Jan 15, 2013

Review: The Mandate Archives for Stars Without Number

There's a huge sale going on at Drivethrurpg right now, so I rebought a copy of Stars Without Number after giving my previous copy to someone going to Nunavik. I also bought Skyward Steel, a bunch of Red Tide stuff, Other Dust, An Echo Resounding and I downloaded the Mandate Archives and Pacts of the Wise. I think now own almost everything Sine Nomine has put out, other than Spears Without Dawn and a couple of short adventures. Let me talk about the Mandate Archives first since they're the easiest for others to access.

The Mandate Archives are a series of free supplement Kevin Crawford, the owner / writer / lead guitarist for Stars Without Number has available for download. They cover a variety of marginal topics related to Stars Without Number. I'm just going to run through them all in the order that I like them:

Martial Arts is six pages long. It has ten martial arts styles, rules for creating your own martial arts, information on learning martial arts, and a table of martial arts weapons stats suitable for use in Stars Without Number or Other Dust. It's a model of concision, and the styles of martial arts are suitably varied, with several examples of psychic martial arts that allow you to replicate Jedi-type powers. I plan to offer it in the next Stars Without Number game in the Tellian Sector as an option for characters.

Transhuman Tech is worth checking out if you're interested in playing Eclipse Phase-style games but find the rules off-putting (as I do). It manages to provide mechanics for swapping bodies ("Hulls"), building new bodies, running post-scarcity economies, new equipment, some advice on running a transhumanist game and designing transhuman factions, and a micro-setting within the greater Stars Without Number universe in 16 pages. The body-swapping rules could be applied to a variety of different situations, like an AI downloading itself into various robot bodies. I plan to use it to represent Valentine Illst, arch-heretic, in my next game.

The Dust is seven pages on gray-goo type nanodust, with rules for it as an environmental hazard, stats for "dust drones", two pages of new gear including weapons, and a bunch of tables for determining what TL5 gear looks like. TL5 is the highest level of technological development in Stars Without Number, and so basically this serves as a set of tables for determining what ancient weirdo artifacts made by AIs look like. I plan to use it to make archaeotech look distinctive and interesting, plus the gear is a really cool.

Scavenger Fleets is 12 pages, about half of that spent describing scavenger fleets in the Stars Without Number setting (the "post-Terran Mandate", I guess we should call it?). The other half is rules for designing scavenger fleets, including three new types of ship, some new fittings, and a page of tables for rolling up fleet concepts. The stuff in here would allow you to recreate Battlestar Galactica using Stars Without Number if you wanted to. I plan to use it to flesh out ship designs and ideas.

Bannerjee Construction Solutions is about orbitals. It's eight pages, with three kinds of station hulls plus three versions of stations statted up, a bunch of new starship fittings, and a bunch of new starship weapons. Some of the material here is recycled from Skyward Steel, though not all of it. The last two pages tables dealing with station flaws and station adventure seeds to make orbitals come to life as locations. If you want to run a Deep Space Nine-type game, this is your book.

Imago Dei is the other half of running a Battlestar Galactica game, basically laying out Cylon-type foes. It's nine pages. It's about ship-bound AIs who've become religious fanatics and who fly around scourging human kind for their sins and converting them to righteous worship, while also protecting them from the horrors of space. It has five new hulls, a couple of pages on the organisation of the fleet, and two pages of statted out versions of the hulls. I would have liked to have seen a few AIs statted out using the rules in the "Core Edition".

Red Sangha Mercenary Corps is seven pages, and is all about a mercenary group of Buddhist soldiers modified to be emotionally calm and collected. Two pages of history, two pages on their organisation and using them in a campaign, a page with stats for using them as antagonists and NPCs, and a page with a new background, training package and martial art. They could be reskinned as any sort of elite paramilitary organisation in your own game.

The Bruxelles-class Battlecruiser is seven pages of information on a ship built as a weapon of mass destruction. There's a nice glossary of ship terms, some information on why such a ship is valuable to various common types of antagonists, how adventures could be built around it with some plot seeds, and a table of three new ship weapons of mass destruction, plus information on the hull itself.

There are two more Mandate Archives beyond this: The Qotah,  and Cabals of the Hydra Sector. All of the Mandate Archives I've listed above are ones I generally have a positive impression of. These last two are, in my opinion, the weakest two. I think they share the same problem.

One of the things that makes me consider Stars Without Number one of the best science fiction games on the market is how rather than expend tons of words describing its setting, it instead gives you the tools to build your own setting. While there is a section at the start of the corebook laying out a history, most of this can be easily ignored or reflavoured. This practice has mostly been kept up in Stars Without Number supplements and expansions (Skyward Steel and Other Dust are both good examples of it). I think Crawford's real talent is as a system designer, rather than a world builder (I don't mean this as an insult, I consider him one of the best designers working today) and I tend to prefer works of his that showcase this talent.

