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Hot Button: Keep Your Crappy Sci-Fi Out of My Fantasy!

For those of us playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons back in the early 1980s, the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks module was a big surprise. Our intrepid adventurers disovered a crashed starship and, after defeating strange monsters and robots, came out with interesting loot. During the next few adventures, it was not uncommon for a paladin to be toting a laser pistol or a fighter wearing power armor.

That notwithstanding, I’ve met many players and game masters over the years that get upset when obvious futuristic or sci-fi elements get added to fantasy campaigns. Otherworldly demons or alien Cthuloid entities are fine, but technologically-advanced aliens are taboo. For them, adding futuristic elements ruins their immersion and simply don’t belong in fantasy games.

On the other hand, I’ve met many players and game masters over the years that enjoy the occasional technological surprise added to their games. What does it matter if you’re carrying a laser pistol if the wizard’s wand of fireballs does a bit more damage? Why not have a group of Klingons that have crash-landed and are now carving out an empire in the northern wastes while the PCs receive aid from a covert Starfleet officer who’s trying to preserve the Prime Directive?

I’ve seen similar arguments in other genres. In my modern fantasy campaign, I had my occult investigators come across a possible alien encounter. When my wife offered the possibilities of the “alien’s” true nature, I offered the possibility that the “alien” actually was an alien. She laughed off the possibility as doubtful and inconsistent with the setting. I’ve also run modern detective campaigns where I know the players would get upset if the “vampire murderer” ultimately didn’t turn out to be human.

What say you? Would you add futuristic elements to your fantasy campaigns? If so, is there a line you’d draw or does anything go? Are there other campaigns or genres where you’ve debated adding a seemingly incongruent element? If you have added such elements, how well did they work?

Note: The title of this article was inspired by an installment of Aaron William’s hilarious Full Frontal Nerdity [1]webcomic.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Hot Button: Keep Your Crappy Sci-Fi Out of My Fantasy!"

#1 Comment By Cole On August 26, 2008 @ 7:29 am

The D&D 3.5 Monsters Manual has a few entries with robots, their description says they come from a different plane of existence and each is programmed to a specific task.

I think those types of robot monsters do fit in a fantasy setting very well. But I would not mix any other futuristic elements other than that on my fantasy campaigns.

#2 Comment By sverbridge On August 26, 2008 @ 7:51 am

Back when I was playing in the 80’s and early 90’s my character, a druid, found out that the world was a ring world- like Larry Niven’s ring world- and that there were different “universes” within that ship as it traveled through space to some destination that I no longer remember. The different universes were all the different RPG’s that he or someone else GM’d. So his Champions universe and his D&D universe were there, along with my Ravenloft and Cthulhu universe. Some of the artifacts we found were very futuristic and in fact were needed to be used to put the ring world back on track. It turned out my character was descended of the original builders/techs/pilots and I needed to put things back in balance. I’m not sure, but I think the gods were actually AI. So maybe it was a combination of ring world and the Star Trek episode For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.

I thought this idea was really cool and had no problem with it at all. I do have issues when introducing gun power into the fantasy game, though. I think the only ones who would have that would be the gnomes and/or the dwarves and they wouldn’t be sharing. I know it doesn’t make sense, Scifi elements are okay, but gun power is not, but that’s how I feel.

#3 Comment By TerraNova On August 26, 2008 @ 8:12 am

Mixing Fantasy and Sci-Fi is like mixing different flavors of Fantasy: If done with care, it can yield some really cool settings, but if done just for the heck of it, it very soon can get very ugly.

What do i mean with “with care”? Two things, primarily: Logic must be maintained. So you want your cool HR Giger-esque aliens? Then you’ve got to consider what the Knights of the Holy Chalice will say about them. Just why doesn’t your locker full of Phaser rifles turn peasant revolts really nasty really fast? Secondly: Know what you want to use. One may be spice in the other. Psionics is essentially magic in a Sci-Fi setting, and few would raise a stink about it, as long as it is done in ways compatible with the rules of the genre, and clothed in techno- rather than mysto-babble. Yet it is usually unwise to smear out your genre to the point of all-inclusive unspecific mishmashes.

