With so many awesome RPGs on the market these days, the options can get overwhelming. As a dyed-in-the-wool Dungeons & Dragons fan i’m always and forever going to gravitate towards the world’s greatest roleplaying game, currently in it’s fifth edition. Each edition is better than the one that came before. (For those keeping score that means fourth edition, too – it’s a great system!)
Not withstanding a Tales from the Loop Mystery i want to tell, and an upcoming Star Trek Adventures game with some friends from Nerdarchy, i’ve got a lot of D&D on my plate. Tomb of Annihilation has arrived and beckons my group to the jungles of Chult, my tag-in DM’s game gives me a chance to play one of my favorite characters of all time, and another player is cooking up a monster hunters campaign for us, too.
On top of all that, our long-running primary campaign borrows heavily from second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Spelljammer lore.
Running the campaign brings me immeasurable joy, both in the fact it’s still going on – defying the threat of campaign fizzle – and evolving into a vibrant setting now supporting an offshoot party of adventures!
The secondary party takes a step away from traditional fantasy elements and magic-accounts-for-everything nature of Spelljammer to take advantage of two very wonderful 5E-powered RPG systems.
One of them – Esper Genesis by writer, game designer and world creator Rich Lescouflair – came to my attention via Twitter. Although i am embarrassed to say Esper Genesis slipped past my radar, my immediate response to his tweet was of course yes, yes i DO need some [more] sci-fi in my D&D 5E!
— Doug Vehovec (@longshotist) August 5, 2017
i clicked the link, read one and a half sentences and i was sold. Mass Effect and Phantasy Star – cited as inspiration for Esper Genesis along with several other beloved franchises – both hold special places in my heart. Incorporating themes, elements and styles of those amazing worlds into a D&D game is a no-brainer for me, without hesitation.
Holey moley, Esper Genesis is awesome!
After downloading the basic rules – available free from the Esper Genesis website! – my imagination took off at FTL speed with the notion of adding this amazing content to my home campaign. At the same time i knew i had to talk to the man behind this terrific material.
Rich was super cool about making time to speak with me about Esper Genesis, his work as part of the inaugural Guild Adept program through the Dungeon Master’s Guild and simply to share a wonderful conversation about our mutual deep appreciation for roleplaying games.
Through his own company Castle Skydawn, Rich has created content for the Dungeon Master’s Guild like The Sundered Realms, a campaign expansion for Forgotten Realms and adventures set there like The Iron Bastion. He’s also created maps and other resources for D&D players. You can find Rich’s content on the Dungeon Master’s Guild here.
Because of Rich’s dedicated and expert content creation for D&D, he was invited to become part of the first group of Guild Adepts at the DM’s Guild, putting a spotlight on a handful of creators. Through the program, talented designers work together collaboratively to create new content for the D&D community based on the current storylines. For this first cohort, the content focuses on Tomb of Annihilation.
“I’m beyond humbled to be selected for this sort of thing. I’m working with an amazing group of people. They’re all awesome, they all love what they do and they all put out amazing stuff… It’s really a privilege and a lot of fun… A lot of the best stuff comes about when you work with somebody else.” – Rich Lescouflair
Besides Rich, this first group of Guild Adepts consists of Lysa Chen, Will Doyle, Claire Hoffman, James Introcaso, Shawn Merwin, Cindy Moore, Satine Phoenix, Ruty Rutenberg and Monica Valentinelli.
i had an opportunity to play through one of Rich’s contributions through the Guild Adept program, the Adventurers League quest City on the Edge. Designed as an introduction to Chult, the setting for Tomb of Annihilation, this adventure is actually five separate quests. Each one focuses on a different faction and together allow players to create a comprehensive, personal story while exploring the rich setting. Characters will become immersed, developing personal stakes and connections to the larger Tomb of Annihilation campaign.
Focusing on setting facilitates story-centric frameworks permeating all of Rich’s RPG content, a philosophy clearly evident in Esper Genesis, the heroic sci-fi roleplaying game system he wrote and designed powered by the fifth edition D&D engine.
“The setting is extremely important. Getting engrossed in what’s happening is extremely important. Not so much that the Game Master has to have a specific story to tell. But at least in the vein of something happening where the players feel like they’re involved in something important, in something grand. Something that’s beyond them but that they can get into and change. Something that’s theirs.” – Rich Lescouflair
Inspired by his favorite films, television shows, anime and video games, Rich set to work crafting his own vision of a science fiction setting. In the Esper Genesis universe, unique species, factions, organizations and civilizations form a backdrop of galactic conflict. Advanced technology in the form of weapons, tools, robots, spaceships and more collide with mysterious remnants of forgotten ages.
The player characters take on the role of Espers, beings with connections to ancient artifacts called Crucibles where the crucial substance Sorium is harvested, powering the galaxy’s technology. Characters are those who have undergone Esper Genesis, developing abilities through their connection to cosmic energy.
One of the challenges Rich described lies in the genre of the science fiction setting itself. In a traditional fantasy milieu there’s a certain level of accepted concepts, but for sci-fi he didn’t want to rely on existing tropes too much, or adapt elements wholecloth so players would recognize the inspirational source.
Instead, he looked to his favorite sci-fi settings as a whole and distilled what he liked about them to use as components for creating his own universe. And it works beautifully.
