It’s been a while since I did my last delve into Stars Without Number, and since I recently finished my coverage of the B series it seems fitting to finish this one also. This part shall cover chapters 10 and 11 and covers methods of generating alien races and fauna.
I have remarked, on many occasions, the almost perfect fashion in which Stars Without Number is optimized for Sandbox play, and these sections are no exception. This means that rather then spelling out in exhaustive detail a menagerie of various thinly veiled ripoffs of Star trek aliens to populate your sectors with, Stars Without Number gives you the tools to quickly generate a vast variety of Star trek alien ripoffs to populate your sectors with! The whole point of sandbox play in fucking space is that your PCs can always decide to take their space ship and fuck off to planet Slorrp three hexes away and as such you want to be able to work something out quickly, until frequent interaction spurs you on to develop the species further.
Perhaps most importantly, Chapter Ten begins by examining why you would even want to use aliens in the first place, and arrives at a straightforward but satisfying solution: Because they are Different from humankind. They can be enigmatic, have bizarre motivations, a novelty to them that is an important part of the sandbox experience. People might balk at a human lunatic in charge of a pan-stellar combine but Ch’rethnir the Birdperson CEO hiring you to murder the mad artisan-warlord Trixian Rayne in his remote sanctuary of Sorbos V because his art is a mortal insult to his destroyed homeworld is always good shit.
Intelligent aliens are again, sensibly divided into the Like and the Others. The Like are humanoid aliens with motivations comprehensible to mankind and are likely to serve as the bulk of alien species the party encounters. The Other are anything you would find in an Alaister Reynolds novel; Bizarre Aliens with incomprehensible biology that of neccessity, serve mostly as plot devices. The systems provided are for generating Like species quickly yet with admirable diversity. Compared to the robust but limited systems of something like Alpha Blue the variety is stunning.
The trick is the clever use of the so-called Lens and the d20 table. Rather then expecting you to work out every single alien species as a beautiful and unique snowflake with multiple facets SWN spells out 20 traits like Honor, Joy, Hatred, Curiosity etc. etc. and lets you roll twice. The species is psychologically like humankind but these two traits are vastly magnified. Voila, instant alien in a box. The use of an extra lens prevents the planet-of-hats phenomena and gives the aliens just enough complexity for the GM to work them out into something more complex if that proves neccessary and the players are interested enough.
There’s some extra tables to help you flesh out biology and social structure and tips on what to flesh out first (like the typical representatives the PCs are likely to meet) and the technology level, and once again there is exercised an admirable restraint against doing too much work that might never see the table, preventing the GM from burning out or wasting too much energy. Then one need merely flesh out a typical member, place them in the sector and determine the goals of their government.
Sample race: Sagacious and Journeying. Biology: Reptilian. Society: Oligarchic. And we immediately conceive of the Troos, the scientist caste of an ancient race, their homeworld and empire long since extinguished in ancient wars. They ply the stars in ancient ships and small fleets, ruled by the iron dictates of the Hereditary Captain, hungering always for knowledge to achieve some esoteric purpose known as the Great Work. While they are immensely knowledgeable, their interest is not merely contained to topics comfortable to humankind, and sometimes extends to what many would consider Maltech.
Tips on making Aliens playable are simple. Don’t give them major bonuses so powergamers will flock to them, if they have high abilities just give them high ability requirements and a caveat that psychic powers are rare.
The few sample Alien species Crawford gives are quite intriguing. The Hochog are essentially space Orcs, only they are strangely kind and trustworthy, abhorring torture but thinking nothing of genocide. The Shibboleth are by far the most intriguing, a lovecraftian horror race that can only be seen by torched Psychics and others who have undergone the procedure, and who unknowingly infest countless worlds, hunted by a select few that are mostly hated and feared throughout the sector. The Ssath are a mad race of shapeshifters that have been driven mad by the scream, and spend their days in genocidal shadow wars among themselves. They are contested by what few that seek to blend in among mankind and rid themselves of the racial memories that drive their madness.
