Who Killed the Megaverse?
  • Who Killed the Megaverse?


    The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons has helped establish a baseline genre of fantasy that makes the game easily accessible to those familiar with its tropes. But in D&D's early days, the idea of mixing sci-fi and fantasy was built into the game.

    D&D's Inspiration

    Co-creator of D&D, Gary Gygax, was fond of pointing out that the inspiration for D&D was more inspired by R.E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian series than J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but that does a disservice to the list of authors he identified in Appendix N of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide:

    The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game.

    de Camp's Lest Darkness Fallis an alternate history science fiction novel. Leiber's Fafhrd & Gray Mouser meet "a German man named Karl Treuherz of Hagenbeck who is looking for his spaceship, which he uses to cross the boundaries between different worlds in his hunt for animals for a zoo" in The Swords of Lankhmar. Vance's works are set in The Dying Earth, where "magic has loose links to the science of old, and advanced mathematics is treated like arcane lore." A. Merritt's Creep, Shadow! is a pulpy adventure featuring:

    ...a witch that murders people with her animated dolls. It’s got sketchy scientists, femme fatales, world travelling adventurer types, and even a hard boiled Depression-era Texan.

    H.P. Lovecraft wrote more modern weird horror while R.E. Howard's Conan took place in a fantasy setting -- and yet the two borrowed themes from each other's works to blend into the Cthulhu Mythos we know today. Add all this up, and D&D was anything but "regular" fantasy. So how did we get here?

    You've Got Martians in My D&D!

    James Maliszewski explains at Black Gate:

    However, I think it worth noting that, in his foreword of November 1, 1973, when Gary Gygax is explaining just what D&D is, he makes no mention of Tolkien. Instead, he references “Burroughs’ Martian adventures,” “Howard’s Conan saga,” “the de Camp & Pratt fantasies,” and “Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.” Most of the borrowings from Middle-earth occur in Volume 2 of the game, Monsters & Treasure, which only makes sense as many of Tolkien’s creatures are easily dropped into almost any fantasy setting. Of course, Gygax does something similar with Burroughs; D&D‘s wilderness encounter tables include tharks, Martians of every hue, apts, banths, thoats, white apes, and more. I think this makes it readily apparent that, far from being the pre-eminent inspiration of the game, Middle-earth is one of many and not necessarily the greatest one.

    The other co-creator of D&D, Dave Arneson, demonstrated his proclivity for mixing sci-fi with fantasy in the Original D&D set, Supplement II, Blackmoor:

    While this background provides no real details about the Blackmoor setting itself, it does explain that the high priest of the Temple of the Frog, an individual known as Stephen the Rock, is “an intelligent humanoid from another world/dimension.” Furthermore, Stephen possesses several mysterious devices, such as an anti-gravity unit and an interstellar communicator. I found this information intriguing. I was of course already familiar with Gary Gygax’s Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, as well as the “Mutants & Magic” section of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, which provide guidelines for mixing science fiction and fantasy. But Supplement II was published in 1975, before any of this, which suggested to me that perhaps Arneson was perhaps the originator of this kind of “mixed genre” gaming.

    There was the tantalizing possibility of D&D crossing genres, as evidenced by the Gamma World and Boot Hill crossover rules in the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. And of course, there was the Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, itself inspired by Jim Ward's Gamma World.

    But it was not to be. Gygax frequently defended D&D's inclusion of Tolkien-esque creatures as a necessary sop to the popularity of the genre, but as Maliszewski points out, D&D eventually became its own genre, helping strongly demarcate fantasy vs. science fiction:

    Prior to the success of Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy was a very broad genre, encompassing everything from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to A Princess of Mars to Howard’s Conan stories and more. The earliest players and designers of fantasy roleplaying games understood and accepted this, but, as these games gained popularity and moved beyond their original audience, they became much more self-referential and self-contained – a genre unto themselves – rather than drawing on the anarchic literature that inspired them.

