After the end of a fantasy campaign the players spoke about “something different”, and that prompted me to try Science Fiction. Having a tiny bit of experience with SwN I gravitated there and created a small star sector to play in, with a bare handful of star systems with various forms of gouvernment, some hazards, some conflicts.
Stars Without Number is an old school inspired game, taking its cues from Original D&D as well as from the sci-fi-classic Traveller. But it is also kind of nu-school in some aspects, so it is one of those games that bridge the divide.
Skill rolls are done with 2d6 plus skill points, with a target value of 6 for easy, 8 for middling, 10 for tough, 12 for legendary. 2d6 means a bell curve that weighs things toward the 6 and 7 and makes the legendary even more legendary, but still within reason. The rules also point out that skill checks should not be done all the time: They are reserved for particularly stressful situations, while routine tasks should be assumed to be within competence levels of the PCs, where they need no rolls.
Examples for that would be routine flights between orbit and surface for a space pilot. Catastrophes will happen rarely bis never, so as long as Jimmy the Ace flies his daily job nothing much is going to happen outside of the ordinary. So if the pilot announces that he is flying down to the surface, that does not warrant a roll; he just does, and touches down without incident 20 to 30 minutes later.
Only when things might conceivably go wrong – when Jimmy flies barrel rolls between satellites while a small swarm of drones is blasting at him, or when he’s at least trying to rush the job to get it done before his arch-nemesis Sarah completes it over on deck B – then it is time to bring out the dice and test skills.
Skills are the forte of the “Specialist” who can learn any kind of non-combat skills (and combat skills on top).
The combat master is the fighter, who gets 2 more hit points per level, which is significant given that everyone has only 1d6 hit points per level, and 3-8 is a completely different ballgame than 1-6.
Still, they both can build their characters with great overlap, use the same weapons, wear the same armours, drive the same cars, both taking the same hobby skill or free focus… more about that later.
Options to choose from are manyfold in Stars Without Number, including variants of ship-combat, experience points or interstellar trade; even death!
Normal combat in Stars Without Number is a rather straightforward affair that translates over from classic OSR games pretty easily. Classic d20 roll against Armor Class, and AC even going up with more or better armor.
Damage: Old school tech 2 and 3 level weapons are a full throwback to early D&D and make the game fully compatible with early editions. Going up in tech to TL 4 or even full 5, most weapons will take down a normal person with one good hit.
Vehicles and even Mech combat are just extensions of the normal rules (for examples, hitting a vehicle is always AC 10 + speed factor) and therefore easy to master, with all of it coming from a foundation of old school D&D. Ranged weapons have a normal range as standard and a maximum range with a -2 malus to hit. Energy weapons get a +1 bonus for having no kickback, burst fire gets a +2 to attack and damage. All clear and easy.
A personal favourite of mine are the intelligent grenade rules, which surpass most grenade rules I know from other systems and feel well balanced: A grenade will take out most normal people except the quick, the high level heroes, and those who are armored up.
So much praise! But some aspects take a bit of getting used to.
Point of Order
It has to be said that the rule book is not streamlined.
There is a lot of flipping back and forth, or scrolling up and down. Not everything is ordered naturally, either within a chapter or from one chapter to the next. For a player that is not such a big concern, but running the game while trying to look up specific rules is demanding. It pays good dividends to collect links and screenshots of relevant tables in a document on an active computer, or to create something like a GM screen plus, with the tables from the official GM screen and various page numbers and notes added extra.
I hear that this issue has been tackled in the follow-up game WWN, Worlds without Numbers, a fantasy version of SwN.
Easier design, more orderly, and handy tables to quickly find everything needed to run … that is what I hear, but I have no experience with WwN so cannot confirm or deny.
Stars Without Number has a rather involved process of character generation that results in PCs with hit points – as mentioned earlier – on the lower end of the spectrum, but an impressive skill portfolio: capable hero material, that can also expect a very fast levelling trajectory through the first couple of levels. And characters collect power packages called “foci” very fast and early, so the system leans towards powerful PCs as movers and shakers. PCs are giants among men, not the more or less ordinary-ish people getting in way over their heads like in Original D&D or B/X.
Still, the presence of high tech and heavy weapons, as well as the natural hazard of open space makes sure that even an 8th level character must remain alert to dangerous situations: A vehicle mounted heavy weapon or a hole in a space suit are fast track tickets to the river Styx, regardless of how many foci or hit points a hero has collected.
Coming into the system fresh, especially from fast and easy game systems like Old School D&D, the process of chargen looks daunting and overwhelming, but practice makes perfect: Make four or five characters, make some mistakes along the way, and things become quite clear. There are even various online character generators created by fans. These are invaluable tools.
