Thursday, February 15, 2018

Stars Without Number Actual Play Session (Drawing comparisons and contrast to Traveller, White Star and Savage Worlds)

For the Wednesday night game we had some absent players (it being Valentine's Day and all, and some players have actual lives, or romances, or whatever!) and so it was that the hardcore, the jaded, the misanthropic, and also my family decided to enjoy the holiday with a one-shot.

The purpose of this one-shot was to exercise a chance to try out Stars Without Number. Before going in to this game you can see my general feelings on it in in prior articles, but I'll sum it up like this:

--Wonderfully quick character generation

--numeric old school simplicity

--A very Traveller-esque skill mechanic

--brilliant "tag" structure for world/adventure generation

--seems to have enough equipment/vehicles/ships/augments to support robust campaigning

After playing, I now feel this way about SWN:

--We all agreed, char gen is quick and efficient

--the numeric old school simplicity was at time "too simple." This will sound weird, but I found myself not enjoying the core conceit of SWN as much as I do it's close cousin, White Star, nor the game to which it pays direct homage, Traveller

--The Traveller-esque skill mechanic felt more shallow and less fulfilling than Traveller's own skill mechanic. Indeed, it made me wonder why it even bothered, given how slender the SWN system is, when Traveller's core conceit is exactly the same yet manages to provide a more robust and interesting experience....the only "lite skill" system I really enjoy/tolerate is Savage Worlds, I guess

--the tag structure is still a great mechanic for inspiration, but SWN does not support the interesting "technical" elements of design that Traveller does. Traveller in turn lacks the "stuff to do" element that SWN's tag system offers. SWN is a clear "win" on this.

--SWN has enough interesting equipment, vehicles and ships. It's not a problem. 

But! Throughout the course of play as well as over the last few days designing material to run, I realized that SWN is most definitely a "one world" system by default. Arguably Traveller is the same way, as is White Star, but both of those games give you a "starting point" which makes few real assumptions about the universe....well, maybe White Star's Galaxy edition is different (it assumes not just star knights but talking squirrel star knights, for example) but Traveller's only real conceit is that you use Jump Drive, and that gets you from point A to point B a certain way, and that the setting is humanocentric. Traveller in the past has expanded on this to let you customize how and why technology works to handle other universes of play, but it's only real conceit is a universe of humans, mostly. 

SWN has a lot of Traveller's conceits, but it also bakes in some default assumption about FTL drives, the "scream" as a defining point of the setting, and other features that are fairly baked in to the setting's presentation, tags, core assumptions, and much of its infrastructure. This is not a problem if you want a ready to go setting, not at all. But it does pose issues when you don't want to use that setting, and during play we thought about this issue on several occasions.

In the end, the problem wasn't that SWN wasn't fun, or even that it wasn't a setting I wanted to use (I could easily see accepting its default assumptions for any extended campaign easily). It was the fact that it felt like it was a homebrew homage to Traveller, and one which only left me feeling like Traveller has been here, done this, and done it maybe with a bit more depth and support than SWN does. Traveller does not have a Tag System for enhancing world generation, though, and SWN definitely beats the other games hands down.

But for designing my own setting, with no fuss? I'm afraid that Savage Worlds remains firmly on that throne. 

Anyway, other comments on SWN in actual play:

Combat was pretty smooth, but the veteran players in the group found at level 1 that charging in with a melee weapon against armed combatants was a preferred strategy. This me. 

Melee weapons do shock damage against targets under a certain Armor Class on a miss. I did not like this rule at all, it felt like something out of D&D 4E, especially since it was pretty much a guarantee to make melee weapons much deadlier than expected, at least at low level, and was defying my understanding of what was happening that, in essence, under a certain AC you could never avoid damage in melee. Yes, games like 13th Age do this....but the very core of those games support different basic expectations. SWN is very OSR, and if I were playing White Box and suddenly started dealing auto-damage on a miss I would feel like maybe the shark had just been jumped, y'know?

I did not like how melee weapons are given a very short, non-descriptive list of "primitive/advanced" and light, medium and heavy with damage but vague suggestions as to what that meant. I wanted more depth here, and the game provides that depth in so many other areas that it seemed weird to simply avoid putting any effort into detailed futuristic (and primitive) melee weapons.

The skills felt like their name tags were trying to be too hard to be short and simple despite so many of them feeling like call-backs to Traveller skills. I feel that the game, for what it is, does itself a disservice by having so few skills even as it has just enough specific skills. Lacking multiple "shipboard" skills for example meant that the only person with a "useful on the spaceship" skill was the guy with pilot. Why no gunnery, engineering, sensors or other interesting SF skills? Claiming the "Work" and "Know" skills could cover such elements if desired is both an inadequate fix (for a system which rewards very few skill points to start) and maybe a bit lazy (as any halfway decent skill system, I now realize, deserves more than 1-2 pages to detail).