    The onus would be on other RPGs to deliver on the promise of a truly cross-genre universe with Palladium's Rifts being the foremost example. D&D would follow suit with its Planescape and Spelljammer settings that attempted to encompass all the other D&D universes, but even those settings generally stuck to fantasy as a baseline.

    New mixed-genre stories have since spun out of that baseline assumption, regularly mixing technology with fantasy in a way that was fresh to fans of the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon. Thanks to the Internet, cross-pollination between genres is a natural outgrowth of so many ideas mixing together, and that's reflected in our own D&D campaigns where aliens or robots might make a surprise appearance. With the announcement by Goodman Games of the return of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, it looks like the megaverse still has some life in it yet.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 77 Comments
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      We are a generation used to mix sci-fi and fantasy, not only in the superheroes comics but also some franchises as He-Man and the master of the Universe, what is like mixing Flash Gordon and Conan de barbarian.

      But in the RPGs is different. The balance of power between superpowers, ranged and melee weapons is difficult, at least with the d20 system. With modern tech your PC can kill an elephant with only a shot, or you can drive a truck to run over a horde of zombies. Now with a remote-control drone you can kill somebody from a different city, or continent. D20 system isn't ready yet to be an universal system, but I dare to say Hasbro wants one for an adaptation of all its franchises..(inhumanoids could be a good horror movie for young adults, couldn't it?).
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      You make a good point, which is that by creating definitions of what "fits" in a game, it makes the game rules a little more balanced. As D&D's rules have become more codified, a side effect is that it reinforces the genre. Rifts, in contrast, doesn't worry too much about balance which allows cross-pollination of multiple genres.
    1. Mercurius's Avatar
      Mercurius -
      I always found Gygax's downplaying of the Tolkien influence to be rather disingenuous. Tolkien was obviously a huge influence, from elves-dwarves-halfings-orcs to "You meet in a tavern" to rangers to Smaug to...well, it goes on and on. IIRC, Gygax spoke of Tolkien somewhat like a petulant teen rebelling against a parent that they want to distance themselves from but unconsciously emulate.
    1. jgsugden's Avatar
      jgsugden -
      Yeah - lip service and fan service are in contrast here.

      However, you can mix these genres as you see fit. There are a lot of rule sets out there devoted to those ideas. In my campaign worlds, historically, there are 5 magic sources: Arcane, Divine, Natural, Psionic and Scientific. All 5 are 'governed' by powers, and those powers work hard to make sure that Psionic and Scientific threats are controlled to prevent them from getting out of control. This has been the case since the 80s. In one campaign, a githyanki army armed with sci-fi weapons came flying down and wrecked havoc on the world and the PCs had to figure ot how to handle an enemy that could destroy a city from miles away. They walked away with a few advanced weapons - until someone came to take them away to keep them from influencing the non-technological world.
    1. jayoungr's Avatar
      jayoungr -
      I'm not sure why you think the megaverse is dead.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      I regularly mic science fiction elements into my games. I much prefer a Weird Tales vibe in my games to that of Middle-earth.

      Right now I'm trying to think up rules for a Masters of the Universe campaign, a perfect swords & blasters science-fantasy setting; I want to come up with a system where every character gets a distinguishing gimmick, like Ram-Man or Fisto or Mechanek or whatever.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Same. Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings aren't just add-ons, there are huge swathes of Tolkien in the DNA of D&D.

      Back in the day, I hated sci-fi/fantasy melding. As a kid, it wasn't chocolate & peanut butter, but more like mayonnaise and peanut butter. As I grew up, I came to appreciate it more and more. Loved Spelljammer, The Dying Earth, John Carter of Mars, and so-on.

      Ironically, I think D&D would go on to actually help remove sci-fi elements from fantasy. As the years went on, it helped contribute to our concept of what fantasy was. And as the years went on, it included far fewer bits of advanced technology.

