This is not the first time I review Stars without Number, the old-school SciFi sandboxing RPG by Kevin Crawford (Sine Nomine Publishing), but with my growing experience in role-play gaming I feel I missed some real important things the last two times. So, again, let’s have a look at what makes SWN special.
We’ll skip the boring parts, like the character creations (it’s D&D. Take 3d6 and roll them. Got it?), combat rules (Take a d20 and I’ll tell you if you hit!), gear (pistol goes bang, laser pistol goes pew, plasma rifle goes slurp and so on) and the setting (there are stars, and they don’t have numbers). Let’s instead look right at the part of SWN that receives the most praise, the star system generation.
Generating star systems by rolling some dice is not exactly a new idea, but SWN has a unique take on it because it does not focus on a planet’s astronomic and geographic properties. You do roll some stuff like temperatures on the planet, but it doesn’t go into the detail of g-levels, day length and exact composition of the atmosphere some other systems do. Instead, after rolling just five basic properties – atmosphere, temperature, biosphere, population and tech level – that might be resolved as simply “breathable, cold-to-temperate, engineered biosphere, failed colony, baseline postech”. Just enough to get your imagination going.
Then, you get to the really important part of system creation: Giving your planets tags. Tags are short descriptors like “Heavy Mining”, or “Tomb World”, or “Psyonics Academy”. Tags are, essentially, those tropes that are connected to this planet. They are not intended to make the game world realistic – they are intended to make the game world feel dynamic and full of awesome stuff and they are intended to get the game going.
And yes, there is a table for randomly rolling for tags. It’s OSR, what did you think?
After selecting and rolling tags, you go to the description of the tags. Each tag has a list of possible friends, enemies, places, things and complications associated with it, and each planet has to be populated with friends, enemies, places, things and complications (called FEPTCs from now on, because I can’t be bothered to list them all) that can be used to make your sandbox feel vast yet detailed and alive.
For example, let’s go with a planet that hosts Alien Ruins and where a Civil War is going on. One of the possible friends for Alien Ruins is the Curious Scholar, and one of the possible friends in the Civil War is the Offworlder seeking passage off the planet. In combining those two, we might get our first FEPTC: A naive adventure scientist who’s getting caught up in the crossfire while exploring some alien ruins, because both sides of the Civil War think there might be some useful XenoTech in there, and who might turn for help to the PCs when they turn up there for whatever reason.
When the DM has assigned tags and FEPTCs to all relevant planets or at least to those three or four in the corner of the system where the PCs happen to start their adventure, there should be plenty of ideas going around on how to get the game going. If not, don’t panic, ’cause Crawford got you covered. Turn your rulebook to page 132, roll a D100 and get a useful adventure suggestion like “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”. Now, just choose some FEPTCs from those you created before et voilà, you’re ready to go.
There are similar tools for creating factions, like the two sides in this Civil War we have going on, or corporations, or religious groups – anything from a local Tentacle Monster Cult to an interstellar church to make the world even more vibrant, dynamic and filled with awesome stuff. They’re pretty unspectacular, but rock-solid.
Oh, and did I mention you can get the PDF for free?
There are some other games running on the SWN engine – one of them is Other Dust, by exactly the same author. The main difference between both games is in genre. While SWN is SciFi, Other Dust is Post-Apocalypse. There are, of course, a lot of similarities in both games, starting with the rules: To anybody who has understood character creation and rules of play in SWN, OD won’t offer any big surprises. But there are some small modifications, like other classes and a system for weapon wear and repair. I think it’s a nice example on how to modify a system for a different genre without really changing any of the fundamentals.
But, like I said right in the second paragraph, the rules are not the interesting part of any Crawford game. Other Dust is, like SWN, a sandboxing game, and it shares the whole “setting generation” aspect. This time, you don’t generate a star system but a patch of the postapocalyptic wasteland and the enclaves set in this wasteland. Again, the generation is driven not by statistics but by tags. This time, the PCs might encounter a Functioning industry in a village, or they might find a Tyrant ruling over the inhabitants of an old power station. There are fewer tags than there are in SWN, but still, a nice variety is in store and all the usual post-apocalyptic tropes are available.
Unlike SWN, Other Dust does not offer a free PDF version, but it is definitely worth its money.
In my humble opinion, SWN and Other Dust are two of the best RPGs out there and I am not known for my fanboy attitudes about OSR games. What makes these games so great is how they incorporate the feeling of the genre into the very heart of the game. And, as the sandboxing tools are completely disconnected from the rules of play, they are very easy to put on any universal system like Savage Worlds. Also, if you would like to modify the rules, there is a chapter explaining the design choices and recommending possible optional rules and house rules for both games in the SWN rulebook.
These two games offer a whole bunch of possible fun for very little money and learning effort. They might not seem to be the most innovative games out there, but there is a lot of quality stuff in them.
And yes, both games have some parts one might criticize. For me, that would mostly be that I dislike the classic D&D rules and feel they are clunky, slow and boring. But, like I said, that’s easy to fix and the games offer so much good and fun stuff that I am more than willing to glance over these parts.