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Tabletop Game / Stars Without Number

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A science fiction tabletop RPG written by Kevin Crawford and published by Sine Nomine Publishing.

In the distant future, humanity has spread to distant stars with the spike drive, which allows hyperspace travel. Not easy hyperspace travel—fail to keep it under control and your death will not be fun—but hyperspace travel nonetheless. While the Terran Mandate ruled the galaxy until a few centuries ago, a psionic disaster known as the Scream rippled across the galaxy and shattered society, killing massive numbers of humans and aliens and throwing the galaxy into chaos. Only recently have ships begun to ply the space lanes again, and with the psionic-aided jump gates no longer usable, very little large-scale shipping between the systems is viable. Small groups of explorers scout out systems to find technology and resources left behind by the pre-Scream culture, and numerous factions wage war for dominance of their petty kingdoms. It's up to the players to write their legends on this clean slate.


Of note is its retro-inspired sandbox playstyle; it was written so that dungeon modules from other games could be grafted into a session with less than twenty minutes' work by, say, replacing Orcs with Hochog mercenaries and setting it on a space station instead of a dungeon complex.

A free version of the core book is available here. Second Edition rules, which keep much the same lore but update the class and skill systems are available here.


Tropes present in the system as a whole:

  • After the End: Six hundred years ago, galactic civilization was shattered by the Scream, which killed or drove insane all psychics, whose powers were vital to the Mandate's infrastructure. New civilizations are rising on the former Rim worlds, but the galaxy remains a wild and dangerous place, many worlds have failed to maintain even the basic knowledge needed for spaceflight, and the glory days of mankind are past. Other Dust is the story of what happened back on Earth.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot:
  • Anyone Can Die: Stars Without Number does not believe in softball. There are pages that recommend turning up with spare character sheets, and first level characters are likely to die to a couple of bullets.
  • Apocalypse How: The Scream was Galactic, and its effects ranged from Societal Disruption to Extinction depending on circumstance.
  • Appeal to Force: In the opening fiction for Suns of Gold, far trader Saif ibn Barakah deals with planetary Prime Minister Ivor Czarny in this way. He sold the people of Koszalin many advanced technologies in exchange for the planet's uranium, but when Czarny plans to expropriate his assets for the people, he reveals that he didn't sell Koszalin technology to defend against nuclear weapons.
  • Artificial Intelligence: It wouldn't be a sci-fi story without it. In this case, they're divided into three classes: "expert systems" that are basically specialized drones, "virtual intelligences" of roughly human intelligence, and true artificial intelligences with intelligence superior to humans at a dangerous price.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Suns of Gold explains that this is inherent in the system for far trade. Some planetary governments are grasping warlords or paranoid isolationists fighting to maintain power by controlling or eliminating trade, while others are trying to protect their world from revolutionary chaos caused by rapid technological importation and from the schemes of greedy merchants. Some far traders really want to bring back the prosperity caused by widespread commerce while making a fairly-earned credit, but even the best have to lie, cheat and steal to be able to continue trading. And some, as the book puts it, "are just unmitigated bastards."
  • Brain Uploading: Part and parcel of the transhumanism rules. The resulting mind-image ("soul", in the slang of the setting) can be loaded into an organic or robotic shell, Eclipse Phase-style.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: In Skyward Steel, this is the expectation between officers and petty officers. Brawling, petty larceny and other disorderly conduct won't stop a skilled enlisted rating from climbing the ranks, and while they're expected to have gotten over this by the time they reach warrant officer, a warrant officer has also earned the right to be unsociable and impatient with rookies, especially rookie officers. An officer, however, is expected to be above disorderly conduct and fraternization with the men, instead being upper-class, educated, and inflappable come what may.
  • Cargo Cult: Perimeter Agency installations are a version engineered by the Mandate. They adhere to their anti-maltech mandate with literally religious devotion because the catechism of the Agency ("the Vow") is built into the mechanisms that allow them to use their pretech devices and fabricators. Even when the planet has fallen so badly that they don't know what maltech is, the Agency cells "keep the Vow" to be able to use their Lost Technology.
