The jump to Arduin took it out of me. I arrived in an alley of the city of Talismonde shaking from the effort. Arduin is one of the most distant of the planes of imagination, and there is no easy road to take there. Even the talismans of passage–never exactly common–have become coveted, prized, nigh-impossible to come by. Fog lay on the city, thick as brush fire smoke and redolent of scents by turns intriguing and repulsive. I could scarcely see five feet ahead of me, but I could hear the murmur of voices and the clatter of wagons, horses, and shoes upon the street.
I had arrived next door to a public house, it seemed, for a door in a brick building so aged the wall was buckling in the middle opened next to me and a deodanth stepped out.
Have you ever seen a deodanth? Or even heard tell of one? I reckon if you aren’t one of the old school you have not. And there are few who have even among us. They call to mind both the elves (whom they utterly despise) and the most deadly species of wild cats. Tall they are, and slender, quick and deadly. Whence they came, none can say. They are accepted in civilized places, but they are everywhere feared. They are difficult in the extreme to befriend, and very easy to make into an enemy.
This creature I saw. And he saw me. He circled me, frowning and silent. His nostrils flared as he evaluated my scent. This was discomfiting, but I remained calm and impassive. I had caught the deodanth’s attention and he was evaluating my presence in the way customary of all his people. This was a critical moment. If you encounter one his kind and they engage in this behavior, show no fear or annoyance. This would be considered an insult, and it is no safe thing to offer insult to a deodanth.
He stopped circling and moved in close, uncomfortably close. He slowly closed his eyes, and opened them again. I returned this gesture. His posture relaxed and he took a step back. He regarded me now in a more relaxed manner.
“Has Dave sent you here to us? Is Dave coming? It has been long since we have seen him.”
I hung my head. This response was involuntary, for although the questioner was to be feared, the question pierced my heart.
Dave Hargrave died in 1986.
No figure in the early development of the role playing industry has been more ill-served by the passage of time than David A. Hargrave. Outside of a small cult of aging gamers, his name and works remain largely obscure. Younger gamers, those of you who began with the Wizards of the Coast designs, will likely not know the name at all.
This, despite the fact that he published one of the earliest game settings the hobby ever produced and was one of the very first producers of (unauthorized) third party content for the White Box version of the game. Hargrave’s time as a designer and publisher were very short. Arduin Grimoire Volume 1 is published in 1977, and Hargrave succumbed to heart disease in 1986. A trickle of posthumous releases has followed since then, the most notable of which is the Compleat Arduin.
Before we get into what Compleat Arduin is, and whether or not it succeeds in the goals it sets for itself, we need to take a look at the early roots of the system. In the beginning, there was The Arduin Grimoire and the two volumes that followed, “Welcome to Skull Tower” and “The Runes of Doom.” The names alone should be sufficient to let the reader know that Hargrave and his creations are coming from a very, very different place.
Rewind to the first era of the game, the White Box and the early supplements that followed it. Back then, the default setting for the game was that every single DM ran the game differently. Those who could not wait for new rules to be written, wrote them for themselves. And among the first of these pioneers was Hargrave. The big difference between Hargrave and his contemporaries is that while Bledsaw, his Judge’s Guild, and their very few contemporaries were producing content, they added very little in the way of rules.
Hargrave added new character classes, new character races, an entirely new magic system, and the beginnings of a fantasy world. Once you started integrating Hargraves changes into your game, what you had rapidly stopped being Dungeons and Dragons and became something else entirely. Hargrave had effectively created a competing rules system disguised as a set of expansions for Dungeons and Dragons.
This did not edify or amuse Gary Gygax, who served Hargrave with a cease and desist from using any reference to TSR’s property in his products. Gygax even indirectly references Hargrave and Arduin in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, admonishing players to use only official D&D products to ensure they played the real game and not a variant.
And within this bit of history lies a wrong turn at Albequerque for the entire Dungeons and Dragons game. Had Gygax reached out with an offer to bring Hargrave onto his staff at TSR, the whole history of the hobby would have been very different, and many of the best ideas ever conceived for fantasy roleplaying would be long-established conventions. Instead, they are nearly extinct.
