[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. IV; Setting & Appendix SWN

A short entry to the series, today we are going to take a look at the setting of SWN, described in 7 pages of explicit setting material and woven throughout the book in little nuggets and hints, and by deductive reasoning retro-engineer the appropriate materials for an Appendix SWN. Weird? Perhaps. But its the future!

The description of Stars Without Number as “Space DnD” while crass, is essentially accurate, as SWN shares many of the essential elements of an oldschool sandbox.

1. It is an essentially post-apocalyptic world, allowing for the excavation of all manner of wonders from a prior age.

SWN takes place in the futuristic year of 3200, almost 600 years after the meta-dimensional holocaust known as the Scream came from the Veil Nebula and killed off or drove insane all the psychics Pretech humanity required, and with it the Jump Gates the sprawling civilization required for transit. Entire worlds that had outsourced their food production starved and died.

The Psitech which operated these gates and performed all manner of other wonders can no longer be recreated without the advanced psychic techniques that are now utterly lost. The very nature of Pretech is that it can only be constructed with psychic powers.

Worlds exist where not a single human being survived, littered by the detrius of a Golden Age. The tombs of both aliens and numerous pretech human civilisations litter the galaxy. Much has been lost, waiting for rediscovery. Much knowledge, psionic and otherwise, was lost in the horrors of the Scream.

2. Conan not Lord of the Rings. Firefly not Star Wars. No major empires but many factions. 

The Core worlds are graveyards, haunted by huddling Scavenger Fleets. The frontier worlds are hardier and more self-sufficient, and some managed to retain their industrial base and even rebuild their ship-building industry. Pocket stellar empires are just forming, but the low population of most of these frontier worlds (a few million at best, and often far less), and the logistical bottlenecks of Spike Drive Travel means wholesale military occupation of other worlds is virtually impossible. These empires are kept together by trade agreements, shared ideology and some saber rattling. No Star Warsian massive capital ship battles.

The history of SWN allows for many oddball civilizations ah la the Gaean Reach or Star Trek TOS. With the invention of Jump Gates, the oddballs and various deranged cultists travelled far into the Dark, beyond the reach of an overstretched Terran Mandate [1], and created all manner of bizarre civilizations. In the years leading up to the Scream, rampant genetic engineering and other abominations of science like the Unbraked AI [2] and the planetkiller.

For bizarro religions, you need look no further then the seemingly miraculous flight and subsequent disappearance of Tiberius Crohn, inventor of the Spike Drive, whose first flight is the stuff of miracle and speculation and spawned a dozen new religions. One can also look at maltech cults for the futuristic equivalent of Cthulhu worshippers.

The largest concentrations of ships are likely to be found in the enigmatic Scavenger Fleets, essentially spaceborne civilizations, travelling from world to world.

Add to that the effects of a galaxywide technological collapse and you can postulate all manner of bizarre, regressed, backwards, interesting, esoteric and weird civilizations. And that is not even counting the aliens.

By the same count, this low population and lack of galaxy-spanning superorganization makes it possible for a few bright individuals with the right equipment and a lot of guts to make their mark on the galaxy without getting themselves curbstomped by legions of Imperial Sardaukar [3]. SWN’s protagonists are not Luke Skywalkers, Virgil Samms, Paul Mu’adibs and Flash Gordons but Han Solos, Kirth Gersens, Jets and Malcolm Renyoldses [4].

3. Humanocentrism.

What sets SWN apart from something like Star Trek is that humanity is by far the dominant species in the galaxy. Other races exist but are either primitive, long since fallen from their great heights and grown moribund or decadent, or belligerent but not of such power they can hope to seriously threaten the entirety of humankind (that is, before the Scream). The Scream also fucked up the Alien psychics, but they had less of them anyway.

Aliens are helpfully grouped into two categories: ‘The Like” are the dominant group, and are the humanoids. Humankind can interact with these civilizations in a somewhat comprehensible manner. This is no WH40k so the few sample aliens cannot easily be traced to fantasy counterparts. The remaining group is appropriately termed “The Other” and represents creatures with utterly alien biologies, sentient interference patterns in ocean planets and other, even more alien creatures, whose nature is incomprehensible to mankind.

The closest thing to a DnD analogue would be the Hochog, a bovine warrior race that mainly gathers around charismatic leaders kept from being a major threat to mankind mainly because of its constant infighting. This infighting pushes the Hochog into other domains, which gains them few friends, as does their fondness for extreme biological and environmental warfare. In an odd twist, they are ruthless but not sadistic, considering torture abhorrent but genocide acceptable if deemed necessary.

