Monday, May 2, 2022

Eldritch Mousetrap - Distant Lights

Let’s stick to space, shall we? Last time on eldritch mousetraps I reviewed Death in Space, and today I’m going to be shifting gears and looking at the latest Stars Without Number supplement: Distant Lights.

The cover page of the book. Text reads Distant Lights by Kevin Crawford. The sub-text reads "creating borderworld outposts for your campaign."
The cover of the book, in standard Sine Nomine fashion


Distant Lights is a Stars Without Number supplement by Kevin Crawford. As most readers of this blog probably know, Crawford is renowned for his sandbox-oriented books, complete with hundreds of random tables and guidelines for game-prep. 

Distant Lights is dedicated to helping GMs (and players!) create borderworld outposts for your campaign. What does he have to say about it?

Distant Lights gives the busy GM the tools they need to fashion remote planetary outposts, secluded deep-space asteroid habitats, or brash colonial footholds on far-flung worlds. Tables and guides are provided for generating outposts adventure hooks, troubled NPCs, and restive native populations. Additional materials give players the prices and guides they need for establishing their own interstellar outposts on distant worlds.

While Distant Lights was written for the Stars Without Number role-playing game, the tools in this book are largely system-neutral, and usable with your own favorite gaming system or sci-fi setting of choice.

Big promises, Crawford. Can you fulfill them?

Rather than review the book page by page in great detail, I’m going to follow in the footsteps of a couple of my favorite reviews on Bones, Filling in the Blanks by Ben and In the Light of a Ghost Star by Anne. In that, they reviewed a book designed to help generate a hex map for play, and as part of the review ran the “procedural engine” to churn out some content. It really gives you a good sense of the results that you can get out if you shovel dice into the book’s furnace.

There are player-facing rules as well, that allow a group to manage an outpost of their own. We’ll dive those a bit at the end. 

So, let’s generate a border outpost, shall we?

The Generation of Outposts

Crawford provides GMs with expansive random tables that can spur creativity and ease the burden on prep. They never eliminate prep, but they can certainly help with burnout and creating new places to explore. I think the contents in the tables are great, but I don’t actually think that the entries themselves are the best thing about these books.

Rather, Crawford’s best gift is the ability to present us with vectors to leverage that we might not have thought of immediately. If someone kicked in my door right now and asked me “what things make up a border outpost?” I’d probably say “who the hell are you and how did you get in my house?” After some discussion, I could certainly come up with vectors on my own, but Crawford has given them all to us. Even if you don’t like the entries on the tables and want to make your own, it’s hard not to appreciate what the table provides overall—a skeleton to flesh out with your own prep.

In regards to “when you should use this book” Crawford gives us a north star: “planetary outposts are space villages.” This book is useful for creating smaller, more intimate places for characters to adventure when they leave the sprawling super-metropolis. 

And now, an important caveat before we begin: I’m going to roll on every table. This isn’t how I would normally use these kinds of tools, but I’m going to push the tables to their absolute maximum and see what happens. As such, some rolls might be discarded later on to make things fit, or if they’re not interesting.

The Outpost’s Mood

The mood is a good touchstone for the rest of the outpost—a place to fall back on when an entry maybe doesn’t make sense and you need to force the jigsaw piece. 

Where is the mood most obvious? The way the local workers and inhabitants behave when off duty.

What is the outpost’s overall mood? Bitter. They don’t want to be here and resent that they are stuck in this place.

The Outpost’s Context

These are tables that help flesh out why an outpost exists, and are separated into three sections: external relations, local relations, and historical outpost events.

External Relations

This section is built using my favorite of Crawford’s techniques: six tables, one of each dice size. You can pick up your entire set, roll it, and then check the results.

External relations refers to how the outpost deals with outsiders and connection to the wide world. There’s advice here that you should tie this into the tags of the planet itself, so we’ll create a planet first. 

(Using Stars Without Number revised edition to create a planet, we get a low-tech, cold world, locked in a holy war, and populated by warlords. There’s more details, but the bare skeleton will serve us nicely.)

