I will give you a quick overview of the product itself. Second, I am going to talk about its appearance, ergonomy and detail its contents. Third, I will tell you what I think are the "Critical Hit" and "Critical Miss" of this book and finally conclude with my overall appreciation of the product.
Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved can be purchased in PDF format on DriveThruRPG.com or in hardcover format at your local game stores, Amazon.com and gaming websites. It is 432 pages long, one of the first "mammoth volumes" of its kind.
First and foremost, Arcana Evolved combines materials of Monte Cook's Arcana Unearthed, The Diamond Throne (detailing the default setting for Arcana Unearthed) and the Player's Guide (which was provided with the Arcana Unearthed DM Screen). If you want a "group price" for these books buy Arcana Evolved. If you have Arcana Evolved, you do not need these books at all (but for the actual DM Screen I was talking about, which is a nice product in itself, but that's another review altogether).
Arcana Evolved isn't just a compilation of previous Malhavoc products. It adds little bits and pieces to the award-winning Arcana Unearthed and makes something new and refreshed out of it. These "bits and pieces" include a new character race, a new character class, new options for your character's development on a "mechanical" level. But it also adds in terms of background, if you are interested in new ideas for your Arcana Unearthed or D&D games: the Tenebrian Seeds allowing access to "Evolved Levels" and the "Return of the Dragons" to the Diamond Throne (or your homebrew setting), for instance.
The first impression people get when they open Arcana Evolved is usually one of awe. First, the book is huge (more than four hundred pages, as precised above). Second, it is a full-color volume. One could expect a very confusing lay-out as a result - lots of color equals less clarity, right? Not with this book. Colors enlighten the product while not covering or confusing its contents. The lay-out is simple and efficient. The art is sometimes just okay, and sometimes outstanding, but always colored with taste. The overall impression it leaves is one of beauty, simplicity/clarity and coherence (there is a lay-out "theme" in tones, fonts and so on. This is one of these little details making for me the difference between very good and outstanding books).
The Actual Contents
Introduction: New Possibilities - This obviously presents Arcana Evolved to the reader, with its scope, its ambition, the themes and concepts that inspired it, how to use the book and how to create/level up characters. This is an important section for this review, since it states the goals of the product: bring the power back into the DM's hands, increase the player's choices, base the game on the notions of character choice, uniqueness, use a background made of rituals and traditions. With these goals in mind, we can actually know more or less objectively if Arcana Evolved fulfills its mission or not.
Chapter One: Abilities - nothing particularly new for a D&D player here. It presents the main ability scores used in AE, none of which are new. It also presents the classic tables of bonus spells and, something new here though, rites. Combat Rites are used mostly by the Ritual Warrior, the new character class in this book, but also other, revised character classes, such as the Oathsworn (at mid-level) and Warmain (at high-level).
Chapter Two: Races - First, the actual races are: Humans, Dracha (humanoid, medium-sized dragons), Faen (little feys between the PHB elves and halflings which can transform into the tiny, flying Sprytes), Giants (a noble, civilized race whose society is centered on the concept of ritual and tradition), Litorians (lion men), Mojh (humans who decide to become more draconic to uncover the mysteries of magic), Runechildren (kind of "Chosen Ones" who defend the world against agressions), Sibeccai (whose physical appearance is akin to the Egyptian god Anubis - they were animals who have been "elevated" to sentience by the giants) and Verrik (some near human beings with crimson skin. They have a cursed, heavy past and have a close relationship with magic).
Some little things change from Arcana Unearthed. For instance, the Mojh can no longer gain access to a breath weapon. This is mainly because of a larger, more significant change: the introduction of the Dracha, which is also part of an even bigger change - the Return of the Dragons to the Diamond Throne (see below). The Dracha seem very fun to play. They have a sort of "coolness" about them akin to the dragons many of us love. It's actually great to be able to play a draconic character without having to wait for high levels to do so or rely on various templates that may seem "wrong" or "artificial" when I added to a given character concept.
