Review of Mongoose Traveller

I’ve been all Travellered out for a while, but recently I started thinking about coming back to it. The question was, which version? There are at least 9; Classic Traveller (1977 or 1981 flavours), MegaTraveller, Traveller: The New Era, Traveller 4 (AKA Marc Miller’s Traveller), GURPS Traveller, Traveller20, Traveller 5, Traveller Hero, and Mongoose Traveller. I’ve tried all of them except the last two, and so far nothing has really captured the feel of the original.

Until now. Read on, and learn more.

In a Nutshell: Retains the Classic Traveller feel, while integrating ideas from other editions. 194 page PDF or hardback book. Intended as a base rules set for a variety of SF settings.

Contents: Introduction (3 pages); Character Creation (42 pages); Skills and Tasks (11 pages); Combat (9 pages); Encounters and Dangers (17 pages); Equipment (19 pages); Spacecraft Design (9 pages); Common Spacecraft (23 pages); Spacecraft Operations (9 pages); Space Combat (6 pages); Psionics (8 pages); Trade (7 pages); World Creation (15 pages); Index; Adverts; blank Character and Subsector forms.


This gives the usual quick introduction to what an RPG is, explanations of dice and tech level conventions, short descriptions of various campaign types, and an example of play.


The usual six characteristics are diced for on 2d6; Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intellect, Education, Social Standing. Characters begin at age 18, with 3-6 skills at level 0, depending on their Education, then choose a career from a list of 12; grognards like myself may think of this as the basic six careers, but with Other split into 7 sub-divisions, much as in Supplement 4.

A dice roll determines whether the character is allowed to join or not, failure offers the choice of the draft or entering the Drifter career, gaining level 0 in the service skills for his career (up to 6) as basic training. Once in a career, the character selects one of three specialisations – for example, a Scout might select Courier, Survey or Exploration as his speciality. The character then cycles round the familiar Traveller sequence of acquiring a skill, rolling for survival, rolling for advancement (used to be called commission and promotion) and so on. A new addition is Events; each term, the character rolls for an event, which may result in a variety of things which enhance or degrade him either mechanically (e.g. new skills or bonuses on later rolls) or by expanding his backstory (romance, illness). These also generate Contacts, Allies and Rivals – NPCs whom the character knows. At the end of one’s career, one receives mustering out benefits, which may be cash, ship shares, combat implants, characteristic increases, weapons, other equipment, or membership of the Travellers’ Aid Society (which provides free starship tickets bimonthly).

Characters can have two different careers, which used to be limited to Vargr, but only gain basic training for the first one. There is also a Psion career, buried in the Psionics section as it was in T4.

Players are intended to generate characters as a group, since some of the events tie your character to those of others in the group; each such connection gets you an extra skill. Finally, once careers are completed, each character gets one or more extra skills, to ensure that the group as a whole has the skills needed for the chosen campaign type, and that every character in the group will be able to contribute something. It also means that the larger the group, the more highly-skilled its members are likely to be, which feels a bit counter-intuitive; but the referee can always limit the number of terms served to balance this.

The combination of ship shares, aging crises and medical bills for injuries mean that both individual characters and groups as a whole are likely to begin the game in debt, giving an immediate motivation for adventuring.

Optional rules are provided for generating characters as individuals rather than as part of a group, and for point-buy character creation. The section closes with traits for alien races, allowing GMs to create new ones and players to generate characters from the major races of the Third Imperium, the default setting.


The task system is a streamlined and tidied-up version of the one from MegaTraveller. One of the attractions of Traveller is that almost everything is rolled on 2d6, and a score of 8 or more indicates success. The 2d6 roll is modified by skills, characteristics, and circumstances; one key penalty is the –3 for lack of the relevant skill, though that penalty is reduced one point for each level of Jack Of All Trades skill known.

There are now nearly 50 basic skills, most of which split into various specialisations. Knowing the basic skill allows you to try anything in that arena without the –3 penalty, with your specialisation providing a bonus on tasks in that specific field.


Traveller combat has always been brutal and deadly, and this edition is no different.

Combat is essentially handled as a series of skill checks. At the start of combat, everyone rolls 2d6 for initiative, modified by Dexterity and possibly Tactics skill – this is simpler and neater than MegaTraveller’s roving DM pool, if less tactically flexible.

In each combat round, each character gets on significant action (make an attack or other skill check), one minor action (move or reload), however many reactions he wants (dodge), and however many free actions the referee thinks is reasonable. Every time you take a reaction, though, your initiative and effective skill levels for the round take penalties.

