Review of Skyward Steel: Stars Without Number Naval Campaigns

Posted: 9 March 2011 in Reviews

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.


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