In Part One of this review I looked at character generation. Part Two looked at the combat system. This time around I’m going to take a look at FX and the Campaign Models provided in the d20 Modern core book.
d20 Modern took a lot of flack when it first came out (not least from me!) because it contained a lot of elements that just didn’t appear to make sense. Many of the mini-campaigns in Polyhedron (and Call of Cthulhu d20) made it look like d20 Modern was going to be a straightforward affair with predictable distinct character classes, money-based equipment purchase and a focus on little-or-no magic. The first six months of articles on the Bullet Points section of the WoTC site spent a lot of time on the defensive, explaining the rationale behind most of the rules. Everything from character classes to weapon ranges and tank armour has been scrutinized, ripped apart and explained away.
One area that took surprisingly little criticism was the FX system and the presented Campaign Models. These offered a world beyond the (cinematic) norm where magic, monsters and psionics could exist in varying degrees to produce a gaming environment fraught with danger and excitement. Think Buffy, Alias and Shadowrun and you’re in the right area for the universes depicted in Shadow Chasers, Agents of PSI and Urban Arcana. None of them are particularly imaginative settings (derivative that they are), but they do a good job of each infusing a slightly different feeling into the game. While I’d have liked to see more depth to each setting (the surface is barely scratched) they do a good job of sparking the imagination, and showcase what d20 Modern is capable of.
Shadow Chasers conjures up a world of horror, where vampires, zombies and worse stalk the night and only a precious few can defend against them. While it’s darker than Buffy, it’s squarely in the same area complete with a Shadow Slayer prestige class. Resist the temptation to run it set in a High School though (unless that’s your bag) and it does have the potential to be a great modern Horror campaign.
In contrast to Shadow Chasers’ darkness, Agents of PSI is an near-futuristic setting of modern weapons, black latex and psionics. A secret war is being waged and the characters are agents allied with the government’s PSI agency. Of the three settings, this is perhaps the weakest. Rather than offering something unique it’s become muddied with the darkness of Shadow Chasers and some of the monsters from Urban Arcana. Do we really need Mind Flayers in every Psionic setting? No thanks! I’d have preferred this setting to be brighter, more human-focused and in the style of Ultraviolet, Alias or even XMen. Instead, it’s just…..muddy. Shame, really.
Finally we have the most predictable – and likely – setting of all. Urban Arcana puts elves, dwarfs, orcs and everything you know about D&D, right into the Modern age. It was inevitable, really. Shadowrun does the setting better, but this is what was expected, I guess. The Urban Arcana book expands on the setting and is essential reading if this is how you want to play the game. It just doesn’t inspire me as written in the core book though.
I think the Campaign Models presented miss the mark; they are all about adding varying levels of fantasy into the Modern age. That could have been addressed in a single Campaign Model (Urban Arcana) then discussing how to be selective with your critters and fantasy elements to control the tone. Just add undead and lycanthropes and you have Buffy. Drop in demons and angels and you’re in Charmed territory. Throw the whole lot in and you have Shadowrun.
Instead, I would have liked to see more information about settings free of all the D&D clutter. I wanted a Campaign Model for settings based around Modern Martial arts (Steven Segal), Secret Agents (James Bond), Warfare (Delta Green), anime and a hundred other great Modern, orc-free cinematic settings. As an experienced GM I can pull this lot together from the core rules anyhow, and there’s no shortage of great additional supplements covering this weakness. If we’re going to have Campaign Models in the book though, couldn’t we at least have some variety and less reliance on D&D? Please?
FX Abilities are what d20 Modern call Magic and Psionics. Spell-casting is straight out of D&D with a handful of spells such as Power Device and Phantom Watchdog to add in a modern twist. Similarly, Psionics is straight from the D&D Psionics Handbook, with a little modernization tossed in. There’s nothing surprising here at all. Due to space constraints, there aren’t many spells, and few psionic powers, but the compatibility with D&D and the availability of the SRD means it’s not a problem. Full marks for their inclusion. If you want magic and psionics in your game, it’s right here.
This leads to my final point about d20 Modern. It’s a true one-book solution for Modern-day role-playing. Inside you will find character generation, prestige classes, equipment, magic, combat, monsters, an excellent games master section and three campaign models – all in 384 pages. While some things could benefit from more depth, it is all there. That’s just 60 more pages than the D&D Players’ Handbook, and a model for RPG layout regardless of system. I hope D&D takes this lead and releases a similar one-book solution with the next edition!