Sunday, February 2, 2020

Stars Without Number

I’m an 1e AD&D guy for 35+ years, I have a fine tuned house ruled 1e game at the table, a home brewed campaign setting and a sandbox city setting to play in. I am happy.

However, my son and his friends (who have been gaming together for 6 years) asked me to run a sci-fi game. They asked me to run a D&D sci fi game, e.g. to run 1e AD&D, but in space. So use the mechanics of 1e but have spaceships and ray guns. Not dragons and ray guns, just ray guns and alien monsters. I firmly believe you can do this with 1e, it’s flexible and modular enough to work, and with some generous pinching from other games, off we would go. But then I decided it was time to stretch the gaming muscles a bit and run something new. After some judicious online sniffing around I landed on Stars Without Number.

I will periodically review a session of ours for the next little while. It’s a fun game, and I think if people see how flexible it is they will be interested in playing. In short, the game has enough in it about general sci-fi settings that you could run anything from space opera to John Carter to Star Wars to the Expanse.

Friday Jan 31st Session Recap

The party lost a crewmember the session before this, he plunged 400m to his death after a failed attempt to jump while hanging from a rope attached to the ceiling of a huge underground cave, on to a flying bat creature. He failed his to hit roll to grab the bat as it passed and he failed the subsequent to hit roll to grab the dangling rope that his telekinetic fellow PC pushed into his path. Telekinesis for this PC was not strong enough yet to grab the tumbling party member, but it could move the rope. He failed that roll as well. 400 m was more than enough to kill him on impact. 

The last time they got in a firefight two party members almost died round one. The only thing that has worked for them is long range weapons before their enemies close, that gives them multiple shots as there are multiple party members with guns. Surprise would help too, so the game is quickly teaching them to play less aggressively.

This game is super unforgiving! 

They headed back to their shuttle after that. I roll for random encounters on hostile alien worlds, in this case there were few aliens around as it was very cold, but there was a shimmering energy life form, which passed overhead, it was made up of multiple spheres of multicolored energy. My crew is nothing if not curious, so one of them fired off a shot near the thing to get its attention. 

That got it’s attention. 

I rolled an encounter reaction roll to see if it took off in fear, kept on in indifference, or attacked. I rolled an attack. The creature’s “attack” consisted of immersing a target in its energies, if the target is non-psychic, they make a mental save, if they succeed they are knocked unconscious for an hour. If they fail, they permanently lose a point of either intelligence or wisdom

As it happens the creature engulfed a psychic character. For them, if they fail their save one of their psychic powers is reduced in potency, if they make their save they are dizzy and disoriented for 2-4 rounds. If they make their save with a natural 20 however, one of their abilities is enhanced.

Of course, the player rolled a natural 20, because that’s the way it rolls, so her teleportation psychic ability was boosted a level. She didn’t know this however, they just knew that the thing caused her a headache. When they left and went back to their orbiting ship with their mining unit full, they did a bunch of medical scans and determined that her brainwaves were enhanced

SWN’s all purpose skill system really shines here. One of the PCs operated the medical scanning equipment, another helped them. The “helper” had “notice” as a skill, when he rolled a successful difficulty 10 skill check that added a +1 to the main PC’s check operating the equipment. 

They rolled a successful check with the bonus, so I narrated it as the main PC checking the brainwaves and the supporting PC watching along then noticing in the sea of information that certain brain functions were clocking much higher than usual, even for a psychic. They knew something had changed in their party member. 

SWN really rewards collaborative play with this “help” mechanic, and it gives you RP gold to mine having to explain it. 

They are now convinced her psychic skills are enhanced, they will have to experiment to figure out how. There was some discussion of priorities, but they decided that since they are on the clock, they would move ahead to the next planet. They have 28 days to explore this sector before they have to get back to their starting point for the “jump” back to the Earth system. This allows them to travel to 5 planets then get back to their start point in time. If they land the main ship planetside they lose more fuel, so they use a shuttle. This means that if they lose the shuttle they will have to change their mission. Lots of resource management in this game.

The Mystery 

They headed out for the next planet in the system, a 3 day journey. On day 2 they noticed that one of the crewmembers (an NPC comm officer) hadn’t shown up for his shift. There are 7 party members and 5 NPC crewmembers on the ship. The NPCs are there to staff the ship and to act as replacement PCs when PCs die. So the player who lost his character last session is now the ship’s gunner. 

They went to the missing comm officer’s quarters and he wasn’t there. 

The ship they are using is a retrofitted prison ship, so it has security, they decided on constant video in the public areas but no audio. They reviewed the internal camera logs to see what happened. They saw two odd things. First, the ship’s engineering tech (another NPC) had a heated conversation with the missing crew member standing outside his room while the PC’s were down on the surface mining and exploring.