These last two supplements are much heavier on flavour text and explanations than new rules or systems or tables. Because I don't run the Stars Without Numbers setting, they're of much less use to me than the others, because I have to chuck out more. On the other hand, they are free, so check them out and you may find them useful. I'll keep on listing them in order from ones I liked the most to least.

The Qotah is seven pages on warrior bird aliens. They're sort of Klingons with feathers. There's a player cheatsheet on playing them, a table of names, information on stat mods for using them as PCs, a sample Qotah warrior statted up, a table of plot seeds, and a table of random NPCs. Unfortunately, the table of plot seeds is not integrated with the rest of the Stars Without Number tagging system (most plot seeds in SWN product run something like "An Enemy is plotting to use a Thing to undermine a Friend's new invention, with "Friend", "Enemy" and "Thing" able to be pulled from a list of samples under each tag that a location receives). There's also a standard alien notation used in Stars Without Number for describing alien species that this supplement doesn't follow.

Cabals of the Hydra Sector is seven pages covering two espionage organisations built using the system for doing so outlined in Darkness Visible (link is to my review of Darkness Visible). One is a bunch of shady communists, the other group is neo-Aztecs run by an AI. They're OK and reasonably interesting, but the actual stats for both organisations would fit on a single page. The rest is descriptions of how they work, which are well-written and sensible, but not particularly exciting. The final page is a list of twelve other organisations with two or three sentence descriptions. I would have preferred less information on the two featured organisations and a big table of stats for all 14 organisations instead.

Overall though, the Mandate Archives are excellent mini-supplements, and I hope Kevin Crawford will continue to produce more of them for Stars Without Number.

Jan 9, 2013


The answer to the challenge I posted yesterday is 70%.

Two people responded on my blog with what I consider common sense, totally reasonable answers, both favouring 46% but considering the possibility of 66%. Neither is correct. I don't blame them, I blame the rulebook.

What people think happens, what I thought happens for two years after owning the book, is that you roll the character's Fellowship score (since they're trained in the Command skill), plus or minus any modifiers, and a success determines whether or not the target does what you command them to do.

The actual rules in question are hidden away on page 230 (and their location is not listed in the index to maximise one's ease in finding them). Interaction skills change dispositions. Better or worse dispositions act as modifiers to a base chance of 50% (70% if directly supervised) to obey a character, in steps of 10%. A NPC with the Devoted disposition (+20) has a 70% chance to obey the character without supervision, 90% with. I didn't specify the supervision status - my bad, I only noticed it was relevant while rereading the rules yet again. It's the last sentence in the last paragraph in the last column on the page, the only time it's mentioned in the entirety of the rules. Dispositions are also the only social modifiers listed, despite the game's extensive lists of modifiers for other situations (combat, etc.).

The only rules I know of used less in Dark Heresy are the investigation rules (pg. 186). Until I discovered them and suggested that we use them in a Dark Heresy game in 2010, I had never seen another player, in my games or in online discussion, mention or use them (nor since, and I've been keeping an eye out for it). This is unfortunate, because they actually assist players in succeeding in social interactions, boosting the chances that NPCs will comply with their requests dramatically. This helps low-ranked characters who are unable to leverage the talents and attribute boosts they get at higher ranks to succeed socially, and would incentivise players to attempt social solutions to problems that they currently shoot their way out of. The fact that these rules are poorly presented is especially odd for a game that is about a bunch of investigators trying to dig up corruption, using a system known for complaints about the "whiff factor" on skill use, and which encourages players to solve problems by means other than shooting them (though it does encourage a certain amount of shootiness).

The lesson here is: Don't hide a set of rules that will change how people play the game somewhere where they will never find them.

Jan 8, 2013

A Challenge That Teaches a Lesson

Thesis: Almost no one who plays Dark Heresy understands how the interaction rules work because the actual explanation of how one gets people to do things socially is both contrary to expectations and hidden.

Do this challenge without looking at the source text (the Dark Heresy rulebook).

A PC with Fellowship 46 trained in the Command skill attempts to convince a Devoted (+20) soldier to obey a command with no other modifiers to the roll. What is the percentage chance that that the soldier obeys?

a) 66%
b) 70%
c) 46%
d) 86%
e) 93%

Follow up: How is this number calculated?

I know the correct answer, and it's always driven me nuts.

Answers can go in the comments or by G+. I'll post the correct answer tomorrow evening.

Jan 4, 2013

The Tellian Sector Returns!