D&D in particular has its fair share of “Alien Horrors” in a fantasy setting, and magic items so reliable that they might as well be stamped “made in Taiwan”. The systematic jump to include SF Elements is really not so far. The trick comes down to doing so for a reason (and “It’s cool!” is a perfectly valid one if you can make it really really cool), knowing where you are going, and what you want to find there.

Kind of like any world-building, really 😉

One last thought: Where do you draw the line? Is the Warhammer 40k world with its machine spirits, unholy miracles, chaos gods and soul-drinking dark elves SF? Fantasy? What about Pern? The borders are not so clear-cut and writers have mixed and matched with varied success pretty much since the Genres came into being. Why not use that supply of fiction?

So, in closing: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Any sufficiently reliable magic is indistinguishable from technology. (First part IIRC by Arthur C Clark)

#4 Comment By PatrickWR On August 26, 2008 @ 8:18 am

Let’s turn the analogy around. How common and/or accepted is it for sci-fi settings to mix in traditional fantasy tropes? It’s pretty common, actually — Dark Heresy (the 40k RPG) encourages players to spend time adventuring on low-tech medieval worlds. Endor is basically an Exalted setting; laser pistols didn’t seem so out of place to the Ewoks.

In light of that, a laser pistol (with limited ammo no less!) doesn’t seem like so much of a stretch.

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On August 26, 2008 @ 8:20 am

One of my favorite concepts that’s been cooling it’s heels in my “for future use” pile is Efreet 287. Efreet 287 is an efreet who was captured and experimented on by a highly advanced culture (presumably in the past or another dimension). (I got the idea from a liscence plate which read roughly Efreet287 that I was stuck behind for a while one afternoon).
While I’ve used the rough concept at least once (Demon in a test tube) I’ve never made use of Efreet 287 himself.

#6 Comment By Rafe On August 26, 2008 @ 8:40 am

Personally, I’m not a fan of mixing sci-fi into fantasy. It simply jars with the concept too much, especially given I like to run (and play in) low-magic, gritty settings like Black Company. My own homebrew campaign is more akin to Tolkien fantasy than, say, Forgotten Realms fantasy. Introducing a sci-fi element would make my players scowl and roll their eyes. It would be pretty ridiculous. But that’s the point: it depends on the context of the world and the game you’re playing.

I’ve been really surprised by the comments so far. Lots of people in favour of sci-fi elements. Some might say that Iron Kingdoms or Eberron have sci-fi elements, but the difference to me is that those aspects fit the world concept as a whole, at least with Iron Kingdoms. (I don’t really like Eberron and so don’t know it well.)

#7 Comment By Virgil Vansant On August 26, 2008 @ 8:44 am

I’ve always wanted to run a game like Metamorphosis Alpha. It would science-fiction, but the characters (and hopefully the players) won’t realize it at first. I would want to give the campaign a “low fantasy” feel.

Maybe the wizards really have psionics. And who knows what sort of strange cosmic radiation the people have endured during the trip, causing all sorts of non-scientific mutations. Any leftover high-tech gadgets should seem like magic to the primitive humans. (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) But what would my players think when they finally discover that their fantasy has been crappy sci-fi the whole time? Some of them wouldn’t mind, but there are others that I don’t think would be very happy.

Still, it’s been bouncing around my head for a little while now.

#8 Comment By cooperflood On August 26, 2008 @ 8:48 am

Mixing fantasy and Science Fiction elements is fine. Any sort of combination can be fun and unique. And I really wouldn’t even worry about how much it makes since (it’s just a game and we are talking about magic). The most important factor to me is WHEN you introduce the elements. If you have been playing a straight fantasy game in the vein of Tolken for several months and then suddenly introduce robots and tasers you’re bound to annoy some people. Because they’re invested into the campaign and you’ve suddenly pulled the rug out from under them. On the other hand if those elements had been introduced from the get go it’s no problem.

#9 Comment By Sarlax On August 26, 2008 @ 9:04 am

I agree with Terranova about the importance of internal logic. If you’ve already established certain characteristics about the world, introducing radically different elements can make the setting nonsensical.

Likewise, as Cooperflood notes, you shouldn’t just disrupt the game everyone else has been playing unless there’s been a discussion between you and the players that surprises of that kind are okay with everyone.

#10 Comment By sverbridge On August 26, 2008 @ 9:21 am

A really good mix of Scifi and fantasy is the Warlock series by Christopher Stasheff. That series is one of my favorites.

