Creating Urban Arcana for D&D 4e
Posted by Journeyman GM
At WittCon last weekend, I ran a Dungeons & Dragons 4e game using the Urban Arcana campaign setting (the game is further described here). There were a few comments about the setting last time I posted about it, so I figured I would talk more about it.
Setting-wise, Urban Arcana is a lot of fun. During the mission at WittCon, the players were investigating the strange happenings at the Astral Sea Casino run by the Corsone Syndicate. They saw a lot of fun sights like a Githzerai in a white suit who the party suspected may have been using some psionic powers to rig a roulette game. The second group also wound up meeting Oliver, a burly Dragonborn in a tuxedo who was a high roller at blackjack.
One compliment I got from both sessions I ran was that the characters I gave the group were really memorable and exciting. I found this kind of surprising because I didn’t give the characters backstories. But I think what worked was that I made the characters iconic enough that the players were able to easily build them into whatever they wanted. The group consisted of:
- Leonard, the Bugbear Street Warrior (Fighter). He’s a surprisingly civil bugbear who wears a three piece suit, but he can lay down the pain when necessary.
- Darren Turner, the Gnome Technomage (Wizard). Rather than relying a spell tome, Darren prefers to use an iPad to generate his magical spells. And for all his cantrip-related needs, there’s an app for that.
- Maddie Webber, the Drow Rogue. Although her punk nature sometimes clashes with Department 7’s leaders, her street knowledge has helped more than a few times. She wields a katana in her right hand and a modified pistol in her left.
- Mixmaster C, the Halfling DJ (Bard). The Bard with a Boombox, he’s able to feel the funk to play just the right song to affect those who are listening. He especially loves the 80s.
By the way, everyone’s pictures are taken from the art in the Urban Arcana book, which is available online here. The exception was Mixmaster C’s picture, which surprisingly was taken from The Book of Wondrous Inventions, by TSR in 1987. Who knew that magic boomboxes were treasure loot in the AD&D era?
If you look at their character sheets (click on their names above), you’ll notice that I made some substantial changes to the D&D 4e mechanics. Most of the information on the first page is the same, but there are a few changes to Skills. I changed “Dungeoneering” to “Urban Awareness” to represent knowing general facts about a city or how to get around (e.g. where’s the nearest pizza place and are there any shortcuts to get there). Because Urban Arcana is a modern game, I also added Driving (Agility) and Computer Use (Intelligence) to the game. These small changes definitely helped the gameplay and were very easy to houserule in. The only issue I had was that I originally made the characters in the D&D Character Builder online and they don’t let you houserule new skills.
On page two, I only listed feats and racial features that would actually have an impact for the one-hour one-shot that I ran. I included basic melee attacks and everyone could use a pistol as a basic ranged attack (I just reskinned a hand crossbow to be a pistol).
But the biggest change was with powers. In D&D 4e, all characters have powers to represent combat maneuvers, spells, or other special actions that they could perform. Especially because this was a one-hour one-shot, I got rid of most of them, especially the ones that were basically “you attack with your weapon.” So Maddie Webber and Leonard in particular just use basic attacks, although Leonard has a “common tactics” section of his character sheet to indicate the special combat powers that I left in. Darren the Technomage still has several apps, including a “Burning Hands” app, but not nearly as many spells as he’d have as a standard D&D 4e wizard. And finally Mixmaster C has four songs he primarily uses (most of which are only once per encounter because playing it a second time just isn’t cool anymore) although I told the players that if they wanted they could play some other appropriate song.
I also did this all without miniatures. They were either in melee or some ranged distance away. And to my surprise, the players didn’t even seem to notice.
The result was that combat was a lot faster and players were more interested in describing their own complex maneuvers. For instance, we had Leonard leaping over a balcony and doing a drop attack on one of the Kuzzer Brothers. He didn’t have a powercard for that, the player just decided to do it. Since nobody was looking through their powercards or counting squares, it all wound up going a whole lot more quickly.
What did I learn from this heavily modified version of D&D 4e? The descriptions you give things are much more powerful than the mechanics that drive them. It was a simplified D&D, but I think it was the setting that made the game so much fun for everyone!
I’ve also learned that D&D doesn’t need all the powers and mechanics to still be fun and playable. Having them are still nice in small quantities, but I think this game has led me to the conclusion that standard D&D 4e has too many of them. I’m betting that D&D Next will be largely eliminating them like I have done. I’ll be looking forward to trying a D&D Next version of Urban Arcana as soon as it becomes available.