Arcana Unearthed – preparing for the Plague of Dreams

(2014 note: this piece originally had a ton of links to both the other games I talk about and design diaries and such on Monte Cook’s site. I was surprised to find that after 9 years, I could not find a single live link – not just product pages for all the moribund RPGs which went by the wayside or whose licenses expired or companies went bust, but for the Arcana Evolved and Monte Cook content also. I’ve updated links where I could and removed the rest. You can find the games on if you like. A few dead links are still here where required to maintain the integrity of the piece. And by the way, Arcana Evolved is still awesome).

I have been promising (sort of) more roleplaying content for a while, but it has not been forthcoming despite my monthly-ish ongoing D&D game.

This is due in significant part to my rising levels of frustration with D&D. This should be held distinct from my feelings for d20/OGL, which is not a bad system inherently. Sure, it’s overcomplicated – attacks of opportunity, for example, are needlessly opaque and a common rules complaint. Why do you think they need a D&D For Dummies book? But the real problem with D&D is not the d20 core, but the world that the class, skills, and spells of D&D describe, which is not always very coherent. At the risk of revealing the ending of this particular story, rather than subject you to my own rantings I’ll refer you to a couple of Monte Cook’s columns that clearly encapsulate a few of my issues. So while I enjoy the D&D off and on, I didn’t want to just write posts that were going to be me ranting about the broken rule/feat/item/prestige class du jour, or how the oddities of D&D often seems to inhibit the roleplaying experience.

So I went looking for an alternative to D&D. I’ll need to run it, so given my inexperience as a GM, there was a hard requirement that it had to have a good off-the-shelf introductory adventure. And being d20/OGL helped a lot. The candidates were …

Star Wars d20: This is a much better system than D&D, but the feel of the game is more Extended Universe Star Wars than George Lucas Star Wars, which – regardless of what you think of the prequels – is not good. Despite the appeal of the theme, my feeling is that the storytelling options here are somewhat constrained and the cheesiness which is such an endearing part of the genre might grow old in an ongoing RPG. I would be more than happy to play in an occasional one-off Star Wars game, but can’t get excited about putting the effort required into running it, especially given the serious dearth of published adventures. Next!

Babylon 5 d20 is an interesting and promising universe, and the system is well-supported by Mongoose with some good sourcebooks (along with a couple very poor ones) and a few reasonable pre-made adventures. But the system has a whiff of inadequate playtesting and lack of concern for game balance, and mini-maxer fodder is one of the things I’m trying to avoid here. Next!

Lord of the Rings RPG (Decipher) is very thematic and has a lot of really good stuff, but it is also clearly underdeveloped and has significant problem elements and rules holes, and I just don’t know that I’m up for filling in all the gaps at this time. I also don’t know that I want to compete with Tolkien, and the downloadable adventures on the Decipher website are almost indescribably lame. It also appears to be dead. Next!

Fireborn looks very, very cool. But even though it’s significantly simpler in the end than d20, it’s also absolutely nothing like d20 and has higher startup costs in terms of learning, and so is a tough sell. Plus, the published “intro” adventure has some issues, and of course there are persistent questions as to whether Fantasy Flight actually knows how to develop a game of any kind. Very high on my list to try, but not this time. Next!

Paranoia XP looks like a lot of fun, it’s vaguely d20, and knowing the rules is treason for the players anyway. But it’s the sort of game you run as a one-off. There are a couple of short adventures in the Crash Priority book that look great and I’d like to run them sometime, but I was looking for something with a bit more meat. Paranoia is also a demanding (if particularly entertaining) game for the GM.

So … we come to Arcana Unearthed (or Arcana Evolved; they’re the same game).

Rather than tell you why AU is so appealing to me, I’m going to just suggest you read Monte Cook’s design diaries (start at the bottom and work your way up), which are a good read. Much of what I could say would simply duplicate what he’s already said more clearly. In my opinion, AU is a significant improvement in terms of game design over D&D in virtually every way. Crucially, though, AU is, at its core, D&D done right. So if you know how to play D&D, and are familiar with the concepts, moving to AU is almost (almost) painless – it’s just that the abusive feats and spells have been eliminated, many elements have been brought into better balance, things have been streamlined, and characters have been given more, and more interesting, options. Spellcasters in particular have vastly more interesting options than in core D&D, even the lesser spellcasters. The setting is richer, more interesting, and makes sense. D&D leans heavily towards combat (if I wanted to play a tactical war game, I have better options), and while AU certainly retains those roots, it was also designed with a great deal of thought towards encouraging interesting roleplaying. And the game clearly was not burdened by the needs of a somewhat reactionary fan base.

