My GM is planning to run Ultramodern5 after we finish our current D&D 5e campaign, so I purchased the PDF version of the book, read through it and then sat down to create a character. The review is therefore based upon significant consideration of the game, but I have not yet played it. I’m not going to go into detail on layout and editing (there are some issues) or artwork (it’s generally not very good by pro standards); I’m going to focus on the substance.
Ultramodern5 is designed to support games using the D&D 5e rules in settings ranging from the 18th or 19th century to the far future. After an introduction to a couple of the company’s own settings (purchased separately), the book offers two pages of “new rules.” This section covers rules for autofire, new skills (computers, engineering, sciences, etc.) and four new feats. You might think it incredible that Ultramodern is porting 5e to modern and futuristic settings with only two pages of rules, and you would be right. There are a lot of “new rules” scattered throughout the book, from character creation to vehicles. I’m not sure why the company chose to begin the book with a section on “new rules” that describes only a fraction of the new rules.
Anyway, let’s get into character creation. First up is your race. You’re assumed to be (non-variant) human, but you can forego one or more of your +1 ability score increases for a choice or roll on the “Genetic Benefit Table.” You can get things like an extra skill or tool proficiency, darkvision (“Night Eyes”) or the hill dwarf bonus to maximum hit points (“Extreme Fortitude”). They’re not at all balanced, and presumably aren’t trying to be. Light Sleeper, for example, says you “…cannot be surprised by sleeping.” I presume it means “while sleeping,” but even so, it probably isn’t as good as darkvision.
Next up is Lifepath: You pick a background; note that backgrounds offer one choice from two different skills, rather than the two skills in 5e, and you won’t get a special ability. Then you choose or roll on tables to fill out the details of your life. You have to roll Life Episodes -- you can’t choose them. You could get a tragedy (lose an eye, alcoholic, chronic and debilitating disease) or a windfall (favors, wealth, extra proficiencies or feats). Luck (good or bad) is limited by rule -- if you get a tragedy, you can’t get another one until you get a windfall, and vice versa. You can roll for the number of Life Episodes, or choose a number between 5 and 10.
I’m not going to say a lot about this. I don’t think 5e holds up very well to randomness in character creation, and there is opportunity here for a PC to start with multiple extra feats (though he’ll also be a broke, one-eyed cancer patient on the run from the mob). The Lifepath system also forces me to develop a fairly in-depth character backstory from the start, while I might prefer to develop this stuff in play, and it slows down character creation. Necessarily, because the tables are more limited and less complex than real human lives, the output is too. But it’s solid enough and will please those who like this kind of thing.
Now we’ll get into the crunch of character creation. I went into this attempting to create Jason Bourne -- a former soldier trained in covert ops and assassination. Bourne is really well-rounded: He can handle himself in unarmed combat, melee combat, with handguns, submachine guns, assault rifles and sniper rifles. He knows a ton of tradecraft and is an expert driver. We’ll see how that worked out.
You’ll construct your character by choosing three mechanical frames: a ladder, a class and an archetype. The ladder is basically an ASI/feat chain. You get something at 1st level (this usually includes the chance to use a different ability modifier, such as Wisdom or Intelligence, for attacks, AC, etc.), then again at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th and 19th levels instead of your normal ASI. You don’t have to choose your ladder ability at any of those levels, but when you do choose ladder abilities, you must choose them in order. As an aside, I assume multiclassing isn’t allowed in UM5. While ASIs are normally tied to class level, the ladders link them to character level. Ladders would therefore offset one of the biggest checks or tradeoffs on multiclassing in 5e.
On the subject of classes, there are a lot of them that seem to cover most of the basic roles in a modern-future game. The design aesthetic of 5e is, in my opinion, nowhere to be found. I’m only superficially familiar with 4e, but I believe Ultramodern was originally created for that edition, and I wonder if some of that design approach is still present here, producing a rules set that feels converted rather than built from the ground up with 5e as the foundation. Many of the abilities are complex and fiddly in ways that don’t seem a good fit with 5e.
For example, let’s look at the grounder -- the fighter or soldier class. At 1st level, you get an ability called Fire Support. You have to choose a path -- Assault or Precision -- and there are five tiers in each path. It’s not clear if this is a one-time choice or if you can take a combination of tiers in both paths. Anyway, you get a new tier at 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th level. The Assault Tier 1 ability is that when you make an autofire attack, you inflict extra damage equal to the amount by which your attack roll beat the target’s AC, to a maximum of 5. Then, at higher tiers, you don’t add to the damage maximum; no, you add to the value of the attack roll, but only for the purposes of calculating the extra damage.
