EDIT: It goes without saying that the person initially responding to me in the comments section is not the real Kevin Crawford. My apologies for any inconvenience this may have caused.
Stars Without Number – Core Edition (2010)
Kevin Crawford (Sine Nomine Publishing)
The year is 3200. Humanity is scattered like dust among the stars. The broken relics of a
former day litter the sky and men and women struggle to rebuild the glory of humanity’s
lost golden age.
A merry sunday to you all. Today we are starting FTL-februari in Earnest, with a multi-part review of Kevin Crawford’s science-fiction sandbox OSR masterpiece Stars Without Number. Unlike many of the games I review, I have actually played Stars Without Number for 3 (?) years and what must be 40-50 sessions by now. I have lost 2 characters to the base trickery of Captain Kaidan Khaynes and the terrible vengeance of Yusuf Al’Akkad. And I have watched that baseborn criminal suffer the draconic justice of the Republic of Haven (to be hanged upside down until one dies) with a smile on my face.
Stars Without Number is the king of science fiction OSR and the spiritual successor to Traveller, a 254-page game that not only encompasses the rules and setting but far more importantly, contains a huge set of tools to enable one to create one’s own sectors for sandbox play. Trade in your sword for a Laser pistol and your horse for a Frigate! We are going to space bitches!
The premise of Stars Without Number is that it is the year 3200,
two five centuries after a terrifying psychic apocalypse known as the Scream laid waste to the technological golden age of yesteryear. The Terran Mandate, a civilization that covered most of the galaxy, collapses in darkness and horror as the psychic choirs that enable gateways through multidimensional space perish or go insane. The Core Worlds descend into barbarism. The Frontier Worlds, bereft of the infrastructure to use gateways and thus equipped with ships with their own spike drives manage to weather the storm, and some rebuild. It is now two five centuries after the Scream. Go!
SWN is very much a game in the vein of Traveller, more Space Country then Space Opera. It is more Firefly then Star Wars, more Dark Matter then Babylon 5 and more Star Trek TOS then Star trek Deep Space 9. While there are many possibilities, the default style appears to be a band of loveable, semi-criminal ragamuffins making their way across the galaxy doing some trade, picking over abandoned pre-Scream bases in search of elusive pre-tech relics and tussling with all manner of criminals, beliggerent space goverments, maltech cultists and hostile local fauna.
After a short opening on what the PCs begin to know, SWN opens by discussing just what it is and what it is not, laying a solid foundation so the GM may begin his space sandbox properly, with many a beginner’s flaw averted. This deliberation and intelligence shines through the entire work, and for all its sophistication and intricacy Crawford manages to deliver a game that is remarkably accessible to newbies. Several elements of sandbox play are immediately conveyed to the player before the first ability score is rolled. Most notable are an admonishment to co-operate with the GM (but within reason) and the existence of no-win scenarios and thus the vital importance of intelligence gathering in identifying these threats. On the GM side, there is an excellent section on just what areas of the book are vital to memorize and what areas need only a readthrough at first  and the overall very solid OSR advice to avoid getting stuck on a single plotline and be ready to ditch NPCs or adventure tracks if the PCs are not interested in them. Part of the genius of SWN is that it makes the daunting task of generating an entire sandbox space sector surprisingly easy, providing tools and advice every step of the way.
Character creation in SWN follows the tried and true OSR staples of 3d6 times 6 in order, with the ability to switch points between stats as long as no stat is raised above 13 or lowered below 8 (the threshold for positive and negative modifiers respectively). Modifiers in SWN are capped at 2 for a score of 18 or 3, any other stat above 13 or below 8 nets you a modifier of +1. In a gentlemanly gesture, SWN allows a player to replace one of his class’s primary ability scores with 14. Ability scores are straightforward and expressed as direct modifiers to skills, rolls or encumbrance in the manner of B/X.
