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.