A First Look

Modern20 is a 108 page PDF priced at $10, currently available at RPGnow and PRGOjects' web store. The document has a full color front and back cover and color interior art; two more pages are the open game license.

Modern20 does not carry the D20 logo or compatibility statements, but does use the open game license.

The book is illustrated by Anthony Cournoyer; the style is cartoony for my tastes, but similar to that of of Kalman Andrasofszky, whose art for Wizards of the Coast defines D20 Modern products.

The PDF makes good use of bookmarks, with a convenient and intuitive hierarchy. The layout is attractive and readable. The only section that I thought could be laid out better was the sample NPC section, which had frequent breaks in the middle of stat blocks.

A Deeper Look

RPG Objects is one of the best 3rd party publishers for D20 modern, with great titles such as the “Blood” line of supplements and Darwin's World. As such, it should be interesting to see how they treat the topic of a refined competitor to the game that has been their bread & butter.

As Modern20 is a complete, stand-alone game, it will need to come up with its own take on how to handle ability scores. The system uses the classic 6 D20 abilities.

Several methods are presented for generating scores, most emulating existing methods. The point gen methods aren't an exact duplicate of existing methods; they actually seem a bit simpler and punish you less for taking abilities above 16.

The book points out why you would want to use some methods over others, which is a nice touch. However, none of the presented methods address the sort middle ground “compromise” between random and point buy that I have come to favor.

Modern20 favors a “layered” approach to character generation, even compared to D20 Modern. Where D20 Modern featured a “starting occupation” that provided additional class skills, feats, and/or wealth modifiers, Modern20 provides 3 mechanical elements that modify the base class:
  • Backgrounds describe the character's occupation before their time adventuring. This provides additional skills and a base wealth for the character.
  • Occupation represents what you currently do for a living. The occupation provides a bonus to your wealth, but the bonus varies according to your skill bonuses. Further, as long as you are practicing this occupation, extra skills are added to your skill list. The character's feat selection is expanded by the occupation, and these feats are “improved” so long as the character remains in the profession. Finally, occupations can provide skill perks, a subsystem of feat-like abilities that provides additional skill uses or other abilities.
  • The Hobby represents the simplest of the 3 “class modifiers”. The player may select any skills; the character receives 4 ranks in it.


There are no advanced/prestige classes in Modern20. There are 6 base classes, but their founding philosophy is slightly different than the ability score based classes of D20 Modern. Rather, the Modern20 classes are founded around the derived statistics they generate:
  • The Powerhouse is the “attack” specialist.
  • The Speedfreak is the defense specialist.
  • The Tank is the “hit point” specialist.
  • The Braniac is the “skill point” specialist.
  • The Empath is the “saving throw” specialist.
  • The Star is the “reputation” specialist.


The distinction between the approach of these classes and those of D20 is mild since each of the ability scores feed into one of targeted statistics, but in some cases it does make more sense than D20 Modern (the example that stands out is how strong hero characters in D20 Modern make good marksmen; the powerhouse class of Modern20 is about attack bonus instead of being about strength.)

It's noteworthy that the braniac has a medium base attack bonus progression, an improvement over the smart hero which I always felt was a difficult class to play in D20 Modern.

Similar to Spycraft (and other D20 works by Kevin Wilson, like games in FFG's Horizon line) and True20, each of the classes in Modern20 feature a core ability that is only received by a character taking their first level in the class.

Another shift from D20 Modern is the removal of talent trees. Much like True20, each character receives a feat at every level, selected from a class feat list or a general list, thus supplanting talent trees.

Reputation, action points, allegiances, and wealth also appear here. Allegiances see the least changes, and action points are a bit more succinct. Wealth and reputation systems see bigger changes.

The wealth system gives the character a wealth rating, but there is no rolling involved. It is still an abstract system, but the way it works is to provide a threshold beneath which the character needn't worry about tracking expenditures. Above the wealth level, purchases decrease the character's wealth (and conversely, selling valuable items increase it.) Thus, wealth still remains a system where player good behavior or GM intervention is required to avoid some unbelievable situations, but it seems like it would be less unwieldy in play.

Reputation sees more extensive changes. Instead of merely providing a skill bonus or penalty in social encounter, reputation provides resources in the form of special access, contacts, favors, and followers.

RPGObjects' variant of the disadvantage system shows up here. Similar to the one crafted in Haven D20 and RPGObjects' Modern Disadvantages, these disadvantages provide benefits to the character only if it shows up in an adventure. This version differs in that it provides action points when the disadvantage rears its ugly head rather than experience points. However, the words “experience awards” are still used in the description in some places.

In Modern20, skills see many alterations. For starters, the skill list is almost totally different. Much like True20 and Spycraft 2.0, many skills that existed in D20 Modern are combined into other more comprehensive skills like academics, acrobatics, athletics, and perception.

One change that seems unique to D20 variants is the idea of a “targeted skill check”, which replaces opposed skill checks. When I first heard about this, I was a bit worried, as I think that opposed checks are a technique that D20 handles well, and shows a significant strength of the system over those of the last century. Alas, targeted skill checks are in essence the same thing as opposed skill checks with one party automatically taking 10. This stands to minimize the amount of dice rolling to resolve skill conflicts and should create more consistent results.

Perks were mentioned previously. Perks creature special uses of skills that can only be accessed by characters with the perk in question. For example, skills with specialties (like academics, art, or crime) are handled with perks; each specialty past the first in an additional perk. Other perk skill uses include tumble under acrobatics, “cracking” under computers, and burst fire under firearms.

The combat rules are, on the surface, very similar to standard D20 combat. The biggest change is that the system uses a hit location chart. This uses a d20 roll and the damage is modified according to where the injury landed. An optional injury rule has the potential to inflict penalties on a character; determing whether and what injury applies requires that you find the difference between the attack roll and defense rating, and comparing a fortitude save to a number determine by the attack roll. Given the lengths that the author went to reduce skill rolls, it seems odd that he would accept a system like this that seems more complicated than the rolls he took out.
A final significant departure from D20 is that the system eschews the idea of experience points.

Two appendices are included: a character creation example and a list of sample NPCs similar to those that appeared in D20 Modern.

Conclusions

Modern20 is a top-down redefinition of the D20 Modern game system. Several sore spots with the system are addressed, and the designer makes some interesting innovations along the way.

The character generation is perhaps the most interesting retooling of the game. It should appeal most to players who like creating characters using D20 Modern base classes; much like Grim Tales, the system does not utilize advanced or prestige classes. This could be a detriment for players who like to “subscribe” to a class concept and don't want to make a lot of decisions along the way.

The most interesting aspect of the character generation system is that it provides in-game representation of what might be considered more mundane aspects of a character's background, and even represents things like occupation changes in play. All told, I think this makes Modern20 an excellent choice for “everyman hero” gaming, where the characters are realistic and well-defined.

The system does handle many of the hangups I have with the D20 Modern combat system nicely, namely nonlethal damage and firearm rules. However, while the idea of inserting a hit location system into a D20 game had promise (something I do in my own d20 house rules), I think the optional injury rule runs counter to the streamlining he tries to achieve elsewhere.