Stars Without Number

Introduction

After reviewing Silent Legions, I figured it was due time to review Kevin’s first game (now out in a revised edition) Stars Without Number (hereafter referred to as SWN). Hailed for its simple OSR-based rules and plentiful tables for sector and adventure creation, SWN paved the way for Kevin’s future works, and he brings that additional experience and knowledge back to the revised edition. Just like the original game and Godbound, Kevin offers a free version with most of the game rules and material included, while offering just enough extra items to entice purchasing the deluxe PDF and/or a printed copy. For this review I’ll be covering the free edition.

The first thing that’s really hard to miss is the design and layout, which compared to the first edition’s bare-boned and straight-forward look is miles ahead. It’s sophisticated without being too busy or in your face. Headers (using an interesting font which surprisingly isn’t used for the main title) and tables are all over the place, and it makes this game very easy to both read through as well as reference during play. There’s also a notable increase in both the quantity and the quality in the full-color artwork, and it gives a wonderful atmosphere of a science-fiction game that has aspects of fantasy, cyberpunk, and more mixed in. Just like the rules, it shows that Stars Without Number is a wildly effective set of rules for so many kinds of games.

Character Creation

This chapter begins in a way that all other games should really follow: a quick 1-page introduction followed by a short summary with a numbered/keyed character sheet. In my opinion if your game can’t do this you need to either trim the fat or go back to the drawing board. ANYWAYS, starting off like this gives the reader a little confidence boost, because with the increased page-count it can certainly give the impression of a game that’s difficult to learn and so much to remember. But fear not!

As noted on the checklist, creating a character in SWN involves rolling attributes and its modifiers, choosing a background, choosing skills, choosing a class (not sure why this isn’t earlier), choosing foci, optionally creating an alien/VI/AI/psychic character, and rolling your hit points. Overall, not too painful!

Attributes are rolled 3d6 as standard, and the modifier range is a narrow -2 to +2 range. Skill checks are 2d6 as standard in Kevin’s games. The list of skills is quite short, which I’m glad to see. Here is where I kind of understand why a background is chosen before the class (although I just noticed that the order on the 1-page summary is wrong, as it has choosing a background before skills rather than after); a background is meant to be more what a character did for a job/career before beginning their life of adventure. Depending on the background you choose, you’ll gain a certain skill for free, along with either 2 more skills at random or a set of pre-determined/default skills. This makes sense to me, coming from Mythras, though now I see that the list is correct and in the chapter backgrounds should perhaps come before skills.

Next it’s time to choose a class; there are still three to choose from (Expert, Psychic, and Warrior) along with a new fourth one: Adventurer. This is really a catch-all, and it involves choosing two “partial classes”. Hmmm ok, this is where a class-based game starts to strain. Again, may just be my Mythras/BRP brain at work, but why even have classes at this point, rather than just backgrounds and skills? Next it’s time to choose a Focus. This is an additional perk evidently. Why it has to be separated out from skills I don’t know.

All that’s left is to roll up hit points (which isn’t going to be very high at first level, so no reckless adventuring!), noting your base attack bonus and saving throws (using the 3-branch system like D&D 3.x and DCC) and purchasing equipment. For the latter, there’s an interesting option. While there’s a separate equipment chapter that players can browse through, in this chapter there’s a page of standard equipment packages that players can choose from in exchange for their starting funds. It’s a neat way of quickly finishing up player generation and getting on with things.

The chapter ends with a 2-page quick character generation system, and while it looks handy for quick one-shots like at a convention, I don’t know if it would be utilized that much for at-home games, especially for those who would want to truly create a unique character (at least as far rules-wise as that allows with the small number of classes, backgrounds, and skills).

Psionics

Hmmm, psionics. Just like cults and magic, I don’t personally foresee using much of this chapter as I would be leaning towards a harder sci-fi kind of game. That being said, there’s quite a bit of variety including biopsionics, metapsionics, precognition, telekinesis, telepathy, and teleportation, so depending on what kind of game you’re looking to run you might want to use one, some, or all of these! Luckily each section is just a couple pages long, so it’s easy to read through and quickly ascertain its possible usage.

Systems

Well this is pretty much the meat of the book, explaining how things work. So it should be the largest chapter with lots of tables, etc. right? Nope! Under 15 pages including a 1-page summary at the end, this is another instance where the reader can breathe a sigh of relief. While combat is a couple of pages, it also sits nicely along with saving throws, skill checks, hacking, character advancement, and environmental hazards. Combat is fairly brief but it looks like a fun, simple system (but that doesn’t mean PCs should be eager to get into a fight!). The 1-page summary sheet really does look like it covers everything needed during play, and for a custom SWN screen I don’t think there’s too much else you’d have to add or otherwise change, at least right off the bat.

