[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. V; A Sand Box full of Stars

Now comes the true meat of the game. Where Stars would have already been a fine, more playable remake of Traveller, its greatest merit is its systematic codification of the principles behind Sandbox play and the tools it grants to facilitate the systematic generation of entire stellar sectors.

We should spend a moment and contemplate the immense utility behind such procedures. Generating a single compelling world is already a daunting task for many a prospective GM, generating an entire sector of space, with dozens of planets, each one filled with compelling possibilities for adventure, can be quite daunting. SWN succeeds in creating a system for the quick, adequately complex and exciting generation of worlds.

Before we dive into it, there is a short chapter on GM advice that manages to tackle, succinctly, many of the pitfalls and roadblocks of the Sandbox Game as well as some of the problems one is likely to come up with. The importance of the non-existence of the Balanced Encounter in the Sandbox Modus is made abundantly clear, though uncharacteristically Crawford fails to provide an underlying reason for this. Perhaps it may be theorized that the most important feature of the sandbox, the creation of an interactive living breathing world, relies on its seemingly independent existence from the players?

Crawford outlines the approach behind SWN beautifully in these two paragraphs:

Stars Without Number is designed to accommodate a particular style of play known most commonly as “sandbox gaming”.
Sandbox gaming relies on two things; a group of players willing to take initiative in seeking adventure and a GM willing to make a world large and interesting enough to be worth the exploration. In modern day RPG circles, sandbox gaming has sometimes acquired a reputation as being burdensome for a group. Players can have a hard time deciding what to do with their characters without the clear guidance of an obvious story line, and GMs can grow frustrated by the sheer volume of content they need to create for a sandbox game.

To some extent, these criticisms are justified. These problems of aimlessness and overwork are the ones most likely to be an issue for sandbox gamers because the setup of the game naturally tends towards them if they aren’t nipped in the bud. If the players or the GM fail to understand or embrace the point of sandbox gaming, the play is likely to degenerate in short order. Still, with an understanding and cooperative group, sandbox gaming can produce some fun and interesting outcomes.

And so it was written. Sector generation takes place on a 8 by 10 hexmap, based on old Terran Mandate Administrative Zones. Each sector contains between 21 and 30 planets (in our own game, the Leo sector had about 8 known worlds, with an unknown number of planets tucked away in the empty corners of the map). Taking into account the barriers to space-travel (don’t forget most ships can only move 1-3 hexes per jump), this numbers seems about right if one wants to get a sandbox game of at least moderate complexity. World placement is given some thought so as to facilitate this process.

Besides planet generation (we will get into that in this chapter), the GM is then given tools to generate Factions, Create Alien species (if they so desire), Outline some adventures (each planet is given two descriptive Tags, each containing several adventure seeds) and starts filling your NPC bank.

Some complications likely to arise out of this form of play are tackled succinctly, with the odd flavorful sentence triggering instant adventure generation ideas. I enjoy in particular the denunciation of unnecessary rolling, something which clogs up with gears of many a campaign I have played in, and the way the Highly lethal nature of SWN is extrapolated in order to generate satisfying gameplay.

In short order: High Lethality and the Existence of Threats Beyond Your Ability To Handle means that PCs must be able to gather adequate information before tackling a threat as well as the opportunity to tackle it intelligently via ruses, ambushes, the environment and so on. The use of moral is also underlined.

The use, arbitration and implication of Charisma based skill checks is briefly discussed. Herein Crawford quickly outlines the pros, cons and pitfalls of each method, from going purely by roleplaying to letting a simple roll dictate all, leaving it up to the GM to make the final decision.

In several paragraphs that fondly reminded me of Gygax’s discussions of means of taking superfluous gold away from players and handling other complications that arise naturally from the rules of DnD, Crawford tackles two problems likely to originate from the setting of SWN expertly and quickly. The PC-gamer tendency to rip out everything that is not bolted down and attempt to sell it for lucre is handled elegantly, by outlining the difficulties in selling these types of spoils on the open market. Instead of prohibiting entirely, Crawford merely underlines the importance of sensible limitations.

