Updated: Aug 14
Despite how many of us feel about Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro, the companies that own the IP to Dungeons & Dragons, the Fifth Edition is a strong and well balanced system that, on the player side, has a low barrier for entrance to learning to play TTRPGs, and has introduced millions of new gamers to the hobby, myself included. Because 5e is the most popular RPG system, the one that most gamers learned to play, and in many cases is the only system gamers know to play, it's tempting to shape 5e into the type of game we want to play rather than learn a whole new system from scratch.
With all of that said, can you plausibly use the 5e rule system to run a modern campaign? The easy answer is yes, absolutely. The longer answer is more complicated. When I set out almost 7 years ago to convert 5e to a modern apocalypse zombie game, this is exaclty what I tried to do. Even now, as we inch closer to releasing ALIVE INSIDE, it includes a combat system that functionally feels very familiar to 5e players.
If you wanted to branch out, there are no shortage of other systems to try. Aside from ALIVE INSIDE (for obvious biases) I would recommend Year Zero Engine, Cypher System, Everyday Heroes, or GURPS to name a few. Check out DriveThruRPG if you want to do some sleuthing to see what options exist.
Let's take a closer look about the kind of system 5e is and how you could tailor it to a modern system.
What kind of game is D&D 5e best suited for?
Dungeons & Dragons, at its inception, was a gritty, deadly, dungeon crawler. Players controlled heroes who adventured into vast, dangerous dungeons, fighting monsters and collecting treasure. Player characters didn't go on adventures the way we imagine them today: there weren't typically quest givers or complex storylines, or political intrigue or moral conflicts. Heroes delved into dungeons for gold, glory, and magic items.
However, as the game transitioned from edition to edition, the game became less lethal and player characters became more powerful. With the Fifth Edition, I think it's safe to say that D&D is best suited for stories of epic heroes performing grand deeds. Adventurers, as they gain levels, become increasingly powerful, making the DMs job of creating legitimate challenges for the players difficult. This is why many games fizzle out when players reach level 10-12. Dungeons are still a major theme of D&D but they are no longer the centerpiece. Many of the traps, aesthetics, and game design considerations used in Advanced D&D are lost in 5e.
Another important aspect of D&D is that it was designed intentionally to be flexible so the GM could bend the system to use for the campaign they wanted to run. Want to run gothic horror? Check out Curse of Strahd. Interested in trying a wilderness survival hexcrawl? Let me tell you about Tomb of Annihilation. Looking feel the salt and wind of a nautical campaign? Have a look at Ghosts of the Saltmarsh. Or maybe a heist adventure full of intrigue is more your speed? I'd recommend checking out Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. The downside to 5e is that design sacrifices exist to make the system so flexible. By being good at so many styles of play, it's not great at any of them. People complain about the "murder-hobo" archetype common with many players but the system rewards (in both XP and treasure) combat. Systemically, there is little guidance or incentive for exploration and roleplaying, and by level 12, many characters are so overpowered that even combat becomes a bore. There are also a lot of great grimdark horror settings made for 5e but because the system is designed to make character deaths so rare, it works against the horror aspects of those systems.
How do you run a modern world game using 5e?
Before we dive into this, let's define what a "modern world" game means. To me, and for the purposes of this conversation, modern world means a game where the players are normal people in modern society. They may go on extraordinary adventures and have some excellent skills and high tech tools, but they are still normal people who are susceptible to death, disease, and the elements, just like the rest of us. They cannot wield magic, they do not have superpowers, and any abilities they have, however impressive, are still anchored to the world of the mundane. This is not to say that this world does not contain supernatural elements, monsters, or even magic. But the player characters in this game still operate under a realistic set of assumptions and laws that we do in the "real world."
So, with all of that laid out, how do we make 5e work for this kind of a game?
