What Do I Know About Reviews? Arcana of the Ancients (5e OGL)
Growing up, I remember Thundarr the Barbarian, a cartoon set in a future where modern society had fallen apart, magic had returned, and the setting was populated by strange animals, cyborgs, and sorcerers. I also remember my first impressions of Masters of the Universe, from the original storybooks that came with the action figures. This was a world with advanced technology beyond the comprehension of the inhabitants of the world, waiting to be unlocked in the same manner as ancient magics.
When I have tried to explain the Numenera setting to people, I have often said that it is a very high concept version of Thundarr the Barbarian. Because of this association, when Monte Cook Games Kickstarted a series of D&D 5e compatible books to translate Numenera concepts to that system, I was interested to see the result.
Today we’re going to look at Arcana of the Ancients, the first of these books. Arcana of the Ancients is about adding weird science elements into an existing fantasy campaign.
Tome of the Ancients
Arcana of the Ancients is a 302 page book. For the purposes of this review, I’m looking at the PDF of this product. There is a full page ad, a page of OGL legal text, and an appendix that arranges the items from the book into rarity tables similar to magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
If you have ever seen a Monte Cook Games book, it will not be a surprise that the artwork and formatting in the book are impressive. It has the same sidebar references as other releases from the company, with a similar two column layout. Some artwork is reused from Numenera sources (mainly creature artwork), but there is also new artwork, showing traditional fantasy adventuring parties encountering high tech environments.
Part 1: The Revelation
The first section contains a discussion of the product itself, as well as an introductory adventure. In the introduction, the book presents its purpose, to provide context for introducing high tech remnants of an ancient society into an ongoing fantasy campaign.
The sample adventure is a good example of a dungeon crawl that tells a story with what it reveals. Creatures from the dungeon wander out of the complex, which serves to lure adventurers in. Within the environs of the dungeon, we are introduced to two traditional D&D creatures that have been modified by ancient remnants. We see two opposing AIs, one attempting to break free, and one attempting to contain the other, as well as an opportunistic villain manipulating the situation.
The status quo in place at the end of the adventure exists to explain the inclusion of more ancient technology and strange creatures into the campaign.
As I said above, the dungeon crawl does a good job of unveiling parts of the ongoing story of the adventure with what the characters can find as they explore. Additionally, this adventure does a good job of introducing a standard fantasy setting location without leaning too heavily on any of the more negative traits inherent in D&D tradition.
Part 2: Ancients Arcana
This next section of the book introduces D&D 5e rules for cyphers, relics, and iron flesh, as well as introducing rules for mutations. Many of these items are translated from similar objects in Numenera, but with all the details needed to use these items in D&D.
For anyone that isn’t familiar with Numenera, cyphers are single use items, like potions, but with a much wider range of single use powers. Some might heal a character, create an impenetrable barrier, or fire off various beams of destructive energy. Cyphers are bits of technology that may or may not be discharging a function they were meant to perform, as they tend to be remnants of larger, ancient machines.
Cyphers are meant to be used on a regular basis, so one of the rules surrounding cyphers is that they react badly to one another when too many of them are carried in close proximity. There is a Cypher Danger Table that can be triggered when a character picks up too many cyphers at one time, and some of the results are very punitive. For example, the cyphers may reduce all of the character’s ability scores by three. Ouch.
Relics are items of technology that work more traditionally like magic items in D&D 5e. They can be reused, and some of them require attunement. To model that these are remnants of poorly understood technology, relics have a depletion roll, which can indicate that the item has permanently shut down, either due to the inability to perform maintenance or being unable to recharge the item. There is also a list of Relic Quirks that I like, but I’m also a big fan of the special traits that magic items can have as well.
Iron flesh is a term for cybernetics, modified for fantasy “understanding.” Like relics, iron flesh tends to be permanently functioning items, many of which can install themselves. There are some rules for swapping out iron flesh, which requires some dangerous procedures which involve pulling out the old, and installing the new. There is also an optional rule where characters might give up their ASI to gain Iron Flesh if the technology is common enough in the setting.
The rules for mutations give several options for how to swap out ability bonuses for mutations. Characters can pick a few utilitarian, less powerful mutations without much fanfare, but there are options to get more powerful mutations in exchange for accepting detrimental mutations.
I like the concept of custom building character’s physical traits, but there are a few parts of this system that I wish worked a bit differently. Rules as written, mutations are completely random, so even beneficial mutations may end up not being as helpful for a character concept as it might otherwise be. There are also “harmful” mutations, whose rules spend a lot of space on quantifying disabilities. There isn’t really much discussion of how this might affect the game, the narrative, or the players interacting with those rules, and honestly, that many rules dwelling on what are effectively disabilities just doesn’t make me overly comfortable.
