Combats without Number

While the old-school Sci-Fi RPG “Stars without Number” is built on a base of Original D&D, it is its own beast, with many extras.

It has to, playing out in space and with blaster rifles. So it has lots of additions bolted on, like (Traveller) Skills and Foci (something like feats?), space ship combat, and its skill mechanic works with roll of 2d6, modified for attribute mods, skill levels, and other bonus modifications, where available.

But what about Combat?

Combat is always very central to a roleplaying game, as never are the stakes higher and the dice rolls more meaningful than when lifes hang in the balance.

A look at the rules

Initiative goes with a d8 plus DEX or special modifiers, with PCs winning ties. High goes first. Ambushes are not a fixed percent chance, but contested 2d6 rolls of skills: sneak versus notice, with ties going to the defender.

During one combat round (of six seconds! Firearms don’t vibe well with minute-long combat rounds), there is 1 main action (i.e. an attack or something similar) and 1 move (running 10 meters! Metric for that Sci-Fi feel).


Main Actions” are attacks, or retreating with defenses up, or reloading a gun. Other main actions are skill uses .. depending on the skill they might take longer than 1 round, obviously.

Standing up, lying down, or picking something up from the floor, or pushing something into a bag, are “Move Actions“. So those can be combined. You can push a diamond bracelet into your bag while shooting at the guards.

There are also super-quick actions, so called “Instant Actions“. Almost self-explanatory, they include dropping something to the ground carelessly, or trying a snap-shot attack without aim or finesse at -4.

But there are also some psychic actions that are instant. The instant action sometimes costs the main action: For example, a snap shot attack or going ultra-defense with a +2 bonus to AC for the round nix this rounds capacity for main action. But on the other hand, you can do several instant actions during one round. Like a psychic “spell”, kicking an item under the bed, and shooting at someone, almost all at once. Or you can run double distance and then attack hasty with a -4.


Attack rolls are 1d20 + attack bonus (usually Level/half) + skill level (punch, stab, or shoot, sometimes special other skills) + any attribute modifier that fits the weapon (often DEX). If a weapon has more than one attribute listed, use the best.

Damage to hit points adds the same attribute modifier, so a strong person does more damage on a hit, nimble person hits more vital parts shooting.

The skill system comes in at this point: You need at least some familiarity with weapons to fight properly, in other words, a skill level of zero. If your skill level in “shoot”, “punch” or “stab” is -1, though, you are a civilian and get a -2 modifier for any attack.

Deskjob guys don’t make great Rambos.

Roll to hit and damage

Hit Roll modifiers can go from +2 for advantageous situations to -4 for very long odds. Finding cover is key: Half-cover like the corner of a building hits the opponent with a -2, almost complete cover with -4. This is in line with modifier guidelines in Basic Dungeons & Dragons, where +/-1 is a little, +/-2 normal, and +/-4 a lot.

Lying prone on the floor counts for -2 cover, but if someone stands there and hits you with an axe while you are lying on the ground, this certain someone gets +2 because you are a sitting .. or lying .. duck. Shooting someone during a melee struggle at close distance is at -4.


Melee weapons often apply “shock”: That is a minimum damage that gets applied no matter if the attack hits or misses, provided the armor is at a certain number or lower. Shock damage always adds the wielder’s attribute modifier and any other bonuses that might apply from weapon mods, foci, or other advanced tech, and with some foci packages it just ignores armor in general. So regardless of roll, with Shock damage every attack will cost the target HP.

Foci can alter the details there, dependent on level and armor class, and generally will make the application of shock damage easier and more frequent.

And damage on a hit does *at least* shock damage, so the classic D&D 1-damage results after a good hit are not going to happen in Stars Without Number, except if the target wears awesome armor.

Attention: Full defense — missing out on attacks to parry the whole round — not only makes AC better by 2, it also makes immune to shock damage. So it is a wise move for the aforementioned deskjob jockeys.


Loved by players, hated by some GMs and most game designers: Combat Maneuvers with special effects.

Pushing or forcing someone into a bad place works with a push attack that does no damage on success … instead, a hit forces an opposed skill check. If the target loses, it gets pushed into the yawning abyss and is seen no more. Simple, elegant. Or it is pushed into a fire and starts burning. Whatever the case may be.