I have two things to say about this. First, as I suggested above, it doesn’t feel like 5e design. It’s complex, fiddly and kludgy in execution. And second, it seems more appropriate for the Precision path: the more accurate your shot, the more damage you do. It seems like the Assault Fire Support path should give you bonuses to hit with autofire, maybe, or special features such as suppressing fire. (The grounder does get a “Covering Fire” ability, but it’s an option in a completely different multiple-option menu ability.)
Okay, so to summarize, the classes don’t feel like 5e design to me. Maybe they would feel like 4e design, or some hybrid of the two, if I was more familiar with 4e. Or maybe the design approach is nothing like 4e, either, and it’s just something else entirely. In fairness, some abilities of some classes feel more 5e. The medic has “exploits” complete with slots that are spells in all but name. The sniper has “marksmanship points” and “talents” that are kind of like sorcery points and metamagic. So, yeah. I report, you decide.
Finally, you choose an archetype. Instead of each class having a number of subclasses, there are a number of subclasses you can combine with any class. This is a really cool and ambitious feature -- cool, because it provides a big boost to customization options, ambitious because the combinatory effects will make it hard to balance.
Archetypes provide benefits at 3rd, 7th, 11th, 15th and 18th level. There is a broad range of archetypes. The anti-hero gets a “dead pool” (yuk yuk) of damage dice he can add to attacks and replenish when he kills folks or there is otherwise mayhem inflicted on or around him. The authority is an expert who gains a lot of abilities to control skill checks -- manipulating dice results, spending Hit Dice for bonuses, etc. The militarist grants bonuses and special abilities to allies using Tactical Points. The pathfinder has a “dust pool” that gives him a limited ability to teleport. The pool starts at 20 feet at 3rd level and increases to 40 feet at 18th level. The pool replenishes 5 feet for every 10 feet you don’t move on your turn.
Okay, so I’m trying to make Jason Bourne. I pick the Drifter background (there’s another pun, if you recall the intro from Bourne Identity), which gets him a skill proficiency and a couple languages. I sacrifice one of my human ability increases for Stealth proficiency. I only figure out later what skill proficiencies I’ll need to fill in, as we’ll see shortly.
At first I think Bourne should take the infiltrator class, though even with this class I note the apparent absence of the kind of tradecraft Bourne knows. The problem, most broadly, is that the infiltrator -- especially considering that it is a class and not a subclass -- is super-specialized.
What do I mean by that? Well, his weapon proficiencies are very limited -- his only firearms proficiency is one-handed small arms. Bourne is an ex-soldier and should be able to use submachine guns, assault rifles and sniper rifles. But that’s not really the problem -- weapon proficiencies are limited for many classes in 5e. The bigger problem is the class abilities: many of them only work with one-handed small arms or melee weapons. If you want Jason Bourne to use his infiltrator abilities with a sniper rifle or unarmed attacks, you’re out of luck. Furthermore, the 5e rogue, in terms of combat, is really built around being sneaky, getting advantage or attacking targets engaged with his allies. The infiltrator is really built around getting advantage and getting in close and attacking with specific weapons.
I suppose this provides niche protection -- you don’t want the infiltrator stepping on the toes of the sniper and/or the martial artist. But it speaks to how the infiltrator is super-specialized. He’s not really a good fit for even a fledgling Jason Bourne. I looked at different combinations with ladders and archetypes, but couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction.
To make a long story slightly shorter, I ended up choosing the Juggernaut ladder, the Grounder class and the Grandmaster archetype for Jason Bourne. Sounds just like him, right? Okay, not. But it was the best combination I found to create a character with Bourne’s well-rounded combat skills. (He’s never going to get the well-rounded tradecraft skills.) Juggernaut makes him harder to kill, which is helpful in pretty much any combat situation. It also makes him less Multiple Ability Dependent (MAD), since he can use his Strength modifier for all ranged attacks. The Runner ladder would have been a better thematic fit for Bourne. It allows him to use his Dexterity modifier on Athletics checks and attack and damage rolls with melee weapons. Problem is, per the 5e errata, unarmed strikes are melee weapon attacks but not melee weapons, so Bourne would still need Strength for unarmed combat if he chose this ladder.
