Sci-Fi with AD&D, or, Re-Skinning Your Genre


We've all been conditioned (since day one, actually) to accept the idea that if you want to play a different genre of game, a different rules set is necessary, or at very least major changes to your existing rules set. From the earliest days, if you wanted to play a science fiction game, it was Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha. If you wanted Wild West, it was Boot Hill. Even the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide suggested converting your game if you wanted to do this (and gave solid guidelines for doing so), though it did provide baseline suggestions for importing, say, firearms into AD&D.

In the second edition era, we got Spelljammer, but those hoping for a science fiction game using the AD&D rules were disappointed: this was AD&D in space (sort of), and not true sci-fi. Instead of starfighters and nebulae, we got floating galleons in a strange sort of aether-filled realm. When it came time for sci-fi, we got Alternity, which was again its own system.

In later years, Wizards of the Coast gave us D20 Modern, which purported to use the same system as D&D to present other genres of play, and to a point, it did. But it changed the entire approach to character generation, introducing the concept of talent trees and character classes based upon ability scores. Again, it was a major shift and a wholly different approach.

Something that seems to have been missed all these years is that none of this is necessary. It's possible to run a pure sci-fi game with the AD&D rules as they sit, just by shifting a bit of terminology and imaginative approach. I call this "re-skinning."

What Is Re-Skinning Your Game?

I took the re-skin approach on a small scale with Amazing Adventures for the gadgeteer class, using spell effects to represent gadgets rather than creating a complex gadget-building system, and it has been very well received. Before I go further, let me address the fact that AA is at its core the same kind of shift as D20 Modern was, when compared to its C&C roots. It does include new character classes. It does include new rules approaches and assumptions. And it's true in many ways that a game specifically designed for a purpose will generally work better than one adapted to that purpose. 

The point of this blog is not to disparage new approaches, new systems or the like. It's simply to point out that if you love your AD&D game, there's no strict need to seek out a science fiction rules set if you don't want to. 

Re-skinning simply means taking what you've got already and describing it differently. Any tweaks to the rules should be minor at best--of the "house rule" variety. 

Character Classes

Exactly zero changes need to be made to any character classes in AD&D to play a science fiction game. If you choose to do so, you can re-name them (a cleric could become a templar; a wizard a techno-wizard; an illusionist a holo-technician, for example), but if your players are okay with simply calling them by their classic names, their function still works fine and no changes to class abilities need be made, save those related to equipment (as discussed below). 

This could, however, be an outstanding opportunity to adapt the Paladin to a fighter jockey type character; instead of a mount, they get a vehicle--a starfighter, speeder bike, or whatever else the DM deems appropriate. The "unusual intelligence" of the mount applies to an AI or advanced sensor package in the vehicle itself, and the paladin (or cavalier, if you're allowing Unearthed Arcana) applies their mounted combat bonuses to vehicle-based combat instead. 

Speaking of UA, barbarian characters would be those who are luddites, approaching technological gadgets as D&D barbarians do magic items.

Magic: The Elephant in the Room

Perhaps the biggest hurdle one might face in regards to AD&D character classes in sci-fi games is their reliance (save the assassin, fighter, monk and thief) on magic. If you're looking for a "pure" science fiction game, there are two approaches you can take. The first is to simply restrict character classes to these four and remove magic entirely. 

I, however, am a fan of a different approach, and this is where re-skinning really comes into play. It's what I did in AA--magic simply becomes technology. As Arthur C. Clarke said, after all: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Your wizard, illusionist and cleric, for example, function exactly the same as they always have. Instead of spells, however, they have equipment packs full of technological gadgets which happen to function the same as the spells do in the core game. Instead of "forgetting" the spells they cast when they do, their technology only has so many uses before it needs to recharge for several hours: They've got only so many universal batteries on hand, and are always working towards building more, represented by additional spell levels as they advance. 

Even rangers and paladins can skin their spell abilities as technological gadgets that they construct as they advance in character level. 

This approach can even be applied to clerical "turn undead" abilities. If you're looking to remove mysticism from the game, traditional undead are re-skinned as a specific variety of extradimensional alien species, and turning is the function of an antipathy field the clerical character can generate via a technological device they wear or carry. 

Creatures with Spell-Like Abilities

There's also the question of creatures with spell-like abilities. Rather than simply applying these as magical spells, they can be biological abilities inherent to specific species, or again, they can be technology possessed by that species. 

Magic Items

Magical items, likewise, take on a technological aspect, generating protective fields, using nanotech to achieve wondrous effects, or the like. Artifacts are just that: artifacts of lost alien civilizations whose technology may not be fully understood, but produces incredible power, often at a corrupting cost. 

