At the end of 2009, I predicted that science fantasy would be one of the big trends of 2010 in the old school renaissance. At the time, there were several different science fantasy and science fiction projects announced that I had hoped would see release last year. As it turned out, none of those I expected to see appeared, but one that I did not expect made its debut, Kevin Crawford's Stars Without Number.
Stars Without Number (hereafter SWN) is a science fiction roleplaying game that, while broadly compatible with games like Dungeons & Dragons (SWN uses a lot of terminology and mechanics derived from D&D -- including descending armor class), is nevertheless a complete game. You don't need anything to play beyond dice, paper, pencil, and the 210-page rulebook, which is available as a free PDF from DrivethruRPG, with softcover and hardcover printed options also available (at $19.99 and $24.99, respectively). The length of the rulebook is deceptive, since it includes designer's notes, a sample star sector, and a large number of random tables to enable the referee to quickly generate ideas for use in his campaign. The rules portions themselves actually take up comparatively few pages.
Though SWN could easily be used as a generic science fiction ruleset, the game includes a very fascinating campaign framework. The framework postulates that, sometime in the future, mankind discovers the "spike drive" that enables slow interstellar travel. A diaspora occurs, with humanity spreading to the stars. Over several generations, some members of interstellar humanity become afflicted with a strange condition called "metadimensional extroversion syndrome," which, in addition to having a tendency to drive those afflicted insane, also grants psychic abilities. In time, humanity learns to harness these powers and retard the insanity they cause, leading to a Golden Age in which psychics help to advance human technology, including the development of jump gates that allow instantaneous travel across vast distances.
Then comes the Scream, a mysterious interstellar phenomenon that kills or drives mad all psychics across human space. Without the psychics, the jump gates cease to operate and humanity's vast galactic civilization collapses in on itself. What follows is the Silence, a period of 600 years during which mankind's myriad worlds are largely cut off from one another. Now, some of the more stable and advanced worlds have begun to explore outward, establishing trade and diplomatic contact with nearby worlds. Some have even begun to create new interstellar polities. But the nature of the Scream remains unknown and no one dares rely on psychic powers as much as humanity once did. A great deal changed in the galaxy over the years of the Silence and each new world is as much a mystery as the Scream itself.
Though the rules of SWN are solid and well-presented, it's this campaign framework that is most impressive to me. What Crawford has done is provide the means by which to logically marry old school sandbox campaigning with science fiction adventure. What's more is that he provides the referee with the tools to do this effectively. Most SF RPGs include rules for randomly generating planets and even entire sectors. What they don't generally provide are simple systems for determining what those worlds and sectors are like beyond the basic facts. For example, SWN introduces the idea of world "tags," one of 60 brief descriptors, such as "abandoned colony," "pilgrimage site," or "zombies." Each one of these tags not only provides the referee with a quick overview of what's unique about a particular planet but also ideas for enemies, allies, things, locales, and adventure complications associated with them. Say the referee creates a world with the tag "alien ruins," he can look at the tag's entry and choose from undersea ruin, orbital ruin, perfectly preserved alien building, or alien mausoleum as examples of "places." For enemies, there might be a customs inspector, worshiper of the ruins, or a hidden alien survivor. My point is that SWN's world generation system is an excellent idea generator, which is what any good random generation system should be, especially those associated with sandbox-style gaming.
A more impressive tool, though, is the factions system. Factions are power groups, both referee and player-controlled, who exert influence on a world or over a sector. Factions are effectively NPCs, with ability scores (and even hit points) that represent their strength and control. They can engage in various actions (such as acquiring new assets, expanding influence, seizing planets, etc.) and, through success, rise in levels, just like characters. What's terrific about the faction system is that its both extensive and fairly simple. Most similar systems I've seen in the past are either too limited or too complex, thereby discouraging their use. The systems in SWN hit a sweet spot for me that makes me actually want to use them rather than simply ignore them. Likewise, the fact that the PCs can establish and control their own factions concretizes "high-level" play in a way that I've not seen in any other old school RPG to date.