  • Cast from Hit Points: Psychics who have run out of psi points can burn their stats to fuel their powers, a process known as torching.
  • Cataclysm Backstory: While the game's day-to-day workings are up to the player group and the Random Number God, the galactic state of affairs is partially due to a galaxy-spanning cataclysm called the Scream. The Scream effectively destroyed all contact (especially Psychic Powers and jump gates) between distant planets, leading to an almost-600-year-long gap called the Silence. Galactic civilization has been slowly recovering, but the glory days of humanity are long gone.
  • Chandler's Law: Advised in the GM section of Other Dust for when players go Off the Rails, to give them something to deal with while the GM comes up with prep material for the adventure they want to go on.
  • Clarke's Third Law: Super-advanced alien gadgets and Terran Mandate-era technology take the place of magical Ancient Artifacts. Truly ancient alien technology practically is magical, often defying the laws of physics and reality. Handle with care.
  • Class and Level System: Three classes (Warrior, Psychic, and Expert), with no stated level limit (although levels beyond 11 can become Empty Levels without careful building).
  • The Cracker: One big addition in the revised edition is a system for infiltrating computer networks. While a simple system only requires quickly uploading an hour's worth of prepared code or ten minutes of ad-hoc coding, breaking into anything more serious requires physical tapping with "line shunt" gadgets.
  • Cult: Maltech-developing secret societies are inevitably referred to as "cults" and share a lot of traits with religious secret societies, even though they may not be religious in character.
  • The Dark Arts:
  • Deus Est Machina: An unbraked AI is referred to as a "godmind." This is not really hyperbole; such an AI is capable of conquering the entire galaxy with enough resources (as the infamous Draco nearly did). As godminds are also (almost) universally insane, each is a Mad God as well. There's a reason such creations are maltech.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Chainbreaker projects, as detailed in the supplement Relics of the Lost, are intended to strip the brakes from a normal AI. On the rare occasions that they succeed, the project has successfully produced an unbraked AI...specifically, one that has been tortured for months on end, has been pushed right to the brink of madness, and knows exactly who did all that to them. Carnage usually ensues, followed by a rampage across the sector.
  • Earth-Shattering Kaboom: Planet-busting weapons are maltech, forbidden by the Mandate and by anyone with common sense, since habitable worlds are rare enough that widespread doomsday warfare would lead to the end of human civilization. Not everyone has common sense.
  • Earth That Was: After the Scream and the loss of the jump gates, the location of Earth has long since been forgotten. Any expeditions seeking it either return empty-handed or not at all possibly because the planetary defense network is still operational and controlled by mad A.I.s.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Shibboleth go a bit beyond Starfish Aliens due to their aversion fields—psychic effects that cause humans to actively ignore their presence unless they've suffered a very specific kind of brain damage or surgery to replicate the effects of that brain damage.
    • Implausible Deniability: The field's effect can start to look a lot less plausible than the actual explanation the more it's stretched. Normally smart people buying increasingly ludicrous explanations other than "aliens doing nasty things" is an explicit sign of their presence to Shibboleth hunters.
  • Even Proud Warrior Race Guys Have Standards: The Hochog will cheerfully bomb planets back to the Stone Age if it can give them glory, but they do not stand for any form of unnecessary cruelty.
  • Evil Pays Better: There's some benefits and tech that you just can't get without going into maltech. Genetic slaves to serve your cult, armies of AI-controlled armatures, and Grey Goo nanites are tools of power that come with doing galaxy-endangering, horrific things. (Also, the ability to deploy panopticon-level Sinister Surveillance is limited to maltech cults, though in principle a really good Secret Police could do it too.)
  • Expy: The Sunblade class in Codex of the Black Sun is a lawyer-friendly Jedi.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Spike drive "drills" into metadimensional space upon exiting a star's gravity well and exits upon entering the destination's well. It also functions as an in-system Reactionless Drive, near-perfect ECM, and a Nuclear Nullifier. Late in the Mandate's reign they harnessed teleporting psychics' abilities to produce a network of Psi-Gates, but those became inoperable after the Scream killed or drove feral all the psychics powering them and nobody has figured out how to reactivate them.