Far more crucial is the arbitration of trade, or rather Trade. It is made abundantly clear that bulk shipping in SWN is essentially non-existent, with even the very rare major cargo vessels being unable to carry much more then a modern Oil tankers. Interstellar Trade as likely to be practiced by enterprising PCs is likely to be a matter of moving specialty products, passengers or other rare means. A quick and dirty rule is given for certain bulk goods, as well as a profit margin on the next world, though obviously this system is more of a stopgap measure, unable to meet the demands of a full-fledged space mercantile campaign (for which Crawford would later publish the Suns of Gold supplement).

By far the most interesting trade is directed towards Lost Worlds and involves the conversion of relatively cheap Trade Goods to filthy primitives at a staggering profit margin, with the only real problem being that often these types of worlds have few things that are of value to a prospective traveller (though obviously slaves are always a possibility).

Chapter 7 gets into the World Generation proper and is a thing of beauty, a rich tapestry of sentences that leap out at the reader and generate vistas of alien worlds and strange cultures. The modernist trappings are cast aside to reveal a sprawling Science-fictional Silver Age sandbox, with the possibility to generate planets with all manner of baroque and strange customs, complications, religious zealotry or maltech horrors. I was immediately reminded of the Reach in Vance’s Demon Prince Novels, with its hundreds of worlds populated by quirky enclaves of a few hundred thousand. The possibilities are seemingly endless. Let us not just describe. Let us generate.

So for the purpose of this exercise we are going to generate a sector. We shall dub it Erythro-Sector; a dim and moribund corner of the human sphere, tucked away at the edge of human space. It contains only 21 planets [1]

Each planet is generated in terms of Atmosphere, Temperature, Population, Tech Level and World Tags. Each is generated via 2d6 so possibilities conductive to human habitation are more likely to occur then others.

Atmosphere runs the gamut of airless rock, inert gass, corrosive AND invasive toxic atmosphere to old fashioned O2. The section does not neglect to intelligently tackle the sociological implications of these qualities, setting apart from other random planet generators. The true value is to be found here. SWN does not merely tell you whether or not a planet has a nonbreathable atmosphere, it discusses, in a few sample paragraphs, the implications. The possibility of an aerostatic dictatorship on worlds requiring atmo-filters. The population size limits of worlds living in hermetically sealed habitats. The fact that if you generate planets with hell atmospheres people had better have a damn good reason to go there. Cosmetic details are always turned into something gameable or interesting.

Temperature is similarly handled, from Freezing to Burning. Little descriptions of how Vacc suits wont protect your from freezing to death in a lake of liquid oxygen evoke imagery of knife-fights on plains of black ice against the dim light of a distant sun. Again, not merely the effect of temperature, but also the effect it can have on the development of a society.

Biosphere concerns the local fauna, and is likely to be a lamentably underutilized feature of your SWN setting to anyone not an avid reader of Niven, Greg Bear or Neal Asher. From utterly lifeless worlds, micro-organisms only, the effects of mutually incompatible ecosystems, hybridized ecosystems, immiscible biospheres and the eerie Engineered Biosphere trigger vistas of terrifying landscapes filled with all manner of wonders and horrors.

Population is by far the most essential characteristic of a world, and while its generation is randomly determined, the game does remind you that you should take into account the preceding characteristics of the planet. Planets need to be self-sufficient and hydro-ponics in domed cities do not in general allow one to sustain populations above a few hundred thousand. Likewise, the cultural characterstics and the amount of factional infighting is going to be radically different between a planet with ten thousand inhabitants and a planet with billions (very rare). Population generally means poltical power in the sector, provided you have TL 4 capabilities. Speaking of which…

Tech level must also be generated. Again it would be trivially easy to create a table with all manner of technological levels from Stone Age to the vanishingly rare Pre-Scream TL 5. What makes this section so interesting is that it discusses the UNDERLYING MECHANISMS moreso then mere description. The result is that you can make PLAUSIBLE Stone Age worlds and you understand that technology is not merely a matter of throwing some blue prints at people. While some worlds might in fact have degenerated to the point that they have lost all their knowledge, the vast majority of these TL 0 – 2 worlds lack NECESSARY NATURAL RESOURCES in order to rebuild their technology base, even if they still retain the knowhow [2]. Possibilities of culturally sophisticated stone age worlds engaging in vast agricultural projects are discussed, but always their limitations will hamper their ability to organize.

