Are you an old-school gamer, or a new-school gamer? I’m the Level One Wonk, and I consider myself both, which may be why I enjoy this week’s game so much. Today we’re going to talk about Stars Without Number, a game designed by Kevin Crawford. Crawford has released many games through his Sine Nomine Publishing imprint, which are all built around similar design principles: hackable sandbox experiences with an old-school heart. Games like Godbound, Scarlet Heroes and Stars Without Number are all designed to bolt right in to both old-school D&D and its retroclones, but these games are no mere clones. While Stars Without Number has characters with six familiar stats, saving throws, classes, and levels, it stretches the D&D framework quite far. As you may be able to guess from the name, Stars Without Number is a science fiction game.
The design philosophy behind Crawford’s games is to make them as cross-compatible with early editions of D&D as possible. This means using the same stats, and building mechanics into the same basic building blocks (skill and ability checks, saving throws, and attack bonus). Though all the descriptive stats remain the same, the mechanics do not: ability modifiers are smaller, and the system uses a 2d6 roll for ability checks rather than a d20. Nonetheless, because the abilities themselves are all the same, if you were to open an old Monster Manual to a random page and turn the entry there into a space alien, you could do so with very little math. The reasoning for this design is complementary to the way the game is structured in several ways.
There are two overarching design choices in Stars Without Number that align it with other OSR games. First, characters are intended to be rolled randomly, and for the most part are fragile. While this is a sticking point for OSR philosophy, in Stars Without Number it is merely the primary mode of character creation, not the only one. As was actually the case in D&D at the time, several modes of generating stats are given, including point-buy and the base array, which both became the defaults in 3.5. The second primary design choice is that Stars Without Number is intended to be a sandbox, with both the players and the GM discovering new things about the sector of space they’re in that are defined by dice rolls.
While Stars Without Number is designed to be easily hackable and adaptable, the game does come with an interesting implied setting. Stars Without Number takes place after a galaxy-wide psionic disaster known as The Scream. While The Scream had apocalyptic consequences, there are still artifacts of “pretech”, the fantastical technology from before the disaster. Other than those items, most societies make do with “postech”, which was developed after The Scream. As implied by the background, there are psionics in the system; in fact, psychic is one of the four classes available to a character. Other than psychic, there are warriors (combat-based characters), experts (skill-based characters), and adventurers (jack-of-all-trades characters). While four is a small number of classes from a D&D perspective, each character also has a background which defines some of their abilities. Finally, each character can start with a focus, which is somewhat akin to a D&D feat.
The basic mechanics of Stars Without Number will look familiar to any gamer who has played an older edition of D&D, with a couple differences and notable additions. The abovementioned change in dice rolls and modifier sizes tends to make the dice rolls more contained and less swingy, both the bell curve inherent in 2d6 and a practical ceiling of around +5 to modifiers encourage this. The mechanics follow suit, with listed difficulties only going up to 14 (at which point a highly skilled and competent character would still likely fail). As is typical in sci-fi games the gear is what will really make a character effective. There is a decent spread of typical adventuring gear, as well as cybernetics and a number of really neat pretech artifacts (cosmetics that just so happen to heal damage, guns that can adapt to whatever ammo’s available, I could go on). The game also lists about a dozen hull designs for spaceships, and comes with an intuitive and modular system for players to customize these into their own vessel.
Spacecraft in Stars Without Number also come with a couple rules subsystems to make space travel more interesting. Traveling by Spike Drive, the game’s FTL technology, is dangerous and requires the most up-to-date maps and charts possible to ensure a safe voyage. Spike Drives also have limited range, ensuring that characters will need to make multiple jumps to get to far-flung destinations. There’s also space combat, with a number of roles ensuring that multiple characters are needed to get the most out of large ships. Combat rolls can get interesting; if a weapon hit will do significant hull damage or destroy a ship or subsystem, the ship captain can choose to take a “crisis”. Instead of taking damage, the captain rolls on a table to define some other negative consequence. This mechanic allows for some more interesting consequences in ship battles while not being as punishing as a mechanic that would stack these effects on top of damage taken.
There are two other gameplay subsystems added, though these are not as far afield as ship combat. Hacking defines a number of tasks that a hacker can perform once inside a network; it also adds the use of “line shunts” to increase the physicality of hacking. In essence, a highly protected network may need one or more “line shunts” installed inside the physical system before a hacker can penetrate the network, which makes it more difficult for the hacker to work remotely and away from all danger. It’s an interesting balance mechanic, and one that’s likely a little more realistic than taking real damage while inside a computer network (a staple of cyberpunk games). The other system is psionics. Psionic abilities are given level equivalents to define how difficult they are to learn, and otherwise are roughly equivalent to foci in terms of how they’re treated. A psychic must spend Effort to use psionic abilities…they can “torch” to gain more Effort, but this comes with a very high possibility of permanent stat loss. Psychic abilities are powerful, but can also be quite dangerous (moreso if the psychic is untrained).
While building on a basic chassis, Stars Without Number provides a good amount of rules expansion for players. GMs, though, get the best toys. The sector creation system plops down a couple dozen star systems in a hexmap and immediately populates them with plot hooks and fun details. After placing systems in your sector map, you build out the details of important worlds by rolling for a random “tag”, anything from Alien Ruins to Zombies. This tag comes with a list of Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, and Places that immediately give you a starting point for fleshing out what’s going on on that world. Add in random rolls for temperature, biosphere, atmosphere, and population, and it’s easy to generate a large number of interesting worlds quickly. The charts and seeds don’t end there. There are additional charts for creating conflicts and NPCs, and a full faction system for determining how larger groups interact with each other. In true sandbox fashion, this allows the GM to roll some dice and come out the other end with enough material for a whole campaign. The Adventure Creation section also has some solid advice for creating arcs for the characters, and balancing continuity with the lack of a written overarching plot. With all the resources and a full GM Resources chapter to boot, it’s hard to think of a better start point for a GM who wants to write a space sandbox.
The revised version of Stars Without Number was released earlier this year. While the lore and basic mechanics are the same, the new version cleans up the skill list and a few other mechanics quirks, like switching to ascending armor class (a loss for the THAC0 nuts, a win for everybody else). If you are intrigued by the game but aren’t sure about making the leap, there is a free version available. In addition to being the only OSR space opera game out there, it’s an extremely comprehensive toolkit: beyond the core rules I described there are additional rules for mechs, AI characters, “space magic” and adding transhuman elements. There are also supplements for genre expansion, including Other Dust (post-apocalyptic), Polychrome (Cyberpunk) and Starvation Cheap (military). Stars Without Number is a solid and expansive entry in the science fiction RPG genre; the OSR backbone is yet another bonus.
Stars Without Number and all of its expansions are available at DriveThruRPG. Today’s header is by Aaron Lee and comes from the free Stars Without Number Art Pack, also available at DriveThruRPG.