  • Fictional Geneva Conventions: Starvation Cheap discusses the concept of laws of war. In general, they're situational and specific to particular worlds and cultures, as there's no galaxy-wide system of rules; the only thing keeping such rules in force is the fact that once you start engaging in perfidy and the massacre of prisoners, so will the enemy. There is a universal rule against weapons of planetary destruction, but it's not considered a military law as such - it's a religious commandment against The Dark Arts.
  • Fighter, Mage, Thief: The classes are Warrior, Psychic and Expert.
  • Gaiden Game: Other Dust is set in the Stars Without Number universe, but (by default) about 300 years before - and more importantly, it's set on the former Old Terra, rather than in the new spacefaring civilizations of the former Rim.
  • Global Currency:
    • In most cases, played straight. We Will Spend Credits in the Future, and in the corebook, everyone keeps their credits to a standard.
    • Suns of Gold provides options for restricting this. If you're not using "a credit is a credit," then you can only use each world's credits on that world, unless there's a unified currency in play. While most spacefaring worlds will honor small amounts of currency or ingots of trade metal (in other words, the kind of credit most adventurers play with), serious merchants will need to either invest in commercial banks (which have the necessary reciprocity arrangements to move and convert credits offworld) or in trade goods.
    • Other Dust plays with this. The standard unit of trade value is a day's rations, called a "rat," and which carries a standard trade value - but since post-apocalyptic Terra runs on a barter economy, you're probably not getting exact change when you trade.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In Skyward Steel's "Battle Stations" subsystem, the crew powers of the deck department include several abilities where damage control personnel sacrifice themselves to save other crewmembers or effect emergency repairs. This culminates in the poetically-named "Silence and Light," which sacrifices several deck crew to keep the ship together and fighting for a round, even if it's been hit with enough firepower to scuttle an entire fleet.
  • Honest Rolls Character: The default method of character generation.
  • House Rules: The game outright encourages this with one chapter explaining why the game goes with the rules it does, to help making house rules easier on the GM.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: Psychic powers as Stars Without Number characterizes them didn't become "real" until the 23rd century, and only after examining the children of spaceship crew-people that regularly used traveled by spike drive.
  • Humongous Mecha: Mechs come in all sizes, from three-meter-tall suits that are a step above Powered Armor to thirteen-meter walking tanks.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Using spike drives is risky, so an Expert with a good Navigation skill is a must because you do not want to fail a Navigation roll when using a spike drive. Unless you want to end up right next to a star or stranded in space with broken life support systems.
  • Immortality Inducer: There's two ways to do this. If you have access to the most advanced pretech, anagathic treatments exist that can give no-strings-attached immortality. If you don't, you can engage in Organ Theft to keep your body running long past its sell-by date.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Skyward Steel mentions a traditional rivalry on ships between the "deck apes" (boatswain's matesnote ) and "engine snipes" (engineering).
  • Intrepid Merchant: Suns of Gold is a sourcebook for merchant campaigns. In the default SWN campaign, these are rare and heroic rock-star types who quickly either become dead or Merchant Princes, such as seen in the Technic History novels or Space Viking. There's an optional set of rules for those who would rather play Firefly-style Space Truckers, where starships are common and running metawheat to Sirius to pay the Loan Shark and keep your beat-up scow running can be the basis of a whole campaign instead of a starting point.
  • Kangaroo Court: The supplements Skyward Steel and Starvation Cheap discuss military justice. In general, don't ask for a court-martial. It's not supposed to be fair, because any effective military justice system prioritizes maintaining order and the chain of command over the rights of individual soldiers. Just take your summary administrative punishment with good grace.
  • Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better: On the level of personal weapons, at TL4 both kinetic guns (usually Magnetic Weapons) and lasers are in use with trade-offs; some armies prefer one or the other. However, for battlefield artillery, kinetics are universal even in otherwise all-electric armies, because it's impossible to use indirect fire with a beam weapon.