Part 3: Monsters Primeval
There are a wide variety of creatures, mainly portrayed as beings brought in from alternate dimensions, beings that have been mutated, or creatures that have been modified by technology.
What I like about many of these creatures is that their existence is a “story.” Many of them have a specific purpose or a way they interact with the world, and because of their stranger aspects, these purposes aren’t often evident at first glance.
There are plants that animate stone, cyborgs that impersonate animals to collect data, creatures powered by personal singularities, ancient, massive war machines, and giant constructs that house ancient cities in stasis within their heads.
Some of these creatures are fun, but are no more strange or hard to explain than any other aberration or rare beast that isn’t often seen. Those are a lot easier to incorporate with a more “standard” fantasy setting. In addition to all of the “storied” monsters, there is also a section that details different automatons that might be encountered in ancient technological sites.
I really like the imagination on display here (even when I was familiar with some of the creatures from their original sources in Numenera products), and I liked the running commentary from the elf and dwarf NPCs that frame the information. That said, the two of them occasionally veer into reductive fantasy assumptions, which is unchallenged in the narrative. There is a lot of imagination in the new creatures and how they interact with the world, but less with the status and role of traditional species within the fantasy world.
There is also a trend that does feel a little overused over the course of the bestiary. There are many automatons or programmed creatures that were created to do a thing that they cannot do in the context of the current society they find themselves in, so they may be difficult to deal with if the PCs don’t determine how to interact with them through the lens of their original purpose. This is a great story, but it’s retold across several different entries in this book.
Part 4: Mastering the Arcana
The placement of this chapter is interesting to me, because it shows an intentional progression. First, a traditional adventure that provide context for the rest of the book. Second, hard rules for treasure and monsters that might show up are detailed. Finally, there is a discussion of how to incorporate these treasures and monsters into an ongoing campaign.
Topics in this section include the consequences of allowing Numenera to be affected like magic, and how a campaign might be altered if Numenera isn’t affected the same was as magic items. There are discussions about alternate rules to the rules set up in the previous sections (like the limit on cyphers).
Some rules involve drifting GM Intrusions from the Cypher System, as well as adding tables for cypher appearance, mutations, and weird wasteland effects. There are also feats that allow characters to use and manipulate technology more effectively, as well as allowing them to and fighting machine based enemies.
This section wraps up with two more adventures that take place in a setting where weird ancient technology has reappeared in the setting. The first involves split aspects of human beings across space and time and long distance teleportation to heavenly bodies. The second involves a character on a rampage of revenge, gathering a group of bandits to raid the countryside in a giant slug war machine.
I love the concept of the final adventure. Adventuring through a giant slug as a dungeon is great. I just wish that the drider that takes over the slug and his bugbears weren’t as two-dimensional as they are. There is a great internal rivalry that evolves within the factions in the slug that would be even better of the drider and his thugs weren’t overly simplified evil raiders.
The feats also feel a little more, uh, 3rd edition? They aren’t simple “you can do more of what you can already do,” as much as distinct rules modules that provide special rules for the character that picks them up. For example, not using up a cypher when triggered, granting a character an attack of opportunity whenever a type of creature takes an action, or using technological devices to attack with force or psychic damage instead of their usual effects.
The introductory adventure does a good job of providing a campaign reason for the introduction of this material, and I love the overall concept of the follow up adventures. The cyphers, relics, iron flesh, and mutations provide a ton of fun mechanical options to add to D&D 5e, even if you change the flavor of these items to make them less mysterious technology and more magical weirdness. Even without changing the flavor of the creatures, many of them work well in a D&D campaign.
Some of the discussion on mutations feels uncomfortably close to quantifying prejudice against physical disabilities. When describing “traditional” D&D humanoid societies, the text falls into a lot of reductive stereotypes when portraying creatures like drow or referencing orcs. There are a few rules interactions that feel more like the most punitive bits of 3rd edition D&D design instead of 5th editions usual paradigm (permanent ability score reduction, for example).
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
Obviously, to get the maximum level of usefulness from this product, you’ll want to be open minded about including lost and mysterious technology to your fantasy setting. That said, I can see repurposing a lot of the material for a setting like Eberron, with Cyphers being experimental gadgets, etc.
Even though it’s fairly easy to drift the descriptions of these items and this content for wider use, reskinning or using as is may not be for everyone, but if you have an interest in weird tech showing up in your fantasy settings, this may be something for you to explore.