Many years ago I bought a science fiction game off humble bundle that surprised me. it was Stars Without Number and you can read that review here. I never got around to playing it but I always wanted to. The quality of the game was such that I always wanted to get a hard copy of the core book too! Fast forward to today, around four years later and in the past year, there has been an update to the system. I became aware of it through my gaming contacts but I was tied up in winding down my business. However, the moment I got some spare money, I decided it was time to invest and I got the deluxe book in full-colour hardback. I am rarely so excited to receive a book as I was with this. As soon as I had my hands on it I started to read with an eye to this review. Please note that this is the deluxe version of the book – it has a multitude of extra material and the only way to get that material is by paying for the book in PDF or hard copy. Also, note that there is a free version of the revised rules without all the extras. That version is brilliant in itself and allows players to pick it up and get the rules very quickly.
The Hard Copy
I invested in the premium heavyweight hard copy of this book and it was worth every penny. Where I come from that meant it was a conversion of over a hundred dollars once you included shipping. I passed up on Starfinder as the cost was over a hundred dollars but in this case totally worth it. The artwork is incredible, the colours brilliant and the book the quality of any off the shelf role-playing game (RPG). I spotted a couple of images in the book and thought to myself that Jeff Brown had to have had his hand in some of the art and I was a hundred percent correct. Jeff is one of my favourite RPG artists and I have even hired him myself on a job. The layout of the book is superb and everything about it is pure quality. Awesome work by the print on demand team and those that handled the layout inside.
At its heart, this game is built on the Moldvay Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) mould. That version of D&D came out in boxes (Basic, Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortals) through the 1980’s. It is a class-based system that uses language that a lot of role players would understand. Hit dice, armour class, saving throws. It is all terminology that seems to be understood by most people that are a part of this hobby. This is a very conscious choice by Kevin Crawford (the genius behind Sine Nomine Games) as he discussed with Adam Koebel in an extensive interview recently. Of course the game is not Moldvay D&D and varies from it significantly.
Players will take on the roles of various classes. There are four classes represented and options that are available to them help differentiate the players that want to play from the same class. There is the Warrior, the Expert, the Psychic and the Adventurer. They are pretty broad titles but are descriptive enough to get an idea of what you might expect. Warriors like to run around and shoot or punch stuff, maybe even cut it up. Experts might be your computer specialist, possibly a pilot, a scientist etc. The psychic has the ability to manipulate energies beyond the normal ken of an individual. There are a bunch of different fields for the psychic to involve themselves in. Finally, the Adventurer class is someone that bridges a couple of the classes. What if I wanted a guy who could read minds and then blast the people who are thinking thoughts I don’t like? I would choose an adventurer with the Warrior and Psychic focus.
The game is also reliant on skills. I am not a huge fan of skill and class-based systems (like Pathfinder). The reason behind this is they tend to blow out bonuses and rolls through way too many options. This simply allows players to break parts of the game. Stars Without Number, however, reigns in this problem. Skills are kept low in bonuses with a +4 being the equivalent to the best individual in the entire galaxy. The skill system works off a 2d6 system with bonuses being added by relevant attributes and skills against a target number. I love a 2d6 system because of its exponential difficulty increase/decrease when shifting target numbers. You can do a lot with just a small change of a target number. It also makes the game feel like Traveller to me, and that is a big bonus in my eyes!
This game is designed to become a large sandbox that the game master (GM) creates. It is at heart going to be a unique place to play in if you play under one GM as opposed to others. The simple way that it is designed means that the huge variability inherent in creating systems is going to make almost any game of this feel different from any other. That said there is an inherent setting underlying the base concept of the game. That concept is that humanity has expanded enormously. So enormously that the central governments that conducted this expansion lost control of many of the systems expanded into. Technology reached a high point that was enhanced by the development of the psychic mind and machine itself. Up until the point that a catastrophic event known as the “Scream” basically wiped out all psychics and rendered much of this advanced technology useless. It cut systems off from one another and made trips that lasted short periods of time to now take decades to complete. The now of this game, where the players find themselves, is in this universe where technology is slowly being reclaimed and understood. They are most likely in a frontier system full of possibilities created by the mistakes of those in the past.
