Saturday, January 8, 2011

REVIEW: Stars Without Number

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.


  1. Sounds great! Thanks for shining a light on it.

  2. Great review of a great ruleset.

  3. I have been hearing nothing but great reviews on this game. I have not only downloaded it but I have ordered myself a hardcover copy of the rules.

    Now to find some players...

  4. Downloaded this a few days ago and just like By The Sword I may have to order a hardcopy. It really makes me want to run something.
    Inspired and inspiring indeed.

  5. Downloaded it myself when it first came out, and I was quite impressed with it. However, I have to disagree with you about it being old school. To my sensibilities, SWN is a hybrid game. The basic mechanics (classes, armour class, etc) are old school, no doubt about it. However, the "tag" ideas have been lifted straight from the Fate system.

    Indeed, Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora both do almost exactly the same things with tags as SWN, and for exactly the same reasons. They are both sandbox games that emphasise description over statistics. Starblazer Adventures also allows play at higher levels than just the personal, as it provides rules for running organisations at any scale, complete with means of getting PCs involved.

    Don't take this as me trying to do SWN down. Quite the opposite. Just because we happen to have old school approaches to our gaming, doesn't mean that we can't take advantage of more modern concepts in gaming. SWN does this very happily and very handily.

  6. SWN may be my favorite game released in 2010. I think it's also worth noting that a lot of the resources in the game can go a long way toward enhancing other SF RPGs, especially the sandbox elements. For myself, SWN and your own "Thousand Suns" are two great tastes that taste great together! I was really happy with the quality of my Pendragon POD order from DriveThru, so I didn't hesitate to order a hardback of SWN the day it became available.

  7. My group has been playing this game for a month or so and it has replaced Traveller after 33 years as our main sci-fi game.

  8. I may use some of the rules like factions and generators for fantasy games too.

  9. However, the "tag" ideas have been lifted straight from the Fate system.

    You think so? Tags in SWN aren't very much like aspects in FATE at all in my opinion. Tags are simply descriptors without any game mechanical effect, which makes them quite unlike aspects. And even if Kevin Crawford came out and agreed that, yes, he lifted the idea from FATE, how does that affect the SWN's old schoolness? Does possibly having one idea borrowed from a game published after 1983 forever bar it from being old school? I don't think so myself, since both SWN's rules and overall philosophy are very much in line with the Old Ways, but what do I know?

  10. What James just said. SBA's aspects have a defined mechanical role, whereas the tags in SWN are really just there as prompts for a referee to riff on.
    Kevin's influences are easy enough to see but what he's made of them is a wonderfully succinct game brimming with potential.

  11. Personally, when it comes to tags in SBA I think it is the other way round. To me, the tags in SBA are there to provide a description that can then be used by the players and the referee to fuel ideas, precisely the same way that they are used in SWN. The SBA mechanic is merely there to provide a means to ensure that players do not invoke the tags willy-nilly.

    That's my interpretation of tags. Description first, mechanics second.

    As for these affecting SWN's old school credentials - I don't think it does. As I said previously the mechanics of the game are old school, but a game is more than just its mechanics. It does include ideas that, to me, are not old school. But it still has the sandbox approach of old school games and I still think it is a good and well-written game. It is just what I would call a hybrid game, ie, a game that has old school mechanics and roots, but which incorporates some ideas that were not part of the old school.

    None of this detracts from the fact that I am still impressed by the game.

    I'm a bit at a loss as to what I have said to provoke the "but what do I know?" comment. While I may disagree with you on SWN being old school, you have always been one of those who promotes the idea that the OSR is a broad church because it is so difficult to define. No insult was intended to you. I merely wished to express my take on the game.

  12. That's a heck of a review, thanks for all the details.

  13. I'm a bit at a loss as to what I have said to provoke the "but what do I know?" comment. While I may disagree with you on SWN being old school, you have always been one of those who promotes the idea that the OSR is a broad church because it is so difficult to define. No insult was intended to you. I merely wished to express my take on the game.

    You're right: please accept my apologies for that comment. You certainly didn't deserve it. I'll plead to tiredness and a certain fatigue with the level of recent outside discourse about the OSR as causes for my outburst, but it was uncalled for nevertheless. Again, my apologies.

  14. James - not a problem. I know it can get when you're passionate about something. Apology graciously accepted.

  15. Thank you for the exceedingly generous review, James. I've been reading Grognardia for more than a year now, so it was a real treat to see it reviewed so well here, and I appreciate the attention you've given it.