Then they saw the comm officer go down to engineering earlier that day and meet the engineering tech, a few hours before they returned, the tech goes to a repaired panel and starts working on it, the engineer is talking with him and then the cameras in engineering went off for a few minutes, when the footage resumes engineering is empty. 

So one of the PC’s (the chief engineer) decided to confront the engineering tech in the mess hall, he told the rest of the party to wait on the bridge so as not to arouse his suspicions. The chief engineer has “talk” as a skill, that allows you to persuade or intimidate people. He role-played grilling the tech on what had happened, said he saw the disagreement and saw the cut out of the video feed, and that he wanted to know what was up. The PC was the NPCs supervisor, so he hammed it up a bit mentioning their work together and how much he trusted him. It was well done. 

I rolled a skill check for him to persuade or intimidate the tech. At that point he rolled a check and failed, but he’s an expert so he gets to reroll one failed check per scene. So he rerolled and was successful, I interpreted it this way. 

The engineering tech pulled a small pistol from his tunic, he told the PC he could knock him out with it if he wanted. He told the PC that he was going to let him in on what was happening.. 

Last session they encountered an alien species of crystal creatures that duplicate with energy. The party killed off all but one and had decided to eject it into space. I told them the process, you put the object in the airlock, you close the inside door and open the outside door, then it’s sucked out.

They talked and were worried the creature would somehow attack or damage the locks and shoot them out into space. So they handed me plot gold when they said, 

“Let the engineering tech get rid of the thing” 

So I told them it was shot out into space, but the tech decided to keep the creature. There is a prohibition in the campaign setting on bringing back alien life, it ends up that the tech had been offered a lot of money to bring back something on the sly. So he didn’t shoot it into space, he had hidden it in the cold storage, where it was alive but inactive. 

The PC decided that he wanted in, he was convinced they should keep this thing, take it back, duplicate it once for each of them, and go their separate ways. They made that agreement, and at that point they went to the bridge 

When they arrive on the bridge the rest of the PCs ask what happened, now, they had not heard me talking with the other player when we were RPing the engineer and engineering tech’s conversation, so they didn’t know what happened. 

So we returned, and as the tech NPC, here is what I said, more or less.

“We were arguing, since those creatures damaged our comm systems (note: a swarm of these creatures had attacked the ship, and destroyed their comm system for a day) there had been problems with the comm, he wanted to jack the system from engineering, I said no way. I left. I wanted to talk to the engineer, but he came to engineering all hot, said it was dangerous with the comm’s not reliable, saying he could rewire the damaged areas better than we had. He got into that servo-routing panel over there and boom, took enough volts to recharge the shuttle’s batteries, and he hit the floor dead. Knocked out the cameras too. 

I freaked, I knew you would see us arguing on the tapes, see the comms go down, I knew you would blame me, so I sent him out the airlock before you guys got back. I feel terrible, but I knew you would never believe me. I didn’t like the guy, but I didn’t want him dead, his body would stink up this tin can, I couldn’t hide it. I’d lose my share of the haul, I’ll be in the brig for sure. I cooked up a story about him sneaking on the shuttle with you, stowing and going down to the surface to get some living creature and bring it back, and dying down there. You would never believe me otherwise”

I am immensely proud of myself, LOL. I SPUN GOLD OUT OF STRAW. They saw it as a plausible explanation, that I had run this while they were down on the planet between two NPCS to give them something to do when they came back on board, so it all made sense. 

Onwards to Adventure!
From there the approached the next planet, the third so far in the system. This one was about Earth sized, entirely a desert, with blue cacti forests, periodic fields of green and gold flowers, a horse sized hyena like alien that roamed in packs and ate small rodents and lizards as well as stilt legged insect like creatures about 30 feet tall. The insect like creatures ate the plant life.

They saw in the distance what looked like a rock formation, it was shaped like two cylinders intertwined around each other. It was made of red stone, and there were holes at ground level. The PCs got closer and suspected that this structure was made, not natural. The holes were about 4 feet in diameter and curved upwards.

They took out hammers and pitons and crawled up one of the holes and emerged into a room, there were four black stones in the room, one pyramid, one flat triangle, one prism and one cube, each one had carved out symbols on their sides. This was the first sign of intelligent life they had seen in the campaign so far!

They skipped this room and found another hole and tunnel and crawled up to the next level, here they found nothing more than 8 circular depressions in the floor, like very shallow bowls, carved into the rock. 

