Arcanum begins with a cut scene of the IFS Zephyr, a luxury zeppelin, on her maiden voyage from Caladon to Tarant. Two monoplanes, piloted by Half-Ogre bandits, close in on the craft and commence attack runs, succeeding in shooting it down. A passenger aboard the Zephyr, an old gnome, now in his death throes under charred debris, tells the player to bring a silver ring to "the boy", and promptly dies. Being the only survivor of the crash, the main character is proclaimed as "The Living One," a holy reincarnate, by the only witness to the crash, Virgil. The story follows the player's path as he searches for the origin of the ring he has to deliver. Over the course of the game, the player uncovers more about the history of the continent, the motivation of the assassins out there to kill him and the identity of the one threatening to end all life on the land.
Arcanum is an example of a non-linear role-playing game. At various points throughout the game, players may take the story in different directions, sometimes permanently removing different paths of action. The game's central quest ultimately develops according to how players navigate its dichotomies, the most apparent being that of magic and technology. Many of the game's sidequests allow for more than one solution depending on the player character's specialisations and even certain portions of the main quest can be solved more easily through dialogue than through combat. The game's magic/technology and good/evil metres also influence what followers your character can attract throughout the game or how other NPCs will react to the player.
Arcanum is the name of the fantasy world in which the game unfolds. It consists of a continental mainland and three islands. The player is at liberty to explore the mainland, their coverage partly being governed by the quests they choose to undertake. The three islands, the Isle of Despair, Thanatos and Half Ogre Island, become available only upon initiating particular quests. The world is inhabited by various Tolkienesque races, namely Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Halflings, Orcs, Ogres and various wildlife. Players can choose from Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Halflings and human hybrid races Half-Elves, Half-Orcs and Half-Ogres as playable races. It would take twenty game days to walk from one side of the continent to the other, which would be forty-eight hours in real time. Modes of transportation available to the player include trains, ships and magical means of teleportation. In the gameworld flying machines have been recently invented as well but they've never been implemented for the player due to their experimental nature.
The continent is divided between different political entities: The Unified Kingdom, its two cities being Tarant and Ashbury, a rapidly industrialising and technologically the most advanced kingdom; the Kingdom of Cumbria, which includes Dernholm and Black Root, a deteriorated kingdom ruled by an old conservative king and the Kingdom of Arland, comprised of Caladon and Roseborough, a small but thriving monarchy west of the Stonewall range. The Glimmering Forest, the largest in Arcanum, is home to the Elven city of Quintarra and the Dark Elven city of T'sen-Ang, and has been untouched by the technological advancements of the time. The Stonewall and Grey Mountain Ranges are home to the remaining Dwarven clans: the Black Mountain Clan, the Stonecutter Clan, The Wheel Clan and the Iron Clan. Other settlements include Shrouded Hills, a small agrarian town, Stillwater, a small, snow-covered town known for its quality swords and its local legend, the Stillwater Giant, and Tulla, a hidden town renowned for its magical colleges and for housing exceedingly powerful arcane artifacts. The gameworld also contains may ruins of past civilizations, the biggest of which being the ruins of Vendigroth, the most modernised city on Arcanum, which met a sudden and mysterious end.
An important in-game dynamic is the dichotomy of magic and technology in the world. Technology is explained to function by utilising physical law to produce a desired result, e.g. a bolt of electricity from a Tesla Gun would arc through the most conductive path to its target. Magic, on the other hand, is explained to manipulate physical law to make a lightning spell follow the shortest path to the target, instead of the natural path. The two are incompatible to the point that they overwhelm each other – technological devices will become inefficient or even permanently inoperative in the presence of powerful magic and vice versa. Much of the population has chosen to embrace technology for its efficiency, accessibility and permanent results, however the Elves, Dark Elves and some humans continue to practise magic exclusively. Magical items such as potions and spell scrolls have a certain failure rate when used by technologically-oriented characters, and technological items behave in the same fashion when used by magic users. This also affects interactions between different characters as well, as spells cast on technologists or firearms used against mages have a failure rate. Because of this gameplay mechanic it is better to form parties only with characters of the same aptitude as the player, or to adapt different strategies to cope with allies and enemies of opposing aptitudes.
Orcs and Ogres alike are looked down upon as savage, feral peoples by Arcanum's civilized folk, who own virtually all the industry of the major population centres. Half-breeds inhabit the world as a result of humanity reproducing with anything possible (and not always as willing participants). There is a great enmity between elves and dwarfs, the former being naturally inclined towards magically-defined society, the latter being forerunners of the technology race – and many of the former blame the latter for the rise of human technology. Scientists are unwelcome in magical societies like Qintarra or Tulla, but will be respected if they are righteous and good folk. Conversely, a mage would be admitted onto a steam train only on the provision that he take a third-class seat on the last caboose, so as not to cause interference with the engine (despite there being no in-game mechanic by which even the powerful mages can affect it). Powerful mages may be denied transport altogether.
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