The new Urban Arcana campaign setting for the d20 Modern game brings medieval fantasy to the contemporary world. In this exclusive interview, the designers discuss living dumpsters, incantations gone wrong, and what happens when player characters armed with assault weapons and explosives meet a demon in the subway.
Wizards of the Coast: In the new Urban Arcana setting, fans are bound to recognize a mix of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, TheX-Files,Sliders, the Chronicles of Amber, and even a touch of the Ravenloft setting. When and how did this project take life?
Stan!: Actually, Urban Arcana was the product concept that eventually became d20 Modern. The idea of making a game that was "D&D in the modern world" just begged the question of "How do you play d20 in the modern world?" and it simply made more sense to do the core rules first. When we chose the campaign models for the core book, we included Urban Arcana with the plan to further expand the setting in this book.
Jeff Grubb: I think there has been a grand tradition of mixing the fantastic and the mundane. While cleaning out my closet, I came across an old Dragon adventure, "The City Beyond the Gate," which pulled D&D characters into modern London. The incarnation that became Urban Arcana, however, started squarely with Bill Slavicsek's Thursday night game, which was the initial testing ground for d20 Modern. We started with what eventually became the basic character classes and moved up from there. Moondog, one of the iconic tough heroes from d20 Modern, was my character in that campaign. And Bill and the gang are BIG Buffy fans (I know what's going on primarily through osmosis, from hanging around them -- I was a big fan of Kolchak: The Night Stalker back in the day).
Wizards: In describing the urban setting in general, the book says that "the heroes can find themselves . . . dealing with trolls preying on Seattle's night life." Is this an allusion to your playtests? What other locations did you playtest?
Stan!: I think we all had our own settings for the individual playtests. I know that Jeff ran a "Team Bravo" playtest that lasted quite a while (and has new life in some of the free online adventures that Eric is writing for the Wizards website). I ran a couple of playtests set in New York City because I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. Really, our playtests were about as varied as our own experiences. And I think we proved pretty well (at least to ourselves) that the game works in just about any modern location.
Jeff: "Team Bravo" was a lunch-time game, and was "Hill Street Blues meets The X-Files." The team was the rookies in the "weird crime" division of the Generic City police department and had to deal with giant crocodiles in the sewers, underground cities, and ankhegs nesting in rural tobacco barns. Bill has run three campaigns -- the first was very much the basis for Shadow Chasers and at that level of weirdness. We worked out a lot of firearms with more of an international-based spy/thriller adventure. Right now Bill's campaign is very much influenced by Stephen King -- our characters have returned to the town where they grew up to deal with an ancient evil that they themselves earlier unleashed.
Eric Cagle: We knew perfectly well how standard D&D creatures worked, as well as how combat worked in d20 Modern. The trick was finding out how the two worked together. A big bad monster may seem pretty potent right out of the book, but it doesn't stand a chance against modern firearms. Skip Williams ran playtests that involved four characters armed to the teeth with assault weapons, grenade launchers, and explosives, versus a demon (I don't remember which one) and a purple worm. It took place in the subway. We won -- barely. We quickly learned that guns can be the great equalizer in an Urban Arcana game. But remember, ogres can easily heft an M-60, too.
All that said, you can tailor the game how you see fit. The Shadow Chasers campaign setting as described in the d20 Modernbook works well inside the confines of the book, too. You can run a perfectly good Shadow Chasers game using both these books -- just keep the tone a bit darker and more mysterious and you'll be fine.
Wizards: Shadowkind -- characters not native to the mundane world, or those who are offspring or descendants of Shadowkind -- are another exceptional addition to Urban Arcana. What do you really dig about them?
David Noonan: One aspect I particularly enjoy is the chance to put a twist on the classic D&D monsters. You'll meet many of them in Urban Arcana, but they won't be exactly what a dyed-in-the-wool D&D player expects, either culturally or with regard to specific powers.
Eric: Jeff Grubb did all the grunt work on converting D&D races to the d20 Modern setting. All in all, I think he did a fantastic job of keeping them interesting yet balanced. We ended up with an interesting three-way "power struggle" among some of the smarter, nastier races -- the drow, the yuan-ti, and the illithids.
Stan!: I really like the idea of waking up with only the vaguest notion of your history and background. All you really know is the limits of your current abilities and what you can learn about the world around you. It's a concept I like in fiction, and I think it makes for an evocative environment for roleplaying. You can't dwell on the past and have no choice but to move forward into the future.
