Adapting Other Genres to D&D

Dungeons and Dragons is a game of fantasy roleplaying. The core rules of D&D support games of epic heroes who slay hideous monsters in the face of overwhelming odds, and claim the loot that they guard as a reward. Some D&D adventures take place in dungeons like Princes of the Apocalypse. Some see you exploring a sandbox environment in search of hidden locations or secret artifacts while completing quests and meeting new characters and creatures, like Tomb of Annihilation or Curse of Strahd. Others still have a single overarching plot that spans a vast swathe of land, throwing you into an epic quest like in Tyranny of Dragons or Storm King’s Thunder.

D&D has lots of variation within its niche, but there are nevertheless plenty of stories that don’t work in the fantasy genre of D&D. Many settings actively adapt D&D to other genres. Curse of Strahd and the Ravenloft setting presents a world of Gothic Horror, and presents new items, creatures, and characters to sell the idea of being in a malevolent world. Tomb of Annihilation adds a new game mechanic—the Death Curse—to increase the game’s lethality and grittiness. The upcoming Eberron: Rising from the Last War setting book is sure to be filled with lots of new mechanics, items, creatures, and characters that alter basic expectations of D&D to suit its post-war, pulp-fiction, arcane-noir setting.

If the professionals can do it in their games, so can you. How can you adapt the post-apocalyptic genre to D&D? Or the western? Or the courtroom drama? How far can you bend D&D before it breaks—and before you would be better off just finding another game system entirely? The line is different for everyone, but here’s how you can start adapting other genres into D&D.

Adapt the Genre, Don’t Adapt D&D

The first trick is the most important one—and it’s a matter of perspective. Note that I said “adapting other genres into D&D” and not “adapting D&D into other genres.” The distinction here is important. The game mechanics of D&D suit several very specific moods, feelings, and genres, and trying to change the engine of the game too much for a homebrew campaign is a fool’s errand. Adding a new rules system on top of D&D’s existing mechanical framework is fairly easy—and stripping one rules system or a handful of mechanical bits (like certain races or classes) is easy enough, too. But once you start changing dice systems, or integral mechanics like hit points or spell slots to suit the genre of story you want to tell, you’re far better off playing a different roleplaying game. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of roleplaying games out there—don’t torture yourself trying to fit a square peg into a D&D-shaped hole.

Adapting a genre into D&D, however, is less involved. It requires a lighter touch. Instead of bending D&D’s tropes to fit the genre, you bend the genre’s tropes to fit D&D. In Eberron, for example, the hardboiled detectives and intrepid explorers that slink through the streets of Sharn or creep through the jungles of Xen’drik don’t carry revolvers—they carry wands of magic missiles. You get to keep the genre tropes of the Sam Spade-style private eye, the Indiana Jones-like archaeologist adventurer, and so forth, but they’ve been flavored by the trappings of D&D, and thus fit smoothly into a D&D game.

As with all the advice to follow, this rule is a far-reaching generalization. If you think that breaking this rule will help make your game, your setting, or your adventure better, then go for it! These constraints will help you get a good, basic, and fun game—but like all other rules in D&D, these rules are made to be broken.

Adapt Iconic Genres

What’s something that all the popular D&D genre adaptations have in common? Well, I’m sure you can find a lot of commonalities if you break things down to their smallest parts, but there’s one shared trait that stands out to me in particular: all of these settings use immensely popular movies or novels as touchstones. The original Eberron Campaign Setting for third edition D&D even has a list of movies that were vital to the setting’s creation, including Brotherhood of the Wolf, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a handful of others. Ravenloft wears its gothic influence on its sleeve, with Strahd standing in for Count Dracula, and other Ravenloft adventures leaning on classic Universal monster movies like Frankenstein, and Hammer horror films.

All of these cultural touchstones give these genre-focused settings an instant elevator pitch. “It’s like Lord of the Rings meets Dracula,” for Ravenloft. “It’s like Conan plus Indiana Jones plus every Humphrey Bogart movie” for Eberron. Don’t worry about feeling like you’re being unoriginal—being too original can make it hard for your players to find a foothold. If your players are able to instantly summon archetypal characters or memetic moments from your genre of choice, they can play into the strengths of your setting without floundering about in confusion. This can make your game instantly high energy and exciting from the very first session.

Some classic genres to adapt into D&D include:

