Science in D&D seems a little odd at first. We imagine playing D&D in a fantasy medieval world, but adding science into our games? We have magic so why should we add or not add science in D&D?
Adding science in D&D depends on your game. You can add science to a D&D campaign, but there are different levels of acceptance.
Yes, we can have science in our D&D games but it has to be done well and I love adding science in my D&D games! That is why we are going to go over the different levels of science and reasons behind why you should add science to your D&D game.
The different levels of science in D&D
We already have science in D&D if we just have our campaigns set in a traditional setting. There is already blacksmithing, but there are common varients.
For example, plumbing.
Does your world have plumbing? Most medieval European societies did not have plumbing. Does yours? This is a common divergence in many D&D games and just a taste of the small variants on science that each DM chooses to rule on. Beyond this, there are certain levels of science in D&D that campaigns can consider.
The levels of science in D&D:
- Basic medieval technology with some variation.
- Applying real world sciences to medieval technology.
- Combining magic with technology to produce industrial level technology.
- Creating space faring technology with magic.
These are the four levels of science in D&D, but you may be asking a question. Where is our modern technology in this list? The truth is that we do not usually apply modern technology to D&D. There are some variants, but they are less popular that all 4 of these levels.
We normally just jump from industrial or even medieval technology to space faring technology. It is rare to hold a modern setting with magic since other systems are a bit more disposed to these circumstances. For example, GURPS, Vampire the Masquerade, etc.
Why the last two levels of science work extremely well in D&D is due to our history. D&D has always had a close relation to technology in the D&D worlds. In fact, there are many older modules that explore this setting. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a great example of early D&D mixing technology and magic. In that module the players are literally exploring a space ship.
For other settings that incorporate magic and D&D we have Eberron. This setting incorporated magic and steam-powered flying ships and trains into the setting.
This may be a bit much, but let’s look at our history and figure out why these settings occured.
The history of incorporating Science!
I already mentioned that there were past modules like the Expedition to the Barrier peaks, but there was a huge trend of adding technology and magic together in the early days. This happened in a lot of different forms of media such as the Ultima or Wizardry games. You always had some science in these D&D settings because it made sense.
Well, some of these games’ plots were a little out there, but they did make some sense. Consider this question, why hasn’t your world moved past the medieval age?
Is magic making it so that technology can never happen? Do innovations never happen? Most likely the answer to both of these questions is no, so why don’t our societies move past medieval technology?
We have long histories in most of our worlds that can stretch back 1000s of years with technology mostly staying the same. Why is that the case? It has never been the case in our world and would most likely not be the case in many D&D worlds. It only makes sense that there is some scientific progress!
That is why many of the earlier adaptations of D&D and D&D, in general, used sci-fi settings in D&D. It makes sense for your world to progress and in your campaign, the players might even be the ones trying to push that progress.
Before we start talking about pushing the boundaries though, we need to consider what we already use.
What magic science every game uses
Every D&D game shows aspects of using science in D&D. The biggest example of this is magic and magic uses. Primarily wizards, but it can be any other class.
Consider what spellcasters do. They learn about magic (how the world works) and learn to apply those abilities. Some may just use it like how we today use a car. They don’t understand all of it, but they know enough to get it to work. There are others though that will push the boundries.
If you don’t believe me, think of spell creation and golems. Making golems is a science that someone had to experiment with and make. They had to figure out what components to use, how much money to spend, and how to make the golem actually work.
The same thing happens with spell creation. We have a whole article dedicated to spell creation here, but it is a scientific process. It takes time, research, and you are pushing the boundaries of what is known.
If this happens with magic, why don’t we do it with technology? The short answer is that we already have.
Metal smithing is a fairly advanced technological process. So is alchemy, making other trade goods, and so on. We even have made physical objects that interact with technology and magic. Take wands, swords, and other magic items for examples.
The point is that we use science in D&D all the time. The scientific process is already abundant in D&D, so what about using real world science in D&D?
Real world scientific application
Have you ever had a player state the exact formula for free falling and the rate of falling per second? I have, and you most likely have had players say ‘but that isn’t how it works!’
This is trying to incorporate real world sciences into D&D.
We do this all the time. We judge how much a person’s voice will carry, and you might have creative players who know too much. These are the players who will try to use real world sciences to make something happen in D&D. I have played with some smart people in the past, and it was interesting but taxing.
These creative players are a blessing and a curse. If they know more than you and propose something then you should listen and tell them if it will work or not. Listen to their reasoning and then make a call based on your world. They might try to make gunpowder or something else with real world knowledge, and that is up to you if you want to allow that into your game.