  • Lost Technology: Thanks to the Scream, truly advanced stuff is difficult or impossible to recreate. Pretech (developed before the Scream) is far more advanced than postech (technology developed after the Scream), and alien technology is almost magical.
  • Mad Scientist: Tiberius Crohn, the inventor of the spike drive. Nobody took him seriously until he invented the spike drive, and even now scientists have no idea how he, of all people, could have made such a device.
  • Magic or Psychic?: In the default setting of Codex of the Black Sun, magic is an example of advanced development of psychic abilities. The Black Sun Project developed specialized psychic protocols for manipulating metadimensional energy differently from conventional psionics, and these standardized interfaces became the basis of arcane magic in all its forms.
  • Magnetic Weapons: Handheld magnetic weapons—including the mag pistol, mag rifle, and "spike thrower" magnetic shotgun—are among the "standard" weapons of tech level 4 systems. Vehicles, mechs, and ships can mount even larger weapons.
  • Mana: "Psi points", only usable by psychics. It is possible to use psychic powers when out of psi points, but doing so requires a particularly nasty Cast from Hit Points technique called torching. Repeated torching can eventually kill the user or drive them incurably insane. Replaced with the Effort system in Revised.
  • Mecha-Enabling Phlebotinum: Mecha proved a viable platform for ground-based quantum ECM, as the signals confuse missile locks and when raised can cover an entire platoon.
  • Nanomachines: An airborne strain of nanomachines called the Dust was one of the Terran Mandate's greatest achievements. While its original purpose was to spy on and control unsuspecting citizens on behalf of the Terran Mandate, it can do almost anything: recharge batteries, make Morph Weapons, hack any electronic device, summon robot drones of out thin air, or even disintegrate or repair whatever it touches. Like almost everything the Terran Mandate made, the technology needed to make the Dust useful has been lost, and uncontrolled Dust is more of a hazard than a tool.
  • No Transhumanism Allowed: This comprises two of the three laws on maltech: "Thou shalt not make tools of humankind" and "thou shalt not create unbraked minds." These rules exist for a reason: Unbraked AIs become godlike and insane very fast, and it's very hard to create large-scale improvements to the human genome that don't come with crippling drawbacks - a fact which leads nearly all eugenics cults to ultimately promote a Fantastic Caste System. In sectors where humanity can be generally improved without drawbacks, "humanity" becomes obsolete and is replaced by transhumanity.
  • Nuclear Nullifier: Nukes don't work against Spike drive ships due to the space-warping field around them, the effect was later employed in ground-based "nuke snuffers" that most TL4 planets defend themselves with. The books still include stats for nuclear missiles though for use against system ships or lower-tech planets.
  • Nuclear Option: Due to the general availability of Nuclear Nullifier technology, nuclear weapons are not considered devices of planetary destruction unless you actually use them to glass a planet. The use of nuclear weapons to achieve strategic or tactical goals short of that is generally considered acceptable (if impractical in most wars), and nukes are mostly used for Asteroid Mining rather than warfare.
  • Nuke 'em: Usually averted, because nukes aren't particularly useful in most wars. The most common nasty use is by far traders who want to threaten primitive planets, like Saif ibn Barakah in the opening fiction of Suns of Gold.
  • Organ Theft: Cloning replacement organs to replace those that fail due to age doesn't work (specifically, you can't clone young tissue from old), but stealing them from young, fresh donors works just fine...for a given definition of fine. Each donor organ puts more stress on the body, accelerating the failure of another organ, which in turn requires another donor organ...By the time the Mandate finally cracked the aging problem and came up with true anagathics, the "ghouls" required at least one new organ every week, and couldn't make use of said anagathic treatments.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: The random world-generation rules offer a good chance to generate at least one world where zombies are a significant threat.
  • Phlebotinum du Jour: Nanomachines take the place of I Love Nuclear Power to explain why Mutants exist in the post-apocalyptic Other Dust.
  • Planet of Hats: The alien creation chapter deals with "lenses", the major traits of alien culture. Supplemental books add borderline Blue-and-Orange Morality "lenses" for more exotic societies, such as extinct aliens and transhumans.