Conversely, the rationale and limitations behind TL 4+ and TL 5 worlds are discussed. The Scream essentially destroyed the vast number of psychics required to sustain a true TL 5 civilization, along with the disciplines enabling the creation of pretech, so any worlds that still have access to some of this technology either have severe limitations in output, require some sort of local resource or are otherwise hampered. TL 5 technology is likely to exist, but it is going to be rare indeed. A TL 5 world is nearly always going to be a sector capital, even if it lacks imperial ambitions.

The last and by far the most colorful attributes of these worlds are Tags. Tags comprise a plethora of possibilities from strange planetary characteristics to the presence of a Secret Conspiracy of Hidden Rulers on the planet, and serve to inject each world with a plethora of Hooks, colour, Allies, Enemies, Locations and Complications, breathing life into the raw materials of the preceding characterstics. The tags are by far the best section of the book and nearly each one generates at least one adventure idea in my mind. The flavorful descriptions of a few sentences at best carry with them infinite possibility. Each world has Two Tags to avoid the Planet of Hats syndrome, but no more to prevent complexity creep.

SWN notes a few more recommended features of each planet. A cultural origin, to serve as a sort of shorthand in case the GM needs to improvise, a local language, a form of Government (if it is not already covered in the tags, the game recommends representative democracy since PCs are likely to be familiar with it), the appearance of the spaceport and a NAME.

Without further adue, let us generate a list of planets for the Erythro Sector. Non valid results are crossed out. We are going to generate about 10 for now. Double results ignored (I thought one Unbraked AI was sufficient for now)

Sycorax-III
Atmosphere: Breathable Mix
Temperature: Temperate
Biosphere: No native biosphere
Population: Outpost (100-1000).
Tech Level: TL4 with surviving pretech.
Tags: Misandry/Misoginy, Heavy Industry, Rigid Culture

A remnant of the extinct Stellar Gynarchy, the Sisterhood of Sycorax-III still retains many secrets of pre-Scream tech in the Impregnable vaults of its Fortress Monastery. The superb craftsmanship and intricacy of their killing devices is appreciated throughout the sector, their demand for a steady stream of slaves makes them hated by all but a few. Sophisticated pretech defences render them safe from direct assault. 

Malebolge
Atmosphere: Corrosive and Invasive Atmosphere
Temperature: Temperate
Biosphere: Engineered Biosphere*
Population: Billions, 10.000s
Tech Level: TL 3
Tags: Quarantined World, Friendly Foe.

A place of terrifying, alien beauty, the phosphorescent jungles of Malebolge illuminate its nightside with eerie witchlight. Anything not of Malebolge is destroyed within moments by its toxic atmosphere. A surviving colony of the Helix Unravelled, a pre-Scream gen-engineering Maltech cult that had corrupted entire sectors, few know of what dark designs it wrought upon this world in its final years before its destruction at the hands of the Perimeter. An ancient mandate beacon still broadcasts warnings in all languages along with imagery of terrifying genetic abomination.

* = it is assumed that by some pretech feat of genetic engineering, the alien jungle is made proof against the atmosphere, otherwise no life would be possible

Faust
Atmosphere: Breathable Mix
Temperature: Cold
Biosphere: No native biosphere
Population: 100.000s
Tech Level: TL 3
Tags: Cold War, Heavy Industry

Decimated by the Scream, the collapse of its pretech weather control devices and the desperate scrabble for resources that followed, Faust has been reduced to a collection of intermittently warring city-states huddling around the equator. The ruined husks of ancient cities, wreathed in ice, dot the landscape. 

Surtur – VI
Atmosphere: Airless or thin
Temperature: Warm, Burning
Biosphere: None.
Population: Billions, 100.00s
Tech Level: TL 4
Tags: Tyranny, Zombies.