How do they treat adventurers? They’re cheerfully willing to deal with them.

What patron founded it? A religious or philosophical sect.

What is the current main product? Useful manufactures built by the outpost. 

Is it serving its purpose? Yes, it’s managing to do what was intended.

Why was it founded? Mining or extracting a local resource.

What twist exists in its context? A new patron seized it from the founders.

Local Relations

This refers to the connections between the outpost and others living on the planet—specifically the closest group that could conceivably interact.

What outpost dwellers interact most? Low-level workers or native commoners.

What’s the worst the outpost’s done? Seized useful or religiously-important land.

What use is one group to the other? A specific tech or knowledge they have.

How frequent are the interactions? They almost never engage with the other.

What’s the current problem? Hate. A group is abhorrent to the other.

What’s happening right now? A new group is trying to get involved.

Historical Outpost Events

This is a single d12 table, but each entry on it is covered in more detail with a paragraph.

What event happened? An accident, one that almost wiped the outpost. Some unexpected failure of tech or judgment caused an accident that almost wiped out the outpost. Irreplaceable tech may have been lost, or the colony might have been left with a dangerous zone of rubble or radioactivity as a legacy. Local neighbors may have suffered as well.

Checking In

So, let’s take the current rolls and try to get a brief glance of what we’re dealing with here.

  • The local workers are bitter about this place. 
  • They’re on a cold world plagued by holy wars waged by warlords.
  • The outpost itself was founded on religious ground, created to extract a local resource, and they’re succeeding at their task.
  • A new patron is in control of the outpost after an accident in the past almost destroyed the outpost.
  • The outpost itself is anathema to the local warlord, who considers where they set up holy ground.
  • The outpost has higher tech gear that the warlord wants.
  • A third faction is trying to get involved.

The Outpost’s Government

This section helps us outline who’s in control of the outpost. Rather than focusing on broad strokes, we’re drilling down to what’s important—an NPC that the players can deal with.

Forms of Government

What’s the type of outpost government? Tyranny of brute force by a warlord. The outpost is run by the person with the most force at their disposal. They are not necessarily any crueler, more unjust, or more rapacious than any other administrator, but they obtained their power by virtue of violence, and are usually perfectly willing to keep it in the same way.

Who’s in Charge?

The spread showing the "who's in charge" tables.
All the tables required for the "Who's in Charge" section fit on a single page.

The popular attitude about them: No strong feelings; an adequate leader.

How were they chosen? Random chance pushed them into it.

What’s their strongest tool of rule? They have powerful off world backers.

How long have they ruled? So long that they’re getting complacent.

What do they want from the PCs? Deal with a troublesome rival.

Quirks of the leader? They excessively idealize the local natives.

Who’s Opposing them?

Who are their main supporters? Criminals, ruffians, and social outcasts.

Why are they supported? They have a very attractive ideology.

Why haven’t they taken over? They don’t trust their own subordinates.

How known is their opposition? They’re thought a loyal supporter.

What’s their latest action? Construction of a profitable enterprise.

Quirks of the rival? They need to be ruler or face a dire fate.

Checking In

So, let’s take the current rolls and try to get a brief glance of what we’re dealing with here.

Previous entries:

  • The local workers are bitter about this place. 
  • They’re on a cold world plagued by holy wars waged by warlords.
  • The outpost itself was founded on religious grounds, created to extract a local resource, and they’re succeeding at their task.
  • The outpost itself is anathema to the local warlord, who considers where they set up holy ground.
  • The outpost has higher tech gear that the warlord wants.

New or revised entries:

  • After an accident almost destroyed the outpost, a new leader was installed—a hardened mercenary veteran who rules over the outpost with force and might. We’ll generate the most basic stuff for them: Elsa Catlow, she/her.
  • The second in command is an ex-pirate who controls a frigate. They’re preparing to betray Catlow, as they’ve promised their untrustworthy crew that they’ll get control of the outpost and its lucrative exports. Using the same generator, we get: Flint Kiani, he/him.
  • Flint Kiani has recently connected with the local warlord, and are secretly taking the hardened warriors up to space, where they set up connections to sell their services as mercenaries.

