Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/11/07/tabletop-review-ashen-stars/
WHAT IS IT?
A complete sci-fi rpg where players solve problems in the Bleed, the dangerous frontier of colonized space.
AMONG THE ASHEN STARS
Ashen Stars is unabashedly space opera, but also borrows from nearly every kind of popular sci-fi of the last several decades. There’s the dirty corners of cyberpunk, the gleam of empire and authority from the1950′s, a multiplicity of races from Star Wars, the metaphysical threat of B5 and BSG, and the rough and tumble outlands of Firefly. That isn’t to say that Ashen Stars has been built as a generic universe. Robin Laws has crafted an distinct and coherent setting. It is one that, like the best space opera, pretends to be hard sci-fi but has a humanist and fantastic face.
Players take the roles of “Lasers,” which are freelance law enforcers. These operate in the Bleed, a region of space once controlled by an empire known as the Combine. This wild space has largely been left to its own devices. A great war which ended mysteriously has forced the Combine to refocus on the core worlds. Still, some order has to be maintained, even if by mercenaries. Navigating between disparate planetary cultures and races, the Lasers balance ethics and the need to make a buck. They have a dangerous existence- answering desperate calls for help but finding themselves more often unwelcome than wanted.
THE BOOK ITSELF
Once again, Pelgrane shows they know what they’re doing when it comes to layout and design. Ashen Stars clocks in at 298 pages, making it the largest of the GUMSHOE books so far. There’s a lot of material here- but it never feels overwhelming on the page. The text balances between open space and density. Sidebars and tables pop on the page and the diverse font choices feel like they serve a purpose rather than just offering visual impact. The book has consistent art throughout- but where I’ve absolutely loved Jerome Huguenin’s art on the previous books, it doesn’t knock one out of the park here. It is good, but in combination with Chris Huth’s illustrations, feels a little too organic. Even when doing the hard lines of tech and machines, the art has soft edges. The book has an smartly organized five page index as well as a page of indices to tech, entities and ships. The pdf version presents everything in full color, as did the pre-order only Stellar Nursery print edition. I the standard print edition has greyscale interiors. Overall Pelgrane sets the bar high in lovely and useful book design.
THE GUMSHOE ENGINE
Ashen Stars uses the GUMSHOE system as its basis. Mechanically simple, that engine focuses on providing the best investigation game experience. GUMSHOE began with three games The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, and Trail of Cthulhu, all of which focused on horror investigations. Pelgrane then broadened the scope of the system with Mutant City Blues, an rpg combining police procedural with superpowers. Each version has added new complications, trappings and twists to the core mechanics, but the key elements have remained.
GUMSHOE visualizes a mystery as a series of scenes. There may be splits in the path and variable order to those scenes, but they move towards a solution. So a plot can been seen as a flow chart or a dungeon map. Now, imagine if players had to roll to move forward in a dungeon, and if they failed they were stuck. Relying on investigation rolls in a mystery scenario runs the risk of either locking players out due to failure- or, probably more commonly, of the GM having to rework and re-present clues. Given that in the end, the GM needs to move key information into the players’ hands. GUMSHOE does that so players never shut down a game due to bad rolls. Players have a set of Investigative Abilities with a relatively low ratings in each; having a ’1′ represents competence. In a scene, players may declare what investigative ability they’re applying. Based on that, the GM offers the players information, if relevant to the skill. No roll is necessary. Each scene offers one or more Core Clues, which lead to other scenes. Secondary clues and evidence at the scene may tie into the larger plot, offer more depth for analysis, introduce other problems or present a chance for players to show off their talents. PC’s can do further examinations by “spending” from their pool for an ability. For example, if there’s a painting at a scene, a character with Art History 3 might spend one to three points to gain deeper insight or additional details. Players can ask for this or the GM may offer.