The main particular feature here compared to D&D is the introduction of Racial Levels and Evolved Levels. Racial Levels were already present in Arcana Unearthed. They allow players of all races but humans to take a few (between 1 and 3) levels that increase their racial abilities. Giants become bigger and stronger, Mojh gain magical spell-like abilities and the like. This is all simple and yet, original. The new additions here are obviously the "Evolved" levels. These are additional racial levels any character (including humans) can take if they've been exposed to the Tenebrian Seeds of the dragons. They are a plot device in the hands of the DM. In other words, this allows game master to monitor how these levels are accessed. Nice way of justifying them.
Chapter Three: Classes - They are: Akashic (a Jack-of-all-Trades using various skills and abilities reached through a new concept named the "Akashic Memory", which is akin to an alternate plane combining all the memories of all sentient individuals through the ages), Champion (a dedicated warrior more open-ended in its purposes and allegiances than the Paladin), Greenbond (a sort of Shaman spellcasting class. The Greenbond is a healer and represents the force of "The Green", the lifeforce of all things, which is the opposite of "The Dark", the force behind dark and unnatural forces creating aberrations and undead), Mage Blade (the archetypal fighter/mage with a focus on his chosen weapon, called an Athame), Magister (the best spellcaster of the lot which, besides spells, develops various flavour abilities related to his staff and his use of magic), Oathsworn (an unarmed fighter devoted to the fulfilment of his Oaths, which he can change once they have been fulfilled), Ritual Warrior (a warrior using Combat Rites, which are comparable to feats used in a "spell-like" manner - i.e. with a number of uses per level per day), Runethane (a spellcaster able to create runes, foci of various magical effects), Totem Warrior (a fighter developping traits related to his chosen animal totem), Unfettered (the archetypal fighter/rogue), Warmain (the ultimate tank) and Witch (a primitive spellcaster focusing on manifesting particular aspects of her chosen specialty which could be Wood, Winter etc).
These classes all follow the same pattern of description: short introduction, then description fields such as Adventurers, Background, Races, Other Classes (how they combine with this class in a party), NPCs, Hit Die, Class Archetypes (describing what kind of roles they can fulfill in the game), Skills, Class Features (with the usual table summarizing the class progression). It is interesting to note that there are no "favored classes" and the like. Players can multiclass their characters freely, which is a major element of AE's gameplay when combined to racial, evolved levels, prestige classes, and other options (like those proposed by the excellent supplement Transcendence, which among other things introduces players to Ability levels, Substitution levels and more - with these two books it becomes virtually possible to take levels in every aspect of character development).
Same thing as in the races above: there are minor changes, albeit more of them. Some classes needing to be more balanced have been slightly modified for the better. For instance, the Greenbond had too few skill points (which one of the players of my gaming table experienced the hard way). This is fixed here. Oathsworn and Warmain can now use Combat Rites.
There is one major addition here of course: The Ritual Warrior. One big change when compared to the D&D Player's Handbook is the many ways in which the player can specialize and/or customize a character. The Akashic abilities one chooses with the character progression. The Causes of Champions. The Runes of Runethanes. The animal Totems of Totem Warriors. The Manifestations of the Witch. All these game elements make sure that almost no character with the exact same levels will look alike.
Chapter Four: Skills Nothing important changes from Arcana Unearthed here. There are differences when compared to the D&D Player's Handbook: there is no "Profession" skill, the available Knowledges are different (more specific to the particular flavour AE with Knowledge (Ceremony) and various racial Knowleges for instance). Differences that make the gameplay easier mostly by combining these or those skills together. But nothing groundbreaking.
Chapter Five: Feats and Talents -There are two new types of feats when compared to core D&D: the Talents, which are feats that are only available to first level characters, and Ceremonial feats, which require some type of ritual performed on the character and a True Name to be gained. True Names are one of these cool additions typical of Arcana Evolved: it's not a "groundbreaking" idea but everything's in the flavour. Each character either has a True Name or not (this is called an "Unbound" character). This defines which types of feat the character starts the game with, and which feat categories he has access to in the future. This is also important for some spells (such as Raise The Dead) which require the True Name of the target to be performed correctly. Another thing worth mentioning: metamagic feats which allow a spellcaster to gain access to "Spellcasting Templates" which are described in Chapter Eight: Magic.
