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Stars Without Number

Editor’s note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in December 2011, and is reprinted here and in the May 2013 issue with the author’s permission.

Stars Without Number. Kevin Crawford.
Sine Nomine Publishing. http://www.sinenomine-pub.com/
210pp., hardbound, softbound, PDF.
US$39.99 hardbound/US$29.99 softbound/FREE PDF.

I really wanted to like this book—but in the end found myself disappointed. It seemingly had everything that I would want in a game...

Sandbox play – check. Old School Philosophy – check. Simple Rules – check. Interesting Science Fiction Background – check.

So what went wrong with so many things that were right? Stars Without Number no doubt is a fine game, but in so many ways it is an incomplete game and a game that relies too much of smooshing two great games, Original Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller, together – the resulting ooze is Stars Without Number. But, for a Peanut Butter & Jam sandwich to work, you gotta have the bread, and Stars Without Number seems to be interesting tasting goo because there is no bread to hold everything together.

The game uses the standard combination of physical and mental characteristics to describe a character in 3D6 rolls. It is suggested that these rolls can be used as modifiers but it remains unclear from the onset how they may be. Also, being a Science Fiction game, nothing says origin like Home world modifiers – yet do the rules accommodate this? Unfortunately not, as the rules for world generation are so vague that they could used to justify any trope. So, characters are essentially grounded in GM fiat.

Then players can choose between three basic classes, Expert, Warrior and Psion. An Expert can an expert in just about anything but very little guidance is suggested how this might play out. So, (s)he could be the greatest criminal mind in the galaxy and would have to build skills accordingly. Yet, how these skills are added and their progression is nowhere listed in Chargen. I suppose that players start off as 0-level characters and progress from there. But, that hardly makes them an expert save they can retry their skill set. Also, Warrior is meant to encompass everything from a Seasoned Space Marine to a low tech Barbarian. What makes a Warrior, a warrior, is his/her combat bonuses? Is a Naval Gunner a Warrior? Guess that depends upon the Game Master. And, the Psion is the Magic User-Cleric combo, where there are abilities beyond explanation, which can include healing and also low level combat stuff. However, as this is Old School, where are the possibilities for cross training or multi-classing? I could not find references how to do this. Also, this is a level based game which provides no reason for the party to together.

Sure, GMs can find workarounds; but it is not like some games, in which a common career path or career intersections facilitate party formation. So, yes, it is old school in that players are dumped at the doorstep of the dungeon but even old school games provided some sort of bonding process, whether it is the old, tested and true Starport bar or as I indicated common career paths and mustering out at the same time and awaiting transport from Crate City. Stars Without Number does not offer any similar mechanic.

Also, there is the assumption that players will play run-of-the-mill humans. Alien characters are suggested but no ready-made races are provided. I realize that ready-made aliens are problematic, as they tend to fall into stereotypes. So, I do applaud Stars Without Number for not going down this route. The alien generation is nice, simple and colorful but it is somewhat reminiscent of the Demon Generation tables in the 1st edition DMG. Flynn’s Guide to Alien Creation does a much better job in creating believable aliens. Sorry, Flynn, for my earlier adverse review; I can now see yours is a superior product.

Robot generation follows, with lots of ideas thrown in but without the rules to really support them. There were concepts mentioned in the text but I could not find out what they meant or how they affect players or play. One thing that is commendable is that the robots are built in to be weaker than standard human player characters thus always giving humans the advantage. This ensures game balance and that the game is not with player groups composed of Terminators running amok. But, still I am not sure if Robots are things like R2D2 or R. Daneel Olivaw or something else.

World generation, as noted above, seems incomplete. Yes, there are standard Traveller tropes of desert world or totalitarian world but nothing links these together. Thus one can have wildly different combinations without anything to show for it other than dice rolls. Now, I am the first one to admit that Traveller WorldGen is flawed but Stars Without Number does not correct for Traveller’s drawbacks. Rather, worlds are viewed as Kingdoms would be in a Fantasy RPG rather than semi-closed systems of different planetary bodies, economies, polities under one rubric, thus removing Stars Without Number from the category of Science Fiction and putting it more in line with Space Fantasy.