The idea of Core and Secondary clues serves as the backbone for GUMSHOE. Players progress from scene to scene, following the course of the investigation even as they put together the pieces of the larger question. It’s a simple idea, but one which GUMSHOE does an excellent job of supporting and enhancing. In each book, the GM materials in particular offer welcome and detailed advice for building mystery games in any genre.
Everything else in the system operates with general abilities, where players roll for dramatic situations involving risk. These abilities also have a rating which serves as a pool. In any particular test the player decides how much of their pool they wish to spend and then they roll 1d6 and add that value. That’s a pretty basic system- with the roll being compared to a static difficulty or a contested roll from an opposition. Win or lose, their pool is reduced by that amount until an opportunity to refresh comes along. In general, GUMSHOE’s a game that discourages excess rolling- tests should only be used for weighty and dramatic moments. That’s true in most games, but more so here because of the burden of resource allocation. As GUMSHOE has evolved, the line between investigative and general abilities has gotten blurrier. Interpersonal skills in particular have both investigation and conflict uses. This adds additional complications to the resource management.
Some groups will find that risky resolution system easier to work with than others. The two groups I played with/ran for had a strong aversion to it. The narrowness of the range of the die meant that spends could very easily be wasted. They also disliked the level of tracking required across multiple different abilities. GUMSHOE originally came out of games with a focus on tension, risk and failure- the hallmarks for horror gaming. I think for those kinds of games a system with built-in frustration over results and paranoia over resources works. I don’t think it works as well for other genres. But in great part, a group’s reaction to GUMSHOE depends heavily on the other kinds of games they’ve played and enjoyed. Groups more comfortable with detailed tracking, worrying about assets, and highly random systems will find GUMSHOE more attractive.
FOR GUMSHOE VETERANS
Those who have played GUMSHOE games before will have an easy time picking up these rules. Ashen Stars offers many new sub-systems and glistens with chrome, but the base system’s the same. To fit with the setting, the game adds many new abilities, both investigative and standard. In contrast to Mutant City Blues, this game takes a fairly open world approach. Sci-fi’s a sweeping genre and Ashen Stars tries to incorporate most of that. That’s a tall order for a game which has to deal with investigations- and assumptions about player vs. character knowledge. MCB worked around this by limiting the superhero genre it simulated. There the Quade Diagram defined all possible super-powers and their relation to one another. Keeping the game strictly a police procedural also limited the mechanics needed. Ashen Stars doesn’t lock the setting down in that way.
This game’s open approach has some ideas which GUMSHOE veterans may want to borrow for other games. In particular the starship combat and upkeep concepts might work in other settings. One problem the game only deals with tangentially is the “Parrot Effect” of gaming and sci-fi gaming in particular. That refers to a character such as the Science Officer asking the GM a question, getting an answer and then having to repeat that back to the other players. Ashen Stars and other GS games get around that a little in that every character will be going through that process, rather than a few. The rules emphasize each character’s expertise. While they’re assumed to be using equipment, the focus is on their interpretation of those readings- hence the GM delivers the info as if the character made the breakthrough, rather than offering what the computer says.
CHARACTERS AND PLAY
Ashen Stars aligns players with the setting rapidly, cutting to character creation and presenting key information in that process. It’s a good choice. Rather than having to wade through set up, we’re swept forward into the game and the universe. Premise, pocket timeline and a recent war as a key event is enough to set things up.
Character creation’s a collaborative project in Ashen Stars. Several values depend on the number of players and some decisions require consensus. Each player begins by choosing the species from the seven available.
•balla: beautiful, but fearful of emotions
•cybes: a new race created from augmented humans
•durugh: former enemies with phasing powers
•humans: the generically resourceful majority
•kch-thk: locust people
•tavak: armored folk with a peaceful warrior ethic
•vas mal: devolved psionics
The races are interesting; a couple of them feel like old classics and a few offer new and novel twists. There’s enough distinction between them to allow players to quickly gravitate to a favorite. Choice of race offers a distinctive background as well as a number of mechanical effects. Races have different bonuses with abilities, different affinities with self-augmentation tech, and different recommended drives. Drives represent personal motivations and can be called into play by the GM to steer or limit player actions. Each race, except humans, gains a species-specific ability. Humans and balla get an additional unique advantage, in the case of the former an extra potential pool refresh.
