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.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.​
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.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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?).
 

talien

Community Supporter
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.
 

Mercurius

Legend
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.
 

jgsugden

Legend
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.
 


Aaron L

Hero
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.
 

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.

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.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
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.
 

the Jester

Legend
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.
 

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