Classes are broad, appropriate for a science fictional setting with worlds encompassing the full spectrum of technological development that is likely to give birth to hundreds if not thousands of specialized occupations. The Warrior class is used for all manner of fighting men and functions like the typical OSR fighter, with an added ability to ignore a single hit directed against him once per combat, giving it immense durability. The Expert is likely to see even more use and is essentially to go too class if you want your party to be equipped with the many many skills one requires to navigate the daunting world of Stars Without Number. The Expert essentially covers anything that isn’t a warrior, from spaceship navigators to cardsharks. Besides getting the most skill points, experts have the ability to reroll any one skill check each hour (of game time). The Psychic plays the dubious roll of space-wizard and has only its power points and six different disciplines to elevate it above the others. It is more then enough, and true to OSR form, the Psychic is by far the most potent class.
True to form, we are going to create a character and because the Psychic is the most complex it is also the most interesting one to pick to illustrate the character creation process.
Our stats are Str 11, Dex 15, Con 12, Int 16, Wis 14 and Cha 9. Online dicerollers are nonsense. Fortunately, we pick Psychic so we can increase one of our Prime Attributes to 14. In this case our Prime Attributes are Con and Wis, so we increase Con to 14, to create an absolute fucking superman. We shall name him…Ilkhon Vehk. Bald, gleaming grey eyes and a flat expression.
Str 11 Dex 15 (+1) Con 14 (+1) Int 16 (+1) Wis 14 (+1) Cha 9
Next up in the character creation process we select our Background package. Background packages are collections of skills that represent where the character came from, and run the gamut from various Spacer professions to primitive Tribesmen. Skill tests are eminently simple: 2d6 + primary attribute modifier + ranks in the skill against a DC of 6 and 12. Combat works a little differently, we’ll deal with that later. The first time you pick a skill it starts at 0. We decide Ilkhon started his life as a baron from some regressed backwater planet, the Noble Background, netting us Combat/Primitive, Culture/World (our homeworld), Leadership and Persuade. The GM informs us our homeworld will be named Hamaravon.
After that we pick our class specific training package from among 8 alternatives. We are going for a Rogue Psychic, someone who has been trained outside of the few Psychic Academies by a mentor (those not trained in the use of psychic powers quickly die or go insane). We get Combat/Any (we pick Energy), Culture/Any, Persuade and Stealth. Since we already have Culture/World and raising it an extra point is of questionable use, we can pick another Culture skill. We can pick from Alien, Criminal, Spacer, any World or Traveller. Traveller can only be selected at character creation and can never be raised above 0, but it represents a background of travelling across the sector, allowing the character to use it on any World . However, Criminal is more fun, and we cannot be a cunning criminal mastermind without criminal!
Str 11 Dex 15 (+1) Con 14 (+1) Int 16 (+1) Wis 14 (+1) Cha 9
Skills: Combat/Primitive 0, Combat/Energy Weapons 0, Culture/Hamaravon 0, Culture/Criminal 0, Leadership 0, Persuade 1  and Stealth 0
The GM generously allows us to start with maximum hit points i.e. (d4+1) 5. Everyone knows English, and we get one additional language per our Int modifier. We figure people on Hamaravon speak some sort of mixture of Bulgarian and Russian which we shall dub Hamaravonian and we add that to our languages spoken. We roll starting credits of 400 + 1d6 * 100 and end up with 500 starting credits. We will deal with that in the equipment section.
There is one more thing we have to figure out before Ilkhon can enter the field: Psionics
Psionics, like other science-fictional elements in Stars Without Number, are fully integrated into the rest of the setting, the sign of a mature approach to universe building that makes the whole feel deep and coherent. Psionics started showing up only after humanity was exposed to meta-dimensional space  and formed the backbone of the now defunct Mandate Core Worlds. While there are some remnants of psychic technology still in widespread circulation, most of the knowledge and technological applications of psychics were lost in the Scream. The powers require no vocal or somatic components, only willpower. They are most reminiscent of the psychics from Perry Rhodan or the espers from Star Trek TOS.
