For my entire gaming life, the genres of fantasy and sci-fi have had a complicated relationship. Frequently mashed together in an unruly pile under the banner of speculative fiction (or simply “nerd stuff,” depending on who you ask), fans of either genre often fiercely defend the distinctions between the two to ensure that every work was clearly identified as belonging primarily to one camp or the other.
Of course, from a technical perspective, there often isn’t any measurable difference between the genres, but it’s important to understand that fans of the two often come to them for different reasons and expect different themes. Sometimes those themes do overlap, but often not in exactly the same ways. Understanding that nuance is important if you’re going to be running in either genre.
It’s all the more critical if you’re going to be running in a hybrid of the two. As we talked about in Fusion Dance, there is merit in the genre mash-up where gaming is concerned, and lately the mash-up du jour seems to be fantasy with a dash of sci-fi hidden behind the scenes.
Settings like Numenera’s Ninth World, the Spelljammer-esque Aethera, Paizo’s Starfinder or the adventure path for Iron Gods all dabble in an explicit interplay between prominent fantasy and sci-fi themes, typically by bringing fantasy to the fore and displaying the sci-fi elements through a blurry lens so that Clarke’s Third Law comes all the more into focus.
Characters might stumble across what we’d think of as modern or even antiquated tech and not understand it in terms of the familiar elements of their world. After all, what’s a smartphone to an elf? It might seem like a small scrying tool and the displayed images a vision of another world. App icons aren’t all that different from runes to the unfamiliar viewer. Look, there’s even a command word for scrying right there – ‘Spotify.’
It’s an interesting dance to learn as a narrative GM to handle the intersecting but distinct themes. If you’re too overt with the sci-fi elements, they stand out too sharply and seem out of place on a fantasy backdrop. If you’re too coy and subtle, there’s no distinguishing those elements from everyday fantasy, and your setting loses its unique blend.
Naturally, modern elements like the example above are typically played for laughs, giving players familiar with the concept a chance to toy around with how alien everyday items might seem to characters who are, to them, very alien. While fun, that level of immersion is shallow and shouldn’t be tapped too often.
Instead, work on including more classic sci-fi elements, like technology that would be alien even to us. Players now have two speculative realities – the fantasy world on the surface and the sci-fi world their characters can’t truly appreciate the full nature of. To the PCs, they’ve entered a particularly strange arcane sanctum, while the players slowly put together that it’s a crashed spaceship and the lumbering constructs they keep running across are the robotic crew malfunctioning after so long without maintenance.
As a GM, the most important thing is to force yourself as often as possible to frame new discoveries in words the characters themselves might use to describe them. Avoid using out-of-character shorthand that immediately gives away the origin or nature of the thing. Lure your players in with either familiar in-character comparisons or wholly alien descriptors. Robots on the ship become constructs, holograms becomes illusions, etc.
Remember that not every item’s function is obvious on sight – see our smartphone example, for instance. The PCs have no idea that a gun is essentially a fancy crossbow in disguise when they pick one up off the floor. An assault rifle, especially one crafted by an alien or futuristic people, might as easily look like scrap, debris, or a high-tech billy club until someone accidentally disengages the safety when smacking a sparking construct across the synthetic jaw.
Focus less on the purpose of the item and more on the shape, the weight, and the feel. Plastic and rubber would have a very strange profile for a people more familiar with metal, wood or ceramic. It’s too light to be so durable, too soft and pliable to be stone, it doesn’t heat or cool like metal and doesn’t absorb liquids like wood. Plus, it burns strange colors and the smoke is toxic.
The darkened glass screens of unpowered electronics might look like obsidian, and their ever-present nature in most futuristic environments might make the inhabitants of the crashed ship seem vain for keeping mirrors in practically every room. In general, using modern or futuristic manufactured materials and designs is one of the easiest ways to firmly establish a uniquely sci-fi feel – else it might just seem like another slice of the same fantasy world.
Reveal the intent of items only when necessary, like when they serve as loot or when they act as obstacles for the PCs to overcome. Leave your players to guess at the rest. Don’t be shy about letting skills and spells like Identify, Scan, or Use Magic Device work on unfamiliar technology – just don’t name the thing that’s being identified or manipulated when they succeed. Describe the function in vague terms and focus on the piece the PCs need to keep moving forward. The rest remains a happy mystery.
Switching the model – fantasy elements through the lens of a sci-fi setting – typically involves reversing the formula. Instead of describing the item in terms of its components and leaving the function a mystery, lead with the apparent purpose and put the magic in the mechanics.
You encounter a spaceship, but there’s no crew, no AI piloting it, and power fluctuates randomly throughout the ship. It all seems like electrical glitches. The fact that it’s effectively a quantum poltergeist doesn’t become apparent until the away team is on board.
Fantasy elements inside of sci-fi should follow one key rule: demonstrable consistency. It’s a mouthful that means, as far as the party’s interactions with it go, the magical element reacts the same way to the same stimuli.
Take Star Wars: the Force is essentially magic, but it’s a specific kit of magic. Jedi have specific powers they can hone, and a PC who’s been exposed to one might be able to predict some of the abilities of another. Even if the magical element itself seems to violate the setting’s laws of physics, if you keep it internally consistent and predictable once the PCs have had a little exposure to it, you maintain the overall sci-fi feel.
For bonus points, find a way to explain the magical phenomenon in ways that only seemed to violate the laws of physics so that players are returned to a consistent view of a sci-fi setting at the end of the encounter. This isn’t always required (unsolved mysteries are sometimes the best kind), but at least look for a way each time – your more sci-fi-favoring players will appreciate the effort.
Whatever your primary lens, learning how to weave in elements of the other genre without mucking up the overall tone can create an inventive new hybrid to play in without having to reinvent the magical hyperspace wheel.