One of my earliest exposures to the blending of fantasy and sci-fi — at least in the realm of gaming — was City of the Gods, a standalone Dungeons & Dragons adventure originally published in 1987. In it, adventurers explore a bizarre and fantastical city that turns out to be a crashed spaceship filled with advanced technology, including cyborgs, robots, futuristic vehicles, and even lightsabers.
Prior to that, I’d never really thought much of the blending of swords, sorcery, and spaceships, but when I discovered City of the Gods in junior high, it instantly sparked my imagination. (Of course, City of the Gods was far from the first mix of fantasy and sci-fi elements; see also Star Wars.)
Jump ahead a few decades, and now a couple of critically acclaimed fantasy RPGs are branching out into sci-fi with their own cosmically minded updates.
Shawn Tomkin’s Ironsworn is a dark fantasy game with a definite viking/Nordic vibe in which players undertake grim, perilous quests in the foreboding Ironlands. Ironsworn can be played in a “normal” fashion, with a group of players overseen by a gamemaster. But it also allows for solo and co-op play, and makes heavy use of random encounter generators (called Oracles) to help players create rich and involved stories. (Ironsworn’s core rules and reference materials can all be downloaded for free.)
Successfully funded via Kickstarter back in May 2021 (full disclosure, I was a backer), Starforged takes Ironsworn’s basic mechanics and transposes them into a sci-fi setting influenced by the likes of Dune, The Expanse, and Firefly. Starforged is set two centuries after your people escaped a mysterious cataclysm that struck their home galaxy. Now occupying a distant and vast cluster of stars called the Forge, you’ve begun rebuilding your civilization while exploring the ruins of ancient civilizations, fighting pirates and bandits, and encountering bizarre alien creatures.
Reading through the Starforged rules preview, much of the conversion between Ironsworn and Starforged looks one-to-one. Both games use similar stats and character mechanics; both rely on similar moves and methods for determining character success and failure; both use a mechanic called “momentum” that can help guarantee success in tricky spots; and so on. But as expected, Starforged puts a sci-fi spin on things.
Perhaps the most obvious example is that you can get your very own faster-than-light spaceship. But even this adds some new wrinkles, from assessing how your vessel’s condition impacts your quests to determining how you even got it in the first place. Another example: both games allow characters to acquire assets, including NPC companions. But whereas companions in Ironsworn can be giant spiders, horses, and even wyverns, potential Starforged companions include different types of robots and exotic alien creatures.
Even just a cursory glance through the preview materials make it clear that Tomkin and his collaborators have put a ton of effort into Starforged, ensuring that it’ll create richly detailed gaming experiences. As of this writing, the core rulebook is basically finished, with a planned February 2022 release for the PDF edition. (Print editions will arrive later in the year.) Needless to say, I’m eagerly looking forward to holding a physical copy in my hands and plotting my first adventures into the Forge.
Quest: Cosmic Fantasy Edition
When it was released in 2019, TC Sottek’s Quest was roundly praised for its open and inviting approach to fantasy role-playing games. While games like Dungeons & Dragons can sometimes get overwhelming with all of the stuff that needs to be tracked and calculated (even for longtime players), Quest strips away a lot of that complexity while also introducing a bright, colorful, inviting, and even whimsical tone (as evidenced by Grim Wilkins’ fanciful artwork). But for all of that, Quest still made heavy use of fantasy tropes when it came to things like character classes.
At the beginning of 2022, however, Quest announced that Quest: Cosmic Fantasy Edition would be arriving later in the year. Given that the game’s still in development and the Kickstarter campaign’s still forthcoming, there’s a lot that remains unknown about this new edition. What has been announced so far are the new “cosmic” roles, such as the Robot (“a modular platform for weapons, artificial intelligence, and learning”), the Dreamer (“an empath who can gaze into the souls of others and manipulate mental energies”), and the Locus (“a supernatural space wizard who can tap into the fundamental forces of the universe”).
Quest: Cosmic Fantasy Edition wouldn’t be too cosmic if you didn’t have a method for exploring the cosmos, so much like Starforged, “cosmic” Quest has a new Starship Catalog (also illustrated by Grim Wilkins). Or as Sottek describes it, “Each starship will act like a character in the story with its own unique abilities, provided by the ship’s subsystems. These subsystems can be upgraded and replaced, allowing players to customize their ships like they would their own character.”
If any of this intrigues you, join Quest’s mailing list to learn when the Kickstarter campaign is launched, etc.
What I appreciate the most about games like Starforged and Quest: Cosmic Fantasy Edition is how they can fire up one’s imagination even before you play them. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding — and for tools that empower others to build and explore their own imaginary worlds.