Stars Without Number – A Review

I am always on the lookout for a new Sci-fi RPG that I can replace Classic Traveller (CT) with.  It is not that CT is a bad system but it is a system that has a dated approach to some of the stuff that I do natively.  I also have some rabid (in the nicest possible way) Kevin Crawford fans for friends so when I mentioned the Stars Without Number bundle of holding that went by recently they suggested I invest.  So I did and I have now finally completed reading the main rules and I wanted to now do a review on what I found.  Will it replace CT?  Read on!

Stars Without Number cover
The cover of the book I have (electronically). there is another cover but I like this one

Stars Without Number Introduction

I have never come across a Kevin Crawford game before.  I have certainly heard the name before as my friends tend to talk about him – a lot!  Due to this fact I had high expectations for this book and was hoping that I would find a simple, elegant system to replace CT with.  I wanted this game to contain a mixture of lethality, modern sci-fi tropes and be easy to read and play.

Kevin writes in a spoken word style.  It is not exactly how he would say things in real life but it certainly feels like a conversation.  His writing is easy to follow and invokes just what it needs to so I was pleasantly surprised.  I have read far too many RPG’s that felt like a Master’s or PhD thesis in form and style.  He lays out what his game is set to achieve at the start and describes it very well.  He states quite clearly that this game was designed with a sandbox sci-fi game in mind and he tells you very succinctly what sandbox means to him.  Then, the rest of the book stays true to that introduction.

Stars Without Number Character Creation

Character design is made to feel familiar to players, particularly old school players with character design being an almost perfect port of the basic D&D rules of the red box variety.  That means that this game is a class based game that utilises the familiar terms of armour class, hit points, saving throws and a bunch of others that makes you feel right at home.  CT also falls into an old school approach but it is its own distinct system and in places there are similarities to that as well but I am not sure that the system to this game is the killer I wanted it to be.  Do not get me wrong, it is a fully serviceable system that is playable and understandable but it is not revolutionary.  There were no “Wow!” moments hidden amongst the character generation rules.

When building a character you roll attributes (pretty standard attributes that I will not go into in any way), choose a background and a skills package and put it together.  There are a limited number of backgrounds but nothing stopping you being able to expand them meaningfully (and this is encouraged).  The skill packages are designed in a pretty broad manner too but they are class specific.

Classes all have a particular ability that allows them to do a special power.  I really only mention this in the Warrior below but each of the classes have this fancy ability.  It is a nice concept but I feel that it could have been more effective in a classless system that offered up these abilities as a customization for the developing character.

There are three classes that you can play (and one hidden class that I will discuss later).  They are the expert, psychic and warrior.

Class: Expert

The Expert class is a catch-all class and I am not sure that I am overly fond of it.  If you are not a psychic or a warrior then you are an expert.  The expert is in essence a skill based class (as far as it goes) that is a specialist in an area.  Apparently if you are not a warrior or a psionicist then you narrowly choose a skill selection but you are very good at it.

I really found this approach quite narrow.  I would have preferred a non class system that allowed open development based on class skills than it being two classes with meaning and one that was a dumping ground for everything else.  It needs more definition in the available skill packages to do this which you are encouraged to do but it really feels like this is a simplistic fix to a bigger issue.

nshot from X3 video game
Images from me playing X3 fit beautifully with this topic

Class: Psychic

The psychic is just that.  Someone that has the ability to use the mind to achieve various things.  The psychic class and rules for the psychic are beautifully presented and enacted.  The powers and the class is just well done all around.  The problem to me with CT was that psionics felt like an add on that had been slapped on and was discouraged.  In this psychics are a MAJOR part of the background and the universe making them feel like a viable choice for players.

Every time I play my CT game I try to ingratiate psionics into it but in reality all this does is make the players attempt to combat it rather than go out and see if they are compatible for it!  I was really excited to read the set up for psychic abilities here and I think that I will be trying to find a way to include this system in my game somehow.

Class: Warrior

Want to be the one that people turn to when they need something killed?  Then the Warrior class is the one for you.  This class can be used across a broad spectrum of sci-fi tropes like the space marine, naval cadet, infantry, power armored enforcer right down to the primitive barbarian whisked away from the post apocalyptic world.  They do one thing and they do it well.  They do other things less well but if you want someone at a weapon, this is the class you want to turn to.

They are action oriented and have the special ability to re-roll a failed attack so it is a class that is worth considering for a fight.  They are not great fighting a psychic as they will likely be turned into a remote controlled killer and they combine well with experts to round out a star-ship crew.

