Warning : This isn’t a review per se and constitutes only a teaser towards a more thorough comparison.
So, I recently discovered Stars Without Numbers (thanks to John Harper) and just as I finished reading the print corebook, I had the opportunity to come across Cascade Failure (thanks to Adam Minnie). Post-apocalyptic sci-fi goodness, Yay ! Both games share some similarities like being inspired of (probably basic edition)D&D while still taking their distances from the source material to the point where they truly are their own things. Plus, in both cases, humanity has endured a catastrophe or dramatic event of some sort and is in the process of growing back from that event. Mechanically speaking, you will also find the classical Str, Dex, Con, Int, Cha and Wis as well as saving throws, HP, AC, Classes, Levels, etc.
But for now, let’s briefly discuss what drives play in both games. I’ll get to the finer details and differences later.
SWN is mainly focused on giving the GM all he needs to build a setting into which he’ll create adventures (sort of like missions) for the players to confront. The goal here is to come up with a sandbox of 30 or so star systems that will all get Tags and other useful bits of information to help get the PCs involved into what is actually going on in these locations. You’ve also got rule systems to build active faction (and rules for their interactions and power moves), alien species, detail the political and cultural spheres of your systems, etc. These are all easy to use, truly helpful features to build a dynamic and rich setting. Then, it will be the players job to choose where they want to go next and the GM will have an easy time of coming up with adventures based on these possible destinations. Rewards in XP for these adventures are based on the current level of the party members multiplied by their number and frequently correspond to equivalent monetary gains. The GM is also encouraged to set aside part of these XP (about half) to be gained by exceptional performance from the players. (Uncovering hidden riches, a bonus for secondary objectives accomplished, etc.) Each member of the party will likely get the same amount of XP. Exploration also gets rewarded by the possibility of finding artefacts of high technology level or lost psionic disciplines.
While Stars Without Number focuses on exploring a sector of the galaxy in the search for fortune and glory through sandbox gameplay, Cascade Failure is more about characters going through a narrative arc due to their Ambitions. True, players have to set themselves a goal in SWN, something that motivates them to explore the setting and go through adventures but it doesn’t serve the same purpose as the Ambitions in CF. You see, in CF, there are two types of Ambitions: Major ones and minor ones. Major Ambitions give your character a bonus to die rolls when they’re related to the pursuit of that Ambition and, more importantly, accomplishing that Ambition means that the character is ready to retire. So, in essence, Major Ambitions serve to guide the character through a narrative arc and bring an endgame into the campaign. Minor Ambitions, on the other hand, are more like short-term goals you set up with the GM to drive play and get experience. They can be based on the situation at hand during play or they can serve to shape the situation and push it in a particular direction. Both types of Ambitions are ways a player can get rewards and also privileged means to decide what the campaign will be about. Moreover, there are other ways to get XP in CF based on enemies defeated, loot, accomplishing quests, good roleplay, etc. All PCs progress at the same rate (while there are different experience requirements based on your class in SWN.) which, once again, gives the impression that the focus of play is less about playing a well-built party that overcomes challenges than telling the stories of each different characters. Plus, the Minor Ambitions and roleplaying rewards are strong motivations to put effort into portraying the character.
That’s it for the moment; stay tuned for more as I delve deeper into my reading of Cascade Failure
P.S. You can find both games in a free pdf format here :
Stars Without Number:
Or directly from the author at :