Abundant in exotic mineral wealth, fiery Muspelheim pays the price for its wealth in the lives of its sons and daughters. Haradra IV is a draconian, often cruel ruler, though the conditions on Muspelheim demand no less for survival. A hard and fatalistic people, able engineers and technicians, eking out a life of miserable toil in a place others call hell. Rivers of tin boil up from schorched hillsides. Tales of men with glowing eyes walking, untouched by vacuum or molten rock in the tunnels of the southern equatorial mines are officially denied by the Diktat.

LV-114-891 (located 4 hexes from the nearest habitable system)
Atmosphere: Breathable Mix
Temperature: Cold
Biosphere: Inmiscible Biosphere
Population: 100.00s
Tech Level: TL 4
Tags: Unbraked AI, Warlords, Out of Contact

Last received contact 1 year before the Scream. “It has taken control of the automated planetary defenses and what few forces remain. Men serve it willingly now. We have scuttled the Stargate and the shipyards. We have trapped it here. If you come, bombard this place until nothing remains. St. Crohn deliver us.” 

Tartarus 
Atmosphere: Breathable Mix
Temperature: Frozen
Biosphere: Inmiscible Biosphere None
Population: 10.000s
Tech Level: TL4 with surviving pretech.
Tags: Heavy Mining, Seagoing Cities

By the distant light of a blue star, on oceans of helium and argon, the men of the ships of Tartarus ply their strange trade, cracking exotic chemicals from the gas giants mantle. The sophisticated technologies of their mining trade could wreak terrible havoc in the wrong hands. Insular, quiet men. They venerate and obey the hereditary Captains on pain of death. A cold and forlorn place, where all have a tale of how they ended up there. A hell for some, a haven for others.

Ithakha
Atmosphere: Breathable Mix
Temperature: Warm
Biosphere: Inmmiscible Biosphere
Population: 10.000s
Tech Level: TL 4
Tags: Major Spaceyard, Flying Cities, Forbidden Tech

Queer and disturbing are the tales of the Shipwrights of Ithakha. Their ancient Shipyard is the stuff of envy of all major powers, jealously guarded, under pain of its destruction. All who are willing to pay their fees can levy their services. They are rumored to provide other services, to those who know how to ask. None are allowed to set foot on the planet below. Their use of thick robes and masks have led to rumors of their monstrous or even alien nature. Of their customs, their language and their origin, they will not speak.

Dis
Atmosphere: Breathable Mix
Temperature: Variable Temperate-to-warm 
Biosphere: Hybrid Biosphere
Population: Outpost (100-1000)
Tech Level: TL 4
Tags: Warlords, Hostile Space, Minimal Contact

The Fraternity of the Reborn St. Crohn is an Ultra-Calvinist sect eking out a harsh existence on the beautiful but eerie world below. The vagaries of the Dis system, with its unpredictable star, frequent meteorite and asteroid impacts from some stellar catastrophe billions of years ago, ensure that life here is a constantly shifting ordeal. Not much is known of their beliefs, only that they are wary of outsiders, and will speak with them only grudgingly.

The Post-Collectivist Hegemony (Mabignogion)
Atmosphere: Breathable Mix
Temperature: Variable Temperate-to-warm 
Biosphere: Human miscible
Population: Millions
Tech Level: Tech Level 5, Pre-tech Pre-silence
Hooo boy we rolled our sector capitol.
Tags: Altered Humanity, Police State
Uh oh.

The Erythro Sector writhes under the alien scrutiny of the Nonmen of the Post-Collectivist Hegemony. Like aenemic giants, with double rows of sharp teeth and eyes black as the deep of space, every inch of pale skin tattooed with eyes in varycoloured inks, they are terrifying to behold. They are mad and the threats they speak of cannot be comprehended by sane men. 

Were it not that the Post-Collectivist Hegemony is obsessed with protecting and scrutinizing its citizenry, through psionics and braked-AI companions, from all manner of conspiracies, ideas, diseases and spiritual and moral hazards, it would rule the sector. Instead it guards its systems like bulwarks, allowing entry only grudgingly and egress rarely, if ever. Its psychosis incubates slowly and insidiously. The Hegemony trades but rarely for there is little that it wants. 

