Four Challenges in Running Modern Campaigns

We all love swords and armor and magic,* but sometimes we want a game that’s a little closer to home. Your players can only send so many messages by raven before they start to crave email. Maybe you’ve got some socio-political commentary to make, or maybe you just know your home town really well and want to take advantage of it. A lot of great stories can be told in the modern day, and a lot of great systems can help you do it. However, you’ll have to think about these unique challenges along the way.

1. Guns


Combat is a tricky subject for roleplaying games. Arguments can break out over how realistic damage should be and how many attacks per round a character should have. Guns and gun-like objects* make it all so much worse. If it’s difficult to explain why the bad guy doesn’t die from being stabbed by a three-foot length of steel, imagine the joys of having the same conversation about an entire clip of 7.62 ammo. If you make guns do realistic damage, your characters will never survive the first session. If you scale down the damage, it will quickly become preposterous as your PCs realize they’re literal bullet sponges.

Then there’s auto fire, which makes the problem more extreme. If your PCs get ahold of weapons that fire more than one bullet per trigger pull,* you’ll have a game balance nightmare on your hands. In one extreme, we have systems like Call of Cthulhu, where auto fire literally counts each bullet in a burst as a separate damage roll. Also, auto fire makes you more likely to hit. Anything not immune to bullets is quickly shredded by damage, characters and monsters alike. At the other extreme are systems like the New World of Darkness, where auto fire is only a small bonus to damage. This becomes absurd as players realize that pulling the trigger twice in single fire mode does more damage than holding it down in full auto.

Ironically, in both systems there’s little reason not to use auto fire at all times. It consumes more ammo, but most roleplaying fights don’t last long enough for that to be an issue. This is because so many games still use D&D style stand and deliver combat, where each player takes a single turn that lasts a handful of seconds. These fights are static. Combatants rarely move except to bring their weapons into range. It’s more than a little silly when you try to visualize it, as if every fight was the shootout at the OK Corral.*

Even guns without auto fire can easily do enough damage to hurt your campaign. It’s difficult to tell a good story when your PCs die in their first fight. By the same token, unless you’re running an absurdist comedy, you probably want bullets to be more than a minor annoyance. One solution is to use a system that properly simulates a gunfight. In real life, the vast majority of bullets never hit their targets. In fact, many are fired into the air for no purpose other than to keep the other guy’s head down. Actual firefights are as much about movement as they are about shooting.

Unfortunately, the only system I know of that does that is Burning Empires, which is firmly in the realm of science fiction. If you know another one, great; otherwise, it might be time to start abstracting your combat. Instead of going into the full round by round fight rules, have the combatants make a single or handful of opposed rolls to decide who wins. You can give out bonuses for superior equipment, better positions, etc. The losers shouldn’t automatically be dead, but they should fail to achieve whatever their objective was.* This won’t work if your players are super into the tactical aspect of combat, but it’s something to consider.

2. Grenades


If you thought guns were a problem, just wait until one of your PCs tries to throw a grenade. The mechanics of these little exploding gift baskets are even harder to get right, and the potential for absurdity is that much higher. In D20 Modern and systems like it, it’s easy for a character to be completely fine after a grenade goes off right at their feet. On the other hand, in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire,* a thermal detonator will annihilate the target and anyone standing nearby in a terrible explosion.

Then there’s the question of how to handle the attack roll. Some systems make you hit the target’s normal armor class (AC) or its equivalent, but that doesn’t make any sense. You aren’t trying to bean them with the grenade; you just want to get it in their general area. The logical conclusion is that tossing a grenade into the enemy’s square shouldn’t be that hard, making the attack roll much easier.

While super deadly grenades that are easy to hit a target with might sound the most realistic, they aren’t a good solution. For one thing, they’re a good way to make sure your PCs go into battle armed with nothing but grenades. For another, they still don’t properly simulate how grenades are actually used. Once again, the problem emerges from D&D style stand and deliver combat. Because combatants move in turns, it’s difficult to simulate the mad scramble to get away from a grenade that’s just landed beside you. Some games offer a reflex type save against explosive damage, but if the character doesn’t actually move, it’s hard to imagine how that would manifest.*

One solution is to let characters who make a successful save move a few squares away so they take less/no damage, but this requires movement out of turn, which can get complicated. You can also deny PCs easy access to grenades and other explosives. Fortunately, even in the firearm-loving United States, you can’t just walk into a sporting goods store and buy them. The simplest answer is avoid making the players feel like they need grenades. If you continually hit them with enemies who require mountains of damage to take down, they’ll find a way to get their hands on something that goes boom, no matter what hindrances get in the way.

