I’m going to call it: we’re living through an epidemic. Since the debut of Dungeons & Dragons 5e there have been several products adding advanced technology to your campaign. In the past year we’ve gotten Ultramodern5 and Hyperlanes and the Pathfinder world has responded with last spring’s Aethera Campaign Setting, the dystopian Hypercorps 2099, and the much-hyped Starfinder that just released. It’s starting to feel crowded!
In this post, I’m going to be going through all your different options sci-fi rules adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons (even more complicated a topic then the last time I wrote about it some years ago). There are lots out there and, I cannot stress this enough, neither me nor anyone else on the internet can tell you which is the best. This isn’t to say that they’re all the same, and hopefully at the end you’ll see some of the strengths and weaknesses of each, but in the end what game appeals most to you will depend as much on your style and your group’s interest as it does on what the game includes.
What? Just give me an answer! If you want to skip ahead, here is the gist of things.
- If you want a Pathfinder game but with magical star-sailing, you want Aethera.
- If you want a dark, gritty cyberpunk game with all your favorite races and classes (for 5e or Pathfinder) then you want Hypercorps 2099.
- If you want to maintain rules from D&D 5e and you want a high-powered cinematic feel, you want Hyperlanes.
- If you want to maintain rules from Pathfinder and/or you are into dramatic space opera, you want Starfinder.
- If you want to maintain rules from D&D 5e and you want a very modern feel, you want Ultramodern5 (my favorite).
What Came Before
Admittedly, there are more sci-fi adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons than just these three. First of all, there is the amazing Dragonstar, which has traditional fantasy worlds visited by dwarfs in mechs and elves with laser rifles. Spelljammer is, of course, not sci-fi but this might be the best direction for some groups interested in space-like adventures while still feeling like D&D and it’s loving fans are constantly updating it to new editions of the game.
If you really want to get detailed in your campaign modeling, you should check out the supplements for d20 Modern (based on D&D 3e): d20 Future is an obvious starting point, d20 Cyberscape will get into more posthuman elements (and near-future settings), d20 Future Tech gives you tons of new toys, and all the other supplements allow you to mix and match to include martial arts, magic, giant creatures, etc. If you like, there’s even a really excellent sci-fi setting for d20 Future already written called Dawning Star that’s really great and d20 Modern already includes parts of the classic Alternity setting.
I’m going to concentrate on the list in the opening paragraph, though, since 5e and Pathfinder are the currently-in-production versions of the Dungeons & Dragons rules. There are plenty of other places to find information on those earlier products (starting with the links above) so check out those if any catch your eye. In the meantime, the new stuff!
Aethera Campaign Setting
As a dip-your-toes-in option for introducing fans of Dungeons & Dragons to science-fiction settings. Based on Pathinder, Aethera even looks like a Paizo book despite being produced by Encounter Table Publishing. Like Spelljammer the setting illustrates what a traditional fantasy RPG setting would look like if it spread out into the stars, but unlike Spelljammer it’s actually spaceships and sci-fi. If you want an overview of the setting, I highly suggest you check out this series of posts by the Renegade Octopus. They go into things with a lot of detail and also a lot of insight so if you’re still on the fence after reading that you probably will be on the fence forever. The ten-second version is that things went very wrong in the past and now fantasy races are living on a star system amid the “delve-able” relics of the past.
As far as system, Aethera uses all of the Pathfinder races (plus some new ones) and all of the Pathfinder classes (besides clerics and warpriests as gods are not welcome here). There’s also a new class called the cantor which serves as a half-bard, half-cleric for your healing needs without having to bring religion into the mix. In all, if your group already knows Pathfinder or even D&D 3.x they will be able to dive right into this game and setting with about five minutes’ prep: in other words this is just a D&D setting in space. It’s a really awesome one that is slick and full of great concepts and ideas. If your group is going to be a hard sell on sci-fi D&D then this could be your best option.
If your interest in mixing science fiction with D&D stems from an interest in Shadowrun, then this might be the product for you. It’s a near-future setting where a time-traveller from 2076 went back in time to 1876 and caused ripple effects that changed our current world into something far stranger. As an Endzeitgeist review put it, “think of a less grim Shadowrun, with a massive sprinkling of M&M thrown into the mix.” It’s out there and this crash of different genres might make some eyes glaze over but it has a few really good things going for it.
First of all, like the Aethera Campaign Setting, this game uses existing rulesets. More than that, it comes in a D&D 5e version and the original Pathfinder version, so whichever game you like there’s a core rulebook for you. The new class options are just that: options for existing classes rather than new classes for the setting. Secondly, even though there’s an avalanche of mechanical additions (including a reputation/luck system, cybernetics, and scalable systems to create superhero-like characters) this is still Earth. Countries have different histories over the past two hundred years but they’re still countries your players will know and be able to (probably) point out on a map. Lastly, while the timeline is interesting and there’s plenty of new stuff to play with the bulk of the lore is way lower than something like Shadowrun or Interface Zero (discussed below) so the learning curve is much lower.