Attacks are a skill check, with modifiers for equipment, range and conditions.

Damage is inflicted on the character’s physical characteristics, as in CT, but unlike CT you always start with Endurance, and reduce it to zero before moving on to another characteristic (the original CT approach is available as an optional rule). When two are at zero you are unconscious; when three are at zero, you die. Even with armour (which reduces incoming damage), one or two solid hits will kill almost any character.

There is a section on vehicle combat, but that doesn’t enter into my games often, so I skipped gaily past it.


This section covers animals, environmental hazards, healing, NPCs and planetside encounters.

Animals are generated in much the same way as in previous editions, starting from their ecological niche (e.g. scavenger), type (e.g hijacker), then branching out into size and game statistics. Modifiers to various attributes are based on the local terrain.

In two departures from the plain CT approach, the referee is encouraged to select a quirk or theme which is shared by all animals encountered on a particular planet (a random table is provided to get you started); and animals have characteristics (based on size) and skills (based on type) much like PCs or NPCs. The creature’s Strength then determines its damage, and its Pack score (equivalent to Social Standing) determines how many are encountered. This all looks like a good expansion of the CT rules, and half-a-dozen example creatures are listed.

Environmental dangers includes rules for disease and poison (make an Endurance check every so often, take damage each time you fail), extreme temperatures (take damage every time period), and weather (penalties on skill checks), falling (take damage depending on height and gravity).

Next come rules for fatigue, unconsciousness, and recovery from wounds, whether by natural healing or various forms of medical treatment.

Then we have a section on NPCs. The referee is encouraged to split these into NPCs who appear in a single scene only (who get a name and a personality trait or two), and recurring NPCs, who get characteristics and skills as well. While the latter can be generated in the same depth as PCs, one is advised to simply assign characteristics and a few skills, with the guidance that a skilled professional has expertise level 2-3 in what he does for a living, and level 0-1 in half a dozen other skills. Tables are provided for random determination of personality traits and careers, the latter intended for NPC contacts, allies, enemies and patrons.

A few patrons are listed, with adventure seeds in the venerable Supplement 6 format – patron, required skills, rewards, player and referee information, with the last including several different possible outcomes.

There are also random tables for determining the patron (much like the CT patrons table), the mission he wants the PCs to undertake, its target (person, place, or thing), and likely opposition. This is again a good expansion of the basics in earlier editions.

The old random encounter table of CT has been split into starport, urban and rural encounters, 36 of each type.

Finally, there are two pages of stock NPCs with game statistics – thugs, guards, ship crewmen and so on.


Tools and gear do a lot to set the tone of a game setting, and Mongoose Traveller is no exception. There are discussions of the game currency (Credits) and the forms it can take, long-term subsistence costs, and then we dive into the equipment catalogue, where each item is described, and assigned a cost, mass, tech level, and sometimes an armour value, required skills, and combat statistics. Most equipment can be modified by added options, which are listed separately at the end of each equipment group.

For most sections, such as armour, communications, computers, medical, drugs, sensors, tools, weapons, vehicles and survival gear, this chapter essentially gathers and harmonises the equipment lists of previous editions, usually with variations by tech level – generally higher-tech versions are more expensive, lighter, and easier to use. There are a few new items such as stunners and laser pistols, things players always wanted but referees often had to house rule.

CT originally ignored cybernetic, genetic or surgical augmentation, as befitted the 1950s and 1960s SF stories it emulated. However, such a game is less credible to a modern audience, and rather than go the retro route like, say, Slipstream, the author has added a variety of enhancements and implants which a character can buy. These manifest themselves by giving bonuses to particular characteristics or skills, or giving the character the attributes of a piece of equipment.

Robots and drones were an optional supplement in CT, but here they are treated (sensibly) as just another type of equipment. A few stock robots are described, but there are no rules for creating one’s own – no doubt the Robots supplement deals with that.


This is a welcome return to simplicity after the relentless increase in complexity seen as previous editions were published. Pick a hull; select some options; choose drive components from the relevant table; add fuel, bridge, computer and electronics; add components such as staterooms, weapons and small craft. The process is much like the original CT, the main difference is the broader range of options.

An interesting addition is the page of rules for alternative FTL drive systems and power sources, including warp drive (which I expect to see in the 2300AD sourcebook for this system), teleport drive (instantaneous jumps) and hyperspace drive (which reminded me of Babylon 5, and might be used in the B5 sourcebook – which I haven’t seen yet).

