Review of Hard Light: Adventure Module for Stars Without Number

"Where else can you get an evening’s entertainment for six people for less than a tenner?" – Albie Fiore, 1980

In a Nutshell: Can you say "dungeon crawls in spa-a-a-ace"? I knew you could. This 38-page module from Sine Nomine Games describes a star system for the Stars Without Number RPG, and adventures set therein.


  • Light Without End: One-page GM’s overview of the star system and its secret history. The system contains a red giant star and a number of asteroids, but no significant planetary bodies.
  • Brightside Station: 8 pages describing the mining station which is the main centre of human population in the system. There are descriptions of the station as a whole, mining operations, local law enforcement, daily life, the station personnel, and local hazards; capsule descriptions of ten key NPCs and their motivations; deck plans with a couple of paragraphs of explanation for each area; and contents of the station’s locker. If you consider this as a campaign-starting dungeon module, Brightside is the base town where the PCs will hang out between expeditions.
  • The Sky Tombs: 8 pages on the alien ruins found in the system; history, structure, details of two alien races, a system for creating Sky Tombs based on a set of geomorphic maps and a list of stock room descriptions, and the ancient treasures available for looting.
  • Empty Graves: The obligatory pirate base, with an overview of operations, a deck plan and room descriptions, and thumbnail sketches of key NPCs. Two pages.
  • The Cold Tomb and The House of Echoes: Two example Sky Tombs, fully stocked, with deck plans and room descriptions.
  • Judgement Day: Two pages outlining what happens when the Station’s dark past finally catches up with it, and how the PCs can become embroiled in the denouement.
  • Nothing But Trouble: One page of hooks by which the PCs can be inveigled into this den of iniquity.
  • NPC Combat Stats: Exactly what it says on the tin. Stat blocks for stock and named NPCs. One page.
  • Maps: Player maps of BrightSide Station, for use as a handout; Sky Tomb geomorphs for the GM; and a one-page handout for the PCs, a station briefing handed to their characters on arrival. Total, four pages.


So, yes, this is a series of dungeon crawls in space. That’s not a bad thing per se; I think I would really enjoy playing in Mr Crawford’s campaign, should the opportunity ever arise. Meanwhile, this would be a good place to start a campaign from.

What you get in the module is a complete plug-and-play star system, easily transported to other campaigns; a fleshed-out starport; ancient tombs to loot and pirates to fight off while you’re doing it; and starport intrigues both large and small in which they can be embroiled. There are at least five sessions’ worth of play in here, probably more – that’s not bad going for a couple of bucks. SWN continues to delight with its tightly-integrated setting, information-dense products, and fresh, fast-play mechanics.

Review of Skyward Steel: Stars Without Number Naval Campaigns

This is a 59-page supplement for Stars Without Number, expanding on all things naval. The author is Kevin Crawford and it is published by Sine Nomine Games. Note the splendidly evocative chapter titles.

In a Nutshell: This is for the SWN GM who wants to run a naval campaign. The primary focus is on setting up and running a group of PCs who are naval personnel, either department heads on a warship, or naval special forces operators.

The Troubled Sea, When It Cannot Rest

This section (4 pages) covers the history and role of interstellar navies in the default Stars Without Number setting. How the Terran Mandate Navy was created; what it did at the height of the Mandate’s power, and how this changed during the great inward turn; the effects of the Scream and the Silence; fleets in the present post-apocalyptic times, and their missions: Space supremacy, piracy suppression (and how piracy works when not suppressed), and planetary invasion. This follows the normal space opera tropes, using Earth’s Age of Sail as an historical analogue.

Orders Standing Taller Than Men

Five pages on the organisation of stellar navies. This also covers naval ranks and wages, guidelines on how the ship’s crew is organised with examples, and a short section on naval law (opening with the truism "It is distressingly likely that PCs will eventually incur the displeasure of their superiors.")

