Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dungeonspiration: My RPG is Full of Stars

I've been running Stars Without Number for over half a year now, and so far, it's the best science fiction rpg that I've played.  What am I comparing it to?  Primarily the sci fi games I played in olden times; Star Frontiers, Spacemaster, GURPS: Space, Gama WorldShadowrun, FASA's Star Trek, and Traveller in its myriad of forms.  I could also throw in Star Wars Saga Edition, as I have ample experience with that game as well.

Why is it my favorite?  Well, mainly for what Stars Without Number is not.  It's not an attempt to lay down physics in game form.  It's not an attempt to weave an entire, pre-built universe.  It's not an attempt to create a rule for every conceivable situation.

Stars Without Number is, frankly, a stripped down old style D&D with a science fiction facade nailed up around it.  The game easily provides me the ability to project my view of science fiction to the players - assisted with simple game mechanics that I already enjoy.  There is nothing in the way of telling the story I want to tell.  Traveller was close, but I was really never fond of the rules.

My view of science fiction comes primarily from the stories I read as a child.  Of course, Star Trek was an influence as well, but I was already on the road to being well read in the science fiction realm before Star Wars came to smother the genre.  When I think of science fiction, my mind always drifts to stories such as these:

  • Issac Asimov - Foundation
  • Ray Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles
  • Arthur C. Clarke - 2001, Childhood's End, Rendezvous With Rama
  • Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed
  • Harry Harrison - Stainless Steel Rat, Deathworld
  • Robert Heinlein - Stranger In a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Frank Herbert - Dune
  • Larry Niven - Ringworld, Known Space stories,
  • Larry Niven and  Jerry Pournelle - The Mote in God's Eye, Lucifer's Hammer 
  • Fred Saberhagen - Berserker

That's the core of my science fiction, give or take some books that I've forgotten, and that's the feel I go for when running the game.  I make an effort to steer away from Star Wars and Star Trek.  They are too . . . pop-cultury for me.  It's that same attitude I get when I scream - 'Someone scrape the gosh-darn Tolkein out of D&D.  I can't take it any more!'

Interestingly, in my gaming group, I'm the greybeard.  They haven't had the same diet of science fiction that I've had.  They understand the concepts, but largely from a different source.  They understand FTL travel from Firefly.  They understand cybernetics form Deus Ex.  They understand the concept of a ringworld from Halo.  They understand uplift form Mass Effect.

It really hit me when I was helping a new player make a character.

Me: So we've got three classes.  Warriors.  That's a soldier dude, from swords to guns.  Expert.   That's someone who's good at something besides killing.  Doctors, Pilots, whatnot.  And then their is Psychics.  They have psychic powers.

New Player: (Confused look.)

Me: (Trying hard not to make a Star Wars reference.)  They do stuff with their minds.  Ummmm . .

New Player: (Still confused.)

Me: Like a Biotic in Mass Effect.

New Player: Oh!  That's kinda what I thought you meant.  Gotcha.

With great effort, I did not facepalm.  The new guard and old guard just have different words for thing sometimes.

And that brings the conversation around to Mass Effect series of games.  Rather than just being a game about killing alien invaders, it's a tour of a future chock-full of science fiction tropes from all of my favorite books.  It really carries the torch to a new audience.  Time and time again I find myself explaining concepts to the players couched in Mass Effect terms.  It's kind of a Rosetta Stone.

The ending of the Mass Effect trilogy was a let down for me.  I won't get into it much, but the issue wasn't what happened at the end, rather, how the story was told.  It was, frankly, just bad story telling, in my book.  But I highly recommend the other 99% of the franchise - especially to those old grognards who want to interact with the younguns in an old style science fiction game.

I'll leave you with some Mass Effect 3 concept art by Matt Rhodes.  Again, it's concept art, so it's not exactly what went into the game, but there are spoilers.  It's great stuff for getting in the mood for a Stars Without Numbers game.

Normandy Silent Running by Matt Rhodes

Rogue Sheppard by Matt Rhodes

Taking Back Normandy by Matt Rhodes
Red Hallway by Matt Rhodes

Illusive Office by Matt Rhodes

Presidium Hospital by Matt Rhodes

Crashed On Eden by Matt Rhodes

Enjoy, and go get all spacey.

- Ark


  1. Stars without Number is indeed awesome. I like it as much for its implied setting as for its rules, both of which are superb. And I say this as a guy who's written his own SF RPG and still looks in awe at SWN.

    1. @James - I'm beginning to think that everything Kevin Crawford touches is gold. :) Your note reminds me - I need to go check out your Thousand Suns. This 2d12 mechanic that I've heard rumors of is intriguing and frightening at the same time.

      - Ark

  2. Do the psychics really have psychic powers? I'm level 7 and still not entirely convinced. There are player abilities which, if you squint, have the approximate size and shape of psychic powers, but that's about it. Were you to attempt to grasp them, to take them for yourself, I fully believe they would slip through your fingers like sand. Or milk.

    1. Oh, just because they don't have Clone Wars Era Yoda Force Powers doesn't mean they don't have psychic abilities. I think the concept you are missing is called 'subtlety.' :)

      And I seem to remember three iron age psychic teleport ninjas just took out your entire spaceship last Saturday - sooooo maybe you aren't using your powers to their fullest extent. ;p

      - Ark

    2. When I grow up I want to be like them!

      Reading your post, I realized how much it must grate on you to have me calling him Darth Nerf.

    3. @PSH - Oh come now - they were only 4th level psychics. You are stronger than them. :)

      And as far as the name - I came to the realization years ago that trying to force the players to name their characters in campaign-appropriate ways was futile at best. Trying to get you PCs to do anything is like herding cats. I just make the assumption that your character's parents hated him and move on. ;)

      - Ark

  3. Cool post. I've been muling over my own sci-fi ideas for what I first intended to be a cyberpunk influenced game but now seems to be morphing into a space fantasy campaign.

    1. @Zomboy - Actually, SWN would be good for cyberpunk flavored space fantasy too. It's pretty darn flexible.

      - Ark

  4. It's such a nice ruleset. It's really interesting to see how it translates to those under-read in the sci-fi "classics". Gaming and cinematic references are so useful for that quick-reference aesthetic.
    Thanks for sharing this.
    (I can't even get Mass Effect 1 to run on my home PC ... d'oh...)

    1. @Billiam - No problem. Oh, if you can't run Mass Effect 1, then obviously you are holding your tongue wrong - and you are not using enough goat's blood. On alternate Thursdays. Adjusting your antenna might also help. Remember to use the circular one for UHF - not the rabbit ears.


      - Ark

  5. This is a comment unrelated to your post, sorry about that. But this blog really does look good. I like the new template. Nice and roomy. Very clean.

  6. I couldn't agree more about the coolness that is Stars Without Number. I'm really looking forward to the Other Dust release for the game also!

  7. Love your list of Sci-Fi books... it's almost title for title the list I cut my teeth on, too! I'd add Pournelle's "King David's Spaceship" and Brin's "The Postman."