D&D Ideas — Sci-Fi in D&D Fantasy

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Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. Last week on the live chat we discussed adding sci-fi in D&D in honor of the Monte Cook Games Kickstarter Arcana of the Ancients. Initially it was just about taking the concepts of the Ninth World and Numenera to convert to the 5E system. The Kickstarter is so successful and has unlocked so many stretch goals that will be doing a straight conversion of the Numenera campaign setting for the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons set. There will be a handbook for just running sci-fi and weird science — the original objective for the Kickstarter. Then there is going to be a corresponding monster book, some adventures, and finally the campaign setting. The Arcana of the Ancients Kickstarter has ended by now and was a huge success.

Delving Dave’s Dungeon

Adding sci-fi in D&D is nothing new.

“Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a 1980 adventure module for the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game written by Gary Gygax. While Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is typically a fantasy game, the adventure includes elements of science fiction, and thus belongs to the science fantasy genre. It takes place on a downed spaceship; the ship’s crew has died of an unspecified disease, but functioning robots and strange creatures still inhabit the ship. The player characters fight monsters and robots, and gather the futuristic weapons and colored access cards that are necessary for advancing the story. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was first played at the Origins II convention in 1976, where it was used to introduce Dungeons & Dragons players to the science fiction game Metamorphosis Alpha. In 1980, TSR published the adventure, updated for first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules.”

Less than a decade into D&D and Gary was ready to get the chocolate into the peanut butter. There was a time I’d been dead set against this kind of genre mashing, but something happened to change that — after playing the game for about a decade I got bored.

I introduced sci-fi in D&D to my own group with an abandoned gnome complex. There were remnants of steam powered technology within. Unfortunately for the players it was in use by some unruly goblins and ogres. Goblins in steam powered battle armor are no joke.

That was my Shattered Realm campaign where the world basically got blown up and what was left of it was floating in ether. There were also ships that could sail across these seas of nothing, but beware the creatures lurking in the ether. Like ether sharks, of course.

Later my itch for something beyond the fantasy genre would get scratched by Keith Baker and his Eberron campaign setting.

I guess the point I’m trying to make ultimately is sometimes you need to shake things up to keep them from getting stale. Whether it’s just getting a little weird in a single session or doing a whole new campaign. Sometimes it is good to leave your comfort zone and mix things up.

From Ted’s Head

We live in a great time with new shows and plenty of old shows to draw inspiration from in both sci-fi and fantasy. Star Trek and Star Wars give us plenty of ways of looking at meeting new cultures and dealing with wars.  

If I were to run a game adding sci-fi in D&D traditional fantasy I would look to do an invasion of creatures from an alien world or plane. They would have advanced technology probably be confused for magic. Technology could allow misty step or even teleport to move troops. Advanced armors could provide resistances to certain elements. They could even have weaponry like page 268 in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide or even things that emulate spells. Lightning bolts, reduce rays and explosions of fire are possible.

The problem is allowing this advanced gear to fall into the hands of the player characters. You could adjudicate that this advanced technology is not they could be proficient with. This would negate any of the armors. You could even go further — the armor is genetically bonded to a creature.  

The weapons could go the same way. The party could figure out how to use them but would not benefit from a proficiency modifier. They could also go as far as saying they only had so many uses left before they could no longer be used. In this way it would be treated as a disposable magic item.  

What would you get in adding sci-fi in D&D like this?  You could have a large group of lower level creatures. Imagine goblins or kobolds with guns doing lots of damage! Some of the weapons could detonate upon death. The weapon damage means you have a credible threat coming from so many creatures that die easily from higher level adventurers. Scale the challenge from there and you have some serious end game adventures

From the Nerditor’s Desk

I love sci-fi and fantasy, so both of those genres and more find homes in my D&D games. Before I go any further here’s a hot take: D&D can handle whatever genre you want to play games within. I understand there’s a wide spectrum of games out there, but I’m a D&D fan, I love the system and it hasn’t disappointed me yet.

When I think about sci-fi in D&D fantasy, my first thought is the old CRPGs I played as a kid. The Final Fantasy series, Fire Emblem, Shining Force, Wizardry and others began in relative fantasy settings. Swords and spells, horses (or chocobos YMMV), torchlight, castles and kingdoms — all the trappings of a standard D&D campaign.

But somewhere along the journey — a new town, or deep below the surface — you encounter something new and unexpected. An airship, an ancient robot, or an inert computer laying dormant for centuries confounds your character.

This is especially fun to experiment with for Dungeon Masters. The descriptions you provide and interactivity of the player characters offers a wellspring of new campaign threads. If you indulge your curiosity for sci-fi in D&D fantasy a little bit, these new wrinkles — and the players’ reactions to them — might open the doors in your campaign world you never knew existed.

Consider this: the player characters aren’t the only adventurers in the world. During an encounter with another group, one of the opponents has a long, narrow object slung over their back. On their turn, they Dash to take cover. They pull the object from their back, point it at the makeshift wall the party made to defend the town, and a beam shoots out of it and reduces the wall, which falls flat on the ground.

On their next turn, the foe with the mysterious item turns a dial on the object’s shaft. They aim it at their goliath berserker ally. The berserker enlarges to terrifying size, stomping over the shrunken door as they charge through the opening in the defenses.

Where did this strange device come from? It’s not a wand, and the one wielding it has no magical abilities of their own. Perhaps this group of antagonists engages in an arms race with the party, escalating their conflicts as each side discovers relics of the past, devoid of magic but powerful in their own strange ways.

And there’s always the DM’s best friend: stea… I mean … finding inspiration in your favorite media. Matt Colville famously adapted the storyline from Star Trek’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before” episode in their MCDM live stream D&D game. And countless other groups have played campaigns based on Dune, Star Wars, The Matrix and any other sci-fi property you can think of.

But the easiest way to incorporate sci-fi in D&D is not through the window dressing. Instead, approach your D&D campaign the same as classic sci-fi including what many cite as the original science fiction novel: Frankenstein.

Sci-fi isn’t about ray guns, spaceships and robots. The heart of science fiction is considering an advancement, often of a specific thing, and asking “what happens next?”

In this regard, magic can easily substitute for technology and a D&D campaign can be rife with sci-fi elements without ever going beyond the Basic Rules. Here’s an example to get you started. Consider the message cantrip. What if some entrepreneur came up with a way so everyone could access this magic? A step further: everyone can access the sending spell.

That would change everything. What happens next? Presenting this scenario to a group of players, observing their reaction and seeing what they do when to explore what this means is the essence of sci-fi.

And don’t worry, even the most philosophical quandary has plenty of room for monster attacks.

Until next time, stay nerdy!

— Nerdarchy Team


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