Tables of software and crew requirements are included, with the option of running minimum, average or full crews. Skeleton crews are cheaper, but react more slowly to crises.


These are the old favourites, rated for the new rules: scoutship, seeker, free trader, far trader, subsidised merchant and liner, lab ship, close escort, yacht, mercenary cruiser, corsair and small craft. New standard vessels are the heavy freighter and the police cutter, which is a 100 ton System Defence Boat. Each ship has descriptive text, a worksheet breaking down components, mass and cost, and deck plans. My only complaint with this section is that the deck plans are nigh on unreadable as they have been greatly reduced.


This chapter covers boarding, docking, landing, maintenance and its costs, encounters in space (a random encounter table, much expanded from CT days), jump travel, hazards of spaceflight such as radiation, types of passage (i.e., tickets). repairs, sensors and their use, onboard security measures and how to defeat them, and travel times at various accelerations.


This functions much like personal combat, being a series of skill checks. Unlike the earliest versions of CT, the boardgame approach to space combat has been replaced by a system of range bands.

Initially, the referee determines the range to the opposition and each side rolls for initiative. The players also specify who is doing what aboard their ship – this determines what skill checks they can affect.

Play then proceeds in turns, each composed of a movement phase, a combat phase, and a miscellaneous action phase for things such as launching small craft, making running repairs, or conducting a hyperspace jump.

For those so inclined, there is an abstract method of resolving boarding actions.

Each ship system has several levels of damage, which are checked off as incoming fire inflicts harm. There are rules for the damage crew take if they are in the affected area, and also for using ship weapons in personal combat. (You know you want to.)


This will be familiar to any player of previous editions; rolling for psionic strength, the Psionics Institute and testing for talents, and the talents themselves: Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, Awareness and Teleportation. As ever, the referee has the option to add other powers, collectively called "Special".

One innovation here is that while each talent acquired makes it harder to acquire the next, as usual, some talents have die modifiers which make them easier to learn.

A second is that characters do not have to "level up" their psionic skill to use higher-level powers; you either have the talent, or you don’t. However, using powers is a task, based on psionic strength and your skill level with the talent, so higher skill levels make one more effective. Cost to use a power is also affected by range and other factors.

Finally, as per T4, this section includes an additional career – psion. Given the secretive and prurient nature of psi-powers in the default setting, this is likely to be used more for NPCs than PCs.

There are a number of new powers for each talent, and new items of psionic equipment. This is interesting to read, but while I have always allowed psionics, they never play a large part in my campaigns, so I probably won’t use this section much.


Perhaps slightly out of a logical sequence, this covers interstellar trade – the PCs as crew on a tramp freighter, a la "Firefly", has always been a common campaign type.

The section explains how to make money with a merchant starship; passengers, freight, mail contracts, and speculative trade. This last is high-risk, high-reward; rather than shipping freight containers for a flat fee, the PCs use their own cash to buy goods low and sell them high.

The trade goods tables have been modified somewhat since I last played, as have what goods are available on which worlds – each world type has some goods that are always present to buy, which takes some of the guesswork out of trading.

Over the last couple of decades, trading has faded into the background of my games, because I have much less time to play than previously; this section, I would mostly use for solitaire or postal play.


Again, this will be familiar to any player or GM from previous versions. An 8×10 hexmap for each subsector; select how frequent worlds are in that area, and dice for the presence of one in each hex; make a variety of 2d6 rolls for starport type, size, atmosphere, hydrographics, population, government, and law level; roll 1d6 for tech level. Most of the rolls have modifiers depending on the results of other, earlier rolls, and the combinatios of the results determine trade classifications, and thus what goods fetch the best prices on that world. Each result is looked up on a table to determine the type of atmosphere, government and so on. There are some interesting optional rules for space opera or hard SF settings, which apply additional modifiers to the rolls to reflect those genres more accurately.

Rolls are also made for the presence of gas giants (allowing free refuelling, if your ship can cope with unrefined fuel), naval bases and scout bases. The GM assigns travel zones and other bases, which have no specific effects mechanically, but are a good source of scenario ideas.

A new idea is that of trade routes; specific world types within four hexes of each other may have a regular trade route. Communication routes are assigned by the GM, as in every version of Traveller since 1977.

Another new statistic is world temperature, which is modified by other statistics.

Law levels are expanded to show the likely response by the police to anti-social behaviour, and sentencing if the case goes to trial. (Anti-social behaviour by PCs? Surely not!)

Finally, there is a table of cultural quirks which can be added to taste.


