An Exclusive Look At Arcana Of The Ancients For 5E D&D
The dragon lies dead at your feet, its death throes having scattered gold and jewel-encrusted swords across the vaulted chamber, the climactic end to a harrowing adventure. His fall has cracked open the far wall, and an eerie violet light pulses from the space beyond. The party cautiously slips into the newly revealed chamber. Within, great metallic sarcophagi emit the otherworldly glow, and murky shapes swirl inside. The scent of lightning after a storm hangs in the air. A vast sphere floats at the room’s center, seeming to devour and curve nearby light into a colorless void. The group’s wizard speaks up. “I have no idea what this is.”
Everyone turns to the venerable elf in the group, hundreds of years older than the rest of you, schooled in the distant histories of the world’s civilizations. “My people…have no record of this place,” she says, awestruck.
Arcana of the Ancients is the latest role-playing release announced by Monte Cook Games, bringing the wonder and strangeness of science/fantasy storytelling into your existing Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition game. Rooted in the ideas first presented in Cook’s Numenera RPG and setting, this upcoming release (scheduled for early 2020) adapts many of the most compelling ideas of that fiction, and transitions them for use by players and DMs in a D&D game. Whether it’s a dungeon master looking for unusual monsters and treasures, players hoping to expand their character abilities with inspiration from civilizations of the distant past, or a group that would love to create an entire campaign inspired by Numenera while using the familiar D&D rules, Arcana of the Ancients is being built to bring a new flavor to your gaming table.
Monte Cook is no stranger to the world of Dungeons & Dragons. After years with TSR crafting D&D adventures in the 1990s, Cook was deeply involved in the creation and design of the 3rd edition of the game for Wizards of the Coast. He subsequently departed, founding a separate company called Malhavoc Press, which was the source for dozens of supplemental products for DMs and their players. Returning to WotC in 2011, Cook briefly led the design for what would eventually become the 5th edition of the game, before departing to found his own company, from which Numenera (and several other excellent games) arose. That long professional interaction with the world’s oldest RPG was informed by an entire childhood in which D&D played a central role, from the first time he played in 1977 as a nine-year old. “I’ve been playing this game for so long,” Cook recalls. “I feel like it’s written into my DNA. It’s so much of who I am that it’s both very easy and really enjoyable to come back to it.”
Arcana of the Ancients is being published by Monte Cook Games. It’s not an official D&D product, but it’s built to capitalize on the widely used 5th edition ruleset, and help gaming groups evolve their campaigns in surprising new directions. “The genius of 5E is that it has encapsulated the essence of all the prior editions of Dungeons & Dragons,” Cook says. “It doesn’t matter whether you are an old-school player, or you started with 4E, or whatever, it’s really easy to come into 5E, and there aren’t a lot of hurdles to understanding how it works.”
As the new edition of D&D has surged in popularity in recent years, there’s a plethora of players out there who are discovering role-playing games for the first time, joining veterans who have enjoyed the hobby for decades. For many, the entryway into gaming is Dungeons & Dragons. Given that popularity, it’s not hard to understand why Cook opted for a product that would act as a bridge to the rich fiction and gameplay tropes inherent to Numenera. “It’s because so many people have asked for it,” Cook says. “I have a lot of history with Dungeons & Dragons. So as soon as I came out with Numenera, people said: ‘Oh, this is great, we like it, the ideas are so interesting, but I love D&D.’ And that’s fine! That’s a great place to be. Then we hired Bruce Cordell, who has this long history with D&D. And then we hired Sean Reynolds, who has the same. All of us here are still huge fans of 5th edition and our path with D&D, and it sort of made sense.”
Arcana of the Ancients is by no means meant to be a replacement for Numenera. In fact, a newly revised and expanded version of Numenera recently launched to high praise (including selection in Game Informer’s Best Role-Playing Tabletop Games of 2018). The Numenera game, with all its unique twists, narrative focus, and sprawling Ninth World setting, continues to expand even as we speak. Arcana of the Ancients is simply a way to bring some aspects of that world to life for players who are dyed-in-the-wool D&D faithful, and give DMs of any experience level a chance to throw a curve ball during their weekly D&D nights.
