Not the sexiest title, I know, but bear with me. I recently had an opportunity to read and review the Adventures in Middle Earth RPG for the Tome Show. This was something I would have read anyway, but reviewing it allows me to change perspective a bit more. One of the things that struck me about the game was the versatility of 5th edition. They made significant changes to core class concepts and it was still very much 5th edition. It started me thinking about how far you could take that. Could I use the base 5th editions systems, but make a game divorced from the fantasy setting?
Scifi and D&D
Dungeons and Dragons has always been immersed in science fiction on the edges. There are several classic adventures involving robots, alien ships, and even time travel. It was always on the fringes, but it was very much part of the literature that inspired the game. Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World both used a variation on the D&D rules for post-apocalyptic games with lots of scifi elements, but when they released the space opera inspired game Star Frontiers, they had a very different system in place.
A more recent example of a scifi use of the D&D base rules was White Star. Based on the OSR White Box Sword and Wizardry rules, it takes the basic D&D concepts (levels, classes, hit points, d20 resolution, ect..) and reworks them into a Science fiction(well, science fantasy) setting that is heavily inspired by Star Wars. This game is very streamed down. It has just barely enough systems to function and not much more. The idea behind a lot of the rules light approach is that too many rules get in the way. Game masters can make judgment calls as needed and the rest if handled by those simple rules. I like White Star, for what it is worth. I recognize the intent and the game is well written and produced. That said, I do like a little more system myself. If running White Star I would be adding skill systems and the like. There are some products published doing just that.
I am straying off point.
The point here is that there is a precedent for doing a science fiction game based on D&D rules. The old school obviously could do it, but I was curious to try it with 5th edition, and the new Adventures in Middle Earth gave me some ideas on how to do it.
What stays the same?
Well the basic stuff stays the same. You have Classes, probably Races, Levels, Hit points and D20 rolls for resolving success or failure. The saving throws would largely stay the same, as would the advantage/disadvantage mechanics. The game would need to keep Backgrounds, Skills, Proficiency Bonuses, the usual Attributes, and normal combat rules (with some genre specific variations). Level progression would certainly be easier to keep attached to XP, but I could see a milestone system working just fine, as well.
What would be different?
Well, that is an interesting question. There are a range of things to change to make it more science fiction than just D&D in space. Nothing wrong with D&D in space, mind you. I do have some deep love for Spelljammer. It is a classic and the haters are just wrong. That said, it is not science fiction. There are some tropes in the various science fiction genres. To keep things a bit more focused, I am going for more of a space opera feel here. Different genres would need different changes. A cyberpunk game would make the fighter types cybered killing machines, and have extensive systems for cyber combat. Also, I should clarify. This is for a scifi game, rather than a hard science fiction game. It is more action oriented and less skill challenge oriented. There is also psionics, which is decidedly not a real science grounded idea, but people like having them.
Let’s start with Classes.
The iconic D&D classes are Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard. The other classes tend to be variations on those base four. You could make an argument for Fighter and Rogue in science fiction settings, but the Cleric and Wizard are definitely off point. Magic in space opera and science fiction settings is not really called magic most of the time. Clark’s Third Law being the slight exception. Gods, are almost never actually gods in science fiction stories, so praying to gods to get your powers doesn’t really work for the genre. The various variations fall into similar problems. Druids are right out for the same reason as Clerics, Sorcerers are basically Wizards with a different origin story, Paladins are clerics crossed with fighters, Bards are fine except for the magic, Rangers again are fine except for the magic (also different pets), Warlocks again have the magic problem and so do Monks, though Monks might fit with a different explanation. Reading the Dune series and a few others certainly allows for some Monk-like abilities, but with science based explanations. The Barbarian does sort of fit thematically if you treat him as some sort of primitive, but there is still some magic there.
My solution here is new classes with some similar abilities, but are structurally different in others. Some of my assumptions here are assumptions of the world building. I am leaning more towards a Star Frontiers/Traveler style world than a Star Wars type world. There might be psionics, but no force or other space magic insertions.
The Soldier is the fighter equivalent, but with some differences. The biggest being they are more focused on ranged weapons. Blasters being more common in space opera than swords. That said, it is certainly an option to build a more melee focused soldier. House men at arms, police, and body guards are workable archetypes that would use more close in weapons. Fighting styles would be a good place to show the differences.