      Quote Originally Posted by Mercurius View Post
      I always found Gygax's downplaying of the Tolkien influence to be rather disingenuous. Tolkien was obviously a huge influence, from elves-dwarves-halfings-orcs to "You meet in a tavern" to rangers to Smaug to...well, it goes on and on.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercurius View Post
      I always found Gygax's downplaying of the Tolkien influence to be rather disingenuous. Tolkien was obviously a huge influence, from elves-dwarves-halfings-orcs to "You meet in a tavern" to rangers to Smaug to...well, it goes on and on. IIRC, Gygax spoke of Tolkien somewhat like a petulant teen rebelling against a parent that they want to distance themselves from but unconsciously emulate.
      I imagine the (threatened?) lawsuit didn't help.
    1. the Jester's Avatar
      the Jester -
      The megaverse isn't dead, at least not in my campaign. Just to pick out one example, I have dropped threads for a three-part cross-planar adventure in which two of the planes are Gamma World and a close analog to Star Trek.
    1. SkidAce's Avatar
      SkidAce -
      The Megaverse lives on in my campaigns as well.
    1. Seramus's Avatar
      Seramus -
      Quote Originally Posted by LuisCarlos17f View Post
      But in the RPGs is different. The balance of power between superpowers, ranged and melee weapons is difficult, at least with the d20 system. With modern tech your PC can kill an elephant with only a shot, or you can drive a truck to run over a horde of zombies. Now with a remote-control drone you can kill somebody from a different city, or continent. D20 system isn't ready yet to be an universal system, but I dare to say Hasbro wants one for an adaptation of all its franchises..(inhumanoids could be a good horror movie for young adults, couldn't it?).
      Some of my favorite old RPGs mixed them, usually by making them end-game content.
      Wizardry, Might and Magic, Ultima, etc.
    1. oreofox's Avatar
      oreofox -
      I personally have no real problem with that so-called "megaverse" mentioned in the OP. The unfortunate thing about it is the power discrepency and "suspension of disbelief" difference between the technology levels. D20 Modern/Future/Past/Urban Arcana tried to mix them. But when people think of guns, grenades, laser weapons and other such, they don't think of a level 10 fighter-esque person being able to take 5 grenades, 10 bullets, and an RPG to the face and not be little meaty chunks spread over a 100 foot area. Make a glock that only deals 1d8 damage, and people will call the system stupid because a gun shouldn't do the same damage as a sword. How much damage would a grenade do? Is 4d8 damage too much or too little?

      Modern D&D isn't really set up to handle such things. Just look at the backlash when it comes to the more modern firearms listed in the DMG about how they are too OP. I'd rather play Shadowrun or RIFTS or any other type of system if I want more modern "multiversal" influences.
    1. MechaTarrasque's Avatar
      MechaTarrasque -
      It is a spotlight issue. It is hard to justify the fighter when you have convenient and dependable high magic. High tech tends towards light weight items (which benefits dex and mental stat-focused PC's) so adding it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Unlike the fantasy novels that preceded D&D, conditions where using magic (or tech) are difficult (sorry, I can't cast any spells at the bad guy because I am in round 3 of the 12 rounds of casting "close magic portal") or inadvisable (alarm will go off if magic/tech is used) are pretty rare in game. Now if they started making 100 pound plasma cannons (or elephant guns) or you need a 15 or higher con score to survive cybernetic implants, that would be a different story....
    1. Reynard -
      Quote Originally Posted by oreofox View Post
      I personally have no real problem with that so-called "megaverse" mentioned in the OP. The unfortunate thing about it is the power discrepency and "suspension of disbelief" difference between the technology levels. D20 Modern/Future/Past/Urban Arcana tried to mix them. But when people think of guns, grenades, laser weapons and other such, they don't think of a level 10 fighter-esque person being able to take 5 grenades, 10 bullets, and an RPG to the face and not be little meaty chunks spread over a 100 foot area. Make a glock that only deals 1d8 damage, and people will call the system stupid because a gun shouldn't do the same damage as a sword. How much damage would a grenade do? Is 4d8 damage too much or too little?