Jeff: The yuan-ti's time has come -- like the drow in the Forgotten Realms and mind flayers in Spelljammer, they are a great bad guy race that has been underappreciated and under-utilized. Their secretive ways and mind-control abilities are such that they can fit in nicely with modern society.
The big challenge, starting out, was how to deal with the fact that we didn't want to talk about the world behind the shadow but rather focus on the shadow's effect on this world. "The Gift of Lethe" is one way of handling it -- you're not going to be able to wring out what's on the other side of Shadow by questioning the first goblin you encounter.
Wizards: You also add some original classes -- the Shadowjack, for instance, who can sneak through mainframes and perform magic online. What are your favorites among the new classes and why?
Jeff: The classes started out a bit more mundane, and with every revision got more and more mystic and cool. I'd say my faves are the arcane weapons master (strong fighter) and the swashbuckler (fast fighter). They represent both the traditional D&D warrior and the quicker, more mobile swordsman of later eras.
Eric: I'm fond of the arcane arranger, the street warrior, and the speed demon. The arcane arranger fits my personality type, so it's just fun to play. The street warrior is a cool take on your typical fighter -- he was loosely based on Gunn from the show Angel. The speed demon just rocks. Plus, as the picture shows, there's nothing wrong with drow in tight leather racing pants.
Stan!: The mystic and technomage are my favorites. They both represent new kinds of spellcasters. The mystic is a divine spellcaster who can choose her spells on the fly (the trade-off being she does not have access to cure spells), and the technomage can mix magic and machines in some really cool ways.
Wizards: Describe the division of labor and the development process.
Eric: Jeff Grubb and I had many lunchtime discussions on the layout of the book. Jeff came up with the initial outline, and I was pleased to see how closely we stuck to it. We then broke down who was going to do what, although everyone threw in ideas for every suggestion along the way. There were times when I came up with a magic item that was based on a yet-to-be-described spell. Dave Noonan did the lion's share of spell creation. He also came up with the coolest creature ever -- the living dumpster! I wish I had come up with that.
Stan!: The group met a lot at the beginning, then broke up into subgroups. I was there for a whole bunch of the early planning meetings, and then more or less dropped out until the last phase of the process where I wrote a couple of chapters, made additions to a few more, and did a bit of development across the whole book. It really was a team effort in the best way -- we were all there to help one another when necessary yet were able to step back confidently to let the individual authors do their work.
Jeff: This book was a real juggling act, with a lot of talented folk all working both simultaneously and in shifts. We worked off a strong initial outline, and then continued to develop it as we discovered what the d20 System could do in a modern setting. A lot of the research for Urban Arcana came out of the d20 playtests. And the idea of advanced classes just blew the lid off for new potential for the game, allowing us to tailor what we needed for Urban Arcana specifically.
Wizards: How did you perform research to define game parameters for things like NBC Suits or Sticky Foam Sprayers? Or to find out exactly what's inside a police cruiser, fire truck, or emergency aid vehicle?
Eric: I put out the call at Wizards to find anyone who had experience as a police officer or EMT. Jeremy Cranford, a volunteer EMT, rang me up and provided me with a ton of information on fire trucks and aid vehicles, including checklists that tick off every piece of equipment inside each vehicle. I also lucked out and found two police officers eating lunch outside the local Thriftway and picked their brains for some very handy information. We included these sidebars because, let's face it, characters live dangerous lives and spend a lot of time in or around these sorts of vehicles. Instead of having the GM guess what might be inside one if needed, I decided to do the research and let them know exactly what could be found. We were also given leave to go through previously printed material, especially the Dark*Matter books. I took some of the cooler and more unusual items, such as the Sticky Foam Sprayer (originally drafted by Rich Redman) and converted them to d20 rules. Hey, it was already out there, so why not use it? Considering the "over the top" nature of Urban Arcana, it would have been a shame not to use some of these super-cool items.
Jeff: One of the big challenges of this project is to create a "world book" that can be used in different parts of this world. An advantage to a modern setting is that everyone knows what this world is like. One of the disadvantages is that everyone thinks they know what this world is like. One of the challenges for Eric was to find out what you really can find in the police car, or a fire truck, or an ambulance. In many ways, we are providing the tools that the GMs can then use in their own campaigns.
