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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Stars Without Number

RPGPundit Reviews: Stars Without Number

This is a review of a print version of the RPG "Stars Without Number", by Kevin Crawford, the version by Sine Nomine Publishing. I understand that there's now more than one version of this book, and so I can't take responsibility for any changes there might be from one to the other.

To clarify, this is the one with the cover depicting a vast starfield with some kind of Nebula. The Wench said to me "The first thing to do in a review is to judge the book by its cover", and I certainly agree. This cover is evocative and beautiful, and its just the start of a truly fantastic game.

There are a few games or RPG products for review that I feel are really awful, a few that I think are alright or even clever. Then there are those rare few that the moment I see them I'm convinced I'll be running them sooner or later: Majestic Wilderlands, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Starblazer Adventures, Aces & Eights, Two-Fisted Tales, ICONS, and now certainly I will be adding Stars Without Number to the short list of high honours. They're not the only reviewed game products I end up using, but they're the ones that even from the first read I have no doubt will end up being used, because every inch of them oozes awesomeness.

SWN is technically an OSR game. Unlike most of these games, it is not a "clone", in the sense of being a recreation of an old RPG from the 70s or early 80s. Its not a direct copy of D&D, or of Gamma World, or Traveller, or anything else. Instead, its a game that certainly could have existed back in that time, possibly the game that some could say SHOULD have been the game done by TSR as the sci-fi companion to D&D. In brief, most of its rules are directly inspired by OD&D, with a strong dose of the mechanical, technological, and setting-design also coming from Traveller. And yet it doesn't feel any need to limit itself to the strict "OSR" box, its mechanics are extremely well-designed and incorporate some modern concessions, its layout is top-notch, and easy to read and learn. It is, in other words, a game that an OSR-fanatic would read and think of as a totally OSR-type game (unless he was part of the "OSR Taliban" who only accept games and game material that are actually old, or direct unfaltering clones thereof), while at the same time someone who's a totally modern gamer that has no experience with old school could read, play, and enjoy without ever suspecting the design source of the game. This is rather a brilliant accomplishment, when you think about it, because it reaches out to the mainstream without alienating the gaming subculture it came from.

The default setting of SWN is mostly implied rather than explicit, but not entirely. You are told in the setting material that the setting is a far-future reality where humanity spread out among the stars, with remarkable success, only to have the entire human civilization collapse due to a terrible disaster. The default starting point is hundreds of years after that fact, when most of the galaxy is still in a dark age but there are areas that have recovered and begun expanding again.
The PCs are assumed to be adventurers, reaching out to the stars to explore vast reaches of space going from planet to planet, searching for treasures among the ruins of ancient colonies, and discovering what has become of worlds with whom contact has been long cut off.
The game is explicitly set up for "Sandbox" play, with the author attempting to lay down guidelines for both Players and GMs about how to handle the "sandbox" style. Players are advised that in a sandbox they are the ones who need to set up goals for their characters and take the lead in terms of what they want to do in this vast emulated world, and warned that unlike other games, the setting is not one that is "scaled to their abilities", unsurmountable odds are entirely possible and players need to proceed with caution. GMs are advised not to try to direct the "plot" of the game, to provide a variety of adventure opportunities but be ready to put them aside when the players choose to do things that are not within the GM's original expectations. All basically good advice.

The mechanical core of SWN is Old-school D&D. That is to say, player characters have the standard six D&D attributes, and they have a class, of which there are only three to choose from: Expert, Psychic and Warrior (roughly equivalent to Thief/rogue, Magic-user, and Fighter). Experts get a reroll on a single check once an hour, psychics get psionic powers, and warriors get to ignore a single hit against them once per fight. Character have D&D style hit points, xp requirements for going up in level, attack bonuses, and saving throws (the saving throws being divided into "physical effect", "mental effect", "evasion", "Tech" and "luck").

One area where you get more sophistication than is typically found in Old-school D&D is with the skill choices. Players each choose, in addition to class, a background package that reflects their origins (packages include things like "astrogator's mate", "engine crew", "priest", "worker", etc), the choice of which will determine certain starting skills. Then they will additionally choose a "training package" based on class that will grant them additional skills related to the particular type of "Expert", "Psychic" or "warrior" they are. Sample Expert packages include things "bounty hunter", "pilot" or "xenoarcheologist"; sample psychic packages include things like "academy graduate", "military psychic" or "tribal shaman"; sample warrior packages include things like "assassin", "ground forces" or "Templar".

