Copyright 2016 Peter Maranci
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura is a role-playing videogame that was produced by the people who made Fallout. It's one of those games that I've come back to again and again, over the years. And since it was published in 2001, that's a lot of value for my gaming dollar! The game is quite cheap, by the way, and you can pick it up online. The graphics are a bit crude, yes - but the gameplay is amazing.
Like Fallout, Arcanum is a relatively open world. You can follow a set of quests if you wish, but apart from the initial areas (which are really for learning the game), you're free to roam the world and do what you wish. You can make it to the maximum level just from random encounters. And there are an astonishing number of approaches that you can take to get there.
The setting is an interesting blend of steampunk and magic, a world in which new ways of technology seem to be overtaking the old magic. Tech and magic are opposing forces, in many ways. The more invested you are in one, the less capable you are with the other - and the less power the other force has to affect you. That can be bad if you're a technologist travelling with a magical healer, for example.
There are all sorts of races that you can play: Humans, elves, half-elves, dwarves, gnomes, half-orcs, halflings, and half-ogres. What you play definitely impacts your experience in the game. Your characteristics have a huge effect on gameplay; a low Intelligence, for example, elicits very different responses from NPCs!
With 16 schools of magic, 16 different skills, and 8 different technological disciplines, there is no "one true way" to play. That said, some approaches are definitely easier than others.
This isn't an overview of the whole game; you can find plenty of those online. Rather, this is a collection of tips, as much for myself as anything. I tend to play the game intensely for a while, take a break for a year or so, and then come back to it again to try a new character. But there are a number of things that I tend to forget in the gaps. Here they are:
Your carrying capacity is limited. But there's a barrel in the small hut next to the miscellaneous merchant (the halfling) in Shrouded Hills. That barrel is absolutely secure, and it can store an insane amount of stuff. It makes an ideal bank. There are other barrels like that in Arcanum, but don't use trash cans - they are emptied every day.
Make sure to start with a Charisma of at least 9 (one higher than the normal unadjusted starting value). That way you can recruit the half-ogre in the Inn at Shrouded Hills almost right away. Not only is he an effective fighting companion, but by recruiting him early he'll level up with you. Likewise, make sure to rescue/recruit the mutt in Ashbury as early as possible, around level 12 at the latest. You can take the train to get there, but you'll have to return to Tarant overland because dogs aren't allowed on the train! Since that terrain can throw up some hazardous random encounters, make sure to save before you leave Ashbury. Also, note that the dog does NOT count against the total number of followers you have. He's a freebie. He's also a very effective warrior, which makes up for the fact that he can't carry anything for you.
If your plan is to have a lot of NPC followers, pump up your Charisma up as quickly as possible. Followers level up when you do, so if you wait to recruit followers until you're considerably higher-level than they are, they'll lag behind you for the whole game. They'll continue to level up once you've maxed out, but only at the rate you'd be levelling if you were able to go beyond 50.
On the other hand, be aware that having more than three followers tends to make the game lag a bit during combat, at least on my old PC. Also, when you have a lot of followers some of them don't seem to act during combat.
Followers can be stupid. They tend to equip the most powerful weapon they have, even if they don't have the necessary strength to use that weapon! So keep checking on what they're using. If the weapon is too heavy for them to use, it will appear red. It's usually a good idea to have an NPC carry armor that won't fit it. The half-ogre can safely carry human and small-sized armor, because he can't wear them.
Magnus the dwarf in Tarant is a useful early follower. He can make balanced swords, which are easily the best and fastest melee weapons in the first half of the game (at least, until you get to the Wheel Clan and buy Barbarian Heavy Blades from the merchant). Eventually he can also make eye pieces, which in addition to being useful on their own can also be used to make the Helmet of Vision - itself an ingredient to the Miner's Helmet and the Goggled Helmet. And he also plays a pretty key role in an interesting sub-plot. But Arcanum has many of those.
Unless you're playing an unusual character type, Dexterity is going to be the most important early characteristic you have. It will allow you to attack first, and more often. It helps attacks and dodges. It's great. Just remember that you'll get a point added to each characteristic toward the end of the game (from the Vitalizer in Vendigroth). Those points are limited to your species maximum, so don't max out any of your characteristics if you can avoid it! Note: all character types can make the Vitalizer, including mages.
Weapons and armor get damaged, particularly when fighting certain rock monsters or flame monsters (and Infernal Aryas). If they're easily replaceable, that's no problem. But as you get higher level and find better stuff, some of your equipment is going to be hard or impossible to replace. Almost all repairers will reduce the maximum armor points of an item when they repair it. The Master Repairer doesn't, unless he fumbles. He's in Caladon, at the aircraft factory. He's also the only one who can repair fully-broken items, although they DO lose some of their maximum HP in that case.
