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Urban Arcana
Bill Slavicsek, Jeff Grubb, Eric Cagle, Dave Noonan
Wizards of the Coast, 320 pages

Urban Arcana
Urban Arcana
To use Urban Arcana, you also need the d20 Modern Role-Playing Game core rule book. For players and Gamemasters, this module is compatible with other d20 System role-playing games.

d20 System
d20 Modern

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mike Thibault

Urban Arcana is a generic setting for the d20 Modern role-playing game that mixes magic with technology and monsters with thugs. It expands on one of the three mini-settings found in the core rule book and gives you all of the basic information you need to run full campaigns and, for good measure, they have thrown in some less setting-specific tools to help out your game.

It is probably more accurate to call d20 Modern settings "premises" -- after all, by definition, the setting will be the modern world. What this type of book does is provide a premise for adventuring in the mundane modern world with which we are all familiar. So in some ways, modern campaign settings look very different than the more common fantasy settings. There are no detailed write-ups of cities or countries; no overviews of political systems or factions; no pantheon of cool new deities. All of the information you will need on those topics will generally be available in non-fiction books or imported from fantasy gaming supplements. So, aside from a few general tips on the demographics of various urban neighbourhoods and building plausible cities, Urban Arcana avoids discussing the world at large.

Urban Arcana is designed to allow players to get in gunfights and match wits with traditional D&D fantasy monsters in the streets of any urban centre. To rationalize this, the designers have supposed an otherworldly place -- known as Shadow -- where monsters and magic exist. These monsters are "leaking" into the real world and it is generally the players job to keep them from getting out of hand. The details of Shadow are left deliberately vague so you can customize it to suit the flavor and style of your game. The setting presumes that even though monsters (and elves and dwarves) roam the streets, most people don't actually recognize them for what they really are. Unlike some other mixed-genre games, such as Shadowrun, the monsters are not a known quantity to the general populace. But again, this sort of flavor text isn't interwoven with the game rules, or even much of the other flavor text, so you can change it easily enough if you want a heavier or lighter mixture of fantasy in the modern world. The setting is truly generic in that sense.

This is more of a good thing than bad. If the cosmology, Shadow-politics and magical ecology (if you'll pardon the jargon) were all specific and narrowly defined, then the book would be far less useful than it is. What the book loses in evocative flavour, it gains in breadth -- it has the leg-room to stretch out and explore interactions between magic and technology (which is current, not futuristic), or monsters and corporate entities, without forcing a Game Master to use everything that is presented. You can cherry-pick the elements you want without running into power or compatibility issues. If you want magic to exist in your campaign as the remnants of ancient lore, then you can leave out spells like "degauss," which erases computer memory and magnetic tapes, or ignore the rules for sending spells through email, and you won't have to retool the rest of the magic system or the magic-using classes to balance things out.

There are the obligatory spells, feats, advanced classes and prestige classes that are de rigueur in d20 publishing. The advanced classes range from the mundane (Street Warrior, Swashbuckler) to the magical (Mystic) and a few niches in-between (Glamorist, Shadow Hunter, Speed Demon). The spells cover an equally broad gamut. There are D&D stalwarts like sleep and magic missile, and modern re-imaginings of D&D stalwarts (a version of magic mouth that places a triggered message in a television, electronic road-sign, or jumbotron instead of a statue) and some completely new spells such as wire walk and machine invisibility. You get the idea: something for everyone.

One innovation in Urban Arcana that really struck me was the addition of a new type of magic called incantations. Unlike the level-based magic that is fundamental to the d20 system, these spells can be cast by anyone, and as often as they wish, but they require difficult skill checks and usually a significant amount of time -- 10 minutes to a few hours. Players won't be using incantations to cast fireballs during combat, but if you want a more pulp feel to your game, the evil cultists can cast one to mentally dominate a kidnapped heiress or gate in a demon from the other side. It is a nice solution for introducing magic and the supernatural into a world without spell-slinging wizards in the traditional D&D model. It is even designed modularly, so you can create your own incantations to suit your needs.

There are a handful of new magic items, although to be honest most of them seem more cartoonish to me than awe-inspiring. The Camera of Soul Stealing and Riot Shield of Fear are about as good as it gets, the Chainsaw of the Psycho is a bit goofy and the Bad Hair Day Clip is regrettable, at best. Some folks might really jazz on a car-wars sort of vibe with the magic enhancements to vehicles, but they aren't to everyone's taste.

Likewise the monsters are spotty, Gear Golems or Digital and Mechanical Homunculi will be great additions to any campaign that assumes that magic and technology closely interact in the modern world, and the d20 Modern versions of Beholders, Fiends and Dragons will be a nice fit in a campaign of uncovered secrets and dark lore. Living (carnivorous) Dumpsters and Demonic Autos are actually a bit of a lark to read about, but they are pretty difficult to fit into a game -- they aren't really technology, but they aren't really devilish either. They simply serve to jump out at players from a direction they don't expect -- which can be useful, granted, but again seems pretty cartoonish.

Even if you plan on only introducing a limited amount of magic and fantasy into your d20 Modern campaign, Urban Arcana has quite a bit of general information and tools for running a game. Equipment such as police scanners, bug sweepers, and more firearms and weapons are included. Bicycles were notably absent from the core rulebook and finally get an official treatment here, and there are maps of common locations such as a bar, city hall, a warehouse and a shopping mall. There is even a chapter on organizations so extensive that almost anyone should be able to find one or two that strikes their fancy. And if you need something to get you started, there are seven short adventures fully detailed.

But after all is said and done, is it any good? Well, yes. If you are planning on running a d20 Modern campaign with any amount or type of magic in it, then you will find lots of ideas floating around here to help give your adventures a new direction or twist Even though I wasn't really inspired by the premise of book, my imagination was sparked with the possibilities of the individual bits of material presented -- more possibilities than I would ever have time to use in a game -- and I expect that while no two individuals will be inspired by the same combination of elements, most will be inspired nonetheless.

Copyright © 2003 Mike Thibault

Michael Thibault is a librarian and archivist in Ottawa, Canada. Aside from gaming and the obligatory obsession with reading, he... er, well, he doesn't have any other hobbies.

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