Skills function in the game in ways somewhat reminiscent of the Traveller RPG, where they are ranked between 0 and 6, each level giving the same bonus to a roll of 2d6, modified by attribute. These are applied against a difficulty number, usually 8 for moderately difficult tasks, but that can vary from 6-13. No checks are needed for very simple tasks. Checks can be modified by circumstances. If you attempt to check a skill you have no rank at all in (not even 0) you get a -1 to the roll; I personally think this maybe should be higher. Rules are provided for opposed or extended skill checks.

Psionic powers are fairly well designed. They are divided into a series of "disciplines", which each provide progressive levels of power; so a psychic who takes the Telepathy discipline must first purchase "telepathy 1" before he can purchase and use "Telepathy 2". Psychics must usually spend "psi points" to activate a psychic power, the cost of which goes up with the level of each discipline; but they can also choose to permanently reduce their psi point total in order to "master" a power, after which they can use that power without expending psi points. They can also try to use a power when they have no psi points left to them, but this involves the risk of "torching", where each use carries a serious risk of ability score damage. Psychic powers include Biopsionics, Metapsionics, Precognition, Telekinesis, Telepathy and Teleportation, each of which has 9 different "Levels", and each level acts as a completely different ability. Psychic characters all have one primary discipline, which goes up every time they go up in level, and they can also additionally raise any other discipline of their choice one rank as they go up in level. Essentially, the powers are mostly quite similar to a variety of spells from D&D without being just a copy-paste job, and the game does an excellent job of making psychic powers worthwhile without being too complicated or just thinly-veiled magic.

The Equipment section is a marvelous 25-pages in length, full of a spectacular list of low, medium and ultra-high tech weapons, armor, gadgets and vehicles; just about everything you'd ever want for running a sci-fi game. Some of these items, especially the "ancient" tech devices that are no longer within the current civilization's normal level of production are quite inspiring as adventure ideas in and of themselves. Weapons do damage to hit points, most of the time; and armour provides a (descending) Armor Class. Primitive armor has no special protection against modern or high-tech weaponry. Equipment of all kind is divided by "Tech level", which ranges from 0 to 6, where 0 is stone age, 3 is about our modern tech level, 4 is the standard post-fall level of technology, 5 was the standard before the fall, and 6 is totally out there super-high tech.
Just as exciting as the weapons and armour are the very well-thought-out lists of tools, medicine, exploration gear, personal accessories, and of course cyberware and vehicles. You also get basic values for lifestyle costs, employees and the cost of contracting various services. Starships are designed through a series of modular choices: you pick a hull, fitting and drive, choose weaponry and defense, and then add up the costs. I'm not usually the biggest fan of "starship design" rules, but these seem easy enough to follow, and at the same time varied enough in the options provided to be worth the bother. The game mechanics provide rules for starship travel, maintenance, repair, and combat, of course. I should mention that a simple and straightforward encumbrance system, based on the PC's STR stat, is provided.

Speaking of which, combat in the game is handled in a fashion again very similar to D&D, specifically the old-school variety. Combat happens in rounds, and players can move up to 20m and still act in a round (or can move another 20m if they don't do anything else). Initiative is rolled on a D8+dex mod. Attacks are done by rolling a d20, adding the PC's base attack bonus, combat skill bonus, attribute mod, AND the opponent's AC, as well as applying any other situational modifiers; a result of 20 or higher is a hit. A natural 20 is always a hit, and a natural 1 always misses.

Page 77 onward in the 200 page book is dedicated to the GM's domain. Considerably more advice is given on sandbox play, which I could have summarized for the author in "don't try to "create story", don't force the players in certain directions, don't try to be balanced, don't be scared of killing off the player characters". Of more use is the extensive guide to "creating your interstellar sector". A system is provided wherein a GM can randomly create a sector of space using a hexmap. A world creation system on-par with Traveller's is provided, where the GM can randomly generate or determine the atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population, and tech level of the world, as well as provide "tags" which are details that make the world notable for adventurers. Sample tags (of the 60 provided in the book) include such things as "altered humanity", "flying cities", "local specialty", "preceptor archive", "seagoing cities", or "xenophiles". Each tag is also described in context of what this might imply for potential friends, enemies, complications, things or places that can be found on this world.
You can also choose the local cultural flavour, the basic language (the "common tongue" of the distant future apparently being a "modified English", fairly unrealistically), government, and the spaceport.

