The latest One D&D playtest packet contained 50 pages of proposed revisions to the core rulebooks. Perhaps the most interesting one, to me, was a new addition to the equipment table: firearms.
This is not an article about firearms (although it could be – it’s a whole topic). But it interested me because of what it represents to many people: a departure from what we think of as ‘fantasy’.
In this article, I am going to look at what defines fantasy as a genre, the long history of science fantasy, and how you can inject a bit of science fiction into your game without losing what makes it fantastical.
Defining fantasy, science fiction, and science fantasy
Fantasy and science fiction are sometimes presented as if they are polar opposites – different ends of a big spectrum. Under scrutiny, though, the differences start to get blurred.
We probably all have an idea in mind of what we mean by ‘fantasy’. At its heart, I would argue, is the idea of magic: supernatural powers that don’t exist in the real world. Speaking of ‘real world’, this is probably the other ‘big thing’ about fantasy: a fictional world that couldn’t really exist, usually one that looks backward in some way – often to a world of knights, castles, swords, and so on.
What about science fiction? A bit like fantasy, it can be hard to define – I’m wading into a huge debate here – but we generally know it when we see it. Ultimately it’s a ‘what if’ genre that looks at science or technology in some way. What if aliens were real? What if time travel were possible? What would space colonization look like? And so on. If fantasy looks back to the past somehow, science fiction imagines a possible future. (Generally. There are tons of exceptions, but this is still broadly true, I think.)
Are these as distinct as they seem? In truth: not really. As TV Tropes points out, plenty of fantasy stories need a kind of internal consistency to explain how magic ‘works’, almost turning magic into a kind of sufficiently analysed science. Similarly, it is relatively common for science fiction to include fantastical science like faster-than-light travel or humanoid aliens: magical elements that couldn’t really exist. Science fantasy – the two blended together – is all around us. Star Wars, Doctor Who, Stranger Things, Dune, His Dark Materials . . . Ultimately, it’s probably more about settings than it is about genre, and the two bleed into each other all the time.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that science fantasy comes in lots of different flavours, just like its parent genres. Star Wars is space opera, an epic romance that happens to be set in a galaxy far, far away. So is Dune really. His Dark Materials is maybe steampunk or gaslamp fantasy. As TV Tropes says, some science fantasy is ‘fantasy with a dash of sci fi’, and some is ‘sci fi with a smidgen of fantasy’. Doctor Who, frankly, is all over place.
Isn’t D&D a fantasy roleplaying game, though? Perhaps. We have campaign settings that dip their toe into science fantasy, like Eberron and Spelljammer, and classic adventures like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks with . . . well, I won’t spoil the surprise. But still: isn’t ‘vanilla’ D&D fundamentally not sci fi?
I don’t agree! Even if you steer clear of Eberron and Spelljammer, you still have robots (constructs), force fields (wall of force), and cloning (clone), and perhaps most fundamentally, other planes of existence! Chris Perkins said in an interview last week that the default setting of 5th edition D&D is ‘the Multiverse’. This is a game with aboleths, mind flayers, githyanki, slaadi – are you honestly telling me it doensn’t have science fiction in it?
An interesting science note: as TV Tropes points out, science fantasy is the rule rather than the exception in Japanese media. ‘It’s perfectly normal for fantasy works to include robots and mad scientists, and science fiction works to include sorcerers and ley lines, and it’ll usually go unremarked.’ The Final Fantasy series is a good example of this: alongside magic and swords etc, you often have guns, power plants, electricity, and time travel. And given the popularity of the franchise, I don’t think anybody minds.
Adding science fantasy to D&D
Perhaps the easiest way to incorporate science fantasy elements to your game is to play one of its established settings. Eberron is a magitek or ‘dungeon punk’ world where magic is technology: trains, airships, giant mecha, even doomsday devices. Spelljammer is an over-the-top space opera with plasmoids, astral elves, interstellar ship travel, and autognomes. But what if neither of these settings is quite what you are looking for?
In my own world-building, science fantasy is a fun way of making my setting feel unique. The high elves of my world have created a kind of super-computer that became sentient and had to be sealed away deep beneath the surface – essentially the final boss of the world’s biggest megadungeon. Dwarves have power armour and mechanical augmentations like Deus Ex; duergar even have a cyberpunk aesthetic. Genasi, aarakocra, githyanki and so on are all recent nomads from another world, and some of the most advanced civilizations might be exploring space travel. You can follow my progress through a link on my Patreon.
So, what ideas can you add to your game to tilt it towards science fantasy? Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list. In keeping with the idea that science fantasy is mostly about flavour and setting, I’m not providing any mechanics for these things – just ideas. But if something like this appeals to you, I’m happy to try homebrewing it!
- Space travel. Let’s start with the wackiest, shall we? In Spelljammer’s Astral Adventurer’s Guide it’s known as Wildspace, but in your world it might have a different name. Give some thought as to what space is like in your setting and how magic space travel might be possible.
- Robots. D&D already has modrons, warforged, and other automata, but what about full-blown mecha?
- Cybernetics. You might call it something different in your world – enhancements, augmentations, bionics, technomancy – but in essence it’s some kind of implant that unlocks new powers.
- Psionics. I’m not sure why this feels inherently more SF than fantasy, but it just . . . does? 5e doesn’t have great support for psionics, but there are some promising homebrew rules on the DMs Guild. I’m very impresssed by the Psychic class from Team Walrus Designs, and MCDM are working on their own version also, I believe.
- Planar travel. The Multiverse already feels like an inherently SF setting – so give it more of a role in your world!
- Time travel. I did a whole post on this. For some reason it was super popular.
- Artificial intelligence. In my world, there is an elven supercomputer called the Nexus (at least, there is for now). In Might and Magic VI, there was an Oracle. What might your world have?
- Computers. More broadly, could machines be used in your world to complete tasks?
- Guns and advanced weaponry. At some point I need to write about this – it’s a huge topic. For now, let’s just acknowledge that a) guns existed in the medieval period, b) they probably won’t break the game (seriously, crossbows have the biggest damage output), and c) if you choose to include firearms in your world, you’re in good company.
- Other modern technologies. Trains, planes, automobiles . . . what do they look like? How do they work? Perhaps you have more of a steampunk aesthetic with brass, balloons, and goths who wear brown. Or perhaps it’s more diesel punk: something grimier, more 1950s.
- The Megacorp. Bad names aside, this is common in dystopian futures like Blade Runner and Judge Dredd. Could your world have one?
- Mad scientists. Not really that far removed from Halaster Blackcloak, right?
- Aliens. OK, D&D already has a bunch of fantastical species. But what if yours felt more like something from Star Wars or Star Trek? Plasmoids, thri-kreen, and warforged are a good place to start.
- Supersoldiers. Whether they are biologically engineered, magically enhanced, or in some other way ‘super,’ this is a science fiction staple.
What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below.