08 December 2021

Review: Worlds Without Number

tl;dr: amazing world building tools packaged with a simplified D&D style system in a gorgeous chunky hardback.

I picked up Worlds Without Number after backing the kickstarter. The buzz across the OSR around the generation mechanisms in Stars Without Number convinced me that the fantasy equivalent would be right up my alley and I was not wrong in that assumption. Hugely impressed with the generators in this; I really liked how it is both 'create from scratch' and also 'embellish the skeleton you came up with yourself'. The two key blocks I see being useful to anyone whether they actually run WWN themselves are the adventure creation parts - as mentioned - and all the faction building pieces which can create friends, enemies and fronts in play in the world to drive further adventure!

Worlds Without Number, cover art by Jeff Brown

So what have we got in here? This is a giant tome with ~30% system, a setting (20%) and game mastering tools (50%) included. The book shows throughout the level of polish that I would associate with an extensively table-tested system - there are great 'teaching' pieces in here like the 2 page 'summary of character creation' that has an annotated character sheet laying out what everything is. Production quality is good, my copy turned up in good order and while I haven't put heavy use on it yet I'm happy with the feel of it.

Diving in to what we have section by section:
3 pages of intro in Tales of the Latter Earth
34 pages of Character Creation including background, classes and equipment
22 pages with the Rules of the Game
34 pages with Magic and the Arcane Traditions - a full magic system where you can construct your own spells
20 pages of a gazetteer for The World of the Latter Earth
108 pages on Creating Your Campaign - tools!
58 pages on Creating Adventures - more tools!
42 pages of Creatures of A Far Age - a bestiary with build-a-monster tools!
22 pages with Factions and Major Projects - creating factions and their activities!
12 pages covering Arts of the Gyre - optional classes
2 pages Heroic Classes and Characters - on adapting characters to heroic fantasy
12 pages on Legates - divinely touched characters with significant gifts akin to feats
6 pages on Iterums and their Dwellers - the things that dwell beyond
18 pages of Additional GM Tools including NPC builders and adventure seeds.

If all that sounds like a lot, that is because it is - this is a giant book with just shy of 400 pages of content.

Reference d20 for scale

Taking these out of order, and looking at them as the three sections - system, setting and toolkit - I am going to walk through them in reverse order of size.

For the setting we open with Tales of the Latter Earth and then the World of the Latter Earth after the basic mechanics. The Gyre, this long lived world echoing Dying Earth or Book of the New Sun has untold aeons of civilizations and their treasures forgotten throughout the setting. This is an age where humanity is on its back foot and heroes are needed to fight back the darkness. It has a less techno-weird aspect than Numenera and is not as acid-fantasy as Ultraviolet Grasslands, holding closer to my read of the inspiration material.

For the system we get some great teaching material. In the intro we get a nice statement of intent opener and a framer for the style - sword and sorcery - and built to support a sandbox style of play in whatever system you may care to run. In Character Creation - as mentioned the section opens with a 2-page spread with the elements of the character sheet all laid out and explained. This should be standard in any RPG manual - front and center. The character sheet is effectively your control panel for the game, it should be explained as quickly as possible.

I am always hesitant when I come to a D&D variant - whether older editions, retro-clones or compatible systems - in that systems are not my thing and ingesting and figuring out how this system differs from others is not a task that brings me joy. What Worlds Without Number does really well in this overview of character building is present the workflow for getting a character created step by step with just enough detail that I can get a grip on what is involved and through that figure out what is different and whether I care enough to spend further time figuring out the system. The combination of laying out the step-by-step workflow and then tagging where on the character sheet this all appears is very effective - the things you generate first won't be the things you use most often at table. This approach should be standard for any game.

What I like about the character building approach is starting with attributes then layering on backgrounds and modifiers generated from that and only after picking a character class. This logic of building out where you come from then picking who you are today is a nice change, subtle enough to be easily understood by those coming from a different edition but a nice change of pace to make this approach something new and worth trying. The basic assumption is that all PC's are human and you choose a combat or non-combat focus - or optionally swap out that focus pick to be a non-human race from the bestiary. This is a call back to the old 'race as class' but I like this handling of it in that it allows variation - not every elf a ranger nor every dwarf a fighter.

The mechanics 'grown from the same roots as the most famous games' are broadly compatible with whatever D&D-adjacent system you may want to use and introduced in The Rules of the Game. There are some tweaks that help embed the atmosphere of sword and sorcery - like system strain, where heroics are possible but at a cost that only goes away with significant rest. The rules are nicely laid out in blocks that are easy to follow and I love the 1 page summary of everything important at the end. Coming from the perspective that it is probable you will be introducing this system to people who have never played it before, being able to hand out a single sheet with all the key mechanics on it is great - here is the bones of the system, one page is not to heavy a burden.