Hargrave’s imitation of TSR’s products did not end with the pamphlet style booklets. In 1980, he released The Arduin Adventure, a booklet clearly evocative of the Basic/Expert Dungeons&Dragons rules meant to eliminate the need for any actual D&D foundation for his books. Arduin as a proprietary fantasy role playing system had been established. Another three Arduin volumes would follow, and he would produce a total of four dungeon modules for his system.
My experience with the original Arduin Trilogy was limited to a brief window of time in which a friend loaned me his copies. I never owned a copy of Arduin Adventure or Compleat Arduin until years after the fact.
Arduin was never a movement, never truly a hit. It was, and is, more of a cult item, a secret handshake of old school knowledge. It is likely more new players have jumped in to the hobby since the Fifth Edition of Dungeons&Dragons launched than ever knew or cared about Arduin.
So why talk about it? Why write about it? And above all, why write a review for a version of the game that was an unqualified commercial failure and is difficult to obtain even online?
Because it was amazing. And because both Compleat Arduin and the earlier books that preceded were groundbreaking. In some ways, the hobby still hasn’t caught up to the ideas that Hargrave developed over thirty years ago.
So, with all the necessary preamble dispensed with we shall review the Compleat Arduin, released in 1992, six years after his death.
The Compleat Arduin abandons Hargrave’s intended title “Arduin, Bloody Arduin”. Too bad. I like that title much better. The Arduin product line graduated to the 8 1/2 by 11 trade paperback format that had become an industry standard by the early nineties. We have two volumes to consider, Volume One, The Rules and Volume Two, The Resources. The numbering in the two books runs as if it were a single volume, with an index at the end of Volume Two. Perhaps if the publishers had more money, this would have been the single hardcover volume it clearly wanted to be.
In Volume One, we get the game mechanics, character classes, and character races. This edition is the first time that all of Hargrave’s roleplaying rules had ever been collated in one place. Previously, this rules set comprised the original series of pamphlet editions, the Arduin Adventure, and a volume called Revised Arduin: A Primer. This latter is such a rarity that I’ve never seen a copy for sale in the real world or online, nor met anyone that owned one.
Volume One begins with the important caveat that while Arduin is a complete system, it is modular in design. The GM is encouraged to use as much or as little of the rules as he desires. This was an important feature of Hargrave’s original products, and this carries over here. Arduin was also the first game system to take this approach.
The character creation rules are somewhat more labor intensive than what most D&D players of the era were accustomed to. Hargrave intended creation to be a game session unto itself, and act of gradually building up and getting to know a character before the first game is played. Whether or not this is the pleasant experience the author intended is largely a matter of personal taste. There are many layers to build up, with the end result being substantially more detailed and vivid than character creation in any edition of D&D. Chivalry and Sorcery, Rolemaster, and Palladium come to mind as systems that share a similar approach to character generation.
For a person coming to Arduin for the first time, the first indication that the game is special comes with chapter on character races. Simply put, no roleplaying game in the history of the genre has offered a better or more unique selection of playable races. None. You have the traditional choices, along with Saurigs, the insectoid Phraints, Deodanths, Knoblins, Kobbitts, Throon…it’s a long list. And they are all extremely enticing. Deciding which race you want to play could well add an hour to character generation.
We also encounter our first references in the rules that distinguish generic rules and how things are “in Arduin.”
The choices for character classes are as impressive as the races. You have Martial Artists, Witch-Hunters, Beast Masters, Saints, Courtesans, Technos..the variety is rich, varied, and interesting. The mix of playable races and characters is far superior to any set of fantasy roleplaying rules available at the time, and I would argue even today. We haven’t learned much about the world of Arduin yet, but these early chapters make you want to. The originality is not just in the characters and races invented for the system, this extends to the races and classes we know from D&D. There are multiple kinds of elves, centaurs, spellcasters. Yes, 2E had similar depth but this was scattered through a mountain of books. Compleat Arduin does it in two.
