Mix it Up a Little! – D&D and the Genre Mash

D&D and Sci-Fi


I love the unexpected. If you talk to any lifetime gamers they will probably tell you they feel the same. The only thing that is sure to ruin an experience of D&D is running into a monster whose stat block you can quote. Sometimes it’s not your fault! I’ve never been one to read the Monster Manual cover to cover, but I’ve run most of the monsters in the original 4e book as a DM and I’ve also faced some of them as a player or looked at them in the Monster Builder while making my own creations. And the lore is just as bad. I know, for instance, that in an Eberron game I should watch out for the innocent-seeming Riedran delegation and in a Dark Sun game that the sorcerer-king that created the dray is not quite as dead as you’d think.

My point is, if you’re a DM you should put some thought into keeping your players on their toes. The best and most effective way to do this is by starting a brand new setting with new monsters that they have never encountered before, but who has that kind of time? In a word: you.

The true beauty of Fourth Edition is it’s abstraction, and I’m hardly the first to say that. “Re-skinning” has become a popular past-time on gaming forums as people try to stretch their imaginations for this feat, that class power, or this race. But why stop there? What about a setting re-skinning? The other authors here at Castles & Cooks know that I’ve recently been drooling over the new releases for World of Darkness that talk about taking that system to cyberpunk and space opera settings; if you play that system and haven’t yet looked at Mirrors and it’s expansions, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. The attraction there is the novelty of a genre which is built from familiar pieces but makes an unexpected whole.

I know that I write about World of Darkness a lot and I love it, but today I wanted to look at the application of genre mashing in Dungeons & Dragons. Aside from Mirrors, an article at Gnome Stew the other day about supernatural and superhero mash-ups got me thinking, why not 4e? This may seem like a huge undertaking considering the mashed settings already published. Eberron combines the tropes of swords and sorcery with the seedy elements of pulp noir to make something new and fascinating while Dark Sun takes the familiar elves, dwarves, and halflings from the Tolkien tradition and puts them into a setting where they rub elbows with extras from Ben Hur. These settings both have books and adventures to flesh them out fully with mechanics and NPCs but you don’t a single mechanic… well one or two wouldn’t hurt but not a lot.

D&D and Sci-Fi: Points of Starlight

This is not a new mash-up but it’s a good one. The salient features are alien worlds, strange technology, first contacts, etc. Part of D&D game philosophy is the idea of small sites of civilization surrounded by dangerous areas where people get killed or worse. Nothing describes space more to me and it’s easy to turn that hamlet in the hills to a backwater, barely-terraformed colony in rocky terrain.

One way to make this is a literal collision of genres, such as the classic Expedition to the Barrier Peaks module where the party blunders into a crashed spaceship. This module led to a whole sci-fi game and a brief introduction to sci-fi elements (borrowed from Gamma World, for instance, or at least the excerpts on the Wizards site) could launch a primarily fantasy campaign into far-flung galaxies. Alternatively, you could attempt something more integrated such as the Dragonstar campaign setting for 3.5e. The dragon-controlled stellar empire of this setting featured spaceships with navigation mages, magic-powered androids, sneaky half-elves with shiny cybernetics, and everything you’d really want in a Points of Starlight setting. Some of these elements can be accomplished through re-skinning (warforged become androids, magic items are converted to equivalent cybernetics) but some elements require mechanics. D&D is a most melee-based game so you’ll need to find some way to make those laser guns shine. Maybe laser swords are also in vogue or else you might consider making some weapon powers ranged as well as melee. You can avoid this issue, though, by emphasizing the D&D more than the sci-fi. Get a copy of Guide to the Astral Plane and check out the spelljammer vehicles, then watch some Star Trek episodes and start planning. Your workload stays light and imagine a crew of intrepid explorers landing their star galleon on an Astral mote and collecting scientific data in leather-bound journals to report back, only to be attacked by a slimy ooze monster. I challenge people to tell me that’s not worthy of science fiction… it’s just Renaissance-era science!

D&D and Horror: Points of Light, Hearts of Darkness

There’s nothing like provoking a little emotional response in a game, and often fear is the one of the easiest to try. There is certainly opportunity for frightening creatures in D&D and you probably have to try not to have your players face something frightening and impressive. The real power to the horror genre, however, is the fear of the unknown. It’s one thing to have your players go up against a powerful dragon that makes them worry that their characters might bite it, but once you have them in a dark dungeon with so much atmosphere and shifty tricks that they’re worried about the enemy before they even know what it is… Then you’ve got ‘em.