Chapter Six: Equipment - This chapter mostly describes the base equipment for characters, the weapons, the items particular to the Diamond Throne and the like. I like the new ways in which you can personalize your equipment (with crystal, devanian, dire weapons and armor, for instance, which are nice additions to the classic masterwork piece of equipment).
Chapter Seven: Playing the Game - This is the core system, the reason why a DM wouldn't need a Player's Handbook to play Arcana Evolved. All the rules are here: combat, actions, types of damage and so on. It also details the mechanics of Hero Points, which can be used by the players to tweak the rules in the favor of their characters with panache. A good idea, much more opened to personal interpretations (and possibly powerful) than the similar mechanics of the Eberron Campaign Setting, for instance.
Chapter Eight: Magic - The big chunk that makes Arcana Evolved different in its gameplay than D&D. This isn't as different from D&D that one could believe, however. At least not as different as Elements of Magic would be.
There are still spell slots and spell levels, but new mechanics have been implemented to allow more flexible uses from players and DM. You can for instance use spell slots of inferior or superior spell levels to fuel your casting. Or you can cast superior (heightened) or lesser (diminished) versions of each spell with a slot of one level higher or lower than the one indicated in the spell's description. Another original feature is the way spells are not prepared daily like in D&D. You have a list of spells prepared yes, but you can keep this list as long as you want. You don't have to "revise" your spells each morning. Prepared spells are used in the same way sorcerer spells would be: you can cast the same one several times or just once, up to your number of slots per day for this spell level, or even more when you use higher or lower slots.
Perhaps it doesn't seem like much when you read it but it breaks the overall rigidity of D&D's spellcasting. Add to this the Spell Templates, which allow you to apply effects (like Flaming, Blessed, Cursed, etc) to all the spells you want, and you have a very adaptable, very open-ended magic system.
Also included are all the rules related to the magic items of Arcana Evolved. Nothing incredibly original there.
This chapter is the part of the book many fans are raving about, and for good reasons, I think, since spells are such a huge part of the D&D experience.
Chapter Nine: Spells and Combat Rites - The list of spells available is changed when compared to the PHB. There are no alignments in Arcana Evolved, and thus no alignment-related spells. There is much more balance in the spell selections. No "magic missile". No "save or die" effects. This is a bit underpowered compared to D&D spells, but with the heightened and diminished versions of each spells, the spell templates and all the other options available to spellcasters, this is in fact just as powerful.
The main particular feature here is the presence of Simple, Complex and Exotic spells within any given spell level. Most spellcasting classes only have access to Simple spells or some Complex spells with a particular descriptor. Only magisters have free access to both Simple and Complex spells. Exotic spells are unique and rare - a character may use these only through specific feats, usually.
Combat Rites are akin to temporary feats. They allow you to score a critical on your next it. Or move faster. Or add to your Armor Class by taking a particular stance. In use, they are like spells: your character can use a number of them per day. There are divided per "rite level" the same way spells are. These are great addition to the game: they give to warriors the same potential flexibility as the spellcasting characters. It was about time to have someone come up with that kind of addition to the core rules, wouldn't you think?
Chapter Ten: Diamond Throne Gazetteer - The contents of this chapter are mostly taken from the Diamond Throne supplement to Arcana Unearthed. There are some changes though: first, the Tenebrian Seeds and the concept of evolution, experiments of the dragons that led to the creation of the Dramojh (the bad buys of the setting) are introduced. Second, the Dragons are back, and they intend to recover what is theirs: the Lands themselves now in the care of the Giants. This may be the source of endless adventures with the PCs torn apart between Dragons and Giants and both of their claims on the Diamond Throne. What really makes this background addition flavorful is that none of the factions is either "right" or "wrong". They are both understandable and somehow justified in their claims. This makes for great role-playing moments potentially.
