Monday, April 25, 2016

U is for Unearthed Arcana

Oh jeez... I'm about to get into a topic that has diehard AD&D1 gamers on opposite sides of a ditch, trying to throw things to hit the people on the other side and possibly knock them into said ditch.

I haven't read through the original Unearthed Arcana cover to cover, although I've occasionally thought about picking it up if it's cheap next time I'm in Austin. There is a huge volume of material included within it, though, so I'll just give some bullet points.
  • The addition of the "Comeliness" ability score seems more than a little silly to me. I get that Charisma isn't completely based on physical attractiveness, but adding a seventh score that seems more like a subset of another one isn't a good idea. And history seems to have agreed with me, as no other iteration of the game includes Comeliness as a factor.
    (EDIT 2016-08-18: Having finally gotten the HackMaster 4th Edition rules, I see that they do in fact use the Comeliness score. Since a big part of that game is needlessly complicated rules and parodying the complexity and obtuseness of much of classic D&D, I think that my point still stands. Heck, even AD&D2's Skills & Powers book didn't use Comeliness as one of the two sub-scores for Charisma.)
  • The barbarian class as written here is possibly an even worse party member than the assassin. An assassin could certainly, by the (Players Hand-)book, be played as extreme Lawful Evil, working with the party to further their own goals and realizing that the magic-user and the fighters are helping to watch their back when things get ugly. Not so for the UA barbarian; the rules flat-out state that barbarians will seek to destroy magic items whenever they are found. True, the barbarian was reworked as a more cooperative class for 3e and onward, and the AD&D2 barbarian "kit" isn't too bad, but the way it's presented here makes my brain hurt just thinking of the things that could go wrong.
  • The thief-acrobat is interesting, although it seems like it could have been named a little bit better. I'd imagine that this awkward naming convention was responsible for the stereotype of RPGs having really long and convoluted class names (although B/X is not exempt from this; an 8th-level elf has the title of "Superhero-Necromancer").
  • The cavalier is cool for those who want a game more focused on wilderness exploration, or a low-fantasy one modeled more heavily on medieval Europe. The rules for 0-level play are also good, presaging Dungeon Crawl Classics' "funnel" mechanic. Unfortunately, a lot of players were angered by the changing of the paladin (who is also modified for UA) to a subclass of the cavalier, rather than the fighter. This is extremely odd to modern ears, or those familiar with AD&D2; the arrangement of warrior/wizard/priest/rogue makes sense, so why add a fifth "group" that could easily be subsumed under the warrior group? This class also returned as a warrior "kit" in The Complete Fighter's Handbook for AD&D2, proving my point for me.
  • Cantrips are a nice addition, to the point that I've considered adding them to my AD&D2 campaign. On the other hand, I like the default 2nd Edition idea of cantrip: an improvisational minor magic effect, that might add some wonder back into the arcane instead of making a spell "just another sort of laser pistol" (a quote from the book Authentic Thaumaturgy by Isaac Bonewits).
Finally, I am so dissatisfied with the problem of ability score inflation - a major problem running throughout this book in particular - that I am seriously considering switching my AD&D2 game to using 3d6 arranged to taste. It's actually the perfect time to do so; two of my players kept their old B/X scores rather than roll new ones, one of them just made an exceptionally average character, and the other one (or two, depending on whether the other player decides to join as a regular player) has yet to replace the character that was killed in the last session. I'll poll them this week and see.

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