Metagame – d20 Modern Classes

To be honest, I never was a huge fan of the d20 modern core classes—six of them, one centered around one of the six attributes, only 10 levels each since they’re just vehicles for prestige classes. Various aspects of them rubbed me the wrong way: they’re generic, they’re kind of dull, not much differentiates one Tough Hero from another. And boiling classes down into a base representation of a character’s strongest attributes is a hurdle.

The more I get under the d20 system’s grill and inspect them, the more I’ve come to appreciate them. While they’re still a less-than-ideal mechanic, the ideal one would result in a major shift away from the d20 system itself. For a class/level system, they make a certain kind of sense; classes have to be generic enough to fit every possible situation, otherwise you’ll see third-party supplements (“large tracts of wasted space”) filled with base classes like Certified Public Accountant, Fast Food Franchise Manager, and Industrial-Grade Plastics Stamping Machine Operator (with its advanced class option, Button Pusher), so that every possible angle is covered. Not every game is going to require Soldiers, Wheelmen, and Spies, and while I love the Spycraft core classes (and arsenal of advanced classes), those really only work in Spycraft (as does its Departments system, which also rubs me the wrong way).

Consider. You’re running a game where everyone is of the same occupation: a military game where everyone is playing a soldier, a law enforcement game where everyone is playing a cop. Without some serious tweaking, having a group of 4 to 6 Soldier-class characters is going to be dull as dry toast, with nothing to differentiate the characters besides what gun they’re using (a criticism, I should note, which is generally applied to action movies).

Comparatively, the stat-classes can fit any role: in the aforementioned military game, Strong and Tough heroes make good grunts, Fast the point man or recon guy, Smart makes a techie, Dedicated a field medic or leader, and Charismatic for the guy who holds the group together through inspirational speeches or dry wit. For those who say it isn’t a great fit, given some classes’ lower attack bonuses, health, and so forth, consider that the average soldier has to go back to a civilian life at some point, so not every one will have a Rambo-esque drive and ability to shoot people.

Also consider the games which just don’t involve action/thriller/espionage classes: the point of many Cthulhu adventures is that the players are average Joes, and while it’d be an interesting change-up, not every CoC game can use Soldiers or Wheelmen. If the characters start as everyday people for any reason, or start as anything other than military/spy-style characters, the amount of tweaking and GM fiat rises exponentially. The strength of the core classes is their generic versatility: two charismatic heroes can be very different, while a specific trope or occupation can be filled by any class (albeit some better than others).

While it contradicts a good many things I said about d20 Modern back in 2003 (you know, back when I was in high school), the core class setup is actually quite useful. Its generic nature gives it versatility: by making cross-class combos, any conceivable character archetype can be made. And each class combination is unique; a charismatic/strong hero could be anything from a squad leader good at inspirational speeches, to the governor of California. Spycraft 2.0’s Back to Basics amps up the number and type of talents core classes get, and makes them a lot more useful. The stat-classes don’t overcome the problems of a class/level system, but it comes close enough to mimic freedom of movement.

At this point, my beef would be with the way advanced classes are handled, rather than with base classes. Modern, much like 3.5, gears its core classes to get into prestige/advanced classes as soon as possible, representing a kind of specialization or focus into a single area.

This is all fine and good, up until you look at how each designer/group assumes advanced classes work. AEG had a limitless selection of them for Spycraft and Stargate, and arguably most of them are solid. DragonStar is full of them also, in numbers and variety, but (being a fantasy/SF hybrid) this makes a lot of sense. WotC’s core advanced classes… well, they suck. Take Soldier, for example, since I’ve been using it as an example so far. Its class abilities are mostly feats—namely those that a fighter would have by 6th level, Weapon Focus and Weapon Spec., later Improved Critical—and its top-end ability is to automatically confirm crits (when using the weapon they’ve been basing their “class ability feats” around).

Speaking of the hated Soldier...

One of the big draws for the Spycraft and DragonStar advanced classes is that they introduce new mechanics instead of relying on feats as class abilities; they may be great examples of system bloat (namely pres class bloat), but shopping is a huge draw for players in class/level systems. My complaints about d20 Modern classes being too vanilla is especially true with advanced classes; even the ones in books like Apocalypse and Past are vague and generic, though they’re at least three times as useful compared to the ones in the d20 Modern core book. And since core classes only go to 10th level, you’re stuck going into advanced classes sooner or later… that or you’ve managed to be some kind of hopeless drifter relying on your attributes and starting occupation to pull you through life.

A Pathfinderization of d20 Modern is harder than it looks, with one of the big stumbling blocks being the way classes are handled. One of the holy tenants of Pathfinder is the emphasis on core/base classes rather than pres classes; most of the pres classes in the books are either ways to hybridize core classes (mystic theurge, arcane archer, rage prophet) or are finely-honed specialties for single classes (assassin, horizon walker).

Modern reverses this role: the core classes are only meant as starting vehicles, with the advanced classes designed as the major career options and interesting focuses. Core classes really don’t need to exist beyond 5th level, since at that rate you’ll just go into an advanced class; why the advanced classes aren’t 15 levels in length is somewhat beyond me.

It’s so much a throwback to the WotC outlook on prestige classes that it becomes almost counter-intuitive in a Pathfinder worldview. Mechanically speaking, there’s no good way around it: should you come up with 11 base archetypes for every modern game and make 20-level classes around them, you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din.

At this point, I’m of the opinion that the Modern metagame needs this reversal: as has been pointed out to me since I wrote this, the current core classes represent a character’s natural abilities, and they can’t subsist on these abilities for the entire span of their character (levels 1 through 20). At the same time, advanced classes need a lot of work to be as cinematic as d20 Modern has always purported itself to be. Core classes should be shortened, to speed up getting into specializations (advanced classes), while advanced classes lengthened and made more interesting than those in the core rulebook.

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