Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Memories: The Atlantean Trilogy

In a recent post I helped explore the meme of 15 games in 15 minutes.  Now, as the mists of time part, one game rises to the fore.  One game that I used to be enthralled with:

The Atlantean Trilogy. 

I first discovered this in 1985 through a friend who was visiting from California at the time.  He had a copy of the Arcanum, the first edition, the cover in living greyscale.  I looked through it, and was enrapt with the game-related art inside.  While not technically fantastic, it was interesting enough, and as I skimmed it, I saw rules that were like D&D, yet were not D&D.  Gone were the nebulous Armor Class rules and attack matrices and saving throws.  Ability saves were used to resist spells.  Given that the hobby was still quite young at the time, it was still shackled to some of the more cumbersome engines, tables for things that would have better used a target number, variable percentages for skills, etc.  My friend told me that he thought that it was D&D, and therefore his campaigns were set there, and used those rules. 

The Arcanum
It had the standard D&D abilities, but swapped WIS for WILL and added Perception.  You didn't just have the choice of Thief, Fighter, Magic-User, or Cleric anymore.  You had Witch Hunters, Astrologers, Alchemists, Witch Doctors and more.  You didn't have the bog-standard choices for races -- you now had Druas (Dark Elves, before anyone else ever did), Aesir (giants), Zephyr (like ordinary people with huge eagle wings), and Andaman (half-human, half beast).  You didn't have the standard array of spells anymore.  Things like Fire Sign and Lesser Invocation of Mars gave the spells a much needed revision.  They separated the spells into nine schools of magic, such as Black Magic, Astrology, High Magic, et al.  All of this gave the game a definite flavor, a "feel" to it.

Skills were given to you based on race, class, level, and what climate you were raised in.  The skill list not only included Martial Arts, several different sub-types of Acrobatics, but also Knife Throwing, which gave you the ability to "call" your shot to any location, including throat, heart, etc.  This would cause the roll to be halved, but a hit to any vital area caused 2x damage and the  target would need to save vs. CON or be incapacitated by the wound.  If I had to quibble with the skills, it would be that some of was percentile, and others were based on attack rolls in combat.  One of my house rules was that each skill was tied to an ability and got a bonus if the ability was "exceptional."

Combat itself was almost rewritten from the ground up, and was a whopping four pages long.  Combat ability was defined by three different ratings: Highly Trained, Skilled, and Untrained.  Each determined to hit bonuses and hit points per level, and each of the classes had one of these ratings.  A straight 11+ on a d20 was a hit, and was modified by DEX, magic, and the bonus from class and combat rating.  Each opponent rolled a d20 -- the attacker and the defender.  Highest die roll + mods won.  The standard offensive tactics were in there -- melee, missile, hand-to-hand, dirty tricks, and called shot.  Defenses included parry, evasion, dodge, or counter (which you wait for your foe to strike first, then you strike him back while he's off-balance from his attack).  Damage was a bit more (such as 2d8 for a two-handed sword), given that hit points were higher (CON + set number from Combat rating).  AC was gone, so Armor actually subtracted 1-6 points from your damage, based on whether it was leather, ring, chain, plate, ad infinitum.  Also, chain, plate mail, and plate armor gave you -1, -2, and -3 on DEX saves respectively.      

Alignment was handled a bit differently, too.  It had only four Alignments: Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic, and Neutral.  Lawful Good characters were committed to honor, truth, justice and mercy.  Lawful Evil characters despised honor, lied, had no sense of mercy or justice.  Devils were LE.  Neutrals uphold and maintain their own beliefs.  Chaotics analyzed a situation and then acted.  The best of these are loners.  The worst lack all conscience (demons).

The spell system was markedly different from the Vancian system.  At first level, all spellcasters get every first level spell from their school of magic.  Any higher level spells must be found, and they offer ways to do that, from private collections to libraries, to learned mages, and adventuring in ruins and tombs.  It is worth noting spellcasters may only cast two spells per day, plus 1 per level.  In combat, it is also impossible to cast anything other than a first level spell, due to the stress and frenzy of battle.  They also had extensive rules for the properties of various plants and metals, alchemical rules, signs and symbols, and spell research.  