  • Classical Mythology, such as the myths of Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, feudal Japan, medieval China, much of pre-Christian Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas—really, any culture that has mythology or folklore that predates the modern day! These tales are filled with heroes, monsters, and trickster spirits and gods that actively meddle in the affairs of mortals. If you’re playing with people for whom these myths are important cultural touchstones, make sure you’re not being disrespectful in your portrayals.
  • Cosmic Horror, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the broader Cthulhu Mythos. This genre has been heavily explored in RPGs—and even in D&D! Check out the Star Spawn and the Elder Evils included in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.
  • Fairy Tales, such as the works of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz series, or the lighthearted folkloric fantasy feel of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien—not to be confused with the more epic feeling of The Lord of the Rings. Using fey creatures and the Feywild and Shadowfell of D&D lore to make them actual fairy tales could be fun, but isn’t required.
  • Medieval Politics and Intrigue, such as Game of Thrones, or the actual historical War of the Roses. This genre often calls for restrictions to be placed upon magic, which is the eternal bugaboo of D&D setting adaptations. More on this later.
  • Office Comedy, like The Office or Parks and Recreation. This one might seem tremendously hard to adapt to D&D, but Acquisitions Incorporated managed to meld these two disparate genres with aplomb. 
  • Post-Apocalyptic, which is a very broad genre indeed. Some post-apocalypses are pessimistic and brutal, such as D&D’s own Dark Sun setting, while some worlds are optimistic and hopeful, like the world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The genre has been so popular in recent years that almost everyone is familiar with at least one bona fide piece of post-apocalyptic media.
  • Superhero, like the comics and films of Marvel and DC. At high levels, most D&D characters are practically superheroes already! What would superheroes look like in a medieval fantasy setting?
  • Spy Thriller, like James Bond or Mission Impossible. How does the D&D fantasy genre change if stealth and subterfuge are always the main goal, and epic battles of blade and spell are rare?
  • Westerns, such as The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, or any film that depicts the modern mythology of the American West.

There are no shortage of genres that can be adapted into D&D. What are some other genres you’ve used to inspire your D&D games?

Find Points of Commonality

Where does your favorite genre intersect with D&D? If I were to create a Western-inspired D&D setting, I would identify a few main points of overlap: rag-tag parties (such as in The Magnificent Seven), a dangerous wilderness filled with bandits and interspersed with small towns, and legends of hidden treasure (such as in Treasure of the Sierra Madre). I would start with these three points, as they’re the first things that popped into my head. There are plenty more points of intersection that will occur to me while designing the setting, but we want to get designing as quickly as possible.

Try to play fast and loose with your design, especially at first. Once you have a point of commonality between your favored genre and D&D, figure out how the two genres are different within that space. For instance, D&D’s wilderness is often filled with monsters as well as bandits. What D&D monsters have an Old West feel, and how could you modify existing D&D monsters to make them feel at home in a fantastical version of the Old West? Jot down ideas, but don’t be afraid to toss them if you think of something more interesting. Since new genre intersections and ideas will hit you during this time, try to bounce around as much as possible. Just getting a few notes on paper will help you discover the broad strokes of your genre mashup better than digging too deep into one topic.

This should feel like popcorn popping; first a few ideas pop up, then a storm of new ideas explode, then it simmers down. Once the ideas have slowed, start digging in. What excites you about these ideas? Do any of them fundamentally change the D&D experience? Do those changes require additions to the D&D rules, or subtractions? And do any of these changes cascade outwards, rippling into other points of genre-mixing? For instance, if you replace pistols and rifles are replaced with magic wands and magic staves, are there other gunpowder or combustion inventions that need reworking, like trains and railways?

Limit Restrictions

Once you start thinking about intersections between the D&D fantasy genre and your new genre of choice, I all but guarantee that you’ll notice a lot of things in D&D that don’t blend well with your new genre. D&D’s unique system of magic and the ubiquity of its magic items is almost certainly going to be a point of friction between these two genres. I highly encourage you to not restrict your players’ access to magic or its magic items to preserve a sense of grittiness or realism in your setting, or to core D&D features like its races or classes.

Restricting a single race, class, or spell is one thing, but removing huge chunks of these systems will inevitably harm your game. One vital aspect of the D&D fantasy genre is its heroic tone, and almost all of the classes, races, and spells in D&D are geared towards creating larger-than-life characters that accomplish impossible feats of strength and skill. All of D&D’s sub-systems work in tandem to create that feeling. You can tone that heroic feeling down incrementally, perhaps by making human the only playable race, limiting spellcasters to only playing wizards and druids, or by using the variant Healing rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but they only change part of the picture. Toning D&D all the way down from “heroic” to “gritty” requires so much customization on your part that you would honestly be better off playing a different game entirely.

It’s much easier to alter the tone of your game by adding genre elements to it. Eberron achieves this by adding new races, new magic items, the Dragonmark system unique to the setting, and myriad other rules additions or variants. While you should be careful of adding too much to your new D&D-ified genre, it’s often easier to get players up to speed on additive house rules than subtractive ones. It’s more fun to tell a player, “Here’s a new spell you can learn that’s unique to this world,” rather than stopping them in the midst of casting a spell that they forgot was banned, for instance. If you really want magic to be rare and mystical in your setting, or run a "low-magic" world like the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, consider making all of the magic-using NPCs a maximum of, for instance, 5th-level. In time, the player characters will become the most powerful magic-users in the world—but they'll have to do it all on their own. There are no libraries of epic magic or wise mentors to guide them in their journey; they're in uncharted territory, and must face all the unknown dangers inherent to it. This is much more interesting and fun than arbitrarily restricting your magic-using player characters' growth.

And More?

There are countless guidelines and suggestions for how to adapt your favorite genre into D&D. If you want to adapt a D&D adventure into another genre or setting, some adventures even come with guides for doing just that, such as the “Adapting to Other Worlds” appendix in Princes of the Apocalypse.

What other tips do you have for people trying to blend genres with D&D? Have you created a D&D setting with its own unique blend of genres?

James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, a member of the Guild Adepts, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and other RPG companies. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.


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