[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. III (Core Game): Star Systems

Thus continues our multi-part Epic of the inimitable science-fiction sandbox masterpiece that is Stars Without Number. In this section we will be covering the mechanics of the overall game as well as the promised Star Ship section, omitted from the previous part because of length issues.

The system should be immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with OSR standard systems. For all its subsequent elegant streamlining, SWN takes the trouble of spelling out the importance of one-off systems (like Gygax’s d6, show me what you got) to keep the game unpredictable and the importance of the players having a clear understanding of the rules in order to make reasonable choices, which shows a comprehensive understanding of the principles behind old school gaming. Were you surprised at this point?

If any section betrays the genius of Kevin Crawford it is probably the Systems chapter. Systems are given the precise amount of complexity in order to generate gameplay, but are always easy to grasp and explained effectively and with breathtaking clarity. Not the synaesthetic cacoverbia of something like Deep Carbon Observatory, but a clear, elegant penmanship which manages to elucidate without being horribly dry.

We covered Skill use in a previous section but I will remark fondly on the existence of mechanics for opposed and extended skill checks, as well as a system for omitting skill checks entirely or making them untrained (which seems to translate into a -1 penalty). No mention is made of certain skills being useless untrained, which is a bit of a puzzler. Crucially, the section has examples of different skills at difficulties from 6 to 13, allowing you to establish a baseline for what is a reasonable check difficulty. Excellent.

Combat is pretty standard, albeit the often unwieldy THaC0 has been converted into a flat bonus to hit, which is added to the roll along with the attackers Combat Skill, relevant attribute modifier and the Defender’s AC (unarmoured is 9). If the total is 20 or more, you hit! A straightforward re-imagining of the old system.  Initiative has been given slightly more randomization by upping the dice to d8 and having a max attribute modifier of +2. Factors like cover can further modify the hit roll.

Rules for combat are pretty sparse, representing what is essentially a cleaned-up, stripped down version of B/X. Any readied items can be used. Characters get one move and an action (usually an attack). There’s no rules for firing into melee, which may apparently be done with abandon (I would call it a weakness but it does drive home the supremacy of ranged weaponry even further [1]) although retreating from melee combat does provoke an attack of opportunity unless he spends an action disengaging. Double move if you spend your action (again, favoring ranged combat over the traditional triple move+ if you spend your full action). Running away is a simple matter of opposed Athletics tests. Combat is condensed into two pages (if you count Injuries). Like many an oldschool game before it, the preparation leading up to the battle is at least as important as actions during combat. No defensive stances, no fancy aim actions, no flanking, no parry moves. Just roll to hit, find cover, and spam burst fire until the last guy drops. This is not a game of tactical genius, in fact the combat system is a little bit TOO simple for my taste.

Injury is simple. 0 hit points means you (A PC) are mortally wounded and must now be stablized via psychic powers or Lazarus Patch. The check gets harder as rounds pass, if you get stabilized you are now in critical condition and require medical attention for either 1d4 days (TL 4 medkit like a boss) or 1d4 months (TL 3 medkit like a chump). Poison and disease make their come-uppance, but Crawford adds attributes so you can classify them properly. Toxicity means the DC of the Tech/Medical needed to make your character automatically succeed at his saving throw against the infection, Interval represents how often a character need make a saving throw and the Virulence tracks how often a character must save successfully to shrug off the infection. Sample diseases and toxins are given like Hellscreamer venom, the psychic affliction Rothman’s Pox and Vent Rot, to which I would have liked to see added Babel 17, The Obliterator Virus and Braxin poisons. Radiation also makes its appearance, in the form of Con loss with a saving throw interval determined by the intensity that can be treated at any TL 4 medical facility. You regain hit points every day, with more hit points and bonus for a full day of rest/attending physician. So far the future is actually kind of awesome.

Of all the other hazards one is likely to encounter in a space setting, the most deadly appears to be vaccuum. Vaccuum is not your friend. After a courtesy round it begins fucking you up with d20 damage (physical effect save for half) until you expire. Also you suffocate while you are taking the damage. Bring Void Suits.