Psychic powers are divided into 6 Disciplines: Biopsionics, Metapsionics, Precognition, Telekineses, Telepathy and Teleportation. There is one power in each discipline from level 1 to level 9. Each use consumes Psi points. There is an awesome subsystem  where psychics can elect to permanently sacrifice a number of psi points equal to the activation cost of a certain power in order to master that discipline, allowing them to use it at will. There is a great last resort system also: If you are out of Psi-points, Psychics can elect to “torch,” meaning they can elect to manifest powers at the risk of causing permanent damage to their neural pathways. Each round of torching means you have a 80% chance to lose either a point of Con or Wis. Stars then proves its greatness by throwing in a little detail, psychics that drop below 3 Wis go “feral” (below 3 Con they simply perish) and fall under the control of the GM, but after that they can manifest their powers AT WILL AT NO COST! Awesome.
Each pychic picks one primary discipline to master. Every time he levels up he gains a power in this discipline, and may select a power from another discipline. Since it is not possible to skip powers in the tree, it can be more advantageous to pick one or two powers in a secondary discipline before moving on to the next one. Its a very clear and concise system with a lot of option and depth, but there are a few criticisms I can level against the powers themselves:
There is an element of feat-tax (or psi-tax) here . Since SWN has almost no short term healing options besides the rare pre-tech Integrity Stimms, access to the level 2 biopsionic power Psychic Succor which heals 1d8 + the psychics level in hit points on touch is a HUGE advantage. Conversely, the metapsionics discipline really only becomes useful with two or three additional psychics in the team and is weak compared with the others.
But Prince! you clamour. Why would anyone ever not master Psychic Succour and thus have access to unlimited healing?!? A wise question. Crawford adds an additional balancing mechanism to the psychometabolic discipline. Accelerated healing (and other metabolic boosters like the ones from certain pre-tech stimms) strains the body, causing System Strain. If you take more strain then you have Con points you can no longer receive any healing. System Strain recovers at the rate of 24 hours per point. Potential abuse is averted with an elegant mechanism that is both easy to remember and makes sense in the context of the game. Expect this a lot.
Psychometabolism is one of the most useful disciplines by far, providing all manner of healing powers at low level and the ability to avert death, shapeshift or even regenerate from a pile of ash at the highest echelons. Metapsionics allows you to combine and exchange PPs with other psychics, cannibalise their hit points for more psy points and influence how hard it is to manifest certain powers. Precognition, Telekinesis, Teleportation and Telepathy you can probably figure out on your own.
Our Psychic shall pick the awesome Precognition as a primary discipline and will compound that with an additional power from the Psychometabolic discipline. We can now manifest Biostasis, allowing us to stabilize anyone on zero hit points without having to resort to a Lazarus Patch (the SWN go-too field consumable for when your fellows kick the bucket ). He also gains access to the 1st level precognitive power Omen, which functions a little bit like augury and allows the character to predict the effect of a single action (to within 1 minute afterwards).
Join me for Part II, where we shall cover the brobdignagian Equipment Section, get Ilkhon some space gear, masturbate to the starship creation rules, and fall asleep during Star ship combat.
 We shall call this meta-content, which makes SWN so easy to use
 SWN is rife with intelligent little subsystems like this, showcasing its extensive playtesting
 We have persuade twice so we can add the ranks
 I.e Hyperspace
 I call it a subsystem because the psychic class would have worked without it, it just adds more depth an character option
 Feat tax was a term used for some of the feats in 3e or 4e, which were so superior to any other character option that it was virtually essential to select them for any class. They became, in effect, a tax rather then a deliberate choice.
 Our team would go through Lazarus Patches faster then field rations. Lazarus patches are the most essential kit your PC can have. Always have everyone carry one, so anyone with basic field medical skills can revive them. The check difficulty tends to increase as the number of rounds goes up, with 6 rounds being the maximum.
EDIT: A kind reader points out my scholastic error. It is five centuries after the Scream, not two, which gives Humanity a little bit more of a plausible window to recover and rebuild from total civilization collapse.