      Modern D&D isn't really set up to handle such things. Just look at the backlash when it comes to the more modern firearms listed in the DMG about how they are too OP. I'd rather play Shadowrun or RIFTS or any other type of system if I want more modern "multiversal" influences.
      I don't think this is an especially convincing argument for inserting tech into fantasy. There's so much going on with monsters, magic and just plain weird physics in D&D as it is that no one is going to care if the barbarian shrugs off a mortar round -- at least no more than if he shrugs off getting gored by a minotaur. If you care about realism, simulation or verisimilitude, D&D is not going to get any harder to swallow by adding laser swords.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      Mixing sci-fi and fantasy? That would as if doctor Strange appearing in front of Tony "Iron-Man" Stark talking about a cosmic menace and... oh wait, ups!, I meant it is as if Magneto's daughter learns wichcraft and... DOUGH!!

      * Now seriously. D20 needs a lot of playtesting to try the genre of "Sword & blasters". This isn't Final Fantasy where a bullet can be stopped by a sword or Star Wars where jedis are the centre of attention because they use lightsabers.

      In a D&D world many supernatural factions wouldn't allow firearms (giants, dragons, lord feys, some war gods, wizards..) and they would create bulletproof defenses, for example a piece of ectoplasm to block canons or to water explosives avoiding its detonation. A war god could punish firearms opening a planar gate in the battlefield to send warrior souls from the Valhalla with bulletproof immunity. A special magic area effect would allow firearms in the cities (and they would to very noisy for stealth operations). But I would bet Hasbro would want to use Cerilia, Birthright world, for the ultimate mixture or action-RPG and Real-Time-Strategy, the warcraft-killer.

      * Somebody would rather "sword & blasters" because the "pure" sci-fi gets old very bad. Today new generations miss a lot of things in the old titles don't appear but now they are usual, the tablets, for example. Now I miss the mind-transfer and digital immortality for my PCs in all sci-fi rpg since I bought my Eclipse Phase corebook.

      I guess we will some transition titles, one of the will be Spelljammer, but also I defend the return of Gamma World. (Oh my lord, this is perfect to sell toys with vehicles. Hasbro wants toys as G.I.Joe vehicles).

      D&D PCs weren't designed to survive a bullets rain for a shooting. If guns are allowed, maybe most of players want to be gunners instead the classic barbarian or paladin (but I like the concept of marshall, hybrid of pathfinder gunslinger and paladin). My suggestion is a special XPs reward. A shooting isn't like a melee fight, it is shooting and covering to reload, and real firearms can't shoot too many or get a lot of heat. Let's imagine this: a level 1 goblin with a shield and a axe, easy, isn't it? now the same goblin with the same monster stats but as sniper from the top a tree. Then he becomes a worse menace. Shouldn't change the value of Challenging Rating? Or the enemy is a slasher-killer with a knife. A true nightmare in a survival horror where players are unarmed civilians but in a war campaign where PCs are militars then they can kills dozens of them, like Sylvester Stallone in the movie "Cobra", against the night-slasher and the new-dawn cult. If the PCs have got enough item and weapons, killing monsters to get XPs will be easier. Don't you remember Ripley in the two movies of Aliens? In the first one xenomorph killed all but the "final girl", and in the second movie they could kill hundreds of them, even from a different room with those turrets.

      * Other matter: could be possible crafting of equivalent of modern real materials? (graphene, metal foam, synthetic spider-silk..) in a fantasy world?

      * About conflict magic vs science I can't avoid to remember "Mage: the Awakening" by White Wolf where reality is changed by the "Tinkerbell effect" (something it is real because enough people believe it is true).
    1. Jer's Avatar
      Jer -
      Quote Originally Posted by Reynard View Post
      If you care about realism, simulation or verisimilitude, D&D is not going to get any harder to swallow by adding laser swords.
      While I agree with you, the fact is that lack of exposure to how actual weapons and armor work leads to people thinking that somehow a gun is more deadly than a crossbow bolt, and if they believe that then it will be harder for them to swallow.

