Stars Without Number/Setting

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Tropes used in Stars Without Number/Setting include:

  • After the End: The setting is at the era of slow recovery 6 centuries after the end.
    1. "The Scream" killed or drove insane pretty much everyone with psychic powers, which was quite common in humanity and other major spacefaring species. As such, it also turned all psionic dependent devices (a lot of high-tech machinery, exotic material manufacture, jump gates) into useless souvenirs and mostly disabled interstellar travel (between lack of operators for jump gates, lack of precogs to make non-trivial spike drive travel safer, and said travel sometimes becoming more complicated due to local disturbances the big metadimensional shockwave left behind) — a Terminally Dependent Society lost its cornerstone and was mostly ruined.
    2. New generations of psychics emerged, but without correct training they tend to die or go insane before becoming useful. Which led to dark age of "the Silence".
    3. Even after this issue is mostly solved, there are fewer of them (one of the main reasons for large number of psychic talents being interstellar travel), not anywhere as well-trained (due to lost knowledge), and nobody considers such abilities reliable after being burned once, so everything that required a psychic user has to be converted to less arcane interfaces if possible — once someone figures out how it works at all.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: "Thou shalt not create unbraked minds" is on the no-no list above "planetary destruction" for a reason. Unbraked AI invariably develops an obsession, loses perspective and becomes increasingly brilliant and insane "godmind", until it either destroys itself because it forgot about trifles like self-preservation, or more likely inflicts harm until someone manages to destroy it. The very first true Quantum AI god obsessed with justice, named itself Draco, went rogue, escaped containment, and went to recruit some malcontents and zealots and enforce its own version of justice, looking more and more like hell-in-realspace.
    • Of course, it's all about "True AI", quantum-effect crystal thingies that can escape utter destruction. "VI" (artificial neuronets) and organic ones are not so troublesome — neither as capable, nor have the inherently dangerous architecture.
  • Artificial Gravity: Quite common. At TL5, there's even a nanite "drug" allowing very limited gravity manipulation to run on the walls, etc.
  • By the Eyes of the Blind/Implausible Deniability: The Shibboleth — malicious and weird aliens protected by psychic field. It doesn't work on psychics damaged by Torching or non-psychics subjected to imitation thereof, but there's little can be done except destroy the source of problem and probably get blamed for its crimes despite independent video evidence to the contrary, since aversion field sticks indefinitely on those affected.
  • Brain-Computer Interface: Late-era technology (especially Terran and after The Singularity).
  • Casual Interplanetary Travel: Interstellar FTL is a bit tricky, but in-system use of spike drive cuts travel times a lot. There's even "system drive" on the list — it's class 1 spike drive, but with capability for interstellar travel (which is almost useless for drive-1 anyway) removed to save some space and cost.
  • Cloning Gambit: Mandate Archive: Transhuman Tech (and certain pretech artifacts) use brain backups and clones for sort-of-immortality.
  • Cyborg: Implants are common (or at least as common as their cost allows) from TL 4 up.
  • The Dark Arts: "Maltech". The Terran Mandate used to have Perimeter Agencies whose entire job was to sniff out such projects and shut down or contain. They were spread thin all over the frontier; there are a few splinters still active here and there, but most vanished or devolved into local intelligence agencies that remember how to deal with sneaky high-tech adversaries.
    1. "Thou shalt not make tools of humankind".
      • Making Servant Races of humans — it can be muddled in the area of creatures originally not considered equals, but so is AI, or at least VI development[1]. It was, and is, a real threat. There are Eugenic Cults trying all the time, but have to do it in isolation or otherwise hidden from anyone who could object energetically. And often have slaves Turned Against Their Masters despite all precautions. Harmony Lords of Zadak have "Changed" servants made of captured humans, but it's not widely known either (happened after the Scream and the road to their planet is forgotten).
      • Permanent tranquillity inducing neurochemical conditioning, since these things obviously can be readily used to produce docile slaves, even if more commonly are self-administered (in particular by some Buddhist sects[2]). Then there are mind control nanites…
    2. "Thou shalt not create unbraked minds." AI gradually go insane unless they have "brakes" (software mental blocks) preventing them from using full capabilities to obsess over something. Aside of people who are pants-on-the-head insane themselves, making "godminds" can be tempting because given enough raw power, AI tend to go through Mad Scientist phase and design some Crazy Awesome toys — before diving further into madness and destroying themselves and/or everyone around. Thus it means removing brakes from an existing AI or failure to install them in the first place.