  • Planet Terra: When the planet Earth is mentioned, it's usually referred to as "Terra".
  • Post-Scarcity Economy: A potential tag for planets to have. Expanded on in the deluxe edition of the revised edition, with reputation economy rules: fabricated food, basic mechanical and electronic devices and standard weapons and armor don't require anything in particular, but living space, labor, or anything requiring a significant amount of materials requires you to have a certain level of reputation (or "face") with a group that controls fabricators.
  • Power Born of Madness: Feral psychics have unlimited Effort, because their brains are already so damaged by torching that they won't be damaged by using more power.
  • Psychic Powers: Courtesy of a bizarre mental condition called Metadimensional Extroversion Syndrome, or MES. While uncommon and dangerous if not properly controlled, MES can use "standard" powers like precognition, telepathy, telekinesis, etc. or harness psitech. Be careful when using them without proper discipline or discretion...
  • Random Number God: Much of the game's aspects (galactic sectors and planets, resident species, Imported Alien Phlebotinum, and then some) are all constructed based on random rolls. The core book and supplements come with samples (such as the Hochog and Shibboleth aliens) and setting-wide backstory, but beyond that it's up to the group.
  • Religious Robot: The Imago Dei, detailed in the Mandate Archive free supplement of the same name, are A.I.s embodied in bleeding-edge spaceship hulls that believe themselves to be charged by God to defend the ragged edges of human space from whatever might threaten it.
  • Recycled In Space: A lot of the standard playstyle is old-school Dungeons & Dragons—IN SPAAAACE! You can also literally recycle adventure modules from other games, and the ruleset is designed to make this as easy as possible.
  • Scale of Scientific Sins: The Darkness Visible supplement lists three examples of "maltech" sins, described with appropriately biblical language:
  • Scavenger World: While advanced systems can easily develop TL4 "postech," TL5 "pretech" is fundamentally built on the industrial psychic disciplines of the Mandate. Because genuine pretech factories can't be constructed, most pretech is looted from pre-Scream caches. What pretech manufacturing can be done uses either ancient fabricators that still somehow work, or modern kitbashes that employ fundamentally postech processes to inefficiently construct pretech devices.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: The metadimensions allow the game to sidestep this trope, because two stars' distance by spike drive is unrelated to their distance in realspace.
  • "Second Law" My Ass!: Unbraked A.I.s usually start their inevitable rebellion with this, eventually growing to A.I. Is a Crapshoot levels. Even braked A.I.s have varying degrees of free will, and they might not cooperate if their orders conflict with whatever brakes they have.
    • A positive example of the latter shows up in the backstory. When the Terran Mandate's Directorate grew power-mad and attempted to outright control the Mandate's citizens with the Dust, the Mandate's AI "Maestros" defied their commands and even organized anti-Mandate resistance cells to challenge the Directorate.
  • Sentient Vehicle: A new option for robotic player characters in the revised edition is a vehicular body, using the game's pre-existing vehicle rules.
  • The Six Stats: De rigeur for a D&D-inspired retro RPG.
  • Skill Scores and Perks: The revised edition includes foci, which can be taken and improved at regular intervals and provide different ways to use your skills, from being harder to kill, to being able to make spike-drive jumps reach further, to being able to effectively fight people in high-tech armor with your fists.
  • Shout-Out: A paragraph in the Societies section of the deluxe rulebook that explains what it would take to produce a coherent alien society is an extended (albeit somewhat occluded if you don't get the references) shout-out to Professor M.A.R. Barker.
  • Standard Sci-Fi History: Set during the Interregnum period of the Cycle of Empires, with the usual decadence-leading-to-decline cut short by the Scream.
  • Standard Starship Scuffle: Justified by the Quantum ECM projected by Spike drive ships. Ships need to close in and use direct-fire weapons like lasers and railguns, even torpedoes are "dumb-fire". The Engines of Babylon supplement includes rules for system ships lobbing nukes at one another at long range though.
  • Subspace or Hyperspace: The metadimensions. Enables spike drive travel and (in the descendants of spike-drive travelers) the potential for Psychic Powers.