Instead, make the really difficult combats more about tactics or knowledge than raw firepower. This works especially well in urban fantasy or horror games. The shoggoth is just as immune to grenades as it is to knives. To defeat it, you’ll need to know the counter summoning ritual of Old Babylon.

3. Smartphones

Broken apple iphone 4s display

Much more innocuous than guns or grenades, these pocket computers can still have a huge impact on your game – just not in the combat area. First, characters have constant access to instant communication. Regular* cell phones could already do this, but it’s still something to consider. GMs who are used to a fantasy or historical setting sometimes forget that what one PC knows, the others can all know as well. There’s no high-speed drive across the city to deliver important documents or riding hard for days to warn of an orc invasion.

Ironically, you can also face the reverse problem. If a GM* who is accustomed to a modern setting runs a fantasy game, they sometimes have a difficult time reconciling the fact that medieval PCs can’t instantly pass information to the rest of the party.

More problematic, smartphones now mean everyone* has the internet in their pocket. This can make it difficult to control the flow of information, which is essential for many games, especially horror. Let’s say there was a murder that you want the PCs to find out about halfway through the session. You’ve subtly laid out the clues, and then some clever player announces that he’s looking up any crimes that have ever been committed in this area. You could probably find a reason why the murder wouldn’t show up on a search, but it’ll get old fast if you have to do it more than once.

Also, just about every smartphone has a camera. If you ever run a story that depends on people not believing what a PC saw, it’ll be rather inconvenient when said PC uploads several dozen high quality photos of their experience to Facebook.

On a more psychological level, smartphones make it difficult to create a feeling of isolation, something absolutely essential for horror or thriller games. Even if there’s no useful information to look up, the phone is a connection to other people. PCs who don’t feel isolated are far less likely to be scared of whatever is stalking them. They feel like someone has their back, even if it’s only through a cell tower.

If smartphones become a problem in your game, don’t overuse the “sorry, you don’t have signal” excuse. For one thing, not all your adventures will be in places where that’s credible. For another, PCs will quickly get exasperated with it. Instead, be a little more subversive and use their phones against them. If your setting has magic, there’s no telling what kind of hostile sorcery could be cast through something as personal as a phone. A PC might try to search for haunted house floor plans and come away with a head full of mind destroying secrets that humans were not meant to know.*

Alternatively, tech-savvy enemies could be listening in on the PC’s calls. This is surprisingly easy to do with currently available tech, so there’s no telling what your big bads could have up their sleeve. Use this tactic if you want the PCs to be cautious with their smartphones. They can still be used, but it carries a risk.

4. Money


Hang on, money exists in lots of settings that aren’t modern; why is it uniquely a problem here? Well, as a society gets more and more technologically advanced, money can buy you more and more power. In a medieval setting, there’s just not that much to buy – 3.5 D&D’s insane gear accessorizing notwithstanding. Unless the PC is planning to hire an army (which comes with it’s own difficulties), a huge pile of money doesn’t make them that much more capable. Your sword can only get so sharp, after all.

However, in a modern society, money can buy all kinds of stuff. Guns, grenades, and smartphones, for a start. As a PC’s wealth increases, the possibilities start to get crazy. Cars, body armor, rocket launchers – all products of modern technology that can belong to your party for the right price. The benefits of gear are also more pronounced in a modern setting. Someone with full plate and a well made sword will have an edge for sure, but it’s nothing compared to the advantage conveyed by a .50 caliber anti-materiel rifle set up two kilometers away from the enemy.

It’s true that most of the really powerful stuff isn’t legal for a civilian to own, but PCs usually have the skills to get around such an obstacle. And that’s not even counting games like Spycraft, where the PCs can probably get access to some really dangerous tech without breaking a single law.

It can also be difficult to keep PCs from accumulating embarrassing amounts of wealth. If they have supernatural powers, they’ll have no problem monetizing them. Just imagine what you could do with a pocket full of urban fantasy wizard spells. Even if the PCs have no magic, they’re probably highly skilled individuals, and it’s not difficult to turn those skills into cash.*

Rather than fighting your PCs over every dollar, the best way to handle money in modern settings is to abstract it. Allow your party to earn a few points of wealth rather than counting dollars. Then you can charge some of that wealth in upkeep for their existing possessions, and you don’t have to figure out exactly how much each item should cost. This eliminates the potential for PCs to build up vast stores of dollars that you don’t have the energy to audit. Once the money is reduced to a manageable level, it works out better for everyone involved.

