Thursday, 28th June, 2012, 04:41 AM #1
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Review of Ultramodern 4 by Dias Ex Machina
There’s something that’s both exciting and awesome when you find out your favorite game system has jumped genres. Sure there are game systems that are designed to be universal to a wide range of gaming genres – like Hero System and GURPS. But it’s always a refreshing surprise to see a system you know and enjoy playing to make a sort of quantum leap to a genre of gaming you didn’t expect it to fit. SRD/d20 is a good example here, breaking free of its heroic fantasy roots and spawning a wide range of game types from science-fiction to horror to comic book, molded and reshaped by 3rd Party Publishers under the OGL.
A couple years ago, I had the same surprise with D&D 4E jumping genres, when a post-apocalyptic game called Amethyst was published by Dias Ex Machina. Featuring our own world torn apart by a resurgence of magic, it allowed players to create standard 4E Core Characters wielding swords and magic, as well as more modern themed characters armed with guns and high tech vehicles. In Amethyst, several new character classes (collectively called techans) were introduced, which fought against the encroaching mythical monsters and demons with a wide array of weaponry, using new powers, skills, and rules which were well balanced against the magical and martial powers of standard 4E characters.
Now it appears that Dias Ex Machina has expanded upon the rules and concepts created for Amethyst, and has recently released a new role-playing game for use with modern and near-futuristic settings. Ultramodern 4 gives D&D 4E gamers a chance to explore new genres, where high tech replaces magic, assault rifles replace swords, and gritty urban sprawls replace the dungeon delve!
- Designers: Chris Tavares Dias
- Illustrators: Nick Greenwood (cover & interior), Wayne Miller (interior), Jeremy Simmons, Christopher Hunt (cartography)
- Publisher: Dias Ex Machina
- Year: 2012
- Media: PDF (244 pages)
- Cost: $13.99 (PDF from RPGNow – also available in B&W POD Hardcover for $23.99)
Ultramodern 4 is a role-playing game based upon D&D 4E rules, desined for creating adventures in modern and near-future settings. The game system comes with generic eleven character classes which can be used in almost any genre of game, and with complete 4E style powers (AEDU), as well as seven personality “ladders” which add additional features. In addition, there are new Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies included to allow character advancement to Level 30, along with new feats and skills appropriate to non-fantasy settings. New rules have been included for modifications to 4E combat allowing modern and high tech weapons and gear, as well as a full listing of new equipment from armor to firearms to vehicles for use in a variety of settings. There is support content for GMs, including listings of types of enemies and their stat blocks, modern adventuring sites with maps and statistics, two sample adventures (heroic and paragon tier), full color printable battlemats, and more.
The production quality of Ultramodern 4 is very good (barring only a couple of minor exceptions), with solid - and often humorous - writing by the author, and a layout which presents material in a logical progression. The format of the character classes and powers will be readily familiar to D&D 4E fans, as it is a GSL product, and “monsters” use the MM3 style stat blocks.
While Ultramodern 4 comes with both a table of contents and an index, I was a bit disappointed that the PDF I received had no bookmarks in it. With a page count of this size, bookmarks are an essential part of making any headway using the material. I also discovered an error in page order in one section of the book, but then I might have been given an early review copy before the book went “live”.
The Artwork in Ultramodern 4 was average to good, although most of it was limited to black and white and grayscale sketches. Sadly, however, the art was somewhat sparse for a book of this size, and I would have liked to see a few more illustrations, particularly of guns, gadgets, and vehicles. There were some nice pieces in the adventure modules, however, showing off some scary looking monsters the heroes must face. Overall, the art that was included was appropriate to the content on the page and enhanced the reading experience.
The maps and cartography were very well done in Ultramodern 4, offering GMs a wide range of encounter settings from highways and downtown city blocks to the interior of homes and office buildings, with a variety of terrain. The author included these maps in the back of the appendix, with permission to reproduce them, so they could easily be printed to scale for use on the gaming table.
Ultramodern 4: The Game
I want to note right off that Players and Dungeon Masters who are familiar with D&D 4E will find no difficulty using the Ultramodern 4 book, requiring only some reading to comprehend a few new character creation conventions and combat rules before diving right into play. For players unfamiliar with the 4E, Ultramodern 4 will seem a bit incomplete, as the GSL prohibits reprinting of rules found in the Core 4E books – referencing a Rules Compendium is required to fully use this product.
In the introduction, the author discusses the evolution of the game from its Amethyst roots, as well as offering a quick overview of the product and some of the new character concepts introduced. The game system can lend itself to a wide range of genres found in modern and futuristic settings, including cyberpunk, modern warfare, espionage, space opera, urban and techno fantasy, and even the wild west (with or without aliens). Although the game does not include any defined setting, the author does suggest that a cyberpunk setting called Neruospasta is in the works, and should be available soon. But really, almost any non-fantasy setting could be used, from the “real world” as presented in James Bond or Tom Clancy novels, to the zombie apocalypse, or outer space settings like Traveller.