We Die In Silence And Light

Another 5-page section, this time on life in the navy; the sort of person who becomes a military spacer, how they enlist and progress through their careers, how naval discipline shapes their motives and actions, and appropriate personality traits for ratings, warrant officers and commissioned officers. There’s a warning here that PCs tend not to follow the herd, which is handled in the later section on running a naval campaign. However, the author makes a good point – this very lack of individuality means that each distinct navy can be treated as a single NPC, against whom the PCs can be measured. There is also an explanation of the importance of personal honour, and how it affects both NPC reactions and career progression. The section continues with an explanation of naval watches, and example days in the life of a rating and an officer; it closes with a page on the three main internal foes of the naval PC: head office politics, civilians, and the enemy within.

This is good stuff, usable in any starfaring campaign, and put me strongly in mind of David Weber’s Honor Harrington books and David Drake’s RCN series. The section is densely packed with usable detail.

A Thousand Burning Skies

This is for the GM; 12 pages on how to run a naval campaign. It opens with an explanation of the key differences between normal sandbox play and a naval campaign; namely that the naval campaign allows the GM to present PCs with adventures stripped down to the essential action only, that the PCs have tremendous firepower, and that they are accountable for their actions to the government. The naval campaign thus focuses on the hard choices of how and when to use that firepower, and the consequences for the PCs of their decisions.

Next, this section offers advice on how to run parties of military PCs; who has authority, how to handle parties of mixed ranks, and how to deal with the levels of violence of which a warship is capable. As the author memorably puts it, "If you know your PCs are going to be in control of a photonic siege cannon, then you shouldn’t be building adventures that can be most logically resolved by a rain of laser death." Also explained are discipline, punishments, prize vessels and prize money.

Thirdly, the chapter examines two types of naval campaign:

  • Gunboat Diplomacy – the PCs are the command staff of a small warship. Though it isn’t explicitly referenced, you could look to any version of Star Trek for the sort of adventures this generates.
  • The Deep Black Sky – the PCs are members of an elite naval special forces team, conducting covert operations. This could well be the default campaign, as PCs are well-known for their individuality and non-standard approach, and Deep Black teams are one of the few places in the navy that these attributes are embraced. To maintain the feeling that the players have some control over what their characters are ordered to do, the author suggests that they play both the operatives, and the advisors who create missions in response to their government’s needs.

Finally, there are adventure seeds. Each world tag from the SWN rulebook has a couple of plot ideas outlined for it. The world tags are one of the stand-out ideas from SWN, and this makes them even more attractive.

Gravity’s Fugitives

Here we have 4 pages of expanded character generation rules, in the form of new background and training packages a character can take. These cover the tropes you would expect – marines, fighter jocks, deck apes and line officers, to name but a few.

Breakers And Shoals

This 11-page chapter expands on the ship combat rules in SWN; since ship combat is a likely part of a naval campaign, it behooves the GM to focus in on it a little more. Here we find forms to simplify control of larger ship combats, advice on what to do if the PCs’ ship is killed, and – the meat of the section – handouts for each of the six ship’s departments, explaining what the department does, what actions it can take during a combat turn, and what mishaps could befall it. The intent is that each PC takes control of one or more departments during the fight, either by rank or due to personal character and skill; in each turn, he or she can make a skill check to attempt various actions. These cost "crew points" to execute, and each have an impact on the ship’s behaviour during the turn – bonuses to hit, for instance. Some orders regenerate crew points.

The chapter closes with discussions on military space stations and anti-ship ground defences.

The Ship’s Locker

The Ship’s Locker contains 8 pages of rules for spacecraft design, explaining how to create warships and other military vessels, and how they are funded. There are three new ship hulls, four new space station hulls, and a variety of military-grade systems with which to fit them out. There is also a handful of new personal devices which could come in handy aboard ship, and nine pre-generated warships and space stations in case you don’t fancy designing them from scratch.

Born In Thunder

A 5-page chapter which spends two pages on explaining how to create a star navy – how much budget the navy has, and how to spend it – before giving three example navies from the default sector in the SWN core rulebook.


I so want to run a campaign like this! SWN is looking better all the time. This is one of the better RPG treatments of a space navy, and for about $5 it’s extremely good value; the page count is short, but it’s all killer – no filler. Highly recommended.

