D20 Modern Capsule Review by Funksaw on 09/11/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 3 (Average)
Itís not the best system, but it works, and with significant pre-existing first and third party support, almost universal familiarity with gamers, and a system significantly more modular than the d20 versions found in WotC and third-party games, itís certainly a solid game that allows for both gamist and narrative versions of play, and brings modern genres to the forefront without feeling like a D&D game out of itís element. Ooh, and it has Gnoll Pimps.
Product: D20 Modern
Author: Bill Slavicsek, Jeff Grubb, Rich Redman, Charles Ryan
Company/Publisher: Wizards Of The Coast
Line: D20 Modern
Page count: 379
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Funksaw on 09/11/02
Genre tags: Modern day Generic
Wizards of the Coast updates the d20 system for a new genre. It’s not the best system, but it works, and with significant pre-existing first and third party support, almost universal familiarity with gamers, and a system significantly more modular than the d20 versions found in WotC and third-party games, it’s certainly a solid game that allows for both gamist and narrative versions of play, and brings modern genres to the forefront without feeling like a D&D game out of it’s element. Ooh, and it has Gnoll Pimps.
To be sure, any discussion of the d20 system has to begin with Open Source game design. Like it’s digital counterpart, Open Source programming, Open Source game design begins with a core design team, liberal copyrights, and a world of developers waiting to expand, or improve upon the core rules. With that in mind, d20 modern is more like a complete kernel revision than a port to a new genre. Though retaining similarity to “D&D d20", the core rules are significantly improved to provide major changes in expand ability and extensibility, and through rules tweaks both simple and significant, the game is certainly capable of sticking to it’s goals of providing an Urban Fantasy experience.
That said, d20 modern is most certainly geared towards Urban Fantasy - while the rules may be easily ported to many contemporary genres, the core rulebook assumes high levels of action/adventure, “heroic” characters, and pays little lip-service towards “realism.” This is reinforced with the three campaign settings within, the flavor text, and the artwork - which bears more than a casual resemblance to modern comic book art. And in doing so, it essentially excises those last vestiges of Dungeons & Dragons that may have put off fans of roleplaying who are put off by the “grandpappy” of RPGs.
That is not to say that D20 Modern does not show it’s age in places. Perhaps it’s the shared heritage that RPGs have with war-games, or the desire to retain basic compatibility with the third-party products that are already on the market, but several “old” system earmarks remain. For example, while I feel the class/level system present in D20 Modern does not hinder character development or concept (unlike most current implementations of the D20 system) the inclusion is a bit anachronistically quaint, as most systems recently designed tend to do away with the concept. While point-buy character creation systems are present, “rolling” randomly-generated character stats also becomes a similar point that feels almost out of place when examining the system. And hit points - present in the system - are included in it’s “classic” form.
However, this phenomenon does not hinder enjoyment of the game, and it’s not, by any means, unprecedented. Comparisons of older to newer systems almost always reveal the “style” of gaming system that was prevalent at the time, and d20 is the oldest (if you point out that d20 is the third implementation of the D&D system.) Whether examining Advanced Combat and consulting skill tables during character creation in GURPS 3rd Edition Revised, or “combat inches” in Hero System 5th Edition, such anachronistic hallmarks are common, and in many cases, definitive of the system in which they appear. The trick - a trick that D20 Modern has pulled off - is to make sure that those hallmarks do not impede game play or detract from the enjoyment of the contemporary gamer.
The most important feature of the new D20 Modern version of the d20 system is the fact that it is very modular. New features like “action points,” “class talents” and “occupations” make the system much more portable and “tweaker-friendly” than previous incarnations of d20. If anything is a testament to that fact, the three provided campaign models, a supernatural conspiracy setting, a psionics setting, and an urban fantasy setting, show how the system can be ported. Each contains significant house rules specific to that campaign setting only, called “FX Abilities” that makes each of the campaign settings unique to the others.
Now, I do think that d20 in general is slowly “assimilating” the hobby, and D20 Modern is a step in that direction. I think that, as a whole, d20 is bad for the hobby in general, as when more systems head in the direction of d20, there’s less choice - and less choice is usually a bad thing. There are some styles of play that even the D20 Modern version of d20 does not work for, and with the additional caveat that if one looks hard enough, one can almost always find a game system that emulates the effects of a chosen genre better than d20 does, D20 Modern's biggest target audience will be those that prefer system familiarity over genre emulation. It’s a significant portion of the audience too, as many “casual gamers” have played d20 or some form of D&D, and have little desire to learn any other systems.
However, many of those fears are allayed by the fact that D20 Modern presents a form of the d20 system that does not emphasize exclusively the resource management/hack & slash style of play. GMs can, using D20 Modern, choose to play in a narrativist fashion with greater ease than previous versions of d20. Even if d20 does, in fact, take over the hobby, the “D&D” style of play is no longer guaranteed to go along with the system, which causes me to breathe a sigh of relief.