Now, on the major plus side, like most OSR systems gameplay is fast and I was miraculously able to plow through the entire one-shot in the alloted time, including lots of role-play, encounters, and some combat. This would not likely have happened in Starfinder without some serious effort to speed things along, I admit. However, the pacing would have been the same for Traveller, Savage Worlds and White Star, easily. 

Okay, so my final take: Stars Without Number is perfectly serviceable, and I think it would be fun to play again, but I don't think it's going to scratch all of the itches for me that Traveller, Savage Worlds SF and White Star manage. I can use White Star for gonzo Space Opera Crazy. I can use Traveller for my "starship owner procedurals." I can use Savage Worlds SF for literally any sci fi world I want, just so long as its a universe that likes fast, furious fun. SWN's strength may well be in hardcore scifi sandbox play in the default setting. Unfortunately, I don't have interest in the setting and I don't have time in my schedule to explore the sandbox elements of the game, at least not without losing patience with the rules, that constantly reminded me that I like the way Traveller does it all just a little bit better. 

I'm not done with the Sine Nomine system, though. I am still keen to try out Other Dust, and see if maybe it might not scratch that particular post-apocalyptic itch. The only two games to come close in the last couple of years are a two-part Wasteland GURPS game I ran (which would be better if GURPS had more Wasteland support than a couple anemic supplements), and Precis Intermedia's Earth A.D. 2 which was an interesting (if convoluted) but fairly detailed post-apoc experience that I enjoyed but was still frustrated with after running it. I could see Other Dust being a good choice for the genre....we shall have to see.

So, final verdict:

SWN is not a good replacement for Traveller; it is not simpler, mechanically; just different, in a "homebrew" sort of way. If you like Traveller, this feels like a cruder homage. If you think Traveller is too complex, SWN is as complex as Traveller, just in a different way. If you think Traveller is too simple...then you will also think such of SWN. What I'm trying to say is, it's not a good replacement for Traveller if you don't have any problems with Traveller in the first place, and if you do, SWN doesn't "fix" anything, really. As a contrast with Traveller I give it a B to Traveller's more well conceived mechanical cohesion.

SWN is superior with its tag system, and everyone should check that part out. This part is A+.

SWN lacks the toolkit elements of Savage World SF Companion, or even the free-for-all madness of White Star, so you have to revise and back out a lot of baked-in core assumptions in the game if you want to design your own universe. Indeed, I sort of felt like the core conceits of SWN were more pervasive in its underlying assumptions than normal (by contrast, Traveller's only two core conceits are human dominance and jump drives, and that's it). Oddly, the bonus content of SWN is interesting but expands in weird ways, with transhumanism ideas followed by sorcery and magic options. For this it's a C, but gets a B+ for touching on transhumanism and AI in ways an OSR game usually wouldn't.

If you don't play games all that much, but love tinkering with them and writing up rules stuff (as I often do on this blog) SWN has a lot to offer, though, as most OSR systems do...Good A here.

SWN does provide a solid core package if you are not familiar with Traveller but like the concept of a rules-lite hexbox themed scifi game, and need a system that provides you that core underlying setting to riff from. If you fit this category this game is a good solid A, with the Tag System still A+.

Afterthought: the SWN playtest vs. the Starfinder Playtest

These two games really are different beasts. That said, it was interesting because after finishing Starfinder I was frustrated with elements of the experience, and my efforts to impose my will on the game's implied setting (which is strongly implied, moreso than SWN's setting is), but I still enjoyed it...the experience was very solid. With SWN I found the rules to be rather comfortable (within limits; e.g. my telekinetic in the party was rank 1 but she wanted to throw a guard around...and by the book that was a no-no for some reason but I thought that was stupid so invoked handwavium and made it happen...repeatedly). But from a purely mechanical perspective I really did feel like playing Starfinder was like experiencing a carefully designed machine that was riddled with a ton of testing and input, with subtle but wide-ranging designs that would impact the play experience over time. SWN felt like (what I think it is) the brainchild of one person who is very good at OSR design and made his homebrew baby lovechild of OD&D and Classic Traveller something others could enjoy...but it's not a team design, and it's not built with inherent synergies in mind. SWN is a naked tree waiting for ornaments. Starfinder is the Times Square Xmas Tree, ready to blind you with carefully decorated radiance. 

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