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Spotlight Interview: Unearthed Arcana
Jeff Grubb

"Thus, Good Reader," Gary Gygax wrote in the preface to Unearthed Arcana, "here is the 'last word'—by far not the last word ever, but the latest so far. It is, after all, high time that those who enjoy the challenge and excitement of the AD&D game be presented with a tome such as this, a package which gathers all of the new discoveries, plus a wealth of just uncovered secrets, between one pair of covers. Preliminaries aside, here is Unearthed Arcana. It is now the moment you have waited for. Read on, and may you have as much fun with your creation as we are having with ours."

With today's release of Unearthed Arcana's premium reprint, we asked Jeff Grubb to share his insights and recollections regarding the book!

Wizards of the Coast: Seeing as you wrote the introduction to the book, what was your role and contributions with Unearthed Arcana?

Jeff Grubb: My official title was Design Consultant. This meant I was responsible for assembling and coordinating the original articles and design notes that would make up the book, smoothing out the rough bits, and giving it a coherent feel. If you like what is there, it is all the original designer’s talent. If you don’t, well, then that’s my fault.

Wizards: In the dedication to the book, you're credited (by Gary Gygax): "To Jeff Grubb, who belabored me with so many pages of questions and suggested qualifications that I’ll never forgive him." Out of curiosity, do you remember what any of these questions or qualifications might have been—what troubled you about any aspects of the content, or what troubled Gary for having been asked about it?

JG: Yes. I got the nod to work on Unearthed Arcana because I had previously worked on Monster Manual II with Gary two years previously. The design of UA was one of those “tumultuous periods” of TSR History, so my access to Gary was limited to sending him dot-matrix printouts with questions written on them. Every few days he would come in there would be another two dozen questions on his desk.

I think the toughest questions I put to him were about underpinning and the reasons that a spell or idea would work the way that it did. I was trying to make everything fit with existing canon, but I am sure I ended up sounding like an insistent six year old demanding explanations on why the sky was blue. For a number of these, he wrote “It’s magic!” as an explanation, and we left it at that.

Wizards: Unearthed Arcana (among a great many other things) featured three new classes: the Barbarian, the Cavalier, and the split-class Thief-Acrobat. Were there great differences in these classes from their original inception, their earlier versions in Dragon magazine, and their final published versions in UA? How did they progress along the way?

JG: I first encountered them in a Dragon magazine article (I think they were first mentioned in a Sorcerer’s Scroll column, but I could be wrong). The big challenge working through the development was that they had very different approaches and presentations. The Thief-Acrobat was table-heavy, as bespoke its descent from the original Thief class. The Cavalier was very campaign-based, in that we needed to define a moral code for the Cavalier to follow. The Barbarian was a big pile of new abilities and restrictions that were reduced over time. Oh yeah, the Barbarian had a d12 for hit dice, which ruffled a few feathers.

Wizards: In general, how did gathering feedback and playtesting of these classes work, back in days of strictly print magazines and letter writing? Any memorable errata that ever came from player feedback?

JG: Playtesting feedback was a tetchy thing back in the days before the Internet. I think we had one dialup line in our department, and that was used to access Compuserve. In working on UA, I started with feedback from the original articles, which ran a range from problematic to detailed. Most of the playtesting was done as we hit sticking points in the design, either ad hoc, set for evenings among my gaming group, or as we could spare at the office (Thursday afternoon was playtest day, but don’t let any of your deadlines flag).

I remember a big fight at the time about the Barbarian’s twelve-sided hit dice, and the arguments about whether campaign-based limitations merited an advantage.

Wizards: Did you ever have a preference among these three classes? Any that you felt best impacted the game? Any that best impacted the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon (since they all appeared there)?

JG: This will boggle you, but I only tweaked to the fact that these were characters that were in the D&D cartoon AFTER I had finished the work. The West Coast group that was involved with the cartoon was separated by half the country from the folks at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and most of their work there was wrapped up before I started my part of the design. Had I but known, the Barbarian would have gotten a unicorn sidekick at 10th level (joke!).

The Barbarian in particular saw the appearance of a lot of skills (First Aid, Survival, Running), that would eventually find their way into the game at large for other classes. So I would say the Barbarian was the most influential of the three.

Wizards: How do you feel Unearthed Arcana affected the overall toolbox of D&D? Were there any components or even concepts, great or small, that you feel best added to the game? That were worthy of particular attention? Or perhaps that you would now excise for being too powerful, odd, or otherwise not to your liking?

JG: UA was a big book of experiments. Some, like the spells and magical items, slid neatly into peoples’ campaigns. Others required a bit more work, like the Cavaliers and Barbarians (and the latter’s hatred of wizards, while very Conan-appropriate, created challenges similar to the Thief/Paladin dynamic earlier in peoples’ games).

I really liked Roger Moore’s nonhuman pantheons, and campaigned for their inclusion. At that time, we had a myriad number of human pantheons published in the Gods, Demigods, and Heroes book, but nothing for our original races. I thought Roger did a great job on showing purely racial pantheons, which have survived to this day.

The pieces that stuck most of all were things like the Full Plate and Elfin Chain Mail, which hung around for future editions. My favorite piece was one which I generated for the game, a simplified weaponless combat system presented in Appendix Q. My least favorite was probably Comeliness—it was one of those mechanics that I could see every in-game reason to incorporate (trying to break away from the High Charisma=Pretty trope), but I never could, in playtest or afterwards, get anyone to warm up to it.

Wizards: As a final note, Unearthed Arcana also brought a detailed appendix on pole arms, for which we made a quiz awhile back. Care to try your hand, and reveal your score?

JG: I got 19 out of 22. I called a bardiche a pole axe, an awl-pike a pike, and a glaive-guisarme a glaive. Though I would point out that an awl-pike is STILL a member of the pike family, so partial credit should be awarded.

And the last piece on that—I will claim full responsibility for that being in the book. Gary was unsure about whether it was relevant as a reprint from the original Dragon article, but I was certain that it was a cool thing, which gave more depth to all the plethora of Bohemian Ear Spoons in the original book.

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