Overland movements and the actual hourly speeds of all vehicles are provided (thank you Kevin!) but sadly no discussions of the procedures of Hex Crawling or wide-spread planetary exploration are included anywhere. To its credit the book covers dungeon sites later on well enough but the omission is puzzling, perhaps because the Sector is the Hex Map the use of subsequent hex maps would create some sort of singularity. Perhaps the inclusion of space shuttles, orbital scans and grav vehicles renders the journey mostly trivial? I can see why he’d omit it, but what about if you get marooned on some alien jungle planet ah la Van Vogt’s Co-operate or Else? Some of the effects described are only lethal upon prolonged exposure like Xenoallergens (which can be counteracted by  a simple drug, providing yet another logistical obstacle during your exploration of alien worlds).

Saving throws have been given a delicious little science-fiction paint-job, being divided into Evasion, Tech, Luck, Physical Effect and Mental Effect respectively. One other point worth mentioning is level-up procedures. SWN implements the excellent re-roll hit points every level-up-keep-highest method that is a tonic for 15 hp 4th level fighters the world over. It also implements TRAINING COSTS! and requires you to find an expert with the requisite skill and the Instructor skill willing to train you. Taking into account the maximum skill is 1+level/3 rounded down, the incrementally increasing skill point cost and SWN’s relatively low population assumptions of about 500.000 per frontier world on average, a character with a skill 3 or more in anything is likely to be the most qualified in the sector.

Last and ABSOLUTELY NOT LEAST is the section on starships and space travel, something which is often passed over in your average space game that treats space-ships as cool things that ferry one from space-station to hot-amazon jungle plant and back again but gosh darnit Kevin Crawford actually made rules to facilitate system by system exploration, smuggling, star ship combat and more!

The equipment section on Starships is probably the most advanced of the entire chapter in terms of both costs and options. Forget the pimp-my-ride rules of something like Redline, this motherfucker is the real shit, with sunk costs for the more advanced chassis even interstellar factions or planetary economies are hard-pressed to put up.

All space-travel in SWN is done via the Spike Drive, the miraculous FTL-engine invented by mad scientist Dr. Tiberius Crohn [2] allowing ships to travel between worlds through multi-dimensional space. The physics of FTL travel are explored in some detail and the explanations for the mechanics are generally given logical extrapolation. Spike Drive Technology does not exist in a vacuum.

The action is kept around planets through the use of a Spike Drive Threshold, allowing ships to slip in and out of Meta-dimensional space only at the edge of systems. This also has the added side-effect of making interstellar conflicts at least somewhat possible to conclude  definitively [3]. Meta-dimensional space travel is dangerous and safe paths are always in flux, requiring a combination of skilled navigation and up-to-date charts to conclude successfully. Again, a decision that implies closely guarded trade routes, undiscovered routes, lost worlds and so forth [4]. Space travel is pretty slow, with jumps between close worlds taking multiple days of transit time. Fuck yeah! Shit to discover!

Ship stats resemble vehicle stats. Speed modifier, Armor, Hit Points, Minimum and Maximum Crew, AC and Free Mass, Energy and Hardpoints for the make-your-own-star-ship extravaganza. Like Asimov’s Foundation [5] series, the collapse of galactic civilization means pocket stellar empires can be built on the backs of a single battlecruiser. TL 5 hulls are lost technology to inspire wet dreams of conquest in the hearts of petty dictators. All types of hull fittings require a combination of Free Mass and Energy. Weaponry takes up energy and hardpoints. We will build two ships to illustrate the process.

The first one is going to be a budget trade vessel, constructed on the cheap with TL 4 components, for hardy, pioneering and trade. Without further adieu, let us statt up the Tarnowski.

We select the Free Merchant Hull (500k).
Speed 3 Armor 2 HP 20 Crew 1/6 AC 6 Power 10 Mass 15 and 2 hardpoints.

The first thing we select is a Spike-drive. All hulls (in the book) come equipped with a Spike-Drive 1, giving the ship the capability of making a jump to a planetary system in the next hex over in 6 days (provided the navigator doesn’t trim the jump). For a shitload of cash, we can upgrade that all the way to drive-6, though higher rated jump drives tend to be larger (fighter hulls are restricted to Drive-3) and anything above drive-3 is TL 5 tech. We are going with the basic-bitch Spike Drive 1. Spike drive is a huge deal, as a Spike Drive 2 is literally twice as fast and has twice the range of a spike drive 1.