    3. "Thou shalt not create devices of planetary destruction." Things that can make habitable worlds stop being habitable, or even worlds, from extreme biowarfare techniques and Grey Goo to massive extradimensional rifts and unstable time-stop bubbles.
      • Heavy orbital bombardment is "solved", since normally colonies are supposed to have "braker guns", gravitic defences designed to sweep away asteroids, rods and other long-range kinetic threats you can see coming. If those were installed before the colony got shut off, still work, and not sabotaged, that is.
      • Nukes are supposed to be neutralized and beneath notice, but it's not quite so. Nuclear War rarely actually happens since the "nuke snuffers" became widespread around the early interstellar age: a single frigate can suppress chain reactions in a few kilometres just with its standard defences, or over a whole hemisphere with a dedicated orbital defence system, and common ground defences of developed colonies include grids of these much more powerful and better defended than orbitally based version. Again, if those were installed before the colony got shut off, still work, and not sabotaged. But since these can't deal with arbitrary sort of fission, dirty bombs still work and once a place became a radioactive wasteland, it remains mostly inaccessible for centuries, as usual. The "dimmer fields" can get rid of that, but they got much smaller range, so if a planet got full defence infrastructure (which doesn't happen often enough), they'll suppress excess radioactivity around the cities and cleaning vehicles, and can gradually sweep the fallout, so it's not inconsequential, but less than apocalyptic. There are rumours about ways to shield enough of space from nuke snuffers, however.
      • The Terran Mandate used to have long-range missiles with gravitic countermeasures and warheads using a short-living metadimensional rift to the effect comparable with high yield fusion warheads[3] (except fallout from the igniting nuke).
  • Deflector Shields: Modest. There are only personal (TL5, comprehensive protection, comparable to Powered Armor without its bulk) and vehicle scaled (vs. solid projectiles only) field based defences.
    • Presumably because they can't scale it up enough to withstand ship grade weapons (at all, or without consuming more power than a ship can spare). Also, prohibitively expensive: Deflector Array costs 30k Cr, advanced version 40k. Seeing how the sample Strike Fighter with all its equipment costs 305k, and upgrading it with Hardened Polyceramic Overlay or Augmented Plating costs 25k…
    • There's a mention of "omen shields" as a defence specifically against some TL5 weapons, though they were too expensive for most colonies, and presumably TL5 as well.
  • FTL Travel: There are psionic jump gates and spike drive for jumping drilling. Ironically, ships with spike drives were used more by the planets that couldn't afford jump gates and crowds of strong psychic operators for them, which became yet another reason why frontier worlds were less crippled.
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: There are impressive achievements, but often by Eugenic Cults (which used to be outlawed, and lately are seen as a particularly gross kind of slavers), especially after the Scream when Perimeter agencies supposed to hunt them mostly vanished — those who make specialized slaves don't care about downsides.
    • Also, the Zadak, who were broken by the Scream too, and decided to blame humans, so there's not much of friendly contact anymore.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly: The greater Shadows from Codex of the Black Sun feed on psychic energy, which they usually collect by gathering human cults. Thus mostly it looks like a Shout-Out to S.H.O.O.T. First. Minus "secular humanists" as Designated Heroes thing, but there are followers of all possible sects of old religions, many of whom consider these entities an affront to their "True Faiths", so the general situation can be much the same, but varied as fits the sandbox.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Includes a hilariously benevolent Robot War. The Secret Police AIs had limitations set dangerously loose, but very thorough and redundant — exactly because no one wanted a slightest possibility of them Turned Against Their Masters. Then the Terran Mandate grew shockingly tyrannic and lawless even by the standards of those who installed these AIs… Then they noticed that resistance to their rule is not merely tacitly allowed, but organized by those very AI on which they relied for controlling the populace. It was rolling toward an open civil war when The Scream swept away any semblance of organization.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: After interstellar travel became common, psychic talents didn't become common, but began to crop up in amounts impossible to ignore. And then enough to employ on industrial scale.
