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).

CONTENTS

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.

Conclusion

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.

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5 thoughts on “Review of Stars Without Number

  1. I received the game in hardcover format and it is top notch. Great quality, great game. I am very happy with my purchase. Highly recommended.

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