Most of the time you should since metagaming isn’t something that you can reasonably restrict as we talk about here. They may even use other forms of chemistry in your games, and this is the first level of variation. Applying real world sciences to your D&D world even if they are a little advanced for the society.
It can definitely make your game more interesting, but just make sure you have the players discuss with you what they are planning before hand. Tell them to explain if they are going to add real world science into your game in session 0 if you can so that you are not blindsided and have to go through a massive argument later.
But what if your player wants to go beyond this and make a new science appear in your world?
Players pioneering change
Your player wants to invent guns. They want to be a sharpshooter who will make the first gun in the world! This is just one example, but possible the most common example of a player wanting to pioneer change in your world.
If a player wants to add in a new technology to the world like guns there will be some serious ramifications and restrictions. These players are just discovering how to make gunpowder or whatever else useful. That means that the new invention is going to be impressively terrible.
The first time that we invented guns they were little more than a joke. It took quite a long time for guns to replace the bow or the crossbow and even then they were not as accurate. It took centuries for our guns to develop rifling and actually be better than a person who is somewhat skilled with a bow. your player will suffer the same fate.
Whatever technology they are implementing should be the lowest form of it since this is new. In addition, your players will not have the object work like they might envision.
If a player wants to make an AK-47 in a D&D world, the answer should 99% of the time be an extremely hard no. We will talk about why there is a 1% chance later on in the article, but adding new science in D&D is not a glamorous task. It is a painstaking endeavor and if it is perfected or catches on it will change the world.
There is so much to discover, but let’s imagine that your player or the world has made a new discovery and progressed past the medieval age. What then?
Industrial era with magic
The next era in history right after the medieval era is the renaissance, and then the industrial revolution. In your D&D world they do not need to re-discover the past, so we generally skip the renaissance and go straight to the industrial revolution! Or at least steam punk to make interesting and cool.
There is going to be a huge difference between your D&D world and our world with each industrial era. That difference is magic.
There are two ways to view magic in your world in accordance with industrial magic:
- Science works with magic and it is awesome!
- Science does not work with magic and they are at odds.
There is technically another option where some of our real world sciences don’t apply to this world, but then you are going into explaining physics and I would not recommend this for most people. Instead, there are these two common options.
If science works well with magic your world will be changed. Advances will happen much quicker than in our world since they have the assistance of magic and how your D&D world progresses will be very different than how our real world progressed.
You might have flying trains, or at least faster trains that do not need rails, flying ships, etc. You might even make blimps not have the issue of catching fire like they do in our world with a spell and thus airplanes are never really developed.
Incorporating magic with technology changes everything and it is up to you to decide how they interact. Eberon is a great example of this setting and I would highly recommend checking it out for more ideas on this topic.
Science in D&D doesn’t always end up positively though. There is another way to view how technology and science interact.
Science and magic are mutually exclusive
I first hard of this concept when I played the game Arcanum. It is an old game, but one that had an interesting idea. The world was going through a technological revolution that was changing everything. The steam engine was invented, guns were becoming a thing, and medicine was taking off.
The game itself was fun and had issues, but the concept and the world are fascinating. What is more, despite these industrial developments being recent they also interfered with magic. If a person specialized in magic, they were unable to use most technologies. The higher your specialization, the less you could use, and the higher the technology or magic, the more you needed to be inclined to that type of skill.
This new era helped most of the poor who couldn’t use magic but it devastated magical races like elves and the magical elite. There were fights over using machinery in certain places and it was a fascinating concept.
I have seen this concept in some other places and am using it in one of my current D&D campaigns. I would highly suggest that you explore this concept if you are looking to use science in D&D. It is extremely cool and allows there to be a weight to the decision of being a magic user or not.
But what about using advanced space faring technology?
Space faring technology
If you want to do a modern setting with D&D, the obvious problem arises with the industrial era. Everything changes and the whole world trajectory is so different that we cannot accurately predict how modern D&D society would be with our modern time technology. That is why we normally do not go into modern technology interacting with D&D, and because industrial era tech is much easier to conceptualize.
Beyond that, there are some easier ways to incorporate space faring technology. It is actually easier to make space faring technology in your campaign than modern day technology for the reasons listed above, and for the fact that outsiders can introduce this technology.
This is the highest form of science in D&D that you can have. It involves science fiction and has players traverse the cosmos or at least interact with things that are capable of doing so.