Firearms are probably the most difficult and flawed thing in the game. Guns do relatively low damage; they also require bullets, which can be difficult to replenish. You can eventually learn how to make them yourself, rather than buying them. But that won't happen until later in the game, so until then they're a bottleneck. Also they have weight, which is another problem if you try to amass a large number of them.
You need a high Intelligence to make the highest-level guns, high Perception to learn to use them properly, and high Dexterity to use them effectively - which is one more characteristic than is needed for either physical combat (Dex and Strength) or magic (Dexterity plus Willpower). I've played a gunfighter to the end, but it's definitely harder than playing a mage or melee or throwing specialist. Archers are also limited, in that they need arrows; that's a definite drawback.
Technology can definitely be a very effective approach, but usually you'll want to couple it with an effective physical attack skill - probably Melee or Throwing. Important: before you get too high-level in technology to interact with magical vendors, buy a Litani from the elf merchant on the docks in Ashbury! This is the closest thing to a real break in the game, because as far as I know you cannot get a Litani anywhere else - and you must have one to complete the Ancient Gods quest, which is one of the most rewarding in the game.
For early skills, the Electric discipline has Dex-boosting rings at the second level, which are great. The Dex increase from the rings counts towards characteristic requirements for skills. Don't forget to make them for your followers, too. The first Healing schematic lets you make healing potions from common herbs. Armoring is an extremely useful discipline for combat specialists, particularly if you're not playing a human-size; small and large armors are limited, but you can use the corresponding small and large leather armors to make higher-level armor. Which reminds me, keep any large or small leather armors that you find! But remember that Guard Leather can't be used to make other armors.
One more annoying flaw for technology: some items require and use battery charges. A single battery can hold any number of charges, but the charges have weight. And not an insignificant weight! If you try to amass hundreds or thousands of charges to avoid running out, you'll find yourself slowed to a crawl by the weight of electicity. That's just ridiculous.
Molotov cocktails are easy and fun to make (basically you make them out of trash and fuel). But they hurt bystanders, which makes them attack you. They also damage the gear held by your targets, which reduces its resale value. Work toward Stun grenades or better, as soon as you can. And of course make sure to have a high Dex and Throwing skill, if you're taking this route.
Oh, and don't forget that ANY character can buy technical manuals at the University in Tarant. Each book in a specific discipline will give you your Intelligence in percent in that discipline, as long as you have them in your inventory. You won't learn the schematics that go along with the equivalent level of skill, but you'll be able to use the schematics you've learned from treasure - if you have the necessary ingredients. Of course, some ingredients can only be made from the schematics you learn from actually putting points into the discipline. So plan carefully!
The easiest approach (in my experience) is a high-intelligence mage. You can start with the Harm and Minor Heal spells; those will make you quite powerful. The Unlocking Cantrip is ridiculously useful. You can pick up Fireflash for an area-attack spell after a few levels, but that damages the gear of targets; I find it more useful to put those points into the Willpower characteristic, or Dexterity. The two most useful high-level spells (in my opinion) are Disintegrate and Teleportation. But there are lots of options I haven't tried yet.
Don't forget that even the most magical character can use technical manuals to make the Vitalizer!
The R key!!!: It's insane that this isn't made more clear. The "R" key (actually "r" key) toggles your Combat setting. In plain English, if you hit the R key, action will freeze and you'll go into combat mode. If you're smart, you'll be using the Fast Turn Based mode (select it in Options). This is vital, particularly if you're using ranged attacks. If you don't use it, your opponents will run up to you and attack. But with the R key, they'll freeze at a distance and you'll be able to blast away until you've used up your actions. This is a huge benefit.
Sometimes you can get stuck in combat, or just after it; the software just kind of glitches. Assuming it doesn't crash (which is very unlikely), you may have to hit the space bar to switch to live combat mode. Hitting the R key should return you to Fast Turn Based combat, putting you in that mode.
Throwing: The throwing mastery quest is confusing, and so are the online descriptions that I've read. Just to be clear, the torches along the walls are just used to open the nearest locked door. The torches that teleport you to the next level are in rows of three; they're not on the walls. And in one case, you have to go outside for some distance (in a courtyard, of sorts) to get to the next teleportation area.
Healing/Sleep: I can't believe that I didn't discover this for so many years. Along with your other sleep options, the final option is "Sleep until healed". For some reason none of the other sleep options heal you at all, but "Sleep until healed" not only heals you, it often does some healing to your followers as well. At low levels in particular, this can be a lifesaver. Sleep modes are only available when you're in a World Map area, not in a dungeon or town. But you can just go to the edge of town to sleep...or buy a bed, if you're insane.
Merchants: If you want to refresh the contents of a merchant's inventory, just scroll them off the screen and advance time by one day (or at least until the next morning). You don't have to leave the shop; just have the shop off your screen.
Restore Life: They're not cheap, but make sure to pick up a Restore Life item from an herbalist when you can. If an NPC dies, that can literally be a lifesaver.
Copyright 2016 by Peter Maranci. Revised: September 21, 2016. v.1.1