Of course, if this is going to work, the players have to trust you. In fact, that applies to every item on the list. Abuse usually occurs when PCs feel the GM isn’t being fair. If they’re frustrated with unreasonable difficulties, they’ll respond by arming themselves like crazy. If they don’t think a mystery makes sense, they’ll insist on googling every inane detail just in case. Modern elements can exist without abuse, so long as you maintain investment in your game. It’s remarkable how rarely players will act out in a game they enjoy.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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  1. Claire

    Regarding smartphones, unless your pictures are get validated by some sort of mainstream/trusted outlet, most people may probably just dismiss them as fakes or viral marketing. Not hard to imagine the first comment on your Shoggoth photoset being “Pacific Rim 2 looking sick as hell!! Can’t wait to see it in 3d!”

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s certainly true, and a good way to keep some mischievous PC from blowing the lid off the masquerade.

    • GeniusLemur

      Yeah, when I was fiddling with an urban fantasy masquerade thing, one of the things I came up with was a special group of masquerade enforcers whose job was to generate a steady supply of beautifully photoshopped pictures of magic happening, so the “needle” of the real troll picture would be lost in the rest of the needle stack.

  2. AC

    I’m currently working on a sci-fi RPG; and so far my solution to the guns/grenades problem is to make them mostly illegal and impractical. Most of the settings in my universe are artificial habitats (space stations, domes, etc..), where a misfired gun could pretty much kill everyone. Because of this the more violent types either have to risk the wrath of authorities, or focus their skills on more martial pursuits.

    As for making guns dangerous, but not game-breaking… I haven’t quite found a way to pull that off.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s a reasonable solution, although it can run the risk of PCs deciding to up the anti even further. “What’s that you say, firing this gun can kill the entire room of bad guys? Sign me up!” There’s also the potential danger of PCs hearing that guns are hard to get, and saying “Oh, we’ll see about that!”

      Do your stations have artificial gravity? If not, you could make guns super unwieldy because of all the the recoil sending you spin all over the place.

      • AC

        I haven’t quite worked things out yet (designing a game and universe from scratch is… daunting), but I’m trying to work “press your luck” mechanics into everything. If you can get away with it, fine. If not, you’re probably going to die without some quick thinking and luck. As it stands, guns aren’t so much hard to get, its just getting caught with them that’s the problem.

        I suppose part of my (potential) solution is also giving players more options. In my world there is also magic and heavy genetic modification, so why shoot someone with a pistol when you can grow an armored exoskeleton and tentacles or attempt to ignite the air around them? Making guns less fun. Also, with more technology comes better armor and defense.

        Gravity and the lack of it is actually kind of cool. Making guns hard is a bonus (though what would it do to things like lasers?), and also it makes “super hero kung fu” combat possible while keeping the game more realistic.

        This is all work in progress stuff, obviously. Once I get to play testing it all might collapse around me in a heaping pile of misguided planning.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        If you’re willing to go into transhumanism territory, you could have be engineered with greater regeneration capacity and redundant organ functions, to make them more resilient.

      • AC

        Thats on my “potential balancing” checklist. Trans-humanism is my theme, or at least “the extreme consequences of post-trans-humanism”. One mechanism I was pondering was a sort of immortality, if your character dies they end up cloned in a vat someplace, with all their experiences up to death intact. This is kind of awesome to think about, but I’m not sure how it would actually work in a game (taking away risk). Though, coupling this with an insanity system… (run and grabs notebook).

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Are you familiar with Eclipse Phase? It has a similar system I believe, might be worth checking out to see how they do it.

      • AC

        That sounds like an interesting game, thanks for the heads up. Oddly that game has eerie similarities to my “original” idea. There is nothing new under the sun, it seems. Mechanically it is completely different, but the theme and some of the ideas (on a cursory reading) are very close. Even if my game never comes to fruition, it has been a very good excuse to bask in other games I’ve never had the chance to see. The RPG community, homebrew or professional, is amazing.

        By the way, thank you for the very insightful articles and site. It’s been on of the more useful resources for helping me around sticky thematic and mechanical issues.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Glad to be of help! I hope you don’t take the existence of Eclipse Phase as a reason not to make your game, though. There’s room for more than one transhumanist sci-fi game, just like there are more high fantasy games than just D&D.

