Let’s Read “Stars without Number” – Scenes, Saves, and Skill Checks

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A part of my Let’s Read “Stars without Number” series. Go grab your free copy of SWN and join in.

Stars without Number details more systems than combat and healing. SWN* also details:

  • Scenes and Durations
  • Saving Throws
  • Skill Checks

Scenes and Durations

Instead of copious tracking of time by the minute and hour, there is the concept of a scene. Powers that last for a combat, or the duration of a break-in job, or a hostile negotiation.

I like this unit of measurement. There are further guidelines that its about 15-minutes and assumes a bit of rest between scenes, but is not a hard and fast rule.

Saving Throws

A quick discussion of saving throws. Somewhat familiar territory for anyone that’s played any version of Dungeons & Dragons. Like 2E* and before, you roll a d20 and get above your save score.

The three saves: Physical, Evasion, and Mental - akin to 4th Edition D&D’s saving throws where the better of Str or Con modifies Physical; Dex or Int modifies Evasion; and Wis or Cha modifies Mental.

I like the following quick statement:

Mental saves can also be used when no other saving throw category seems to apply and only blind luck and ineffable intuition can save the hero.

I know as a GM* there are times where I’m looking for a luck roll. This little sentence gives me clear permission to use the Mental saving throw as a luck test (considering that the luck save did not make it from the Core edition to the Revised edition).

Skill Checks

Here we have a deviation from the modern D&D systems. Skill checks use 2d6 plus skill rank plus ability modifier plus a possible situational modifier. And no ranks means -1 to the check, if you can even make it at all.

I like the explicit advice that failing at a check need not mean that you don’t accomplish it, but could mean you succeed with a complication; This is up to the GM.

And this advice is crucial for keeping a game going. If the characters need to get through a door or make a landing for the adventure to continue, let failure mean they get through the door or make the landing, but notify the guards, it takes longer, or the ship sustains serious damage on the landing. (see a previous blog post for more in depth discussion)

And as one would hope Stars without Number provides concrete guidance on setting the difficulty of a skill check. See the table below:

Table 89: Skill Check Difficulties
DC Skill Check Difficulties
6 A relatively simple task that is still more than the PC* would usually be expected to manage in their regular background. Anything easier than this isn’t worth a skill check.
8 A significant challenge to a competent professional that they’d still succeed at more often than not.
10 Something too difficult to be expected of anyone but a skilled expert, and even they might fail.
12 Only a true master could expect to carry this off with any degree of reliability.
14+ Only a true master has any chance of achieving this at all, and even they will probably fail.

It also discusses when to call for a check and when not to call for a skill check:

As a general rule of thumb, if failure at a particular task would make the PC seem notably incompetent at their role in life, then they shouldn’t have to roll a skill check for it. In addition, if failure or success at a check really doesn’t matter in the game, if it won’t produce some interesting result either way, then a check shouldn’t be made.

With the 2d6 system opposed skill checks notably favor the player characters; As compared to the usual “ties favor the aggressors.” Below is a table of probabilities of success for a PC.

Table 90: Probabilities for NPC vs. PC
Mod -3 -2 -1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6
PC -3 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5% 3% 1% 0%
-2 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5% 3% 1%
-1 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5% 3%
0 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10% 5%
1 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16% 10%
2 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24% 16%
3 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34% 24%
4 99% 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44% 34%
5 100% 99% 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56% 44%
6 100% 100% 99% 97% 95% 90% 84% 76% 66% 56%

Something feels right about 2d6 for skill checks. A bit less swingy.