Special Forces Without Number

Posted: 11 January 2013 in Rules

Something I’ve been wondering about for a while is this: What level of population does a world need in Stars Without Number before it can have special forces units, of the kind that the Skyward Steel supplement refers to as Deep Black units? When one considers the continuous training they undergo and the support tail they must need, they are likely to be scarce.

Let’s look at real-world nations with population levels a planet might have in SWN, and see what they can field, especially in the naval arena, since Deep Black units are part of planetary navies.


The total population of the Earth at the moment is in this region, so basically as many as you want. Most countries with famous naval special forces units – US Navy SEALs, British SBS, Russian Naval Spetznatz – have populations in the tens or hundreds of millions. Picture the combined might of the UN Security Council vs. Luxembourg, Malta or the US Virgin Islands and you have some idea of a Regional Hegemon taking on the average planet.


As an example at the high end of this range, Israel has a population of 8 million or so, and has a number of special forces units, including Shayetet 13, part of the Israeli Navy. If you added them all up, there would probably be some hundreds, possibly thousands, of troops, but exact numbers for any unit of this type are hard to come by.

At the low end, Estonia has a population of about 1.3 million, and has the Estonian Special Operations Force, which was said to have an initial recruitment target of 36 men.

Tens or Hundreds of Thousands

I couldn’t find any contemporary state this small with a special forces unit. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, of course, but I doubt the average post-Scream planet at this population level has the money for its own permanent special forces. Enter the PCs, stage left, as mercenaries…


Much to my surprise, a cursory search through my bookshelves and on the web shows any planet with a population in the millions and sufficient political will could have special forces units. So there you have it.

  1. wargamingresources says:

    Hi Andy – interesting post.

    I’m not familiar with the rules in question, so I assume that space warfare is present.

    Some questions/comments that come to mind are:-

    How do we define Special Forces, both in our world context and also in the future?

    I imagine that whether a country has SF is also based on how peaceful it is and it’s economic performance – both of which apply to Israel.

    There may be a cultural aspect – eg do the Swiss have SF?

    In the context of your game, the cost of doing anything in space is much more expensive, so to create a space force SF unit would cost hugely more than the land-based equivalent. Currently we would be looking at the US, EU, and China only, I would guess.

    Cheers, Iain

    • andyslack says:

      Thanks Iain – good questions. I like that; part of the reason I post these things is to provoke discussion which will refine my thinking.

      The typical world in Stars Without Number has hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, and the PCs’ homeworld in the default setting (Gateway) has three million people; so my initial question was “Is it credible for Gateway to have a Deep Black team that the PCs could be part of?” They wouldn’t have cared, mind you, but my suspension of disbelief is as important as theirs. The answer, as you see, is “yes”.

      SWN is a game with space warfare; space travel is cheaper than in our world, with a basic tramp freighter costing roughly 10,000 times the price of a handgun, equivalent to a perhaps a few million dollars today. Even if it were as expensive in the game as it is for us, I’d say that would make Special Forces more important; if it’s hideously expensive to send people between the stars, you send small numbers, and they need to be highly skilled and motivated to compensate. If you need larger forces, you use those Special Forces to train guerillas (one of their common missions historically, although the focus today is more on counter-terrorist operations).

      In our world, I’d say Special Forces are troops trained for specific types of missions which combine the need for high skill levels with high levels of political impact (and possibly deniability). Usually this means operating far behind enemy lines, either for a short, intense raid, or for a long period of time without being detected. They are also used to make a pointed political statement – usually along the lines of “don’t mess with me, punk” – or to provide muscle for intelligence agencies.

      Those will be requirements so long as politics and warfare remain recognisable, but for gaming purposes there is another need; players like to exercise a level of initiative and cunning that would get them court-martialled in a normal military unit (“I gave you an order, soldier!”), but which would be acceptable to their NPC superiors if they are behind enemy lines on a critical mission (“Get it done, Sergeant, I don’t care how. And don’t get caught.”).

      I’d agree that a state would have Special Forces only if it had both a perceived need and the necessary funding. I think they matter more than culture; Switzerland does have Special Forces, notably Army Reconnaissance Detachment 10 for counter-terrorist operations.

  2. SineNomine says:

    Indeed so. And since you need a hundred thousand people or so just to have the industrial infrastructure necessary to build and maintain starships, just about every world not sealed off from its neighbors is going to have somebody dedicated to keeping an eye on those creepy aliens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s