Equipment and Vehicles

Oh boy, lots of wonderful toys, including cyberware and artifacts! I don’t know what if anything has been included from Kevin’s previous works Polychrome and Relics of the Lost, but I have a feeling those are still relevant and useful if you want even more choices and details. Of course, many of the items are only available at certain Technology Levels and above, so depending on the kind of game you want to run (or at least certain planets visited) you may need to think up some custom equipment.

One section I liked was Lifestyle, Employees, and Services. These are helpful tables to make the GM’s (and players’) life easier for those who will be away from a ship for any length of time. Another section I didn’t know I wanted was Drones. While they’ve certainly become more popular in real life, both for surveillance and recreational flying, they are also popular on many shows and movies, and it was something I never really thought about until reading this section. I am quite pleasantly surprised that sections such as this are included in the free PDF, rather than a paid exclusive!

Cyberware is another interesting section, but I don’t know if I would personally use much of it in my sci-fi games. Of course, if I wanted to run something near-future or wanted to go all out Snow Crash, then this section would become quite mandatory. Next are artifacts, and while there are some interesting items I wouldn’t personally include many except as something relevant to an adventure’s central story, and/or perhaps an interesting way to introduce a new NPC or such. Finally are a couple pages for equipment modifications and maintenance. I think this is another neat idea that I’d likely use at least in moderation.

Starships

If there was a highlight chapter to really show off this game, I think this might be it! It covers the creation and customization of starships, as well as travel and combat. I can understand having the latter part grouped in this chapter rather than in the Systems chapter, but this is also something you’ll very likely need to add to your reference sheet/screen as well.

First it covers building a starship, including hull types, which will dictate how many and even which fittings, defenses, and weaponry can go with that ship. As you can imagine there’s a lot of different items available here, limited only by hull type and cost. It may seem like a lot to take in, but luckily there’s about 3 pages of example ships at the end of this section.

Next is modifying and tuning starships. This is likely something not done at character/ship creation time but later on in a game. There’s several options for changing the way a ship behaves, performs, and even how it’s maintained. Again, depending on the kind of game you’re wanting to run this may be something neat and the players will want to dive into, or your group may earmark this for later if at all.

Next are a couple of pages each for space travel, sensors and detection, and maintenance and repair. Space travel is the most detailed of these sections, primarily discussing spike drills, a potentially dangerous method for interstellar travel. Luckily a failed roll won’t result in the crew’s death, but it could put them stranded in a dangerous and uncharted territory! Maintenance is something that can’t be easily hand-waved away (I mean you could if you really want to ignore it), as every six months in game time a ship must have maintenance performed or begin accruing penalties on all rolls, ultimately resulting in a stranded ship. That could result in questionable help coming, if any, or perhaps attracting the attention of pirates or other non-friendly travelers.

Lastly, the chapter covers ship combat, combat actions, and crises. Evidently the starship combat has been radically changed for the revised edition, allowing all crew members to participate. Each starship rolls initiative, and on each turn the captain decides the order the various departments (ie each PC) will act; these departments include bridge, gunnery, engineering, comms, and captain. If there aren’t enough PCs for each department, then one or more PCs may have to double up. On each turn each department chooses an action, whether from one specific for that department or choosing from the general actions; some actions require command points, which are generated from certain actions. One interesting thing is that once per round a ship may choose to accept a crisis rather than damage from an enemy hit. There’s a good number of crises to choose from: armor loss, cargo loss, crew lost, engine lock, fuel bleed, haywire systems, hull breach, system damage, target de-calibration, and VIP imperiled.

The History of Space

This chapter goes over the default setting in the game. Like pretty much everything else in the game, this is entirely optional to use in your game, whether in part or whole. It’s not a very long chapter, and the ending timeline is a nice summary that’s easy to learn and reference.

Sector Creation

This chapter is the first of three (along with Adventure Creation and Game Master Resources) that makes this game worth having the free PDF at least, even if you never plan to play this game. The fact is there’s so many tables and helpful information to create your own universe, the worlds within it, etc. I find this indispensable, as I need all the help I can get in this genre to create a universe that feels grand, bigger than the players. To me that’s the point of science fiction and space travel!

The largest section is for World Tags. These are brief one- or two-word descriptions that are the defining trait of that world. After this key term and a short summary, each world tag has associated entries for enemies, friends, complications, thing, and places. SWN includes 100 sample world tags, and it’s easy to either customize or create totally new ones for an adventure.

After world tags there are sections for atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population, tech level, and additional system points of interests.

Adventure Creation

This is undoubtedly the most useful chapter in the book, and is worth having the free edition of SWN even if only for that. After a long initial section on thinking, planning, creating, and polishing an adventure there are several sections and tables covering a wide range of topics including rewards, problems, people, and places. Following that is 100 adventure seeds. They start out fairly generic and slowly become longer and more specific.

