One of the niftier roleplaying games to come out in recent years was Numenera, which got a lot of mileage out of Clarke’s Third Law – “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (editor’s note – what does it say when you think of an RPG published in 2013 as “recent?”) In Numenera, this phrase spoke to hypertech remnants of past civilizations – effectively magic to the lower-tech current residents of the world. Dark Matter takes the converse approach – “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology” – to push 5E out into space.
Dark Matter is an ~300-page hardcover from Mage Hand Press that invites the reader to dive into science fiction with “the world’s greatest roleplaying game” (a.k.a. Dungeons & Dragons 5E). For the sake of clarity, let’s note up front that this Dark Matter is unrelated to either the Dark*Matter campaign setting for the Alternity RPG or the Dark Matter television series/comic. The basic idea behind Dark Matter is to take the existing 5E rules framework and use that to play in a science fantasy setting without modifying that framework or unnecessarily bolting a lot of extra rules baggage on top of it. The core idea being that if you can mass produce certain magical items – to let you shoot energy blasts or fly or teleport – then you can create a magical economy where magic powers science fiction staples like blasters and jet packs and warp gates, while still having wizards and clerics and the like running around.
A big thing about Dark Matter is that the basic rules don’t change at all. You could take a character from your existing D&D campaign and have them whisked off-planet into a Dark Matter campaign and you wouldn’t have to change a thing. Everything in your D&D books is playable here. If you want to make a new character specifically for a Dark Matter campaign, all you need to adjust is add a skill or three to your class skills list (data, piloting, technology), add some weapon proficiencies (blasters and some more specialized things), and check your updated starting gear options. You can add more – there are new character options, of course – but everything that you already have just works. And while the existing rules don’t change, you almost certainly do have to learn something new, because few science fantasy campaigns won’t involve flying around on a starship.
So, what’s your breakdown in that 300 pages? It’s about 50 pages of setting information, ~70 of new character options, ~30 of new equipment, ~45 on starships, ~60 of monsters, and ~20 of spells, with some appendices filling out the rest.
This is a campaign setting, so I feel like I should say something about the setting first, but there are ways in which the setting here isn’t terribly important – you can use the rules in Dark Matter to do your own science fantasy galaxy anyway. I think that Dark Matter is as much, if not more, about enabling you to play your sort of science fantasy game, rather than pushing this particular setting. The philosophy of Dark Matter leans very much towards anything goes. You can find pretty much any science fiction trope in here – laser swords, jokes about red shirts, hard light constructs, heading into the black to explore the ‘verse, etc. And Dark Matter presumes that the galaxy is full of pretty much everything and every kind of planet. Want to pretend this is TOS and visit a bunch of one-note theme-of-the-week planets? You can do that. Want to take characters from detailed existing worlds (official D&D worlds, third party worlds, your own stuff) and have them awkwardly get to know each other as they learn what space travel is all about? You can do that. And you can also just create folks that are fully at home in the Dark Matter setting.
Beyond the ‘everything goes’ ethos, the Dark Matter setting does have its own elements … although even those lean towards pulling from existing material. The Void through which space travel occurs is reminiscent of the Warp from Warhammer 40K (the mutations that can be caused by exposure to raw Void are even called warping). There are the aliens who built the Egyptian pyramids. There are the grey men who engaged in all that kidnapping back in the day (although they are really amorphous in shape, and just take on a shape that vaguely resembles the species they’re interacting with). Dark matter engines are powered by void crystals that sounds an awful lot like dilithium. There’s a species that’s an awful lot like tyrranids (or the Brood). That sort of thing. Other elements include a single monotheistic religion that posits a First God who resides in the Sepulcher Star; jumpgates carved from ancient skeletons known as the Maws; hallucinogenic insects one can eat to better pilot through the void. (Or maybe those are also references, but I just didn’t ‘get it.’). There are several organizations detailed, including Drog, Dusset & Durgen Acquisitions & Trade (DD&D), who hire out adventurers to go explore ancient death traps and plunder their treasures. There are also mercenary or ‘good guy’ organizations for whom player characters might work.
Dark Matter offers a few entirely new character creation options, as well as a variety of new options within existing material. This starts with seven new playable species:
- Amoeboid – These amorphous beings are the ones who appeared on Earth as ‘little grey men,’ but their natural form is a vaguely humanoid jelly creature. They have boosted intellect and abilities that let them mold their shape, such as squeezing through very small gaps. Especially early on, players will be excited about their ability to (as a reaction) reform themselves when subject to non-magical attacks, possibly adding a lot of survivability. Within the Dark Matter setting they are tied to the Maw gates.
- Avia-Ra – The species with probably the most setting tie-in, the avia-ra, are involved in both the sun-god and the Egyptian elements mentioned above. Mechanically, these bird-headed (but non-flying) folks have darkvision, the ability to class bless and sacred flame, skill with religion – all thematically tied in to that sun worship.