The book closes with an index, some adverts, and the obligatory character sheet and subsector map. I should also mention the numerous snippets of background data for the default setting and optional rules, which are scattered throughout the main text.


This is a worthy inheritor of the Traveller mantle, close in spirit and feel to the original Little Black Books.

Over the years, I’ve drifted away from the random lifepath approach to character creation, so I can’t see myself using the character generation rules. I’ve also stopped designing new starships, the standard ones will do me just fine, so I won’t use the starship design rules either. If those items float your boat, though, they are here, well thought out and clearly explained.

As I’ve said in numerous reviews, I also don’t go in much for equipment chapters in any RPG – my campaigns are designed to play like action adventure movies, and I believe the SF hero needs only his wits, his weapons, and a communicator. That’s just me, and you can find any number of campaigns where (as the Universe RPG put it) the setting is defined by what equipment is available.

The things that do interest me are the expanded world creation and trade rules. If I get the time and the inclination, I might apply those as a stucco over the Imagoes subsector, if only to see what difference they would make. Watch this space, but don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, if you want a 21st century update of the grand-daddy of all SF RPGs, this is a good choice. Mongoose are taking Traveller in a direction Marc Miller mentioned in the 1970s as one of his objectives, namely that of using the game to explore aspects of SF settings that the books and movies don’t cover. So far I have seen setting books which customise the base rules for Babylon 5, Judge Dredd, Hammer’s Slammers, and Strontium Dogs, with a 2300AD adaptation said to be in the works. I can see myself building a collection of those… my wish list for future setting books includes Aliens/Predator, the Honorverse, the RCN series, the Serrano Legacy, and of course the Dumarest Saga. What about you?

Review of Alien Base

Alien Base is a first contact adventure for the Space Opera RPG, written by Larry Smith, illustrated by Jeff Dee, and published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1981. It’s been out of print for a while, but has recently reappeared on RPGNow for a couple of bucks as a PDF download.

In a Nutshell: The PCs are ordered to investigate the disappearance of a starship, and rescue any survivors. Given the title, you will not be surprised to find that hitherto unknown aliens are involved. Scenes of violence on the cover suggest that all does not go well for Our Heroes.

Contents: Description of the planet and star system where the missing ship was last seen; outlines of two new alien races; NPC character sheets; deckplans of a vehicle and the alien base itself.

Now, it’s hard to review any adventure without giving away either too much or too little, but I’ll do my best.

Alien Base is an enigma, wrapped in a dungeon crawl, wrapped in a planetary exploration. The party are drawn by their mission first to the planetary surface, then into contact with an alien race, then into the Alien Base and contact with one or more new alien races, and finally to an understanding of what happened to the missing ship, and what that means for their home civilisation. There are different endings depending on whether you wish to use this as a stand-alone adventure, or the first scenario in a planned story arc of five adventures.

(The other modules in the sequence were to have been Derelict, Slaveworld, Scoutship and Starmother, but I have pretty much given up looking for them and assume they were never published. If anyone knows differently, please let me know!)

The party can acquire, or lose, points depending on their actions – sometimes they will do the right thing or figure something out, which increases their score, and sometimes they will get something wrong, which decreases it. I particularly like the hard SF approach the author took; some points can only be obtained by applying scientific knowledge to the puzzles presented.

You could use that either as a basis for awarding experience points, or just as a means of seeing how well the group does. It would have been useful to have a table somewhere of what gains or loses points, and what the maximum score is, but the GM can knock that up quickly enough.

The only thing that really jars is that there is a point in the adventure where having translated written documents enables the group to understand the spoken form of a language. I house-ruled around that – running something over the text caused it to be spoken – but I would have preferred an explanation in the scenario itself.


Since this module came out, I have run it in a number of different game systems for almost every group of SF PCs I’ve had. Their levels of success have ranged from the group which went through it with military precision and got almost a perfect score, to the group who got so scared they ran away before they had completed the scenario, to the group who managed to kill themselves to a man without actually getting into the base.

It is one of my all-time favourite scenarios, matched only by my go-to fantasy campaign starter, The Halls of Tizun Thane from White Dwarf 18. Highly recommended.

It’s HOW Big?!?

