Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dungeonspiration: Stars Without Number

I used to have a reoccurring dream.  Well, it was more of a reoccuring theme.  I would be in a comic book shop, or a book store, or a flea market in an ancient submarine, or in the Transylvanian basement of a fetid castle - and I'd be looking through boxes.  These were big long white boxes filled with every role playing game imaginable.  I would dig through them, looking for that one science fiction role playing game that had everything I wanted - good combat mechanics, good skill systems, good starship rules, and good universe generation systems.

I'd inevitably find some rpg system that had an awesome cover and everytihng I wanted inside - and I'd rush to the zombie check out girl or the auto-purchase-bot with a big smile on my face.  Then I'd wake up and start cussing - realizing that it was just a dream.

I've had that dream a LOT.  It's representative of my search for a perfect rpg in my younger years - especially a perfect science fiction game.  I've played quite a few - Star Frontiers, various forms of Traveller (black book, mega, 2300,) Space Master, GURPS Space, Star Wars - and read even more.

Okay, I'm not going to say that Stars Without Number is perfect, but damn, it's good.  It seems to fulfil the promise that Traveller made back so many years ago, but never quite delivered.

Traveller had a fun - if nerve racking - character generation system where your character could die before gameplay started.  It was great for generating back-story - but the actual mechanics were - MEH.  Stars Without Number takes good old fashioned D&D mechanics, simplifies them, and tweaks them with a light skill system.

There are just threee classes, Warrior, Psychic, and Expert - but the Expert - like LotFP's Expert class, is highly customizable with skills, allowing you to create anything from a doctor or spaceship mechanic, to a bounty hunter.

The game tosses out the good old hit charts and follows a simple formula.  Twenty always hits, one always misses, and you determine that with a d20 + your Combat Skill + Att Mod + Att Bonus + defender's AC.  Poof.  Beautiful.  I really wish the d20 developer dudes would have thought of this, rather than having to flip AC on it's head.

And you know when your first level psychic has d4 HP and a sniper rifle does 2d8 - only good things can happen. :)

Where Stars Without Number really shines though, for me, is in it's universe creation.  Just like in Traveller, you sit down and randomly roll up a sector full of stars.  In my youth, I loved this, and as other sci-fi RPGs were produced, they had similar creation rules, but they got more specific on the physical characteristics of various solar systems.

I loved the complexity and exactness of some of those systems.  Charting out how many AUs distant each planet was from it's star, calculating the specific density of a planet, determining albedo, etc - all these were great fun - for me - an amateur astrophysicist.

It never really translated into fun during a game.  Even if the players knew what the term 'albedo' meant, they wouldn't have cared to know that planet X925g-U had a rating of 57%.

Stars Without Number tosses most of the physical nuts and bolts and replaces them with - um - for lack of better words - a SCI-FI-TROPE-A-TRON-3000.

The default setting of the game is that humanity expanded rapidly into the galaxy, achieving amazing technology, then something happened to crash civilization and crash it HARD for a while.  Now humanity is rebuilding and worlds are reconnecting with one another.  You know, that old chestnut.

Rolling up a world, you might get something like this:

Atmosphere: Breathable mix
Temperature: Warm (could result in a desert or swampy type place)
Biosphere: Immiscible (i.e., you can't eat the natives)
Population: Hundreds of Thousands of Inhabitants
Tech Level: 4 - Baseline
Worlds Tags: Police State, Hostile Biosphere
Culture Base: Russian

Looking at the results, and the pointers in the book, a hundred idea pop in my head.  The first to come into mind is a place like Harry Harrison's Deathworld - a planet full of jungle animals and plants ready to eat anyone in a second.  But it could just as easily be a world reminiscent of earth in Stephen King's The Mist or frankly, Frank Herbert's Dune.

The creation process wonderfully tosses a bunch of tropes together and lets that pot full of 'kitchen sink' soup cook in your mind for a while until something awesome pops out.  Who gives a flip about the gravity of a world - unless that gravity is different enough to mean something and be a good plot device.

Star Without Numbers also allows for the same type of randomized trope construction of cultures, aliens, npcs, religions, political parties, and corporations. Each of these systems is geared towards creating conflict and issues that will provide ample adventure opportunities for the pcs, wherever they go and whatever they do.  It's a wonderful sandbox creation system, and very fun to work with.

I mean, I would have never thought to make up a low-tech world where the entire society had to hunt down alien whale-like creatures to survive, in some sort of Moby-Dick-gone-viral planet, but with a roll of some dice, my mind began churning along and I was there.

Sine Nomine published the original version as a free pdf, and I bought a physical copy of it.  Enjoying that, I grabbed Skyward Steel, which is a sourcebook for space navies.  I liked that so much, I went and got the updated version of Star Without Numbers from Mongoose - and it was worth it - rules for AI's and mech, and an entire world culture generation system.

I'm really impressed with what Kevin Crawford has been doing with this game.  I haven't been this inspired to run a science fiction game in quite a while.

So if you haven't yet, go grab Star Without Numbers.  It's free, and even if you don't intend to play it, it's chock full of good adventuring ideas that should impress even jaded players.

- Ark


  1. I believe that to-hit mechanic is derived from the Target 20 system.

  2. I used to have a similar dream except I was typically wandering through a deserted cityscape after some soft-apocalypse. My job in these dreams was to find useful things for the reclamation crews to come in and recover for Civilisation. My reward was any and all valuables I could carry out with me. Once in a while I'd find some gamer's stash and have to figure out how to smuggle shelves worth of games and magazines (usually old issues of Dragon, Dungeon and White Dwarf) back to the inhabited zone...


    ...I had those dreams for years, why is it only now that I write it down does the pure gameability of that premise come to me?

  3. I've yet to check out SWON in great detail. This just reminded me!

  4. SWON has some fantastic generators for creating sci-fi worlds and societies. They're it's best feature, I reckon.

  5. It's a great game, I highly recommend it! Just ordered the latest updated of it from Amazon.

  6. Hey Ark. Wanted to come by and show you my Halloween costume. I'm dressed as Spooky.

    Booooo. I'm scary.

    Hope you and your family and a great Oogie Boogie Day - with lots of good treats.

  7. @Brendan - That's interesting - and pretty close. Probably some cross-polination in there somewhere. :)

    @PlanetNiles - Hey - I'd play that game! RPG Harvesters!

    @Jay - NP. Enjoy.

    @Brian - Yeah, and I enjoy how they are system neutral.

    @Bill - I just picked up the pdf - I have the old one in physical form, and there doesn't appear to be enough change to warrant a new copy for me - since I just use the physical at the game table. Listen to me say that and see me go uy another copy here in a couple of months. :)

    @THE SPOOKY WHISK - Dang! That is a spooky costume, Whisk. I had no idea you could do that - pic and name and all. Awesome. :) Oogie Boogie to you too!

    - Ark