Solo RPG Bookclub: Stars Without Number, Part 2

Character creation in Stars Without Number is intriguing to me. I don't know how to highlight what I find so interesting about it short of comparing the system to Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. 5e feels to me like a game which wants to let you design your characters from top to bottom, but has a few escape hatches to let dice decide critical aspects of your character: generally you allocate your attributes either through point-buy or the standard array, but you can roll your attributes instead if you wish; you're invited to develop your own personality traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws, but each background nonetheless provides tables you can roll on for each; and typically your HP will increase by a set amount each time you level up, but you can roll your hit dice instead if you like.

In contrast, SWN seems to take rolling for stuff as the default, but provides an escape hatch for player choice. This is most apparent generating character attributes and determining starting character skills.

Attribute Scores & Modifiers

Typically, you roll 3d6 for each attribute. This seems pretty hardcore if you're accustomed to the practice in 5e of rolling 4d6 for each attribute and dropping the lowest dice of each; but the potential for devastating low scores in lessened in Stars Without Number by the fact attribute scores have much less impact on their corresponding modifiers than they do in 5e. Whereas an attribute score in 5e can swing the modifier from -4 all the way to +4, the potential extremes of a modifier are much reduced in SWN, in accordance to the following chart:

Score Modifier
3 -2
4–7 -1
8–13 0
14–17 +1
18 +2

So, on one hand necessarily you're rolling for the core of your character, but on the other hand the mechanical impact of this roll is much less than you might imagine. In any case, after you roll your scores you may change one attribute's score to 14, so you always have at least one modifier that's +1. There is an alternative to rolling, however: the players can instead opt to allocate their scores from an array of 14, 12, 11, 10, 9, and 7. But, in contrast to 5e and its "standard array", this is presented as very much the alternative rather than the default.

Backgrounds & Skills

After determining your character's attributes, the next step is to select a background. Backgrounds represent your character's history prior to becoming an adventurer. Even here, Stars Without Number invites you to determine your background randomly by rolling on a d20. In this instance, however, the text seems much less biased one way or the other, and both options are presented more or less on equal footing. Where it gets interesting, to me, is the role your background plays in determining your starting skills.

One you've determined your background, you gain the listed free skill. Additionally, you can either (A) select two additional skills from that background's Learning table, or (B) roll three times on either the Growth or Learning table associated with that background. There's also a "Quick Skills" option for each background, but this is effectively a pre-selected array of skills from option (A). The Learning table consists exclusively of skills, while the Growth table offers the potential to increase your ability scores.

Skills and tables for the Barbarian background.
If you pick skills, you can select exactly the talents you want for your hero, while going with random rolls allows your character a little wider range of competence and the option of attribute improvements at the cost of perfect control over their development.

I really like this incentivizing of randomness in character creation. It feels like an invitation to discover your character, while also not obstructing players who may wish to articulate a specific vision of their character.


So, this "series" certainly did not end up being effective motivation for me to write more frequently. The bulk of this entry was written up little more than a month after the inaugural post, only for it to linger for almost a year before I decided this week to just get it out rather than have it collect digital dust forever. In the time since I've both lost and regained interest in role-playing games, and I intend to write and share some thoughts and tools in the weeks ahead, but this series is on indefinite hiatus, to say the least.