Players have the same issues, I find: most of the practice I got in character building came from players calling for help because they got lost in the various steps and aspects of Stars Without Number character creation, especially when it comes to skills and foci. (and to receive repeated assurances that it is okay not to have lots of high attribute scores. In fact, I think it may be profitable to have all attributes at 11 and ignore the rule that one of the attributes can be set to 14, just to take this useless stress factor out of the equation. It really does not matter. at least not much.)
Ship combat in Stars Without Numbers is practically its own minigame, designed to give every player at the table something to do during the fight. The ship is divided into five sub-crews, Bridge for movement, Gunnery for ship weapons, Engineering for damage control and boosting systems, Comms for sensors and hacking, and Captain to decide the order of action for those sub-units in a ship combat round and to make one sub-group’s actions cheaper.
Yes, because the order of action matters in terms of the mini-game: The ship has a number of command points, and every sub-unit can either generate command points by doing their job as they should, generate more of them by trying extra stunts … or consume these points by taking combat-related actions.
Consume too many command points and those who are behind you in the initiative order will have to sit this ship combat round out.
Ship combat takes place in 15 minute rounds and the ship weaponry has no set ranges. This gives space ships the slow but unavoidable feel of u-boats in deep water, and trying to flee from a combat may take an hour or two of limping away – which is kind of fitting, given that a hull breach has the same sort of dire consequences in space that it has at the bottom of the sea.
The slower than usual ship handling also influences normal travel, with half an hour of navigating and plotting courses necessary for a “spike drill” a.k.a. a hyperspace jump to the next star system. “Jump” needs some quotations marks there because the journey through hyperspace still takes days or even weeks, and when a ship drops out of hyperspace (which it can only do when it gets close to a gravitation center like a star or a black hole) it is practically out of fuel and needs some rest and quiet to replenish that resource. Dropping out of hyperspace among hostiles: Bad idea.
Bottom line: Ship combat is a convoluted beast and takes extra learning time.
Psionics are a mixed bag. They often are, in games.
In Stars Without Number, the psionics rules are exceptionally good: Someone has clearly thought about this and worked hard to make it a coherent system instead of the “anything goes” approach that is so common with Psi. However, they are also very powerful, like everything in Stars Without Number: There is the theoretical rule of “torching”, where you can use more mental effort for your psionics than you have and risk permanent damage to your attributes and sanity as a result. However, torching is rarely if ever an issue, because characters in general have enough effort-points and steadily gain more, and most effort-points used to power psionic skills return right after the scene, so you have them again soon enough. Only few take until the next day to return. And once you as a psychic run out of psi you can simply pick up a blaster and shoot like everyone else, or use normal skills like everyone else. They are simply an extra and there is no price to pay for having them. [Not like a D&D magic user who has to give up on armor and most weapons]
Still, two of the Psi-skills [oddly enough, SwN calls the categories/schools “skills” and the skills “techniques”] are problematic for GMing. Problematic, but not impossible to handle, because the rules take the GM-view into account.
One of these two is the ever difficult Mind Reading.
The other is looking into the future.
Precognition, known at level 1 (the second level after level 0), allows a PC to answer 1 question about the situation between now and the following day. Potentially game-breaking. But SwN makes it manageable by having this play out as a vision related to the question and spanning one minute. These visions show actions or events, they do not answer fact questions.
Obviously, the GM has to make it so that if the players do not alter their course, this vision must come to pass, so they will have to make sure that once that situation arrives, characters not present in the vision must be somewhere else at that point, etc.
It is a well-devised way to handle visions of the future.
Mind Reading is solved in a similar manner: Level 0 just picks up emotions, Level 1 picks up on the target’s communication. Level 2 picks up active thoughts, but cannot unearth memories or secret knowledge if it is not specifically thought about right at this moment.
Things get spicey at level 3, when memories can be accessed, but for level 3 psionic skills a character must already be at character level 6 at a minimum, so such individuals are quite rare. Only at character level 9 at the earliest can anyone reach psychic level 4 and really dig into a person’s mind to unearth their innermost secrets. But if anyone is such a strong psychic they are probably widely known and recognized, so it should be easy to just have that dude assassinated if he ventures outside of his home base.
Point of note: Stars Without Numbers has assassination rules that allow for one-shotting anyone, even a level 23 master-fighter with enough hit points to survive getting run over by a flatbed truck.
Hacking is generally a problem in RPGs because it is often its own little minigame that can — as in Cyberpunk 2020 — leave the non-hackers twiddling their thumbs for far too long; while conversely they are only side characters during meatspace runs; until the GM decides that hackers can only be NPCs, so they don’t hold up the rest of the gang.