Character Classes - If there was one part of D&D 5e that is incompatible with playing in a modern setting, it would be the character creation system. If you want to a modern game using 5e rules, this part will require some work on your part. Essentially, you'll want to stick to martial classes: barbarian, fighter, monk, and rogue. You'll also need to cut the subclasses within these classes that give each class access to spells, such as the Eldritch Knight for the fighter. If you want to try to keep some of the spellcasting but explain it through mundane means, you could try that too. In Nations and Cannons, a third party supplement that takes 5e and converts it into a game for playing American Revolutionary War adventures, is a great example of this. They take many of the spells from 5e and convert them into "gambits" or abilities that soldiers can learn to use in combat that have non-magical origins. If you're interested in learning more about Nations and Cannons, check out our review of the book.
Modern Tech - Another aspect of modern games will be addressing technology. If your game takes place in the US (as just one example) you can assume that players have access to computers, reliable electricity, and probably motor vehicles. Characters may need money for these things but you can most likely assume they have access to them. In this case, you probably don't need to figure out how to track cell phone battery charge of how much gas is in a vehicle. If, however, your game is set amidst a disaster or the apocalypse, these might be very important considerations. If you own the Dungeon Masters Guide, there's actually a brief section on pages 267-269 that provides stats for modern firearms. To call it sparse would be generous, but then again, D&D was also designed for fantasy campaigns. You may need to do some thinking and design work to include more modern tech in your game like automobiles. How would you run a car chase? What happens if a car crashes or runs over a villain. How much damage does the car take? the players? Your best resource for this might be Ghosts of Saltmarsh as this book includes a huge section on ships. A lot of this, like players operating different parts of the ship, the ship having a damage threshold, all might be a good starting point for making rules for vehicles.
Reskinning Content - If you want to run a game of D&D but set in the modern world, you will also probably get a lot of mileage out of reskinning content. The stat block for a bandit? Sounds like a pretty good comp for a henchman. The shortbow and longbow? Those could easily be renamed pistols and rifles. Half-plate armor could just as easily be a bullet proof vest and healing potions can be health packs. That dungeon delving adventure you wanted to run? Change it into a sterile subterranean research lab the party has to break into. And all of those locked doors? Sounds like you can turn them into computer access panels the party needs to hack into. So many of the mechanics in D&D work just fine - it's just how we imagine and conceptualize them that would need to be reflavored with modern text.
Death and Dying - This is another area where 5e falls short if you want to run a modern campaign. Heroes quickly become over powered and almost impossible to kill. Eve if a person gains a lot of experience and skill, are they really any less likely to die from an assassin's rifle? There are a few ways to handle this. The first option is just keep the players at level 1 the whole game. You might decide to let the players gain some new abilities as they gain experience, but you may want to consider keeping their HP low. Alternatively, you could have their HP only increase marginally. In ALIVE INSIDE, our current game system has survivors gaining 1d4 + Con modifier HP per level. In our game, HP is further mitigated by the lethality of weapons. That little bump in HP doesn't do a lot if you catch a round from an AK47 which does 2d8 damage and has a 10% possibility of instantly killing the survivor outright, regardless of HP. Other ways to make your game more lethal could be making short rests heal no HP and Long Rests heal the equivalent of a traditional short rest.
Keeping Combat Interesting - Lastly, one of the potential pitfalls of a modern game is making combat boring. If every encounter is against a few henchmen wielding sub machine guns, the game will quickly lose that mystery and surprise that are so quintessential to TTRPGs. If your game won't include magical, supernatural beings or monsters, think of new ways to keep the party on their toes. Give the enemies interesting abilities and strengths. New weapons, disguises, armor, and surprising technology will help keep that mystery alive. In ALIVE INSIDE, it became obvious pretty quickly that the survivors could only fight off so many throngs of zombies before combat became predictable. To spice it up, we put a new twist on the zombie virus, making it transform the host's body over time. Zombies eventually mutate, growing bony patches of armor, sprouting adhesive tentacles, or growing in size to become massively powerful hulks. These zombie specializations can be deadly, surprising, and keep the survivors on their toes - and keep combat very fun.
Fifth Edition is a really fantastic setting and if you and your players have your heart on it, you can mold it to fit whatever kind of modern game you want. It'll just require some work and you'll have to decide for yourself if it's best to put in that work or if you'd rather switch to a different system designed to run with modern games.
Have you tried running 5e as a modern game before? What worked well and what didn't? Let me know in the comments below!