D&D 4E DEM’s Apex Brings Comic Book Superpowers to D&D 4E! (A Review)

There are some gamers who might argue that D&D d20 was one the most flexible RPG systems ever created. In its wake, dozens of different games and game settings, from nearly every genre imaginable, have been translated into d20 under its OGL.

But could the same be said about D&D 4E?

Over the past few years, Dias Ex Machina Games has been putting 4E to the same purpose that others have done with D&D d20 previously. Their post-apocalyptic fantasy setting Amethyst and their dystopia cyber-punk setting Neurospasta have taken the D&D 4E rules system to new places likely never intended by its designers. And with DEM’s 2012 release of Ultramodern4, even settings based upon the present and near-future can be utilized under 4E.

So why not superheroic role-playing?

DEM’s
Apex module for Ultramodern4 explores just that idea - superhero comic book powers, mutant superheroes, and advanced “normals” in an alternate modern setting all using D&D 4E rules. This definitely ain’t your typical 4E adventure game anymore!

Apex (for Ultramodern 4)

  • Designers: Chris Tavares Dias
  • Illustrators: Nick Greenwood (cover & interior)
  • Publisher: Dias Ex Machina
  • Year: 2013
  • Media: PDF (90 pages)
  • Cost: $4.99 (PDF from RPGNow)

Apex
is a module for Ultramodern4 which allows players and Dungeon Masters to experience comic-book superhero role-playing, using the D&D 4E rules system. The character generation materials comes complete with the feats and powers to add onto existing Ultramodern4 classes to transform heroes into superpowered mutants. There is a new stand-alone class for Apex characters, as well as a new Paragon Path, and Epic Destiny. For Dungeon Masters, there is a list of organizations and societies which are bent on capturing or killing the super-heroes, as well as eight individual Apex villains to threaten both player-characters and the world.


Production Quality

The production quality of Apex is pretty good overall, with solid writing and some imaginative innovations to repurpose 4E for a super-hero RPG. The layout is nicely done, and the game information presented in a logical and easy-to-access way.

However, there were a few editing choices and issues which held the product back from what could have been an excellent rating. In several areas, the indentations for paragraph breaks were missing, giving the reader a huge wall-of-text paragraph to have to peruse. And the font sizes between the main headers and sub-headers in some sections were so close that it was difficult to tell which was which.

From an organization level, the Apex PDF has both bookmarks as well as a table of contents, which makes it easy to find the section of the book you need to use in character generation. In addition, the author placed a short index at the end of the book, which is another handy way to navigate the book.

The artwork in Apex is somewhat of a mixed bag with regards to appeal. The cover art is very troubling, with the lack of a distinct light source being somewhat confusing to the eye. Although it is very inspirational, with a wide range of superpowers being depicted, the coloring and multiple light sources really muddies the image. Throughout the book, pieces of this cover art are cropped and blown up to be used as illustrations, some of which are disappointing in appearance. However, there are a couple black-and-white sketches scattered here and there, which might have been concept art for the book. In many respects, these are more appealing than the full-color cover, and I wish we had more instances of them in the Apex module.


Apex & 4E


As previously mentioned, Apex is designed to be an add-on module to DEM’s Ultramodern4, released last year. (See my review of Ultramodern4 here.) Apex offers superhero power options and mutations to add onto already existing character classes from Ultramodern4, which uses D&D 4E mechanics in a modern and near-future setting. Because it uses 4E mechanics, these superpowers can be used in conjunction with DEM’s post-apocalyptic-fantasy setting Amethyst, or even with D&D 4E character classes themselves!

The Apex module adds superpowers in the form of ladders, a mechanic concept introduced in Ultramodern4, which are roughly analogous to 4E themes and Pathfinder archetypes. They provide AEDU powers which can be swapped for standard class powers, and have built-in features which stack with existing class powers. Many of the ladder built-in powers include advancements to attack and damage bonuses, as well as NADs increases, magic items which give bonuses (4E) and gear beyond TL0 (Ultramodern4) are disallowed here in Apex.

Apex consists of six chapters: the first five focus on various facets of character generation; the sixth contains information on threats and supervillains for the Dungeon Master. The first chapter mainly focuses on how the book can be used, its compatibility with other products like Ultramodern4, and the definitions of new keywords which appear in powers. Incidentally, the author mentions that OGL copies of Ultramodern4 are available for free download from RPGNow. The opening chapter also introduces the Apex Skill, which is available to characters with these super Apex powers. The skill is used to boost Apex powers, boost feats to higher levels (more on that later), and represents that extra-human effort seen so often in comic books. It should be noted that such effort is dangerous, and failure to make the DC of an Apex Skill roll for a power boost can cause damage and adverse conditions.