While many of the options on this list are adapted from Pathfinder, this is based on Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Like Starfinder (see below), Hyperlanes assumes you aren’t using the base classes alongside these ones but here there will definitely be some stepping on toes. Many of the Hyperlanes classes are sci-fi versions of 5e classes: half of the outlaw’s abilities are from the rogue class, the muscle is a version of the fighter, the ambassador is a lot like the bard, etc. The outlaw and muscle in particular differ from their vanilla siblings only in their archetypes so characters will start to diverge after 3rd level, but the real differences come with the other classes in the book that benefit from Hyperlanes’ very different approach to character class abilities: essentially, everyone is a spellcaster.
Now, I don’t mean that everyone has magic spells just that each class has a set of spell-like abilities that make up their class abilities. For example, the ambassador is pretty much a bard (they have Rousing Speech instead of Song of Rest but no one’s fooled) and the ambassador even has the same spell progression chart… except they aren’t spells but gambits. Gambits (and tricks, the cantrip stand-in) are non-magical abilities that follow all the same rules for spells in 5e. The ambassador can use Deception and Influence gambit schools meaning that an ambassador can use (“pull”) the 1st level gambit blind spot to spot and exploit a gap in the perception of a creature or vehicle. A level 1 ambassador can only manage two 1st level gambits before a long rest so they only can push themselves to do this once.
The Gambit chapter is very long so there will be plenty of options for characters. The Species chapter is also a wealth of variety since it’s a combination of Culture and Physiology templates that allow you to make whatever you want. Some example kinda-interesting species are provided, as well as race mechanics for synthetic creatures (androids, cyborgs, and labor, security, and specialist robots) but it’s clear that the authors expect GMs to do a lot of setting creation for their games. Because of this, I’d recommend this game for groups that want to create their own worlds, definitely use D&D 5e, or both. It’s also definitely a far-future, galaxy-spanning game so if you weren’t planning on hyperdrives and artificial intelligences… well, you are now!
A lot of you out there have probably heard about this new game Starfinder which takes the Pathfinder mechanics and uses them to create a game which will cure cancer, get you five dates to prom, and also outshine every other RPG past, present, and future. Honestly, hyperbole and geekgasms aside, it’s a really solid game and one that will more than satisfy the desires of groups interested in a science fiction adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons. The Renegade Octopus has a couple of recent posts comparing Starfinder and Aethera (again, very insightful) that can show some of the differences between those two options but the upshot is that Aethera is an extension of Pathfinder into space while Starfinder is a new body made with the previous skeleton.
It’s a standalone system and Paizo has been busy getting the rules out to third-party publishers so there is already a slew of additional products beyond the core book. In particular, if you’re at at all interested in Interface Zero by Gunmetal Games, they just came out with a Starfinder-compatible version (joining the previous True20 version, a Savage Worlds version, and a FATE version). It’s no secret that Paizo has high hopes for Starfinder but what exactly is different about it?
Well, for one thing it doesn’t try to make one-to-one relationship with Pathfinder. Even though the default assumption is that you won’t have any Pathfinder classes (although there’s a guide to conversion in the book and the fabulous Starfarer’s Companion covers all classes and races) you aren’t picking from “space-fighter” or “star-wizard.” The Starfinder classes cover roles like envoy (the party face) or operative (sneaking and lying) or solarian (stellar warriors) and they can mesh well with standard Pathfinder classes without any toes being stepped on. Even the two spellcasting classes (mystic and technomancer) operate enough like the Pathfinder spellcasters that players of both can compare notes but they’re different enough that they won’t repeat.
In the end, this is a really solid choice for groups that want to play a space opera or planetary romance campaign, groups that came up with the idea of this after watching Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy, or DMs who want to make their own settings where magic and technology are on equal footing.
Lastly on this list, yet my favorite option of the bunch, is Ultramodern5 from Dias Ex Machina Games. Following the success of Ultramodern4 title and the continued demand for the Amethyst setting in every imaginable flavor, Chris Dias has updated his modern-day take on the Dungeons & Dragons mechanics for the newest version. Why is this my favorite? Because it contains all of the best mechanics of 5e while also limiting the extra rules to nearly zero. I’ve actually already written at length about the content of this book so here I’ll concentrate on the possibilities for sci-fi games.
Whereas Hyperlanes uses spell-like abilities and Starfinder uses magic and mystic channeling, Ultramodern5 has nothing even resembling magic in its classes. The abilities are mundane and they don’t work anything like spells. This is most definitely the spiritual successor to d20 Modern (by way of Ultramodern4) and the characters will feel pretty similar. You can do things that no one else in the setting can manage but you won’t be effectively invisible thanks to a crafty trick or pulling out a sword that bursts into flames. This makes Ultramodern5 a really great (I would say the best) option for a real science fiction game. You can make the setting as hard sci-fi or as space-opera-y as you like but characters won’t have empathic abilities or carry the memories of past lives. This might not meet the needs of some groups, but if you have a sci-fi setting that you want to build without too many shenanigans then I encourage you to pick up this system. If you want to use a prewritten setting, there’s always Amethyst and a cyberpunk setting called NeuroSpasta (out for 5e here) that you can use.