Stars Without Number – Setting

Wow.  Wow, wow, wow, wow.  Did I mention Wow?  And can I say that this is a hugely satisfying brilliant Wow.  This is the Wow that you say after you just read something that expanded your mind or something that gave you a new sensation for the first time in your life.  Wow.

Thank you Kevin Crawford for providing a tangible brilliant system that really showed me what a setting should be.  The setting in this feels as if it were written for me, and me alone.  I can not do the setting justice but it is of a Universe where high tech was prevalent but a universe wide calamity occurred that wiped out most psychics – and hence most of the technological psychic supported advancements.

This event, known as the Scream was followed by the Silence where worlds were effectively cut off from one another.  Only the frontier of space was running the older Spike drive ships that enabled inter-solar system travel and then only through known channels.  Worlds fell dark and in time as they started to be rediscovered some had been destroyed, some populations starved to death and all sorts of different things happened to each world that makes this a time of darkness.

eenshot from X3 video game

This setting is set just as the Silence is ending and most worlds that were on common trade routes have been found.  All of them were scarred in one way or another by the Scream, but that is the excitement of the game.

The equipment chapter shows a game that can be played at any kind of technology level.  There is not a huge list of equipment and the GM is kind of encouraged in this system to build what they need (sometimes on the fly) and has a nice old school feel to it that way.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot there but there could be a lot more.  That is fine though because you just can’t come up with an extensive list.  Plus I know that one of the books I got in the bundle has a lot of gear in it too.  Right at the start of the book it sets you up with this expectation too so do not fret too much, all it means is that they let you build your technology as you want.

AI, Cyberware, Robots and Mechs

Yes, I did just write all of that cool stuff in one heading.  And just so you let out a little yelp of joy, hidden among this heading is the hidden character clas – the AI.  That is correct, you can have a player that plays as an AI.  There is a healthy amount of detail on how AI works.  It covers the AI that inhabit the computer banks as well as the AI that decided to downgrade their abilities so they can fit in a robotic form (also known as armatures in this game).  And there is a neat little section stating that this is how a player can play an AI with a complete 4th class hidden deep in the book!

Robots themselves are generally handled as expert systems that are placed inside various armatures.  This gives a great all round idea on how to use and build robots though of course there is a good level of examples included in here as well.

Mechs in this game are COOL.  There is actually a good reason as to why mechs were created in the system and that is due to the need for jamming equipment to negate (essentially) someone several continents over sending a Nuke to the centimeter perfect location they want to.  The mechs essentially walked into combat carrying these systems that would scramble the incoming ordinance and have it diverted.  As a bonus they could attach armaments and blow the crap out of things.  Now it makes sense why they exist.  And you know what?  They have the same technology on star-ships meaning they also need to get close and use dumb systems to blast the heck out of one another.  It explains the need for single pilot fighters which is a problem with some people.

Did I mention Wow!?

Stars Without Number – The Sandbox

Much of the rest of the book looks to assist the GM in creation  of their Universe.  It talks about creating your system, creating world spanning factions, building societies, building aliens, creating adventures.  And you know what?  All of this stuff is brilliantly modular and you can use what you want to when you want to.

Building the System

This section of the book is really tight.  It is very, VERY quick to build a system in an organic and random way, with some final non-random tweaks from the GM to build an initial sector.  Of course once you have built that sector you can then begin to expand further out and repeat to create a wider Universe in which the players find themselves if needed.

It does work very much along CT’s guidelines for the same idea but offers a little more customization from the GM perspective.  Once you have the base map in place then it leads you into creating each of the planets in the sector map.

X3 Screen shot
And again!

The one thing I like about this is that the system allows you to create hust the one world for the system or many.  CT, if you follow through to some of the more advanced books allow you to create an entire solar system sometimes for very little reward.  After all, who cares that the system actually has 11 planets orbiting the sun if all they are going to do is Jump (or Spike in this game) into system, hit the star-port and  disappear again.  Someone in CT obviously was the assistant director on Dances with Wolves – “No Kevin, lets add in just one more landscape shot…”

Planetary creation is short and sharp.  It comes with a plethora of planetary tags that combine to make interesting worlds that adventure essentially bristles from.  And with each of these all you need is a small (maybe four lines) for some descriptive detail and then a paragraph where you put it all together into a planetary description.  Very tight system creation that offers interesting plot hooks for player games – check.