Rarely one will see their vessels outside their space, sleek like predatory deep-sea fish, hunting for rumors of pre-tech artifacts or something called The Shibboleth, which they refuse to define. At times they will kill one another in strange honor duels. 

I have a few minor gripes. A lot of the results on the tables eliminate the possibility of subsequent results, making the variety a bit lower then it actually appears. Nevertheless the system is brimming with potential and as I have just illustrated there is a lot you can do with it.

I’m gonna call it a day. More worlds, more SWN and a sample battlecruiser later. Enjoy your weekend and see you all soon for the next installment.

UPDATE:
For those of you who thought the Nonmen were a little bit too much Fantasy flavor in your Science Fiction Sauce, I propose the following instead.

The Erythro Sector writhes under the alien scrutiny of the Iron Men of the Post-Collectivist Hegemony. Hidden behind powered armor daubed in all manner of cryptic symbols and mathematical formulae, the insular Hegemony is paranoid about any outside interference. Pathologically secretive even to its own citizens, it is said each armor is home to several braked AI-companions constantly monitoring the citizen for signs of sedition, treason, unthought, or cognitive error. All are said to undergo a strange brain-surgery procedure at birth.

Were it not that the Post-Collectivist Hegemony is obsessed with protecting and scrutinizing its citizenry from all manner of conspiracies, ideas, diseases and spiritual and moral hazards both real and imagined, it would rule the sector by technological prowess. Instead its borders are besieged by clamoring posttech rabble, seeking its pretech secrets. Few are allowed to enter, and even fewer are allowed to leave. The Hegemony trades but rarely for there is little that it wants but to be left alone.  

Rarely one will see their vessels outside their space, sleek like predatory deep-sea fish, hunting for rumors of pre-tech artifacts or something called The Shibboleth, which they refuse to define to any outsiders. Other times they pursue strange, savage vendetta’s against their own kind, duelling with mechs, force-fields and shear-field projectors until the force cracks open their armor, revealing a charred husk within.

[1] By which it is meant that it contains only 21 planets that are of interest to the PCs. It is likely to contain many times that number in airless rockballs utterly barren of life. Science fictional concerns of hard-sf vs soft-sf are adressed, and those GMs of a more hard-sf bent are advised to generate ample amounts of airless rockballs to maintain plausibility. Conversely, if you want to live dangerously you can put multiple interesting planets within the same system.
[2] This was a conceit of Larry Niven’s excellent two Ringworld novels [3], wherein the inhabitants of the vast, sun encircling Ringworld were consigned to stone/iron age tech after the ravages of the Superconductor Plague laid waste to their technological infrastructure. With all the natural resources locked up in the unbreakable scrinth of the Ringworld’s outer shell, they were technologically gridlocked.
[3] We can thank the merciful gods he never wrote any more of them, they probably would have sucked.

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7 thoughts on “[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. V; A Sand Box full of Stars

    1. It Is Said The Better Man Abhors the Book Authored One Handed.

      Ringworld Throne was an absolute mess of a book, and Children was a self-referential navelgazing exercise that contained nothing new. Sometimes an author runs out of steam. It happened to Moorcock, Niven, Bear and many others.

      Your taste in science fiction thus far is approved.

      Like

  1. I’ve been looking forward to this. Probably one of the best parts of the entire game, from a GM’s perspective. It really shows the strengths of Crawford that using this, you can roll up an entire star sector and dozens of adventures in an afternoon and have content for months to come. It’s simultaneously broad and narrow. Crawford uses the tags system in his other works as well, and it serves just as well

    Like

    1. For a GM this whole section is a goldmine. Not just in SWN but in other Crawford products too.
      I especially love that you can take tags from his other systems and put them in with nearly no work on your part.

      Having created a sector with 24 worlds just the other day I can’t sing enough praises for this whole section.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree, the game itself is fine, but the tools for sandbox generation generally facilitate the creative process in a way that I have seen few other games do. For Sandbox play its groundbreaking.

      Liked by 1 person

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