After the introductory chapter, the author jumps right into character creation in Chapters 2 through Chapters 5. These chapters cover a new character building element called “ladders”, as well as the eleven classes, and new skills and skill uses, along with feats, Paragon Paths, and Epic Destinies.
The “ladders” are similar to D&D 4E themes and represent how a character lives their life. They add considerably more content to characters than themes do, however, including attack and defense bonuses at appropriate levels to offset the lack of bonuses from magic items. Ladders also have a selection of AEDU powers which can be swapped for class powers at all levels, as well as some built in features. Here is a listing of the seven ladders, with a bit of description from Ultramodern 4:
- Born Leader: You possess a genuine charisma, always taking center stage. People naturally gravitate towards you.
- Juggernaut: You're big. You were the tallest in school, excelled in sports, and were groomed for a career where you wouldn't have to speak so much.
- Runner: You are healthy, lithe, and fast. Your mind and body are one as you focus your energy into evasion and pursuit.
- Savant: You are compelled know as much as your brain can comprehend. You enjoy reading, understanding, and resolving problems.
- Survivor: No matter the situation, you always appear to make it out alive. You can endure any hardship, from hostile weather to hostile locals.
- Veteran: You are grizzled and seasoned. You have become hardened to the traumas of the world through practical experience.
- Warrior: You're a fighter in any situation, whether that is in a ring, in an alley, or in a warzone. You can wield a blade, a bow, a pistol, or a tank. Sometimes all you need are your fists.
These ladders are available to all classes, which means there are 77 possible character concepts from which to build from. It’s fairly easy to start thinking of ways to recreate favorite characters from movies such as The Losers or Expendables just running down the ladder list.
Character classes are detailed in Chapter 3, and they are built along tropes for archetypes we see often in modern thrillers, action/adventure, and science-fiction movies. As previously mentioned, the classes are designed as 4E fantasy classes are, having class features, and an array of AEDU powers from Level 1 At-Wills on up to Level 29 Daily powers. The author offers a goodly array of class powers at each appropriate level, usually 2 to 3 to choose from, which offers a total of 3 to 4 powers for selection if a player opts for using the ladder power. One new mechanic included in Ultramodern 4 is the option of swapping the main class specific encounter power for any unused encounter attack power during a combat. This means the class-specific encounter power can be used multiple times in an encounter, if the player is willing to sacrifice an unused encounter attack.
Here is a listing and short description of the classes in Ultramodern 4:
- Faceman: You use words and a smile to succeed in areas where bullets would fail. You have no damaging powers. Instead your attacks confound and seduce.
- Grappler: You're a wrestler. You pin enemies and prevent them from approaching allies. You know where to apply pressure to inflict the most damage on a target. Your powers revolve around grabs, restraining or immobilizing opponents.
- Gunslinger: You wield pistols like they're an extension of your body. It could be one firearm or two. You can fire one bullet or unleash volleys.
- Heavy: You often wield the largest, most devastating weapons. Your powers involve raining down large area effects on multiple opponents, hindering their movements and preventing them from gaining advantage.
- Infiltrator: You're an assassin trained to operate independently from others. You move in by stealth and, by utilizing combat advantage, inflict massive damage on single foes. You go about this using either a firearm or a blade.
- Man-At-Arms: You're the tried and trained soldier, able to use any weapon in any situation. Unlike the heavy class, you wield firearms against specific opponents, most likely the greatest threat on the battlefield.
- Mastermind: You use strategy and tactics to control the battle theater. Your powers limit enemy movement, hindering their effectiveness. Inflicting damage comes via placing enemies in harm's way.
- Sniper: You don't offer yourself as a target. You take out enemies from as far away as possible. You target single opponents and inflict devastating conditions, a talent you can employ with every attack.
- Specialist: You are an expert in a specific field. Because of the nature of the class and the game, you are encouraged to be a healer. Few powers damage enemies, but there are exceptions.
- Techie: You sabotage enemy technology while modifying your own to boost its performance. Attack powers are based around improving the capacity of your weapon.
- Vanguard: You disdain the efficiency of firearms in favor of straight melee fighting. The vanguard covers nearly every martial arts class, whether it is using fists or swords.
For the most part, the classes and their powers have some decent balance to them, despite that some classes don’t inflict damage. Powers which are non-damaging tend to inflict fairly potent combat conditions, like stun and helpless, or a combination of two conditions to substantially debilitate foes. A damage dealing ladder can be selected for players that want to do some damage, but given the potency of some of the class powers, they might not want need them. There are so many possibilities for character concepts combining a ladder and a class that it would be difficult for a player not to figure out some character concept they want to play.