To hear Cook describe the upcoming release, Arcana of the Ancients is a game book about expanding options. While a canny dungeon master could conceivably use the information contained within to run a Numenera game using 5th edition rules and stat blocks, that’s not the central goal of the project. Instead, it’s about taking some of the weirdness and surprise inherent to Numenera, and transplanting it into your own game world, whether that’s a long-running trek across the Forgotten Realms, or a homebrew setting you’ve spent years concocting. “If you can give me a brand-new campaign world, that’s interesting,” Cook says. “But if you can give me something that I can use in my existing campaign that I’ve already been playing for six months, and my characters are sixth level now, and I don’t want to just start over – that’s much more valuable to me.”
What is the science/fantasy concept that Arcana of the Ancients promises to add to a game? “Science fantasy is this whole other branch of places to explore, creatures to encounter, and treasures to find,” Cook says. “The approach we want to take is that there is this deep past to the D&D world, and there were these ancient civilizations that approached things very differently than humans with swords and spells, and created a technology, or even a different kind of magic.” Will your Detect Magic spell pick up the detritus of these lost societies, or is this technology something entirely different – yes or no are both viable answers within your personal home game, and both are explored by the contents of the book. In answering those, and all the other natural questions that arise when considering this kind of addition to a campaign, Cook and his team are hoping to provide tools to integrate these ancient artifacts, creatures, and abilities into the natural flow of your play.
That starts with actual adventures, and that’s exactly how the book will open. “We want to give gamemasters a way to pick this game up on a Monday, and on Friday you can suddenly start using this material,” Cook says. “The first adventure is a very standard 5E adventure in a dungeon-like setting. But in the course of that, you discover something from the distant past, it doesn’t work like you’re used to magic working, and you’re not really sure how to identify it or where it comes from. You begin to realize that the world is far more ancient than we ever thought. We, the player characters, are the first ones encountering this.”
From there, Arcana of the Ancients plans to offer a wealth of discrete content pieces and guidance that can be dropped in as you see fit, integrating ideas of incomprehensible timeworn relics, technology, and monsters directly into your ongoing campaign. One of the central conceits of the Numenera RPG is the idea of cyphers – ancient items or concepts of unknowable history or provenance – and that concept is moving over largely intact into the D&D iteration. These are single-use items, often of significant power, which can be used as rewards, adventure hooks, and more. “D&D already has weird one-use potions and scrolls and magic items of that nature,” Cook says. “It’s an easy transition from that point to talk about all these items that are one-use. The interesting thing about cyphers is that they come pretty fast and furious, but you don’t have the ability to possess very many of them at a time. The whole point of that is to encourage their use.”
Numenera players already know the transformative effect cyphers can have on a play session. Because you can only hold a few, you don’t feel bad about popping one off to ratchet up the excitement of a particular encounter or problem, because you know that there are more on the way in short order. For a DM, it means you don’t have to worry about dropping in loot that upon repeated use will completely derail your game’s balance. One cypher might create a permanent castle out of thin air. Another might teleport a living being to any location within a mile of your current locale. Yet another might blow up a whole city block. The point is that it can only happen once.
The new book also aims to provide reconstructions of some of Numenera’s most unusual and exciting creatures, but fully modeled in 5th edition rules and stats. That’s exciting, because the creatures that populate this fiction are consistently so surprising. “Very few of these Numenera creatures don’t have a hard right turn,” Cook says. “We have a creature called a murden, a humanoid raven-like being – something we’ve seen before in other fantasy games – but the murden are weird because they don’t speak. They are telepathic, and for anyone who is around them when they’re speaking telepathically with one another, it’s this horrible sort of headache-inducing brain burst.”