This came about because I started wondering what different animal sizes from assorted games meant compared to each other, and to real creatures. It’s the sort of table I think will be very useful, spend ages working out, and then never actually use, because the act of working it out gives me enough of a feel to wing it during games. The sort of player questions it was intended to help me answer are:

  • “How much does that dire wolf carcass weigh? Can we fit it in the back of the cart?”
  • “How big is a 30-ton pouncer, anyway?”
  • “How many kangaroos do we need on the other side of the scales to balance his character?”
Classic Traveller Savage Worlds d20, D&D etc Real World Examples CT Examples
Fine Insect
Diminutive Bat
Tiny Rat, Weasel
1 kg Tiny Hawk
3 kg -2 Tiny Cat, Monkey Anola, Beaked Monkey
6 kg -2 Small Eagle, Terrier Tree Kraken
12 kg -2 Small Badger
25 kg -2 Small Small Dog Chamax Juvenile, Chimearoc, Sea Bear
50 kg -1 Medium Baboon, Kangaroo, Labrador, Wolf Bush Runner, Chamax Hunter
100 kg +0, +1 Medium Human, Dire Wolf Groat, Snowcat
200 kg +2 Large Gorilla, Lion, Tiger Thingvellir’s Crested Trapper
400 kg +2 Large Cow, Horse
800 kg +3 Large Brown Bear, Bison
1600 kg +4 Huge Hippo, Great White Shark
3200 kg +4, +5 Huge Small elephant, Orca, Rhinoceros Small Daghshark
6000 kg +6, +7 Huge Large elephant, small Triceratops, T. Rex Chamax Maternal, Nobble
12000 kg Huge Large Triceratops
18000 kg
24000 kg
30000 kg Gargantuan Brontosaurus
36000 kg Gargantuan
40000 kg Gargantuan Humpback Whale
44000 kg Gargantuan Large Daghshark
+9 Colossal Blue Whale (150 tons)
+10 Colossal No known examples


Have I got any of this wrong? Can you fill in any of the gaps? Let me know!

Review of the Savage World of Solomon Kane

From Pinnacle Entertainment Group, creators of the Savage Worlds RPG. For those who don’t know… Solomon Kane, the Puritan witch-hunter, is another pulp hero created by Robert E Howard, best known for his stories of Conan the Barbarian. Kane travels the world seeking out evil and giving it a sound thrashing.

In a Nutshell: The world of R E Howard’s Solomon Kane as a Savage Worlds RPG. What’s not to like?

Solomon Kane (21 pages)

Unusually long for an introduction, this section opens with a piece of fiction in Howard’s style, setting the scene for how the player characters come to follow the Path of Kane. Next come an essay on what drives Kane himself; and summaries of the stories (and fragments of stories) Howard wrote about him.

Characters (36 pages)

This opens with a list of archetypical characters, and then explains character creation, Savage Worlds style. In essence, characters have attributes and skills, both rated as die types (e.g. "I have Strength d8"), and edges which grant them bonuses of various types – GURPS players would know these as Advantages, D&D players as Feats. This is a point-buy system, so all of those cost points; you have an allowance of points initially, and can get more by taking hindrances, which apply penalties to your character under specific circumstances.

This is the standard Savage Worlds approach, but with a couple of new hindrances (I like Cocky, which means the character must spend his first action in combat bragging) and a selection of edges (including Really Dirty Fighter, allowing you +2 on tricks and the ability to spend a benny to get The Drop on your foe) which tailor the system to this setting.

Arms and Equipment (12 pages)

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to glaze over at the equipment section of RPGs, but here it is, with details of the armour, weapons, coinage, and adventuring gear of the 16th-17th centuries, the timeframe of Kane’s adventures.

Game Rules (32 pages)

These are the standard Savage Worlds rules. The only difference I could see on this reading was a wider range of tricks. I’ve reviewed SW before, so I won’t go into that here, other than to note that this game is self-contained and doesn’t require the SW rulebook. Whether you think that’s good (yay, it’s all in one place) or bad (I already paid for those pages!) is up to you.

Magic & Devilry (18 pages)

Again, this is largely standard SW fare. The two available arcane backgrounds are Shaman and Sorceror; priests of civilised cultures eschew magic, it seems. Spellcasting is different in the world of Kane; there are no power points, but to avoid horrendous minuses on casting rolls, the magician must prepare his spell for some time – so he can cast more often, but it takes longer. There are no direct offensive spells – the magician must be subtle. Spells last longer, but cannot be maintained. There is a new Spell Backlash Table, and a number of new spells – I especially like Animate Hand and Elemental Manipulation, and these and a few of the others may find their way into my vanilla SW games. The section finishes with a handy spell summary, which is most welcome and I hope becomes a feature of the next version of the basic rules.

Anything up to this point is for players and Game Master both; beyond this point, for the GM only.

The Art of Storytelling (13 pages)

This is your basic "how to be a GM" section. It looks a lot like the one in the SW Explorer’s Edition rulebook.