- Nautilid – Aquatic creatures who are stuck in specially designed suits, the nautilids get almost all of their important traits from the suit – enhanced armor class, fire resistance, and a universal translator.
- Orc – Exactly what you’d think, but also mechanically proficient.
- Skathari – Thematically these insectoids are technophobes – just not interested in technology, even once their species was introduced to it. Mechanically they have a lot going on, with enhanced strength, defenses against extreme environments, gliding wings, and a climb speed.
- Vect – Because warforged are not available through the SRD. Unsurprisingly, most of the Vect’s mechanics relate to their construct nature. They can reconfigure their ability score increase, have thermalsight, get to ignore biological needs (food, drink, sleep, breathing), and have some interaction with grafts, a type of gear introduced in this book.
- Wrothian – What you get when a Tyrranid goes rogue. Severed from their controlling psychic network, wrothians have no place in their society of origin an precious little in the galaxy at large (who are used to thinking of wrothians as monsters out to wipe out entire planets). Wrothians have darkvision, short-range telepathy, and natural physical and mental attacks.
In addition to the new species, there are several new elven subraces, plus new gnome and halfling subraces (star gnomes and star halflings, respectively).
On the character class front there is only one entry, but it’s a doozy. The gadgeteer is, as one might expect, based around tech. But it’s kind of based on all sorts of possible things relating to tech. They gain gadgets as they level up, given them an increasing number of options (there are almost 40 to choose from, so it’s like having your own spell list). They have an AI companion. They might have a sophisticated exo-suit. Or a construct piloted by their AI. Or a shapeshifting device that can become several different things. They might fly drones around. They might integrate their AI into their body. They might become a ‘hardlight architect’ (get a Green Lantern ring). They might graft tech onto their bodies. They might play around with nanomachines. Indeed, they’re definitely doing more than one f those things. You’re basically choosing two different subclasses plus the gadget options, and those subclasses tend to pack in a bunch of abilities as you level up. It’s a lot. And it feels out of place as a D&D character class – D&D classes just aren’t this complex (it would feel right at home in Pathfinder). Whether that’s good or bad, I think, depends on whether you’re looking for a step up from normal D&D complexity. If you’re looking for that, it’ll be great (and it might be likely that you’re looking for that, since this is a third-party product that I presume won’t get the sort of vast distribution that a Wizards of the Coast-produced book would). If you’re looking for a ‘normal’ D&D level of character class complexity, the gadgeteer is going to give you a headache.
Existing character classes get new options as well. There are five new fighting styles (akimbo, crippling, duelist, shotgunner, titan fighting), and at least one new subclass for every single SRD class – nineteen of them (there are also new subclasses for eight base classes previously released by Mage Hand Press; I’m not going to touch on them here, but you can find those bases classes for free on the MHP website). Barbarians can armor up with the Path of the Dreadnaught – or punish those naughty machines with the Path of the Wrecker. Bards can call on the stars with the College of the Spheres. Clerics might devote themselves to the Sun Above, or explore the mysteries of the Void. Druids can wildshape into machines, or channel 2001: A Space Odyssey and see if there’s a monolith handy to help them evolve. Fighters can Space Marines. Rangers can be Recon Scouts or Deadeye Snipers. Rogues can explore another euphemism and be Infiltrators. Or be Jumpers and use specialized portal devices (in other words, “a bitter, unlikeable loner whose passing shall not be mourned.”) Sorcerers can find new power sources in radiation or nanites. Warlocks can go bright with the Star or dark with the Singularity. And wizards can focus on constructs.
But wait, there’s more! About twenty general feats, another twenty-five that are species-gated, and a half dozen new backgrounds. There are another 10 ‘faction’ feats that incentivize being tied in to the world. In some campaigns it would be appropriate to let players get these for ‘free’ if they actually become members of the organizations in question, although this probably works best if you’re managing to hold together a campaign where each of the characters is a member of a different organization (or else everyone has the same feat, which might be slightly boring).
Gear and Magic Items
High-tech gear Mass-produced magic items are always an important part of any sort of science fiction, and Dark Matter has a pile of it. Not a blaster to be found in the PHB, so a lot of low hanging fruit, but still there are over 30 new weapons, from phasers to swarm pistols to plasma launchers to laser claws to laser swords to wrenchinators. Then there are some usual sci-fi suspects – data pads, comms, grenades, space suits, and the like. There are a couple of pages of construct grafts, which take up ‘slots’ in much the same way that magic items did in earlier editions of D&D (one head graft, one arm graft, that sort of thing).
One thing in the gear that’s worth paying attention to is the starting weapons. The weapons in a class’s starting gear can be replaced with higher-tech versions. So if a class gives the option to take a simple melee weapon of any sort, you can pick a simple melee weapon of your choice (an antimatter dagger, laser claws, that sort of thing). But the value – and power – of the blasters far exceeds that of the various bows. A character starting with a longbow (1d8) is fine … but now a character can start with a concussion rifle that does 2d8 (that normally sells for 800gp)? Only the weakest simple blasters do damage on par with a traditional ranged weapon. It seems like a problem. Dark Matter makes a point of not introducing new armor for game balance reasons (there are basically new names for existing armor). I’m not sure why there wasn’t something similar done for the blasters.