Wizards: The organizations should add quite a bit to the background settings for most campaigns. What led you to decide you needed them, and how did they develop?
Eric: I was tapped to write up many of the NPCs for the game, based on a loose list of organizations that we came up with. We knew early on that Louis Corsone, the Silver Dragons, and several other people and groups listed in the core rulebook were going to get a bigger write-up in Urban Arcana. I personally loved the idea of an illithid crimelord with a pair of minotaur bruisers running a syndicate in the Big City. Stan! took the characters I wrote up, then built organizations, backstory, and motivations around them. He went far beyond the call of duty and created some great hooks that can be used in almost any game. There's plenty there for years of adventures.
Stan!: In a game that's set in the modern world, it's important to have a good selection of organizations that can be effective in different cities and among varied social strata. If we're using the real world as a model, the campaign can't invent new countries (well, not very many, anyway). These corporations and other organizations are what separate the mundane world from this setting for heroic adventure.
Wizards: In addition to spells, Urban Arcana includes a great section called Incantations. Can you outline what these are, how they work, and how the design came about?
Jeff: Incantations started with something that happens in the mundane world that does not happen in fantasy worlds: Non-spellcasters get into the act and accidentally (or purposefully) release ancient evils, work spells, and call forth extradimensional monsters. In a typical D&D world, spellcasting is left to the professionals; here we can take on a more Cthuloid tone where people can pull things out of moldy books, enact ancient rites, and call on eldritch powers without necessarily being spellcasters.
Dave: With incantations, we really wanted there to be a sense of tension around the game table, so that's why they rely on a number of separate, consecutive skill checks. Fail a roll or two, and the incantation takes longer -- which might be an inconvenience or a disaster, depending on the situation. But fail those skill checks too many times, especially consecutively, and you can wind up with spectacularly bad outcomes like reversed spells, big explosions, or a fizzled incantation that deludes you into thinking it worked. Another way we differentiated incantations from classic d20 spells was to include a system -- based largely on Bruce Cordell's spell seeds in the D&DEpic Level Handbook -- for building your own.
Wizards: Short answers here . . . Favorite new magical item/artifact, vehicular or otherwise? (I dig the magic billiard ball; kudos to whoever came up with that one!) Favorite new spell? (Most of us could use synchronicity almost daily, I'm sure.) Best scary new monster?
Eric: I'll happily take credit for the magic billiard ball, inspired by one that sat on my desk while I wrote out the magic items section. I did a healthy chunk of the magic items, but took real pride in the vehicular magic items. It was fun thinking up how magic could make cars (a previously untouched subject) into something cool and useful. Now the flame job on your El Camino does more than just look good.
Stan!: I like the trench coat of useful items . . . wish I'd been the one who thought it up! When it comes to magic, I think that Dave's rules for incantations are my favorite part (though if you made me pick a single spell it would be instant connectivity).
Jeff: I'll go with Eric's vehicular magical items. I like them because they had no real analogs within a fantasy campaign -- they were arcanapunk: what happens when magic meets the street.
David: For spells, I'm fond of electromagnetic pulse, haywire, and magic bullets, but that may say more about me than about those spells. For monsters, I'm completely taken with the weirdness of the living dumpster, the sinister nature of the breathsnatcher, and the gross-out factor of the liquefied zombie.
Wizards: What sort of expanded material do you envision being available for this new setting?
Stan!: I would love to see some material describing how various Shadowkind live in the modern world -- what a dwarf neighborhood looks like, how beholders open locked doors, etc. I'd also like to see a big mega-adventure -- sort of the Temple of Elemental Evil for Urban Arcana.
Jeff: Beholders open locked doors using their telekinesis eye, of course. Flapjacks, however, a little harder for them to manage.
Wizards: And finally, for we Mundanes who really can't see what's going on around us . . . Is there a "real" answer as to why the walls of Shadow have been weakening? Do they know about our world on the other side of the walls? Any chance player characters will be able to skip out of our world and into the world of Shadow (without having their memories stripped by the "Gift of Lethe," anyway)?
Stan!: Wow! Those are all great questions! I can't wait to find out the answers!
Jeff: One of the things I like about Urban Arcana is that it's a secret world, one hidden from everyone else. You don't see people in the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk disbelieving in dragons or goblins. The dual nature of the Mundane World with Shadow creeping in along the edges is one of the cool things about the campaign, and one I hope people will really get into.