Disarming a foe does the same trick: Attack, sacrifice the damage for the chance to pull off an effect. Skill-Check-Duel, but in this case with a +3 bonus for the defender (he is holding the weapon after all). If the attacker wins the skill duel, the defender is disarmed. Bonus: If the attacker wins the disarm by a margin of 3 or more, despite the defense bonus, then he gets ahold of the enemy’s weapon and now has two of them. (Or one, if he started weaponless). A bit clunky, with all these extra minuses and pluses, but still okay.

Sniping, assassinating, and one-shotting!

There is a wild rule that most roleplaying games shy away from: The one shot kill. Why do they fear it? Because it can spoil a carefully planned plot or feel underwhelming if you snip down your Big Bad from a rooftop. Even worse, what if a bad guy did it to a player character? Unthinkable! The outrage!

But not Stars Without Numbers! This game dares the impossible and has a pretty simple rule for it, the so called “Execution Attack”. Melee or Ranged, no matter: Be in a position to do it, then spend a full minute aiming for just the right spot, judging wind etc. at great distances. If you get that done, attack. Not with an attack roll, though: with a gun, it is a skill check of DEX/Shoot, target number 6 on point blank, 8 on normal range, or 10 for long range. A melee assassination hits automatically, but requires the attacker to be right next to the target the whole time. Maximum damage for the weapon is done.

On top of that, the target must make a physical saving throw, at a penalty of the number that attacker has as his/her combat skill. Failure = Death.

Nasty! Especially considering that this can obviously happen to player characters too — of any level!

Dual wielding

Attacking with two weapons at once requires a minimum skill level of 1. The attack roll is performed at a penalty of -1 due to extra effort needed to coordinate two weapons. A dual wielder will use one weapon to create an opening and the other to stab. The damage is boosted by +2, the attacker can choose which weapon does the actual hit.

Dual wielding guns: The rules don’t say. Logic says that with guns you do not create an opening with one and stabbing with the other, so I would expect that ranged akimbo calls for two attack rolls. That is not RAW, but …

These are fine rules that can easily be transplanted to other old school games, … if a GM has the guts to allow one-shot-kills against any level characters who don’t watch out when some goon sidles up close to them with one hand tucked in a sleeve.

A look at actual play

In our game of Stars without Number, we (2 n00b player characters, Malm the Warrior Priest slash Security Officer and Katron the Comms Officer slash Acting Captain, both level 5, and a cleaning robot with an assortment of weapons) had just found a nice treasure, when a strong NPC antagonist, a space pirate captain, and four of his crew rappelled into the room from above and demanded that we hand it over. We attempted to reason with them, then we attempted to negotiate, but the captain wanted the treasure and he wanted us to simply make way. Then he touched the treasure and set off a trap that stunned everyone in the room for a number of rounds.

The party war-cleric was first to recover his wits, just as a third party intruded: A monster dropped from the ceiling and picked, by chance, one of the stunned pirate-goons as supper.

Malm, war cleric and close combat specialist with the warrior’s luck focus, went right in to attack the pirate captain, the most dangerous foe in the room, while his target was still stunned.

During the first three rounds initiative was rather inconsequential, as most foes were stunned, and the monster first slayed the one pirate, then looked around and circled the room to zoom in at Katron. The target was stunned, but not helpless, in other words, he was able to wobble around and defend. Therefore, no easy one-shot-stabbing, but actual combat, if one-sided.

Malm hacked away at the captain, and had hoped that the monster would attack this man in the rear so he would go down before his stun wore out. But no … with grim disappointment Malm saw the beast circle around the combat to go for his groggy friend Katron. So the clock was ticking: He had to down that stunned pirate boss fast!

Claw, claw! Double attacks wound Katron.

At that point Katron and the captain both overcame their stun and rolled initiative, using a d8 and adding half the Init-modifier of Katron’s (average, since Malm had none).