Magic is radically different than the familiar Vancian system created by Gary Gygax. Rather than memorizing a set number of spells based on level and intelligence/wisdom bonuses, every player has a pool of mana derived from his stats. When a wizard casts a spell, he depletes from this pool of energy. And he has choices. He may put all his energy into a single, mighty casting, or he may budget his power in order to cast more spells. This concept is now fairly well-known, and Arduin is where it originated.
The balance of Volume One is given over to the rest of the game mechanics. There are rules for combat, unarmed combat, firearms, energy weapons, and critical hits. The scope of the rules describes a fantasy world in which science fiction concepts exist. There are aliens and advanced technology. The creative GM could very easily tilt his game toward SF with a fantasy flavor, or the reverse. Or he could just do one or the other.
While characters, races, and spell casting are all very interesting topics, the mundane subject of XP and character advancement is worth noting here. The rules are simple, but groundbreaking. And you may find yourself wanting to punt the system you are using now in favor of them. There are no XP charts. There are no experience points meted out for monsters, treasures, or doing things. Characters advance solely based on the number of adventures they go on, or the number of years they have invested in actively pursuing their careers. Hargrave lays out his recommended guidelines, but really, the concept is key. No other rules set approached advancement in this way before, and I can’t point to a game that has done it since.
As a whole, the mechanics stand as a good, usable set of FRPG rules that encompass a very wide set of possibilities. In this writer’s opinion, the key elements that make them significant are the conceptual content of the characters and races, and the then-radical spellcasting rules which made the magic using classes far more varied and useful at lower level than Dungeons&Dragons. On the balance, this is a well designed and competent set of rules with moments of brilliance that in some cases have not been surpassed. The modular intent is clearly visible, although in practice gutting out any portion of an existing system and replacing it with Arduin would be a daunting task. I’m going to say that the game succeeds very well as a system but fails in the goal of being easily broken into digestible pieces one can pick and choose from.
Which brings us to Volume Two, The Resources.
Volume Two is somewhat heftier than Volume One. Herein, we get the spells, the magic items, the monsters, and various charts of the type one would associate with a Dungeon Master’s Guide. And here is where it bears mentioning that there is very, very, very little in the way of artwork in the Compleat Arduin. How little? A single chapter in most roleplaying releases going back to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons would contain more original artwork than the two volumes I’m reviewing here. Even the same cover image is used on both volumes. There is a pro and a con at work here with this scarcity of illustration.
On the pro side, these books contain an incredible density of information. With a higher production budget, they could very easily have released three books in the familiar Player’s, Gamemaster’s, and Monsters format. There are more rules and ideas present than one would find in four volumes of such size by about any other publisher. This did represent a kind of economic boon to the consumer, even it was not the intent of Grimoire Games to do so.
And to truly grasp the yang to the yin involved in the lack of artwork, we need to open up the chapter on monsters.
There are a lot of entries, enough to favorably compare it to the original Monster Manual. Properly illustrated, you would have a single volume of about the same size as that first Gygax manual. And save for that first, glorious, original Monster Manual, this is the best bestiary you will ever see. Hargrave must needs and does cover the bread and butter standard creatures that inhabit every fantasy universe, and adds interesting variations to them. Star Dragons, anyone? How about the Drich–a druidic variation on that most horrifying of undead creatures. This original content is where Hargrave really outshone all of his contemporaries, and we see it again and again through these rules. And here is where I will throw the red flag in total frustration. All these brilliant concepts, and not one picture of a single one of them.
Moving onward, we have the spell lists. These run in “orders of power” up to level 30. The magic system is more powerful than the D&D system. High level magic in Arduin can be a truly terrifying thing, and a foe capable of casting the more potent and destructive spells is a TPK waiting to happen. Hargrave shares Gygax’s lack of interest in game balance, and if anything, raises the stakes with the destructive power he builds into his game. Those GMs who subscribe to the Mentzer school of balanced play should be advised to stay well clear of all things Arduin.