Creating Adventures (16 pages)

This is the usual “how to create an adventure” section. It follows the usual current advice to plot individual adventures out like a movie, stressing exotic locations. It also reminds the GM that Savage Worlds has no truck with the Sorting Algorithm of Evil – you meet what you meet, and it won’t always be a fair fight.

Here, too, is advice on how to create NPCs, whether major villains or not. As usual in SW games, the GM is advised not to design NPCs in detail, simply give them whatever attributes feel right for the character and don’t worry about whether they are balanced or not.

Next there is an adventure generator – a series of tables which can be used to determine the villain, his goal, the hook for bringing the PCs into the action, locations, villainous henchmen, and plot twists. There is an example adventure showing how to use this to create a scenario.

Finally, as is standard for SW settings, there is a Plot Point campaign called the Path of Kane. Without giving too much away, suffice to say that Kane and his friend N’Longa have uncovered an evil so great they cannot face it alone, and so N’Longa summons like-minded souls (the PCs) to assist them. The campaign is well thought out, and will take the PCs across the entire world in search of their goals. The chapters describing each continent (see below) each have a number of set-piece adventures, and the GM fills in between these with randomly-created scenarios to taste. These are framed by an initial adventure gathering the PCs together, and a couple of final ones wherein the ultimate evil is faced.

Savage World of Solomon Kane (6 pages)

This section is a useful briefing for players and GM alike, explaining the technology and beliefs of the 17th century.

The Old World (34 pages)

The first of the continent-describing chapters, this one focuses on Europe. It provides a brief overview of political geography, religion, travel and its dangers, notable people and events; then it heads into specific locations and set-piece adventures. Some of these are set in locations that will be familiar to Kane fans, and these are described both before and after Kane visits them – this approach is repeated for such locations in later chapters.

The Dark Continent (54 pages)

It’s fitting this should be the largest continent chapter, as Kane himself spent more time in Africa than anywhere else. This section covers getting there, geography, local empires, and adventures.

The New World (32 pages)

Kane did visit the New World, but this is mentioned only in passing in Howard’s stories, so the GM and campaign have more latitude here. Again, the chapter explains how to get there, local geography, the old empires (now largely conquered or destroyed), and a group of adventure scenarios.

Cathay and the Orient (24 pages)

The last of the continental sections covers the east: Hindoostan, Cathay and Nippon. It explains how to get there, describes the major countries one finds and their societies and religions, notable people, and then drives on into the local adventures.

Horrid Beasts of Solomon Kane (38 pages)

As with NPCs, the GM is encouraged to create them quickly, without worrying too much about balancing encounters or points values. The bestiary chapter begins with a list of monstrous abilities and their effects – stock SW stuff, although I thought I saw a couple of new abilities there – before heading into individual monster descriptions; the natural (animals, easily transported to any other SW game, and natural hazards), the unnatural (largely beasts from the Kane stories, or similar sorts of creatures), people (stock NPC archetypes), and famous people (memorable characters from the stories).

The book also includes a world map, a character sheet, and at the back, a repeat of the summary tables and some area effect templates.


The grim, dark setting will seem familiar to Warhammer players and fans of Hammer horror flims, both of which draw inspiration from Howard and like authors.

I would love to run this, or to play in a Kane campaign. This is one of the better Savage Worlds settings. For the moment, it goes on the shelf, awaiting a slot in my schedule. Some day, its turn will come.

Review of Stars Without Number

This little gem from Sine Nomine Publishing is available from RPGNow as a free download – thanks to Vile Traveller for alerting me to it. Don’t let the price fool you, this is a fully-fledged SF RPG and not a bad one at that. What has it got in its pocketses? Well…

In a Nutshell: Free, self-contained, Old School SF RPG channelling the spirits of Classic Traveller (GDW) and SpaceQuest (Tyr).


Introduction (2 pages): This has a one-page outline of the setting, and a one-page discussion of RPGs from both a newbie’s and a grognard’s perspective – the latter is slightly unusual, and to be encouraged.

The setting premise is the default one for RPGs: The Player Characters are adventurers from a point of light in the Dark Ages left behind by the collapse of an earlier empire.

Character Creation (18 pages): This opens with a statement of approach, which places this game firmly in the Old School sandbox camp – the Game Master creates the setting, but the players must define their characters’ goals and must know when to fight, when to negotiate, and when to run, as the Sorting Algorithm of Evil does not apply here.