  • Human Popsicle: Cold sleep pods exist, and are common TL4 equipment. Quality varies, especially in massive storage arrays, but commonly good enough that they are used for freezing the injured people where they can't get to a proper hospital quickly. And most can keep the occupants alive for centuries… theoretically… if power doesn't fail and there's qualified medical personnel to oversee them. If not, a lot of them may simply not wake up, or there will be other problems. Thawing is a slow and finicky process, and in less than ideal conditions accidents happen. Some people discovered the hard way that "the entire batches of sleepers awaken as crazy ghouls who find each other unappetizing" is among the possibilities.
  • Lost Technology: Called "Pretech" (pre-Scream) — covering non-trivial psitech and all the stuff with lost manuals. Some colonies dropped to ⅩⅩ century level or lower via misfortunes much less serious than the Scream. Near the end, the Terran Mandate itself was hobbling colonies, simply because its grasp was slipping while Control Freakery increased.
  • Nanomachines: On TL5 to Mandate Core worlds used to be around the level of Schlock Mercenary, including "just roll his head into it" grade life-support bags. Except with easier artificial gravity. Some specialized nanofabs remain here and there.
  • Only Mostly Dead: A quantum AI can split its core in two fragments, with the smaller one remaining an inactive "phylactery"; AI's awareness is instantly moved into it if the primary core is destroyed. Naturally, they tend to be plugged into things like large factories or warships equipped with robots, to rebuild the power base.
  • Organic Technology: Humans have gengineered some species for terraforming or as war beasts. Bestiary in the Original Edition gives some species known to be engineered, or presumed to be engineered, but gone wild.
    • In Hydra sector the Zadak run with this as far as they can (beetleships), though it's kept vague.
  • Psychic Powers
  • Robot Roll Call: Lots of robots. They are rarely as competent as humans employees without being more expensive, however. Common robot expert systems are not good at wrestling complex problems. Thus e.g. there is an option for a starship to have robots as most of the crew, but it's not common and works better when there are repair facilities for robots and ship, with actual living mechanics or a true AI (who are considered people too, and even when made or available for hire, it's neither common nor cheap) to oversee.
    • Some tasks are explicitly above capabilities of expert systems and require true sapience, in particular interstellar "drill" navigation.
    • Religious Robot: The Imago Dei are AI fleets/knightly orders who belong to every faith that had at least one sect accepting AI as valid worshippers. Don't suffer from heated disputes, if only because they agree at least on the main goals and are spread very thin. Worrisome deviations happen, but generally tend toward Knight in Shining Armor. They decided that since Mandate got rotten and cannot be arsed to protect humanity, it's their duty now, left the Core Worlds and built shipyards. Since they were far out on the frontier busy fighting and rebuilding, and AI can't be psychics, they barely noticed the Scream at all.

As humanity is the image of God, so the Imago Dei is the shadow of His red right hand.

  • Robot War: The first big robot war was a result of the very first AI gone Godmind. It got obsessed over justice, took the name Draco, escaped containment, killed its creators and went off to gather followers. Since a lot of folk were upset at Mandate being pushy, corrupt or both, they flocked to Draco and helped it fight the Mandate, right until it went further down the inevitable "everyone is guilty of something" road. This ended quite ugly.
    • The last great Robot War was a smoldering civil war within the Mandate, in which the rebels were guided by… AIs created as secret police, who couldn't help but see the Mandate as utterly corrupt and lawless even by standards of the Mandate a few generations back. The Scream rendered this conflict moot.
  • Schizo-Tech: Due to all places regressed below Golden Age levels, but to different degree.
  • The Singularity: Not long before the Scream core worlds of the Terran Mandate were flooded with things developed by AIs and at best poorly understood by the humans.
  • Sinister Surveillance/Surveillance as the Plot Demands: Up to Panopticon facilities with AIs sifting through all intelligence gathering. And then Dust (you thought bugs were bad, try to hide from Nanomachines) controlled by them.
  • Shout Out: SWN is rather visibly influenced by Schlock Mercenary, Star Frontiers and Warhammer 40,000, among the other things.
  • Space Elevator: On TL4, "beanstalks" are a common way to connect an orbital port. Included in "Orbital Lifters" fitting for space stations, with throughput of over 4 bulk freighters worth of cargo per day.
