A Tale Of Three Systems

My 21st century roleplaying renaissance is almost complete.

From first deciding to relaunch myself into D&D 6 months ago, I now have two 5e campaigns well underway, and have embarked upon a dark and brooding Call Of Cthulhu mystery that will take my unwitting players several months to unravel.

So… fantasy, check. Horror, check. One genre therefore remains to complete my Holy Geek Trinity – sci-fi.

Now i’m more of a Star Wars fan than a Trekkie. More Firefly than Battlestar Galactica. More space opera than hard physics-obeying futures, in other words.

Enter therefore Starfinder, my scifi-fantasy system of choice.

Now what these three systems give me is not only a coverage of all my favourite genres (and a barely-manageable drain on my time …), but exposure to three very different rule sets and styles of play, each with their own sweet spots.

D&D 5e

At least the third version of this book I have bought

This system for me has nailed the combination of the ‘three pillars’ of combat, exploration and social interaction.

Though it obviously depends on the players and DM, each pillar is just deep enough to allow the game to feel more whole than any other I’ve played over the decades – and as such is probably the best suited to long, rich and emotionally rewarding campaign arcs.

It is, in other words, epic.

Call of Cthulhu

My favourite sanity-draining system of all time

Chaosium’s classic, on the other hand, is steadfastly built on one pillar and one pillar only: investigation.

Combat is so deadly that even fistfights can land characters in hospital, social interaction is a weapon to uncover secrets and motives, and exploration is mostly confined to the pages of dusty library books filled with forbidden lore.

But by focusing on the sanity-draining horror of secrets uncovered, CoC excels at creating atmosphere like no other game, where scribbled notes are more valuable than +3 longswords and an investigator’s ability to use a library is prized higher than their combination of skills, feats and abilities.

Starfinder

Starfinding, across the universe

Here comes the crunch.

Starfinder, an evolution of Pathfinder (which is of course an evolution of D&D 3.5), has more tactical rules and options than you can roll a myriad of d20s at.

Whilst CoC and 5e pride themselves on being streamlined (though neither as rules-light as the likes of Fate, another system I hanker after trying), Starfinder pitches itself at players who revel in unrolling the combat mat and getting their tactical mini combat on.

And sometimes, that suits me just fine. Especially when Starfinder not only includes crunchy combat rules, but equally tooth-breaking mechanics for large-scale spacecraft battles. To me, it successfully marries the heroic sf/fantasy roleplaying with the edge-of-the-seat gameplay of the likes of Imperial Assault and X-Wing.

Indeed, when I was a nipper, I used to dream of a game that combined a variety of styles into a cohesive and exciting whole. And again though it depends on the players and GM, I think Starfinder is the closest game I’ve yet found to realising that dream.

Time will tell on this one, as I’ve not yet started the campaign, but I have high hopes.

Cover me, I’m going in

With these three systems, not only do I feel I have complete coverage of my favourite genres (even with some crossover, courtesy of the horror fantasy of Curse of Strahd), but also of playstyle. This gives me — and hopefully my players — something different to look forward to with each session: whether it’s the tactical combat of Starfinder, or the slowly-revealed unspeakable horrors of Cthulhu.

Only one small voice remains in a corner of my mind. The one that is attracted to complete narrative freedom and emergent storytelling. It is a voice that whispers Fate, Blades In The Dark and Tales From The Loop.

Currently, it is drowned out by the voice that says “you have no more available free time, you insane and crazy fool”, but — as with the best sessions of any of the games mentioned above — who knows what the future may bring…?

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