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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.
Michael Tresca


Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Superheroes is maybe the best example d20 isn't ready to be universal. <snip>
Even superhero games suggest that the GM choose a rough power level for the game. It's pretty hard to have a game with "street" level heroes interacting with Dr. Manhattan-esque cosmic heroes.

Achan hiArusa

If I put players from a standard D&D fantasy world into a steampunk or technomagical world they get upset and the game dies quickly, especially when they are the players' precious epic level characters.

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
If I put players from a standard D&D fantasy world into a steampunk or technomagical world they get upset and the game dies quickly, especially when they are the players' precious epic level characters.
That's too bad, because reskinning a lot of magic works out pretty well to have a decent steampunk/technomagical type game, at least as long as you assume that technomagic isn't ubiquitous. But that's more on the players and their personal genre boundaries than the game, per se. I am looking forward to the MCG release due out next year.


Gnomes were in starting with 1e, and I don't recall anything like the D&D gnome in Tolkien.
I knew I forgot something. :p

I always forget gnomes. Funny story - in the early days of 3e, we were playing Scarred Lands (pre-Termana expansion) and played for well over a year before anyone asked where the gnomes were. I had to actually go hunting before realizing that Scarred Lands didn't have gnomes. :D The entire group had completely forgotten that gnomes existed.


Gnomes were in starting with 1e, and I don't recall anything like the D&D gnome in Tolkien.
Gnomes were in the original D&D first as "monsters", then as possible PCs (can't recall which supplement... Greyhawk I think, unless I'm combining that with 1E... *sigh* memory). Anyway I still run them this way in my home game. Pretty much rustic, dwindled, Dwarves.

Book 2 of the original set (page 16):

"GNOMES: Slightly smaller than Dwarves, and with longer beards, these creatures
usually inhabit the hills and lowland burrows as opposed to the mountainous homes
which Dwarves choose. They are more reclusive than their cousins, but in all other
respects resemble Dwarves."

Fairly Tolkien-ish really.

*edit* Because memory is not as sharp as I'd like. And the Wife is asleep in the same room as my copies of the OD&D supplements :)
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Registered User
It is curious, I like gnomes exactly because they are unpopular, the ugly little duckling, the invisible girl, but in the right hands they could be as interesting and cool characters as Tyrion Lannister.

But their racial traits are too limited, designed to be or rogues or illusionists. You could create a gnome with another classes, but it would wasting the racial traits. That is the reason I like the second edition of Pathfinder because like this gnomes have got more options to be good with other classes.

* If the megaverse is canon, we will see nothing about the races from d20 Future (Star Frontiers + Star*Drive) until the new of a upcoming d20 Modern 2.0. And this needs a lot of playtesting about balance of power because fantasy PCs weren't designed to survive a bullets rain for a shooting and the challenge rating isn't ready when PCs could use a lot of extra help (space marines vs alien giant vermins) or not enough (a survival horror, unarmed civilian farmers in a post-apocalypse setting with an alien giant vermin). A game with class levels isn't really ready for a right balance of power in a superhero setting.


Frankly, D&D isn't a generic system. It isn't. It's a fantasy RPG and pretty much its own genre for the large part. Adding in full blown SF or whatnot into the game is very, very problematic. That's some pretty big square pegs you're trying to pound into a very round hole.

I'd rather they made the D&D multiverse that adheres to D&D tropes. Planescape does a good job of this. You travel the different planes of D&D, but, every plane is still, more or less, faux medieval Europe. No high tech, no SF tropes to speak of. Even Spelljammer doesn't try to shoehorn actual SF into D&D.

While, sure, we had psionics, it certainly wasn't an SF psionics. It was just magic by another name. And, unfortunately, because the early attempts were horribly designed, most DM's are very, very reticent to add in psionics. They might claim, "no SF in my Fantasy" but, the base problem is that psionics throughout D&D have not worked very well and it's more a case of DM's not wanting to get burned yet again by broken mechanics.

You can get away with adding in some SF elements, but, adding in actual technological advancements would drastically change the game and if you're going to change the game that much, why wouldn't you just play a different system that's actually designed from the ground up to handle things?


Agree with Hussar, Mystara's very own F.S.S. Beagle with its Nucleus of Spheres and Radiance Magic just reads as a dysfunctional artifact on a vessel with harming/corrupting magical capabilities rather than something that strictly adheres to SF.


And, really, there are a bunch of critters in D&D that are borrowing strongly from SF. I really loved the 3e Formians. Perfect little "alien" type critters that come in and start to assimilate everything around them. Or the addition of the Far Realms into D&D. Definitely leaning on the weird tradition more than SF, but, also not strictly fantasy either.