The Xenobestiary is, again, perfect for the vast and sprawling tapestry of the universe. Building blocks are provided that enable you to cover a vast profusion of different planets with various predators and harmful creatures without it coming across as old hat. Generic categories (e.g. Nuisance Vermin, pack predator, Apex Predator and Party-Butchering Hell Beast) with rudimentary stats are provided with elaborate tables of different physiological characteristics allowing for broad customization. If I wanted say, to quickly generate an apex predator for my Sand World of Sorbos V, we could just take the template and roll a couple of times; Figure out its (5) Exotic. with (5) metallic hide and we come up with the Ironclad, a vaguely bullette like predator that excretes a layer of minerals on its outer hide into a mirror-like outer covering to reflect some of the searing heat of Sorbos V. Looks like a slim bulette or one of those 3e things from Acheron. Adjust stats accordingly.
There’s a quality to these tables that is hard to put into words but they give just enough detail and context in the description to allow you to carry on by yourself. It’s marvelous.
KC never gives you the tools without showing you how its done and this time is no exception. A small bestiary of alien fauna for the sample sector is provided, covering anything from haywire biological maintenance bugs from a long-extinct empire now plaguing space ships, to the predatory sky jellyfish to FUCKING SUIT CHEWERS. I HATE FUCKING SUIT CHEWERS. 1 hit dice full of hell that ruptures space suits in one hit. All of these are fun in a minor way, though in Stars it is likely most of your adversaries are going to be human beings.
Probably more useful is a list of generic NPC types that should cover a broad range of characters the PCs are likely to run afoul of, in the form of Guards, Warlords, Soldiers of various tech levels, Battle psychics, Pirates, Tribesmen or Gang Bosses. These all serve as perfect templates in case the GM quickly needs a foe. Even in this case there are nice hints of evocative description, always with the focus on giving you the proper means to use something.
Some frontier worlds suffer the scourge of petty warlords and bandit kings. The planet is carved up among statelets that war for glory, wealth, or obscure ideological points. This warrior is an example of the type of men and women who rise to rule under such circumstances; charismatic, brutal, and cunning. Their minions serve them out of a mixture of attraction, dread, and naked greed, reveling in the particular rewards that can be had in a lawless land.
Broad sweeps. Tools. Patterns that can be extrapolated and customized but that are not so abstracted they lose all meaning. These are the workings of Stars Without Number, and they are glorious indeed.
Stay tuned for more updates, reviews, Age of Dusk, a means of properly reviewing campaigns, Palace, Raggi shennanigans (if possible), and other such paraphernalia.
Stay tuned, stay healthy. I will see you all soon!
5 thoughts on “[Review] Stars Without Number Pt. VIII; Xenos”
I love the sandbox tools in SWN. You can appreciate in an instant that they’ve been trimmed and molded towards optimal usability, likely through extensive use in actual play. And the Shibboleth are a great example of how to do Lovecraftian creatures without devolving into tentacle porn or a nigh-unplayable load of Monolith.
And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he saidsai SIBBOLETH for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
— Judges 12:5–6 KJV
When my group strays into Sci-Fi it’s either WEG Star Wards or Stars Without Number. Kevin Crawford packs more gameable content in one page than many a designer fits into a 128 page hardbound volume. I can’t think of a system and setting that is easier to pick up and play than SWN.
An excellent review of SwN. I picked it up not long ago and intend to beat it into a more 40k shape for a campaign in the grimdark future. I borrow 40kism’s and tables from Rogue Trader, Battlefleet Gothic, and the other Rogue Trader as needed.
Space Hulk dungeon crawl here we come.
Fuckkk I need to finish this.
We played SWN for several years, encompassing two campaigns. I don’t recall if Crawford ever devoted several paragraphs to the PCs obtaining a starship but it is worth exploring.