Stars Without NumberSeptember 10, 2011
Stars Without Number is a tabletop rpg where you travel around the galaxy to different planets and get into adventure and intrigue. (The link goes to the free PDF ebook version). It uses an old-school-ish system with some really smart updates, and great rules for generating different worlds and conflicts.
It’s not Hitler’s Future
So, you know at this point our expectations for rpgs and representation is pretty much bottomed out. SWN does the following things right:
1) Images of POC are in the book!
2) No default assumption about the cultures that you’ll encounter
3) …backed up by the name list in the back! There’s several name lists, divided by culture, with a few paragraphs about clothing or food, and the acknowledgement that odds are good that what was traditional for us in the 21st century would be a massive throwback by the 31st century. The full cultures listed include: Arabic, Chinese, Nigerian, Indian, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, English. Obviously not entirely comprehensive, but the fact that it’s not euro-centric is awesome.
Travel Space, Go Anywhere
SWN is designed for “sandbox play” which means the sort of RPG where you get a bunch of planets, put them on the map, and the players are free to go where ever they can get to, and side with whomever they want, etc. SWN gives some great advice on prepping for this kind of play, and running it, with a strong focus on exactly what you SHOULD focus on, so you can not waste time with things that will be useless in play.
The biggest highlight for me is the World Tags system- you roll twice on the chart and get two major features of the planet that are sources of conflict and drama. For example, if you know a planet has runaway AI and primarily works with heavy industry… well, you can already imagine the sort of drama that would fit there. SWN gives each Tag extra description- some possible problems, some allies, or further complications, so you have support in setting up your notes.
There’s also interesting rules for dealing with factions, factional warfare – through economics, espionage, politics, and classic military force. Factions can also grow by capturing assets of other factions or gaining experience by fulfilling goals.
The only major issue I’ve got is the assumption that you’ll want/need to build a whole sector of planets before playing – it makes more sense to make a few planets and then as the players travel, expanding the map accordingly.
Updated Old School System
SWN strips away most of the cruft and bullshit rules from Basic D&D, and adds some clean, quick features that just work better.
You still have stuff like 6 attributes, and randomly roll stats… except stats are very heavily weighted towards the center and modifiers are really small. It’s pretty hard to roll a really crappy character. When you pick your class (Warrior, Psychic, Expert), you also can bump up one of you attributes to 14, so there’s another layer of protection from rolling the completely wack character.
You choose two sets of skill packages- one representing your upbringing, another representing your training from your class – there’s no point juggling or choices over skills- you pick the package and you get it – the end.
The major old-school-ism that sticks with SWN is Armor Class, hit points, and lethal combat. The GM’s advice talks about the importance of letting players make and enact smart plans to get the drop on foes, or figure out what fights are too difficult, and, that players will probably want to avoid a lot of fights early on. I’m not sure how well this actually runs in play, until I play it, but that’s the only thing flagging for me as a concern.