The other two examples of aliens given are terrific. The Shibboleth are a nightmarish lovecraftian race with a thousand different shapes, who generate a psychic aversion field causing all but a few “Clipped” individuals to be utterly unable to acknowledge their existence. Any atrocities they commit (and they will), will be chalked up to all manner of different causes. This field is memetically contagious, and only psychics who have lost an ability point or those undergoing specialized surgery are immune. They are characterized by their malevolence, ability to sire half-human spawn, and tendency to perform unspeakable experiments upon human beings. Now they are forgotten with the exception of scattered coteries of “hunters,” or as governments tend to name them “Criminals.”

The Ssath were a rare example of an ascendant alien race when first encountered by humanity. A race of psionic shapechangers taking the memories of their progenitors, they died an masse during the Scream. Now they are a race of hedonistic murderers, divided in different sects descendants from different Mothers, bred from the mad survivors of the psychic holocaust that laid waste to their culture. The Disinhereted are a splinter faction that is trying to overcome the madness that plagues them.

4. The night is dark and full of terrors.
The nature of Meta-dimensional space means that unless a course is frequently used, the shifting currents of will change it to the point of uselessness. The Scream wiped out more then just technology. Entire worlds are lost, courses must be rediscovered, planets are forgotten, and humanity has gone from a galaxy-spanning empire to tiny points of light on the frontier, aware only of their closest neighbors or the Sector at best.

The low population and low power also means there is room to claim power for oneself, the goal of every adventurer. Any spacer can carry a crate full of laser rifles to a densely populated primitive world and see if he can’t get himself an empire.

The setting is very well done, more because of the vast room it leaves for individual expression while retaining its own unique twist. It embraces some tropes without ever feeling formulaic or generic, which quite frankly, I am amazed Crawford managed to pull off. Not a single sentence of the History feels redundant or self-indulgent, all of it has been meticulously crafted to provide a vast, sprawling tapestry for sandbox play, accommodating all manner of playstyles and influences.

How then, do we create our Appendix SWN? SWN is remarkably difficult to pin down because of its nature as “post-apocalyptic” Science fiction. Many popular sf franchises tend to assume uninterrupted growth towards technological wonderland, making them too futuristic to be compatible with the oddball retrotech base of SWN. Fortunately, we can find recourse in a rare few post-collapse sf universes, as well as a plethora of excellent golden and silver age science fiction novels from yesteryear, when advanced meant RADIOS.

Without further adue, here is my Appendix SWN, the lens I filter this splendid book through.

Fundamentals (oldskool)
Foundation series (Isaac Asimov) – tiny enclave tries to rebuild galactic civilisation after collapse. Psychics. Old Earth. Religion. Technological decay.
Demon Princes, Maske: Thaery by Jack Vance – Faffing about in a sprawling stellar cluster. Strange societies. Elaborate space yachts. Space Assassins. Space criminals. Space intrigue, space plot, space shenanigans of the highest shelf.
Solar Queen series by Andre Norton – Free trading, space voodoo, space rivalries, space cargo ferrying
Space Viking by H.Beam Piper – Space Viking.
Tales of Known Space and Ringworld (skip parts III and IV) – Ringworld is essentially a space hexcrawl on a megastructure, the Known Space universe is an elaborate future history, mostly remarkable for its awesome aliens.
The High Crusade by Poul Anderson – Medieval Men fight Alien occupation force.
Perry Rhodan series (first…60 issues?) – No doubt immediately familiar to my German readers, the sprawling pulp goodness of Perry Rhodan starts in the futuristic year of 1971 and involves an astronaut finding an alien ship on the moon, deciding to use its futuristic technology to end the Cold War by unifying earth into a single Imperium, and then spending the next 40 issues trying to use his elite cadres of atomic mutants and alien super science to prevent other shitbag civilisations from finding earth.