In the second chapter, the author gives an overview of the character creation components, including some new mechanics added into 4E rules for Ultramodern4. Characters generated under Apex rules get to choose a class, a lifepath (similar to a background), a ladder, and feats appropriate to the character’s concept. Players can also choose to select a sacrifice, a detriment or deformity of some kind, which in turn grants additional feats and bonuses to the character. There are eighteen sacrifices to choose from, and include such options as addiction, deformity, and even handicaps like blindness or being a paraplegic. As for lifepaths, the author has provided thirteen normal ones, and eleven Apex ones, the latter focusing on characters who have had their powers from a young age, while the former describe lives before gaining Apex powers.

Chapter 3 describes the eleven ladders which are used to create Apex characters. Each ladder has a brief description of the nature of a character having these abilities, as well as features which add onto those of the character class. The Apex powers have the full range of levels, from Level 1 At Wills all the way up to Level 29 Dailies, and these can be swapped in for the standard class powers at the appropriate level. The eleven ladders have edgy sounding names which remind me of the categories of mutants from the movie Push, and define a wide array of iconic superhero powers. Some of the ladder names are somewhat descriptive of their powers, such as Kinetic, Morph, and Tinker, while others like the Flux and the Specter are less self-evident. As it turns out, Fluxes are rather like the mutants depicted in the movie Jumper, while Specters are pre-cogs and clairvoyants. Each ladder adheres quite well to a particular comic book power trope, and the only limitation here is that one can’t mix powers from ladders.

Feats are the main topic of Chapter 4, and there is a new mechanic used here in Apex – the leveled feat. Leveled feats have multiple levels, and a leveled feat can be taken multiple times to buy increasingly higher levels. These leveled feats usually apply as modifiers to a power or group of powers, and add additional effects or abilities when that power is used. Many feats have prerequisites of a specific ladder, as well as limited to a certain level and ability scores. There are well over 100 new feats for use with Apex, and most of them are of the leveled variety.
It should be noted that the Apex Skill can be used to boost a leveled feat, and push it to gain the next level without having to spend a feat slot on it. Of course, that doesn’t always work, although it does add considerable flexibility to the use and variation of the powers.

Three class options are introduced in Chapter 5: the Chrysalis (base class), Evolved Idol (Paragon Path), and Superhero (Epic Destiny). The first option, Chrysalis defines a character which is entirely an Apex character, a pure superpowered being, without any other class type from Ultramodern4 or D&D 4E. The Evolved Idol Paragon Path is designed for a character who is embracing the Apex aspects of his powers, while the Epic Destiny Superhero allows a character to be a well-known, famous, and known across the world – think Superman or Iron Man here.

In the final chapter, there is some Dungeon Master content, providing the names and natures of groups which will likely be at odds with Apex powered characters, as well as an assortment of supervillains (monsters) to battle against. There are three international groups which are likely to want to capture or kill characters with Apex powers, and a fourth group controlled by an Apex NPC who wants to create a world where Apex characters can live in peace - although the motives and methods of such a group might be called into question at some point in a campaign. There are also eight individual adversaries, all with Apex powers, which might confront the heroes at one time or another. Most are Heroic Tier threats, although there are three Paragon Tier enemies. All come with background information and stat blocks, and their backgrounds might provide some decent hooks for adventures and campaigns.


Overall Score
: 3.8 out of 5.0


Conclusions


I have to say that DEM has done a pretty awesome job at translating a superhero role-playing game using the D&D 4E rules system. While perhaps not as flexible as other superhero RPGs where a player can build powers using points, DEM’s Apex does a solid job of covering most major comic book power tropes, and for creating inventive and interesting powers along a specific theme in each ladder. The addition of leveled feats is really innovative, and the lifepaths introduced here, when added to the class and lifepath options in basic Ultramodern4, can allow a player to create a truly unique characters with their own story and dynamic.

While I was somewhat underwhelmed by the artwork in Apex, there is still a lot of amazing details and exciting content available in this Ultramodern4 module. And with a no-frills OGL version of Ultramodern4 free from RPGNow, Apex offers a ton of new campaign options for fans of D&D 4E for only a few bucks!

Reviewer’s Note
: This Reviewer received a complimentary copy of the product, from which this review was written.


Grade Card (Ratings 1 to 5)

  • Presentation: 3.0
  • - Design: 3.5 (Excellent writing and a logical format; editing issues challenge the reader)
  • - Illustrations: 2.5 (A couple of good interior sketches; cover art disappointing)
  • Content: 4.0
  • - Crunch: 4.5 (Very crunchy; nice adaptation of classic comic book powers to 4E)
  • - Fluff: 3.5 (Solid fluff but lacking a setting; the two adventures make some amends however)
  • Value: 4.5 (Given that Ultramoder4 rules are free, this add-on is a steal at twice the price!)
 

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