I went home the next morning and dug up one of my dragon magazines that had that book in it.  I sent in a check to Bard Games.  They told me that it really cost a buck more, but they'd send it to me anyway.  I soon found the Bestiary and the Lexicon published in one book (I don't recall where -- the now-defuct Crown Books?), and thus began my love affair with the Atlantean Trilogy. 

Of course I houseruled it, I found the AD&D-inspired ability tables lacking (i.e., bonuses all over the place) and so tacked on the BECM ability bonuses, instead.  13-15: +1; 16-17: +2; 18: +3.  Easy to remember, easy to apply and easily consistent.

The Bestiary
This was an interesting book.  The colorful cover by PD Breeding draws the eye, almost reminding one of Don Maitz's work.  The interior illustrations were rendered by comic artist Bill Sinciewicz.  Though I despised his run on The New Mutants (they hadn't had a good artist since Bob McLeod), the illos in the Bestiary were perfection.  His crazy, somewhat manic-messy style fit the tone of the book.  They had an interesting way of handling the monsters.  Each monster was given a class and a level.  From there you could figure out the to hit bonuses.  They also had no orcs, they were lumped under the label "goblin," which would handle everything from the standard D&D goblins to the big nasty orcs.  The other thing is that they had mythical or quasi-mythical names for the monsters.  A mummy was a "sahu,"  a lich was a "yatu," and they had special undead monster types for those who have been slain by ghouls and vampires to rise from the dead once more. 

For those who wish to see a sample of the gonzo art, here's a peek:

The Lexicon
The Lexicon was the atlas of the antediluvean world.  This product was obviously a labor of love, and parts of it resembled nothing so much as Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age (even going so far as to use some of the names, themselves taken from ancient history), but everything was ripped from myth and folklore and ancient cultures.  A giant mixing pot of Greek, Roman, Inca/Aztec/Mayan, Native American culture, and Medieval Europe.  The entire earth is described.    In a nutshell, the world suffered a massive Cataclysm, and Atlantis is a shadow of its former self.  Mu and Lemuria and similar mythic continents all share space in the Lexicon.  All in all, it's a fascinating read.         

This is one of those games I kinda wish had reached ascendancy, but it is a very different game than it started out as.  The first time some of this material saw print was in the "Compleat" series by Bard Games.  The Compleat Alchemist, The Compleat Beastmaster, etc.  Then, Bard Games put out these three books.  And later, Talislanta was born and would change publishers again and again.  If the Atlantean Trilogy is at the dawn of the world, Talislanta takes place at twilight, well after the Atlantean Cataclysms and the ice ages that followed.  A decade later, Death's Edge Games picked up and republished the Arcanum, the Lexicon, and the Bestiary, added some new material and changed the art.  A decade after that, Morrigan Press decides to update and revise the material, calling it Atlantis: The Second Age.  They changed the game to a series of suggested templates, spells that are created from different "elements" that combine to create specific effects, and a different system more based on the one found in Talislanta.  I'm not sure what Morrigan Press set out to achieve, but it has a very different flavor than the original Atlantean Trilogy.  I'm no less intrigued, but I miss the old game.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I just read about this RPG as a blurb on Enworld's forum and I was intrigued. The system sounds like one that I've wanted to house rule for ages. I picked up the Death's Edge version so hopefully that stays true to what sounds like an excellent system. I've been interested in RPGs for decades and never seen or heard of Arcanum. I'm looking forward to reading the rules and the setting.

  2. I read this blog a few months ago and scored versions of Arcanum and just love the details to the magic, combat and detail to alchemy and herbalism. I'm planning a campaign using these rules for a homebrew world. Seems some aspects of the rules beg to be house ruled. Anything you remember house ruling or links you remember regarding house rules for this system?