Fighting Styles available would be
Rifleman: You gain a +2 bonus to attack rolls you make with ranged weapons
Armored: While you are wearing armor, you gain a +1 bonus to AC
Melee: While using a melee weapon, you gain +2 to hit
Protection: When a creature you can see attacks a target other than you that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll. Your own ac is reduced by 1 the next turn.
Martial Archetypes would need to be tweaking as well. Champion is fine as is. I might rename it, but mechanically it is on point and lacks anything that needs changes. The Battlemaster needs a few changes to maneuvers away from the melee and more towards the ranged weapons. The Eldritch Knight obviously can’t work. I am not certain it needs a replacement.
The Scoundrel is a rogue equivalent, with the thief archetype being actually pretty good overall. I think a Hacker archetype would be a good choice, with abilities tied to the use of computers and technology. Having an ability that was the right gadget for the moment might be in order, not unlike some of the abilities described in the game leverage. Overall, the Scoundrel needs the least amount of work to make viable.
The Expert works for Wizard and Cleric equivalents, but in some very different ways. Their abilities are Intelligence and Wisdom based. You chose early on if your expertise is medicine, pilot, or science. Their trained experts with university backgrounds. This also gives them credentials which allow bonuses in certain social situations. They also can provide extra bonuses to the party members in various activities. What they are not is mystical artillery. They are much more support than direct combat oriented. They can still hold their own in fights, but the high-end mage or cleric kill spells are not there.
In Science, you gain access to a knowledge skill not unlike classic Bardic knowledge. You can invent items that grant bonuses, use unknown tech as you come across it, and provide understanding of new phenomena that grant Saving Throw bonuses. They also make mods for gear. This is not unlike the old artificer abilities from Eberron. The Science specialist would make mods to be applied to weapons or armor making themmore effective. They could add special abilities at higher levels, such as flight, cloaking, or force shields. Also they would have more ability with their own gear. A Number of times per combat, they could add bonus damage from their own weapons.
In Medicine, they would have a list of meds they are skilled in the use of. There could drug that could give you the benefit of Short rest, or a nano med patch that helps heal a target instantly. The low end would be not much worse than a Cleric, but it would not escalate as quickly. The advantage is that it also doesn’t use spell slots. As long as they have their kit on them, they can use their abilities. There is no cure poison spell, but they can cure poisons. Even exotic sources of damage can be solved at higher levels. I want something more there, but I can’t decide what. Feedback welcome.
The Pilot is the just that. Anyone can drive a vehicle, and if trained, even space vehicles are able to be controlled by any class. The Pilot has a range of abilities beyond most folks. They have greater bonuses with all vehicles, and their own specialties even more. They can improve vehicle mounted weapons, improve the navigation checks, and aid others in combat on a vehicle they control. They also get bonuses to repair and use any vehicle, even if it is not of a familiar design.
The Transhuman is the Monk equivalent. You would need to change the name of the Ki to bioenergy or something similar, change the explanations from mystical sources to cybernetics or genetic manipulations, and adjust just a few of the powers. The basic choice would actually be bioware or cyber, the flesh or the chrome. An important distinction would need to be made between cyber (done for improvements) and bionics (done for limb replacement in the event of injury).
The Psion is as close as I would come to “magic” and I would want to move away from the Vancian model. Focus, Discipline, and Talent would be how I would handle it. Your Focus is how many things you can do at a time. A level one it is one, but it would increase as you leveled. I am not sure in what increments. Maybe every 5th level. This means you can maintain one thing and still do another in the same action. Flight and TK shove for instance. At first level, you would only be able to do one or the other at a time. Discipline is the thing you know how to do. You start with a few and learn another every couple of levels. Talents are your power categories. You have kinetic and mental. You have a talent for one or the other. You can learn and use a discipline outside your focus, but it is always at Disadvantage. You are just not able to get good at it. There is more to it than this. Maybe a leveled “push” ability so that you can increase the power of some disciplines as you level.
Anyway, that is the beginning of a rough outline. I will tackle races next and move on to backgrounds and space battles later. This is obviously an outline of an idea. If you think it deserves more time, let me know. At this point, it is a mental exercise for my amusement.