For the first entry in this series I thought I would read Stars Without Number. It's a game I've somehow heard a lot about and even purchased despite remaining almost utterly ignorant of it. I know Adam Koebel did a long running actual play series with the system, but I never actually watched much of it. Mostly I just kept hearing vague, positive word of mouth about it until the Kickstarter for the revised edition launched, at which point I saw almost half of the creators I follow on Kickstarter backing it. That was enough to push me over the edge and back it myself, even knowing so little about the game.
Well, the book's been sitting on my shelf for over a month, now. It's about time I actually read the thing.
Stars Without Number: Revised Edition is a sandbox Science Fiction Role-playing Game in the Old School Renaissance (OSR) tradition. This last point was a surprise to me when I finally began to read the book; in what can only be a perfect example of my prior ignorance of SWN, I somehow had managed to conceive it was a Powered by the Apocalypse system.
As I have no practical experience with the OSR I will only venture to define it broadly as a movement of RPG enthusiasts who, like the renaissance scholars rediscovering the classic thinkers of ancient Rome and Greece, are finding a renewed inspiration in the first generations of role-playing games from the seventies and early eighties, with perhaps some particular attention on Basic and Expert Dungeon & Dragons.
I suppose it could be surprising that Stars Without Number should be an OSR game in light of its Science Fiction premise and the OSR's thoroughgoing appreciation for Dungeon & Dragons, but I think it makes sense in retrospect: SWN is intrinsically a sandbox game, principally interested in facilitating "the creation of active, living campaign worlds where the PCs aren't the only important figures, and where a hero doesn't necessarily have any narrative armor against failure and death." That all sounds quintessentially old school to me, perfectly at home with both the general reputation the OSR has for lethality as well as the old stories of game masters running shared campaigns with two or more groups participating in a shared world and setting.
Ultimately I was only able to read through the first few chapters of the book, covering character creation, the rules for psionic (or psychic) characters, and the game's basic/core mechanics. I think I'll begin by detailing the skill system, which had the most surprises for me as a gamer with a background in little other than fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Skills in Stars Without Number
As far as I can tell, Stars Without Number is based on Basic Dungeons & Dragons with a hefty dose of influence from Traveler by way of its skill system. D&D itself wouldn't have mechanics for skills until much later in its history. SWN itself identifies its systems for skills, saving throws, and combat rounds as the core mechanics of the game.
Each player character in Stars Without Number has a number of skills they are proficient in, such as Administer, Notice, Sneak, or Shoot. There are 5 levels for each skill, numbered level-0 through level-4. If a PC has even one level in a skill, they are "perfectly capable of carrying out the ordinary duties of their role." In the event they attempt something out of the ordinary, however, or otherwise contend with unusual circumstances, they must make a skill check. To make a skill check, a PC rolls 2d6 and adds the most relevant attribute modifier and skill level. If they do not have a relevant skill level, they instead take a -1 penalty. The check succeeds if the result meets or exceeds the difficulty for the task determined by the game master. The book offers the following chart of difficulties for reference:
- (6): A relatively simple task that is still more than the PC would usually be expected to manage in their regular background. Anything easier than this isn’t worth a skill check.
- (8): A significant challenge to a competent professional that they’d still succeed at more often than not.
- (10): Something too difficult to be expected of anyone but a skilled expert, and even they might fail.
- (12): Only a true master could expect to carry this off with any degree of reliability.
- (14+): Only a true master has any chance of achieving this at all, and even they will probably fail.
The rules also state that, in circumstances where a skill seems "peripherally relevant", the game master can permit a PC to use this skill for the check with the drawback of increasing the difficulty by 2. A skill check can also be adjusted because of exceptionally convenient or poor circumstances or tools available, yielding penalties to the roll as low as -2 or bonuses as high as +2.
Finally, a PC can assist another in a skill check by first describing how they plausibly aid the character, determining the most relevant skill, and rolling against the difficulty of the original check. If they succeed, the original PC receives a +1 bonus to their attempt.
From what I can tell, it's probably accurate to say that skill levels comprise the bulk of the mechanical composition of a character, if not necessarily its core. The most essential components of a character are probably its class and foci. A class in Stars Without Number is familiar to what I know from fifth edition D&D, but they're far more minimal and there's fewer (just 4 total) of them besides. Meanwhile, a focus seems roughly analogous to a feat in modern D&D, but while they are substantial in impact, they are scarce in number; characters gain no more than 5 foci over the course of their careers. Skills, in contrast, are quite plentiful. PCs might gain as many as 3 additional skill levels every time they advance a character level, and the resource they spend to gain skill levels can also be spent improving attribute scores, making the two character features almost siblings if you squint your eyes: they largely apply modifiers to the same kinds of rolls, but attributes are both far more broad in their potential relevance and more difficult to improve.
All told, I really find Stars Without Number's skill system appealing. The skills are very enumerated in a way I associate with crunchy, systems-heavy games, but there's a lot of room left for GM discretion and player creativity. The book spends a sizable amount of ink stressing how capable PCs with even level-0 in a skill are.
Your hero is assumed to be competent at all the ordinary functions of their role and background. If he’s a moisture farmer from a back-of-nowhere desert world, he’s going to know how to keep a dew still running and how to put on a coolsuit. If she’s a corporate magnate’s succession-groomed daughter from a megacorp-dominated hiveworld, she’s going to know how to read a balance sheet and speak during a meeting with C-level executives. They will never fail at these basic tasks unless some situation makes them much harder than usual.
Skill checks should only be called for challenges that fall outside the PC’s background and common experience. A PC with the background of a starship pilot should not be rolling skill checks to land a ship or navigate to an in-system destination. As a general rule of thumb, if failure at a particular task would make the PC seem notably incompetent at their role in life, then they shouldn’t have to roll a skill check for it. In addition, if failure or success at a check really doesn’t matter in the game, if it won’t produce some interesting result either way, then a check shouldn’t be made.
On the whole it seems like there's supposed to be a nontrivial range of aptitude before you need to call for a skill check. It reminds me oddly of how the absence of ability checks is supposed to have effected a distinctive style of play in old school D&D, even though SWN itself obviously does ability/skill checks.
I can't say how much this bears out in-game, however; as I said before, I'm probably not going to get around to playing this game until I finish the book (and this series) and run it myself, and goodness knows there's a way to go before that.
I've also seen it called the Old School Revival. ↩︎
I can only imagine I jumped to this mistaken conclusion due to Adam Koebel's role as one of the co-designers of Dungeon World. Like I said, I never actually watched Swan Song. ↩︎
I invite anybody with further interest in the OSR more generally to listen to episode 28 of Table Talk Babble, which details the subculture at much greater length. ↩︎
Traveler is the classic science fiction role-playing game if I recall correctly. Traveler's relationship with science fiction prompts regular analogies with Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy. I associate it mostly with stylishly minimalistic book covers. ↩︎
Stars Without Number utilizes the classic attribute layout of Dungeons & Dragons, consisting of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, though the manner in which these scores translate into modifiers is in line with old school D&D rather than contemporary editions of the game. ↩︎
Saving throws notwithstanding. ↩︎