Product Spotlight02/07/2004

Unearthed Arcana
Andy Collins, Jesse Decker, Rich Redman

In this month's exclusive interview, the designers of Unearthed Arcana discuss expanding character building into game building. (Note: Codesigner David Noonan was unavailable for this interview.)

Wizards of the Coast: Why should players and DMs explore the material in new Unearthed Arcana? In other words, what's the key selling point for those who already have their Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual?

Rich Redman: If you're looking for something new to spice up your D&D game, this is definitely the book.

Andy Collins: Unearthed Arcana isn't like any other book Wizards has published. Instead of being a collection of options for characters -- feats, spells, prestige classes, and so forth -- it's a collection of options for the game itself. Every single page is chock full of ideas guaranteed to provide a twist to your traditional D&D game. Some of these ideas are simple and straightforward, while others have the possibility of entirely revolutionizing your game. Regardless, the book's aimed directly at all those experienced players and DMs looking for something new. As a player, I look at Unearthed Arcana and see a wealth of opportunity to specialize my character without straying from his chosen race and class. As a DM, I see Unearthed Arcana as a treasure trove of new ideas and game systems to use in my campaigns.

Jesse Decker: I think of Unearthed Arcana as a game-building book. Although, like other rulebooks, it presents a host of new options, Unearthed Arcana takes another step by encouraging players and DMs to customize the rules of the game itself. This allows a greater degree of control over the play experience and begins the discussion of how the system can be changed and what the resulting game looks like.

Wizards: The original Unearthed Arcana came out many years ago. What does the new version share with the old? How did you decide what stayed and what needed to be cut?

Andy: Other than the title, the new Unearthed Arcana shares only one thing with the original book: a goal of injecting a jolt of excitement into your D&D game. The original Unearthed Arcana was a tremendously exciting product for DMs and players, as it introduced a wealth of new concepts to their D&D game. We're aiming to recapture the same feeling without retreading the same old ground.

Mechanically, the book looks nothing like the original Unearthed Arcana, for one simple reason: Every book on the market looks like the original Unearthed Arcana. New classes, new spells, new magic items --that's the default "recipe" for a d20 product these days. We saw no need to do that with this book.

Jesse: The original Unearthed Arcana was undoubtedly the book that affected my D&D experience the most. Although in retrospect some of its options look . . . interesting, the book came into my childhood gaming group at a really crucial time and showed me that the game could be expanded in new and interesting ways -- ways that my group hadn't yet thought of. When Andy began the concept meetings for this book with the idea that we'd carry on the spirit of the original Unearthed Arcana rather than the specific content, I think the whole design team really liked the idea.

Wizards: What's all-new in the book -- the bits and pieces that even the most die-hard D&D player or DM has never seen before?

Rich: Wow, most of the book as far as I know! Granted, there are some things that we took from other books that we'd done since 3rd Edition came out and tweaked them to be useful in more contexts, but the rest of the stuff in the book is new.

Andy: The "gestalt" character class variant is a brand-new system for playing super-powerful D&D characters (by combining any two classes into one at each level). Ultimately, though, the most exciting part about Unearthed Arcana isn't that these ideas have never been seen before, but that you've never seen them developed for an official 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons product before. Diehard gamers may well have seen spell points, sanity checks, variant core classes, action points, spontaneous metamagic, and such things before, but they've never seen them gathered together and aimed specifically at D&D players.

Wizards: With six distinctive parts to the book -- Races, Classes, Building Characters, Adventuring, Magic, and Campaigns -- it seems like the writing might have been easily divided among designers. What was your approach?

Andy: The book is very modular, with each chapter including a large variety of basically self-contained sections. After brainstorming our list of topics, the designers divided up those sections based on what they wanted to work on, and where their strengths lay. Some designers focused their efforts on a single chapter, while others spread themselves across many chapters.

Rich: I contributed to several sections, though the overwhelming majority of my work went into races.

Wizards: Designers sometimes tell me that they don't get many opportunities to playtest their material -- but Unearthed Arcana has "House Rules" sidebars: comments from various DMs about their own campaigns and how they've used some of these variant rules. Was there, then, traditional playtesting associated with the design of Unearthed Arcana?

Andy: Unearthed Arcana didn't undergo anything like "traditional" playtesting. In a sense, though, Unearthed Arcana has been in playtesting for years, as it includes many rules subsystems first published in other d20 games, as well as never-before-published house rules and other personalized variants contributed by designers from their own house games. As the foreword advises, DMs and players cracking open this book should go in with their eyes open -- it's not for the faint of heart.