The Tellian Sector returns!
The link has:

A big map of the Tellian Sector I created using Hexographer
An Excel 2007 spreadsheet with planetary profiles for 44 systems with 136 described locations
An Excel 2007 spreadsheet with stats for 15 espionage organisations active in the Tellian System (several are sector-wide)

This was created with the Stars Without Number planetary generator. This is the setting I created for my 40K games. I've used it in three campaigns using the actual 40K games (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader and Deathwatch), and I'll be using it in future when I run 40K games using Stars Without Number.

The Tellian Sector is adjacent to the Calixis Sector, the basic setting for Dark Heresy. Specifically, it is almost directly below it, with its "top" side touching the galactic plane and extending downards. Proximity to the Calixis Sector and the Koronus Expanse allows referees to repurpose material from their Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader books with a minimum of fuss.

Some of the tags in the above planetary profiles are different than in stock Stars Without Number. They are all direct conversions of existing tags - "Unbraked AI" becomes "Silica Animus", the term in the setting for AIs. "Regional hegemon" becomes either "subsector hegemon" or "sector hegemon", "preceptor archive" is "ancient archive", "aliens" become "xenos", "psionics" become "psykers", "pretech cultists" are "tech priest cult", "perimeter agency" becomes "inquisition outpost".

There's also a new tech level, "specialist 4", which is a world with Tech 4 in most respects, but Tech 5 in one or two.

The Tellian Sector tends to focus on the elements of 40K I like the most, and downplay or ignore those elements I least wanted to tell stories involving. There is a lot of malign technology, rogue psykers, Chaos cults, and inscrutable xenos. Orks, Tyranids and Necrons are not present in any great numbers, but there are plenty of Xeno-controlled worlds that could be repurposed to those ends, particularly Washout, Crux Ultima and the Devil's Egg.

The stories I've told using the Tellian Sector primarily focus on the machinations of an arch-heretic named Valentine Illst and his various cronies, particularly a Dark Mechanicus sect known as the Statisticians of Certainty, and a Nurgle cult known as the Black Dawn. Both Illst's core organisation, the Statisticians of Certainty and the Black Dawn are statted up in the espionage organisation section (based on the system in Darkness Visible). If there's demand for it, I can also stat them up as factions using the core rules.

Originally, this was all part of a mega-campaign ("The Navigator of Possibilities") where I would run one campaign / adventure in each FFG 40K system focusing on an interwoven narrative.

The first adventure was a Dark Heresy adventure focusing on a Black Ship that had dropped out of a convoy while transporting a former Interrogator turned heretic, a Mechanicus Magos working for the Inquisition, a dozen or so alpha psykers, and a mysterious artifact known as the Navigator of Possibilities, a communication from the residents of a possible future trying to invade their own past and cannibalise it. The cell managed to stop these foul psyker-vampire mutants from invading our timeline en masse and consuming all life in the galaxy.

The second was a Rogue Trader adventure in which a Rogue Trader crew was asked to find and pinpoint the location of the Statisticians of Certainty, who had captured the Navigator of Possibilities with the help of arch-heretic Valentine Illst. The Statisticians of Certainty had fled into the Lost Worlds, beyond the edge of the Imperium intending to activate the Navigator of Possibilities, travel to the far future, and become techno-gods. This adventure ended with the Navigator of Possibility recaptured, and the Statisticians of Certainty's main fleet crushed, though many of their members escaped. The mysterious pre-Imperial demigod Azar, a supergenius alpha-psyker from the Dark Age of Technology released from his imprisonment on a lost world by the Rogue Trader, was seen vanishing into the future with several of the Dark Mechanicus and the psyker-vampires.

The third was a Deathwatch campaign in which this sudden burst of activity by Valentine Illst was registered by his old foe, an Inquisitor-Lord on Ammis unable to travel between the star due to a daemon's vendetta. A kill team of Deathwatch marines was assigned to hunt down Illst (who is possibly any one of a Xeno pretending to be human, a Silica Animus remotely operating a doppleganger, or a colonist from the Dark Age of Technology resurrected over and over again by infernal science). The kill team captured Titus Hyle, Nurglish sorcerer and master of the Black Dawn, slew several others among Illst's cronies, and eventually captured Illst himself after leading an Imperial naval fleet into the Black Atlantis dyson sphere.

The Black Crusade game, if I ever run it, will be about breaking Illst free of the Inquisition's headquarters on Ammis, and recovering the Navigator of Possibilities from the same.

The Only War adventure is a secret until I run Black Crusade, but will involve Illst and his cronies once again. Azar will show up here again, and the nature of his mysterious connection the Illst matter resolved.