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 , 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  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 . SWN’s protagonists are not Luke Skywalkers, Virgil Samms, Paul Mu’adibs and Flash Gordons but Han Solos, Kirth Gersens, Jets and Malcolm Renyoldses .
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.
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 .
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.
 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.
 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.
 The go-too solution for upstart young galactic whippersnappers attempting to meddle with your well-deserved ten thousand year dominion
 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.
 Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures is one of the few contemporary Chinese cartoons that manages to escape this blight entirely, or so I fervently hope.