We ended up playing two sci-fi RPGs within a week of one another. How does Stars Without Number stack up in this review without numbers?
Stars Without Number (SWN) is a lot of things. Sandbox. Old school renaissance. It's firmly set in the distant future of faster-than-light travel, and yet the diverse selection of planet tech levels allows for adventures in a wide variety of genres and time periods.
And all of this is completely free! SWN does have a deluxe version with some extra features, but the core of the game is available for free download. In an already niche hobby that is dominated by a single brand, this is a bold move to encourage people to try a new system.
A lot is crammed into these free 240+ pages. Rules are kept simple and brief, but they cover options for everything from stabbing with a pointed stick to interstellar travel to psychic powers. About half the books is dedicated to game master resources, with the intention of making it easy to generate the recommended 20-30 distinct star systems for the party to explore.
I really love charts when they are used as utilities for game planning, not for at-the-table use. I get a lot of blank page writer's block and love using resources like this to inspire campaign creation. SWN provides charts for everything from generating the theme and history of a world to its problems, people, and places.
For all of the Gygaxian charts, there's a lot of modern sensibility when it comes to adventure design. This is not the "drop the players straight into a dungeon" ethos of the 70s. GMs are advised on creating adventures based on player goals and are designed with a strong focus on narrative.
Unsurprisingly, the core of the game is similar to D&D. The six ability scores are the exact same, you roll a d20 against armor class in combat, and so on. Skill checks are done using 2d6, making results more likely to stick to the average instead of having wild swings. I like this system, as I find that in D&D a character with +4 in a skill will often be out-rolled by someone with only +1.
The "old school renaissance" shows in several other ways. Most notably, life is cheap in SWN. It's easy, if not likely, for characters and enemies alike to be downed in one hit, although they can be revived from 0. Damn millennials. There are also a few (intentionally?) quaint oddities in mechanics harkening back to the 70s and 80s, such as rolling initiative on a d8, as opposed to the d20 or 2d6 that are used for almost every other roll.
If anything is lacking from the SWN book, it's a pre-made starter adventure. The game's philosophy is very much rooted in freedom and narrative based on character goals, but an included adventure would make it much easier to pick up the game and play. SWN also puts so much on the menu that it would be nice to have an example of play.
We started the session, as you often do, with some character creation. This was a lot easier than a lot of games of a similar level of rules complexity. If you're a fan of random character generation, there are good options for creating a character that way without them turning out as unplayable. Going through and making your choices more deliberately still seems pretty quick, especially for players who are familiar with Dungeons & Dragons.
These simple characters are definitely interesting enough for a one-shot; we had one each of the three main classes: warrior, expert, and psychic. Each has its own cool ability to set it apart from the others, in addition to differences in skills and foci. I wonder how well this would scale over time though. One of D&D's big strengths is getting new and exciting abilities over time, which is rare to find in other products.
In setting up this adventure, I declined to create two dozen star systems, focusing on just one world. SWN has a great d100 chart of "tags" to create a world, and I ended up with the combination of "utopia" and "revolutionaries," which is either cliche or classic, depending on how you look at it. The rule book gives great advice on setting up a plot, but little guidance in designing balanced encounters. Again, very old school, but I wanted to try hard not to overwhelm the players in one fight.
To give a bit of sandboxy freedom, and assuage my concerns about running combat encounters in a new system, I also purchased a supplement called Hard Light that contains a few space dungeon crawls to dangle in front of the party. We freeform quasi-improved a bit and the party easily took out a lone revolutionary terrorist with a submachine gun. While speaking with an NPC who was secretly running guns for the anti-utopia revolutionaries, the party was offered a job raiding an alien tomb from Hard Light. They seemed more excited to do that than get into a sci-fi political debate, so I switched over to the module. The old school styled dungeon was fine, but perhaps a bit too focused on exploration for some modern sensibilities.
It's a bit of a disservice to run SWN as a one shot adventure. We didn't even get into some core gameplay elements, like interstellar travel and exploration. Without that, it's more or less some tidy old school rules in a create-your-own science fiction setting. But I did find some of those rules very well-thought out and simple to use at the table. If give the opportunity, I would gladly run a SWN campaign, and happily purchase the deluxe version to encourage more content like this.