Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved is a “director’s cut” version of Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed, a varient Player’s Handbook for the 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. The first thing that has to be emphasized about Arcana Evolved (AE) is that this is an alternate system of D&D. It has all the same rules as the classic D20 system but with a few twists. It is written to be compatible with the other core rulebooks, but replaces the Player’s Handbook. So, you can enjoy an Arcana Evolved campaign with just this book, the Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monster Manual.
Except for humans, there are all new races in Arcana Evolved. These include Faen (small fey – Quicklings, Loresong, and Sprytes), Litorians (noble lion folk), Runechildren (beings touched by rune magic and changed for it) Sibeccai (evolved from jackels to serve the giants), Dracha (dragon-kin), Mojh (humans who have transformed themselves to be more dragon-like), Giants (not the tall brutes you’re used to), Verrik (human-like with superior intelligence, not unlike Vulcans). All of the classes have been replaced as well. In AE, there are Akashics (skill-based, they get their abilities from the collective memory of the world), Champions (warriors for a cause, what Paladins should have been), Greenbonds (mystics attuned to the spirits of the natural world, similar to druids), Mage Blades (warrior/mages whose bladed weapons are the key to their magic), Magisters (wizards whose magic is tied to their staves), Oathsworn (warriors who gain great power by swearing oaths to complete goals, like monks), Runethanes (mages whose powered is tied to the use of runes), Ritual Warriors (warriors who believe combat is the height of ritual and ceremony), Totem Warriors (warriors who have a tie to the natural world and a particular animal totem), Unfettered (swashbuckling roguish warriors), Warmains (tactical warriors who specialize in the heaviest armor and biggest weapons they can use), and witches (a pretty unique class that’s hard to describe).
Many of the classes aren’t served well by my short descriptions. Many of them have a lot of options that allow you to create a unique character. You can be a Champion of Death, Life, Freedom, et al., or a Bear Totem Warrior (or Snake, Hawk, Wolverine, etc.), there are Winter Witches, Wood Witches, Frost Witches, etc. AE is about the freedom to create characters that are unique and can fulfill just about any concept you have. Ceremony and ritual play a big part in this game, and many feats can only be taken through participating in a ceremony. Class progression goes through level 25, with 20+ level characters gaining powers that are epic in scope, including 10th level spells! Hero points are also used in AE, they are similiar to Action Points from D20 Modern or 3rd edition Eberron, or Force points from Star Wars D20.
Alignments are gone out of AE as well, the philosophy being that alignment is an artificial construct that tries to define morals and ethics in a black and white structure, when in reality, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Any creature or person can have any outlook, though it’s still assumed that goblins are usually nasty, evil creatures. But, that doesn’t mean that all goblins by definition are evil.
The biggest difference between AE and standard D&D is the magic system. Gone is the division between arcane and divine magic. Spells are divided into three types: simple, complex, and exotic. Templates exists, that casters can access through feats, to modify spells. So a caster with the acid template could apply it to their ice bolt spell and fire off an acid bolt. It creates a huge number of variations. It also assures that the PCs can no longer assume high-level enemy casters will always through fireballs and lightning bolts at them.
AE is set in a world called The Diamond Throne. The campaign setting is included in Arcana Evolved. It was formerly published separately. The inclusion here is a welcome addition. The campaign setting includes everything you need to know run a campaign, but doesn’t give you information detailed down to which street in a certain town has what businesses. Monte Cook has purposely left those details up to individual campaigns.
A handful of monsters are also included to get you started. More are available in a book called Legacy of Dragons. If you have the Monster Manual, a guide has been provided to show what is appropriate for The Diamond Throne.
The great thing about AE is everything was tested to be compatible with the third edition of D&D. So if you want to play a witch from AE in your current D&D game, as long as you stick to the magic system and spells in AE with your witch, it will be balanced with the campaign you have. It would take only minor tweaking for AE to be compatible with Pathfinder, as well. The magic classes might not even need tweaking to be competitive, though I haven’t tried that out in practice.
The presentation of Arcana Evolved is beautiful. It’s a full color book and the illustrations are, for the most part, gorgeous. It’s easy to see that the $50 I paid for this book during its first print run was justified. It has an attractive design, easy-to-read layout, and is beautifully illustrated. If you’re looking to spice up your game with something new, but don’t want to get completely away from D&D, the Arcana Evolved will fit the bill nicely.