    As for tags, I have to admit that I've never read Diaspora or Starblazer Adventures, though I've heard splendid things of both. I'm familiar with FATE, but the purpose of tags in SWN isn't really so much to be used in play as it is to provide a little convenient structure for the GM. Everyone knows roughly what "a world of broken badlands" is, or "forbidden ancient tech" is, but it's the specifics and details that tend to demand the most time from a GM. The tags pre-build some of the more traditional elements in a package that speeds up adventure design.

    For example, suppose you've got a world with "Badlands World" and "Forbidden Tech" as tags. You need an antagonist. So you pick one Enemy from each- "Badlands Raider Chief" and "Mad Scientist"- and mix them. So your antagonist is a badlands raider chief who maintains control of his tribe thanks to his mastery of forbidden ancient maltech devices. Maybe this is a cultural element, with the warlords of these tribal raiders selected from those clans that retain the technical expertise necessary to operate the ancient slave-making neural conditioners. Roll on the minor NPC table for flavor, roll on the random name table, and we've got... Suhira al-Basiti, the savage raider queen of the clan and mistress of the forbidden maltech Mind Cages.

    The same process works for remixing allies, places, environmental complications, or precious objects. If you're strapped for time or inspiration, you can then just insert these elements mad-lib style into the adventure seeds given in the adventure chapter and polish it up for delivery.

  16. Maybe it's my Traveller background, but I just couldn't get into SWN. The whole concept of a class-based Sci-Fi game just doesn't work for me. I truly enjoy old-school D&D, but it doesn't happen for me in terms of sci-fi.

  17. I was at first unsure about SWN, since it is a class based Sci-Fi game (like Paul said). And in my experience, skill-based game work the best for that kind of RPG. But from what I have read, it is more like a template, a focus for the characters. And there are still plenty of skill options available to choose from after that.

  18. Downloaded it today and giving it a quick look...if anything, I know my other games were always missing a random Nigerian name generation table so "Score"!

  19. There is a lot to like about SWN. But maybe the most impressive thing for me was how many Referee tools are packed into it. Name generators, system generators, faction wars, alien generators, etc. That's what blew me away.

  20. This post reminds me of something I've been wondering for a while: Where did the "Galactic civilization regresses because some unexplained cosmic phenomenon suddenly breaks the unobtainium that makes everything work" trope originate, anyway?

    For example, the Japanese computer game Galaxy Angel has something in its backstory called the Chrono Quake, which by preventing FTL travel and communication for a few generations, ended mankind's Golden Age and resulted in a galaxy full of "Lost Technology" to be discovered and fought over.

    And yes, TVTropes has nothing.

  21. The background sounds a little like the one from Warhammer 40,000 - psychics run expanding empire, psychic powers cut off suddenly, empire collapses, followed by expansion after things clear up and a lot of time goes by. That could be an interesting take on the setting.

    (Note to Alex, above - you can go back to Asimov's Foundation Trilogy for one instance of a Galactic Collapse - it's th oldest one I can think of offhand.

  22. I read about SWN here first, and downloaded it immediately. It's a wonderful product, and I can't wait to try it. I completely agree with Matthew about the added value of the many referee tools included.

    Has anybody already compared sandbox fantasy to sandbox sci-fi? Someone (James?) should be able to find some analogies.

    About the trope Alex mentioned, I thought about Asimov's Foundation just like Blacksteel. Another (in)famous trope is "a primordial race of technologically superior aliens awakens/comes back to kill us all."

  23. Sounds like a lot of fun. Would it be easy to convert to BRP/CoC as thats the system I tend to use for everything.

  24. This is pretty much the game I was waiting for (and contemplating having to try to design myself if I wasn't so lazy...) to come out of the OSR movement! I love the free rules set, and certainly have placed getting a printed copy of this game on my wishlist (40 extra pages can't be bad... That and I always like to read off of paper more than my computer screen...)! While I've just downloaded it, and just skimmed it, this review and others has me pretty excited.

    Now, I've got a good OSR SF game from the ground up that includes everything I've come to expect from SFRPG's since the day I found The Traveller Book in our public library years ago (and I will never forgive the Librarians for selling it off one year...). One volume, endless possibilities only limited by the ability of the GM to sit and create a nice little corner of the universe for the PC's to thrive (or die...) within!

  25. I Literally begged Troll lords to make there star siege game which they are re lunching like the game you just put out! the writer Josh told me that it just don't hold water to re-skin OGL for science fiction!
    boy was he wrong!

  26. Stars Without Number sector generator:

    One of the greatest tools ever made to accompany a roleplaying game, and fully worthy of the quality and meticulous care typical of SWN. It randomly creates an entire sector of space using the SWN generators and exports it in an editable Wiki form. Jaw dropping! For people who are just finding out about SWN here, do not pass up this resource!