Stars Without Number Core Edition

Sine Nomine Publications and Mongoose have teamed up to provide the Stars Without Number Core Edition, available in PDF or hardcover, hard copy format. You can still get the original version free here; the cost of the Core Edition (available here), namely $19.99 for the PDF or $39.99 for the hardcover, is offset by about 40 pages of new content, about a 20% increase in page count. Whether that’s worth the money is up to you, but to help you decide, here’s what’s inside.

I’ve already reviewed SWN here, and the Core Edition includes all of that content, pretty much unchanged as far as I could tell. This review is thus focussed on additions and changes.

WHAT’S NEW?

Robots and Mechs (23 pages)

This new chapter introduces rules for Artificial Intelligences as Player Characters (Robots) and giant robot fighting suits (Mechs).

Robot PCs have advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, their brains can be switched from one chassis to another as the needs of the mission dictate, and they have "phylacteries" which allow them to recover from backup if destroyed. On the minus side, their skills, saves and to-hit bonuses are not quite as good as those of a human being, they need suitable parts to "heal" damage, and they can’t be healed by biopsionics. These are deliberate design decisions for game balance.

The chapter opens with an explanation of how AI came to be in the setting, why the Terran Mandate found it necessary to apply "braking" to AIs, how it came to deploy AIs in robot bodies, and what it was like to be an AI before, during and after the Scream. I can see several adventure possibilities here, for example around the tantalising snippets of the Imago Dei (an AI warrior religion), Drako (the original unbraked AI), and the throwaway line about Mandate survivors using bleeding edge pretech anagathics. I could see a campaign where the whole party are surviving AIs, either simply trying to survive or driven to complete some great purpose – resurrecting the Mandate, perhaps.

Next, the chapter explains how to create an AI PC. Unlike human characters, whose attributes are determined by random die rolls and the choice of character class, the AI has an amount of Tolerance points which it spends to buy Int, Wis, Cha, skills, saves and so on. The same points are also used to buy an armature or body, so don’t spend them all at this stage. There are 10 pre-statted armatures available, which require from 0-5 points to use; the AI starts with one armature and can swap itself into any other which requires the same number of points or fewer.

As they level up through experience, AIs improve their skills and hit points in much the same way as biological PCs. AIs are immune to biopsionics, most diseases and poisons, and require no sleep, food or air. However, they are still vulnerable to radiation.

The Robots section closes with the equivalent of NPCs and monsters; four sample NPC robots, operated by expert systems and lacking the self-awareness and initiative of PC AIs; and rules for creating more based on the AI armatures and skill packages.

The Mech section now starts. Again, this opens with setting information – how and why mechs came to be created, why they have a humanoid shape embellished by fins and spikes, and their tactical use by the Mandate.

This is followed by explanations of how mechs function in the game – as usual for an SF game, they are a cross between personal armour and vehicles, and beef up PCs sufficiently for them to survive the frightful weapons of the far future battlefield. Of particular note is the expense of maintaining and repairing mechs, which means they are likely to reserved for emergency use only.

There are three hull classes of mech; suit (3 metres tall, about the size of a 2300AD combat walker or a W40K dreadnought), light mech (6-8 metres tall), and heavy mech (10-13 metres tall). Each is available in assault, specialist or psimech versions, for differing battlefield roles. Like starships in the free edition, each mech hull has an amount of free space, power and hardpoints, and can be outfitted with various systems whose total requirements are those or less.

The section concludes with a sample mech for each of the nine hull class/purpose combinations. By the time I finished this chapter I was already plotting out assorted characters and mechs in my mind; I may post them on the blog once finished.

Societies (19 pages)

This chapter is aimed at giving an extra layer of depth to planetary societies, while retaining a clear focus on adventure possibilities and clarity of explanation to players. The theory here is that however much fun it is to develop a society in depth, if the players can’t remember it clearly and can’t see why they should interact with it, it’s not much use for gaming.

Building on the world creation sequence earlier in the rules, the GM uses random tables (whether by rolling dice or picking interesting results) to generate the world’s original reason for colonisation; initial culture, government, traits and conflict; and post-scream government, and conflicts. The GM then personalises the adventure hooks this creates by aligning them with NPCs and Factions in his game. The process also helps the GM work out who is going to be upset with the PCs and why, depending on the motivations of the two groups.

To pick out some highlights from the random tables:

  • Each government type is described in terms of its politics and legal system at an overview level.
  • Each conflict type has a number of subtypes, each with capsule descriptions of the conflict, the constraints which prevent it escalating (and thus resolving itself), and "changes" – implications of the conflict such as who can marry whom, or not.

Finally, there is a one-page example of applying the whole process to a world.

One thing I especially like about this chapter is the government evolution tables, which show how the initial government evolved into the current setup. In a sense, these generate the world’s history for you, by showing the key steps – founding, and evolution in response to conflicts.

WHAT’S CHANGED?

A new cover, replacing the free edition’s starfield with an image of three adventurers, one of each of the core classes, fighting some sort of vile monstrosity hand-to-hand.

Chapter numbers have been updated to match the new topics.

The Designer Notes chapter has been updated to explain the thinking behind the Robots, Mechs and Societies additions. These also explain how to use the AI point-buy character system for normal characters, which I welcome partly because I like to have the choice, and partly because I personally prefer to start with a character concept and design the character around it, rather than starting with the die rolls and using them to generate the concept.

Default attributes for the Quick NPCs in the Game Master Resources section have been corrected – those in the free edition were inconsistent with the bonuses given.

WHAT’S GONE?

Nothing, as far as I could see.

CONCLUSIONS

Regular readers will know SWN is one of my favourite RPGs, and that I was pleasantly surprised to find this level of quality available as the free edition.

The Core Edition broadens the range of subgenres that can be accommodated, to include synthetic humanoids and combat mechs – BattleTech or manga, anyone? They are however optional, since they  may or may not fit your conception of the future, and AIs are deliberately kept at roughly human levels of competence – one can debate whether this is realistic or not, but it is explained within the context of the game, and it prevents them being unbalanced compared to ordinary characters. The societies rules also broaden out world generation by providing a way to dice up what conflict makes the world’s Friends and Enemies want to engage with the NPCs.

I intend to merge the robot and society rules into the fledgling Heart of the Scorpion campaign immediately, and possibly the mecha rules later.

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