      Sure the gun does more physical damage - if you shoot a gun at a target and shoot an arrow at a target you can see which one gets more damaged. But a crossbow bolt to the chest is going to kill you the same way that a bullet in the chest will. The hero running through a hail of arrows to close in with a sword is going to be equally as dead as the hero running through a hail of bullets - in a movie they'll both make it through because that's how the narrative works. In real life they're both equally dead unless they're either incredibly lucky or their enemies are really unskilled.

      And there isn't anything inherently more real about a barbarian shrugging off fireballs to close with the wizard and fight him with his sword than there is about a barbarian shrugging off mortar rounds to close with a solider and fight him with his sword. It's just that in the real world there are actually guys with mortars and we feel that the "rush them" tactic would not be a good one to engage with them in a fight, while we can sit comfortably in our ignorance of how the same tactic might work for a barbarian rushing a wizard hurling meteor swarms or fireballs at them. (Though again in a movie the "rush them" tactic is just fine for the guy with the mortar if we're watching the right kind of movie - if we see Captain America or Jack Ryan run through a hail of attacks and tackle a guy with a heavy weapon, we probably buy it because that's how action movies work. Try to pull off the same in a realistic movie about war and it likely won't work).

      IMO with a lot of different gamers I've seen what it comes down to is if they think that high tech weapons are inherently more deadly than low tech ones because they are more damaging then they aren't going to buy into any kind of system that says that a gun can do the same damage as a crossbow. They are going to insist that the difference in their damaging capabilities be modeled by the system and won't buy into the narrative if that isn't taken into account, and because of that they are going to be worried about breaking the balance of the game. On the other hand, if they think that any and every weapon ever made can one-shot kill a person so the damaging capabilities of the weapon isn't a good proxy for the 'deadliness' of the weapon, then they're going to be much more open to mixing it in without concerns about breaking the narrative or the balance of the game. Because they will accept that a laser gun might have the same damage roll as a crossbow (but maybe do fire damage instead of normal damage) and it isn't going to break their suspension of disbelief.

      (This is all related to how you view the abstraction of hit points as well, which is a long and well worn set of arguments that never change anyone's minds...)
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      I most hear about this divide as a reason why a GM is not allowing psionics in their game. To them, psionics is one step too far, unless you dress it up as a more mystical thing.
    1. barasawa -
      Just a bit of silly trivia. Howard and Lovecraft were apparently friends, and Howard even wrote to Lovecraft asking if he could set Conan in Lovecrafts world. So all that talk of old ones and horrible things man was not meant to know in the Conan novels, really are references to the creations from Lovecrafts works.

      Now go read a novel from each of those authors again!
    1. Stacie GmrGrl's Avatar
      Stacie GmrGrl -
      I don't get why so many still think the d20 system can't do sci-fi or science fantasy... If we look at 5e alone there is:

      Dark Matter by Mage Hand Press (a much more realized take on Dragonstar).
      Esper Genesis.
      Ultramodern5.
      Spaceships & Starwyrms.
      Apex.
      NeuroSpasta.
      Wastelands 2099 (it could be 2099 Wastelands).

      Plus solid fan hacks of Star Wars 5e and Mass Effect 5e (ME 5e has its own website), about 3 Fallout 5e hacks, and fully fleshed out classes that add rules to 5e that fill in the gap, like the Complete Alchemist, Craftsman and Gunslinger classes (from MHP).

      If we expand further, for 3.5 there was:

      Dragonstar
      Mutants & Masterminds (1e was pretty close to its d20 roots).
      D20 Modern.
      Armageddon 2089 (some mecha themed game and I could have the year part wrong).
      D20 Mecha companion.
      BESM d20.
      A Fading Suns d20 try.
      Judge Dredd got a d20 game.

      This list can get even longer if we look at Pathfinder and look at their 3pp stuff.

      Then there are games like Radiance (an electropunk science fantasy d20 game).

      To say that d20 is only good for fantasy is really not looking at the broader scope of just how well developed the system has been and if only looking at it from a If WotC doesn't do it than its not done right perspective.
    1. Sorcerers Apprentice's Avatar
      Sorcerers Apprentice -
      I admit it, I killed the megaverse!
      And I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids!
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