Factions

This section caught me a little bit by surprise.  It is something that I have been doing informally in my CT game building political factions that is not really covered anywhere in the CT game books.  Here it is formalized into a little mini game of its own that the GM can use to progress their Universe forward by the actions of the factions created within it.

This really is a bit of a mini game designed for the GM as the main player with perhaps admission to players that are looking to do some world domination themselves in their game after a while.  It provides a backbone structure that allows the factions involved to pursue their goals and see the results of those goals in between the adventures of the players.  This section was a little beyond me and I got it all wrong when I did my first attempt (always try the rules you are reading, it helps understand them) and it was not until I saw the sample system at the end of the book that I understood exactly what the go was with it all.

It is an interesting system and allows for social, military and mercantile actions for the factions involved.  Most factions will have a strong focus in one of these areas and they will color what is going on in the games Universe.  the players will see the changes in the system and hear about the effects of these mini turns in between their adventure and it makes the player see that they are in a living environment.  Also the players actions can have a direct affect on the Faction round dependent on their involvement with the factions in game.  It is a tidy system but takes some time to understand fully.

High Society

While building the worlds is quick and easy you also need to flavor the worlds.  The chapter about society really gives the flavor to the world.  What government do they have?  What issues has/are they facing?  What is life generally like.  It is all contained in this section offering you purely random builds if you want or you can customize them.

For myself I would probably go fully random until I reached this section and then use the guidelines here to flavor the worlds as I want.  My reasoning is that I can begin to feel the worlds by now and I want to move them forward in the direction of my vision.  There are also some good levels of detail in here but reading the options I could think of at least that many again so I want to build more options into my societies for it to feel right for me.

Aliens

Well it is space so we had to talk to them.  There is a nice little modular designed section that talks about aliens.  If you follow the random generation you will end up with a system that mainly has humanoidish style aliens with a few really weird styles of aliens as well.  It is argued that on the whole the humanoid form is seen as one of the most successful evolutionary forms and hence more sentient aliens end up that way.  That is a good argument that you can put to your players.  Me, I would just say, because anthropomorphism is a thing and your brains can easily handle the idea of humanoid aliens with humanoid traits as opposed to the really weird ones that you have no idea of its motivations.

And in essence that is the truth.  Do not get me wrong, they exist in this game but you will find fewer of them than you will the aliens you can understand.  This is a good thing in my opinion and they provide you with an awesome module on how to create aliens and also allow players to come from alien races too.

Not to mention there is a nice little Alien Bestiary too so the dumb aliens get a showing too.  You know, the ones that want to eat your face and lay their eggs in you.  Yeah, they exist as well as a nice modular way to make new ones and also a few really good simple ideas on how to re-skin the ones in this manual and pretend they are new which is fantastic.

Stars Without Number – Everything Else

I am sure that I probably have forgotten to mention something along the way and if I have I apologize.  There is a beautiful little chapter at the end of the book where the author talks about the reasoning for his design decisions and also some options for modifying the rules.

Do you know how cool that is?  Let me tell you, it is very cool.  You may think I really do not like this because of x and then hidden away at the back end is this little chapter by the author saying the same thing.  This is in essence the reason I like 13th Age too, because the authors say, you know I didn’t like that bit and you can try this too.  Cherish this chapter.  In fact, read it first!

Then there is a large portion of appendix that offers up a whole new level of customization that will only make your game so much better than you originally thought it was going to be.

The Conclusion

Well, that journey took the long way around.  I had expected this to be a nice little tight review and I got carried away.  So what are my overall feels on this one?  It is an excellent RPG.  The system is not what I am looking for though at the most basic functional level.  What it has done for me though is inspire me to combine CT with the rest of this fine game.  I am going to take what I know of CT and tweak it so it does what I want it to do.

It will be compatible with everything in Stars Without Number apart from the Basic DnD feel of the system and the class based structure.  I even have a way of altering combat based on combat experience so it is not one shot dead like most of the combats I run in CT.

I will be using everything in this book in one way or another though.  The game itself is brilliant.  The setting wonderful and the sandbox building tools are unparalleled.  Perhaps if you want to build the entire Universe then maybe CT is the way you want to go.  Stars Without Number though provides you with a basic system that allows for complexity and it is aimed at modern day sci-fi.  Perhaps it could do with a tiny bit of updating but overall it is fantastic.  Well done Kevin Crawford, my life is the better for the read and I can not wait to read the other books I picked up in the bundle!

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