One of the fun things about a good RPG system is that, with a little imagination, it can be adapted to different settings. D&D is like that. There have been several adaptations throughout its history, both officially and otherwise. Spelljammer was a 2nd edition/AD&D adaptation putting the various species in magically powered spaceships. The Wizards out West also published an RPG called d20 Modern based on their OGL d20 system and v3.5 rules by which a campaign could be set in a present day urban fantasy setting. They even published the Urban Arcana setting sourcebook for it. So far for 5th Edition, besides updated versions of both Spelljammer and d20 Modern, I have also seen adaptations for Wild West, Steampunk, and even Adventure Time.
One day last week I was letting my mind wander a little and was struck by an idea that I have not been able to shake out of my head; so, I thought I’d put it down in words here for you, my dear readers, to consider and comment upon, if you so choose. The idea is this. How might I adapt D&D 5e for a Space Opera setting? I even have such a setting mostly put together. It is the one I built for my as yet unfinished space opera novel, Project 15. Unlike Spelljammer, however, this will not be a world where magically powered schooners enveloped in atmosphere ply the phlogiston between crystal spheres. (Seriously, that was the basic premise.) Rather, this would be a setting that embraced Clarke’s Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the basics of a D&D setting – the playable species, classes, magic, equipment, and monsters – and see how they would work IN SPAAACE!
In short, all the playable species are either adapted or augmented humans, or friendly aliens. The demi-human species derive, naturally, from humans, your garden variety, Earth-born terran. Dwarfs are humans genetically adapted to living on higher gravity worlds, part of the Deep Well Adaptation Restructuring and Formation program. Thus, they have a sturdier, more compact physiology. Elves are humans adapted to living in space habitats. The first of which was the station built at the Earth-Moon L-5 point. Over the generations its inhabitants became known as L5’ers, then Elfivers, then simply Elfs/Elves. Half-elves would be humans enhanced with light cybernetics that approximate the natural elven adaptations.
When the terrans expanded into other star systems they took their competitive and contentious natures with them. Inevitably spheres of influence rubbed up against one another and conflicts erupted. Such conflicts required specially bred or created warriors. Goliaths in this setting are genetically enhanced humans designed to be espatiers1. Half-orcs (half-organics) are intended for the same function but rely on heavy cybernetics instead. Warforged, on the other hand, are sentient androids. Halflings and gnomes are bred to serve as ships’ crews. Their small size and light mass make them ideally suited to such work while minimizing their impact on a ship’s load. Duergars and deep gnomes are probably asteroid miners.
The more outre playable species simply become re-imagined as human friendly, or at least human tolerant, aliens. These include the dragonborn, tieflings, aasimar, aarakocra, kenku, genasi, tabaxi, lizardfolk, and tritons. Although, the tritons might also be genetically altered humans. I’m not sure where to place Firbolgs. I am tempted to say that they are a friendly alien species with strong Luddite-ish, anti-tech, tendencies.
I had originally thought that maybe the classes should refer to types of ships that the characters would then pilot in space. Then it occurred to me that this might be too limiting and could result in a game that played out and felt very different from the D&D norm. My second idea for the classes is that they refer to different classes of powered armor, or rather the chassis for such. When outfitted with specialized gear it becomes an encounter suite.
The Barbarian suite consists of a ruggedized framework with a stimulant delivery system. The Bard features advanced energy tech, sophistcated comms and light armor. Cleric class encounter suites carry specialized nanotech control circuitry and can be rigged with light to heavy armor. The Druid class also has nanotech control gear but includes a morphic adaptation capability and can only be fitted with light to medium ceramic or polymer based armor.
Fighter class suites are designed to handle the greatest variety of weapons and armor and may occasionally be rigged with limited energy projection tech. The Monk gear carries almost no armor providing only environmental protection; but, they are swift and light with some models including integrated energy tech. The Paladin, like the Fighter, can be rigged with all the weapons and all the armor. They also incorporate specialized nanotech control systems. Ranger units are built for light to medium armor and usually employ ranged weaponry. Some are also equipped with companion drones. The Rogue class features stealth tech and infiltration gear, both cyber and physical.
Sorcerer class encounter suites are built almost entirely for high tech energy projection with no armor beyond the needs of environmental protection. The Warlock is unique in that it is built to employ often poorly understood alien technology. Finally, the Wizard suite depends on the widest range of advanced energy tech.
In this milieu magic effects are the result of technology rather than supernatural powers. The struggle here is to differentiate the Arcane and Divine types of magic. Maybe the difference is between macro-tech and micro-tech. Arcane casters employ devices and machines to project and manipulate energy fields. Divine casters achieve their effects through a cybernetic connection to a post-singularity AI consciousness2 which enables them to control swarms of nano-machines and manipulate the cybersphere. I rather like this idea, but will have to give it some more thought.
The key here is to give a sci-fi spin to the standard equipment lists. For example, armor can be described as being made of different sci-fi type materials. Light armor might be made of a polymer weave, medium from ceramics or light metals, and heavy armor from advanced materials such as duralloy, tritanium, or plasteel. Melee weapons don’t need much modification. In fact, on a spaceship, melee type weapons are probably preferred as projectile weapons either don’t work well in low gravity or have more potential to breach the hull. Ranged weaponry would simply be projectile based, either slugs or darts of some kind. Missiles, guided or otherwise, and energy weapons require advanced tech. I leave the conversion of adventuring gear to its space opera equivalents as an exercise for the reader.
Of course, there must be spaceships. Each species, or political amalgam, would have an identifiable style. Perhaps the human derived species belong to one or more stellar empires. Maybe the space adapted species have left their ground bound human and dwarf cousins behind. The alien species have their own home systems and extended territories. Interplanetary and interstellar travel can be handwaved in an appropriately science fictional manner.
One need not adjust the monsters of D&D much at all. The intelligent monsters would simply become other space faring alien societies. A few of the signature D&D monsters such as illithids and beholders, are actually already mostly positioned this way. Dragons could be amazing as an interstellar species. The cosmology may or may not still include the other planes and their respective denizens. It would work either way. Celestials and Infernals could either be ascended beings or extra-planar. Likewise the gith, modrons, elementals and their ilk could either be merely exotic aliens or extra-planar beings.
Combat, hit points and the other mechanics work just fine the way they are. Hit points represent the operational readiness of ones encounter suite. Damage is done to the encasing armor and hardware first. Reaching zero hit points means that the power suit is inoperable and that the squishy person inside is in real danger now. When you think about it, that’s kinda how Hit Points actually work in vanilla D&D. Resting could be thought of as recharging the suite’s energy reserves or performing field maintenance.
The party could be construed as a mercenary company, as a squad of troubleshooters for one of the star empires, the crew of a ship in one of the space armadas, or even as a freelance shipping company/courier service. Adventures would consist of traveling to different planets or space habs to deal with whatever was there.
This looks like an enormous amount of fun. I’d play in a campaign like this. Would you? There’s still some work needed to polish things up a bit, but this is a pretty good start, I think.
- Espatier is a term for space marines that I picked up over at Atomic Rockets while researching rocket science for my novel. ↩
- These transcendent consciousnesses are the result of self-evolving post-singularity AI’s. They have evolved intelligence far beyond anything a mere biological sentience can comprehend. I borrowed this idea of the god-like AIs from the Orion’s Arm Universe Project, a hyper-detailed, hard science, far-future sci-fi setting. ↩