The introduction is predictable and a bit lengthier than most games, due to the fact that D20 Modern explains what a roleplaying game is in greater detail than most games - it’s more likely that D20 Modern is going to be someone’s first RPG than for other games. It explains the core mechanic - Roll d20, add modifiers, and try to score above a difficulty number - as well as a number of other d20 mainstays, the “skill check,” “combat rounds,” et al, and provides an example session of play. The example of play deals mostly with a combat example, but it’s an exciting combat example that’s pretty cinematic and includes some examples of plot. (A threadbare, loosely developed plot, but a plot, certainly.) Finally, two pages on a character-creation summary prove pretty useful and will probably be referred to repeatedly over the course of the book’s lifetime.
Chapter One: “Characters” deals with character creation, starting with statistics generation. Random, Point-Buy, and Standard Scores are provided as equally valid ways to generate characters. The chapter goes on to explain the six abilities: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. After this explanation, it introduces the character classes. Unlike D&D and most other d20 interperetations, the D20 Modern classes - Strong, Fast, Tough, Smart, Dedicated, and Charismatic - do not define occupation or archetype. Instead, these classes define a single characteristic of the character - the thing that stands out most about the character - and does NOT need to correspond to the character’s highest statistic. As an example, a person with a low Intelligence stat but a level or two in the Smart class might be an interesting autistic savant or an ill-educated sports fanatic that remembers Red Sox statistics from the last 80 years. However, for the most part, placing the character’s highest statistic in the character’s starting class will usually provide the most benefit to the character. Multi-classing is encouraged, and is usually very easy to do.
As features of each class are the Base Attack Bonus, the Base Save Bonus, the hit die type, the number of action points gained per level, the class skills, and the skills gained per level. Each class gets a bonus feat at even numbered levels which can only be chosen from a specific list for each class, and each class gets a class-exclusive set of feat-like talents which can only be taken by advancing to an odd number level in that class.
The next section is “Occupations” - although to be perfectly honest, this section deals more with concept than with actual jobs. Similar to the archetypes typically found listed in White Wolf games, these broad (and optional) categories are very broad. Furthermore, the occupations chosen do provide an in-game bonus, usually one or two additional skills listed as class skills, perhaps a bonus feat, and a bonus to either wealth or reputation. It’s possible to, again, create a great number of different characters by mixing occupation and class. A Tough criminal might be a thug, a Fast criminal could be a cat burglar, a Smart criminal could be a black-hat computer hacker, a Charismatic criminal might be a con artist... etc. Separating character occupation and archetype from the class allows for much greater variety in character choices and is perhaps the biggest improvement in the book over “classic” d20.
There’s also the typical, “obvious” steps like describing appearance and creating a name - which are given emphasis, again, because of D20 Modern’s position as a gateway product for newer gamers. Alignment is replaced with allegiance, and allegiance has no in game effect on statistics, character choices, etc. In fact, the allegiance section is entirely optional, although it can be used as alignment in order to continue compatibility with existing d20 products. Finally, wealth and reputation bonuses, which determine starting wealth and your general reputation, are calculated. Both are abstract and fluid systems. Unlike D&D, where it’s important not only to track how much your money is worth, but also what denominations you have and what the weight of those coins are and how they affect, say, your ability to jump across an 8 foot chasm, you can simply buy objects with a wealth bonus less than your character’s starting wealth and make wealth checks (adding your wealth bonus) for more expensive items. Reputation functions similarly.
The section on “Gaining Experience and Levels” provides the bloody obvious, as does the guide to “multiclass characters.” No major surprises here, just a step-by-step guide for what happens when your character increases a level or wishes to take a new class.
Chapter two, “Skills” provides information on the different skills including how the skills are adjucated in play, when to roll and when not to, the class/cross-class table, the Take 10/Take 20 rules, and of course, a list and definition of the skills themselves. Each skill definition includes information on special cases which may arise should a situation call for it, and a list of sample difficulty checks are provided.
The third chapter, “Feats,” provides information on the different feats available to characters during the game, most of which have to do with combat advantages, but also some advantages that have to do with skills and social attributes. Each feat description contains prerequisites and a description, however, there are notes on what happens if the character does not take the feat in question, as well as notes on why the feat may be important, especially useful to players new to the d20 system. The only flaw here would be the fact that the chapter is organized alphabetically - which, for example, places “Advanced Firearms Proficiency” before “Firearms Proficiency.” Most feats provide some sort of combat advantage, many provide some sort of skill bonus, and a few provide a social bonus.