The first thing we need to be able to do on a planet is land. Larger hulls can’t land and generally need a shuttle bay, and sadly no star trek teleporters exist. Cost is higher depending on the type of hull we use, so 50k gets us an atmospherically capable freighter at the cost of 2 free mass points.

Once you get a ship, almost certainly through means foul rather then fair, you can elect to fuck all the petty shopping and just buy an armory or ships’s locker for 20k (2k for a fighter, more for larger hulls). Since we only have a few crew members, we aren’t going to splooge on an armory, but a locker gives us access to all TL 4 equipment in the book, which means we can explore the shit out of worlds. 20k at no mass cost.

Since we want the Tarnowski to be able to operate on the frontier, we don’t want to be stranded in an unexplored sector with no refuelling capabilities. We can only do a single jump of 1 hex, so now our options are fairly limited. If we get into a tussle with even a single planetary goverment (and let’s face it we will) on our sector, entire sections of the map could become inaccessible. We buy a Fuel Bunker (25k, 1 Mass) allowing us to jump a second time before refuelling (we can buy this upgrade multiple times) and Fuel Scoops, (50k, 2 power, 2 mass) allowing us to refine our own fuel at a nearby Gas Giant or Star. We still have 10 mass left and we have not even purchased weapons. Any mass that we don’t use can be converted into 20 tonnes of cargo space on the cheap. We also figure we are going to be roughing it for a while, so we purchase Extended Stores for 25k and 2 mass, giving us a month of supplies instead of 14 days.

In system travel in SWN is handled pretty intelligently. The game differentiates between stellar regions, which are loosely defined as planets and their moons, asteroid fields, gas giants or any other sort of stellar body. Ships within the same system can be detected with a successful Computer Use check. Whoever has the better Spike Drive can generally outrun the other, though a navigator can at any time, within or between systems, elect to trim a course. This means you pick riskier, high-energy currents in multi-dimensional space [6], allowing your drive to function as though it were at least 1 rating higher at the risk of damaging your ship systems if you fuck up. Since the Tarnowski is unlikely to be able to run from anyone and is almost certainly going to run into trouble, we are going to have to conceal our drive signature.

If you turn off your beacon, it is possible to use the wonders of Phasing and quantum ECM to actually fucking mask your emissions [7], allowing you to pass through the system undetected through the miracle of an opposed skill test. I was going to buy Emission dampeners but then I discovered they were 250k, so fuck that noise. There are robust systems for hiding your signature via opposed skill tests and once someone has a sensor lock it becomes increasingly difficult to escape detection.

There is some truly formidable weaponry we can mount on a Frigate class hull. The only problem is that all of that weaponry can cost as much as a whole fucking second hull. We go for the budget option. 100 k nets us 2 Sand Throwers (3 power, 1 mass, 1 hardpoint each), essentially space-shotguns filled with dense-particulate matter. Damage is 2d4, the Flak ability allows it to deal double damage against fighter craft but its lack of Armor Penetration means they will be ineffectual against larger, better armoured hulls. Oh well.

Space combat in SWN is pretty deterministic, being more reliant on loadout then on strategy, but there are enough tactical options to prevent it from becoming brain dead. It reminds me of a functional OSR version of d20 Future space combat. First the role of Meta-dimensional Space! Ships are constantly phasing in and out of real space on different  “bands,” with higher drive ships being able to stay in and fire at different zones. A spike drive 1 drive can only stay and fire into real space and band 1 for example. Before each round, each ship covertly writes down what band they are in and declares into what band they will fire. If the band is unoccupied, the attacker must roll higher then the difference between bands on a d6. This really starts coming into play when very High drive rating ships face very low ones, which can quickly turn into a slaughter, with the high drive vessel delivering impetuous death from Band 6 whilst the Spike 1 vessels are forced to hope for a lucky 6 or have their fire negated entirely.