Another thing worth mentioning is the way the Diamond Throne and all its geographical, historical, sociological elements are described: they are summarized and leave the DM as the real master behind the world. As a DM, you can choose to interpret this or that element of the background as you want. It makes the Diamond Throne "your" world more than any other published world could be while still detailing what is absolutely essential to it.
Chapter Eleven: Prestige Classes - They include Beast Reaver, Crystal Warrior, Darkbond, Dragon Kith, Esoteric Mage, Giant Paragon, Knight of the Axe, Mage Priest, Nightwalker, Ollamh Lorekeeper, Rune Lord, Somnamancer. I have not much to say here, apart of their balance which is perfectly fine, and their design, which covers many of the possibilities for character development while tying each particular class to a concept or another of the setting itself. That's in my opinion what Prestige Classes are for: to give more flexibility to characters while tying them mechanically to the world around. That's exactly what these Prestige Classes do.
Chapter Twelve: Creatures - This chapter includes Alabast, Chorrim, Cyclops, Dark Warden, Dragon, Dream Hunter, Evolved Creature Template, Harrid, Inshon, Radont, Rhodin, Shadow Troll, Slassan, Undead Creature Templates, Xaaer (Death Ooze).
Let's just say the basics are covered: the setting-specific grunts, higher level grunts, and various classics from the Diamond Throne. The Dragons are especially original. No dragon is defined by its color here. They are each unique creatures, and all the rules to build them are presented here. The Corporeal and Incorporeal Undead templates are really winners because they allow you to create creepy baddies with virtually any creature from any source you might possess. Which is especially cool when used with the undead-creation spells given in this book.
And that's it. An annex describes possible conversions between AE and D&D, the character sheet is well organized and designed with good taste (like the book itself - see the Overview above). Same thing applies to the Index, particularly useful for a mammoth like AE, and the mandatory OGL follows.
First, let's remember why Arcana Evolved is conceived the way it is: : bring the power back into the DM's hands, increase the player's choices, base the game on the notions of character choice, uniqueness, use a background made of rituals and traditions.
Here is the Critical Hit, in my opinion: AE does exactly what it's supposed to do. It opens horizons for players and DMs in terms of character customization, game setting and rules flexibility. It offers many options, none of which seem superfluous or useless. Everything can find its own appeal in an Arcana Evolved game. Most importantly, and this is the real critical hit, it lets the reader open the "hood" of the system to find out how it works: it provides guidelines to create your own causes for Champions, totems for Totem Warriors, and so on. In clear, it gives you the tools to make this game your own.
If only for an understanding of how the d20 system works and can be modified in original new ways, this is a must for any DM and player of the game.
Arcana Evolved suffers from its Critical Hit. As it offers more and more options, variants, possibilities for DMs and players, it is not a product for beginners. Sure, it is always possible to use it with newbies, but the DM would then have to know the system inside out and be able to break it down for the players. This isn't "D&D for Dummies" in clear. Which is great for some gamers, and a potential source of headaches for others, not because it is especially "complicated" (it isn't any more complicated than D&D is), but because there is so much stuff in there, so many game elements and so many choices for DMs and players.
In the end, the versatility of AE is its best trait and worse enemy at the same time. It all depends what you want out of your game: something simple where newbies can come in and play without much to explain, or a complete game allowing you to "put your hands in the motor" and make it your own.
If the second approach is the most interesting to you, you will rave about Arcana Evolved like I do. Even with newbies, it is possible to have great gameplay (I run a tabletop campaign with five newbies to RPGs), but it will require some work and patience on your part as a DM.
Once that is said, Arcana Evolved shines for its own qualities: it is one of these rare products on the d20 market exploring new ways in which to use the d20 mechanics while doing it with talent and knowledge such as none other than one of its original designers could have. And, away from these gamist considerations, it is simply an awesome, fun game to play: all the archetypes are here, all the options are available to have some great game sessions out of this product. You can buy Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved with a blindfold covering your eyes: the probability of being disappointed is nearly non-existent.