Character creation seems inspired by a number of other games; I thought I could detect influences from D&D, SpaceQuest, Traveller and True20. First the player rolls 3d6 for each attribute (Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma), then selects a class (Warrior, Expert or Psychic), then choose background and class training packages which grant skills, pick a homeworld, roll hit points (class determines die type), choose languages, buy equipment, and (if a psychic) select some disciplines.

Each class has a special ability (for example, warriors can automatically evade one attack per fight), and the general run of NPCs are not members of a class, although outstanding villains might be.

Each training package grants a number of skills at level 0, or level 1 for a skill which appears in both one’s background and one’s class training. To use a skill, the player rolls 2d6, adds his skill level (0-4) and an attribute modifer (+2 to –2), and tries to equal or exceed a target number set by the GM, usually 8. Some skills (such as Combat or Culture) require the character to choose a speciality within a general class of skills.

Psionics (8 pages): Psychics begin knowing a couple of powers from one or more of 6 disciplines. Each discipline has a range of powers, which must be learned in order, and using powers costs psi points – a character’s psi points and powers which can be learned increase with level, and by permanently sacrificing power points, he can “master” a power, which allows him to use it thereafter without expending psi points.

Equipment (26 pages): It’s unusual to see an equipment section in a game larger than the character creation one, but this section covers tech levels, encumbrance, money, legality, armour (from shields to personal force fields), weapons (from knives to energy and psychic weapons), exploration gear, tools and medical devices, IT gear, costs of upkeep and hired help, cyberware, vehicles, starship design and operations, and rare artifacts produced before the collapse of the previous empire, so the scope is also wider than usual.

Systems (12 pages): These are the game mechanics; how to handle combat (both personal and starship), hazards, character advancement (class and level based), travel and so on.

To attack in combat, a character rolls 1d20, applies modifiers, and any modified score of 20+ hits, whereupon damage is rolled and deducted from the target’s hit points. Diseases, poisons etc. require a saving throw to avoid ill effects, which is based on class and level and rolled on 1d20.

The History of Space (7 pages):

This gives the default setting for the game: The development of FTL travel in the early 22nd century, colonisation and first contact, the appearance of psychics and their later use in crewing jump gates, the Scream which destroyed all psychics, jump gates, and FTL ships in flight, the regression into a dark age, and the re-emergence and gradual recovery.

This section does a passable job of explaining how the setting came to be as it is, although in honesty it’s more for the GM, players are not generally that bothered about detailed backgrounds – at least, not the ones I play with.

Game Master Guide (9 pages):

This will be familiar to old hands, and as the author acknowledges, a complete newbie is unlikely to have found this as their first RPG – not that it would be a problem if they had. It covers how to create a sector of space for the PCs to explore, preparing adventures, and tips for handling common problems in a sandbox setting – most obviously, the burden on the GM of preparing everything in advance, because he or she has no idea where the PCs will go next.

Stars Without Number shines in addressing this last, as you will see below. The GM Guide doesn’t include all the detailed systems for doing so, simply an overview of how they fit together.

World Generation (26 pages)

A world in this game is defined by its atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population, tech level and tags. The first five are generated by rolling 2d6 on an appropriate table, and looking up the summary relating to (for example) an inert gas atmosphere. The last one is the most innovative and useful to the GM. Each world has two tags, of which 60 examples are provided, ranging from Abandoned Colony and Alien Ruins to Xenophobes and Zombies – the stock tropes of classic SF.

Each tag has a brief paragraph of descriptive text, and short lists of enemies, friends, complications, things and places. Pull a few of those together and the scenarios virtually write themselves. For example, a world tagged with Alien Ruins would have…

  • Enemies: Customs inspector, worshipper of the ruins, hidden alien survivor.
  • Friends: Curious scholar, avaricious local resident, interstellar smuggler.
  • Complications: Traps in the ruins, remote location, paranoid customs officials.
  • Things: Alien artifacts, remains of a previous expedition, untranslated alien text, untouched hidden ruins.
  • Places: Undersea ruin, orbital ruin, perfectly preserved alien building, alien mausoleum.

Sixty example tags are provided, and it would be a long time before I ran out of ideas based on them. Given that each planet has two tags, the combinations run into several thousand, more than any group I run would ever explore.

Factions (15 pages)

Factions are organisations intended as patrons or enemies, but PCs reaching 9th level have enough clout to start their own faction, if they wish.

The same creativity and thoroughness evidenced in the World Generation chapter is present here. This section provides rules for the governments, businesses, religions and other organisations which are the big players in the local region of space. They are rating almost as characters; each has statistics, a homeworld, and tags.

