Stars Without Number Revised

Posted 19 May 2021 to Sci-Fi

Clever in so many ways, SWN is a very approachable and usable RPG system. In addition to the actual game system, the GM tools are brilliant fun, such as generating star systems and tracking the activities of your crime guilds and space empires.


XP Card

Sessions GM'd: 35
Sessions as Player: 5

I Used

325 page PDF. I printed mine at a local print shop. I also used the Polychrome add-on for cyberpunk ideas. For adventure prep, I used a number of the ideas from Mothership's Pound of Flesh and Dead Planet modules.


I played in a short campaign, where the PCs were rebels against a human empire. Unfortunately it fell apart after a few sessions. I also ran two campaigns using SWN. Both were really successful and fun. The first one focused on a group of young scientists who became embroiled with an AI and were pursued by mobsters. The second had a space-cowboy vibe, and actually started out as a Mothership game. I quickly abandoned that system for the more robust SWN.


The Good

  • Strong and simple core system. The d20 game engine is straight-forward and easy to grasp. Players quickly get into the idea of picking a class, customizing a bit with foci, and grabbing some gear. The game system did what it needed to do effectively, and was balanced enough that I could let the players loose to make their characters without needing my help. It is a good system to build onto, and you can easily add your own subsystems if you want. I created one for zero-G maneuvering (ripped from Starfinder) and another for Stress (ripped from Mothership).
  • Strong subsystems, like hacking and modding gear. In addition to the core system, there are a variety of other optional subsystems. We used the guidelines for setting a target number for hacking a computer system frequently, and they did their job elegantly and then got out of the way. Likewise, it is possible for engineers to mod your weapons and gear to give extra bonuses, in a balanced way that makes them feel really effective. There are others too, for mechs, transhumans, etc.
  • It's free. I purchased my PDF. The extra chapters on mechs and societies were useful sometimes, but not crucial to my games. Other extra chapters on transhuman campaigns and heroic characters I read but never needed. The author has released a number of short add-on books for the first edition, and I bought a few. They are cheap and still useful for the Revised edition.
  • Fantastic Roll20 Character Sheet. A big part of the pleasure of running this game was the automated character sheet. As the core game system is free, the character sheet author was able to add a lot of content from the book. On the fly, I could click a drop-down and have all the stats for a space gangster populated. Then I could select a shotgun for their weapon, and everything was calculated and ready to go. This was a real time saver.
  • Clever build-your-own-ship system. You pick a basic chassis, from your typical trader ship up through destroyers and then battleships. Each chassis allows a certain number of points for the size and power of modules. Then you go shopping and add modules. Using this system you can build any ship you can imagine, from mining frigates to specialized capital ship hunters. Your Mass and Power points are precious, and every module you add comes at an opportunity cost for something cool. It was fun to create ships!
  • Ship combat system. When ships are fighting, each player gets to contribute to the team. Engineers can repair stuff, or bolster engines. Warriors can fire their cannons, and leaders can enhance the whole team. The system keeps some of the details abstracted, so you don't really need a battle map, and rate-of-turn and firing arcs are not a concern. For which I am grateful!
  • World building tools. The tools for randomly generating a sector of stars are fun to use and spark my imagination. They generate locations that are interesting and, importantly, have a lot of adventure potential. Tags provide a GM with seeds for NPCs and problems that might be awaiting the PCs at the location.

The Not-So-Good

  • Psionics are too powerful for my taste. I had 2 psions in my group. It didn't take long for their abilities to become really dominating. Teleportation is always an exciting power, and the PC ramped up quickly to be able to teleport the whole party all over the planet. Likewise, the Healing powers made it difficult to challenge the group.
  • The Faction system is too detailed for me. One of the much-touted strengths of SWN is the Faction system. This is a mini game that GMs can play by themselves when away from the gaming table to help surprise themselves and decide what factions are doing. I found it too finicky. It required me to track exactly what ships and leaders each faction controlled, and where they were. I actually prefer the Kingdoms system that Kevin Crawford designed in Spears of the Dawn, which is more abstracted and works just fine for sci-fi. The Faction system is completely optional, so it's no big deal to ignore it.



I'd eagerly run this game again. I'd probably disallow psionics next time, unless my campaign concept really depends on it. The core system is so adaptable, you could use it for all kinds of settings.



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