After choosing species, players select their role aboard ship and on the ground. Each side has five choices, plus the Medic role which covers both. These packages give points in general and/or investigative abilities. Players will want a crew every role covered. In the next step players assigns points to their investigative abilities. With more players, each individual gets fewer points. The book suggests that the group consult to make sure that nearly every one of the 46 investigative abilities has been taken by at least one person. Players then assign points to general abilities, with the pools here usually higher. They then individually select their drives and backgrounds. Finally, collectively they choose a ship and divide out points for Tech and Enhancements. These points can be used for personal augmentation or to add to the ship, so players end up wheeling and dealing over those choices.
Character creation is pretty easy, though there will be some significant flipping back and forth between the general outline and the specific chapters detailing those stages. This process will probably require a couple of copies of the rules or at least print outs of the first sixty pages from the pdf. Each of the chapters (The Seven Peoples, What You Can Do, and Drives) does an excellent job spelling out the details while at the same time slowly building up a picture of the Ashen Stars universe. My favorite part here talks about how to build personal arcs for your character. The rules offer some guidelines for creating a story arc which the GM can integrate into the larger arc of the campaign. While its only four pages long I’d recommend this to any player or GM in an RPG. It offers an excellent structure for players to communicate what they want out of the game.
Ashen Stars takes head-on the difficulty facing star-spanning science fiction rpgs: space combat. The problem lies in the central role of the ship- in many systems, only a few people can affect the battle: pilot, gunner, perhaps an engineer to boost things. Of course that depends on the premises and size of the vessels. For example, in Firefly, ships may not even be conventionally armed. In Star Wars: A New Hope, in the big fight we have a pilot, two complementary gunners and a bunch of passengers hanging on for dear life. Ashen Stars builds a fairly involved sub-system for starship combat which requires the involvement of multiple players.
Most combats, for dramatic purposes, will be the PC’s ship versus a single opponent. Any encounter begins with both sides deciding their goals: Escape; Datascrape (escape with info on opponent); Rake (deal damage and escape); Slash (deal severe damage and escape); Disable Weapons, Disable Engines, Cripple, Cripple for Towing, Cripple for Boarding, or Destroy. Each goal requires a different number of “skirmish points” earned throughout the phases of the combat. Each side wants to hit their goal number before the opposition. That’s a good approach- requiring a definition of goals and purposes before launching into the more crunchy and mechanical process of combat.
After some preliminaries, the combat moves into the attack and response process. In any round a ship’s assumed to be using everything it can, but it selects one attack mode to predominate. Each of the four attack modes corresponds to a contest between the skills of characters on each ship, modified by the ship’s specs. Fire attacks compare Battle Console tests; Maneuver attacks test Helm Control; Override attacks use Communications Intercept; and Trickbag attacks compete with Naval Tactics. Only one test happens in each round. Each ship has a tracker for the four modes. If a ship uses an attack mode again before cycling the other three, they “egg it” which gives the opponent a bonus for overuse. After making rolls on both sides, modified by the ship’s value for “Dishing It” and “Taking It” in those areas, the winner adds points to their skirmish total. If a ship takes 3 or more points in an exchange, they’re rocked which can cause casualties and/or extra damage. Those can be dealt with by medics or engineers in the following Mop-Up phase. After that both sides check to see if either achieved victory. If not, action passes to the opponent who then gets a chance to attack.
