Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura

Better Put Your Hands Up. That’s Orc’s Elephant Gun is Loaded. Arcanum’s subtitle, Steamworks and Magick Obscura, sums up what is probably the most distinctive feature in Troika’s forthcoming RPG title: the rabid antagonism between technology and magic. In a world securely based on high magic and low technology — a fantasyland occupied by elves, dwarves, humans, orcs, and ogres — the last 75 years has abruptly seen understanding of the principles of science escalate to roughly mid-19th century level.

Such a development would throw any culture into turmoil. But Arcanum’s universe is further challenged because these two methods of relating to the world are mutually exclusive. The more an inhabitant knows of magic, the less they’re able to use a technology-based item effectively — and the less it affects them, in turn. This works the other way around as well. Those who completely master the sciences won’t get zapped by wands, but, by the same token, they’ll discover that high-level mages laugh at the threat posed by a gun.

This magic/technology dichotomy divides Arcanum as forcefully as religion split England under Charles I. No rapprochement is possible. Many villages and cities try to show a conciliatory face to the world, but they’re only masks, hiding tensions that seethe beneath the surface between individuals and among groups. Arcanum isn’t a postapocalyptic world, like Fallout, but one lurching toward disaster.

All this you will discover firsthand, as your character crash-lands on a zeppelin (it was attacked by orcs in WWI-style planes) and alone, of all the crew and passengers, survives unscathed. In typical RPG fashion, you’ll have many immediate opportunities to take on quests. Unlike the Fallout games, however, your quests will often deal with the ramifications of cultural disintegration. Some of these are on a purely personal level, like the request of a village alchemist who wants you to sabotage the local sheriff’s steam engine out of spite and a lost sense of personal prestige. Others have more to do with powerful groups wishing to take advantage of the present malaise and change the social order to favor themselves.

Your Arcanum character starts weak but has enormous potential. You can gain up to 50 levels in the game, investing character points on the technology and/or spell side of the equation. There are seven possible technological disciplines (Chemistry, Electrical, etc) that can each be increased seven times, from Novice to Doctor. It’s the combination of expertise in various disciplines that lets a character read schematics that are found, purchased or gifted (after completing a quest) during the game. Once you’ve acquired the components described on the schematic, you can proceed to create some pretty nifty items — like an Elephant Gun, or a Mind Marvel that boosts brain functions. (Can you say Jules Verne?)

Spellcasters aren’t neglected either. They have a choice of 16 spell categories, called “colleges.” Each college provides five spells that must be studied in a specific order. Multiple spells can be held in effect at the same time, though all spells cause fatigue in the caster — unless, of course, you’re using magical artifacts that supply their own spell charges.

Note that Arcanum, again like the Fallout games, encourages character choices based on attributes, rather than profession. An intelligent main character receives more dialog options, and charismatic souls will provoke favorable responses in those they meet. You can’t create a mage or fighter, but you can design a hero (or villain, since you can play successfully either way) who concentrates over time on learning a specific skill set.

An entirely separate area of character development (neutral, from a magic vs. technology standpoint) is that of generic skills. There are 16 skills that include subcategories of fighting, thieving and the all-inclusive other (healing, haggle, persuasion, etc). You don’t put character points into advancing these skills, but seek out, Might & Magic fashion, a trainer who can improve a specific skill to the Apprentice, Expert or Master level. At lower levels, these trainers can be found in standard cities, but to find the best training, you have to search far and wide, pay potentially exorbitant prices and engage in major quests. Rumor has it that you may even be required to kill an opposing trainer in some cases, thus preventing you from acquiring all skills at their highest level.

You’ll be able to pick up a variety of followers in Arcanum. Some will join you willingly; others will come along only because they’re required to do so, as a result, perhaps, of a quest. Each follower has a personal agenda too. I’ve had several that backed out of specific fights because they didn’t like my reason for undertaking them (though they remained in my party).

The Arcanum I’ve become acquainted with through a beta is a fascinating place, with a level of quest and social complexity and character configuration that surpasses Troika’s previous work. Balancing is still in progress — what else would you expect in a product like this? — but the team is still promising a target date of February 2001. Pencil out a week or two now; every RPGer will want to check it out.