Now that’s the mass-produced stuff. It’s all magical, but it’s commonplace (yes, this means that all of your “tech” shuts down in an anti-magic field, unless it’s from those exotic gnomish engineers who make non-magical tech). But then there are more traditional sorts of magic items (even artifacts) – they’re still magical tech, but (from a mechanical perspective) they aren’t this mass-produced stuff. Advanced computers, mega-bombs, BFGs, communications gear that uses the ethereal plane, a death ray, energy shields, gravity nullifiers, jetpacks, nanite devices, titanic exo-skeletons and the like.
The biggest mechanical addition by in Dark Matter is starship rules. They’ve often been a sticking point in RPG design, because there can’t just be one pilot character flying the ship while the other players twiddle their thumbs – you have to make sure everyone has something to do. There’s also a tension between “realism” (starships are typically not portrayed as moving or fighting in the same way as individual organisms) and wanting to avoid massive slowdowns in play by introducing complicated rules that significantly differ from the game’s standard combat mechanics.
Dark Matter goes heavily on the ‘keep it simple’ side of things. Ships mostly move and act like a person walking on a map, except that facing matters and they have shields. A ship has a ‘cone of movement’ in front of it. A more maneuverable ship has a wide one (up to 180 degrees), while a less maneuverable ship has a narrow one (as little as 45 degrees. When the ship moves, it has to stay in that ‘cone’ and once it’s done it can change facing by up to its maneuverability score (because the maneuverability scores go down to 45 degrees, the ship facing can therefore be any of the 8 orthogonal or diagonal directions). Some of the weapons have a certain facing (e.g., can only fire from the starboard side of the ship). And most ships have shield generators, which give the ship ‘shield points,’ which are like hit points except that facing matters (the shields only cover part of the ship, not the whole thing). And the shield points partially regenerate every turn.
Beyond that, it’s making sure everyone has something to do. To that end, there are five roles available – captain, pilot, engineer, gunner, and (if the ship can launch a snub fighter) dogfighter. There has to be a pilot, and there can be multiple gunners (or dogfighters). Captains can initiate boarding actions, help mitigate damage, use the sensors, or give a bonus attack or movement to one of the other characters. Pilots can, of course, move in a variety of ways. Gunners shoot the guns. Engineers can shift power to or from weapons and shields, or repair damage. Arcane casters aren’t out in the cold here, as they are needed to power the ship’s jump engines and there are ways built in to the system for casters to use ‘mega’ spells through onboard weaponry to wreak starship-scale havoc. There are also ‘role’ feats back in the character options. I would probably go with the suggestion to let each character take one of these for free to give them a niche in starship combat.
With the rules fairly straightforward, most of the ships section is taken up with sample ships. Players can also build their own, choosing from a variety of weapons and engines, and adding systems like the aforementioned arcane cannon, communications, shuttles, shields, a sickbay, transporters, tractor beams, and the like. All of the rules are pretty straightforward. Typically a group of player characters will start a Dark Matter campaign with a small starship of their own, and ships can be further customized later.
“Monsters” introduced in Dark Matter run the gamut from zero CR recon drones to eternal dragons who are CR 21 when judged on the starship scale (which is about an order of magnitude more powerful than the normal scale). The heavy majority of these are from CR 0-8, which is good because there are a lot more low- to mid-level D&D games than there are high-level games. Monsters on offer cover your sci-fi trope needs, including androids and AI, body snatchers, space zombies, mechademons, nanite swarms, software bugs, chestbursters, non-PC wrothians, and (just in case the PC’s get too chesty) a few planet-size threats. There’s also the boring-sounding ‘alien beast,’ which provides help in generating an endless array of Avatar-esque creature combinations (crocadogs, arachno-horses, that sort of thing).
Because science fiction has a lot more ‘people’ than monsters as antagonists (or helpers), there’s also a selection of NPCs. The selection of spells fills out some necessary elements – mega spells for ship-scale combat, hardlight spells for the Green Lantern fans, and spells that interact with technology. Of the remainder, one of my personal favorites was finger guns, which does indeed let you shoot blaster bolts out of your forefinger when you make your hand in the shape of a gun. Aside from being clever, it’s a cantrip that does 1d8 damage (more eventually), which is very functional.
Dark Matter does an excellent job at what it set out to do – provide a framework to enable freeform science fantasy play using the minimal additions to the 5E rules as necessary to get that done. If you’re looking to put some science fiction in your dungeon crawl, without having to learn an entirely new rule set, Dark Matter is well worth checking out.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy. Strange Assembly may earn commissions from affiliate links in this article.
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