The Missing Powers – Savaged

“Doomed spies are those of our own spies who are deliberately given false information and told to report it to the enemy.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

If you’re new to Savage Worlds, as I was not so long ago, probably one of your first thoughts on reading the powers is that there are some stock RPG tropes missing: Telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, illusions, and so on. (Telepathy not being present is a deliberate design choice, intended to avoid PCs learning too much from NPCs too easily.)

At first, I hunted for these in supplements, internet fora and worldbooks. I found the Mind Reading power, and numerous fan conversions, and I still sometimes use Mind Reading – Coriander has it, for example.

However, there is another approach which is more in keeping with Savage Worlds: Consider these “missing” powers as trappings for existing ones.

You might cast Fear, for example, by gazing into the victim’s subconscious mind to learn his worst nightmare, and then showing him an illusion of it. Boosting your Notice skill might mean you read the target’s surface emotions, or “see” what’s going on behind the door. You might cast Invisibility by creating the illusion that you are not there. Boosting your Persuasion might mean you have read the NPC’s surface thoughts and presented the argument most in line with them. And so on.

Be creative; but don’t expect to solve the mystery by reading the suspect’s mind. In any setting where minds can be read, the powers that be will quickly learn how to lie to a telepath – namely, don’t; lie to someone else, and let the telepath read his mind. This is not really so different from normal practice; one has to assume that any captive will eventually talk – even if he doesn’t, you have no real way to know whether he has or not.

Expendable patsies required to be betrayed into the hands of the Dark Lord, you say? Forced to reveal information we actually want him to have, because it will lead him into a trap? Sounds like a job for the PCs to me…

Review of Stars Without Number Free Supplements

Recently I bought Skyward Steel (SWN naval expansion) and Hard Light (SWN adventure module), of which more anon; but while doing so I noticed that Sine Nomine Games has also released a number of free web supplements ("Mandate Archives") via RPGNow. Naturally, I grabbed those as well. Here’s what I found…


A 6-page free supplement for Stars Without Number, which expands on martial arts – hand-to-hand and melee weapons.

The default assumption for SWN is that characters will use a gun if they can, a melee weapon if they can’t, and bare hands only when they have nothing else available.

This supplement provides options for groups who would rather have melee as a viable option. Each style of martial arts is bought as a specialisation of the Combat skill, and confers benefits either by skill level (if the GM is using skills) or by class level (if he or she is not).

Styles covered include Dirty Fighting, Empty Holster (forcing armed opponents to turn their weapons on each other), the Gentle Way (aikido), Ghost Walker (ninjutsu), Kenjutsu (blade weapons), Mindwall and Red Dawn (psionics), Silver Petal (knife-fighting and throwing), Tempter’s Hand (hand-to-hand feints), and Tyrian Locks (a wrestling style which turns the foe’s own armour into a weapon against him).

I like the way that the author developed new styles that suit the setting, rather than simply creating "space karate". Definitely worth a look, even if only as background flavour.


A 7-page free supplement for Stars Without Number, detailing a mercenary organisation which grew out of neo-Buddhist genetic engineering. Free from all emotion except loyalty to their homeworld, the Red Sangha are fearless and ruthless, with absolutely nothing to lose.

The supplement covers the secret history of the corps, their organisation and missions, the unique approach which their gengineered past encourages, statistics for commonly-encountered members, and the goals and motivations of the current leadership. The corps is intended as patrons, allies, or opposition of the "noble enemy" school for experienced groups of PCs.

The supplement ends with rules for Red Sangha PCs.

What we have here is an organisation, and its homeworld, which can be easily dropped into any sector of space; and I probably will.


An 8-page free supplement for Stars Without Number, detailing the history of the organisation which developed the plans for the standard orbital stations used in the game, and explaining why so many of the plans include flaws.

The supplement also provides rules for space station construction and combat; sample stations that can be used immediately; possible flaws built in to the schematics, and how to identify and correct them; and ten adventure seeds involving space stations. Finally, there is a pointer to the Hard Light scenario, which includes deck plans and other details for a Bannerjee Model 12 space station.


Stars Without Number goes from strength to strength. If I’m not careful, I’ll find myself running SWN as a campaign. Again, I’m impressed with the quality of the free stuff – coming soon, what I think of the pay-to-download books.