Revelation Space universe by Alaister Reynolds – Golden Age destroyed by horrific nanotech infestation of unknown origin. There are many alien races and they are all extinct. Tomb Worlds. Tomb Ships. Cool Aliens (that are dead). Posthumans (that are assholes).
Cobra Series (Timothy Zahn) – Mil Sci-fi for low population fringe worlds. Cyber Commando infiltration. Weird civilisations. Laser fingers.
Jon and Lobo Series (Mark L van Name) – Nanotech psychic spaceman and his talking space-ship seek space-vengeance on space mobsters and space war-criminals.
Blindsight/Echopraxia by Peter Watts – The truest expression of contemporary space horror. Zombie soldiers for third world powers, posthuman shitbaggery, prehuman cowering, alien shitbaggery, terrifying aliens, bleak gazing into the prison-void of human existence.
[Suggestion] A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge) – First contact. Pre-atomic Age Spider civilisation. Scavenger fleets. Irregular solar activity. Maltech (thou shalt not make tools of humankind).

Cowboy Bebop – Space bounty hunters looking for luck in the faded remnants of the solar system. Strange blending of different genres. Space Western at its finest and the only animu worth an unasterisked recommendation.
Knights of Sidonia – Barely makes the cut. Semi-realistic space mechs facing off against an unknowable alien menace, an oppressive immortal goverment, cryptic plot and some funky futuristic space tech, but the harem anime aspect intruding like a cancer will render it completely unconsumable to all but the most degenerate individuals [5].

TV Series/Movies
Firefly/Serenity – Space Western. Low-tech premise. Band of raggamuffins and rascals. Rare instances of rampant futurism, psychics, small-scale stuff.
Dark Matter – Space criminals with amnesia flee persecution in a galaxy run by ruthless mega-corporations and corrupt space government, get into knife-fights over gambling on space stations, samurai planet, terrorism and sex robots.
Battlestar Galactica (new or old) – Retro-technology. See also, Scavenger Fleets.
Star Trek TOS – Space exploration in a vast, empty desert of stars, with aid few and far between. Planets of hats. Godlike ruins and Terrors of Deep Space. Kurtzing. Creepy colonies. Silly colonies.
The Expanse – Technology approaches post-tech levels. Planetary space factions. Space battles. Space mining. Space blue collar workers. Space corrupt cop. Alien menace. The novel is surprisingly average but the series is a hard science masterpiece.

Fuck me that is hard. Nothing comes to mind. Read a book.

Join us for the next part as we begin to bite into the Sandbox part of SWN.

[1] A union of old earth Governments created to keep some manner of order over the rapidly expanding human Disaspora. By restricting colonization to a designated area they manage to retain some semblance of control until around 2450, when Jump Gates allow for expansion on a scale that is utterly unprecedented. It is regularly implied but never explicitly stated they are huge assholes.
[2] SWN solves the problem of super-human AI by postulating that runaway cognition will either elevate them to a new level of intelligence or simply drive them mad, it is impossible to tell which. Either way, they tend to become murderous or inimical to mankind. They even have Phylacteries so you can treat them as a sort of techno-lich. Apparently their particular quantum-storage medium can not simply be infinitely duplicated.
[3] The go-too solution for upstart young galactic whippersnappers attempting to meddle with your well-deserved ten thousand year dominion
[4] They can perhaps aspire to become Perry Rhodans; courageous and ruthless men using the superior technology of a fallen civilisation to raise an empire from the dirt and inherit the glories of a star-spanning galaxy. That would be the epic level of SWN. Also accurate because they would be using hundreds and hundreds of psychics.
[5] Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures is one of the few contemporary Chinese cartoons that manages to escape this blight entirely, or so I fervently hope.

20 thoughts on “[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. IV; Setting & Appendix SWN

  1. “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures is one of the few contemporary Chinese cartoons that manages to escape this blight entirely, or so I fervently hope.”

    Jojo’s is terrific – although I’m not sold on the current season, I loved all the prior ones and I was a fan of the 90’s OVA back before they wuz cool. But “Chinese”? I won’t be baited so easily.

    And while you’re right that Bebop is the gold standard, and most manga/anime recommendations deserve a big fat asterisk, I’ve uncovered some good stuff lately. First of all, anything by One. One Punch Man and Mob Psycho 100 are both masterpieces that approach Bebop levels of quality from a completely different direction. OPM is pure exhilarating superhero satire, and MP100 is a non-parodic manga deconstruction with beautiful stylized animation and a story that keeps unpacking greater depths.

    Also, an OSR gamer owes it to himself to see Goblin Slayer. It gets a little asterisk for some of that creepy anime fanservice, but it’s a straight up Japanese reinterpretation of OSR in anime form. And it makes Monster Manual goblins scary in a way that haven’t been since Gygax himself ran Keep On The Borderlands. The first episode will make all of this clear – fortunately, it gets considerably less gritty after it has established the stakes.