Not so in Stars Without Numbers.
Here, hacking is just a skill check like any other, although it is assumed to take 10 minutes. It takes the programming skill and is also modified through the Intelligence attribute. 10 minutes is not too long in game terms, and the rest of the team can be brought in through the rule that most modern security requires the hacker to be on-site.
Curtain up for classic heist-situations á la Topkapi or Mission Impossible, especially if the database in question is off-grid and needs to have a line-shunt attached to be accessible.
Once that is in place, it becomes a question of difficulty: finding a specific piece of information like the location of the main safe or shutting down security is difficulty 8, hijacking the security cameras or collecting general information on a subject is difficulty 10, and copying down the whole database to a storage medium is difficulty 12. Other modifiers are added for circumstances and the identity of the target system, and decryption might take extra time.
Optional digital combat between “digital shells” a.k.a. avatars based in and powered by specific nodes called “Loci”. This is, again, a half-separate minigame incorporating a rock-paper-scissors kind of strategic element. A hacker who loses a “shell” is basically logged off and needs an hour to re-build and re-equip a fresh combat-ready avatar.
Obviously, the cyberspace is vast and wide, and all manner of digital hazards and chains of skill-challenges can await a hacker.
Factions in Stars Without Numbers are yet another minigame with its own rules, although optional. They could actually be a standalone boardgame. You collect Faction Credits, which are an abstract multitude of actual credits, and pay for upkeep of assets, which can be anything from an army to a bunch of ruffians, a bank or a TV network, or a fleet of transport ships.
The faction needs bases of influence, one on their home planet, and others wherever they want to create a foothold and get stronger. Drawback: Bases of influence are also achilles heels, because when assets to damage to a base of influence, they hurt the faction as a whole 1:1. If the base of influence is large enough, loss of two bases can destroy a whole faction even if it has five other bases of influence.
As an added issue, one faction move takes a month and during that month a faction can only focus on 1 task. That is kind of realistic, looking at large corporations or governments, who don’t appear to be doing important things faster than that. But still it drives home the issue of limited resources to work with. It takes clear objectives, good strategy and smart execution to get anywhere as a faction under these circumstances.
These “big picture events” can generate news and rumors about the ebb and flow of faction struggle in the interstellar background, which is quite an interesting way of doing it.
But it is really its own extra game running parallel in the background. And it can be vexing to have a multiplanetary government but only so few resources that you feel like you just can’t keep up. Shouldn’t a huge organisation with hundreds of thousands of members be able to tackle more than one task in a month – especially with the communication resources of Sci-Fi?
Faction play would work great as its own standalone game, I think, and its adaption in the sister-game Worlds Without Numbers might be quite useful for classic Fantasy games. (Remember, I don’t have WwN, so this is just a hunch) Food for thought.
Stars Without Numbers is a game that gives the party potentially Worlds Without Numbers (haha), in the sense that if you have a ship you can fly somewhere and there you find a whole planet full of adventures to last a lifetime. Or you keep flying. In other words, you will build worlds.
Good news then that the rules have the rules to quickly make people (one-roll-NPCs), social structure, alien animals, urban encounters, name tables, even missions, patrons and adventure seeds. It is a treasure trove for game masters that is useful beyond the game itself, even beyond sci-fi.
At the table
Actual running of the game is pretty fine. The core rules are few and easy enough to remember, only the more convoluted bits like particular equipment costs or the exact effect of foci have to be looked up regularly, and then the less than ideal order of chapters and topics comes into play. Overall, the toughest bits are character generation, ship combat, and the optional faction game.
The pros and the cons
Counting all these factors: It is a great game if you like high-powered complex characters, but while they are high-powered, they are still vulnerable. The rule book is full of highly valuable game thinking including a mini-essay about various ways to reward players with XP for the behaviour you want to see happening. It has optional rules for extra-heroic characters and space magic and it discusses the implications of true Artificial Intelligence (as opposed to “mere” machine learning). And the clever 2d6 skill system is easy enough to import into any other game too, if 1d6 does not satisfy and d20 feels too stale, and is close enough to classic D&D [turn undead!] to fit in without feeling tacked on.
The rules are not overly complex, but they are many, almost too many for my liking. That means this is not a beer & pretzels game, it demands work; learning time and effort, and it needs regular gaming to keep the main rules and the minigames fresh in mind. And yet … while the rules are many, it has to be said they are very well made.
Aliens without Number – on the player’s chair
Combats without Number – more from the players’ perspective