I also really liked the way the author used tropes to create cool and often humorous power names for many of the classes, such as the Faceman’s Smooth Operator or One Ridiculously Handsome Person, or the Grappler’s Ground & Pound and Full Mount powers – the latter ones taken from MMA moves familiar to UFC fans. It’s obvious that there was considerable work put in to craft all these powers, and there is a lot of potential for some very new play experiences in Ultramodern 4.
After classes, the Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies are detailed, and Chapter 4 offers 22 Paths and 4 Destinies to select from. The Paths are not specific to class or have any prerequisites, however certain Paths are likely to fit better with certain class/ladder combinations as part of an overall character concept. The Paths tend to be designed around various professions, such as Driver, Medic, or Ring Fighter, but also include some not commonly found professions such as Commando and Cleaner (ie. assassin). Again, this content fits well with tropes for action/adventure and science-fiction movies, and offers a lot of possibilities for players to make some very diverse heroes.
Skills and Feats rounds out the character creation process, and Ultramodern 4 adds five new skills - Computer Use, Demolitions, Engineer, and Sciences, and Vehicle Operation – to better suit the game style. These skills are fully described, with a very large section devoted to Vehicle Operation, which includes vehicle maneuvers and tricks. A decent selection of Feats are provided which are class, ladder, and paragon path specific, as well as general feats to enhance other facets of the character. The author seemed very conscious of “feat bloat” and the selection of feats seems adequate and not overdone for character creation.
Chapter 6 details Equipment options, including new rules for armor, using Tech Level to enchance equipment, and rules for explosives. The weapons and armor range from modern military to futuristic science-fiction, and even include powered armor should GMs decide to employ space marines. There is also details on non-combat gear, like survival equipment, as well as high tech gizmos likely to be found in a cyberpunk or super-spy campaign. Chapter 7 discusses more details on combat using modern and futuristic equipment, including more rules on vehicles, specifically vehicles in combat.
Chapter 8 entitled “Antagonists & Enemies” contains a wide array of bad guys and minions for Heroic and Paragon tiers that are like a collection of extras from every action movie you’ve ever watched. Enemies like Knife-Man, Gang Filler, and Machine Gun Menace could be dropped into almost any urban combat, while Insidious Assassin makes a great ninja. Some of the minions are worth mentioning here, as being both funny and dangerous, such as Seriously, Katana and Out of Place Kung-Fu Guy are perfect for a bad Asian cinema encounter.
Ultramodern 4 finishes out with a chapter on GM advice for handling treasure and rewards, and some set pieces of terrain and terrain powers, as well as maps, where encounters can be created. The author also creates some possible encounters for these areas, discussing setup and enemies that could be used. There are two sample adventures for use with Ultramodern 4 here as well, including a Level 4 called Biohazard (previously released as a demo for the Amethyst system in Combat Advantage webzine), and a Level 14 adventure called Invasion Proxy.
The latter features a hideous alien invasion in Baghdad, where unsuspecting UN Peacekeepers find themselves hunted by far more than angry terrorists. And for players and GMs wanting to jump right into play with Invasion Proxy, the author includes 4 pre-made 14th Level Characters to use as “special forces” assisting the United Nations troops.
Overall Score: 3.9 out of 5.0
Here is one of those games that comes along, and makes you want to find a gaming group just to run it! I am very impressed with the way the author has managed the metamorphosis of 4E rules into a system that can accommodate a sizable list campaigns of non-fantasy genres. The new selection of character classes and ladders makes it more than possible to re-create almost any action hero of books and movies from the past couple decades, and possessing powers which are unique and exciting to use in both combat and in skill challenges. While the sections on equipment and enemies are by no means exhaustive, they present more than enough material for players and GMs to run plenty of scenarios and encounters, whether dealing with zombies, mutants, ninjas, or aliens, or just a basic detective or spy thriller. And given the amount of content in Ultramodern 4, and the potential of so many different types of campaigns, the pricetag for the PDF is very reasonable indeed!
So until next review… I wish you Happy Gaming!
Author’s Note: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.
Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)
- Presentation: 3.5
- - Design: 4.0 (Very good writing and logical format; couple small editing issues; needs bookmarks!)
- - Illustrations: 3.0 (Decent artwork with a couple really good pieces; needed more for 200+ pages)
- Content: 4.25
- - Crunch: 4.5 (High crunch factor; cool character class design and additional rules)
- - Fluff: 4.0 (Solid fluff but lacking a setting; the two adventures make some amends however)
- Value: 4.0 (A whole lot of game content for a very decent price!)
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