#11 Comment By LesInk On August 26, 2008 @ 10:55 am

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is truly a good example of how to cause extreme disbelief in the game. EBP was not just sci-fi, it was sci-fi to the max (robots, lasers, space ships, etc.). If I was reading a book that followed fantasy characters and suddenly the book changed into a sci-fi genre, I would probably stop, look at the cover, read the back blurb again and make sure I got what I paid for. It’s the same way with players. They come into a game/campaign with a certain amount of expectation.

Now, if the back of the book said clearly that the fantasy world was being turned upside down from a new sci-fi entity, then I would not mind — I bought the book with that in mind. Heck, even a ‘mysterious falling star’ would at least give me a guess that it might have sci-fi elements.

I feel most players would be more okay if they knew something was coming up. When you GM a world of your own design and it has sci-fi elements, the players will most likely be given hints and clues as time goes on (if not overt declaration) that there are sci-fi elements. They’ll warm to it — especially if they see an overall integration and design into the world.

But if you just go from fantasy to sci-fi in the speed of a light switch, it will usually be too jarring. They’ll look you over like the front of the book and read the blurb again by asking you, “What are you thinking?”

That said, a romp through a one-off sci-fi abnormality might be good to spice up the game. Really depends on your players and how well it will be received.

I personally would not care for straight up sci-fi, but some psionics or steam punk is fine to me.

#12 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 26, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

Wow, all good answers!

It certainly seems that certain “futuristic” or “technological” elements, such as steam tech and early firearms, have been gaining more acceptance in fantasy games.

#13 Comment By nblade On August 26, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

I think what you hit upon is player’s expectations. It is sometimes hard to read players in this matter.

I once had a GM start use in what assumed to be some type of modern day horror setting, only actually abducted by aliens and ending up in a Space 1889 type setting.

As you can guess none of the players were happy with that. The game didn’t match what we expected the game was going to be about. The GM couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand that is what we were expecting.

That is not to say that on should never surprise players. It if often fun to see what they do when they encounter something they didn’t expect, just as long as they buy off the result as plausible for the game that they are playing in.

#14 Comment By Swordgleam On August 26, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

I think it’s all about expectations, just like anything else. If your players want a pure fantasy game, they won’t want laser guns. If you’ve made it clear that anything can happen in your setting, they probably won’t mind.

I keep wanting to run a game in a setting like James Alan Gardner’s excellent book Trapped. All the goverments of the world slowly collapsed for reasons unmentioned, and nearly all advanced technology was lost. Aliens visited earth and made magic and psionics real (sort of). So you’ve got people running around in a world at just slightly above a medieval level of tech: guns work, but not reliably, there’s electricity, but it’s rare, and most people ride horses. Into this mix, add psychics, sorcerors, and some really kickass tech that the aliens dropped off, but only a few people have. It’s a post-apocalyptic setting that’s half fantasy and half sci-fi, and both forces are equally powerful and rare.

I also really like the ideas in Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series. Roughly paraphrased, “It’s an open question which would create more havoc: a nuclear bomb being detonated, or a ranking demon of Hell unleashed on earth.” It’s slightly futuristic; technology has advanced, but magic has matched it, so each thing that one can do, the other can do just as well. Magic carpets vie for customers with normal cars, specially made cameras can photograph auras, and there are giant floating shopping malls built on clouds. Purgatory is mostly automated.

Mixing sci-fi and fantasy is great. It just has to be as integral a part of the setting as everything else. If you’re running a medieval campaign and drop in lasers, it’ll be a shock, just as if you’d dropped in dinosaurs or fantasy elements from an entirely different genre; Xanth-style demons and pie trees, for example, would fit very poorly in most D&D games. It’s a matter of tone, too, I think. A gritty game probably isn’t as suited to advanced tech as a high magic game is.

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 26, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

Unless it’s explicitly part of the game or of my expectations for the game (as in, the GM said, “I’m going to run X but throw some weird shit your way — OK?” and we all said yes), adding sci-fi elements to a fantasy campaign makes my balls shrivel up.