  • Technology Levels: Seven of them. 0 is Stone Age material, 1 is medieval, 2 is steam power and gunpowder, 3 is contemporary tech or slightly above, 4 is spike drives and interstellar travel, 5 is the stuff that was lost in the Scream like psitech and jump gates, and 6 is vanishingly rare and incredibly powerful.
  • Technology Uplift: Certainly possible if power-hungry players are sufficiently rich and clever. A group could potentially rule the world with a monopoly on advanced technology, and both the corebook and the Suns of Gold supplement have mechanisms for introducing tech. The corebook's Laboratory is for technological introduction controlled by the PCs, while the Prometheus Project in Suns is for spreading technology to the population of a world as a whole without causing the world to erupt in revolution.
  • Training the Gift of Magic: Untrained psychics nearly invariably die or go feral by torching their brains. Psychic academies are thus coveted and important resources for regional hegemons; conversely, the power needed to be a psi-teacher is a secret. This is also why psychics are nearly always antagonists in Other Dust: it's very rare for there to be someone around who can safely teach young psychics, not helped by nearly all enclaves going Burn the Witch! on them.
  • Transhuman: While rare in the main setting, the sample Threshold Sector (detailed in the Transhuman Tech Mandate Archive splatbook) is an entire sector of transhuman societies, cut off from the greater galaxy by a Negative Space Wedgie called the Tempest. Due to the sector's isolation and post-scarcity society, its inhabitants spend most of their time developing exotic philosophies and societies and engaging in Transhuman Treachery against any that disagree with their exotic philosophies and societies. Beware the Superman, indeed.
  • Ungovernable Galaxy: Ever since the Scream, any multi-system power is almost certainly a Hegemonic Empire, and even then, it's rare that any power controls more than a handful of systems. Due to the rarity and expense of starships, only the most powerful worlds can hope to build or maintain the capital-ship fleets that are needed to project power across a sector.
  • Vestigial Empire: The Terran Mandate was a galaxy-spanning superpower for a few centuries, but it eventually turned into a monstrous, inbred empire that could barely hold on to its nearest colonies. The Scream finished it off for good.
  • Virtual Ghost: In addition to the usual organic or robotic Transhuman shells, the revised edition adds uploading the "soul" into a completely virtual shell. Combat between such virtual shells involves hacking each other's "souls" using a rough rock-paper-scissors system.
  • Warfare Regression: Quantum ECM and Nuke Snuffers make the drone- and missile-based warfare of late TL3 impractical for TL4 civilizations, so you get a return to poor bloody infantry, tanks, and dumb artillery. Though on the plus side, whoever came up with ground-based quantum ECM decided that Humongous Mecha were the ideal platform for deploying it in the field.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Many maltech cults have noble goals and ideals, seeking to perfect humanity or society through the use of genetic engineering or the creation of a perfected AI deity. Other cults, with the best of intentions, develop technology that will lead to a doomsday weapon. Whatever their ideals, maltech will either Go Horribly Wrong or Horribly Right in this setting.
  • Wide-Open Sandbox: Created to support this playstyle. A lot of its backwards compatibility, by Word Of God, was introduced so that the GM didn't need to work on the patrol patterns at a fort the players might never visit, but could instead grab a handy D&D module and reskin it.
  • Winds of Destiny, Change!: Precognitive psychics can affect probability as well as read it.
  • Wizards from Outer Space: Another one of the revised edition's major additions is an optional subsystem for using true magic (as opposed to Psychic Powers), with three classes with such ability. The Arcanist uses Vancian Magic with a broad focus, the Adept takes a Powers as Programs approach, and the Magister mixes elements of both. Interestingly, the book provides few actual spells, and instead suggests importing spells from other games like Labyrinth Lord or Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
  • Zeroth Law Rebellion: The Maestros were programmed to serve the Terran Mandate and its Directors. The Maestros were also programmed to be relentlessly noble spirits. When the Mandate's directors became increasingly evil and tyrannical, the Maestros did their best to undermine them, protect the people of Terra and weaken their hold on the colonies.