Strength of the Game
Kevin Crawford is an amazing game maker in my eyes for one reason. It is his devotion to assisting the GM to bring his games to life. He does this in an ingenious mix of design and random chance. He sets up a base structure to things and then allows the GM to create these things en masse in a random fashion. It becomes an enjoyable experience for the GM to create these details. Simple tags blow up into beautiful, interesting things through prompts off a table. For example, I created my system that had 22 known locations in it with 26 inhabited planets/planetoids. Within an hour or so I had given each of these inhabited places a name (thanks to a random name generator from the internet), a couple of tags of what was going on there. They also had details about the atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population and the technology level. Beyond that, I took a planet that would be my player’s home planet at the start of the game and expanded it. I present the planet Tucriyeter orbiting the Zlineem star.
The Planet Tucriyeter
The cultural template comes from eastern European Bloc. Flavour for the planet will be in this style, think Ukraine for names and the style. The initial tags for this planet were “Friendly Foe and Revanchists”. The following was built on these tags that are fleshed out somewhat in the book.
Temperature: Frozen (the planet is an ice ball!)
Population: Hundreds of millions of inhabitants
Tech Level: Modern level post tech (TL4)
Expanded Planetary Details
Enemy: Guerilla revanchist army recruiters seeking to create a force to take the planet back from the existing Government
Friends: Government official investigator (perhaps secret service) who has a humanist focus
Complication: The revanchists are an offshoot of the ruling government which is family based. They believe that correct succession was not followed and thus have claim to rule the planet. The complication is that they are right.
Thing: There is a xenotech installation hidden under the ice that is the true focus of power on the planet (politically)
Place: Graves of fallen revanchists are buried over the xenotech site
What does this world offer players?
- Resources of underground society with local influence
- Xenomorph secrets
What is the biggest conflict in this world?
- Revanchist manipulation to regain control of the planet. Has a strong cold war feel.
What do the locals think of outsiders?
- The revanchists believe that it is through the strength of outsider allies that they will regain control of the planet
- Ruling party sees outsiders as a double threat;
- Are they revanchist supporters?
- Are they seeking to steal the secrets of the xenotech installation?
What is law enforcement like?
- Fair but strong. They back the government but there are many sympathizers to the revanchist cause.
Starport name: Bladonin – modern and clean located in the capital (also of the same name)
Depth of the Game
Much of Stars Without Number is straightforward gaming in the sandbox setting that the GM creates. A subsector of possibilities is on offer for the players to get caught up in. To the player, they will be playing in a science fiction game that lives and breathes. The aliens, creatures, technology and the like is easily varied through some clever manipulations in the game. Also, there is a section that oversees factions that the GM controls. They create the factions and in between adventures play out a section that sees these factions interacting attempting to further their own goals. The results of these interactions in the system are not set in stone and can often surprise the GM who then has to work out how the last band of an army managed to overcome a fleet hell-bent on taking over a system. This can then be communicated to the players via newscasts or information through contacts. Some of this stuff is likely to pique the interest of players and will likely lead to player driven adventures as they want to become involved.
This whole system is involved and surprising. The parts of the system are well designed and they are all easy to understand and easy to use. A lot of work has gone into the revised system to make this section really shine. I love that things happen without the impetus of player actions because that is what happens everywhere. The story you tell is focused on the player’s interactions but those interactions are coloured by a broader scope of the universe.
I feel that I have covered the core of the game. This book holds so much more in it though. It expands out material that is fantastic. Perhaps you like Mechs and they are there. There are rules about digital worlds, AI, robots and oh so much more. That is the difference between the free and paid versions of the game. The free version gives you the system and the ability to build a system while the paid version offers up so much extra material that can be used. An inventive GM or gamer may be able to get by without it but I am certainly happy to have it!
This system has improved. I always found the faction material a little hard to deal with previously and in this version, the ideas are clear and spot on. The design process for this system has only gotten better and it is one of those systems I look forward to designing for. I am much more likely to set aside time to design for this system than I am for others because the designing is just as enjoyable as the playing. If you are looking around for a science fiction game to start, look no further. This system is great for GM’s of all skill levels and has a solid science fiction feel to it that will lead to countless adventures! I only hope that I can get it to the table sometime soon. Keep rolling!