The staples of horror stories are the undead: ghosts, vampires, zombies and beyond will all make a heavy impact on the players, especially if they knew the creatures in life. If you’ve ever read Dracula or other classic horror stories, the really creepy part of the story is the familiarity of the subject alongside the strangeness of their horrific side. The elegant gentleman turns out to be a soulless vampire or the beautiful woman killed in the necromancer’s attack returns as a raving, insane phantasm. The upcoming Heroes of Shadow and Shadowfell books should help immensely on this front, not to mention the Heroes of Horror sourcebook from 3.5e. Don’t be afraid to use guilt either to turn an adventurer’s normally callous nature into a curse that follows him through the world. When a whining beggar grabs at their boots and pleads for money for his illness, maybe the illness turns out to be a Jeckyll/Hyde malady that drives him to try and murder them in the night with unholy strength. These sorts of twists shouldn’t happen every time, but the beauty is that once it’s done once or twice the players start crawling in their skin waiting for the next time.

Another aspect of some sorts of horror, notably Lovecraft’s stories or serial killer films, is the presence of insanity. You can throw in some insane NPCs, but also afflicting the player characters with mental disorders can make them feel frail and vulnerable, some of the most frightening sensations for a player. Consider using the disease mechanic from 4e, in a manner similar to the Unearthed Arcana curses (which aren’t a bad idea themselves), to track sanity conditions for the characters. Every time they see something terrible (bloodied corpses, otherworldly creatures), are surprised by something horrific (realizing the book you’re reading is bound in human skin, or the meal you just ate is made from the halfling slaves you passed), or even if you are hit with psychic and fear effects (for very harsh DMs) then the player is forced to make a saving throw. A failure means that you drop down a step on the sanity track, garnering new penalties, until the last stage results in a lasting psychosis. Handily, there’s a list of psychoses in the Third Edition SRD which can be easily transformed for Fourth Edition.

D&D and Historical Fiction: Points of Departure

I’m just finishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell so this probably comes more readily to mind than other things. Unlike the other mash-ups mentioned above, this one has the strength of having seriously no mechanics needs. However, it probably involves the most setting consideration even though most of it has been done for you. The procedure is this: pick a historical period, decide what D&D elements you want, mix and massage until no seams show. It’s best to decide at which point your fantasy setting departs from real life history, and I’ll use Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as an example. In this book, England had a reasonably similar history as in our own history except that in 1110 A.D. a man named John Uskglass appeared in Northern England with an army of fey and swiftly conquered much of the island of Britain. This creates a nice dichotomy, then, since the large cities of London, Westminster, Bristol, and Birmingham, among other places, are untouched by this change in history. Wikipedia has all the source materials for those that you could want and you can leave them untouched until it needs to be changed. The cities of Manchester, York, and Newcastle, on the other hand, are under the control of John Uskglass, the Raven King, and need some re-writing. It’s best to keep these to a minimum, however, and let history do its own work. Maybe the Peasant’s Revolt that happened in York was led by dwarven laborers who felt they were being oppressed by the fey nobility and the infamous William Wallace could have led the goliath highlanders of Scotland in revolt against the Raven King.

The trick with this is to not go to far and to pick a good year. The 13th century in this case is right in the middle of the Middle Ages with crusades going on, the Magna Carta being signed, the Scottish rebellion led by Wallace, Teutonic Knights and Holy Roman Emperors… Assume that all this stuff happened or is happening and work backwards from there. If Northern England is a fey kingdom, who controls Scotland? Is it a Scottish lord or is it some English king separated from London and so ruling on his own? Who is being fought in the Holy Land? Could Arkhosia and Bael Turath fit in as Rome and Carthage centuries back? Does it ruin anything to make Latin synonymous with Draconic? Like any setting, start where you want to be, then figure out how you got there. Pick a point of departure and look at the ripples it creates, but avoid the temptation to change a whole bunch of stuff at once. The line between unfamiliar and unrecognizable is not always easy to see before you run over it.

So, dear readers, what about you? What genre mash-ups would you like to try out? Have you ever done one of these as a full campaign or even just a short divergence from a larger storyline? Inquiring chefs want to know!

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