(This review was originally published on Roleplayer's Chronicle - http://roleplayerschronicle.com/?p=21866)
Few independent publishers handle 4e material, let alone provide truly innovative concepts and products stretching the mechanics to their limit like Dias Ex Machina. Their highly successful Amethyst setting was just the tip of the iceberg, it seems, and they’ve taken the applications of the core rules found in the Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition RPG away from the fantasy genre to create an open-ended modern/sci-fi alternative without completing revising the game. In other words, it’s GSL compatible.
Right off the bat, I have to warn those experienced players and GMs if you think you’ve seen the full potential of these rules, you are sadly mistaken. One of the biggest issues for DEM and some of the concepts brought forth in Amethyst was the comparison to D&D‘s style of play and handling of the delicate balancing act the 4e mechanics presented. For example, DEM introduced attack powers without damage and received a fair bit of flack online for it. The biggest issue they’ve had to deal with is working alongside D&D. With Ultramodern4, they have simultaneously strayed away from the comparison while running alongside its core foundation. There are no new character generation, experience, or class format rules, just new components building on the essential foundation of 4e. Frankly, what Ultramodern4 has done here puts D&D to shame.
At 244 pages in PDF (a POD copy should be available shortly and was not prepped at the time of this review), there’s a lot of material to go through with the goal of allowing GMs to create their own modern or futuristic setting. This book is not a setting nor does it lean towards one genre or another other than step far back from fantasy. Rather than offer a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book, it’s better to provide a point-form analysis of the provisions offered in Ultramodern4.
Ladders & Classes
Characters are created using 11 new classes (Faceman, Grappler, Gunslinger, Heavy, Infiltrator, Man-at-Arms, Mastermind, Sniper, Specialist, Techie, and Vanguard) plus 7 ladders (Born Leader, Juggernaut, Runner, Savant, Survivor, Veteran, and Warrior). Ladders act as your character’s core personality to compliment your vocation (or class) and provide a load of options to tweak which class you choose. First of all, they offer alternate powers and additional features similar to a theme in standard D&D but with the level range of an entire class. More importantly, they provide level-based enhancement bonuses to balance off the lack of magic weapons in this game and you can choose between taking additional ladder features or more cash.
Ladders are an absolutely brilliant form of customization and allow players opportunity to adjust the classes in ways standard D&D never could. For instance, each ladder allows for an alternative primary ability in attack powers, such as the Veteran substituting Wisdom for all ranged, unarmed, and melee attacks with one-handed weapons. Each ladder can theoretically work with any of the 11 provided classes with more variety than a dozen official D&D supplements ever provided.
Paths & Destinies
There are 28 paragon paths and epic destinies, none of them attuned to any particular ladder or class to allow for more variety and customization. (For a special chuckle, there’s even a Pathfinder paragon path.)
Powers & Keywords
While the core mechanics of D&D remain, there are several new keywords and terms exploiting the possibilities of modern technology. The Open range, for example, allows leaders to assist allies through radio contact rather than bursts, auras, or even light of sight. The Auto keyword relates to particular weapons firing off multiple rounds and non-damaging keywords like Tactical allow you to gain power bonuses to following attack rolls if you make a crit within your initial drop of the dice. Oh, and it actually has wall powers, something D&D never uses and it’s listed in the Player’s Handbook.
The powers provided in Ultramodern4 are where the game really stands out. Without the restriction of standing alongisde D&D, the game has truly stretched out the mechanics’ wings and made playing 4e dangerous and risky upon my initial read-through. While I’ve yet to play, my personal feeling is eagerness (though I can just imagine the hesitation others may feel towards such alterations, but this game is not intended for them). The key to understanding this game is to leave your preconceptions at the door – this is not D&D and never tries to be D&D.
Basic attacks take on a larger role in this game than standard D&D with some powers allowing for additional bonus attacks as features, minor actions, and opportunity attacks better simulating two weapon attacks better than standard D&D.
Weapon & Equipment
Each class provides a list of starting equipment and some cash for additional gear, as well as provide new weapon proficiencies appropriate to the use of firearms. These lists are vague enough to leave things open to the timeline of your particular campaign though there’s likely a strong possibility your GM may choose to alter these starting lists a bit to suit the game to come.
As previously mentioned, there are no magic items or equivalents in Ultramodern4. But there are lasers, plasma rifles, and heavy machine guns capable of firing 10 rounds in one attack roll. Certain weapons are assigned a level adjustment (increasing the average level of the party and the challenge a GM should create in an encounter) and a tech level (designating the strength and devastation of a particular weapon based on currently available technology). Many weapons provide an at-will basic attack, such as the flamethrower with ongoing 4 fire damage or the glue gun’s ability to restrain a target.
Rules for handling ammunition are also provided to prevent players from keeping track of hundreds of bullets, as well as rules for Armor Penetration (AP) negating the Hardness of certain inanimate objects like vehicles or brick walls.
While the application of equipment has changed for Ultramodern4, it does maintain the complexity of handling magic items and perhaps accentuates that complexity even more. In short, there’s no such thing as just wearing armor or carrying a simple weapon or gear.
Rounding It Out
In addition to everything mentioned so far (and in an effort to keep this review short and effective), there are the typical provision of feats, new skills, alternate skill uses, and advanced rules for weaponry, armor, vehicles, and more. Plus the book includes pre-designed enemies and enemy traits built in the familiar style of 4e monsters ranging from levels 1 to 19 (which does leave epic characters out of the loop, but I’m suspecting that’ll be temporary).
An adventuring chapter provides sample set pieces complete with full-color maps and detailed room descriptions and applications to create specific incidences using those sets and a re-presentation of Biohazzard, the zombie-infestation adventure from the original release of Amethyst adjusted to work with Ultramodern4.
This is an incredibly impressive book and it’s a shame for such gold to come about during the dying days of 4e. What it accomplishes with the mechanics is far beyond many things ever attempted by standard D&D in wild and exciting ways. If anyone ever tells you it’s impossible to try something different with 4e, your answer should be Ultramodern4.
Publication Quality: 8 out of 10
As with all of DEM’s publications, this is a very attractive book with some great illustrations and layout. There may not be as much artwork as some of their earlier work, but what’s there definitely does the trick. While I did find some minor layout errors, this can be accounted through its reflow allowing you to instantly switch to text only for easy printing. There were no bookmarks in the PDF.
Mechanics: 10 out of 10
As an experienced D&D player and GM, I can’t find any flaw with the work presented here, but I can certainly expect many others to judge it unfairly. If you look at these rules at non-D&D, what you’ll find is an electric awakening of what could have been had 4e not been called D&D. Honestly, if Chris Dias never gets the call to work for Wizards of the Coast, it would be a tragic failure on their part.
Desire to Play: 8 out of 10
Sign me up, that’s what I have to say about this game. Hell, I want to take my D&D players (even though it’s not my campaign) and get them to shift into this version in an effort to show them the true capabilities of this system.
Overall: 9 out of 10
Ultramodern4 is a magnificent accomplishment in alternative game design and I can’t help but feel it is superior to D&D, even if it is required to play this game. It achieves what D&D could not because it was not held down to a particular reference point – previous versions of D&D – and capable of stretching its reach far beyond what many experienced players may have expected of these troubled mechanics. I only hope the GSL does not make this product a limited edition.