Game: Urban Arcana
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Series: d20 Modern
Review Dated: 26th, June 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 15
Average Score: 7.50
Bugbears and half-dragons are out shopping the local mall and no one sees them because no one wants to see them. Urban Arcana is a d20 Modern campaign setting where fantasy creatures have been pulled through the Shadow Plane and into a world very much like ours. Mankind, the average Joe on the street, can’t cope with this. Man only wants the familiar and refuses to accept anything as strange as a gnome with an iPod. Urban Arcana has these fantasy races wandering around in a contemporary world where only a few people actually notice them.
There’s a risk of irony here. Wizards must really believe that people want the familiar and that they don’t want to face anything different. Why? It explains why they’ve pushed out rules to let gamers include drow, orcs and prestige classes in their d20 modern campaign. It’s like normal D&D but with guns! In some ways they’ve been successful. Urban Arcana has been warmly received, people whom once couldn’t “see the point” of d20 Modern have told me that they “know what to do for their game” now. Let’s not be too harsh. The d20 system cut its teeth on high fantasy and a campaign setting that blends high fantasy with modern technology is a sensible choice for first official setting.
Then there’s the Changeling controversy. If your attention is firmly in the d20/Dugeons & Dragons court or entirely in the World of Darkness one then this so-called controversy may never have made your radar but its lead to heated discussions and much flaming elsewhere. The two games share a similar return of magic, people unable to return to the world from where they came, and a world where mankind is too closed minded to notice them or their magic. Famous examples from the World of Darkness universe (rather than just the Changeling game) are of how a mage can disguise/explain a fire ball as an exploding gas mains and how someone might convince themselves it wasn’t a werewolf they saw but an angry (and hairy) drunk instead. It just so happens that these are the very same two explanations used by Urban Arcana. So what? That’s my opinion on the debate. There’s nothing particularly original in either example or the concept as a whole. There’s little wonder that there’s overlap. The similarities between the two games are as strong or as weak as a skilled debater cares to make them. The important thing is that the two games play and feel different. Changeling is about the eventual and inescapable loss of childhood innocence and Urban Arcana, um, Urban Arcana isn’t. Having safely shrugged off D&D’s Old Testament style “the greater good is always good” ethos it’s hard to say that Urban Arcana is about anything. Urban Arcana is simply an interesting setting for GMs and players to tell their own stories in.
Urban Arcana will please people who want hefty gaming tomes. There are about 320 full-colour pages and a hardback cover. That puts the book just shy of the parent d20 Modern. The styles are very similar, bold artwork, lots of red and high quality illustrations. I’ll admit straight out that I wouldn’t care if I lost bugbears from any given fantasy setting but the various illustrations of them in contemporary clothes in Urban Arcana have absolutely won me over. I can’t now think of a better bouncer or Mafia enforcer.
Character class progression now goes from basic class, to advanced class and then to prestige class. Prestige Classes are harder to qualify for than advanced classes, specialise more (a synonym for min/max more) and generally need some ability only found in the advanced classes as a prerequisite for entrance. Okay. That works. I just wish the prestige class system had been introduced in the core rules rather than tagged into a campaign setting.
Oh, there are fantasy player character races too. PC Shadowkind races include; dwarf, elf, gnome, goblin, half-elf, half-orc, hafling, orc, shadowkind human and snakeblooded human. These are the effective level one character races at least. If you’re willing to deal with level adjustments then you can play with; aasimar, bugbear, dragonblooded human, drow, gnoll, half-dragon, half-ogre, ogre and tiefling. That’s a healthy selection. Many of those races are well known. Some are brand new. It’s worth noting that there’s a suitably hefty amount of new advanced classes and prestige classes too. Urban Arcana doesn’t paddle in the shallow waters, if it decides to get involved in something then it dives in the deep end and surfaces swimming. Where there’s crunch involved, anyway.
If you’re not a crunch-puppy then it’s easy to flick through the equipment section – but I would try and resist that. There are some useful boxed text sections that run down “What’s Inside a Police Cruiser?” and “What’s Inside a Fire Truck” for example. These offerings are all shamelessly American, but then, so what? As a European this reviewer had no idea what was likely to be found in a US cop car… and I often run contemporary games in an American setting. A good equipment section, like this one, should do more than just list equipment; it should let the reader know how rare the items are and where they might be found.