“Even then, I wanted to keep it a 5E game. It [Esper Genesis] is a fifth edition game. Because with 5E you can run pretty much anything.” – Rich Lescouflair
Because of the simple and elegant design philosophy driving 5E, infusing Esper Genesis with Rich’s vivid ideas results in a fantastic experience for gamers. Along the way, he notes how friendly, helpful and excited other designers and gamers in the tabletop roleplaying game community were while he crafted and refined Esper Genesis.
Teaming up with industry pros Brian Dalrymple and Eric Weiner, they formed Alligator Alley Entertainment to produce the game, announcing plans for the product at Gen Con 2016. The Esper Genesis Kickstarter launched in March 2017. Reaching their goal in one week, the campaign continued to unlock several stretch goals. Preorders for the Core Rulebook and other initial launch content is open through the Esper Genesis website with a planned December 2017 release. If you’re reading this later, i’m sure information on where to get a copy will be available there as well.
“It’s going to be a three book set that we’re releasing. We’re going to have the Core Manual, which will have all the races, classes, and how to play. There’s the Threat Database, and what we call the Master Technician’s Guide, which is going to have things like alternate genres, spaceship building, more complex rules for ground and spaceship combat, and gear enhancements.” – Rich Lescouflair
With more races and classes plus enhancements on what’s included in the free basic rules, the Core Manual promises to be jam-packed with incredible stuff. Personally, i’m most interested in the Melder class, a primary spellcaster analog using a version of the spell point system in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to fuel their powers of matter and energy manipulation. The basic rules are limited to Tiers 1 and 2 only, capping at 10th level, so i can’t wait to see what high-level Melders and Engineers can do, not to mention whatever other classes await discovery!
But what really sets a galactic science fiction game vastly apart from traditional fantasy D&D are spaceships and other vehicles. In this department, Esper Genesis succeeds admirably. One of the best things about D&D 5E are the simple to grasp rules and mechanics, and Rich expertly applies that philosophy to vehicle control, movement and combat.
i am particularly impressed by how understandable the mechanics are, since this is an area my group has faced challenges implementing in our Spelljammer 5E campaign. The official product release will expand the basic rules with more complex maneuvers and guidelines, but i’m sure they’ll follow the same easy to understand principles.
“I tried to keep it as close to and familiar as ground combat as possible. Even though it’s three-dimensional, and ship combat is fast paced and has different rules, you read the language and think ‘okay, I know what this is.'” – Rich Lescouflair
Designing the ship combat rules turned out to be much easier than Rich anticipated, something he was happily surprised to discover. In fact, he says adapting ground combat proved more challenging. With a cardinal rule of keeping 5E recognizable within his new rules, it was tricky to scale combat to account for things like the prevalence of ranged weapons like energy pistols and drones, whereas much of D&D combat is more in-your-face and up close.
But it isn’t the rules making Esper Genesis a successful project (even though the ruleset is terrific). The setting – and the potential stories waiting to be told by players and GMs – remained the driving force guiding development from start to finish. Rich’s attention to creating dynamic backdrops illustrates his voice as a designer. Whether you run your Esper Genesis game set in the presented universe or not, the resources are there to tell your own stories and experience fantastic science fiction adventures within a system that makes sense.
“The proudest I was coming out of the project was how fast everything came together. We started putting this stuff together and everything started falling into place. I’ve got to give credit to Cam Banks. He said ‘take your setting and just work off of that.’ And talking to someone else who said ‘take the setting and dial it up to 11.’ I put everything together – the races, the classes – and then all of the rules started melding into it.” – Rich Lescouflair
As if the Esper Genesis system wasn’t enough on its own, there’s an organized play program, too! The Crucible Corps will run adventures and events at conventions. Players will not only have opportunities to experience the Esper Genesis universe, but also help shape the past and future of the setting. The first Crucible Corps adventure, The Matokari Engine, ran at Origins Game Fair 2017.
“I wanted it so that players who participate in the organized play and the major events actually change the galaxy. We have a brand new galaxy and it’s no-holds-barred – anything goes. When we did the Matokari Engine, the players that participated – the decisions that they made during that adventure – established the factions that we’re going to be using for organized play.” – Rich Lescouflair
Continuing with the program allows players in Crucible Corps events to have an impact on the direction of the Esper Genesis setting. The outcomes of these events will be included in future products and adventures. The next Crucible Corp event as of this writing will take place at Gamehole Con in Wisconsin in November 2017. You can find the event listing here, for anyone attending the convention. Future events should be announced on the Esper Genesis website.
Keep up with what Rich is doing on Twitter and visit the Esper Genesis website to check out the free basic rules and preorder the Core Manual, Threat Database and Master Technician’s Guide. If you’re not ready to start a full-blown sci-fi campaign powered by the 5E system, elements of Esper Genesis can just as easily be dropped into your D&D game to add unique flavor to a campaign. Esper Powers work just like spells and who knows, maybe those ancient ruins are the remains of a crashed starship, holding secrets of alien technology. It worked for Phantasy Star, after all! (And Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.)
Are you running any sci-fi D&D games? Let me know about it in the comments below. Maybe you’re still playing AD&D Spelljammer or adapted those second edition concepts to 5E? Have you tried Esper Genesis? Or maybe came up with your own sci-fi ideas for D&D? Let’s hear ’em!