Besides the spike mechanism, combat takes place at relatively short-range [8] and all ships are allowed to fire their weapons simultaneously at one another. Each weapon system generally requires a gunner, but there is an autofire upgrade. Pilots can contribute by trying various maneuvers, such as attempting to escape, trying to fly into a vessel’s Drive Envelope at point blank range and thus locking phases (space grappling) and of course RAMMING SPEED. Half max hp in damage, instant death if you get hit by a ship two size classes larger. PERHAPS TODAY IS A GOOD DAY TO DIE!

Weaponry is a broad assortment of lasers, torpedos, particle beams, railguns, anti-fighter screens that inflict one attack every time a fighter makes an attack run (clouds of microdrones, clouds of meta-dimensional energy to more exotic fare like Gravity Weapons, Weaponry that taps into Drive Space and the terrifying Singularity Cannon. Besides damage, weaponry is differentiated by its effectiveness against certain hull types (i.e clumsy weapons get a penalty against fighters), Armour penetration, Phase penetration (it appears phase can only ignore gravity fields of limited strength, so high mass projectiles can punch through easily) and whether it uses ammo, which takes up extra mass for magazines. Some weapons may only be mounted on certain hulls, and there is an additional section on defences, allowing you to beef up your vessel with additional armor, a hardened polyceramic overlay, point-defence weaponry, drones and the rare TL 5 Gravity Eddy Displacer. There is an interesting trade-off in ship design, where it is possible to spec a ship to be more effective at taking on fighters then cruisers or vice versa, as long as you have the budget.

Speaking of which, space combat is prohibitively expensive. Every point of damage requires 1k per hit point for a freighter, with a good shipyard being capable of repairing up to 10 hit points per day. Tallying these costs along with the cost for maintenance also resolves a quandry my GM and I had about the existence of ship breakers in SWN [9]. The bookkeeping is pretty heavy in this one, essentially turning every ship owner into an independent business man that will need to put money on the table to make ends meet. Now we can nod approvingly at Kevin Crawford for using the same formula for increased component cost for larger ship types throughout the books, rendering what could be daunting concise and intelligible.

So let’s go back to the Tarnowski.

The Tarnowski (tramp freighter)
Speed 3 Armor 2 HP 20 Crew 1/6 AC 6 Spike-drive 1 Crew Min/Max 6
At 2 (2d4, flak)
Upgrades: Atmospherically capable, Extended Stores, Locker, Fuel Bunker, Fuel Scoops
8 Free mass, which we shall turn into 20 tonnes of cargo space per mass point at no cost!
The total cost of the Tarnowski is 845 K, with an annual maintenance cost of 42,250 credits.

Okay, let’s calculate how much we need to make in order to keep the Tarnowski spaceworthy and illustrate the depth of this awesome game at the same time. We will assume a crew of 4, so we have 2 gunners and two navigators with Tech/Astronautics and other skills necessary to fly the damn thing.

The Tarnowski’s crew consumes about 200 credits worth of fuel with each jump (higher spike drives cost more to refuel). The crew eats from its stores, taking up 80 credits per day. Assuming 6 days of flight time per jump, and an additional 4 days to travel in system and out of system, the Tarnowski has an operating cost of 1k per jump. (it is cheaper for the Tarnowski to buy fuel then to refine it itself, which takes 4 days as opposed to 6 hours). Assuming total operational efficiency without any trimming, the Tarnowski can make 35 jumps per year. It’s assumed operational cost in that time is 77,250 credits per year.

Here we start to bump into the limitations the core system, which lists only two Trade goods, Metals and Goods, which can be exchanged at a fairly high profit margin on isolated or primitive worlds. Trade goods can be exchanged at a 50 credit profit per kilogram, trade metals can be exchanged at a 990 credit profit margin per kilo. The problem? You tend to get this back in local goods which have to be sold and an influx of travellers rapidly spoils the market. Still, provided we get the Tarnowski to an outlying mineral-poor system, 160 tonnes of cargo space should yield enough profits to easily make our yearly return.

Stars Without Number is damn cool. Join me next time as I blather about the setting, the GM guide and we get into world generation. Peace!