We already have a few species that use technology like this in our D&D games. The Mind Flayers are a species that come from outer space and there is an interstellar civilization in D&D lore.
That is why you can go two directions with space faring technology in D&D, or combine them both.
- Science has made this technology possible.
- Magic has made this possible and is a new type of technology.
You can combine the two and make a weird hybrid of magic and science in D&D, but there are easier ways to do this.
Science making future technology possible
If you are using future technology in D&D, it is unlikely that your players will develop it. They are still in a medieval society and for you to make a timeline that explains how magic interacted with science all the way from the industrial era to a space faring era is insane. Too much would change and there is no way that science in D&D would even come close to mirroring anything that we have comprehended thus far.
Furthermore, your universe will be different than ours. There are known gods for 1 thing, and that is a huge difference. There are different planes of existence, and it would make sense that magic would alter the reality of space.
Technically our science could possibly work in those universes, but how would they work?
The easiest answer that I have found is to crash land a ship onto the D&D world and go from there. That ship is from a more advanced world like ours and does not have gods or magic as the D&D world has. It is a quick and easy way to get science in D&D to work at this level and does not involve your players having to know anything about it.
Having your players work on something that is beyond their comprehension is another task entirely, but the DMG on page 268 has some ideas on how to handle that problem and how to stat weapons that are beyond normal D&D usage.
Even if you have a world that developed in a bubble that didn’t have gods and works exactly like ours, how did that world develop without gods? How are these two completely different worlds able to exist in the same universe and how have they not come into contact with one another?
It raises a lot of questions that you will have to answer or tactfully just let slip away from the players’ minds.
There is a setting that involves magic making space travel possible.
Spelljammer is an old idea where the players can traverse space in medieval boats. How does this work? Well this is D&D so magic is the answer! I will not go into all the details, but here is spelljammer in a nutshell.
Spelljammer involves the players using a device on a ship to float through space. Space is altered by magic to have habitable spheres, a floating river in space, and a bunch of weird things that let you travel in space.
Aside from this, the entire cosmos is changed. There are not longer naked solar systems or galaxies like we know. Instead, they are all protected in a crystal sphere that the gods or other powerful wizards have created. I emphasize wizards because they need to research how to do so and cannot use divine magic. At least in most cases unless they are a god.
Part of the cosmos changing is that temperature is not cold or hot. When you leave a planet it is lukewarm and fairly nice. The air and pressure problems are also solved. There is no vacuum. You just are in a small bubble of air that surrounds you or a big object and the air goes bad after a time.
All the problems of space travel are solved with magic and a change in how the universe functions. It is an interesting setting that is only accessible through magic, but what do you do after introducing future science in D&D?
After you have introduced all this new science in D&D you might be wondering what is next? What should I have my players do after the initial discovery is over?
The beauty of incorporating science in D&D is that the discovery is never over. The players can always explore something new and go beyond what they previously thought was possible. Just like in our own world when it comes to science.
You can learn new things and have a chain reaction of discoveries. If the players learn about other races from space what does that mean? Can there be a whole campaign based on exploration?
If your players have created an industrial revolution, what if someone else comes up with a new idea? They make the concept of the train and it is militarized like a tank. You now have to deal with this new science in your game.
For games with a lower level of technology you still can constantly think of what to do next. If a cup of wine is poisoned, will it change color when it touches metal? Is the process for making weapons so much more complex and different than in our world that the players could become rich from just making a better method?
You can always go beyond the initial scope of what you had planned and having science in D&D just opens up the doors for all kinds of possibilities in your game.
Using science in D&D opens all kinds of doors and is a great inclusion into any campaign. It does not matter what level of technology you want to add into your game. Any inclusion of science can make D&D better. You just have to be able to deal with everything that comes with it.
Pioneering a new technology or making your players be in a setting where new technology is going to impact the game will make your world or even universe more interesting. You are able to deal with societal problems of changing technology and what that means.
You might even make it so that parts of technology are diametrically opposed to other aspects of life. Like making magic and technology incompatible.
Every game already uses science. We have processes for developing new spells, making golems, metallurgy and more that show our worlds use science in D&D. A better question is how does your world not advance?
Answering why you wouldn’t have scientific advancements is often more difficult than just incorporating scientific advancements that will change how your world is.
If you use scientific advancements in D&D magic will also play a roll and open the door to amazing settings like Eberon!
The benefits of using science in D&D is immense. I would highly recommend that you at least use science in the most basic levels of your game.
I hope that this has helped you enhance your campaign.
Until next time, this has been Wizo and keep rolling!