Wizards: Love the bloodlines idea. Where did this originate? And do those with doppelganger bloodlines look more like their mothers or their fathers?

Andy: The bloodlines concept was inspired by Birthright, a 2nd edition AD&D campaign setting, and fleshed out in more detail in my recently-concluded home campaign (entitled Bloodlines and described in depth at{{pop a new window to}} There, each character "discovered" a bloodline at around 5th level and spent the rest of the campaign learning more about his or her special powers and background. As far as the doppelganger-blooded character goes . . . let's say that only his parents know for sure.

Wizards: Character flaws are a nice counterpoint to character feats. You have an interesting "warning" to players who consider using them, citing a number of potential drawbacks to creating new flaws beyond those already on the page. Is this warning based on personal experience?

Have you encountered flaws in PCs that radically imbalanced games?

Rich: Though I didn't work on this section, I have played a number of games that use advantages and disadvantages like this, and I've seen a lot of people spend hours, if not days, looking for a "free ride." Everyone wants something for nothing; it's human nature. GMs have to be very careful.

Jesse: Have we encountered flaws that radically imbalanced games? No. But they're easy to imagine. In D&D, it's very easy to specialize in one area of combat, and in fact, that's probably the simplest way to make an effective character. As much as we want to encourage this specialization with most of our design work, no one wants to see a flaw that doesn't hurt a character because the character is so specialized that he never uses that part of the game. For example, it's easy to design a wizard character who never makes a significant attack roll. So if a flaw penalizes attack rolls but provides some benefit that the non-attack-roll-making wizard would like, it's poor design.

That's really the source of the warning, but it's also important to note that "behind the curtain" sidebars, discussions of game-balance repercussions, and the like are a big part of the philosophy behind this Unearthed Arcana. This book not only provides options, but it discusses how and when they might be used and the impact that they might have on the game. Since we're asking players and DMs to think about the rules they use in their games, and giving them ways to change them, it's only fair to begin the discussion of what these variants do to a game.

Wizards: I like the new craft points -- a rules combo that will definitely work its way into campaigns where the PCs don't get downtime for building their magic items. What are your respective favorite bits in the new book?

Rich: I really enjoyed tinkering with races. It was a lot of fun to see how different they became with just a few minor changes. Then again, I wrote one of the books the legendary weapons section is inspired by (Staves of Ascendance).

Andy: I've been using spontaneous metamagic in my game for months now, and I love the flavor and options it allows for spellcasters. I also like the variant core classes and class features -- I think they're a great way for players or DMs to tweak the campaign with major reworking of the classes.

Jesse: Two picks: weapon groups and variant summoning. The concept of weapon groups has been around for a long time, it really works well with the simple, martial, and exotic weapon proficiency system, and it's a great tool for making the typical warriors from one culture seem different from the typical warriors of another culture. I like variant summoning rules because I really enjoy the idea of individual summoners calling different monsters based on their alignment, tactics, or personal ability.

Wizards: What did you have to leave out of Unearthed Arcana? Are there areas you'd intended to explore but couldn't, for reasons of space, time, or complexity?

Andy: Honestly, just about every section probably could have been twice as long. Any time you introduce a variant rule, there are so many things that you can talk about, but at some point you just have to hit "save" and move on to the next section.

Wizards: What are you working on now? Is there an Unearthed Arcana 2 in the future?

Rich: This was one of three projects for which I did freelance work for Wizards of the Coast in 2003 (the only other one I can mention is d20 Modern Weapons Locker). My company, The Game Mechanics, released eight products in 2003 and I wrote half of those. Eleven products in one year, plus my monthly d20 Modern column for the Wizards of the Coast website is plenty of work! So, while I can't answer what Wizards of the Coast will do in the future, surf on over to and check out what JD Wiker, Stan!, and I are up to.

Andy: As a member of the RPG Development team, I work on most of the D&D products on the schedule. I was lead developer on the Planar Handbook and Races of Stone, both scheduled for publication in summer of 2004. My last design project (at least for a while) is slated for October 2004 and aims to restore a healthy sense of dread into player characters.

Jesse: As the newest member of the RPG Design team, I do what everyone else doesn't want to do. So far, that stuff has been pretty darn cool, including a significant chunk of design work on Races of Stone along with rules development on the Eberron Campaign Setting. I'm also wrapping up the development work on the book that Andy designed that, as he says, "aims to restore a healthy sense of dread into player characters."

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