NOTICE: All art on this page is from Wizards of the Coast, and is thus copyright of its appropriate authors. It is shown here via the d20 Modern Roleplaying Game Art Gallery as reference only.
In the past, I have reviewed plenty of d20 Modern books. Some of you, however, may have only played Dungeons and Dragons, if any d20 games at all. So, as a courtesy to you and a challenge to myself, I decided I’d review the d20 Modern Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook (simply referred to as the d20 Modern Core Rulebook, or DMCR, from now on) itself. No supplemental bases for the review, all on its own, standing on its own two feet in front of me, the judge. How do the core rules of d20 Modern fare on their own, sans supplements, and what is different from other d20 games? Well, let’s take a look and find out.
Back to Basics
Like any d20-based rules system, the d20 Modern Core Rulebook mostly shares its rules with the original Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition rules. Also like other d20-based systems, it has its own variations on the core concepts. While ability scores, feats, skills, hit points, and all that jazz are here, there are also a few rules that are altered or new to the system. The most important of the altered rules to remember is the Massive Damage Threshold system. Now, Dungeons and Dragons had rules for massive damage as well, but it was a solid rule of “if an attack deals 50 or more points of damage, make a Fortitude save or die”. The d20 Modern version, however, bases the amount of damage taken by your Constitution score instead; so, instead of that static modifier, a 90 lb. weakling is a lot more likely to be dealt massive damage than a hulking, hardy brute. In addition, rather than being a save-or-die effect, a character in d20 Modern that fails a massive damage save instead immediately goes to -1 hit points; bleeding out and KO’d, but not dead yet and not beyond help. This is a better system, in my personal opinion. While it may be a disappointment to fans of the “kill ’em all” method of GMing, at the same time it means that no matter how big and bad you think you may be, there’s always the chance a nut with a gun might get lucky and put you on the floor. This produces a heightened sense of danger while also cushioning against the potential of a total player kill at the same time.
Next, we have classes, and the biggest diverting from standard d20 formulae. Rather than 20 levels, d20 Modern base classes have 10 levels. Rather than set class abilities, these base classes alternate between having bonus feats on even levels and taking talents on odd levels; talents are, in essence, pick-and-choose class abilities that you can select from, bringing variety to each base class. Instead of having saving throw and base attack bonuses due to level…okay, those are still there, true, but there’s also two extras: Defense and Reputation increases. Defense is essentially the same as D&D’s Armor Class, with one exception; specifically, class levels increase your bonus as well (at varying rates depending on class, obviously). Similarly, Reputation is a levelling bonus that affects certain situations such as trying to go undercover in spite of being a famous individual or using your reputation as a weight to throw around when making certain skill checks such as Diplomacy. There are six base classes in d20 Modern, all based around one ability score they focus on. You have the Strong Hero (Strength), Fast Hero (Dexterity), Tough Hero (Constitution), Smart Hero (Intelligence), Dedicated Hero (Wisdom), and Charismatic Hero (Charisma). Each gets to pick from talents that augment their abilities the best, and have appropriate selectable skills and feats as well. This is a more open system than standard archetype classes; don’t worry though, you can specialize with advanced and prestige classes later, but we’ll get to that farther down the road of this review. Anyway, finally, note that the game encourages multi-classing: you may want to be a professional boxer, for instance, but you realize that you can dish out punishment with your Strong Hero levels, but you can’t quite take it. Never fear, Tough Hero levels are here!
Instead of NPC classes, there are what are called “Ordinaries”, variations of the aforementioned base classes. Ordinaries cannot take levels in advanced or prestige classes, can’t roll for their ability scores, and get no class abilities (thus only getting bonus feats every four levels, rather than any class bonus feats, and no talents at all). Ordinaries are obviously meant to reflect on-the-street NPCs, but I have heard of some people trying out Ordinaries are player characters for grim-n’-gritty games. I guess if that floats your boat, it’s a neat idea… *Shrugs*
Finally, there are action points. Action points were introduced in Unearthed Arcana and Eberron, if I recall correctly, but are a core rule for d20 Modern. They are, in essence, a sort of “go for the gold” type of point you can expend to do things atypically heroic or attempt to correct a tragic mistake. They are interesting as a game component, but not as something to blather about.
