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Behind d20 Modern
Christopher Perkins

The d20 Modern Roleplaying Game enjoyed humble beginnings as the brainchild of Bill Slavicsek. It was proposed first as an action-horror game called Shadow Chasers and later as a medieval-fantasy-meets-the-real-world game called Urban Arcana. In 2001, the business team for tabletop roleplaying games challenged RPG R&D to conceive a new d20 System game that would appeal both to Dungeons & Dragons aficionados and non-D&D players. The early concepts of Shadow Chasers and Urban Arcana became "sets," or backdrops, for a larger, more generic über-game.

The Mechanics

The d20 Modern Roleplaying Game would use the d20 System mechanics created and developed for the new Dungeons & Dragons game. For a time, the d20 Modern design team tinkered with rules from the Star Wars Roleplaying Game (vitality points and wound points, for example) but ultimately abandoned them in favor of "tried and true" D&D mechanics. Why? The D&D mechanics had survived extensive playtesting and found an impressive audience, and the business team wanted to "cast the net" as wide as possible. That said, a few non-D&D terms and mechanics found their way into the d20 Modern game, such as the new Massive Damage rule, action points, Reputation bonus (from Star Wars), Wealth bonus, Purchase DC, Fighting Space, and Defense.

FACTOID: Characters in d20 Modern get a bonus to their Defense (which works like Armor Class in D&D) based on class and level. In general, high-level characters are better at avoiding damage than low-level characters. For example, a 1st-level Fast hero gains a +3 class bonus to Defense, making her that much harder to hit in combat. This bonus stacks with the character's Dexterity bonus and equipment bonus for armor.

The Characters

Think of your favorite modern-day action-adventure movie or TV show. The design team wanted the d20 Modern rules to apply to that movie and virtually every other modern-day action adventure you can imagine. The d20 Modern mechanics needed enough detail and flexibility to handle everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, and Alias to Die Hard, Predator, and Big Trouble in Little China. Whereas D&D had character classes built on standard medieval fantasy archetypes (the fighter, the sorcerer, and so on), our game needed broad characters to support various subgenres, including fantasy, horror, technothrillers, and cyberpunk, just to name a few.

Bill's character concept for d20 Modern was quite elegant: The game needed only six classes, each based on one of the game's six abilities (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charima). This gave us the Strong, Fast, Tough, Smart, Dedicated, and Charismatic hero archetypes. Using these six basic classes, players could build heroic characters of all kinds, from college students to private eyes to Marines.

Building on the concept of six basic classes, we started thinking about a series of advanced classes suitable for specific campaigns. An advanced class represents a particular profession or calling, such as Soldier, Martial Artist, or Negotiator, and the GM may opt to prohibit certain ones as determined by the campaign. In addition to twelve generic advanced classes such as those mentioned above, the design team set aside space to include two advanced classes for each of the campaign models in the works.

FACTOID: Heroes in d20 Modern choose their class abilities (called talents) from a short list, allowing heroes of the same class to walk different paths. For example, one 1st-level Tough hero might choose the "Remain Conscious" talent (allowing her to act even when reduced to -9 hit points), while another 1st-level Tough hero might choose the "Damage Reduction 1/-" talent (to reduce the damage from all attacks by 1).

The Campaigns

The d20 Modern Roleplaying Game is all about gun battles, bareknuckle brawls, car chases, explosions, and foiling the bad guy. It began as a scrawny, 224-page book filled with character classes, skills, feats, combat options, guns, and gear. To demonstrate the versatility and flexibility of the game rules, however, we needed to illustrate how a GM can take a "realistic" d20 Modern game and include wierder elements like magic, psionics, and superscience. From this need came four sample campaign settings.

Adding campaign-specific material to the book increased its size to 320 pages. We introduced the first campaign setting, Shadow Chasers, in Polyhedron Magazine (the article included a version of the basic game mechanics that has undergone many transformations since). In Shadow Chasers, we established that the heroes are ordinary people who possess the "gift" to perceive supernatural horrors intruding upon today's world. Naturally, the heroes strive to destroy these evils. Magic exists but is rare. Vampires, werewolves, and other monsters exist, but they are invariably evil and lurk in the shadows.

To capture the die-hard D&D audience, we created Urban Arcana. This setting takes the various hallmarks of D&D (monsters, dungeons, and high magic) and places them in the contemporary world. The general concept -- monsters and magic exist in our world, but not everyone can see them -- hearkens back to Shadow Chasers. The difference is subtle: Unlike Shadow Chasers, not everything that enters the world of Urban Arcana is evil and must be destroyed. Dark elves, trolls, and half-dragons walk among us, and only a few of us can perceive their true forms. Not all creatures of Shadow, however, have dark agendas. Spells and magic items are more readily accessible to heroes, and the good guys don't have to be human.