Moving on, the grounder class gives Bourne weapon proficiencies, vehicle proficiencies (though he’s not an expert driver and never will be), as well as firearms and tactical combat abilities. Grandmaster gives him Karate at 3rd level -- though he can only use it once per day for 5 minutes. Must make it hard to train. As he goes up in level, he’ll learn to use his karate more often and can even learn to use other martial arts for five minutes once per day. Anyway, Karate is good because it gives Bourne an unarmed strike that’s better than the default 1+Str modifier damage. Specifically, he can use his action to make a kick attack that does 1d10+Str modifier damage, +7 damage for each additional attack he could normally make. The grounder class effectively gets Extra Attack (up to 4 attacks at 14th level), so this seemed like a good choice. At 14th level, he could use his karate kick to attack with advantage for 1d10+26 damage.
In summary, there are a ton of customization options, but the design doesn’t really feel like 5e, and the options are so specialized that the net result feels unexpectedly limiting.
After character creation, you get a lot of gear, from modern stuff to science fiction. And this brings me to the element I dislike the most about Ultramoder5. Warning: This is entirely subjective preference. A large-caliber semiautomatic handgun deals 1d6 piercing damage. Keep in mind, you’re supposed to be able to combine UM5 with D&D 5e, so the Desert Eagle does hand crossbow damage. A direct hit from a rocket launcher appears to do 2d6+1 bludgeoning damage.
Now, the different classes and archetypes do have ways to increase damage, but in general, they seem more limited and super-specialized than those in the 5e core rules. For example, my grounder basically gets Brutal Critical (which isn’t great in D&D, either) when he gains the second tier in the Precision path of the Fire Control ability at 9th level, but it only applies to “a non-autofire attack.” Given that it’s “Fire Control,” I assume this means “a non-autofire attack with a firearm,” but who knows. Maybe this Fire Control ability also works with melee and unarmed attacks, which would make it less limited. It’s still Brutal Critical, and that’s still not great, but whatever.
Regardless, the bottom line is this: ACs generally aren’t very high, so targets are going to get “hit” a lot, and when they get hit by modern civilian and military weapons, they’re not going to take all that much damage. This will have a dramatic effect on the feel of the game. In my preferred style of modern combat, training, surprise, maneuver, position, cover, tactics -- these things determine the results of a firefight. They determine who gets shot, and who doesn’t, and that’s it. If you get shot with a modern firearm (or rocket launcher), you’re probably down, and often dead or dying. At 1st level, my grounder can take three average hits from a large-caliber handgun and keep coming. He can shrug off a direct hit from a rocket launcher and keep fighting. Of course, the GM can narrate the action such that those “hits” aren’t really hits -- and then he or she just has to explain why the Medic is restoring those hit points with his medkit.
Now there are a lot of first-person shooter video games that play this way, and maybe that’s the design goal. This is a game that has a medium human enemy NPC called the Big Boss with 207 hit points. He has a regeneration ability called “Health Bar.” He has a reaction called “Second Phase” that he can use once: When he’s reduced to 0 hit points, he regains 190 hit points and more legendary actions. Obviously, the influence here is not modern combat, or even Hollywood -- it’s video games.
But here’s the thing: I don’t get immersed in my character in a FPS the way I want to get immersed in my character in an RPG. In an RPG, I don’t want to be jumping around and circle-strafing through the streets of an urban combat zone, blazing away and taking hit after hit until I die and respawn. I want my character to be thinking about avoiding combat, because it’s lethal, and if forced to fight, I want him to be thinking about how to make it as unfair as possible. I don’t see how these rules are going to support that style of play, and I suspect they aren’t meant to.
My other big gripe, and its entirely unfair, is that I just don’t care for class and level systems in modern and future RPGs. I think “zero to hero” works fine in traditional fantasy (and the D&D genre, in particular), but I don’t think it transfers well to most other genres. I also believe these games need either a robust skill system or a very freeform and flexible one -- “I’m an ex-soldier trained in covert ops, so I know spook tradecraft, dammit.” The 5e system works fine for D&D, I think, but it’s neither robust nor flexible.
So, for me, UM5 is a decidedly mixed bag. I love the idea, the ambition and the effort. But ultimately, the design doesn’t feel like 5e, the abundant customization options are super-specialized and therefore unexpectedly inflexible and the rules support a style of play that is very much not my preference in this genre. If your preferences are different, you may find it’s the perfect way to bring 5e into the modern age and beyond.