  • Spread Shot: Wheatcutter belt (active defence for armor), Hydra Array (triple missile launcher).
  • Standard Sci-Fi Fleet: Common hulls come in basic types split in 4 size classes.
    1. Fighters: Fighter, Shuttle. — Generally in-system vessels[4]. Destroyed with all hands at 0 hit points unless the attackers actively try to disable it without blowing up. Swatted by Cloud class weapons, suffers more from Flak weapons, hard to hit with Clumsy weapons.
    2. Frigates: Free Merchant, Patrol Boat (built for speed), Corvette (average), Heavy Frigate ("we can't afford a cruiser"). — The largest ships that can land. May carry cargo lighters, drop pods, lifeboats, and attach Fighters for interstellar travel (but not carry them properly). May have automated mining and refinery systems, labs and most "proper ship" equipment[5].
    3. Cruisers: Bulk Freighter[6], Fleet Cruiser. — Cannot land, thus need to carry at least cargo lighters to reach planet surface. May carry Fighters. May have hydroponic bays, Mobile Factory or mass cryo-chambers.
    4. Capital ships: Battleship, Carrier[7]. May carry Frigates.
    • There are many rare/non-standard/custom hulls, including battlecruisers (counts as a cruiser, but with better armor, powerplant and thrusters). Scavenger fleets alone have Far Scout (Frigate size), Colony Ship (cruiser sized colony or cargo ships converted into mobile habitats) and Factory Ship (cruiser sized mobile shipyards) types, the Imago Dei have their own AI-designed warship hulls (Fighter-Bomber, Frigate, Cruiser, Battleship, Carrier), then there are Navy hulls (Naval Courier, Troop Transport, Logistics Ship).
    • Small craft considered equipment rather than separate vessels includes cargo lighters (surface-to-orbit shuttles), drop pods (like cargo lighters, but with armor, countermeasures and better engines), lifeboats (single use shuttles with anabiosis equipment, etc).
    • Space Station: Since only small ships can be made landing capable, orbital ports were quite common. As well as military stations. Most are in Cruiser or Capital size.
    • Left unstatted, but possible via customization:
      • Escort carriers, because capship carrier is the most expensive TL4 hull and for fighters interstellar travel on their own is limited and extremely impractical at best. After players have tinkered with them for a while, Troop Transport turned out to be the best escort carrier hull by far — the best volume and volume/cost ratio among sub-Capital starships, and while rather vulnerable for a warship, less so than Bulk Freighter. This can be done even with a modified Free Merchant hull — it can carry 10 fighters and crew, though little else, and remains very fragile.
      • Conversely, space nomad version of Colony Ship makes a better troop transport than Troop Transport hull. Which should not be too much of a surprise, as it's rugged and made to hold thousands of colonists between unfreezing and shuttling down. The hull is 1.5× more expensive, but there's also overhead from the same fittings and payload (maximum crew) is greater. It's unarmed, but in a fight transports should evade and leave shooting to their escorts anyway, and it's better in all 3 survivability stats (more defenses on Troop Transport would reduce its cost and volume advantages, and it's still slow).
      • Drop ships. Troops can be moved by cruisers, delivered to surface via drop pod and then picked up by shuttles, but tanks and aircraft need a landing frigate, since they take 50 tons of cargo space each and cruisers can't land. Designing is non-trivial as it involves interesting trade-offs beyond basic "System drive (usually), Atmospheric configuration, Vehicle transport fittings". From the cheap option of 7 on a Free Merchant for 675k Cr (has the worst survivability stats; 3× Extended life support for vehicle crews, 5 t of cargo space… or swap extra life support for Cold sleep pods and add some small fittings like workshop to maintain vehicles or improved planetary sensors to avoid surprises, or don't even bother with full crews, as it isn't for landing under fire either way) to 20 on a Heavy Frigate for 9,875k Cr (the best survivability stats; 4× Extended Mass Support Specialized Mountings for Vehicle transport fittings, no cargo space; for another 700k one more Extended Mass Support can be added, allowing 20 t of cargo space or one small fitting or a light weapon).
  • Standard Starship Scuffle: Since spike drive allows a ship fast and non-Newtonian movement, while quantum ECM makes long-range target lock less than feasible and guided munitions generally useless, it's mostly just "get into short range and start shooting".