Of course, the most “modern” part of D20 Modern will be the equipment - and yes, the guns are here in the fourth chapter. The wealth mechanic is explained - you may afford anything with a “Purchase DC” less than your current wealth bonus with no penalty, you may roll or take 10 or take 20 to try to buy anything above your current wealth bonus, with the penalty that you lose levels of wealth when you purchase the object, and you regain wealth when you gain character levels, via a profession check against your current wealth level. Rules on licences, black market devices, requisitioned equipment, and “mastercraft” objects are also detailed, as well as a general treatment on weapons, with appropriate listings and descriptions, as well as rules on improvised weapons, armor, and sundry items. Also included are sections on carrying capacity, lifestyle and housing expenses, services, and vehicles. (An aside - there’s information on civilian cars, but there is little information on SUVs, or Minivans. Damn, my Dedicated/1 Soccer Mom will just have to improvise.)
The “Combat” chapter explains the combat rules. Like other d20 treatments, a map and miniatures are highly recommended, and necessary in some cases to determine whether a particular action provokes an attack of opportunity. Though the core system is simple enough, different actions that can be taken, such as “fighting defensively,” “shooting into melee,” “attacking with two weapons,” etc - make the combat a bit of an exercise in number-juggling for the player and an exercise in rule-recollection for the GM. Additional modifiers to the combat rules (such as the feats) exacerbate the problem. However, it’s still simpler than some systems, and seems easy enough to grasp with practice. In short, the combat rules deserve a resounding “eh...”
The oft-criticized hit point mechanic survives, intact to this version of the game, although the Massive Damage rule (When receiving damage higher than the character’s Con score, the character is required to make a Fortitude save or drop to -1 hp,) helps with the mechanics, and, of course, hit points can easily be swapped out or modified for a separate system. Movement and special maneuver rules often require a square-grid map to be used effectively - they can be used without a map, but with added difficulty as the GM tries to describe the scene. There’s also rules for vehicle-combat and car chases, quite elaborate car chases, if the number of paragraphs devoted towards car manuevers such as “jumping,” “bootleg turns,” and “sideswipe” are any indication, and while they are somewhat detailed, perhaps overly so, these rules do promise to keep car-chases interesting.
Chapter 6 details twelve “advanced classes” - essentially, prestige classes. These “advanced classes,” however, such as Soldier, Bodyguard, Techie, and Negotiator, seem to have more in common with “classic d20" classes than they do with “classic d20" prestige classes. As such, those who like the “structured” approach that the original d20 system provided might wish to start with these advanced classes instead of the 6 “regular” classes when defining characters. These classes - Soldier, Martial Artist, Gunslinger, Infiltrator, Daredevil, Bodyguard, Field Scientist, Techie, Field Medic, Investigator, Personality, and Negotiator - are pretty much action-movie standbys. It is, of course, possible to create a character that fulfills any of these basic archetypes using the six “main” classes - but these “advanced” classes provide extra emphasis towards the particular archetype. Also, these classes require only minimum levels in ranks and some feats - which make a particular class path beneficial but not crucial. Still, I remain glad that these classes are optional, and I’m quite sure that many players are glad that these classes are included.
The “Gamemastering” chapter provides information on running a game. Very generic - once again, D20 Modern spends a lot of page-count here because of it’s position as a possible entry-level RPG. However, it’s odd to see a lot of rule-conservatism espoused in this chapter. For example, the section on “changing the rules” seems to favor keeping to the rules as written as often as possible, and the “awarding experience points” section states: “Aside from monetary gains and equipment they may realize... experience points are the only reward character should receive for their accomplishment-if you find it tempting to hand out action points as rewards, for instance, resist that temptation.” While a little more lip service is paid for XP for non-combat situations, Encounter Levels outside of combat are determined by the amount of damage something can do. There doesn’t seem to be too many examples for ELs outside of combat or action sequences... the one example of this type provided - interrogating a traumatized witness - gives an EL of 0 - providing absolutely zero experience points. (Why, then, was this example included except to emphasize the point that non-combat actions don’t really matter!) In short, experience points tend to be overly elaborate and oddly still emphasizing combat - the only situation in which one is guaranteed to gain XP.
I do plan to scrap this system entirely in my own campaigns.
Other than that, there’s information on favors and contacts, law enforcement, character demographics, resources, and, of course, the myriad details of what happens when you get set on fire when falling off a cliff onto power lines after drinking arsenic while having syphilis. (“But I have 1 armor...”)
Chapter Eight: “Friends and Foes” is a little mini-monster manual for use in campaigns that have creatures, most notably the “Urban Arcana” campaign setting. A lot of the old monster manual standbys are here, including the cat with the hide bonus of 17. And no, that’s not a typo, the hide bonus increases to 21 in tall grass or heavy undergrowth. Other than the silly invisible cats, you’ve got kobolds, bugbears, mindflayers, goblins... a mini-monster manual, of sorts. And yes, the art illustrates a bugbear cop, an illithid preacher, a kobold green beret, an ogre hockey player, and a gnoll pimp.
