Skyward Steel is the first full-length supplement to Kevin Crawford's superb old school SF RPG, Star Without Number. This 59-page watermarked PDF sells for $4.99, though it's available at 25% off until March 7, 2011 as part of a GM's Day Sale. Currently, there is no print-on-demand option for Skyward Steel, but, given the narrowness of its subject matter, perhaps that's understandable. Subtitled "Naval Campaigns for Stars Without Number," this product focuses on stellar navies, providing background information, adventure seeds, and new rules pertaining to these space-borne militaries.
Skyward Steel is clearly written, with few obvious editorial or typographical errors. Its layout is not particularly attractive, but it is functional and easy to read. Aside from the cover, there are only two other illustrations in Skyward Steel, which contributes to the PDF's dense, "hobbyist" feel. I don't mean that as a criticism, but potential buyers should be aware that this supplement is a bit less polished in terms of its appearance than the Stars Without Number rulebook. On the other hand, it's every bit as chock full of imaginative ideas and clever rules for use with Star Without Number (or really almost any science fiction RPG where interstellar fleets play a big role).
The PDF consists of eight chapters, the first of which is a brief discussion of the history and role of navies in the Stars Without Number setting. It's interesting stuff but unlikely to be immediately useful in play. The second chapter discusses naval organization by providing lists of naval ranks, rates, and departments. Compared to the first chapter, this one strikes me as much more immediately useful, particularly in a campaign where the navy plays a large role. Chapter three covers life in the navy and, again, is very practical in its coverage, focusing on topics as diverse as the relationship between officers and enlisted personnel, naval politics, and honorable and dishonorable conduct.
The fourth chapter is a lengthy one whose topic is running a campaign where the characters are themselves members of a stellar navy. Expected topics, such as dealing with orders and the question of ranks among the PCs, are covered, but the bulk of the chapter goes to outlining several types of naval campaigns. Particular attention is given to what are called "Deep Black" operations -- naval forces who undertake special missions on behalf of their service. The chapter concludes with a large list of ideas -- generally two for each world tag introduced in the Star Without Number rulebook -- that might serve to inspire adventures or even whole campaigns. This list was one of my favorite parts of the book and an example of something I'd like to see in more gaming products.
The fifth chapter offers up some naval-specific background and training packages to supplement those in the main rulebook. Chapter six is devoted primarily to starship combat. It provides some flavorful yet straightforward additions to the game's original starship combat rules, principally in the form of giving each significant position aboard ship something meaningful to do, complete with "commands" (special maneuvers) and "mishaps" (unique fumble results). I was very favorably reminded of the starship combat system from FASA's Star Trek RPG, but presented in a more streamlined and imaginative way. Whereas FASA's system worked best when there was an actual player for each important crew position, Skyward Steel looks as if it'd be just as easy to use even if a most of the crew were NPCs, though I have not yet had the chance to test it in play.
Chapter seven describes new starships, components, and personal equipment, while chapter eight describes rules for determining how large the fleet of worlds and interstellar factions. Much like the starship combat additions, the fleet rules appear to be quite flavorful yet straightforward. More importantly, they contribute another piece to the puzzle of a science fiction endgame where the PCs have reached heights of power sufficient to give them control of a world or worlds. I can't shake the feeling that Kevin Crawford is slowly building toward eventually giving us the rules necessary to guide the fates of interstellar empires over the course of time and, if so, I very much look forward to seeing him do for Stars Without Number something that was never done for Dungeons & Dragons in any satisfying way!
If it sounds as if I thoroughly enjoyed Skyward Steel, you'd be correct in that assumption. It's not a perfect book by any means. I think its focus is sufficiently narrow that it might frighten off some potential buyers who don't think they'd enjoy 59 pages devoted to interstellar navies. Likewise, the lack of art and the density of the text combine to give the PDF an intimidating appearance. But these are comparatively minor criticisms when you consider how potentially useful the content is -- and what it suggests about what's to come in the future. For my money, Stars Without Number remains one of the most exciting games to have emerged from the old school renaissance and this supplement further strengthens that conviction.
Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10
Buy This If: You're playing Stars Without Number or any other SF RPG where interstellar navies play an important role.
Don't Buy This If: You have no interest in extra detail regarding interstellar navies.