The statistics are hit points (resilience in the face of opposition), force rating (capability to apply physical violence), cunning (skills at espionage and security), wealth (commercial, scientific and industrial resources), faction credits (used to buy assets and conduct operations), and experience points.

Factions use their faction credits to buy items like Hitmen or Medical Centres. These give them concrete attack and defence scores, and various special abilities. Wealth is used to produce more faction credits and support existing assets.

The homeworld indicates where the faction’s headquarters are; it can always acquire assets on its homeworld, but must buy a base on another world before it can do anything there.

Tags are unique qualities which distinguish otherwise similar factions, for example Fanatical or Plutocratic. Each tag has a short description and unique game effects.

Factions struggle against each other to achieve their goals, and gain experience points for achieving them, which allows them to level up their statistics. Goals are set by the GM, but there are about a dozen sample ones provided. Every month, each faction can attempt one of a number of actions, which might generate an adventure for the PCs or be a reaction to something they have done.

This section also provides half-a-dozen sample factions to get you started.

Adventure Creation (10 pages)

Here, the GM rolls 1d100 on the adventure seed table (or selects a seed) to get an adventure outline, then fills it in with enemies, friends, complications, things and places appropriate to the planet where the PCs are, based on that world’s tags. The GM now thinks up a hook to get the players interested, generates stats for the NPCs, creates or plagiarises maps, and selects rewards in terms of cash and experience. Solid stuff, designed with the busy GM in mind.

Alien Creation (10 pages)

Aliens in Stars Without Number fill the traditional roles of patron or antagonist, but the rules also suggest creating a number of vanished alien races, whose ruins are left behind for exploration.

Dice and tables are there to determine body type, psychology, and social structure.

Psychology is the most interesting part and revolves around Lenses, which are essentially tags for alien species, such as Curiousity or Pride – the key motivations which colour everything they do. 20 are provided as examples.

The GM must also select the aliens’ tech level, political status and the objectives of their government (which could easily be created as a faction).

The section closes with three example species.

Xenobestiary (10 pages)

This has tables and rules for creating animals. Unlike Traveller, where animal creation starts with the ecological niche the species occupies, Stars Without Number begins with the creature’s dramatic role – ranging from Nuisance Vermin to Party-Butchering Hell Beast. This determines its combat stats. Another example of creativity and thoughtfulness by the author.

One then determines the creature template (for example insectile) and then dices for, or picks, traits or variations on that template.

The bestiary follows these rules with a dozen sample animals, and another dozen stock NPCs.

Designer Notes (6 pages)

Wherein the design explains why the rules are the way they are, to help in understanding less obvious aspects of the system, and also so that one knows the implications of tweaking various parts of it. Although the game is clearly inspired by retro RPGs, they could have done with something like this – Original D&D and Traveller had quirks which took a lot of thought to understand, and a section like this would have saved a lot of false starts for me as a newbie GM.

Hydra Sector (16 pages)

This puts it all together by providing a pregenerated starmap, worlds, and factions. You can jump right in and create adventures in this sector, or use it for examples and inspiration.

Game Master Resources (20 pages)

This is a collection of miscellaneous bits and pieces to save the GM time. First we have tables for randomly naming people and places in Arabic, Chinese, English, Indian, Japanese, Nigerian, Russian, and Spanish – presumably the main languages of the original colonists. Each table is accompanied by paragraphs on traditional cuisine and clothing associated with the language.

Next come tables for fast NPC creation: Gender, age, height, problems, motivation, quirks, and statistics by class and level.

Third are tables for quickly generating corporations (name, business, and reputation), religions (evolution, leadership, origin, religious titles), heresies (founder, nature of heresy, attitude towards the orthodox, and quirks), political parties (leadership, policies, relationships, core issues and name), architecture, and room dressing.

Finally, this section includes a number of stock spacecraft.

Index and Forms (11 pages)

Two pages of index, and blank forms for starmaps, planets, factions, adventures, alien races, characters, starships and planetary maps.


I can’t believe this is free. I would have paid money for it and been happy, because of its innovation and creativity. The author has clearly thought a lot about the GM’s workload in a sandbox game, and how to alleviate it.

I don’t see myself running a Stars Without Number campaign, but the sections on World Generation, Factions, Adventure Creation and GM Resources are so useful that I might well adopt them right away for existing campaigns and building them into new ones from the beginning. I could even see a two-level campaign, with players acting as factions at one level and traditional PCs on the other.

Kevin Crawford, I salute you. This is a class act, and I look forward to further output from your pen.