Xenobestiary

This was a section from the first edition that I had hoped would be significantly re-written and expanded, but that is definitely not the case. Yes there’s some handy charts and tables for creating beasts and aliens, as well as customizing humans, but for me it falls far short for a game that touts to be a deep, compelling sandbox. Even Kevin’s other games, such as Silent Legions, at least had a few examples to help show the reader how the rules worked. In SWN there are NO examples or any pre-generated NPCs or foes! Unbelievable! This chapter does include robot and VIs, and also VI PCs. These are something I would definitely allow in my universe and games. This chapter ends with aliens and alien PC. That’s something I’m not sure I would have in my games, but it’s a possibility.

Factions

Groups, empires, and more can all have an impact on a game and on-going campaign. In SWN these are grouped into Factions. These groups will each have 3 attributes (Force, Cunning, and Wealth), Hit Points (this makes no sense to me, why not a morale rating or such?), Assets, and Tags. The actions a faction make are divided up into turns. These normally occur either once a month or after each adventure, i.e. not very often. There’s a lot that factions can be used for, and I can see their utility in a SWN game. However I don’t like many of the terms and related systems that are used, and I think that overall it’s more complicated than it needs to be.

Game Master Resources

While not as large a chapter as the Sector and Adventure Creation chapters, this one is still very helpful and will help get an adventure written or at least some notes on paper to wing a game. Among the many sections my favorites are the house rules suggestions and the tables for names, one-roll NPCs and PAtrons, and urban and wilderness encounters. This chapter ends with the character sheet (an interesting landscape-oriented layout, but not happy there’s no sheets for sector creation and such), a small index, and list of Kickstarter backers.

Free or Deluxe Version?

Here’s a list of what additional items are included in the deluxe version, and I’ll give my impression of each one (without being able to look at the deluxe PDF):

  • Transhuman tech – this is something that’s piqued my interest thanks to Battlestar Galactica and Eclipse Phase, but without the latter’s sheer bulk of rules. Some may not want any of this in their kind of game, but it’s still a nice addition.
  • True AIs – I’m not sure how these would differ from the included VIs.
  • Mechs – while I would likely never use this, I can’t deny how cool it would be to have a mech fight! I wish I knew if it uses the same or a similar system to starship combat.
  • Heroic PCs – Whether this simply means characters with astronomical hit points, skills, etc. or something more meaningful, I just don’t really see ever using this. I want my characters to be normal, fragile, human.
  • Society creation – I’m not sure how much more detailed I want to be beyond what the sector creation and world tags sections offer in the book, but there’s no doubt it could help flesh out a campaign or entire universe if a gaming group wanted to get that detailed.
  • Space magic – I really doubt I’d use this, but again it would be intriguing to see what all is actually offered.

So, in summary do I think the deluxe version is worth it, whether just the PDF ($20) alone or also in print (either $60 for standard or $80 for premium)? Well, the deluxe is an extra 50-60 pages, and that’s quite a bit of content. I know I would personally prefer printing the PDF myself, as I’m not a fan of a plain white page and would use a nice off-white paper (that’s also a bit heavier), as well as using comb binding to make it easier to lay flat. If I was going to get a hardback through DTRPG, I’d likely save the $20 and get the standard version.

Conclusion

It’s hard for me to know exactly where to place this game among the other sci-fi RPGs I’ve reviewed, as well as several others I’ve owned and/or read but haven’t reviewed. This game is certainly not the rule-heaviest, but also not the lightest. Despite lighter rules it does come in near the top looking at page-count, although much of it is useful charts, tables, and sub-systems. I do have to concede that despite not liking some of the vocabulary and overall tone of SWN, I can’t deny that it’s one of the better sci-fi RPGs available. Would I run this rather than simply using Mythras, as for example in A Gift For Shamash? That’s hard to say; I’d have to make some rules adjustments anyways, and likely add on quite a bit to fit a non-fantasy game. Overall it may not be as much work as using SWN, but since the basic rules for SWN aren’t that difficult to learn is there a point to NOT using it?

In the end, one of the best selling points for this game, similar to so many other games from Sine Nomine, is its modularity. Whether using the free or deluxe version, the fact is you don’t HAVE to use every single system, rule, etc. for your game. Taking a look at the free PDF, you should be able to get a rough idea of what you’d actually use. Then you have to weigh out if getting the deluxe version is worth the cost.

Unlike the first edition, this revised edition is only available in hardcover in either a standard or premium color version. The latter is priced at $80, which is going to be a tough pill to swallow no matter how good this game is. Is it worth that, even over the $60 cost of the standard version? A lot of people like to calculate an RPG’s value based on the number of hours of gaming and enjoyment you can get out of it, say compared to a video game. Looking at it that way, yes it is more than worth its price. Looking at it on its own, or compared to some other RPGs of similar page-count and amount of artwork, Stars Without Number does look a little pricey. For most printings it’s an easy decision to go with the premium color version, and there’s no doubt this game will look fantastic, but is it worth another $20? Would the standard version look that much worse, especially with the amount of artwork this edition has? Ultimately only you can answer that for yourself. For me, even I do decide to get a printed copy, I will probably get the standard version. But that’s when I know for sure I want Stars Without Number sitting on my shelf with the few other games I’ve kept.