[Review] Stars Without Numbers (Core Game) Pt. VII; Cross the Stars and Fight…

About a quarter of a year ago I started delving into SWN, a game I have enjoyed immensely as a player for several years. Previous entries may be from here.
Like a doddering old fool or perhaps a charismatic, handsome friend with a leather jacket who rides a motorcycle and shows up unanounced at your doorstep, carrying a half empty six-pack and reeking of whiskey and pueblo, cop sirens vaguely audible in the distance, I feel my second reinassance should begin where it puttered out.

Chapter Nine of SWN concerns adventure creation and is one of the weaker chapters of the book overall because of its relative sparsity compared to the amount of ground it seeks to cover. It is the first chapter where the reliance on prior knowledge of OSR gameplay becomes overly noticeable to the point where I fear aspiring GM’s will be drawing the short end of the stick. The advice serves mostly as a “conversion guide” for general OSR practices into the specific medium of science fiction sandbox gaming. If it is viewed in this light, it is adequate.

I think part of the problem is that there is a divergence between SWN’s approach and my preferred approach in adventure writing. SWN recommends mostly attuning adventures to specific locations, something which I agree, and proceeds to provide d100 generic adventure seeds using blank Friends, Enemies, Complications tags so they may readily be applied to a particular situation. For example, one seed reads “A Friend has been lost in hostile wilderness, and the party must reach a Place to rescue them in the teeth of a dangerous Complication.” which when applied to say…a zombie planet, would turn into
“A Doctor searching for a cure has been lost in hostile wilderness, and the party must reach a Fortified Bunker to rescue them in the teeth of a dangerous Complication (the zombies retain human intelligence)”.

If this method facilitated on the fly off the cuff adventuring, which to a limited extent it does, it would be incredibly useful. I suggest the only drawback is that as written, this method still requires rudimentary preparation and generates adventures of fairly limited complexity, but it is certainly a useful tool. It would be childish to assert the worn “Any GM worth his salt should be able too…” when every human can be lacking in inspiration, seeking to stir things up, or just be plain lazy. In a sandbox game it is probably better to have multiple fairly basic adventures on different worlds lying about then to have a single elaborate one where players simply do not take the bait.

A good addage is the use of continuity, to tie in adventures to previous adventures as much as possible, something which is of the utmost importance in a sandbox game, where the crutch of a linear plot is absent.

The Hook section is remarkably strong and even after months I still marvel at Crawford’s ability to contain such a vast concept and setting and deliver only essential advice. The recommendation to rely on In Medias Res for beginning groups and slowly nurturing seeds for more proactive players is solid and ABSOLUTELY works, I can attest to its success with my carcosa group.

Similarly, Crawford’s method of balancing encounters manages to boil them down to a simple E(x) = p * x formula based on damage output which is rugged but admittedly falls apart the second psionics are introduced. It also underlines SWN’s somewhat limited tactical potential when compared with its fantasy cousins, focusing more on exploration and variety then the minituae of tactical combat.

NPC creation is…too generic on its own, but frequent references to the chapter on world seeds should suffice to make a cast of characters to serve as NPCs. A table of character traits and quirks, particularly flavourful ones, would have been helpful.

Arguably the worst section covers the use of maps and fixed locations, “space dungeons” and other areas. Much attention is given to plausibility and versimilitude but SWN fails utterly to capitalize on the potential of a futuristic techno-dungeon haunted by robotic murder droids and is left with regurgitating advice that has been given in prior ages, albeit it more succinctly and imbued with the trade-mark Crawfordesque haunting clarity and economy. In previous posts we discussed reskinning Caverns of Chaos for SWN, something which Crawford himself would approve of heartily, as converting existing resources, something which I consider a sin, is mentioned and even encouraged. Similarly, the reward section is barely different from your run-of-the-mill reward section of an OSR game.

The only unique section pertains to the acquisition of a Starship, and again, if I had to pick a single section that would absolutely need to be added to a chapter on Adventuring in SWN there can be no doubt it would be this one. The disparity between the average reward of an adventure and the seemingly unaffordable cost of even the most rudimentary spaceship is discussed and thus a method, by hook or by crook, of furnishing the PCs with a spaceship is covered in admirable detail, as well as the immense difficulty that should be par for the course for pawning off stolen spaceships on the open market. Unless the PCs can find a government willing to issue privateer’s licences, shit ain’t gonna fly.

While I can admire the focus on the bare essentials in a book that could just as easily have been 900 pages instead of a mere 254 had Crawford not reined himself in, I feel this chapter is the first one that is lacking in the innovation and sparkling potential that permeates the rest of the book. Instead it is merely good.

Spoiled or no, I look forward to finishing my dive into what will most likely become my second longest review ever. Expect further content, more sponsored content, an interview with my partner and Co-Creator, satanis posting, wailing and the gnashing of teeth, and more Lotfp reviews. The Excellent Melan has proclaimed the end of the OSR as a whole, but I see no reason it cannot go out with its praises sung and its failures bitterly cursed.

Rejoice oh world. Your Prince is among you once more. Let the elfgames flow, let the reviews glimmer and fall like molten rain, and let us fear no darkness. Salut!

4 thoughts on “[Review] Stars Without Numbers (Core Game) Pt. VII; Cross the Stars and Fight…

  1. Nicely done, once again dude. Crawford does have a great way of hyper-focusing a vast and delivering on vast concepts into nice little manageable bites. In his defense, adventures seem to tie into a setting a bit more, and without a necessarily shared fiction, adventures seem to be a bit generic, requiring you to put together a setting first before you sit down and do the adventures. Coming from Godbound, Silent Legions, and Stars Without Number, the design is kind of a connect the dots, where Crawford gives you the bare bones with the tables, but you have to put it together.
    So I have the Caverns of Chaos sitting on my coffee table, but when I read through it and tried to put it together, I felt like I was leaving a lot of what makes SWN good, so I think the closest I’ll come to it is This Vessel of Flesh, but even that still leaves a bit to be desired.
    Regardless, nice to see reviews again, and looks like I’ll be putting more money into your newest kickstarter. Great work, as usual


    1. Thanks dude. Getting back into it after a hiatus always leaves me with some trepidation, especially if its a multi-part review I am always worried I won’t find the flow.


      I’m not sure if your defense, chivalrous and valid though it may be, entirely absolves Crawford from pointing out some recurring features or tips in handling some of the adventures generated using his tables and set in his abundantly play-tested and thoroughly engaging sandbox setting. Technological dungeons, space investigation, planetary exploration etc. In each case he need only point out differences between SWN and an OSR sandbox implicated by the technology and different psionic powers and it would work.

      [Vessel of Flesh]

      I saw you were fucking around with SWN again. Looks like I have some more shit to read.


      As always, I am grateful for your support. It is more Aaron’s kickstarter then it is mine, but I will certainly take what steps I may to ensure it becomes a success (especially if we make the stretch goal!!!).


  2. Any time man. Looks like you got back into the swing of things quick.
    That is a good point. Even a paragraph or two on how technology would impact traditional adventuring would be nice, but that could easily turn into an entire chapter. I cede your point though, and I noticed this part was expanded on in the revised edition.
    Take your time. It’s no masterpiece, but I hope it gets the job done.
    Happy to give it. You’ve yet to steer me wrong, and if you put your word behind this, then I have no doubt it’s worth my time and money.


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