Monday, May 11, 2015

Review: Stars Without Number

Continuing my deep dive into the OSR-based SciFi games we naturally next come to Stars Without Number.  This gem was released in 2011 and was written by +Kevin Crawford and Sine Nomine Publishing.  SWN is a big book, 254 pages filed with maps, sheets, a great index, but no OGL statement that I kind find.
To me this book feels more like the work of hard sci-fi; like that Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein.   Certainly it is epic in scope.  There is more of a setting here than other OSR-flavored games, so if you like that, great, if not, well it seems easy enough to ignore.

Chapter 1 covers Character creation.  We have seen this all before, but perfect for people new to RPGs or scifi fans new to the Classic 6 Attributes and level/class systems.
The classes are the three "archetypes" that you can find in True20 and other games, The Expert, The Psychic and The Warrior.    Each has their own advancement table and Hit Die.  SWN assumes a 20 level career in case you were curious.   Each class also gets their own saving throw tables.
There are background packages which can be added to classes to give your character more depth and determines some of their skills.  There are also training packages to further define your character.
Character creation is a breeze and no one seems to die while doing it.

Chapter 2 covers Psionics.  There are quite a lot of psionic powers detailed here.  So first thing, if psionics are something you must have in your sci-fi game then please check this game out first.  Powers as expected have point cost values.  Psionic points always give the powers a different feel for me than magic, so this is another plus really.  These powers are not merely reskinned spells, they have been redone to fit within the mythos of the game better.

Chapter 3 details all the equipment you will need including the Tech Level of the equipment.  D&D would be tech level 1 (or so) while we are at TL 3.  The game is set at TL 5 with some artifacts at TL 6.  Time Lords are hanging out at 7 or 8 I would say.  D20 Future and Traveller also use a similar mechanic, so if you want to see how they can also work, checking out those games is advisable.
The standard batch of weapons and armor from sticks and stone all the way up to energy weapons are discussed.  AC is descending by the way.  What is really nice about this game is in addition to lasers, energy swords and computers it also includes Cyberware.

Chapter 4 is the Game Systems chapter.  It includes the expected combat, but also a new twist on the skill checks with Target Numbers.  Useful if you are using the skills as described here, but it's real utility comes in how flexible it can be.  I would have to try it out more, but it's close enough to other skill + die roll + mods vs TN that I can see it's use in a variety of situations.

Chapter 5 covers the history of space of the default campaign setting.  Even if you don't use it there are some great ideas here.

Chapter 6 is the Game Master Guide of the game.  Deals with running the game and how and where to use skill checks.

Chapter 7 is World Generation which is just FULL of material for any game.  While this game has a lot going for it, this is the real gem in my mind. This flows right into Chapter 8, Factions.  Factions are important groups.  Say a group of allied pirates or smugglers, a government or a band of plucky rebels.   Several key factors when creating a faction are given and there is a huge list of sample factions.
Chapter 9 discusses what sort of adventures you might be able to have.  With Chapters 6 through 8 and all the details they give, running out of ideas is the least of your worries really.

Chapter 10 covers the creation of alien species. First the hows and whys of aliens are discussed; what to use, where and why to use them.  Some of this is situated in the campaign setting, but there is some good advice here even if you plan on using your own background/campaign or not even have aliens.  Plenty of traits are detailed and how they might combine.  There are three alien races detailed.
Naturally this flows into Chapter 11, Xenobestiary. AKA the Monster Manual.  Again we are given a lot of detail on how make alien beasts and then a listing of several samples.
Chapter 12 gives us Robots and Mechs.  We have various traits detailed and then plenty of samples.
Chapter 13 deals with societies.  This might have felt better coming after Chapter 8 really.
Chapter 14 has designer notes. I nice little treat to be honest.
Chapter 15 deals with the Hydra Sector, or the "Known World" of this game.  Instead of countries we have planets.
Chapter 16 ends the book with scores of random tables. Create just about anything with a few rolls of the dice.
There is a nice Index (sadly lacking in many books) and plenty of maps and blank sheets for characters, starships, and adventures.

Stars Without Number is big.  It is a vast game with endless possibilities.  If there is a sci-fi property out there chances are good that this game will be able to do it.

My only complaint is a non-existent OGL declaration.  Can you do a game like this without one?  Maybe, but I would not want to.  Plus it makes the game's utility a little less for me.

The game is beautiful and there is so much going on with it that it would take me a number of games with it just to get the right feeling for it.   The overall feel I get with this game is that it is the perfect child of Basic D&D and Traveller.  So much of what made both of those games so great is here.

Is Stars Without Number perfect? No, not really. But it is really, really damn close and even from a short distance I could not tell it apart from a perfect game.


Timeshadows said...


What is your concern with SWN not having an OGL? Is it that SWN doesn't subscribe to the theory that the classic six stats are firmly in Hasbro's IP, or that one doesn't know if one can make derivative material?

Timothy S. Brannan said...

There are a couple.

1. I prefer games that operate within the safe harbor of the OGL. I feel they have evaluated their options and are working to re-contribute something back the community as a whole.

2. Games based on OGC but avoiding the OGL strike me as being a bit selfish. It is as if they are saying "I will take advantage of work done by others, but I will contribute none of my own".

In terms of derivative materials. There are plenty of options out there that do pretty much exactly what SWN does that are Open Gaming. If I wanted to build something I could go for that. But I am not really interested in that myself.

Sine Nomine said...

My own opinion is that the basic mechanics of the OSR aren't distinctive IP- six stats and a d20 to hit don't need the OGL to use in a different game. Provided I don't actually use any WotC IP, I just don't see the benefit of taking up the OGL, particularly since adopting it limits me from doing some of the things that are normally permissible under fair use, such as citing compatibility.

If other people want to build things that are compatible with SWN, well, they can do that already. They can use the mechanics, borrow the ideas, and wrap it up in their own words and IP and be entirely within their moral and legal rights. If that's not enough of a contribution, they can snaffle some of the $10,000 worth of art I've put out for free commercial or personal use. And if _that's_ not enough, there's not much more I can do for them.