    Oh yeah, I agree with all the SWN stuff. I love the backstory; so accommodating without being vanilla.


    1. Okay lets talk Korean Pictures.


      One terrific Season is all I saw. I almost hesitate to start another one, I am at a loss how they are going to top it.


      I am unaware of the Artist but I did see One Punch Man in its entirety and I think its terrific BUT it derives much of its impact from its brilliant deconstruction of the tropes and arc of the Shonen Manga. Otherwise its still good, but like reading Watchmen if you’ve never read a superhero comic, much of the impact and an appreciation of the artistry is lost. I don’t know the other one.

      [Goblin Slayer]

      Whew, western fantasy animu. I have never gotten over Berserk the Animu. Berserk the manga is the best thing to come out of Japan but the anime keeps breaking my heart. They made some decent movies and now they fuck it up again with a terrible cheap series with nauseating camera angles. Woe is me.

      I find it immensely difficult to take anime seriously as a medium so the light-hearted pieces tend to grab me more then the serious ones. I like most of it on a aesthetic basis exclusively. I have a soft-spot for the original Full Metal Alchemist which is a terrific, moving piece with mostly non-autistic characters, a species threatened with extinction in Japan.


      Hahaha “also yes to all that other shit. Let’s talk animu!”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. [Korean pictures]

        Doh, youuuuuuu…..


        Season 1 is campy fun. Season 2 definitely takes it up a notch, and it has one of the best show intros (music + animation) that I have seen. Season 3 is the one everyone knows about – Stardust Crusaders. That’s when it comes into its own. But I preferred season 4 – Diamond Is Unbreakable. It’s a terrific palate cleanser after Stardust. Season 5, the current one, is not clicking for me yet.


        Well, it sounds like you need to see Mob Psycho 100. It’s not nearly as referential as OPM, although it does have a similar theme – OP character trying to live among mere mortals. Comparing OPM to Watchmen is totally valid and interesting.

        [Goblin Slayer]

        I’ve heard about the dubious joys and disappointments of Berserk, though I’ve never seen it. GS is far more modest in its scope. So far, it’s a much smaller story. Just try the first episode on crunchroll if you’re curious – you’ll know if it’s for you by the end.

        Full Metal Alchemist is solid stuff, although I didn’t connect with it emotionally as well as I’d like (either version…). I’m in full agreement that searching for great anime can be like fishing in a sewer, but I’ve been seeing some success lately.


        Yeah, great fuckin’ game!


      2. [JoJo]

        Here I go talking about JoJo on PoN’s territory… I love part I-IV, for different reasons, but around part V-VI (latter only exists in manga at the moment) it’s obvious that Araki was getting tired of it – he even admitted that’s the reason why he rebooted the universe after that. I started reading part VII recently, and holy shit it’s fun and refreshing! It’s a damn fine western about a paraplegic jockey and a neapolitan executioner trying to recover the mummified remains of Jesus during a 6000km horse race before the American president does it. There are people shooting their rotating nails, turning into dinosaurs, and

        No harem shit fortunately. Heck, most JoJos don’t even have a love interest.


        Speaking of comics, Dark Matter was a comic book initially – I didn’t read it yet, or watched the series. Roche Limit might be good idea to check out too, and as far as I know it will get a live-action adaptation too sometime. I also dig Space Riders, Green Lantern: Earth One, and Omega Men, but they feel less fitting for SWN, although still good sources for stealing ideas.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. All the good Taiwanese kids cartoons are harem anime these days. Just look at Game of Thrones. If it wasn’t for the plot-lines of Littlefinger, Robert Baratheon and Khaleesi’s creepy fan-service, nobody would’ve watched that piece of garbage. At least Bay-Watch had a good story.

        Jojo’s on the other hand is a much better show, as is to be expected from a famous ’90s Mexican soap-opera. The fan-service in this one is much less creepy due to the increased amount of homo-erotic imagery. The story is still trash though.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Mega Weeaboo reply thread activate!


        I’ve watched till Battle Tendency and I ffing loved it but the dude I would regularly watch anime with (sounds less gay then it is, but friends don’t let friends watch animu alone) now lives together with his girlfriend and she isn’t asian so I don’t think she’d get it. The rampant homoeroticism permeating every scene is merely one of the many aspects of Jojo’s indefinable genius. I think my personal favourite double-spittake was Jojo telling the nazi captain major Stroheim in charge of the Pillar Man facility that he respected him even though they were on opposite sides.