The Outpost’s Site

Now that we understand the politics and situation of the outpost, the next few tables help us decide on the physical characteristics of it.

Architectural and Layout Styles

Popular building shapes and outlines: Domes and geodesic structures

Color palettes: Sci-fi white and crystal motif.

General outpost layout: Long and narrow against a local feature.

How vertical is the architecture? Single floor or partly subterranean.

What’s a local infrastructure problem? A local danger tends to break in at times.

Quirk of the place: An abnormal number of security cameras.

An Average Outpost Citizen

Most common hair style: Close-cropped or aggressively short.

Common skin color ranges: Olive, light browns, tanned shades.

Common natural hair colors: Dark browns or mahoganies.

How big are most of them? Unusually tall, whether thin or bulky.

Common outpost casual wear? Snug-fitting jackets, shirts, and trousers.

Common local style, habit, or quirk? They use a lot of recreational drugs.

Services and Costs

This isn’t a list of tables, but rather a list of goods and services that the outpost might offer. Crawford encourages you to go down the list and mark down if the outpost offers it or not, so we’ll do that.

There are two tables provided, both what do they want and why can’t they offer the service that can be rolled on to provide sparks of inspiration.

Carousing: Yes, because of the heavy recreational drug use.

Crime: Kiani can offer a connection to criminal enterprises, being an ex-pirate, he still has ways to bring in contraband from off world and make other deals.

Gear: The outpost will sell the basics, especially cold-weather gear, but nothing military grade. Catlow is the mercenary in charge, and the only people allowed to open-carry are her troopers.

Information: Information about the world and the warlords nearby can be freely given.

Medical: They have an extensive suite of high-tech medical gear, brought in because of the fights they have with local warlords.

Recruits: Catlow doesn’t allow her troopers to take on side jobs, but if the characters are going off-world, Kiani can introduce them to some of the local fighters that are willing to sign up.

Refueling: They can provide starship fuel.

Ship repair: They can handle maintenance and light scuffs.

Transport: If the characters don’t have a ship of their own, Kiani can take them off world and arrange transport.

Weapons: Catlow won’t allow weapons to be sold. Kiani can be convinced, but will make sure they can’t be traced back to him.

Putting it Together

At this point, we’ve got a lot of solid foundation to put together the outpost. It’s taken me about an hour to roll on the tables and write this review, so I imagine that doing this in a less-formalized situation could have you done in twenty minutes or so. But that’s just the foundation, and it’s a bit jumbled up as either bullet points or simply the rolled entry from the table. Depending on your GMing style, this might be enough to roll with. I’d probably take another half hour or so and try to summarize this in a way that I could bring it to the table either tomorrow or six months from now.

The outpost is at the edge of a deep, frozen crevasse. There are multiple lifts that drop into the crevasse. Pockets of ice can be drilled away, revealing a sludgy, unrefined material the outpost calls havoc-serum or just havoc

Refining the havoc-serum into a consumable material is done on site. Once in its refined form, it can be injected. The high bestows heightened senses, aggression, and blocks pain receptors. The user doesn’t become a raging berserker, but an incredibly capable combatant.

Elsa Catlow is in charge. She’s been in charge for many years now, and has grown comfortable. She and her troopers have all the weapons, and she enforces the outpost as a tyrant. The workers here don’t mind though—she keeps them safe. She wants to test herself and her troopers against the local warlord, but hasn’t been given the okay by the outpost’s off-world patron.

Flint Kiani is Elsa’s second. He’s trying to betray her. He’s made connections with the local warlord, and his ex-pirate crew (whom he doesn’t trust) have been promised luxuries and riches once he overthrows Elsa. He has a frigate that is still operational, but stays docked at the outpost. Characters coming to him can utilize his criminal connections.

The local warlord hates the outpost. They too use havoc, refining it with their own methods. The outpost has been erected on a particularly rich vein of havoc-serum. They’ve made a deal with Kiani to help kill Elsa (though Kianai plans on betraying them.) Catlow’s superior firepower makes this difficult.

