all combined ability requirements, making them insanely impossible to qualify for (under standard methods). That's nuts.

    Yeah, I didn't like that bit at all. That's the kind of change that really revealed just how much Gary's vision of AD&D had shifted over the years and not in ways that I found particularly congenial.

  36. That was my experience as well. A splatbook (the first?) that changed AD&D from a game about adventurers to a game about heroes. -Topped of with a non sequitur treatise on polearms.

  37. I still have this tome :D