After a short time there they went up to the next level through another tunnel, in this case the room had a single large globular stone in the middle, again covered with symbols. Finally they went through a last tunnel to the next floor, where they saw nothing in the room but there were cut out windows in the sides going all the way around, so they could see for quite a distance.

They went back to the third level and one of the PCs touched the globular stone, touching one of the carved symbols. Nothing happened. Then one of the PCs with psychic powers touched a symbol on the stone. Then she rolled a saving throw and made it. At that point the air filled with an image of what appeared to be the same room as the one they were in, but without anyone in it. They studied the image and couldn’t tell what was going on. 

One of them guessed that there could be other towers with similar rooms, and maybe they were looking at one of those. So this might have been a communications device. 

They were right by the way, that’s exactly what it was, each tower had a globular stone and each symbol represented a different tower. There was no one there to answer however.

They proceeded to the room with the indentations. That created a lot of conversation about what they might be. Then one of the PCs, who plays the navigator, decided that the race that inhabited this planet in the past must have been snakelike, that would let them crawl up the tunnels and it would allow them to coil into the depressions in the rock.

Right again.

They went down to the next level and one of the psychic characters touched the flat triangle, and specifically touched the symbol on the stone, they made a saving throw roll, were successful, and suddenly a memory from three days ago appeared vividly in their mind as a flashback, completely immersive, as if the event was happening again.

She broke contact and reported what she found. 

A non-psychic character tried it and nothing happened.

The psychic character tried the pyramid stone, this time she failed her save so she got a brief jolt of energy and nothing. Another psychic character (there are two in the party) tried but it worked for him, and he immediately felt relaxed and at peace, completely happy and satisfied. They had to sit him down as he drifted off into a contented stupor.

The other psychic crewmember tried the prism, she touched the symbol on the stone and also had to make her saving throw. This time she was successful and wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. When she formed the question for me she felt an impression in her mind that she was to ask the stone questions. This was some sort of information supercomputer, and it was open to her psychic mind.

They bombarded it with questions through her, about the minerals that the planet had, the flora and fauna, that sort of thing. After a short time she broke off and they decided to take the prism with them to see if it could give them other useful information about the system. 

So their take was an alien prism computer. 

They looked out the window and saw one of the large, stilt legged insect creatures moving a few hundred meters from the tower. It looked like it would pass by. However, one of the PCs was a bit worried about leaving it be as he was afraid it would try to get them when they came out, or fish them out somehow. 

So he took out his laser rifle and went up to the room with the windows. He took a shot at the thing to keep it from attacking them. It was a great shot, hit it at long range in the leg, the creature went down hard. Within minutes a pack of the hyena like creatures swarmed over it after emerging from behind a blue cactus forest.

The hyena-aliens ate the larger creature alive, right in front of their eyes.

They decided to hoof it to the ship with the alien stone computer in their possession, and take it back up to the ship for analysis. They will have to wait another 8 hours for their mining cube to finish it’s work so they can take it back up to the ship. Assuming no random encounters, they will be able to get back to the ship easily, then they have to disembark the mining cube and go through what they found. 

That alien computer will work hijinks with their systems if they aren’t careful, it may try to take over the ship, I’ll have to see what strikes my fancy. And then there’s the PC engineer and NPC engineer tech and their hidden crystal alien life form. I’m also going to have one of the other NPCS (the co-pilot) be suspicious of what happened, so that might produce some drama as well.

Then they have to decide if they are off to the next planet (4 days away) or if they are going back down to this one.

This game is hitting all the right notes, challenging, deadly, flexible, fun. They have done some ship to ship fighting (in an earlier session), space flight, planetary exploration, they have encountered their first aliens and alien flora, they have discovered that only some planets have breathable atmospheres or edible flora and fauna, they have discovered plants and minerals they can sell back on earth, they are smuggling an alien life form home (at least some of them are) and this life form can, if it gets out of its containment, duplicate and quickly damage the ship beyond repair, there is a mystery on board, two fatalities (one accidental, one murder), and they have an alien supercomputer to deal with.

There are two more planets to explore in this system, if they manage to get back home when this run is done they will have to deal with deciding what to do about their cargo (selling it and profiting from it), what to do about the alien they have smuggled back home (who knows if the PC and NPC will share that information with the rest of the party), and how to handle their fame if they are the third unofficial (and second official) ship to make it back from a “jump”. 

If they get to their next jump, it will be time for an intelligent alien race to appear, and at some point in the future they are going to make a computer breakthrough in the game world that allows them to predict and repeat “jumps”, right now they are random. The possibilities for subterfuge, skullduggery and factional rivalries in this game are huge.

Tons of fun.

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