Roles in Play: How to Pilot a Starship

How about adapting the existing character classes for specific roles in play? How, for example, does one deal with star pilots, engineers and the like? This can be handled simply by adopting a version of the DMG "Secondary Skills" rules (page 12). Simply have each character select one or two secondary or background skills that define their role: "my character is a pilot," "my character is a career officer." "My character specializes in communications," etc. The Secondary Skills system in AD&D is exceptionally freeform and left to the DM to determine how and when such skills come into play. 

Alternately, the nonweapon proficiencies rules introduced in Oriental Adventures, Wilderness Survival Guide and Dungeoneer's Survival Guide can easily be adapted, by re-skinning existing options: "ride" can become "pilot" or "drive." Repair or craft-based nonweapon proficiencies can be applied to mechanical, elecrical or other technological enginnering.

Personally, I favor the earlier system because I prefer a more freeform style of play, though adopting the attribute check method of task resolution from later AD&D books is an attractive all-purpose approach to determining what can be done and when. 

In the end, the goal is to simply have your players decide which character does what, aside from their character class. It requires no new rules systems; just a base description. Given the technological approach to magic, this actually can make wizards and illusionists outstanding engineering characters who apply their "techno-wizardry" to keeping the ship running and bypassing security systems (Knock, for example, is the perfect way to represent hacking a security door). 


What about equipment? Once again, everything you need is already there in your base weapons lists. Just re-skin light, medium and heavy crossbows as energy pistols, carbines and rifles. Alternately stats for firearms and technological armor can be found in the DMG, pages 112-113, and these can be simply dropped in and altered to be energy weapons, if you so choose. Simply apply the classic weapon proficiencies to the re-skinned varieties (any class with access to a pistol crossbow would have access to an energy pistol, for example). 

Wizards with their very limited equipment lists could pose an issue, here; it's recommended that darts be re-skinned as a lesser energy weapon, a palm pistol, taser weapon or the like. Alternately, wizards could have access to proficiency with an energy weapon based on magic missile, though it merely does 1d4 damage and requires a ranged attack roll to strike.

Starships and Space Combat

When it comes to starship combat, the "Waterborne Adventures" rules on pages 53 to 55 can be adapted on the fly for use in outerspace, by adapting the stats for naval vessels to various classes of ships, from small shuttles (rowboats) to capital ships (warships). Speeds can be dealt with simply by changing the units: the DMG lists speeds of various ship sizes in mph--change the units to light years, parsecs, warp factors, light speed multipliers, or whatever other unit you prefer in your game, and go. 

For starfighters, apply the "Adventures in the Air" rules, adapting the various statistics therein for flying creatures to your starships. You can even maintain designations by creating classes of starships (The Efreeti Class fighter, the Dragon bomber, etc.). Alternately, take the smaller ship values (rowboart, small or large barge, galley) and assign maneuverability ratings (A, B, C, D, E).

For weaponry, again, use spell effects (or monster attack types if using flying monsters to model starfighters). Fighters could use cannons based off of magic missile, able to fire once per round. You might determine that the effect is equivalent to 3rd level, granting two bolts per use. You could grant larger ships particle beam weapons based on lightning bolt, or torpedoes based on fireball or ball lightning. 

It's suggested, however, that you require an attack roll for using such armaments in ship-to-ship combat, rather than having them strike automatically. Simply treat them as a standard ranged attack roll, using the hit dice of the vehicle as the reference on the Monster combat table, and adding the Ranged Attack modifier for the pilot's Dexterity. 


Ground-Based Vehicle Combat

Again, the rules for aerial combat can be used to mimic ground-based combat simply by removing the 3-dimensional aspect (ground based vehicles move only in 2 dimensions: forward/backward/right/left), applying a speed value and hull rating to the vehicle, and getting with it. No new complex rules systems are required. AD&D has always handled chases with hand-waving and abstraction anyway; vehicle battles should be no different. 


Psionics tend to be part and parcel of science fiction gaming, and the rules in the AD&D PHB and DMG suffice just fine as written to adopt them into your game. They have a reputation for being arcane and difficult to grasp, but if one takes the time to carefully read both the PHB (pp 110-117) and DMG (pp. 76-79) sections, the rules aren't all that difficult to parse. A quick preview of OD&D Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry can also add a degree of understanding as to the intent behind the psionics rules, and a simple approach to implementing them. 


Another big hurdle is economics. AD&D games tend to be about killing things and taking their stuff. A science fiction game should be less focused on economics, but if one feels they need the monetary system from AD&D, it can be as simple as changing the gold standard to "galactic credits" or whatever other monetary standard you adopt--again, it's a simple re-skin.


The above guidelines touch on the major re-skins needed to use AD&D first edition as it sits to run a classic science fiction games. Certainly it's not an exhaustive list of SF AD&D, but it shows that there are no new systems required and no major changes to existing character classes or systems. All that is required is re-imagining, or re-skinning the way things look in game. Certainly it requires buy-in and imagination from DM and players alike, and the DM must be willing to make decisions on the fly and adjustments and prep-work as needed, but isn't that the heart of any role playing game? 