      • Slayd

        Now I’m imagining a PC carrying a pistol around all the time and firing it at the ground whenever they need to get out of a bad situation.

  3. derobim

    You might want to check out Shadowrun if you haven’t already. Even though it’s not technically modern, it’s close enough that it covers most of these problems.
    The game has rules for cover and suppressive fire, and the rules for automatics are pretty good (they’re very deadly, but they chew through ammo and recoil makes them increasingly inaccurate).
    Grenades are deadly, but might not land where you intended. They also don’t detonate until the end of a combat round, giving targets time to scatter.
    Smartphones are even more widespread than they are in modern times, but all the information you’d want isn’t going to be easy to find. If you’re interested in getting the data, someone is just as interested in protecting that data.
    And, of course, the game has rules for availability and legality of gear. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean what you want is going to be easy (or even possible) to find. Money is power, but that just means that the enemy has all the power.

  4. Bronze Dog

    I only discovered this place recently, and I’m eating it up.

    I’m working on a Changeling: The Lost chronicle, and I’m keeping this sort of stuff in mind. I’ve got one NPC, Ziggy, who put a lot of work into forming Contracts with computers and other technology to hopefully give him an edge on “old fashioned” Fae.

    I’m probably going to restrict the access to powerful weapons, but I’m going to be discouraging violence in the mortal world, anyway: There’s an MIB-like organization in town that’s figured out there’s something violent and supernatural there after last year’s Hunt of Fallen Leaves.

    For smartphones, I’m still thinking over the issue. Investigation is probably going to be about sorting useful information from false where the net is involved. Ziggy’s been working on making cell phones work in the local Hedge, but it’s got a lot of issues. Like the occasional creepy/deceptive/impostor phone calls from no one. Or malediction-filled malware being emailed to you.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oh man that sounds like fun! I would definitely avoid anything out of the Armory book, that stuff was mad broken, but it sounds like you’ve got a pretty good handle on things. Are the MIB reasonable enough to work with against the True Fey, or are they anti-changeling as well?

      • Bronze Dog

        They’re largely interested in maintaining or restoring a “status quo” that they believe supernatural beings generally threaten, so it’d be an uphill battle to gain their cooperation.

        Probably the biggest problem is that the MIB are more likely to go after Changelings because they’re an easy, relatively comprehensible target (“They’re just crazy supers!”), rather than accept the existence of a bunch of playful gods randomly enslaving and replacing mortals that strike their fancy.

  5. Gibus

    Numbers 2 and 3 can go hand in hand, because if there’s anything battery powered, a smart PC with the right skills could turn it into a grenade. (Especially a Samsung phone)

  6. Green

    Have you seen the modern BBC Sherlock? It’s a great example of combining cell phones with century-old mysteries without breaking them. There’s even a phone call in The Hounds of Baskerville that INCREASES the horror. Of course the same situation would require a lot of PC initiative in an RPG, but I’m sure there are ways to adapt it…

  7. Jasin Moridin

    The Rogue Trader RPG that FFG did had a system to abstract the obscene wealth of the space-privateer/explorer PCs who generally have their own multi-kilometer spaceships with tens of thousands of crew members. IIRC, it basically came down to “here’s your level of wealth, roll against it to try to acquire what you’re looking to get, and the rarity, scale of purchase, and where you’re trying to get it from all count as modifiers.”

    Need a new backup laspistol for your character? Extremely easy.
    Need a literal metric ton of decent-quality lasrifles to equip your ship’s armsmen with? Go for it.
    “Need” a terrifyingly destructive personal weapon that usually only Inquisitors and such can manage to acquire? You’re probably not going to find one, but you might get lucky if you’re in a rich enough system.

  8. Alex

    This is really helpful, although the campaign I’m planning takes my players characters (they get to make any character they want bc they dont know what kind of adventure is coming) and I’ll have them teleported into the middle of Times Square with their main goal to find a way back to their own universe. So I’ll be throwing them into a modern setting, with no idea how to use any of the modern technologies

  9. rodneyzalenka

    Secrets humans aren’t meant to know starting on Page 3? Nope. I’ve gone past Page 3 & still ended up not finding what I wanted.

    Google isn’t infallible or omniscient.

    You _might_ be able to take advantage of that.

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