[1] Unlike Dark Heresy, you can’t pull a Shiroyama and engage the enemy in melee combat so he cannot fire into your ranks. Melee combat is for restricted areas, primitive worlders, brawls, extreme environments or desperate situations.
[2] In a nod to more golden age sf works, the Spike Drive is in fact invented by an eccentric outsider scientist, rather then a major corporation or multi-billion dollar goverment science project.
[3] As we see in something like Star Wars, where FTL sensors are a thing, a fleet with ready FTL capability without this restriction can just chill out somewhere in the vast nothingness of space, essentially unguarded, and conduct guerilla operations at any time barring essential supplies, making some sort of Palpaltine-esque gambit essentially the only economically viable way of stopping them.
[4] Again, during the Mandate-era, frequent traffic meant up-to date charts and safe passages between worlds. Post-Scream, routes are lost entirely, forgotten, closely kept by pioneers and can be rediscovered!
[5] If the chat is enthusiastic enough, I could be persuaded to do a post that tallies all the science fiction references so you can compose your own version of Prince’s Appendix SWN in case you are at a loss of where to begin.
[6] Within systems ships do not truly enter meta-dimensional space but sort of “skip” across it, phasing through the system at a significant percentage of c.
[7] With conventional propulsion, the energy requirements of interplanetary propulsion systems allowing you to go anywhere within an appreciable amount of time generally mean everyone will be able to see the kilometre long plasma flare with their heat sensors.
[8] It is explained that drive-phasing and Quantum ECM makes long range targeting and missile fire all but useless, thus combat takes place at ten thousand kilometres or less.
[9] It turns out they would be very rare using the rules as written, almost nonexistent for freighter type hulls but they could conceivably exist as a side-business, even if you assume unlimited demand for star ship hulls (fair). While the cost of repairing even large amounts of battle damage never reaches a tenth of the hulls cost, even if you include a yearly maintenance fee of 5%, changing fortunes can cause a planetary government to no longer be able to cough up the probably astronomical 5% maintenance fee on a fully equipped battlecruiser hull, which will become less effective for each year of missed maintenance until it finally becomes unable to fight or jump, with the cost of refurbishment becoming prohibitive. After this you can either decide to mothball it but that means its expensive weaponry is gathering dust when most of it could conceivably be installed in your still active frigates. As an economic policy it only makes sense in sectors that are undergoing MASSIVE recession.
There isn’t really a system for calculating the value of shipbreaking either, so I think we can resolve that one as not impossible but very unlikely.

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4 thoughts on “[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. III (Core Game): Star Systems

  1. Yeah, melee definitely sucked in 1e, burst fire from laser rifle was the answer for any situation (technically even in close combat). I think melee buffs and the new space combat system are the nicest things in Revised.
    But what about second ship? We were promised two, but only one of them was built in this part!

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    1. I liked the martial arts system expansion in 1e as a means of make melee combat at least semi-feasible, though I would just create a sort of Island of Fire planet every now and then to keep the PCs on their guard.

      The second ship is a treat. I plan on making a TL 4+ Battlecruiser for my next demonstration, so people can see what the maximum potential looks like. I figure it will take me a while. Heh.

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  2. [Combat Systems]
    I gotta agree with you that combat is a bit overly simplified in 1E, but it does get at the nitty gritty of a fight and cover is king. There’s a reason that military and law enforcement stress finding cover over engaging a target directly, though like Zoid said, Crawford did a bang up job with adding the extra little details to make melee combat more accessible and viable. I am glad that there’s no free melee attack for shooting at someone right next to you, especially with a pistol, though it’s a bit tougher to shoot when someone is right in your face. Even the injuries and poisons system do a great job at supporting combat, making it that players can be cool, but must be careful
    [Starships]
    Man, making starships has got to be one of the most fun parts of this system. While it gets to be a bit heavy on the book keeping, modifying and customizing the ship is great. Starship combat always did seem a bit wonky though. I’m glad that was also given an overhaul, as it seemed that only one guy was really stealing the spotlight unless you had multiple ships
    [GM tools]
    That is the real claim to fame of SWN. My body is ready

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