Unearthed Arcana (1985)

Unearthed Arcana is an interesting book. At its core, it is a collection of materials from Gygax’s Dragon Magazine column, reformatted into a D&D rulebook. Published in 1985, it marks the Gygax comeback.

In the early 80s, Gygax was having problems, both privately and professionally. His marriage was falling apart, he was constantly at odds with the Blume brothers, who had a controlling interest in TSR, and was dabbling in drugs. The Blumes split the company, keeping the gaming half and Gygax went to Los Angeles to head the Entertainment division. By 1984, the Blumes had run their half of the company into serious debt, thanks to unchecked spending of dubious value. Gygax took back control of the company and got to work on new products to get TSR out of debt. Unearthed Arcana sold like crazy and the company was saved (paving the way for Lorraine Williams to take it over and gradually run it into the ground, but that’s a story for another day).

Thing is, Unearthed Arcana is a terrible book. It is full of errors and inconsistencies. The new material drastically unbalances the game. Efforts were made in Dragon Magazine to correct the book, but those corrections never made it into future printings.

Unearthed Arcana proved to the industry that core rulebooks were the way to fiscal success. The downside of this is that publishing a bunch of core books creates a high financial barrier to entry for new players and decentralizes those rules, making them harder to use. In this way, Unearthed Arcana is the dress rehearsal for the publishing practices that killed AD&D Second Edition – and TSR – a decade later.

Nice cover, tho.

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