The pirate captain, his wits back, nulled one of Malm’s attacks with his own warrior’s luck focus, but then when he struck back Malm returned the compliment when the captain attacked with his glaive. This focus allows a fighter to completely ignore one enemy hit per scene, in other words, per combat encounter.

Luckily, the captain rolled rather bad for two more rounds, and the monster, while faring better in terms of hits, did damage only slowly to Katron. However, its acidic saliva destroyed 1 point of AC with every successful hit, which soon rendered Katron unprotected. On his initiative, Katron cost the monster dearly by using a recently acquired, half-organic bone harpoon that added +2 to his attack rolls and +3 to damage, in addition to his own +1s for his STR bonus. Not a soft target at all, our Katron!

Thanks to the armored cleaning bot’s attacks on the pirate crew (the effectiveness of his attacks was well known; in our first combat this very same bot had killed the Prospector’s pilot and wounded the other crew members, almost killed Katron then), the war priest had his back free: While the bot hunted little pirates who struggled to overcome its AC, Malm managed to overcome and slay the captain. Then he pushed the dead body onto the monster (Exertion roll at -1 yielded 11 – boxcars rolled!), hoping to lure it away from Katron.

The monster got the big captain shoved into its arms, but it failed to accept the gift. It only retreated for a moment, then dropped the body and came on again to bring down Katron, its prey. Not smart, this monster. With so many dead already, it really had no business to come after us.

Malm had picked up heavy treasure, in his eagerness to leave, and so he needed a moment to engage again. In that moment the monster managed to wound Katron so hard as to reduce him to negative six. (counted as zero and bleeding out)

Malm dropped the treasure and sliced at the monster with his sword. Under the dual attacks from the cleaning bot and the war priest, the monster succumbed and fell. Then he patched his fallen comrade with a Lazarus patch, rolling a 9, negative 1 for no healing skill = 8. Enough to stabilise Katron and begin the way back to the surface … loading the wounded comrade onto the cleaning bot, because stabilisation is not healing: Katron will still need days or weeks of medical care on the station to get back onto his four webbed feet.

It feels as if this warrants another combat example, one where more maneuvers and action combinations are employed, instead of this very straightforward hacking and parrying.

Well, we are short on cash, and our ship is damaged, so we need to make money quick. That may bring a good combat opportunity soon.

ADDENDUM: Starship Combat

Starship combat is also covered. Just a brief overview, that does not give it justice:
Normal initiative, then the captain decides in which order the various departments of the ship act. Which means basically, if they move first or shoot first, or jam enemy systems, or if the engineering crew attempts damage control before a maneuver or after it. But there is more to that: Some actions require “Command Points”, which can be generated by other actions. So one department can work excessively determined to rake up Command Points, which allow another department to perform a particularly effective action. Or even a normal one: To fire one ship weapon requires 2 CPs, and they have to come from somewhere. Damage control requires 3 CPs, so if your ship is struggling you may have to decide if you want to keep shooting or if you want to survive.

We see, starship navigation and combat are no intuitive pantser affair, they require a plan and they demand that people know what they are doing.

A ship combat round takes 15 minutes, in which department heads organise their crewmembers and handle skill checks as necessary. Determined performance at skill checks may generate a CP, but failure may cost one. The captain can also create CPs.

Getting hit works with an attack roll at Shooting, adding their base attack bonus and either DEX or INT bonus. If that hits the ship AC, we have a hit. Damage is reduced by Armor Score, and boosted by the gun’s Armor Piercing Quality. (Although the Armor Piercing only kills armor, it does not add to damage.)

A ship that is down to zero hit points is destroyed if it is small. Larger ships are crippled and have 2d6 minutes to stabilise the damage. On a fail, they explode, on success, they drift until further repairs can be made … if they don’t get more damage.

The captain can also turn one hit per round into a crisis — instead of taking the damage, he or she can opt for a big problem on the ship that needs to be overcome by the crew. This is done with another skill roll versus a target of 10. On a fail, shit hits the fan. But at least it was a chance to avoid the gruesome hit, and it may have led to a memorable scene, because handling crises is done in detail, with the problem explained and quick fixes implemented.

A movie-worthy system, but also one that needs some learning to be run well.

Images: Stars Without Number / revised version

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