As I mentioned in my previous post, I am going to be running a Stars Without Number game for some of my IRL friends. Up to this point, I have played in a lot of different role-playing games, but I have never been the game master for any of them.
Joe’s Gaming History
A long time ago, my older brother was really into Vampire: The Masquerade with his friends, and of course I wanted to do what the cool, older kids were doing, so I convinced my brother and his goth high school friends to let me play with them for a couple of sessions. He also played some Palladium and GURPS at the time, so naturally I read all of the rulebooks that he had. Also, since I was really into LEGO, he and I devised our own LEGO RPG using GURPS, which was pretty cool, although a bit unwieldy because players fictionally travel through a world much faster than we could possibly construct it on the fly.
Fast forward to my own time in high school, where my friends and I started playing that most popular of all roleplaying games, Dungeons and Dragons. We started with the latest edition, which was 3.5 at the time. We had some disposable income from whatever summer jobs we worked, so we bought miniatures and a whiteboard that I drew a grid on. The minis and whiteboard were pretty essential, since D&D is combat-oriented in general, and 3.5 is in particular (keep in mind that Pathfinder is based on 3.5 after all). We had a good run in high school, but eventually we all went off to college and didn’t have nice things like Roll20 to play remotely, so I stopped playing RPGs altogether for a time.
Once I moved to Chicago, I started looking around for some groups on MeetUp. The fourth edition of D&D had come out not long before, and interestingly I met at least one person who liked how complicated the rules for 2E were (I mean, have you see how weird THAC0 is?). I played with some rando groups for a while, but it never really stuck. Part of it was definitely the high turnover in the groups, but I think that I was slowly, at that time unconsciously, realizing that I didn’t like how combat focused D&D is. People wrote cool adventures, but the players pretty consistently turned into murder-hobos because… well, that’s the behavior that the game rewards. I have a friend who told me that she likes Star Trek more than Stars Wars because it emphasizes exploration over conflict, and I think that finally started resonating with me.
Which brings us to the relative present (apologies for the personal history lesson, but I guess this is my blog, so…). A while ago a friend had an opening in his regular game group, so naturally I jumped on the opportunity. They were playing Pathfinder, so it was a pretty easy transition from my 3.5 roots. Ultimately, the story and world were really fascinating and bizarre, but we dragged the campaign out for over a year because of scheduling conflicts. I don’t think Pathfinder did the GM any favors, because he was running a very story-oriented campaign, where we would frequently have only a handful of rolls through the whole session. My understanding is that Pathfinder is one of the crunchiest games around, where there’s pretty much a rule for everything you could want, and there is very might a right way to play the game, almost akin to competitive computer/video games. Granted, I don’t know what system necessarily would have beeen best for the campaign, but Pathfinder would have been pretty low on my list. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from Adam Koebel, it’s that you should pick a game that will support you doing what it is you set out to accomplish in the game.
A fledgling GM spreads his wings
After our long-running, infrequent campaign tapered off, we decided that it was time to move on. I’ve been really jazzed about Stars Without Number for a while, and I figured it would be a relatively easy sell since we were talking about a science fiction campaign as a follow-up, and OSR-style games are an easy transition for people who are familiar with games based on D&D. They pushed pretty hard for Starfinder, and I even bought and read the book, but I have learned that I don’t like that level of crunchiness when it comes to games. They acquiesced since I will be the person running the game, but we pulled in some inspiration for the playable alien races from Starfinder.
While SWN admittedly doesn’t necessarily have mechanics that will support the gameplay I am hoping for, it does have some pretty killer features. First of all, the faction turn. SWN is a sandbox-style game, which mean that it’s an open world that the player characters are free to explore, without any artificial boundaries imposed by me, the game master. As result, it means that the PCs are not the only important, volatile force in the galaxy. SWN provides a mechanism to track the large corporations, planetary governments, pirate groups, and everything in between, as factions in the galactic sector in which the PCs are operating. There’s even a little GM mini-game that will pit various factions' assets against each other, adding some randomness to the outcomes so that even the GM will be surprised by what is going on in the universe.
Another feature that I like about SWN is that the skills are more broad and are governed by 2d6 rolls rather than d20 rolls. By being broad in scope, the skills necessitate a larger focus on roleplaying and fictional positioning on the part of the player. Very specific skills narrow the focus more to particular tasks more than I would like, while broadly applicable skills allow the player to engage in some discussion regarding whether a particular skill might be more applicable for the action that they’re taking in order to gain some advantage. Regarding 2d6 vs d20, the main difference is that a d20 is much more “swingy” in that it’s just as likely that you’ll fail as succeed. With a 2d6 roll, the probability distribution is closer to a bell curve, where the player will succeed at rolls more often than not. Sure, this takes away from the excitement of rolling natural 20s, but it also makes that +1 Perception score matter more.
Finally, I think I’m most excited about running SWN because it’s science fiction. Fantasy is great and I love The Lord of the Rings as much as the next guy, but sci-fi is really my jam as far as it goes. It seems like fantasy media is purely escapist, whereas sci-fi is trying to imagine something greater than ourselves. I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to extrapolate our current situation and see where our imagination takes us.
Well, my first session is tomorrow, so I should go prepare a little. I’ll be sure to do a post-mortem.