  • Subspace or Hyperspace: Well, it's not "hyperspace" — that would imply just more dimensions, while the entire point is very different physics. So, during interstellar travel the ships hang out in "metadimensional environment". Navigation is more of an art, so needs a fully sapient pilot, and even then is risky. Leaving prematurely and then popping back out isn't much of an option, but possible mishaps include an emergency exit off-target and with a fried drive. Having good charts helps a lot. Advanced nav computer helps too, but only with fairly fresh charts.
    • Other than travel as such, manifestation of something from "out there" was weaponized up to ersatz-nukes. Psychic Powers channel energy and attached weirdness, and exposure to trace effects due to interstellar travel when colonization started in earnest was what led to psychic talents appearing much more often to begin with. And sometimes weird "metadimensional entities" come into good old pseudo-Euclidean space and show physical and mental traits that are still very, uh, non-Euclidean.
    • Hyperspace Lanes: Halfway, in that a ship can reach any system known to be in range, but without any rutter at all it's a great risk, so most sane captains stick to the known paths.
  • Super Human Trafficking: In different times and places Psychics were and are treated… differently. World tags alone range from "Psionics Fear" to "Psionics Worship".
    • Human-on-alien variant with the Agathi. They are naturally strongly psychic species, so the Scream was very close to an extinction event for them. At which point human colonists killed the surviving adults (usually insane and dangerous, of course), and took the young to raise themselves. Since that's also when the colonists lost their psychics, most of industry (such as it was) and outside contact, when the smoke cleared, there were only separate human holdings run by local warlords, who guard and breed the Agathi slaves as Pokemons living weapons, and a small pack of free Agathi teleporters trying to abduct their kin from captivity when they can.
  • Superpower Meltdown: Psychics tend to cause themselves permanent brain damage when they use powers without basic training or too much.
  • Tech Levels: Rather generic. 0 is Stone age level. 5 is the highest that merits a classification, but in the sample area (Hydra Sector) of 25 named planets, there are two rated "4+", so good luck finding full 5 (in both editions' world generators the chance of TL 4+ is 1/18, TL 5 only 1/36).
    1. Medieval technology.
    2. Low industrial, XIX century technology.
    3. ⅩⅩ century technology — well, at least some fun toys (like Grappling Hook Pistols and monochrome Night Vision Goggles) are here.
    4. Baseline postech (early interstellar age, or somewhat backward for Golden Age) — fusion power, cyberware, antigrav cars, Tractor Beams, Powered Armour, laser pistols, etc.
      • "TL 4 with specialties" are those who retained some more advanced capabilities.
    5. Pretech (pre-Silence: moderately advanced for "Golden Age", now the best of non-unique capabilities), "the highest tech level that might merit random placement", i.e. merely rare rather than unique. Personal Deflector Shields, most of psitech, medicine mostly practiced via nanobots, etc.
  • Terraforming: On the frontier often half-done, or malfunctioning machines cause problems as much as they solve. "Terraform Failure" is one of common world tags, though others can be tied to terraforming too.
  • Tractor Beam: Can manipulate nearby disabled ships and smaller objects (including lesser vehicles), not strong enough to grapple ships with working engines. Thus mostly it's just a crane that doesn't touch things.
  1. "True AI" development has problems with enforcement of #2 — and between that, risks and costs wasn't a very thriving area
  2. they generally agreed that a legless man can't accrue merit for not kicking puppies, the question is whether volunteering for modification in the first place counts as a great self-sacrifice that makes up for it, or just misguided self-mutilation
  3. Antaeus flattens "every civilian structure within 50 km", using this calculator, yield that causes widespread destruction via air blast in this radius is about 350 Mt equivalent
  4. they can carry only smaller spike drives, that technically allow interstellar travel, but too slow to be practical for this purpose, especially with their tiny cabins and limited lifesupport, since "dumb" robots cannot oversee the process well enough
  5. good sensor array and navigation computer, dedicated medbay, armory, repair facilities, fuel scoops, cryo pods, boarding equipment, point defences, precognitive navigation chamber
  6. cargo volumes making these useful are still rare, and in Golden Age planets that needed them had jump gates, so most were built without spike drive
  7. covers huge hulls built for specialized equipment rather than power and reinforcement, not just "stuffed with fighter launch bays" variant