The big new thing you’ll first encounter (besides the whole Reputation thing) are occupations. Occupations are a system that allows even more flexbility amongst a character by allowing them to gain certain bonus feats and skills they would not normally be able to attain with the class they have. When you take an occupation at first level, you produce a reflection of your character’s current (or former) general status in the world; as such, you can add one to three (depending on the 0ccupation) specific skills to be permanent class skills available without penalty for any class you ever take (if it’s already a class skill for the first class you take, you instead get a +1 bonus to that skill), as well as sometimes gaining bonuses to your overall wealth, a bonus feat or two, and/or a Reputation bonus. The DMCR comes prepackaged with the Academic, Adventurer, Athlete, Blue Collar, Celebrity, Creative, Criminal, Dilettante, Doctor, Emergency Services, Entrepreneur, Investigative, Law Enforcement, Military, Religious, Rural, Student, Technician, and White Collar occupations. The best thing about this rule is that it opens up new horizons for your heroes. While a straight-up “brute force” soldier may want to take Strong Hero class levels alone, what if you want a Fast Hero run-and-gunner or a Dedicated Hero combat medic? Well, that’s what the Military occupation is for, obviously, allowing you to net some combat feats or armor proficiency and some skills such as driving vehicles, tactical expertise, or demolitions work while still keeping with the overall base class talents you want for your archetype.
I Pledge Allegiance, to…Something
Allegiance is another new concept that, in the end, is not so new. Allegiance is a different take on alignment, and personally one I find less frustrating. You take up to three allegiances, listed from greatest to least importance, and these reflect your biggest motivators and greatest allies. For an example on how allegiances work out in roleplaying, let’s say you have a sheriff with “Allegiance: United States of America, law” (for simplicity’s sake, we aren’t going three for three). This means that while he strives to uphold the law, he will, in the end, face the prospect of skirting the law if it means the greater good for his country. On the other hand, if he had “Allegiance: Law, United States of America”, you are playing a character that is willing to uphold the law, even if it damns the rest of his country in the process. Got the general idea now?
Skillful and Feat-Filled
Skills and feats are a big part of the d20 system as a whole, and d20 Modern is no exception. So, what exactly does the DMCR bring on those fronts? First off, while most of the old classic skills like Ride, Climb, Swim, Jump, etc. are still here (albeit with some having name changes, such as Heal becoming Treat Injury and gaining some new tricks such as performing surgery, and the Knowledge skills getting a rewrite for modern ideals), there are two from D&D that are missing here: Appraise, Open Lock, and Use Rope. These three have been rolled into being uses of the Knowledge Skill, Disable Device skill, and the Dexterity ability, respectively. Now, while I dislike the idea of frivolously bending the skill system over and slapping it ’til it cries, these three skill consolidations at least make sense in the context and make room for more skills. There are also several new skills: Computer Use, Demolitions, Drive, Gamble, Investigate, Navigate, and Pilot. Drive, Navigate, and Pilot cover vehicle usage and navigation (obviously), Computer Use is the hacker and programmer’s best friend, Demolitions is good for those that want a big boom, Investigate is for evidence collection beyond Search and Spot checks, and Gamble is….somewhat silly, I’ll admit, but it’s good for if you have crooks and criminals in your game or you just want encounters around casinos or similar areas. All in all, skills updates, skill movements, and new skills: good.
New feats come in three basic varieties: something vehicle-related, something weapon-related, or something martial arts-related. Now, while there are exceptions to this generalization such as Improved Damage Threshold (which increases your Massive Damage Threshold by 3 points), it is for the most part true. “Something vehicle-related” feats are pretty much D&D mount feats translated to vehicles (I.E., Ride-by Attack becomes “Drive-by Attack”) or feats to allow you to operate certain non-standard vehicles and aircraft without penalty, so let’s move right into the others. Your weapon-related things mostly cover firearms. Oh yes, speaking of firearms, proficiencies are a bit different. You have specific feats for specific weapons, yes, but they are a bit different. All characters gain Simple Weapons Proficiency off the bat, so they aren’t utterly useless, but you need to take the proper feats to use exotic melee weapons, exotic ranged weapons of various sorts, archaic weapons (the d20 Modern name for D&D’s “martial weapons”), and for firearms. There are two firearms feats; Personal Firearms Proficiency, which gives you basic “don’t screw this up” proficiency, and Advanced Firearms Proficiency, which allows you to further your abilities and use automatic firing weapons without penalty. Anyway, the other of the two interesting ones would be “something martial arts related”. These are Combat Martial Arts, Defensive Martial Arts, and their “progeny” such as Combat Throw and Unbalance Opponent. These are meant to enhance and flavor melee combat, and they do a pretty good job at that, so I’ll give the creators a hand once again.
Alright, so we now have the basics out of the way. Next time, we’ll be moving into deeper waters in this exciting three (or maybe four) part review. Hooray!