Ashen Stars expands these basics with options for additional complications: boarding, towing, ship destruction, outnumbered fights. Ship combat at first seems overwhelming until you realize how abstracted it is. Position, specific damage sections, energy maintenance- all of those factors existing in other sci-fi games get jettisoned in favor of a lighter treatment. It does put some serious responsibility on the the GM’s shoulders to narrate events and move it from simply being a series of contested rolls. The mechanics here rely heavily on the general abilities resolution mechanics. As I mentioned above, I think that’s the weakest part of the GUMSHOE system. Strapping a really interesting sub-system to that problematic mechanism makes the game creak and groan.
Ships themselves have a very simple set of stats, and the game presents a dozen of them with nice color text to distinguish them. These entries include illustrations- each of which feels like they come from an entirely different genre or setting. That divergence of design reemphasizes the large number of races and cultures operating in the Bleed. Building a custom ship is a simple matter- though PCs will likely spend a great deal of time debating over the bolt-ons offered. Each of these has a cost and upkeep and with bonuses for special circumstances. Upkeep’s a constant factor in Ashen Stars. Don’t pay upkeep and suffer significant penalties and degradation. The same applies to later personal tech elements such as cybernetic enhancements and viroware. Overall the book offers decent choice for GMs and players- neither overwhelming nor too thin. Space combat shifts the game into another sub-system, but with some shared mechanics. Ashen Stars encourages diversifying roles, with the hope of having multiple players participate in space skirmishes. Up to four can take the lead in those four attack forms, with others perhaps taking medic or engineer roles. A given round doesn’t necessarily involve all the players. One player goes, then possibly others in the mop up, and then it switches to the GM- where that player or another may roll defensively.
For me, technology’s the third leg of the sci-fi rpg tripod (alongside cultures and starships). Tech helps set the tone for sci-fi settings: from the decadent but baroque tech of Rogue Trader to the broke down modern of Firefly to the glint and lens flare of Star Trek. Ashen Stars offers tech which is at once gritty and omnipresent. While access and types will vary from world to world, Ashen Stars skips the whole Tech Level system present in other games. What matters is what players can generally acquire. Worlds have tech access built on dramatic necessity more than anything else.
The section on technology focuses on equipment for the PCs, offering selections in several categories: communications, medical, protection, and investigation. Three categories get more extensive discussion: cybernetic enhancements, virowear and weaponry. Energy weapons take center stage here, with several different flavors and effects. However, in some ways that’s a misdirection. Weapons range in damage modifier from -1 (for fists, kicks) to +1 (disruptor weapons, swords). Players used to the highly articulated weapon tables of other sci-fi games may be disappointed (or relieved…).
Ashen Stars offers a little over two dozen cybernetic enhancement choices. Most of these affect various ability points or bonuses. Each has an install cost paid either during character creation or later- though adding cybernetics later requires medical procedures. Each cybernetic also has an upkeep cost representing regular drug treatments to keep the devices in working order. Don’t pay and they start to cause damage to the owner. Viroware functions in much the same way but represents genetic alterations created through tailored viruses. Ashen Stars presents about two dozen options, also with a cost and upkeep. This kind of equipment goes a long way to establishing the tone of the Bleed. The choices range from the conventional to the seriously out there- and players will have a hard time choosing.
INTO THE BLEED
The next set of chapters present the Ashen Stars background in detail. The roughly 70 pages of material presents a mix of topics, beginning with history. The key idea of the setting is that a massive interstellar war recently concluded, with the forces of the Combine Empire brought to the brink of defeat by an enemy known as the Mohilar. The Combine won, but no one can exactly remember how. That strange reality manipulation hangs as a trapping in the background. Heavily damaged, the Combine retreated to the Core Worlds, leaving the Bleed under the control of a skeletal organization. That distant authority has little real power out in the lawless frontier of multiple clusters and outzones. Instead the Lasers exist to offer order. The book gives an overview of the remaining Combine structures and the kinds of worlds existing in the Bleed. This material isn’t exhaustive or specific. Instead within the general outline, GMs have huge freedom to craft the details of their universe. The book offers interesting ideas- such as ideologies and synthcultures- but leaves the rest open.