Certainly it requires divorcing ourselves from some core assumptions we've all come to live with, and embracing a more open, less simulationist approach to gaming. Still, most rules in classic RPGs are highly abstracted to begin with, so it theoretically should be a small stretch to take that leap of faith. 

I've chosen Sci-Fi here because it requires the most broad approach. Doing a modern urban fantasy game with AD&D is as simple as changing the era in which it's set, for example, and dropping in firearms and modern tech like cell phones, which don't require game mechancis at all. The monetary system can be altered by simply using dollars, Euros or whatever currency you like and applying modern prices (which most of us already know off the top of our heads). Starting funds can be as listed, simply converted to your existing currency. If you want to give more, multiply existing starting funds by 5 or 10. 

Have you tried this sort of approach to genre-gaming? How did it go for you? Let's hear about it in the comments below!


  1. Dammit, Jason, now I wanna do this, but I've already got some games in the offing. In need more days in my weekend! What kinda magic technology can help me get THAT?

    1. Time Stop. 9th level magic user spell. Upon casting this spell, the magic user causes the flow of time to stop int he AoE and outside this area the sphere seems to shimmer for an instant. For the duration, the magic user can move and act freely within the area where time is stopped but other creatures there are frozen in their actions, literally between ticks of the time clock, and duration is subective to the caster. Sadly you can't cast it on other people, only yourself.

  2. TSR did do more traditional SF for AD&D 2E, it was Buck Rogers XXVC.

    1. That's a good call. I'd forgotten Buck Rogers. Though again, it changes things by having different character classes, a different skills system, and a very specific embedded setting. It's far from a basic re-skin of AD&D.

  3. I don't know. I want to have classes that are tuned to the Sci-Fi assumptions. It's not difficult to do, either, since it would be easy enough to adapt, say, the classes in White Star, the WotC Star Wars, the second edition of Starships & Spacemen, or whatever other D&D-like SF game to the purpose. I'd pick White Star, actually. Making them AD&D classes is probably the easiest thing since writing an adventure. Then there's a Psionicist class for 1E in Dragon magazine, along with some clarifications for the psionics rules. If you still need to have Vancian spells (I don't), just use the set in White Star. That would give the following classes, not counting the Vancian spell users and race-as-class options: Aristocrat, Bounty Hunter, Deep Space Explorer, Mercenary, Pilot, and Two-Fisted Technician, just from the original book and the Companion. Six options plus the Psionicist seems like plenty to start with, anyway.

    1. And that's all well and good, but clearly not what the blog is talking about. Hell, I even ACKNOWLEDGE in there that it's often a good idea to have specific classes and systems in place. It's just not absolutely necessary to run a good sci-fi game.

      Also, there's a much bigger issue with adapting d20 classes to classic AD&D than I think you realize. Their abilities don't translate precisely, the experience progression assumptions are ENTIRELY different, they're reliant upon skills systems, feats and talents systems that aren't present in AD& goes on and on.

    2. ...huh.

      So...if you're calling a spell and it has material components, you're hauling out chips and fuses and batteries and such. If it has somatic components, well, you're performing careful, exacting operations on the thing you're 'enchanting'.

      Verbal components? Obviously, you're mumbling to yourself about how to do the thing. Or, more likely, swearing at it.

    3. Hahaha great interpretation. I hadn't gone that far in thinking about re-skinning. Largely because I'm bad about forcing my players to track spell components anyway. You could also skin verbal components as the sound the gadget makes when it goes off.

    4. Jason Vey: I've never really had any problems making 1E classes in general, and converting 2E is almost second nature for me now. I do agree that 3.X classes are more difficult, but I think that it's probably not impossible. White Star, on the other hand, is nearly like converting a B/X or BECMI class.

      Doc Rotwang: You know, that's a fair interpretation.

    5. Oh, no doubt 2e converts easily ot 1e. But 3.x and beyond? While not impossible, it's certainly not a simple prospect by any stretch. Like I said, the XP progressions would need to be completely reverse engineered, class abilities rolled back to function in a 1e style, you'd have to remove feats and skills from the picture, and then fill the gaps they'd leave upon which the class relies. I've done it. I've done it for some of the classes in AA, which have drawn from 3.x options. It's not impossible, but it does require work. And again, that's fine. If you feel you need new classes, new rules systems and the like for your sci fi game, do you. By all means. That's not remotely what this blog is saying.

  4. I love it! I mostly re-skin instead of hack things now when I want to do something different - my system of choice is OD&D, not AD&D, but otherwise I think our methods are essentially the same. Yet I didn't think of the obvious before regarding equipment - I was trying to find a good list of gear for a Warring States game, but I can just use the regular equipment list, with spears being called yari, swords being wakizashi, two-handed swords are katana and no-dachi, etc.

    1. I'd be more inclined to call a short sword a wakizashi, a long sword a katana, and a 2-handed sword a no-dachi, but yeah, that's the basics of it.


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