Old School Fun: Stars Without Number
Last week I mentioned that I’d be starting an occasional series on “Old School Roleplaying” games. These aren’t the games you’ve been playing for years (well, I guess they are kind of), instead they’re entirely new approaches to a classic rule set that capitalizes on the familiarity of the classic editions of the game that launched a thousand gaming clubs, while benefiting from twenty years of innovation in table top gaming design.
To launch the series, I’ve decided to start with the game that sparked my interest in OSR gaming, Sine Nomine Publishing’s sci-fi masterpiece, Stars Without Number.
Stars Without Number is a science fiction/science fantasy game from the mind of Kevin Crawford. Debuting in 2010, SWN garnered a lot of praise for its ingenuity and design, including the 2010 Indie Award for Best Game. Frankly, I’m unsurprised—Though I’m late to the table, SWN rendered me a believer in the possibilities of OSR games to push the hobby forward, after I had staunchly divested myself of classic Dungeons and Dragons. It’s that good.
Ostensibly a sandbox game to fit your sci-fi gaming needs, SWN does come with a totally functional setting framework. It hits some pretty standard notes: at some indeterminate point in our species future, humanity develops the spike drive, enabling us to finally take to the stars—albeit somewhat more slowly than, say, the Starship Enterprise. Emboldened by our enhanced reach, we create an interstellar diaspora, like the profligate apes we are. And of course, space rays and cosmic dust contribute to the expression of psychic abilities (I made the rays and dust part up). This new form of psychic humanity leads our species into a golden age of high technology, replete with “jump gates” that enable us to traverse vasty tracks of space.
Still with me?
So, because all good things must come to an end, the golden age catastrophically implodes when a mysterious phenomenon called “the Scream” wracks the galaxy. This cosmic effect renders all of psychic humanity mad (and/or dead), and with them, the jump gates useless. Galactic collapse follows as trade and commerce dry up in an instant. The 600 year dark age that follows (called “the Silence”) sees the massive human diaspora once again separated by intractable reaches of space, without the benefit of the interstellar infrastructure that they’d grown dependent on. Now, with centuries in the rearview, the more developed worlds are once more reaching for the stars, with explorers, traders, and adventures striking outward to reconnect with their lost kinsmen long ago locked on other worlds.
So yeah: perfectly functional setting, but not exactly groundbreaking. I can see drips and drabs of many of my favorite settings in there, and like a trip to the ice cream shop, it’s pretty hard to mix the flavors up in in a way that tastes bad. Fading Suns, in particular, strikes me as a key influencer, which is funny since I originally turned to SWN as a surrogate for that game’s system (the actual influence of Fading Suns on SWN is unknown to me).
Of course, the setting is but a small, subordinate portion to the meat of the game: the delightful sandbox of sci-fi toolkits that readily enable gaming in any sci-fi world of your choosing or imagination). The sector generation system is an incredibly fertile bed for creating your own corners of space. I’ve always been a fan of random tables and SWN does not disappoint. Crawford goes a step farther, however, and brings adds in the concept of “tags.” Tags could be likened to Aspects in Fate—they are at-a-glance descriptors that paint a picture of a planet or a place, and each one has even more granular descriptors for greater detail, ensuring that game masters will never run out of cool vistas and interesting conundrums for their players to come up against.
Another sandboxy innovation is SWN’s “Faction” system. Factions are, well, factions that players and NPCs alike can use to exert influence across the galaxy. Factions have statistics (just a handful) and are capable of taking actions (extensively) to make their influence felt. While I typically skim subsystems like this, and rarely utilize them in play, I was blown away by the depth and simplicity of SWN’s Factions. My mind went immediately to the Great Houses and Guilds of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and that kind of sweeping galactic intrigue and melodrama, and how easy it would be to realize it with SWN. That is a very good thing, in my opinion.
The core of the system is familiar (right down to descending armor values), but a lot of the fiddly bits are quite novel. The skill system, which relies on a 2d6 role plus stat bonus mechanic, is functional and broad, which is good—with only three classes (Warrior, Psychic, and Expert)—skills go a long way towards distinguishing player competencies. Like Factions, SWN’s treatment of starships is particularly well done—starship creation, travel, and combat are all covered in ways that are effective and engaging, without adding unnecessary complexity. Crawford excels at restraining himself from over-designing, which is a laudable skill.
Since SWN shares DNA with D&D, you can actually get some mileage out of classic books. For instance, with a little work, you can repurpose the Monstrous Manual to represent alien life. I love that.
Best of all, it’s free. That’s right, the core rulebook is available as a free PDF of over 200 pages. Now, there is an enhanced core book with some additional goodies, but all the cool stuff I’ve prattled on about for the last 800 words is absolutely free. Since it’s been out for a couple of years, there are a number of supplements available. Many of these are also free—they range from 7 or 8 pages to upwards of 20, and add discrete systems to the game (martial arts, for instance, or a Faction to menace your players with). There are also a handful of paid, book-length supplements that enhance the game as a whole, including a cyberpunk supplement, and most recently, a guide to running merchant-centric campaigns. In my opinion, these are well worth the investment, if you’re planning on running campaigns that speak to their content.
All in all, SWN opened my eyes to a world of games that I had diffidently disregarded. If creators like Crawford are driving the OSR movement, I’m glad I didn’t waste a second more turning my opinion around. Check out Stars Without Number—it won’t cost you a dime, and it’s worth a lot more than it’s asking price. A whole lot more.
For our next installment Old School Fun, we’ll look at a more recent title: Dungeon World, to see if it scratches that old school dungeon crawl itch.