There is also a set of mechanics for the GM to create "factions". These are defined as any kind of group that may be used as an important actor in the sector; for example planetary governments, businesses, religions, clubs, etc.
Factions are created as a kind of character of their own, with hit points (reflecting the faction's resistance to outside attack), force (their ability to inflict physical violence), cunning (their skill at espionage and manipulation), wealth (their resources), "FacCreds" (their actual wealth), and experience points, which can grow when the faction completes its current "goal", to allow them to improve ratings.
Factions can operate based on "faction turns" which take place about once a month or once after each adventure. The factions involved in the region can roll initiative, gain FacCreds based on their wealth, pick goals (among a list of things like "military conquest", "commercial expansion", "expand influence", "peaceable kingdom", "wealth of worlds"), launch attacks, change homeworlds, buy assets, expand their general influence, or other such things.
Factions can also have a "tag", describing them and giving them a particular set of special effects. Tags for factions would be things like "eugenics cult", "mercenary group", "pirates", etc.
It is suggested that a high-level (9th and up) player character should be able to create a faction of his own if he wishes to.

Factions are, to be honest, one detail of the game I feel somewhat uncertain about. I think it might be one step too far into adding mechanical complexity into something that might be best off just being roleplayed, but I'm not sure. I think it'd have to be tested in play to see how well it works as a system, and whether it would be more worthwhile than just winging it. I suspect the answer to that will be different for different GMs. Fortunately, this is an entirely modular set of rules, that is, you can remove it from the game and it has no real effect on the rest of play, if you so desire.

The GM section also provides some guidelines for giving out XP (roughly based on the value of rewards obtained by the PCs), and has a random table with 100 potential adventure seeds.

There's also a set of rules for alien creation. These include a random determination for body type (human-like, reptilian, avian, etc), alien psychology and social structure, though no rules for actually statting up aliens per se. We're provided with a few descriptions of sample aliens: the Orc-like Hochog, another race that take on indescribable shapes, and a third that are metamorphs.
Fortunately, there's also a "xenobestiary" chapter, which is of significantly more value; it provides a baseline for creating alien creatures (ranging in threat level from "nuisance vermin" to "party-butchering hell-beast"), with tables for traits and variations that modify the creature's basic qualities. There's also a monster manual of sorts in the chapter, that provides a dozen sample alien monsters, plus a set of basic NPC stats for things like a combat psychic, gang boss, common or elite guard, primitive guards, low-tech tribesmen, normal humans, pirates, rogue warlords, ultra-high tech soldiers, standard soldiers, primitive soldiers, or a standard specialist.

The last two chapters are the designer notes (where the author gives his reasoning for some of the concepts in the game), and a whole sample sector: the "hydra sector"; it has 26 worlds, and four important factions in the sector. The chapter also cleverly provides a mirror set of PC-readable notes, the sort of things that they would have as "travel information" or common knowledge.

The appendix of the book is utterly awesome, providing a set of random tables for cultures, with a list of random names and place-names as well as information on culture, clothing and cuisine for "arabic", "chinese", "english", "indian", "japanese", "nigerian", "russian", and "spanish" cultures; a set of random NPC-creation tables, tables of quick NPC statistics for each class by level, a set of random tables for Corporations, for Religions, for Heretical sects, for Political Parties, for Architecture, and for "Quick Room Dressing", as well as templates for starships.
The very back end of the book contains a photocopiable blank sector hex map, planetary directory sheet, planet record sheet, faction file, adventure file, alien record file, starship record file, a planetary hex map for drawing areas of a planet's surface, and of course a detailed character sheet.

So, on the whole, absolutely awesome. I love the sandbox style, I love the old-school feel that isn't entirely bound to old-school thinking, I love the modular options to the rules. I also love that it has just the right balance of default setting; you can certainly get enough information in the book to use the game's setting as it is, while modifying to make it your own; but the game is not so bound to the setting's assumptions that you couldn't also use the system with your own or other settings without major modification being needed. It would be feasible to use SWN for a game set in an early era of interstellar travel if you so desired, or during the glorious peak of a galactic empire, or to run a setting similar to Dune, or to Fading Suns, or any number of other things. The last time I was this excited about a sci-fi RPG it was with Starblazer Adventures, and of course SWN has a style of play that makes it very different than that game, less space-opera and more gritty, without ever slipping into the stupidity of "grimdark". I have no doubt that sometime soon, when an opening appears for me to do so, I'm going to be running this game.


(originally posted January 26, 2012, in the former blog)


  1. Give Other Dust, by the same publisher a read. I've got the same PDF of Stars Without Number you have, and I agree that starfield cover is beautiful.

    I just ordered POD copies of SWN, some of the SWN supplements, especially the cyberpunk one, Spears of Dawn and some of the other Sine Nomine books. I'm anxiously awaiting their arrival. I really like this company's products, and the fact they put all the Spears of Dawn art in the public domain as free stock.

    Sooner or later I'll have a use for the majority of the Spears images, and I've already used a couple pieces in various PDFs I've put out.

  2. I've read and recently reviewed Other Dust.

    Check out the forum that's in, because you'll find lots of my reviews there, including of Spears of the Dawn and Red Tide which are also Crawford games.