[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. VI; Breakfast of Champions

A long hiatus since my last post (I had the holidays) and a damn long time since we covered SWN. In our last entry we took a look at SWN’s excellent Sector generation subsystem. Today we continue our dive into the majestic sandbox subsystems of Stars Without Numbers by covering the Faction System. Gaze in awe as Kevin Crawford just turned your Space-elf Game into Masters of Orion!

Factions are the Champions-set of Stars Without Numbers, organizations that are the movers and shakers in the stellar sector, which can range from corporations, secret societies, trading cartels, futuristic mercenary companies to the Regional Hegemons. Once again Crawford unloads a system of vast potential and scope onto a dozen pages or so. If you contrast a system like SWN with the ramshackle faction rules in other OSR games like Dark Albion the scope is staggering.

To save time (and presumably processing power) The idea is not that the GM statts up every faction in the game, but only the ones that are likely to interact, directly or indirectly, with the PCs. The system is semi-intuitive and requires a careful readthrough but the system is comprehensive at least.

Factions have three attributes (Wealth, Force and Cunning), ranging from 1 to 8, a set of hit points derived from the three, an abstract resource known as FacCreds, they collect experience points from attaining faction goals, they have “equipment” in the form of Assets and 1 or 2 semi-unique descriptors called Tags, which modify their abilities. This abstract system exists on the scale of a Sector rather then the dungeon, and thus each Faction has a Homeworld where its hit points are located, it may construct new Assets and it can be attacked by other factions.

Assets are the bread and butter of faction play, have their own hit points, can themselves be targeted and can comprise anything from a regiment of pre-tech infantry to a seductress or a fleet of warships. They are the means through which Factions interact. SWN proceeds to provide a list of possible assets for each primary attribute, each lavishly furnished with a required attribute (i.e a gang of hitmen only requires a Force Rating of 2 to construct but a Gravtank Company takes 6), a cost in Faccreds, a minimum Tech Level and a number of hit points. Force generally covers military units, tactics and infrastructure, Cunning covers various intelligence and counter-intelligence assets, and Wealth covers anything from shipping cartels to politicians.

Attacks take place in month-long “turns” and require that the two factions have assets on the same planet the fighting takes place on. The exact wording of the rules is a little ambiguous, but attacks may only be launched if the opponent has visible assets (duh), each asset may only attack once per turn and the defender selects which asset to use in defence. Combat is an opposed d10, modified by the relevant attribute. As written, there are some funky combinations, but I am suprised by how versatile and robust the system is. While it is impossible to use a high Force rating team of lawyers to thwart a local uprising, as written it IS possible to say, try a Hostile takeover of a Faction’s company of Grav Tanks (provided they are not the Planetary Government, in which case they can prohibit the construction of certain, often military, assets or their movement into the system). A Planetary Defence System is a formidable defensive asset but it may only be deployed against Starships, and not against a suave seductress, no matter how tempting.

The use of the sector map is a brilliant conceit and adds the logistics of transportation to the mix, meaning any would-be interplanetary power-broker had better invest in some sort of interstellar capability if his burgeoning interplanetary domain is to take root. Different ships can have different capabilities such as range, stealth, the ability to enter planetary orbit without the permission of the local Planetary Goverment.

It is possible to construct Bases of Influence on multiple worlds, with each Base having a maximum number of hit points equal to half your maximum total. While having multiple Bases allows a Faction to construct and deploy assets across the Sector, it also renders it vulnerable, as damage done to a Base of Influence is also subtracted from a Faction’s maximum so there is an interesting trade-off. It is even possible to switch Home Worlds, though this takes one turn per Hex during which the Faction can take no other actions.

Factions can earn XP by achieving Goals; objectives that take a number of turns to complete, and may be abandoned at the cost of all the Faction’s FacCred’s and his entire turn, a rather steep cost. The number of experience points varies according to the Goal that is selected; The Intelligence Coup necessitates the destruction of a number of Cunning Assets equal to your Cunning rating, with XP equal to half the faction, while the Peacable Kingdom Goal means you must launch no attacks against other factions for 4 turns for 1 XP.

Experience is the primary way in which Factions can improve their Attributes and hit points. Much like skills, attribute increases become progressively more expensive as they increase. It is unclear whether hit points must be increased separately, or, since they are a derivative of the three attributes, increase automatically with each increased ability.

The most flavor may be found in the Assets and Tags. While some assets are, by necessity, relatively mundane and generic (like, say, Militia), assets like Cyber-ninjas, an AI-powered panopticon spy-network, Psychic Assassins or the Book of Secrets (an exhaustively detailed catalog of psychometric records of important personages that allows the faction to unerringly predict their actions in the form of a reroll of either your own or the enemy’s dice) are brimming with flavor.

Tags are descriptors that generally allow a faction to roll an extra type of dice of one particular kind (say, a Cunning Role) and pick the highest result once per turn. Even here Crawford is never lazy, and some abilities are wonderfully unique. Eugenics Cults can produce unique units (Gen-Engineered Slaves), Savages get a reroll for defending TL 0 Assets, and the Preceptor Archive gains an extra action (teach planetary population), which can elevate a planet’s Tech Level to 4 on a high roll. Awesome.

The faction system is integrated with the player level, but the integration is rudimentary. The conceit is that the PCs should be able to start a faction when they reach Level 9 (possibly before). While I am a bit dissapointed that there are only vague guidelines given for arbitrating PC actions against Factions, Crawford nails one thing, and that is to put an approximation on credit value on FacCreds. To give you an idea of the scope, one Faccred is approximately 100.000 credits. And the game fully recommends that you allow the PCs to take appropriate Assets along on their adventures. Nice.

To round off the section, I have decided to generate a sample faction based on David Drake’s Hammer Slammers, a sure candidate for inclusion in a hypothethical SWN Appendix N if there ever was one (iridium hover-tanks, nuke snuffers, mercenaries) alongside Poul Anderson’s Imperium and Polytechnic (?) league.

Hammer’s Slammers
Attributes Force 6, Cunning 3, Wealth 5
Hit Points 30
Assets Gravtank Formation/Force 6, Extended Theater/Force 4, Pre-tech Infantry/ Force 6 Counter-Intel Unit/Force 3, Covert Shipping/Cunning 3, Informers/Cunning 1,  Mercenaries/ Wealth 3, Lawyers/ Wealth 2
Tags:  Mercenary Group

Homeworld: Friesland.

Ooh raaah. Getting back into writing is like riding a bike. If you can’t do it before you are Five, the Dutch will drown you in the Sea.

3 thoughts on “[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. VI; Breakfast of Champions

  1. Nice to see you back keep up the good work! It is always a good feeling to come back here and find something nice to read. SWN/system reviews have been my favorite content thus far besides perhaps the inevitable SJW slamming.


    1. Hey thanks a lot bud. I like systems reviews a lot because it requires a more in-depth, cognitive approach but the drawback is that they are time-intensive to both write and read (when I look at the number of views). As such I want to keep the variety show running.

      I think I owe it to the hobby to do a little SJW slamming every once in a while as long as the rant is entertaining to read and has some good bants.

      Thank you for the encouragement.


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