After the “monster” section is a section on supporting character including several archetypes sorted by what two classes they would fall under, and provides 3rd, 6th, and 9th level examples of each. There’s also a random character trait table. (Roll d% to find out if your character whistles, uses big words, or wears a toupee.) The “supporting cast” runs the gamut from terrorists to dilettantes - from thugs to policticians.
The three campaign models in chapter nine, “Shadow Chasers,” “Agents of PSI” and “Urban Arcana” provide a good starting point for a campaign, but are not fully fleshed out campaign settings that details what D20 Modern can do rather than full settings in their own right. Each of the campaigns has a “Department-7" in it - a canon organization that changes function and purpose in each gameworld.
“Shadow Chasers” is similar in theme, tone, and play to the White Wolf game Hunter: The Reckoning - the player characters are hunters of supernatural monsters with the ability to slip into our reality unnoticed - except by the shadow chasers, who can for some reason see them for what they are. Somewhat hack & slash, although there’s room for investigative and horrific stories, although you probably wouldn’t guess it from the provided fiction in which a character claims he’s “ready to slice and dice and send them back to hell.” There’s a prestige class “Shadow Slayer” which mirrors this ability, and an “occultist class” which allows for arcane research.
“Agents of PSI” is a psionics campaign where the characters play secret agents with psychic powers taking on your typical assortment of terrorists, world conquerors, etc. Similar in theme to spy movies - including your typical assortment of double-crossing, conspiracies, etc., this setting also calls into question the idea of reality through consensus - a la “The Matrix” - or, more generally, GURPS Illuminati, and Mage: The Ascension. This section includes the advanced classes “Telepath,” and “Battle Mind.”
Finally, “Urban Arcana” takes D&D and applies it to the modern world. Like Shadowrun, “Urban Arcana” produces a mix of fantasy and reality. This is where you’ll find the applications of the Gnoll Pimp from the “Friends and Foes” chapter, as well as the “Duct Tape of Repair.” from the FX chapter. Characters are typically adventurers eliminating the threat of the “Gang of Goblins” and here is where you’ll find the “Mage” and “Acolyte” advanced classes.
Chapter ten is “FX Abilities” - basically, this is where you find the spells, psionics, and magic items. Relatively little has changed from the D&D versions, with the exception that some spells are decidedly modern (such as Power Device) and some decidedly modern magical items, such as the “Chemical Light Stick Of Revealing.” and “Leather Jacket of Damage Reduction.” The names are cheesy, but it retains the old D&D naming conventions of coming up with “[noun] of [function]” names. (Cause lord knows, calling it a “Damage Reducing Leather Jacket” would be stupid...)
As D20 Modern is presented as a generic urban fantasy system, it’s inevitable that both official and fan-produced conversions of existing game settings will exist. I’m not going to lie and say that doing so will be free of trouble, but it might be worth the effort if your players really don’t feel like learning a new system in order to play in your game. The campaign models - intentionally or unintentionally - are extremely similar to existing games on the market, and I find the idea of conversion to the “new” d20 much more appealing than conversion to the old.
That said, d20 isn’t the best system for everything. In fact, I’m pretty sure you can find a system on the market that emulates the particular genre your campaign is running in better than D20 Modern - it’s advantage is familiarity.
The system has additional difficulty outside of urban fantasy and action/adventure due to the focus of the core rules - and additional supplements may be needed to expand the system beyond it’s default genre - but such expansion is possible. Comparisons, then, to generic systems such as GURPS and HERO don’t entirely apply - while both games have “blind spots,” D20 Modern seems to be very focused on the heroic action-hero campaign.
In short, if (like this reviewer) if you find yourself in a position where you have game settings that remain unplayed because players won’t budge from the comfortable little rut that is d20, D20 Modern provides passable, solid rules for running campaigns of all sorts.
Don’t use this system if you’re looking for anything remotely resembling “realistic.” D20 Modern by it’s own admission doesn’t do well with that type of play - it just simply wasn’t designed for it. It’s perhaps overly elaborate, and of course, if you can get your players to run in a different system, I’d still recommend that they do so - as “universal” as d20 is, sometimes it’s just better to learn the rules to the separate system than it is to kludge together a conversion.
D20 Modern is hardcover, full color interior and exterior. Cover art is by Dave Johnson, with numerous interior artists, mostly with similar, “comic-book” type styles. It’s 379 pages (not including character sheets or the mail-back customer survey insert) and costs $39.95, for a page cost of about 10.5 cents per page.