        I’ll give the second season a shot based on everyone’s glowing praise.


        Whew. I might give it a watch on the strength of OPM but Japanese takes on paranormal ability generally leave me a bit cold. Death Note had its moments but everything else tends to devolve into DBZ with ghosts pretty quickly (I’m too old to ever rewatch Bleach now), character arcs and terms like “battle manga” be damned.

        [Goblin Slayer]

        I am skeptical, but maybe I’ll give it a watch. Animu tends to suck at worldbuilding because of the autistic narrow focus. As soon as one principle is introduced almost everything in the world is organized hierarchically according to that principle. The world of Berserk is a rare exception. FMA had some promise but still felt a little shallow.


        Dark Matter the comic doesn’t count because it only covers the first two episodes of the show and was cancelled afterwards. The superhero space stuff doesn’t do it for me for SWN, too over the top I think. The Jojo recommendation sounds excellent though!

        The only comic that comes to mind is Universal War, and its a poor match. Maybe something like Ravian (or Battle of a Thousand Planets) would be good, but I never read it.


        The first…five seasons of GoT were excellent television but the post-GRRM GoT should have just been called ULTIMATE FANTASY SMACKDOWN 2018 and left it at that. Its like everyone lost 20 points on their IQ (which is probably what happened writing wise).

        I would love to sing the praises of Legend of the Galactic Heroes with its 100+ cast of characters, episodes, normal haircuts, Soundtrack by Wagner, massive space battles, slow pacing and meticulous attention to detail, but that would mean I had the fortitude to finish it. “I loooook upon the Staaaars so Briiiight. But I’m blinded byyyyy your light.”

        Like follows like. Almost everyone here is secretly an anime. FML.


  2. The Shibboleth sound awesome! SWN explores a different kind of scifi. Probably more literary than what I’m used to. Which is great because following in Crawford’s footsteps would make Alpha Blue look… incompetent.


    1. [Alpha Blue]

      Sure, but what I liked about Alpha Blue is that most of its background was exactly right for the type of game it wanted to be, just like Stars.

      [Doc Who]

      Doc who has the best bestiary of space monsters.


  3. It is explicitly stated in Other Dust that Terran Mandate in it’s later years was a bag of decadent dicks. I guess it would be wiped out by eventual civil war if not for the Scream.


    1. Or wiped out by more virile powers on the edges of Known Space, be they Terran or Alien. Reminds me of another, more action-packed version of Foundation. Prince of Sunset and Empire of the Dawn by Steve White. Good stuff.


      1. I think Space: 1999 had an episode like that… Lovecraftian aliens who look human… because of reasons or something. I need to rewatch that one.

        Vintage Dr. Who is super cool.


      2. Doctor Who always seemed like something I could enjoy casually but I had the singularly autistic idea of starting at the first episode ever. I keep getting stuck somewhere in season 2-3 with the Lost Episodes. I loved the Daleks and I was suprised at some of the high concept writing. The early Zabri episode had some sort of lovecraftian entity known as the Animus take over the ant-people Zabri and turn them agains the moth-people Menoptera. What a wild episode that was, if only the fucking beeping and buzzing didn’t cause me to bleed out of my ears.

        Some of the new Dr. Who was alright, I am digging the horror-light vibe of many episodes.


  4. I’d probably add “A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge to the list, for it’s Scavenger Fleets vibe and a case of contacting less advanced civilization.


    1. I would have rejected Fire in the Sky for being too bizarre (in an awesome way, I think I based my little write up for Valley of the Flayer partially on Flenser), but from what I can recall Deepness might be useful in a really high concept way. Its been a long time since I read it but I never regretted doing so. Uh lemme think back…TL 3 intelligent Spider civilisation at War…Irregular Solar Activity causing periodic Ice-Age…some sort of genetically engineered band of asshole villains…yeah I am allowing it. Excellent suggestion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Correction, just read it, the Emergent use technological mind-control, not genetic engineering. Still, excellent Maltech civilisation.


      2. Oh yes, full-fledged Zones of Though stuff and Space Usenet from A Fire Upon the Deep doesn’t fit default SWN settings. Although I think it would be fun to run a game in ZoT setting, considering we have TL3 space travel system and transhuman tools from supplements and Revised.


      3. I think the idea of a universe where different laws of physics and technologies apply has great potential for a setting that wants to incorporate both Transhuman post-singularity insanity and retro BsG-style space exploration. I’d tweak the Zones and what they do but as a concept its pretty interesting.


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