" Only half of what it gives you on the screen is even remotely useful... "
Title: Arcana Unearthed DM's Screen and Player's Guide by Sword and Sorcery
Format: D20 accessory
Reviewing Monkey: Our Ape Masters
The Hype: In a game with players as intense and scrutinizing as D&D tends to have a DM's screen can be down right critical. Not only does it allow you to spread your notes out and still keep them a secret but it also lets you hide your rolls…valuable since we've all had that player in our campaigns who can and will do the math and declare to the rest of the group the stats of the monster their facing by how high a roll it needed to hit you or who will bitch when you cheat the numbers they see you roll. So now Monte Cook has entered into the fray with his own screen (and you'll know it's his because he will take every opportunity to remind you of the fact). But will it help you slay the mighty dragon or drag you down, strip you naked, and make roofied love to you with a halfling? Read on and find out.
What This Monkey Thought...
Playability: More than just a DM's screen,
this packet also comes with an Arcana Unearthed player's guide. Interestingly
enough only about half of the player's guide is actually directed at enhancing
players, however. That half includes extended notes (about three paragraphs
each) on how to play the Arcana Unearthed races and classes, while the other
is some optional rules for converting official D&D spells, races, skills, and
feats to work with your Arcana Unearthed game.
That being said, the question is still how playable is it. The answer, in short, is not very. Sticking with the player's guide for a second, most of what it provides is the character enhancement stuff which is valuable to be sure but so limited that I really can't imagine it helping you all that much. Each description is so bloody short that it can't, and doesn't, serve to provide much and it's all so incredibly generic that it reads like early developer's notes that Monte thought he could turn into a few bucks by putting them in print. Certainly uninspired to say the least. As for the other offering, that of conversion rules, if you can't figure out how to convert feats from D&D to a D&D clone you shouldn't be wasting time reading that you could be spending pushing your mop for 37 cents an hour. The one saving grace of the guide, however, is that the interior cover of this soft bound book is actually a "player's reference card" which includes a myriad of random information regarding checks and modifiers. You'll have to yank the cover off the book to use them but, trust me, you won't mind. That's the good news. The bad news is that much of what it gives you are DC's for various activities (such as riding and climbing check modifiers) and if you're DM's worth his or her salt he won't be sticking 100% to the standard equations, so they're pretty much only guides to tell you how much relatively harder or easier things are.
Moving on to the DM's screen itself, I can't help but be filled with wrath and ire. I'm saying this upfront so you can get in the proper mindset for the venom I'm about to spew. First off, and arguably most importantly, it's designed as a half rather than full screen, so instead of being 3 or more 8.5x11 pages stuck side to side (making the nice, tall, screen we're all accustomed to) it attaches the 3 pages end to end, thus giving you a screen that's 8.5 inches tall and 33 inches wide. Why they did it I can't really fathom except that likely it was a cost saving measure. Or, perhaps, they could have thought you were all children (which says something about who Monte thinks he's selling to) or dwarves that couldn't see 9 inches above the table. What they seemed not to have noticed, however, is that anyone of reasonable size that's sitting closer than 6 feet (and if they're farther away than that why do you need a screen at all?) from the DM will see right over the screen and thus negate the potential advantage of having one.
But that still wouldn't be totally damning if it had critical and useful information on it. To a small degree it in fact does, which is nice. It has some typically used strength check numbers, common attack roll modifiers, and whether or not some fundamental actions create attacks of opportunity. All handy. What's not handy is what else they choose to and not to give you. What they don't give you is equally used information like feat or spell effects, common "throw away" encounter monsters or random monster encounter charts, reminders on encounter matters (facing, flankings, etc.), or other critical and commonly referenced material. What they give you instead are stats for every single standard weapon and armor type in Arcana Unearthed, common item hardness, spotting distance modifiers, and the percentages of your base speed you are moving at in different stepping speeds (walking, hustling, running, etc.).
Now, I don't know about you, but personally I would much rather know the effects of combat feats and spells than (and I'm pulling these straight off the screen): 1) the damage of a Spryte javelin, 2) your spotting distance indoors (line of site, in case you couldn't guess), 3) the spotting difficulty in total darkness (impossible, in case you didn't know that one either), 4) the hardness…and I swear to the High Monkey I'm not making this up…the hardness of A) rope, B) glass, and C) paper.
Yup, that's right, Monte Cook-the man who won't stop telling us he helped write D&D 3rd Edition in all his self advertising genius-- thinks that it's more valuable that you know how many hit points a phone book has than you know what damage a fireball does or what advantage the spring attack feat gives you. Hmm. No wonder they needed a version 3.5 a year after hitting market. 2 out of 5
Layout and Presentation: Though oddly small compared to the overall height of the screen, the painted art that adorns the screen is actually quite nice and depicts random inspirational scenes from the Arcana Unearthed world. Definitely not something I'd mind starting at for gaming session after gaming session, which is nice. What's a little less nice is that they are all recycled from the AU core book and that the bulk of the illustrations in the included player's guide are little more than pencil drafts of the painted works, which is a bit of a cop out. As for layout, both the screen and guide are well organized and have information presented more or less in a logical manner. There are a few oddities in how the weapons and modifiers are spread out but it's nothing you can't adapt to. 3 out of 5
Value vs. Cost: Retailing for a reasonable $15.95, the asking price isn't exorbitant vs. what you're getting. The problem is that so much of what you're getting you simply don't need (seriously? The hit points of a stack of paper? C'mon!) or comes at the cost of other much more useful information. 3 out of 5
|Well, only half of what it gives you on the screen is even remotely useful (we tracked how much of the info we used over a 6 game period…and saying "half" is generous, trust me), the screen is too small to effectively "screen", the player's guide is nigh unto worthless, and the player's reference card is only applicable if you're DM plays it robot-straight in determining DCs. Goody.|
The Good: The art is nice and some of the info is useful.
The Bad: But most of it is not worth having.
The Overall Ugly: There's a ton of 3rd party DM's screens out there. Pick one of them.
What it's Worth: A couple of bucks if you're hurtin' for a screen.