August 24, 2011

4E Modern – A Sorbet (Introduction)

In elite culinary circles, a sorbet is often used in between courses of a meal to cleanse the palate of any lingering flavors. Sorbet is so often used because of its sweetness, its tartness, its lack of being a substantial meal. It is a brief, mindless indulgence. The tongue is cleared and ready for a fresh start of the next course’s flavors. When indulging in a certain dish, say a fatty duck or a salty soup, one’s senses can become accustomed and dulled by the relentless assault of that courses flavor, muddying the waters of subsequent courses. When one enjoys a high quality meal, it is not mere sustenance that one is seeking. It is to experience all of the subtle sensory nuances that can be had, to enjoy the food to its fullest extent.

So, too, are our role-playing games; namely Dungeons & Dragons. My thinking about D&D has become quite saturated and a little stale. My creativity has been sapped, and I’m burned out. The chaos surrounding GenCon certainly didn't help. It happens to everyone eventually, really. To help cleanse my palate, I chose a game both dear to my heart, and also containing the same visceral qualities as a delicious sorbet. I chose d20 Modern, produced by WotC back in ’02. Being very familiar with the rules, and not content with a great many of its minutia, I chose to create a Modern day, action-adventure role playing game built on the 4th Edition/Gamma World chassis. All this, in the end, I do to make my D&D game that much better when I inevitably return to it. I'll have a fresh palate, ready to savor the new tastes coming in.

Behold, the fruits of my labor! My most verbose blog post to date.

Firstly, let me reassure you that I am not idle chaser of pipe dreams. No empty promises, no unfinished works will be found here. Why am I so confident? I leave nothing to chance. I put the final touches on the project 35 minutes ago. What you see here is just spilling it out in (digital) ink.

My Love Affair with d20 Modern

From Winter 2002 to Spring 2006, I gamed almost exclusively with d20 Modern, abandoning Dungeons & Dragons through the 3E to 3.5E transition. I loved the hell out of that system. I have a lot of fond memories of those sessions, especially my brother’s character, who were always completely over-the-top and ridiculously entertaining at the table. I remember players, dear friends, acting out gun fight scenes around the table, making mock dives for cover, and unloading fictional handguns into their fictional enemies with both real hands pointed like they were guns. I remember insightful, brilliant plans created on the fly to circumvent my campaign villains in spectacular ways. We all shared a part of the narrative story, with so many familiar elements so as to be accessible, and so much fantasy so as to take our imaginations to new heights.

Others Before Me

Before going on, let me pay respect to those that have travelled down this path before me and have done some interesting work on modernizing Modern.

Critical Hits – The 4th Power
Pathfinder Modern

The Good

The d20 Modern rulebook is pretty packed, and I knew very early on that it would be impractical to carry over every single piece of the original into this new format. Nor would I want to, it would be doing everyone involved a disservice if I went at this project like a sledgehammer and tried to slavishly convert everything line by line to a 4E system. Like any good cover song, I needed to get into the essence of what I liked about the original piece, and find a way to translate that into a new means.


Going into this, there were a whole host of elements that I loved about d20 Modern that I wanted to make sure were kept alive. The first of which are Action Points. Yes, capitalized. d20 Modern was, in fact, the earliest game to have this specific mechanic; although other, more indie, games had similar. Moreover, I wanted to go back to something more in-line with the original Action Point mechanic, namely a modification to any d20 roll. In my games, the players often felt very empowered, bold even, when they had a few Action Points to spend. They knew that they could take risks, risks that were very fun, and not worry too much since they had a built-in safety mechanism. This was definitely something I wanted to recreate.

In the same vein, the general feeling of over-the-top action is something I wanted to capture for this version of my Modern game. There are some who would scoff at this, but I want the Michael Bay of roleplaying games. Fast cars, explosions, fabulous wealth, life-or-death decisions, sweat, blood, tears. I don’t want the players to play as Batman. I want them to play as THE GODDAMN BATMAN.

A Blank Canvas

This lack of canon, sensibility, and complete disregard for logic actually encouraged a lot of roleplaying at the table. Portraying caricatures of real-world people, the players felt at ease at breaking the rules. The rules of society, the rules of conventional dungeoneering, the rules of anything they could. They were playing out these roles that interested them in a consequence-free, fictional environment. Not to get all psychological on you, but it allowed us all to see a bit deeper into what motivated the real person behind the character. What they might think of doing if they had overwhelming power and underwhelming responsibility. Also, there’s no canon to adhere to. No gaming conventions that the game was built around. Sometimes the group didn’t have a “healer”.  So what? They went to the hospital.  Sometimes they didn’t have a “faceman”. They then shot their way through the plot. And it all worked spectacularly well.

Moreover, the class system, with its generic groupings, provided the perfect balance of creative spark (giving players an initial idea) with blank canvas to which they could spill their imagination all over. Without the names of their character’s occupation*, the players were forced into describing their characters in means other than class features, or else become a totally meaningless heap of numbers in a stat block. You couldn’t just say, “I’m playing a Fighter.” Or, in the vernacular, “I’m playing a Strong character.” The class names aren’t descriptive enough to really give any indication as to what your character does, other than a vague indication of what Talents you had. Any class could really fill any role; it all depended on how the player wanted to get there.

* Occupation, in this sense, referring to a general feeling of “what you do in the group” and not the rules-specific term.


Setting? Really? Oh, yes.