So…I agree with Swordgleam, but with less eloqeunce. 😉

#16 Comment By Ishmayl On August 26, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

Personally I have haven’t had a ton of experience with this, except for one time when I was playing as a guest in a friend’s game – a game that was explained to me as typical swords-and-sorcery fantasy – and one of the warriors in the group literally had PPC (?) laser cannons attached to his arms, and the wizard had some sort of flying surf board that would come out his boots? It was very odd – apparently, the players, in some dungeon, had accidentally taken a portal into the far future, and come back with this “gifts.” To me, it seemed obvious that the GM just wanted lasers in his game. 😉 Anyway, I stick with one or the other, don’t do too much sci-fi in my fantasy.

#17 Comment By Knight of Roses On August 26, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

Agreed, it is a matter of expectations. but sometimes you can slip things in without upsetting the overall mood/setting.

#18 Comment By penguin133 On August 27, 2008 @ 7:19 am

I have no objection to mixing metaphors, if that is the phrase, so long as it doesn’t spoil the story; in fact I sometimes like it since I like to throw things at players that they aren’t expecting and therefore can’t have planned in advance! I used to have a bunch who pre-rehearsed encounters, figuring out tactics against whatever, which was great sometimes BUT it made it fun to panic them sometimes! Re SF in Fantasy it can be way too much; I agree with a couple of these posts that it should not be TOO reliable or powerful, at least the stuff the PCs have shouldn’t be!, Steampunk or Black Powder style is great though! Another thought is that guns run out of ammunition, spells don’t! Psi can make a good alternative to magic with less drawbacks and usable where Magic perhaps isn’t – BUT with a set of limitations of its own! Having NPCs from the Future can be fun, if they have better Technology than “You” have! Also they may know things you don’t, like what is going on, perhaps!? Maybe they are here to CHANGE what they regard as History? Maybe there are more than one set of Aliens, with differing goals in mind? I also love to throw in “connections” for the Players to find, maybe one of the “Time Travellers” is a remote descendant – or perhaps not so remote? Crossovers can be great fun. I once got a fun combination out of a bunch of Western “Cowboy” heroes turned Pulp adventurers who went to the Yucatan to search for the treasure buried by their Pirate “Forebears” in an earlier Campaign!
Let me join in recommendation of Stasheff’s Warlock series, great; as is Harry Dresden, whom someone has recommended elsewhere, as a cross between a gritty Now and Fantasy rather than SF and Fantasy.
As someone earlier said, a little variety is the spoice of Life, just beware of overdoing anything?

#19 Comment By drow On August 27, 2008 @ 9:51 am

my group has always danced around fantasy/sci-fi crossovers. personally, i love them, but one of the other players doesn’t like sci-fi very much. at least she says so. her PC from our previous anything-d20-goes D&D game was a jedi guardian. so, it seems, its all in how you present it. guns? gunblades are cooler. lightsabers? +5 brilliant energy longsword. cyborg dragons? chaositech nightmare.

#20 Comment By penguin133 On August 27, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

Star Wars itself IS the ultimate SF/Fantasy crossover! Just call magic “The Force” and use Laser swords, and you’re away! NOT that I am knocking it, it is a fantastic setting for Adventure! As the man says, it is all in how you present it, or maybe how you see it?
Ian W

#21 Comment By nblade On August 28, 2008 @ 9:45 am

@PENGUIN133, your comment reminded me of [2]

#22 Comment By Scott Martin On September 2, 2008 @ 11:29 am

I agree; presentation is key. I’m a big fan of keeping genres separate– but I do enjoy psionics in fantasy. (Probably due to enjoying the Deryni chronicles and similar books like The Ghatti’s tale, and Lackey’s Valdemar novels, where “mind magic” is the dominant or only type of magic in a fantasy setting.)

#23 Comment By Creature On August 18, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

Personally, I think it’s okay as long as your players know that’s what they’re getting into. It isn’t really my thing (though I add some Sci-Fi to my D&D on very rare occasion)and if I were playing in a campaign and found out that the evil wizard was actually just an alien, I’d be pissed, but if I knew about the aliens from the star, it might be okay. I guess it just depends on the feel of your game and what your players are into.

#24 Comment By Creature On August 18, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

However, throwing the Illithid’s a bit of technology or giving the Gnomes zepplins isn’t too bad. There are a lot of ways to add scraps but I wouldn’t want to just yell “TA DA!!! IT’S STAR TREK!!”