Urban Arcana – Tabletop Retro Review


Back in the nineties and in the aughts, there was a sea change concerning a beloved system you might have heard of called ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’ For those of you more inclined towards the video game set, you might recognize it as something akin to a console war. Wizards of the Coast bought out TSR, and thereby acquired Dungeons and Dragons.

Can’t say I cared much.

vamp cover

I was WAY more into this.

Fantasy gaming is something that has never come naturally to me given I grew up with computers, refrigerators, and air conditioning. I do not find myself universally fond of feudalism, sweating my balls off, or dying of dysentery (yet I do have a fondness for Oregon Trail – it’s a conundrum). I bought the core third edition books, sure. I wanted to see what they did, but they quickly returned to my shelves as mere reference. I hoard RPG books like Scrooge McDuck hoards money. I feel (perhaps without warrant) as if I am a tabletop historian. This is stuff you want to look back on.

Then, they did a curious thing. With edition 3.5, they made for some crunchier combat changes and released OGL (Open Gaming License) to enable third party environments. And to open it up further, they decided they needed something Modern and/or Futuristic. They rolled out D20 Modern. It tackled things 3.5 didn’t: firearms, super powers (via FX systems), vehicular combat, hacking rules. They didn’t want any genre to be unplayable (though… there are some genres that just don’t lend well to the system, but that’s another post entirely). And mostly, they stuck to the basics seen in D&D when it came down to rules. New worlds opened up from not only WotC, but from third parties too.

In the process, WotC took on their showcase setting for Modern: Urban Arcana.

The Sum Up

It’s the world we live in at first glance. You’d recognize the politicans. The Stones are still touring. Urban decay and social injustices are still here, and the price of gas is still going up. People go to their jobs, they pay their taxes, and they live their lives just like we do.

Except that under it is something far stranger. The stones are still touring because they have a manager who’s a necromancer (c’mon, how else do you explain it?).The politicians are in power because they’ve traded favors with fiends from an extra-dimensional, elemental plane of Evil. The slums are filled with goblins and Drow, looking to carve out empires in places best forgotten. And the oil companies and the other big companies… you’d be surprised to see who composes their board room sessions. Dracoforms, elves, dwarves, halfbreed entities from other planes of existence… all there. Taking control of the mundane world we live in.

the unusual suspects

Not your average line up.

But, you’re in the know.

You can make a difference. You don’t have to just stand idly by because you can see the world for what it is by all sorts of means. Maybe you’re a Shadow Chaser, tracking down vampires and other hazards to a long and healthy live. Perhaps you’ve fallen in with Department Seven, an organization chartered to keep knowledge of the weird contained and to make the world a better place. Or maybe, you’re part of the shadow itself, having slipped here from another place or even been born of someone who was. You may not even be human. The more exotic fantasy creatures get by in the world because people subconsciously don’t want to see them, so it’s easy to walk among the ignorant masses.

You’re in the know, and you can make of it what you will.

The Good

The setting brings two things together very well. They manage to keep our modern sensibilities but also pull in a lot of the tropes from fantasy roleplaying. The way they present it, you need no knowledge about any of the stock settings of D&D – shadowkind entities come here without full knowledge of where they were before or how they got to Earth. You have very little buyins to incorporate other than ‘Magic is real’ and ‘There’s a lot of weird races from fantasy in the modern world.’ It is very much Shadowrun Lite in tone. Shadowrun comes with a lot of information that has been lovingly been tended like a bonsai tree for twenty four years as of this writing. But, it’s a lot to bring in for a new gamer. UA makes it more accessible by having less stuff you need to know coming in and the level of technology is more along the lines of what the modern world would recognize (this can be tweaked by adding in the Cyberscape or Future rules and creating what they call Cyber Arcana).

It’s also refreshing. As noted earlier, fantasy gaming is not a thing for me. But, adding some fantasy elements into today’s world engages people of the same mindset. For those who do buy into the tropes of sword and sorcery, you get the world of today with a coat of paint composed of the things you love from fantasy. You can create wizards who operate out of the boardroom. You can create orc barbarians from the ‘hood. You can have knight errants running through the streets avenging wrongs both mundane and fantastical. If the die-hard fantasy fan needs a break from convention, this can provide it.

The thing I really did like was that they broke out of classes – at least in the traditional sense. No longer are you a party of a Rogue, a Cleric, a Warrior, and a Wizard. Players are not portrayed by their jobs – they are classified by their nature. There are six basic character types: Smart, Tough, Dedicated, Fast, Charismatic, and Strong heroes that can select a wide array of skills as guided by a career system. You’re not stuck in these roles either. Level up? Take a level of the Smart hero to go with the Tough hero, and voila. Easy multi-class. When you hit certain skill levels, you can pick up Prestige classes to further diversify your character. The days of rote progression are over. You can actually make your own hero now and not be tied down to anything so confining as a job.

The Bad

I’ll come right out and say it: I am a fan of Fourth Edition D&D, which grew  out of Third Edition. I am not really a fan of Third Edition apart from moving away from Thaco. It still cleaves to a lot of the crunchy bits of prior editions too (preparing spells for the day in advance, rigid character progression tied to an overwrought experience system, level one characters who die in a stiff breeze). The good news is that as any gamer can tell you is to house rule shit you don’t like. And you can do that – but it leaves rules lawyers or even just players who like structure in the lurch when you do. So, the system is not really for everyone, and it’s not forgiving if you play by the book.

An outgrowth of that is that the game is mappy. If you’re more familiar with White Wolf’s Storyteller system, you’re looking at a lot of adjustment when the swords and guns come out. There are rules for everything in combat and there’s little room for vagary. This can lead to nights where you’re playing and only have a single combat scene while you whittle down a creature with too many hit points. The game can get bogged down in strategy. for simulationists, this can be a boon – but it can be done too much, and my own tastes lean towards systems that get out of the way and let me portray a persona. Even Shadowrun doesn’t tie you down to a map, and we never used anything but the crudest of maps on a whiteboard to give vague impressions of where characters were.

Lastly, multi-classing. While it’s great they give you flexibility, it can lead to choice paralysis (oh man – I want to be useful in combat, but the group needs my non-combat spells and cantrips!) and yes – it’s not always as simple as what was noted above in the good points. It can be overbearingly complex to check on pre-requisites, and then to parse other aspects (I gained a certain number of hit points with the new class, but what does this do to my hit dice?).

The Sum Up

It’s hard for me to sum up because… I haven’t played it yet. I know, that’s a weird thing to do right, to review something you never even played? Well, take some heart in this: I’ll be running it soon for a group of friends containing people who’ve not played D&D or any other RPG ever. I love running noob games, and I feel that with a little help from others in the group we can bring them into the fold of tabletop gaming for some fun and enjoyment.

Overall, I’m inclined to be generous and give the setting itself a four for originality. I’d advise it for folks who want pointy ears and +2 magic swords – but who also like cars and antibiotics.


Burtacamoose is a guy that likes to write. Whenever someone will let him, or better yet pay him, he’ll write. Sometimes, he even blathers on at his own site, ossua.com, between writing his novels and short stories. As a member of the thirty-something generation of gamers, he enjoys retro-titles, platformers, RPGs, shooters, puzzles, word games, and things that are flat out weird. He has been writing for HeyPoorPlayer since early 2011. Favorite Game: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

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