The History. Well, what can I say… Stars Without Number follows the familiar trope of a great and might Galactic Polity then calamity—in this case, something called “The Scream”, a psychic tsunami that wiped out the Jump Gates and left thousands of worlds isolated, save in the frontier where they still used the old turnkey system of Spike Drive. Thus, you have a frontier with lots of slow ships and leaving authority in the hands of individual captains rather than some sort of elaborate chain of command structure. The Scream also wiped out most of the psychics in space, so that your chances of finding someone who practices that old folksy religion is rather rare. So, if you tastes in Science Fiction are Space Opera then you will have no problem accepting these premises. However, mine are more of a Harder bent, so, I want to see humanity leave the womb and fight to survive and while the history provides this as a tacked on option, it seems that it was added as an afterthought. Space Opera is the dominant mode for the history. In my humble opinion, as it not grounded in a real world, it is not really a true history. True, my beloved Traveller has gaping holes but it does seem to have made some attempts at founding and building relationship with that slippery and sneaky term, ‘Real World’. I found the idea of a Mad Scientist chancing upon FTL very pulpish. So, I found some of the background very reminiscent of Fading Suns, a Space Opera game that I really enjoy rather than elements of Buck Rogers which this game also has a similar vibe to it.

Similarly, the section on Factions was flat compared with NuFaiths of Ashen Stars or the multitude of heresies that line the Fading Suns universe.

Equipment lists were purposely left vague. Which I don’t know… part of the Old School game moment is collecting stuff. So, I would agree that some things should be left vague but I found that players always are looking for the proverbial Swiss Army Lightsaber/Portable Shelter. Better to have a comprehensive list of a high tech hardware store (TSR’s Star*Drive did this quite well) along with stats than just this is a Sword +1 and that is a Blaster +3. Then again, I applaud the simplicity and sleekness of the rules. But, still, maybe, I am just getting old but I don’t want to figure out the stats for a Rapier versus a Broadsword.

Also, the starships seem to be virtually absent and how can you have a game of Science Fiction roleplaying without starships? So, from what I can surmise, it is a ‘small ship’ universe, but it’s a really big universe…much of the galaxy. But, are systems mapped? Is there a realistic star chart? No, maybe, I am not Old School enough but if you want to get somewhere – don’t you need a map?

So, I found this game to have lots of tools that can improve any SFRPG. But, the Mongoose version does tweak out some of the problems of the PDF but as it is also incomplete… It could be better. Maybe, the supplements address some of these issues, maybe they do not. If I get a chance to review the supplements, I will tell you. So far, I have not got a reply from the publisher.

The art inside is phenomenal and that is one of the reasons that I wanted so much to much to like this book. It captures a vibe and tone that is perfect for Science Fiction gaming. So, I can hope that the artists can find their talents employed by Mongoose/Far Future for the different adaptations of Traveller that are currently out there. They are not as good as what Terra/Sol Games has put out but they’re pretty damn good.

I also liked the inclusion of Designers’ Notes, as they proved to be invaluable in getting a handle on what the milieu is actually about. For there is not much chrome and trim adorning the game – it has just the basics. Maybe, one can go overboard with history, but that is the problem with some of us Traveller players – we like the Social Science aspect of play that complements the Hard SF… So here’s hoping more publishers will include Designers’ Notes either in the text itself or as a freebie off the website.

There is a lot that is commendable and even very interesting suggestions in Stars Without Number; it is a veritable toolkit of ideas and concepts. However, the toolkit has major gaps in its writing that cannot easily be filled in without any intervention. Rules are not placed together. Take Skill advancement and Acquisition – is it placed in Chargen. No, it is located elsewhere… Similarly, Skill Checks are left entirely to the fiat of the Game Master. So, it gives the impression that are lots of shiny tools but when you are looking for something to be explained more or it simply is not there. I am a big fan of doing things on the fly but it still needs a framework for doing so. So, Stars Without Number will certainly give lots of tools that I can incorporate but not make me want to play this game which is what they were meant for.