While it's SWN's rules for interstellar sandbox play that most impress me, the rest of the game is quite good as well. Characters are randomly generated using 3D6 rolls in order for the same six abilities used in D&D. Ability score penalties and bonuses have a smaller range (-2 to +2), with the extreme ends being quite rare. There are three classes: expert, psychic, and warrior. Instead of races, there are background packages that grant skills. Classes and backgrounds can be combined in order to give a wide variety of options. For example, a warrior character with the background package of "noble" will be different than one with the background package of "priest." It's a nice little system that doesn't unduly complicate character generation but nevertheless offers room for customization. Character classes are similarly straightforward but customizable. All classes provide hit dice, attack bonuses, and saving throws, along with a single unique special ability and class skills. SWN's skill system employs a 2d6 roll against a difficulty number (6 is standard), with skill levels and relevant ability score modifiers affecting the dice roll. The skill list is short and covers most areas you'd expect in a SF RPG but could be easily expanded or contracted, depending on one's tastes.
Psychic powers function as SWN's "magic," but are powered by psi points, a pool of which psychic characters get based on their level. Because even the highest-level psychics have comparatively few points, psychic powers are probably weaker in play than is magic in D&D. Equipment covers all the expected topics, with weapons and armor receiving the most detail. As noted earlier, SWN uses a descending AC system, which works with the game's Target 20 combat system. That is, roll 1D20, add combat bonuses and other modifiers, and the target's AC. If the total is 20 or more, a hit is achieved. Cyberware, vehicles, and starships get good treatments, with the starships section being particularly well done. Designing one's own starships is fully supported in the rulebook, as is space combat and both are handled straightforwardly but without sacrificing necessary detail.
Also as noted earlier, SWN includes extensive resources for the referee in running adventures and campaigns. There are overviews of adventure creation, the awarding of experience points, and similar topics, along with systems for creating aliens (both intelligent and otherwise) for use as either PCs or NPCs, even though the game assumes a humanocentric perspective. There are a goodly number of sample creatures and generic NPCs, making the referee's task easy. A sample sector consisting of about 20 worlds is provided too, making it possible to start a campaign without having to use any of the rulebook's many, many random tables. Also included is a designer's notes chapter, something I usually loathe. In this case, though, I found it interesting to read the author's thoughts on the various chapters of the book, both to provide insight into how he uses the game and how others might modify it to their tastes.
In the end, Stars Without Number is a really remarkable piece of work and one of the best things to have come out of the old school renaissance in 2010. In many ways, this game is a like a clean, well-organized "OD&D for science fiction," providing a simple, straightforward game that's ripe for tinkering and house ruling. And, like OD&D, it's a joyous riot of ideas that can easily accommodate a wide variety of approaches and interpretations, made all the more impressive because the overarching framework of the game is so flexible. I frequently found myself surprised by this game and noting how well author Kevin Crawford had taken to heart the lessons of old school game design to produce a terrific example of a contemporary game that is more than just "inspired by" the past but instead embraces it wholeheartedly, even when it runs counter to conventional wisdom about what makes a good RPG.
Stars Without Number isn't perfect. Better organized than OD&D it may be, but it's still a little hard to navigate through the book at times and its layout is rather pedestrian. But both those flaws are more than outweighed by its content. I hate to keep repeating this but I can't help myself: this is the first game I've ever read that fulfills the unfulfilled promise of OD&D to take the PCs from rogues on the make to movers and shakers in the world and does so seamlessly. It's an amazing achievement and, if that were all that Stars Without Number does well, it'd be noteworthy. Fortunately for us, it does much, much more than that. This is a great game and it deserves much success. Do yourself a favor and download a copy to read; you won't regret it.
Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 10 out of 10
Utility: 9 out of 10
Buy This If: You're looking for a simple, flexible SF RPG that truly accommodates sandbox play like no other.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in science fiction or in sandbox-style campaigns.