Another creature has completely different characteristics depending on whether you encounter them at night or during the day. Yet another forces your character to forget about ever encountering them after you see them. For DMs with longtime players, this kind of crafted monster encounter can be a game-changer. Your longtime players may know all about what flame does to a troll, or what each eye stalk of a beholder can inflict, but do they know how to deal with two rampaging half-flesh/half-metal callerails as they absorb every inorganic object in the vicinity, or that the aftereffect of their battle is the asexual reproduction of the victor? That kind of wild concept is typical for the kind of beasts planned for inclusion in the book.
Cook and his fellow designers bring decades of game design experience to the table, fusing a clear vision of their own creation of Numenera with a deep understanding of D&D’s strengths, limitations, and flexibility. I've had a chance to peruse early drafts of monster and item write-ups, and it's clear that shared knowledge is paying off. “It’s a bit more art than science,” Cook admits. “I’m grateful that we all have a really firm grounding in both Numenera and D&D. It makes this process a lot easier. When you’re taking something from one game and putting it in another, it requires a level of understanding to know how to take the essence of something, and put that essence in another game system. It might require tweaking it in ways you wouldn’t think because you understand how the gameplay works.”
Beyond a new bag of tricks for DMs, Arcana of the Ancients is also hoping to pack in new options for players. The design team is exploring abilities and backgrounds related to ancient technologies, archaeology, and other concepts that let players invest in the science/fantasy elements of a campaign. But in many situations, it may be the ways that players interact with long-lost relics, locales, and creatures that provide new avenues and playstyles. “Mostly what I mean with player-facing stuff is that interesting things can happen to your players,” Cook says. “You can get bizarre mutations from radiations that we don’t understand, and it changes your character to have armored flesh. Or weird abilities, like cybernetics. There’s a lot of things that can change your character as you’re discovering these ancient things.”
For many reasons, Arcana of the Ancients is appealing because it dovetails naturally from the tropes and settings D&D is already known for. “Numenera’s Ninth World is itself very intentionally a classic fantasy world at first glance,” Cook says. “I did that in the design specifically to make it more approachable, whether you’re a fan of D&D, The Lord of the Rings, or whatever. It’s very easy to take the sensibilities of Numenera – which are that there were these powerful civilizations in the incredibly deep past that have left behind things that, in the Ninth World, seem like magic because they’re so incredibly advanced.”
Cook admits that some of his earliest impulses as a GM when he was a kid were toward homebrewing these very ideas into his games. “I was putting stuff like this into my games all the time,” Cook says. “It was probably extremely early in my D&D life that some player ended up with a lightsaber. To me, those ideas of weird relics of really advanced technology mixed in with my traditional fantasy – that just says D&D to me.”
This new project from Monte Cook Games magnifies that flirting tendency with distant lost technology, and provides tools for gaming groups to bring those ideas to life with minimal effort. The product itself is still in active production, but the newly revealed art scattered across this article speaks to the quality that the team is shooting for. “We are extremely proud of the art that we have had for Numenera throughout its entire life,” Cook says. “We want to carry over that same sensibility to this book, and have weird jaw-dropping scenes and art in this book.“
Arcana of the Ancients is still a ways off. The planned release in early 2020 means that D&D groups will have to wait awhile to implement these ideas into their campaigns. However, Monte Cook Games is leveraging its many successful years of Kickstarter crowdfunding, and curious gamers can expect the chance to lock in their copies by contributing to the book’s Kickstarter running from mid-March through mid-April, launching just a few days from this article’s publication. “This is going to be a big book,” Cook says. “It’s going to take a while. What we’ll probably do is have stretch goals built into the Kickstarter which will likely end up making the book bigger. I won’t be surprised at all if the book ends up being in the 300-page area.”
As an enthusiastic player and GM of both D&D and Numenera, I’m excited by the potential of Arcana of the Ancients. Cook’s team has a penchant for especially creative design, accessible but smart presentation of rules and setting, and evocative book layout that fires up the imagination. I know more than a few friends who have been reticent to venture into rulesets beyond the familiar trappings of 5E, and here is a book that will provide a chance to discover what is on offer in the most ingenious elements of the Numenera world. Moreover, it’s a project that feels like a meeting point for Monte Cook between the two role-playing games that have most defined his career; the resulting mix has the makings of an especially potent magic.