Our third campaign setting, Agents of PSI, emerged from a team decision to include psionics in the core rulebook. Jeff Grubb based this setting on the concept of heroes working for a government agency called the Department of Paranormal Science and Investigation (PSI). In this setting, the heroes are trained agents fighting a secret war using powers of the mind. With nigh-superheroic characters and villainous masterminds, this setting strives for cinematic Matrix-like action over gritty realism.

The final campaign setting, GeneTech, introduces elements of superscience into the core d20 Modern experience. Dark and gritty in tone, the setting postulates a world in which various superpowers and government agencies use science to create supersoldiers to fight for their nation's cause on foreign soil. This setting allows players to create genetically enhanced humans (called "franks") as well as humans born with mammalian DNA (called "moreaus"). Rich Redman, the setting's creator, engineered six different kinds of moreaus for the game, including bat moreaus, feline moreaus, and bear moreaus.

As we approached the end of the design process, it became clear that we would barely have enough room to show off three campaign settings, let alone four. Keeping magic and psionics in the rulebook meant keeping Shadow Chasers, Urban Arcana, and Agents of PSI; GeneTech was cut. (Look for GeneTech to reappear in a future issue of Polyhedron.) However, we kept the moreaus in the Friends and Foes chapter, as they could be adapted easily to other campaign settings.

FACTOID: The Urban Arcana campaign model provides two new advanced classes -- the Mage and the Acolyte (based on the D&D wizard and cleric, respectively). The Urban Arcana Campaign Setting scheduled for release in 2004 will include more than a dozen campaign-specific advanced classes, including the Mystic, the Speed Demon, and the Wildlord.

The Look

The project's unforgiving schedule forced the game's creators to sit down and concoct an art order and overall design for the book before the first word was cast. As with D&D, the designers wanted a set of iconic characters to represent typical heroes of the game. We conceived twelve iconic humans -- six males and six females. Our iconics were built using the six basic classes, given distinct names and origins, and slated to appear in various illustrations throughout the book. Robert Raper, the art director, needed to get final versions of the iconic character sketches to the dozen or so artists working on the book so that everyone involved knew what they looked like.

Before the illustrations started rolling in, a team of people representing four different departments (RPG R&D, Book Publishing, Marketing, and Sales) sat down to review four different book layouts. Designers working with Robert Raper devised four "treatments," which led to an hour-long discussion about color combos, margins, number of columns, chapter headings, table format, image placement, and typography. Ultimately, the departments selected the one treatment that best represented the "look and feel" of d20 Modern. Robert then refined the format to address each department's lingering concerns before presenting the final layout. At the same time, he began working on a d20 Modern logo and front cover design. Meanwhile, the game's writers selected three iconic characters for the cover and outfitted them in a manner consistent with the contemporary and hip feel of the game.

FACTOID: Yoriko Obato, our female Fast iconic hero, originally had pink hair, but it looked too trendy and cyberpunkish on the cover, so it was changed to black. The designers spent four hours of valuable meeting time deciding which iconic characters to place on the cover, and how many of them should be female. Yep -- four whole, freaky hours.

The Toil

When the designers glance at the finished pages of the core rulebook, they don't just see the words and pretty pictures: They see tiny droplets of blood, sweat, and tears.

The early chapters underwent painful revision after painful revision as the rules "evolved." Because of the tight production schedule, the editors reviewed early chapters of the book as the designers waged war on the later chapters. With deadlines looming and vital portions of text still unwritten, designer/editor Charles Ryan was tasked with filling in missing pieces, revisiting obsolete mechanics, and proposing solutions to unresolved rules issues. With four designers and two editors working on different sections of the book simultaneously, weekly meetings proved the only way to deal with rules issues. Between these meetings, the team held playtest sessions. Between these playtest sessions, the designers revised, wrote, revised, wrote, revised, wrote, and revised, while the editors stitched together the lonely megabytes of text.

Kim Mohan, the managing editor, stepped in during the final two months of the process, sharpening text, combining edited chapters into one seamless whole, and making sure the chapters didn't present contradictory information. When something was missing, Kim hounded the designers and editors for new text. With the written pieces in place, Kim surrendered the polished text to Angie Lokotz. Angie flowed the text into a page template, dropped in the finished art, and tried to make it all fit just right. Only with the illustrations, tables, and diagrams in place could we tell which chapters ran short or long, and how much text needed to be added or deleted.

FACTOID: The most frequently revised "chunk" of the game was the Wealth system, presented at the start of the Equipment chapter. Before settling on the published system, Charles Ryan and Bill Slavicsek generated (and ultimately rejected) nine variants!

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