The outpost work crews partake in the havoc regularly. But they keep the doses small, using it for recreation instead of war. They’re all addicted.

I could keep going, here—I’ve been given a huge amount of structural support from the tables, and it’s not hard to create powderkeg situations.

Mechanical Toolset

Along with the outpost generator tables Crawford also includes a set of mechanics to build outposts—whether that be as a baseline for the GM or for the players to leverage in creating their own off-world base of operations.

This is pretty mechanically heavy—but it essentially breaks down into four categories: population, staff, power, and workspace. Population is how many people comfortably fit, staff is how many people are needed to run the place, power is self-explanatory, and workspace is how much room you have for industrial pursuits. 

This gets the job done neatly, in my opinion. Setting up an outpost as players can be a lot of fun, and groups that want to dig into the myriad of components will enjoy the variety and trying to carefully balance power, workforce, and space in order to maximize profits.

One of the strengths of this is that once you’ve set it up on the provided record sheet, the outpost is pretty static. You know what kind of profit you’re making (or losing) and the associated costs. There’s not a lot of fiddling going on month to month or anything. 

Crawford provides a procedure to handle everything once the colony is set up, including how to solve problems like lack of food, supplies, or angry locals. There’s also some provided ways the GM can push on an outpost, along with advice and guidelines about how hard to go on the PCs.

The rules provided are fun and simple enough grasping them is easy enough. It makes me want to run a space game where the outpost is everything, and I think that’s very possible with what’s provided.

Lastly, there’s also two pages of new colonial gear that players can purchase in defense of their outposts.

A spread containing text and a sheet that details the components of your outpost.
The outpost sheet, including the procedure of how to get it running.

The Weaknesses and Strengths

This is a great resource for a very specific niche. That said, there was one area that missed the mark.

Having a full page dedicated almost entirely to a population’s physical characteristics seems like a lost opportunity. Do we really need to roll for common natural hair colors? I think the entire “average outpost citizen” page could have been replaced with something that’s more gameable—maybe a way to generate a specific citizen with a problem, or even a group of citizens that the players might interact with. Right now, we get a solid picture of the leader of the outpost and the rival, a less clear picture of the local leader, and only broad strokes about the actual people living in the outpost.

In my example above, we know that the general populace is “bitter” and then we know five things about what they look like. A better use of tables could have generated “an ally the PCs can make”, “an enemy the PCs might draw the ire of”, and some kind of powderkeg situation that’s about to happen. 

The way the book is laid out (I bought the PDF) is phenomenal. As usual for a Sine Nomine book, all of the related tables are packed onto one page for easy use. The PDF has bookmarks set up, so navigation is a breeze. It’s only 31 pages, but it’s dense with information.

Here’s the other strong point that’s easy to miss: you can use this book for small fantasy towns. Most of the tables provided don’t actually have hard sci-fi hooks built in, instead relying on generalization to provide structure. You apply the sci-fi skin after you’ve rolled, but you could just as easily apply a fantasy skin or a modern day skin to these things. The mechanical player-facing stuff is very sci-fi oriented, but the basic structure is layed out clear enough that an aspiring GM could hack together a fantasy “build our keep on the borderlands” version of it without too much work. 


If you’re familiar with other Sine Nomine books, you probably know what you’re getting. If you’re not, the simplest way to describe it is a toolset for GMs to prep upcoming games. 

This deeper dive into preparing for a game does go against a lot of the current crop of books, filled with spark tables and things designed to be rolled at the table or a few minutes before the game. Those sorts of things can easily provide a fun night of gaming, but sometimes the fun of prep comes from taking a deeper dive into something and avoiding the low hanging fruit that’s always tempting us.

Distant Lights gives us a good foundation for creating border outposts. It won’t generate something immediately gameable without work on your part, but it will spark your creativity.

Distant Lights can be purchased from DriveThruRPG as either a pdf or a softcover book. 

1 comment:

  1. Hitting the sweet spot of "specific enough to evoke fresh ideas" and "general enough to be reusable" is tricky. Most of the results you posted through your outpost seem to walk that line well enough when taken in aggregate.


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