Now, AU is not perfect. Being OGL it is still a bit over-complicated, and you need to get familiar with the setting. There is still the issue with balance amongst the various skills; there is too much of a range, from the broad and very useful Diplomacy and Sneak to the highly specialized and rarely-useful things like Use Rope and Innuendo – they all cost the same, so where do you think the players are going to invest their relatively small number of skill points 99% of the time? But if you’re frustrated by the imbalances, inflexibility, and strange worldview of D&D, it would behoove you to check out AU.

So, with the longest intro ever out of the way, we can now get down to preparing for the actual adventure.

Plague of Dreams is an introductory adventure for AU, published by Fiery Dragon. It serves a couple of purposes. Firstly, it’s an introduction to the world and history of AU, as the PCs interact with all the AU races in Gahanis, a typical small town, and explore some ruins with a connection to the major event in the recent history of the AU world (the war between the Giants and Dramojh). Secondly, it’s a low-power and low-complexity adventure that can serve as an intro to roleplaying in general, with opportunities for some combat and roleplaying. Normally I wouldn’t start PCs off at 1st level, as I think the options are too limited, but in this case it works. The town of Gahanis is a small one, so there are no 8th level Warmain Sheriffs or retired 10th level Unfettered to overshadow (or serve as a crutch, or raise awkward questions) for the PCs. And Gahanis is well spec’d out by the book, so the characters are pretty free to go “off the grid” and explore, although the main mission is fairly straightforward and as the GM it’s hard to imagine even the most ornery PCs going too badly astray (although one thing I do know, as a GM, never underestimate the ability of your players to wander off in some bizarre and unexpected direction if you give them a chance. Things often seem quite different from the other side of the screen).

The first thing I did in preparing the adventure was to sit down and, with Kim’s help, come up with pre-generated characters along with some simple backgrounds. In my experience, generating characters is a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Players like to generate their own PCs; but they don’t know what skills will be useful, what will be interesting story-wise, or nearly as much about the world as the GM does. In the past, I’ve always wanted to come up with some cool background for my PC as a player, but then have run into the wall of not knowing enough about the world or the mission to do anything sensible. When combined with the fact that most of our players had last done pen and pencil roleplaying sometime between never and high school, and at any rate I wasn’t going to ask them to spring for a $50 sourcebook (or $24 for a PDF), I figured it was best to take control of the situation and do it myself. In retrospect, I wish I had developed these a little more, but on balance I was reasonably happy.

Secondly, I dug up some Avery inkjet-printable perforated index cards and made up an encounter template. Having adversary stats handy is a huge advantage in running combats, which have to be run briskly or the game bogs down. Entering the stats into the template also had the side benefit of giving me a chance to consider each opponent in turn, getting familiar with their abilities and thinking a bit about their tactics. Plague of Dreams has a couple cool encounters, and my experience was it’s a very good idea to prep these thoroughly. You can always read off the descriptions of an area from the book if you forget; but if you’re inexperienced like me, the combats can really bog the game down if you aren’t prepared.

Thirdly, rather than tackle the whole module, I realized that we were only going to be able to play the first half in one weeknight. The first half is fairly well self-contained, and just the right length for a weeknight session, so this actually worked out all right. I just read it over several times, and made some overall notes of locations I thought it was highly likely the players would visit (the library to do some research, the apothecary, etc). I focussed on the one most important NPC and tried to work out how I would play him. There is one major location with an interesting architectural layout that I wanted to make sure I had a clear image of in my mind. I then made photocopies of all the important illustrations in the book so I could give them out as visual aids. The goal, of course, was not to memorize everything – there is a lot there – but to be ready to look things up in case the players visited them.

Lastly, I came up with an intro section about how the players came together. The old “you all randomly meet in a tavern …” thing is a staple, but it’s lame and gets the module off on the wrong foot; I have found that getting the party together in a sensible way with some basic but rational motivations and reasons for being there gives excellent bang for the roleplaying buck. As you can see from the background snippets, I knew why everyone was in the town of Gahanis, so I just figured out exactly where they were staying and what had happened at the time they were contacted by their new prospective employer.

That’s it. It was a bit of work, but really not too bad, less than I expected, and a lot less than if I had tried to roll my own (and the adventure is better that what I could have done to boot). Next time, we’ll see how the first half actually played out.