The settings in my campaigns were fabulously immersive, richly detailed, and (here’s the best part) the easiest campaign settings to ever prep for. Ever. That’s because they are real places, with real histories and legends. Images are easily found in abundance in the internet age. Maps are drawn up instantly and have the feel of being unique and organically created. That’s because, of course, they are unique and organically created.
Not only that, having a background set in the familiar sets up any supernatural or otherwise out-of-the-ordinary elements of story to have that much more impact. Many great stories let the audience get comfortable in familiar surroundings, only to change one or two details and create a compelling contrast. For example, in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the fictional books of HPL’s imagination are mixed in with descriptions of real world esoteric texts. The effect helps immerse the reader into the illusion that the story is, or could be, real. In my games, it required a double leap of imagination for the players to imagine themselves as powerful wizards (1) delving into the bizarre, underground lair of the drow (2). In a modern setting, the players can now focus on being powerful wizards (1), cruising down the familiar lanes of Broad Street.


The great success of Dungeons & Dragons is sometimes credited with its ability to be a pastiche of fantasy, explained more eloquently here. I believe this to be true, and fully embrace(d) it with my Modern campaigns. Everything and anything converge in the modern setting, including medieval fantasy elements, to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Bad

As a general statement, the realism of the original d20 Modern is too much. There are many instances of nitty-gritty book keeping, too aggregate skills and equipment, way too many variations on both weapons and vehicles with way too few true differences between them all. Keeping track of individual bullets? Pointless. Certain classes were mechanically superior than others (Fast Hero compared to Charismatic Hero? A no-brainer.) Incidentally, this is actually a feature that many fans of d20 Modern feel the exact opposite way as I do. They think the game isn’t real enough. The game rules have ruined their roleplaying experience by setting up unrealistic situations. A very common complaint is that guns aren’t deadly enough, that high-level d20 Modern characters can survive a critical hit by a high powered rifle, or even a rocket launcher. (The Massive Damage Threshold attempts to alleviate this complaint, but it really is a moot point with a character having a high enough Fortitude. But I digress.)

I say that the rules are too real as is. I want characters who can catch bullets in their teeth. I want the goddamn Batman (see above). Things that make the game too real. Ditched. Things that separate equipment, vehicles, and weapons based on real-world differences and have little to no game effect? Gone.

Gamma World

The chassis of rules that I will be using is Gamma World. Already familiar with the benefits and drawbacks of mucking around with its baseline rules from the StarCraft project, I now feel very much at home and confident in my ability to bend the rules to my will. I’ll be making significant changes to the rules, which I will detail in another post, but the baseline rules will be the same.

Besides being easy for me, I also chose Gamma World as a base because it already encourages “multiclass” characters in the form of every character having two Origins (multiclassing being often encouraged in the original d20 Modern), the level of abstractness being very high, the inherent lethality of the game (reflecting at least some of the expectation that guns are always deadly), as well as the level of wackiness and over-the-top antics that I rely on in a modern game to put the fantasy into the realistic setting.

Campaign Primer

Here is the campaign introduction, only recently sent out to my players. None o the players has any previous d20 Modern experience, so I’m hoping this will be an eye-opening, fun, thrill-ride of an adventure for them!

In the near future, humanity is faced with three rising powers that threaten its very existence. A secretive psychic alien species, its name as yet unknown, has sent spies, infiltrated modern society, and began putting esoteric plans in motion to exterminate all humans. Frustrated and delusional neo-Nazis have unearthed the vile occult practices of Hitler's SS, casting dark spells to pervert the natural world. A Pan-Pacific Hegemony, also known as The Empire of the Golden Dawn, has taken its place as the one true superpower, using proxies and pawns to weaken the western powers before it launches a genocidal blood storm of conquest over the Earth.

Characters in d20 Modern are present-day, larger-than-life heroes who battle against impossible odds to save the world and all of humanity from the most powerful, over-the-top threats ever seen. Prepare to experience the thrills of every blockbuster action movie, every heart-pounding first-person shooter, and every explosive, high-octane escapade you can dream of. You are supported by a secret U.S. federal agency, known only as Department 7, which has access to weapons, training, and classified secrets that offer the only hope of salvation. Your skills and resources will be put to the test as you battle an array of villainous organizations that threaten peace, order, and the American way.


  1. Are you burnt out on 4e or burnt out on a fantasy setting? Why not use a different ruleset that does modern-ish with a different mechanic then 4e, such as Savage Worlds, which has a variety of non-fantasy settings?

  2. Definitely burnt out on the medieval fantasy genre. There was some discussion in my group about trying out a different system, Pathfinder, but I felt strongly that it wasn't so much the rules mechanics that I was burnt out on so much as the setting, style, and tone.

    I'm a little embarrassed to say that I didn't realize Savage Worlds had good support for modern settings. I've heard nothing but good things about SW, and yet I've never really looked into it. For shame on me! Maybe a better solution to my problem would be to go that route. Thanks for the tip!

    Regardless, everyone can expect to see at least one new bit of actual content from me until I've posted up all of my design labors.

  3. 20 Modern was one of my favorite d20 books to come out and I was never able to convince anyone else to play it with me. I'm looking forward to see what you come up with!

  4. Google Savagepedia for a great wiki with links to official settings and more homebrew. Some of their rules are granular (ammo counting), but are easily ignored.

    Deadlands Reloaded is the Wierd West in the 1880s. Can take out some of the paranormal and turn it into a straight western. With some flavor changes, it can be switched to a 20th century modern setting.

    Rippers is a London steampunk 1890s setting. Slipstream is a near-modern/futuristic setting.

    Weird Wars II is an alternate history-WWII setting.

    I was turned onto SW by listening to a Deadlands Reloaded Actual Play podcast hosted by the guys at The Gamers Haven Podcast (who also organize Kantcon in KC).


  5. Be sure to check out Greywulf's modern 4e game write ups.