The Sci-Fi Space Opera You Always Wanted
There's really not one thing about Stars Without Number I dislike. I've run several science-fiction style campaigns before, including a planet-hopping space opera (my favorite I have ever run). SWN is the best possible toolkit for those types of sci-fi sandbox games. Emphasis on the word toolkit, it's a very inspiring and versatile ruleset that gives you room to breathe. SWN achieves this unique balancing point of so many competing ideas of game design, about OSR, indie RPGs, sci-fi games, and more. It also clearly pulls inspiration from D&D and Traveller, yet is not burdened by any of these influences.
SWN feels remarkably familiar and accessible, but still refreshing. Kevin Crawford has not reinvented the wheel, instead he has taken recognizable sci-fi mechanics, and polished them to a shine. I find sometimes OSR type games can be skewed by nostalgia, upholding sub-optimal mechanics in the name of "authenticity", but SWN does not fall into this common pitfall. It is just a great standalone game, I'm truly impressed by the consistency and quality throughout the book. It is not just super fun, it is super well-made.
My players and I love the system, it's got a great deal of depth, yet the logical consistency of the game makes the core rules quite easy to follow. I think a complete beginner could pick this game up in a few sessions, but there's enough nuance that it does not feel stifling to veteran players. As much as I loved learning with DnD 5e as my first game, I think a SWN or Worlds Without Number game would have probably been a better introduction to RPGs in general. It neatly intersects with so many ideas and playstyles, and I can't help but think the games of the next 5-10 years are going to owe a great debt to Kevin Crawford.
We have not encountered a common trope that is not addressed in the mechanics, from ship-building, to funky space magic, fighting mechs, cybernetics, aliens, etc. All of the key information is packed into the front, so the density of the book is not a major issue when you can really use the first third to get things up and running. Gameplay also strays away from the archetypical hack-and-slash playstyle and into a (I think more interesting) realm of problem solving and exploration. Despite being a single text, it feels almost modular in that you can pick and choose which parts are relevant to your game with ease.
The character customization was also surprisingly rich, with 4 options I feared it would be restrictive but found it was quite the opposite with the versatility of character foci. The skills are easy and intuitive, the XP system helps direct player goals. There's enough goodies in one book to cover years of play, and the canon storyline (which I usually disregard in RPGs) is actually quite compelling. On top of that, the random sector generation is the best I've seen in any game, the tags system combines two common scifi tropes into unique reformulations. It's such a simple and elegant solution, and I've generated an entire in-game sector with just a few dice rolls. Hours and hours of prep time saved!
Building things in SWN is also a blast, I have so much fun assembling unique and zany aliens, tech, etc. that it feels like a mini-game within the game. Can't recommend enough for any sci-fi fan out there, I guarantee SWN has got something for you to chew on.