The section on Magic Items is full of items we know from the original game, in many cases renamed and changed a bit but still recognizable. There are some hilarious cursed items (Boots of Banana Peel) and very desirable original items unique to Arduin (Gloves of Gambling). Of all the chapters dealing with original content, this is the slimmest and the least impressive. It isn’t that the ideas are bad, far from it. There is simply not as much here to enjoy. A minor complaint, but another twenty or thirty pages of this content would have been most welcome–you really can’t have too many magic items in a rules set.
That leaves us with the chapter on Gamemaster Aids. Here is the only chapter in which Arduin’s stated intent to interface with other systems works. We get charts for weather, encounters, random fogs and mists, and rules for calculating how far characters can travel on foot based on various factors. Most of these can easily be imported into any RPG the GM owns. This chapter reads and feels almost like a catch-all for everything Hargrave left that didn’t fit easily anywhere else. This is also the shortest of the four sections in Volume Two.
And now we get to the enormous, firmament-clogging, indescribably baffling omission. The world of Arduin itself. We can see from the races, classes, monsters, and spells that this is a very interesting world indeed. But that’s all we get to see of it. We have not a description of it, not a map of it, and very little real discussion of it outside of a handful of references to rules that pertain specifically to how things are “in Arduin.” The customary introductory adventure that most systems include is omitted here. Even more vexing is the fact that these two volumes contain everything Grimoire Games intended to release. They are one big, complete book split into halves, that really should have been at least three books with illustrations.
And that, before we even get into the world of Arduin itself, which would have made for an incredibly cool boxed set, which of course, we will likely never have a chance to see.
So we have a game completely predicated on a world, and the world is nowhere to be seen in the game.
Mark Schynert did a fine job of collating the rules and getting them into a usable package. Compleat Arduin is far better formatted and accessible than the library of stylish but slapdash productions that came before it. That’s the success. Since he is the only other name on the book, and Hargrave was dead before he could complete it, Schynert must also shoulder the blame for this omission. This, and the poor presentation that the lack of artwork is responsible for likely crashed this game on the runway.
Presented as illustrated hardbacks and with the world mapped and described either in a book or in a boxed set, this would have been a breakout hit in 1992, a serious competitor to the functional but bland product TSR was cranking out after they ousted Gygax. And speaking of Gary….
I cannot help but imagine Gary in his office, the Arduin books laid out in front of him. And he’s at a fork in the road. And instead of taking legal action and trying to squash him out of the industry, he picks up the phone and calls Dave Hargrave.
And offers him a job.
I wish. How I wish. Things would have been very different.
The wizard came out of the tavern before the deodanth could react to my dismay. His robes were of iridescent blue silk, woven with golden stars and comets that moved, with almost imperceptible slowness, across the garment. His hair and beard were long and wild, and his eyes were yellow with age and decades of straining to read ancient texts. He regarded his friend with sadness.
“He asks all who pass this way from the otherworlds thus.”
He put his arm around the deodanth’s shoulder then, leading him back into the tavern where the table and the fire and the ale awaited them.
“If you see Dave, remind him we are waiting.”
He scowled, as if contemplating a mystery he could not unravel.
“It has been…long…since we have seen him.”
And with that, they departed the alley, and I turned and went back the way I came, away from fog-shrouded Talismonde and toward the lands that I knew well.
The real treasure in the Compleat Arduin are not the rules mechanics. They are the concepts. Ideas that scream up off the page and hammer at the empty space between the book and your eyes, they beg for attention and demand to be used. They ought to be common tropes of the hobby, but they are not. They are exiled and nearly forgotten, prisoners in an abandoned land. They exude both vitality and sadness, rich in promise but utterly doomed.
If mere ideas could weep for their creator, these surely would.
End note: the Arduin Books, including the Compleat Arduin, were for a time available from Emperor’s Choice Games. There appears to be some confusion about whether this company is still in business. There is a website, but nothing has been updated in a very long time.
Compleat Arduin is available in PDF format from RPGNOW.COM, for those who are interested in obtaining a copy.