“Science fiction” is a blurry term these days, encompassing so many sub-genres and overlapping with pretty much every other fiction genre in existence. However, in its early days, sci-fi was usually considered part of pulp fiction and had a lot in common with the sword-and-sorcery stories that laid the ground for much of modern fantasy. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom and Amtor tales were among the first stories to involve heroes from Earth on other planets encountering alien cultures. In the 30’s, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon came along in a similar vein, followed by countless imitators, up to and including Star Wars. In all of these swashbuckling space stories, the “science” element is downplayed; high technology may be present, but it’s rarely explained or detailed in any way, much like magic in a fantasy story. Many years later, after science fiction took hold in the mainstream, Arthur C. Clarke would record his famous third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We recommend you keep this phrase in mind when emulating sci-fi in a game.
D&D also has a history with science fiction; in fact, the very first edition of the game mentioned the John Carter tales as an influence:
“Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits.. will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste.”
– Gary Gygax, “Preface”, Dungeons & Dragons, first edition, 1974.
Since then, many writers have penned adventures and stories that cross the adventuring of D&D with the elements of space travel and high technology. 5th edition has yet to revisit settings with explicit sci-fi influence in official sources, so today and for the rest of the month, we are setting out to give you some tools to make your next D&D game into a retro sci-fi adventure! What follows are some basic guidelines for adaptation; races, classes and backgrounds will be forthcoming in our other August articles.
The denizens of the sword-and-planet genre already have a lot more in common with our well-known D&D milieu than you might think. Many of the races and classes from D&D can easily be dropped into such a setting with only small cosmetic changes. Consider things like giving your dwarves purple skin and large ears and making them from the hollow moon of your world, or making gnomes green and bald, with little antennae. Many planets also have a near-human race like the Red Martians; consider making humans from Earth be one variant and the natives another, since an Earthling will usually be a unique outsider (stay tuned for a background covering this later in the month). Each race in the SRD fills a niche mechanically and dramatically, and in a sword-and-planet tale, the same niches can exist, so don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel with player races. Just change the names and maybe a racial ability or two, such as proficiencies, and now you have a cast of aliens!
A large number of monsters from D&D fit perfectly into a planetary romance. Dinosaurs, giant animals and arthropods, elementals, and most aberrations are all the types of monsters that could be expected on other planets. Feel free to spice these creatures up with cosmetic changes or by adding an ability or two; for instance, giving giant apes an extra set of arms, or adding fire-breath to a dinosaur, using other monsters with similar abilities as a guideline. Often, you won’t need to raise the challenge rating of a creature, but if it proves to be stronger than you thought, give the heroes extra experience for the encounter, and treat the monster as higher CR the next time you use it to build an encounter. Even fiends and celestials can be adapted as aliens; rather than being from another plane, they could simply be from a truly bizarre planet. Much of the planar cosmology in D&D is really just another version of how early science fiction treated planets other than earth, with extreme environments and strange inhabitants, so go wild.
Magic and Items
You can easily make magic items fit a setting like this with a bit of tweaking. Simply refluff their magical effects as being super-science based instead. You may want to change the type of item; for instance, eyes of charming could become a hypno-ray pistol that requires a free hand to use. Alternatively, you can leave an item unaltered other than flavor, such as eyes of the eagle becoming a high-tech binocular optics band, healing potions as high-tech drugs or nanites in a hypospray injector, wands of magic missile become self-charging force pistols, etc. The quirks of high technology should be no more troublesome than those of magic; in other words, the stuff just works unless the plot calls for it not to. Here’s an example:
Wondrous item, rare
While you are securely strapped to this chrome metal pack with two large vents protruding from the sides, you can activate it as a bonus action to gain a flying speed of 50 feet, and you can hover. You can fly for up to 4 hours, all at once or in several shorter flights, each one using a minimum of one minute from the duration. If you are flying when the duration expires, the emergency thrusters let you descend at a rate of 30 feet per round until you land. The self-sufficient fuel cells of the jet pack regain 2 hours of flying capability for every 12 hours it isn’t in use.
Depending on the type of jet pack, the jets may be loud and give off heat and light; if this is the case, the DM may impose disadvantage on stealth checks when using the pack. More advanced types may use anti-gravity generators and be silent, imposing no penalty.
If you couldn’t tell, the “jet pack” I just presented is a version of the winged boots from the SRD, with just a couple of small alterations, such as a fixed flying speed and a bonus action activation.
Magic can also be altered to fit a retro-futurist setting in other ways. First of all, don’t be afraid to just have arcane and divine magic function unaltered on your alien worlds; many examples of this exist in the genre. However, some types of magic lend themselves easily to adaptation for other purposes; damage based spells could easily represent various types of grenades or ray guns, and the wizard class could be flavored as someone adept and constructing and using such gadgets on the fly. For a more unusual example, spells such as commune and divination could easily be a kind of sensationalized hacking, where a technomancer mentally interfaces with a supercomputer or the internet (if such a thing exists in your world) to find clues.
Firearms often exist in sword-and-planet settings, but since the majority of stories in the genre were written before World War 2, they usually exist side-by-side with swords and fists, and traditional D&D style melee combat is still very much the norm. If you want to include firearms, there are many optional rules for them including official sources, but they are not necessary to emulate the genre. More exotic weapons should be treated as magical, as noted above.
Space travel should be primarily a plot device; introducing detailed rules for such things is usually outside the scope of such tales. In many stories, the methods that transport the heroes to alien worlds are entirely unexplained, such as with John Carter. The plane shift spell and similar magic should be usable to travel to other planets in such a setting, as well as other dimensions if you decide they exist. Rocket ship travel should happen however quickly you decide it should; do not be concerned with the realities of astronomical distance.
Mood is key to any campaign, and to get into the mood for this month, I spent a lot of time looking at the art of classic sci-fi. I really enjoy Chris Foss, Vincent DiFate, and Peter Elson, and of course, Frank Frazetta, who did many John Carter illustrations as well as his better-known Conan works.
If you want to do some reading, a list of essential works of the sword-and-planet genre can be found at Wikipedia. We have only read a handful of these ourselves, but if you’re familiar with any of them, you have a good idea of what to do with this genre. Several pulp sci-fi and fantasy stories such as those of Fritz Lieber, Jack Vance, and Lester Del Rey often have the swashbuckling elements of the genre even if they do not fall squarely within it.
For video viewing, there are many adaptations from the list above, as well as of other classic sci-fi. If you’re a child of the 80’s, the classic cartoon franchises Blackstar, The Masters of the Universe (He-Man and She-Ra), and even Thundercats could be examples of the look and feel of these stories. The film Krull and some of its contemporaries that blend sword-and-sorcery with sci-fi fall under this theme as well.
Stay tuned for more tools for your rocket-fueled campaigns through all of August!