Another nice piece of the system is the Magic and the Arcane Traditions where you can build your spells from the rules laid out here. I like this a lot, it is a little more hassle for the very start but does away with something that is my personal bane which is the gigantic lists of spells spread across multiple books and not a snowballs chance in hell of remembering them all. I think it suits the setting nicely as well, pulling together threads of the arcane to your own purposes, creating spells your character wants. There are a few pages of example common spells to get started but again, the rest of the system is right there, you know this section you know it all.

To close out the system - later in the book we have the optional system parts. Arts of the Gyre contains additional classes to expand on the base quartet of Warrior, Expert, Mage and Adventurer - adding a shapeshifter, a swashbuckler, a divine spellcaster, a variant spellcaster with spellpoints, a beastmaster and a psionicist. Heroic Classes and Characters and Legates I see as more or less optional module to up-rate your characters from a fairly squishy OSR standard to the more bullet-proof standard of modern D&D. Heroic Classes effectively is a system for multi-classing and Legates are more or less a mechanism to bring feats into play.

Moving to the worldbuilding toolkit, the golden heart of this book. These are the parts that have entered my own frequent use rotation giving four main bits - the macro world building (Campaigns), the detail dungeon and encounters (Adventures), the plans and activities of Factions and NPCs and the monsters both mundane (Creatures) and fantastic (Iterums).

Creating Your Campaign opens with solid advice on setting up your campaign, a workflow to follow and lots of 'one-roll-X' page spreads which can give settlements, nations, histories, governments, everything you might need. All this is salted throughout with advice boxes on gameability and making sure what you build is fit for playing an RPG in. Just the inclusion of 'am I having fun building this' as a check point is advice I could have done with hearing in my early DM'ing days. Behind the core 'one roll there is a 'tags' system where a pair of d100 rolls gets you community tags like 'enemy within' or 'seat of rule'. Each of these tags then has five elements - Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things and Places. Blending the elements from your two tags together immediately sets up a memorable location. There are similar lists for ruling Courts, Ruins and Wilderness to rapidly generate whatever locations your players.

The historical generators alone - why did the society that built this ruin come to its end - are fantastic, I spent a cheerful afternoon using this to find out the fates of the old kingdoms that had ruled in the region my home campaign was set in.

The Creating Adventures section has more tools to help setting up adventures. After opening with 'steal existing adventures, save yourself the heavy lifting' it provides tools from dungeon building and stocking through to creating investigative and social challenges and handling XP, treasure and domain level play. There is good advice on the social aspect of gaming - handling disputes at table, what the expectations on DM's and players - more wisdoms valid for whatever game you might be playing at a table. There are further 'fractal adventure seeds' based off the Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things and Places elements in the Additional GM tools which are further useful tools for any game.

The Factions and Major Projects chapter offers glorious faction building tools - who is this bunch, what are they trying to achieve - that works very well with the Fronts style system of things happening in the background whether the players interfere or not. The personal level detail of specific NPCs, their appearances, mannerisms and drives are in the Additional GM Tools.

Creatures of A Far Age - provids a 1 page list of simple foes - each a line of stats alone - then a section on how to up-gun and make a dangerous unique monster before closing out with a bestiary for the Gyre which contains elves, dwarves and other familiar creatures and some unique and strange ones. I think I would be more inclined to take monsters straight from the many bestiaries available rather than building my own but nice to have the tools. Iterums and their Dwellers provides the planar expansion with creatures from beyond and how to create the 'beyonds' they sprang from to create further adversaries

All told this is great stuff - the system is fine, I would definitely be inclined to give it a try as something simpler than 5e and the way it is presented would help me win over a table to trying it. Even if I failed in that, the rest of the book is still great. I use the toolkits for courts generation to rapidly map out intrigues in new cities my players encounter, the ruins generators give quick, easy hex fills when the party ventures in an unexpected direction. The tags and their combinations are useful sparklists. As I said at the top, I picked this up for a fantasy version of the legendary Stars Without Number world-building toolkit and this delivered in spades.

Right now you can get the pdf for $20 on Drivethru and I think it is worth that for the worldbuilding half of the book alone - you can in fact get most of this content in the free version.

Other reviews can be found on Angels Citadel, Halfway Station 3.0, David Bartrams blog

No comments:

Post a Comment