D&D 5e Playtest: Modern Magic

It’s a new month, so there’s a new Unearthed Arcana. This time out, they’re revisiting the idea of 5e set in a modern world, which came up some months ago in another post. Specifically, they’re dealing with spellcasting classes reworked for the modern world. Now, I don’t have a whole ton of interest in running a 5e-Modern game, but I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. The document offers a new Cleric domain, a new Warlock Patron, a new Wizard tradition, a small pile of new spells, and a few other things.

If I did run a 5e-Modern game, it would look a whole lot like Shadowrun, but less fiddly. It’s like you heard about 5th edition Shadowrun and just got a little confused, right? Though… huh. 5e-Modern with the whole gamut of options turned on is a pretty close Final Fantasy aesthetic, especially FFVII.

City Domain

This domain covers gods who are about cities, and if your whole campaign is going to be set in cities, you probably want this. Many of your abilities don’t work outside of cities, though. That’s certainly tough if the DM decides to define “city” narrowly, as opposed to a metro area, a town, and so on.

  • Bonus domain spells are fine; metal and electrical themes dominate the list. Much of this list would be high-functioning in Sharn or some kind of gnomish steampunk city.
  • On/off is a bonus cantrip. This seems so simple, but I feel like there are some bad exploits of totally screwing a villain’s plan waiting to happen – in most urban fantasy, you want tech to feel like valid competition with magic, not a pushover, and this spell might break some of that.
  • Granting sidearms and vehicles (land) as a bonus proficiency is great, but it makes me worry about how available vehicles (land) proficiency would be in 5e-Modern. Based on intended DC scaling for driving stunts, proficiency might be “driver’s license” level skill, or might be “professional driver on a closed course, do not attempt” level skill.
  • Heart of the City is an interesting limited-use, adaptable skill boost (proficiency + advantage), to a limited number of skills. Thematically, this is about the psychic power of a large number of people in close proximity, which is pretty cool by itself.
  • The domain’s Channel Divinity is a standout idea, and speaks to the challenge of operating in dilapidated or completely ruined portions of a city – it causes “any city utility” to either start or stop functioning, and continue doing so for 1 minute. It also knocks down or restrains nearby enemies. 
    • This could figure into some great puzzles, or circumvent some of those puzzles. The encounter-design potential of this ability is huge. 
  • Block Watch is a limited-area proficiency and Expertise for Insight and Perception.
  • Divine Strike pushes City clerics into a weapon-wielding role. I look forward to the day that WotC realizes that all clerics should get to choose freely between Divine Strike and a cantrip damage kicker… or just get both and be done with it.
  • Express Transit turns a city’s mass transit lines into teleportation destinations for you. I’m a little unclear as to whether this lets you take allies along.
    • Also, since it requires mass transit destinations, it won’t do much in any game set in the city of Atlanta…

Ghost in the Machine Patron

Pact with a rogue AI? That’s pretty crazy, and I would totally play that. Then it mentions having a pact with a deceased hacker in the system, and I imagine GNU John Dearheart as my patron, and… well, we miss you, Terry. Anyway, this Patron is all about being a magical hacker.

  • Their expanded spell list is heavily utility-focused, which fits the hacker role.
  • Proficiency in hacking tools (but not sidearms… that’s interesting).
  • Information Surge is very situational, depending on the kinds of opponents and their equipment. This could be nice for infiltration missions, but the duration is short enough that it’s not much. A little underpowered compared to other 1st-level abilities, at first blush.
  • Wire Walk is a limited teleportation power that might be a tactical-range teleport, or might be fast travel across the city if your area has above-ground wires and wide-open views. It’s about on par with other 6th-level patron powers.
  • Personal Encryption is a really big deal for an urban fantasy campaign in an Information Age society. I am glad that it isn’t immunity, but the other warlock patrons grant immunity here, so it looks a little underpowered.
  • Technovirus is this patron’s 14th-level whammy power. It deals a decent pile of damage and issues a command. It’s competitive with other 14th-level patron powers.

On the whole, it’s stylish, but I worry that it might be a little underpowered. On the other hand, it’s great at avoiding combat, which just gives it more chances to take a short rest and keep avoiding combat. Wire Walk and Technovirus have some definite Matrix overtones, as well.

There’s also a new invocation, letting you expand your Blade Pact to also be a Gun Pact (sidearm or longarm). Making someone spend one of their eight invocation slots on this isn’t great, though having a gun you can summon and dismiss is a huge deal in urban fantasy or magical cyberpunk.

Technomancy Tradition

(I can hear the Mage: the Ascension fans either puckering or getting uncomfortably aroused, depending on their perspective…) Okay, but really, they’re not the Technocracy, they’re Virtual Adepts. Still cool. But… damn, these guys get to do some crazy shit, in light of the Wizard’s inherent limitations.

  • Proficiency in sidearms and hacking tools, sure.
  • Technological Savant halves your grimoire-inscription cost for all spells that go into your primary device.
  • Program Spell lets you store a spell in a device for up to 48 hours. As long as you can specify the spell’s parameters usefully, this would let you cast two 9th-level spells in a day. Lower-level applications are still nice, but it’s at the top end that this really shines.
  • Online Casting makes a wizard with a surveillance system completely terrifying. I get the impression that a hacker wizard could turn an existing system to her advantage, and annihilate the main antagonist of a compound from the safety of… just about any part of the compound that has a surveillance camera.
    • What I’m saying is that I don’t know enough about security systems to make good DMing decisions here, and I worry that a 5e-Modern campaign would melt down at this level.
  • Then there’s Chained Device. It lets you offload Concentration on one effect to a device, freeing you up to Concentrate on another effect, once per long rest. I’ve been wondering when we’d see something like this, though I expected it to be part of a magic item rather than a subclass.

Hacking Tools

As with all skill and tool applications, there’s very little textual guidance on how hacking ought to work, relative difficulties, and the like. I respect that they want to keep it system-light, but… this is the beginning, middle, and end of the character concept for a lot of cyberpunk and urban fantasy. There have to be limits and guidelines to make this uber-skill leave room for other party members.

New Spells

There are fourteen new spells in this document. They embrace the Matrix-ness of the whole concept with things like infallible relay and synchronicity. They do a good job of covering the core utility effects that a techno-mage expects to toss out, including magical hacking abilities that intensify the need for an elegant hacking ruleset. They even remembered the need for an awesome set of wheels – find vehicle is not the “dude, where’s my car?” that it sounds like, but a vehicular find familiar, all the way down to the vehicle being celestial, fey, or fiendish (!). Haywire is like confusion for machines (not confusion from machines), but with a 16% chance per device of dealing a pile of damage in an area. It’s a randomized EMP.


There are some small areas of concern that I see here, but all in all this is 5e-Modern through the lens of 90’s action films and Neuromancer. Hell yes, I would play this. I am terrified of running it, because smart players (or those invested in the supporting fiction) could run circles around my best tricks. 

I think the hard part is keeping the other character classes up to par on the darkly stylish power of the Ghost in the Machine and the Technomancer. I’d be curious to see a Paladin or Ranger subclass purpose-built for 5e-Modern.

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