Personally, I would LOVE to see this sort of thing more in D&D. Gimme a Far Realms adventure path and I'm all over that. It's why I'm cautiously optimistic about the Spelljammer rumblings. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Planescape (heh). But, Spelljammer could very much hook me. I didn't play it the first time around, but, done right, I can hope.


When we started playing OD&D in the 70s, the mish mash was common and accepted by most. As I've said before we played things like Paladins of Odin raiding the Temple of Set underneath a ruined city on Barsoom (long before Stargate was a thing). Not always, but we had elements like this. Reading Blackmoor/Temple of the Frog, Arduin, and various articles in Alarums in Excursions promoted it I guess.

At some point in the early to mid 1980s, as I hit my "realistic" phase in life- I became a opponent of this beyond running something like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

As mentioned above, D&D has become it's own genre/brand of fantasy. It doesn't seem to mesh well, welcome or encourage this sort of thing that the original game was steeped in. Mainly because the game has veered so far from the literary roots that initially was it's primary influence. Modern D&D is more Hollywood than Howard.

These days I have revisited, enjoy, and run a lot of Palladium Fantasy, and dabble with RIFTS. The MEGAVERSE tm. Is doing just fine ;) DCCRPG and much of the OSR still embraces the "weird fantasy" of the original game. Astonishing Swordsman & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a fantastic and fun example of how to do this in D&D without seeming out of place or jarring.

Kobold Avenger

I feel it's appropriate the bring back the Progress Level concept when dealing with different worlds. It was featured in D20 Modern but I think it was in a few places before such as Alternity.

They had things like:
PL0: Stone Age
PL1: Bronze/Iron Age, likely the Progress Level of Athas
PL2: Middle Ages, most D&D worlds
PL3: Age of Reason, some D&D worlds touch on that with FR's Lantan, Mystara's Savage Coast and parts of Spelljammer, Ravenloft, and parts of the Planes too
PL4: Industrial Age, the Masque of the Red Death
PL5: Information Age, our world and D20 Modern in general
PL6: Fusion Age, cyberpunk and near future space settings, like possibly the Expanse
PL7: Gravity Age, possibly Star Wars
PL8: Energy Age, Possibly Star Trek
PL9: Beyond Comprehension...
Heck yes, science-fantasy!

Monte Cook is returning to the 5E science-fantasy game with Arcana of the Ancients (on Kickstarter until April 12), a supplement that takes the monsters, artifacts, cyphers, abilities, and adventure of Numenera and brings it into your existing traditional fantasy 5E games. In a world of dragons, your PCs discover unfathomably advanced ancient civilizations, and unleash their magic and beasts and wonder upon your setting.

Check out this ready-to-use bestiary entry mockup of the Disassembler, a truly weird monster to delight and frighten your PCs:

We're pretty jazzed to take our staff of writers from the D&D days (Monte, Bruce Cordell, Sean Reynolds) back into their old stomping grounds. We love this aesthetic :)


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.
The "you meet in a tavern" predates Tolkien by DECADES in published works. Elves are not a Tolkien invention though Hobbits are. Rangers as played in Tolkien in name and function originated in North America when the British were pushing into Indian territory. OF course the typical Red coat could not fight the Indians in wild spaces between the forts so a new type of warrior came to be that protected travelers from Indian predation. The type of dragon that Smaug was predates Tolkien by hundreds of years in literature.

One must be well read to see what Tolkien borrowed vs. what he created from whole cloth...

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
At some point in the early to mid 1980s, as I hit my "realistic" phase in life- I became a opponent of this beyond running something like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. <...> As mentioned above, D&D has become it's own genre/brand of fantasy. It doesn't seem to mesh well, welcome or encourage this sort of thing that the original game was steeped in. Mainly because the game has veered so far from the literary roots that initially was it's primary influence. Modern D&D is more Hollywood than Howard.
One thing that I think happened was, in addition to a more consistent separation of the genre of "weird tales" into fantasy and sci fi, there was a desire to present a more consistent world, which meant that having intrusions such as sci fi felt "wrong," like the obvious glossy attempt at a single that often appeared on an otherwise dark and gritty indie album. The sci fi elements often seemed to come out of thin air and could feel very out of place.

I played in Barrier Peaks in the late '90s and we had a blast. We managed to work it in and make it feel part of the world we were running in (Greyhawk), so it didn't feel out of place. Part of that was helped by the fact that the group I played with then (and still do, albeit mostly online now) were XCom fans, so Barrier Peaks got a gloss of XCom Apocalypse thrown on, which made it feel like there was a shared background.
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