To introduce this topic, I’d like to first share the overview for Dungeons and Dragons from the Wizards of the Coast website:
“The first Dungeons & Dragons game was played back when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson chose to personalize the massive battles of their fantasy wargames with the exploits of individual heroes. This inspiration became the first fantasy roleplaying game, in which players are characters in an ongoing fantasy story. This new kind of game has become immensely popular over the years, and D&D has grown to include many new ways to vividly experience worlds of heroic fantasy.
The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more. You can also explore the world of Dungeons & Dragons through any of the novels written by its fantasy authors, as well as engaging board games and immersive video games. All of these stories are part of D&D.”
Now, what I’m about to say next may rub some people the wrong way, but stick with me:
D&D doesn’t have to be fantasy.
I know, right?? What the heck am I saying? The word “fantasy” shows up FIVE times in the description above…and at least once in nearly every description or introduction to the game found in other sources!
…but it can be so much more. Yes, there are dragons and magic, elves, dwarves, and orcs…but other game systems have these things as well! They are not exclusive to D&D and D&D is not solely defined by the fantasy genre. Instead, let’s take a look at D&D as a style of gameplay: the combination of storytelling, role-playing, and unique mechanics that make it a distinctly different game even from its closest cousin, Pathfinder (which is also billed as a distinctly fantastical game).
“But there are other RPG systems out there for different genres!”
Absolutely there are, and this in no way takes away from them! However, if you’re a fan of the D&D system, regardless of the edition, why limit your creativity? If you break the game down to its mechanics, you can easily adapt it to any other genre you like– horror, mystery, sci-fi, western, the whole gambit of x-punk genres (steam, cyber, magi, and more)– all it takes is faith, trust, and homebrew-dust ^_^
To transform your high-fantasy game into something new, you first need to determine the characteristic aspects of the new genre. For example, what are some of the things that make sci-fi unique?
- Advanced Science and Technology
- Space Exploration
- Time Travel
- Extraterrestrial Life
Science fiction is driven by speculation and stories are created by asking “what if”: What if there was life outside of Earth? What if machines became sentient? What if we could travel through time…through the past and the future? What are the implications of these things on humanity as we understand it?
Now think about how you can tell a story with these themes using the D&D mechanics:
Advanced Science and Technology can be shown through the types of weaponry, vehicles, and objects the party uses. Instead of physical ammunition, ranged weapons are adapted into lasers, beams, and other fun “pew-pew” armaments. Swords, axes, and such can still be used, just re-skin them with more advanced materials, metals, and capabilities (cough-laser-swords-cough). A medieval carriage is powered by energy cells rather than horses…and if we can ride on the backs of giant eagles, why not fly a spaceship?
Space Exploration can be adapted from concepts already in existence, like Plane Shifting and Teleportation. D&D already allows for travel to other realms…just alter the locations your party can jump to!
Time Travel, in my opinion, is more of a story-telling complexity than a game mechanic one. For this, think about the advanced technology in the world and how rare time travel may be. Think about the repercussions of either observing or changing past events and if the Doctor Who concept of “fixed points in time” is going to apply.
When it comes to player and NPC races and Extraterrestrial Life, I don’t want to change my Tiefling Warlock or Elven Ranger any more than you do…so I have good news: You don’t have to! Remember, sci-fi works in the realm of “what if”. So…what if Elves, Dwarves, Tieflings, and Dragonborn still exist? Instead of being from somewhere within Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms, think about the different worlds and planets within your setting that they might call home. Just as there are a plethora of races in your favorite sci-fi books and movies, so there can be in your game!
When it comes to classes, certain jobs and roles will still need to exist. The most challenging part will be determining how magic functions in the world. This is where the distinction between science fiction and science fantasy begins to appear. Are you going to blend your sci-fi themes with a magi-punk kind of feel, where the energy is more magical than electrical? I, for one, still regard electricity is a kind of natural magic but is that how you will make sense of it in your setting? Are wizards and sorcerers harnessing arcane energies or are they expert scientists and manipulators of technology? The newer Artificer class could be a fantastic compromise for this sort of thing. There’s nothing wrong with having magic in your sci-fi setting. Just think about how it will impact science and technology in the world…there are plenty of examples for this already within the genre: Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Matrix all have characters with some pretty incredible abilities!
You can follow this same kind of process for any of the genres I mentioned above. If you choose a setting that doesn’t really mesh with magic, like Westerns, then simply alter which classes and racial abilities are allowed. Every DM and GM can have their own house rules. You are the sole person who decides what does and does not exist within your story. If you want a Western or the like, limit the classes to more melee-based functions! Again, it’s the unique themes that are important. The Wikipedia page for Westerns highlights the following common themes:
- The construction of a railroad or a telegraph line on the wild frontier
- Ranchers protecting their family ranch from rustlers or large landowners or who build a ranching empire
- Revenge stories, which hinge on the chase and pursuit by someone who has been wronged
- Stories about cavalry fighting Native Americans
- Outlaw gang plots.
- Stories about a lawman or bounty hunter tracking down his quarry
Don’t tell me that these stories can’t be told using the D&D framework…it’s a treasure trove for quests and plot hooks! While I am not fond of the idea of re-creating the suppression of the Native Americans, the struggle between colonists and indigenous populations is quite literally a tale as old as time and is echoed across a multitude of genres.
So what do you think? Ready to create your own non-fantasy D&D game? Remember, if you start by breaking down the genre into what makes it unique, or what your favorite elements are, it’s much easier to translate and adapt each component! If it helps your creative process, you can always re-name your home game something more genre-appropriate, like Snickelsox and Lluis Abadias’ Lasers and Liches! Really though. If you’re a fan of Retroverse and Laser-Pups, you should check it out!!
What are some of your favorite examples of non-fantasy D&D games? Share your stories below!