There is a whole load of new spells, both arcane and divine. Equally as useful and in the same chapter are quick rules for converting psionic abilities into spells. The magic is wonderfully “modern” in feel. There are plenty of spells to effect or affect technological devices. You can cast “Magic Bullets” to enhance up to 50 bullets with a 1st level spell or you can make yourself invisible to machines. It’s odd. These techno-orientated spells seem to require more suspension of disbelief than purely fantasy spells. The rules for casting magic via email are a good example of this. You can email someone a spell and when/if they read it – it’ll take effect. There’s a no spam rule! Spells can only be sent to one address. Ah-ah, think I, but what if that address is a mailing list? The target is whoever first opens the email and so I find myself thinking whether it could hit some poor postmaster being nosey and checking the logs for all mail passing through his router. Arg… no, must not apply geeky knowledge to imaginary spell situations. Magic is magic and therefore doesn’t need to make sense. There are lots of magic items too. Once more we see a nice mix of spells and science. What about a Cloudkill Grenade? Chainsaw of the Psycho? A Bladegun that can transform from gun to short sword and back again at will?
There’s still no campaign setting though. New races, classes and spells do not make a “setting”. Urban Arcana begins to bridge the issue of a campaign setting my first offering advice to GMs. There’s a difference between linear and non-linear games, we’re told and comics and TV shows will provide you with inspiration. I suppose they have to write the book as if it was someone’s first supplement. As sometimes happens with WotC products we’re given a hundred adventure ideas. They’re not so much adventure ideas as weird comments that are equally as likely to inspire a giggle as an adventure. “A popular new brand of soda acts as potion of flying”, “Ghost trolleys begin running along the streets at night”, “The heroes wake up one morning with tattoos of beholders on their left arms” or “All the dogs in the city magically gain the power of speech and intelligence”. Remember, people don’t see bugbears wandering around because people aren’t used to weird things happening. In fact there is no real campaign setting in Urban Arcana. The book is, in some ways, a giant template. You take the modifications from Urban Arcana and apply them to a version of our world of your own design. There’s a little more; our Earth only touches the Plane of Shadows, there are no Astral ghosts/spirits (I sense another supplement coming) and there are organisations composed of shadowkind or which deal with shadowkind. In fact, it’s these organisations that define the Urban Arcana campaign setting. Players are most likely to belong to Department 7. In fact, at times, the book tells you that the players :will: belong to Department 7. As a memberof Department 7 you’ll do what’s best for the mundane and the magical. You’ll know a woman with a British accent. Other organisations are criminal groups of shadowkind monsters, thugs or criminal geniuses with supernatural power. This isn’t always the case; some organisations could care less about world domination or armies of orcs. The Prancing Pony is a franchise of themed restaurants that serve Magic Meals™ that include wind up familiars as free gifts. Gnomes team up in Switzerland so they can keep on building clocks and other mechanical devices. Urban Arcana can be a little too silly for my tastes at times. Mystic pizza.
There’s a chapter of new monsters. Unlike the fantasy bestiaries produced by Wizards of the Coast you can’t expect to have an illustration for every creature here – and that’s a shame. In fact, illustrations of these creatures are rare. If you’ve got into d20 through d20 Modern and Urban Arcana, have never seen a Monster Manual, then you’ll still have no idea of what a Beholder looks like despite their inclusion here. On the other hand, at least you don’t have to fork out another US$30 to buy an additional book. Only a few rare humans are “Awakened” (which just happens to be a World of Darkness term too) to see these monsters for what they really are. There are Demonic Autos, Urban Wendigos and Living Dumpsters. There are also boars, eagles and big cats. Um. I suspect you don’t have to be awakened to notice those though.
The book considers the best place to set your adventure, your hometown, a city designed all by yourself or somewhere else. There’s a discussion of the pros and cons to each of these approaches. We’re offered up some sample locations (occult shops, etc) along with floor plans. It’s not a huge success but it does get the ball rolling. If you’re looking for just-a-start on converting your D&D collection to Urban Arcana then you’ll also pick that up from the back of the book. There’s no “wow factor” here, nothing that doubles the value of the book by letting you plug in your library of fantasy foo in one easy move but there is enough to make the conversation easier.
I’m rather torn on Urban Arcana. It is a weak implementation of an obvious idea and yet it manages to inspire at times. I must admit that it’s a pretty (if blood splattered) book and I seem to have successfully been suckered by the artwork. I feel I’m willing to “forgive” the book more because it looks nice. Although the “monsters are real – we just don’t notice them” idea is done to death it is still a good way to include fantasy races in a modern setting. In many ways Urban Arcana reflects too many recent Wizards of the Coast products; it sets itself a less than ambitious target and then reaches that target with professional gloss and shine. In this case, I think Urban Arcana’s target is just about worth the dollars and the gloss and shine is a welcome bonus.