The chapter on Laser operations offers insights into how these groups function. In particular, PC’s will find themselves focused on improving their team’s reputation. Higher reputation means better contracts and more money. This adds an extra dimension to any mystery. Ashen Stars games aren’t strictly procedural mysteries- instead they require careful handling and management. Players will have to figure out best solutions, if perhaps not correct solutions. Mysteries aren’t just “find a criminal” but instead present problems which must be solved. The game offers a number of sub-systems to make the process of hustling as a Laser more interesting- from fees, to loans, to side deals, to handling trials.
World creation’s handled abstractly. Other games worry about orbits, composition and stellar details. Ashen Stars focuses on the stories which can arise from a planet. Planet creation begins with a premise and a twist and the book offers many intriguing suggestions. Two pages of world hooks ensure a GM will never be short of inspiration. In the same way, space travel and navigation is handled as necessary for drama. The rules present some guidelines, but generally those considerations are less important to the kinds of stories Ashen Stars wants to tell. The last chapter here offers a discussion of aliens and entities- not a full fledged monster manual, but enough to give GMs some guidelines. This section should probably be for GM-eyes only. My favorite part of this are the “Class-K” entities- campaign and world shaking adversaries who can pop up to serve as a key element of a campaign arc. The book offers eight of these as well as seven pages of general opponents and allies.
Ashen Stars, like most of the GUMSHOE games, offers solid and useful advice for GMs wanting to run investigations and mysteries. An excellent step-by-step outline makes constructing cases easy. Beyond several pages of sample episode premises, the rules givr suggestions for GMs who want to make up cases on the fly. That might seem like a contradiction- with mysteries requiring heavy construction. But Laws demonstrates here, as he did in The Armitage Files, that such improvised adventures can be fun and player-driven. Advice on series arcs and handling the unique system mechanics round out the chapter. An extended example of investigative play brings those ideas together for the reader.
Ashen Stars finishes up with an excellent and detailed introductory scenario. At twenty dense pages, GMs should be able to use it to handle the first session or two and get the basic mechanics under their belt. The scenario’s pretty open, and incorporates many of the Ashen Stars themes. Finally the book ends with a little under forty pages of appendices, including naming conventions for each of the races, indexes, character and plot worksheets, and tables laying out the tech options. Most importantly it includes a complete and detailed example of ship-to-ship combat.
The last several years have seen some really interesting sci-fi RPGs: Diaspora, Thousand Suns, Rogue Trader, Bulldogs. Ashen Stars breaks new ground in that genre with its narrow focus on mysteries and problem solving. GUMSHOE fans and those looking for a new sci-fi setting with an emphasis on drama over technical details will get the most out of this game. Gamers looking for support for mystery gaming in general or a way to try out the GUMSHOE system would probably do better with an earlier GUMSHOE product like Fear Itself or Trail of Cthulhu, unless you really dig sci-fi.
Those not sold on the basics of GUMSHOE won’t find many game changers here. The system has high uncertainty, a narrow range of detail, and record keeping for the players across a number of pools. Those areas aren’t fixed in this version–in fact the system doubles down on them. More of the mechanics rely on general ability resolution and many of the abilities now have additional exceptions and complications for resolution.
I don’t want to sound too negative- Ashen Stars accomplishes what it sets out to do: provide an interesting and open sci-fi setting for the GUMSHOE engine. It combines smart book design, witty writing, and an intriguing premise with a set of genre tools that empower both GMs and players.
Ashen Stars could work with another system, but any GM would face a couple of significant hurdles. First, you’d need to transfer over the investigative abilities. The rules put significant emphasis on those and they work. Figuring out how those integrate with the rest of the system will require tinkering. In particular interpersonal skills which overlap between investigation and challenge will need consideration. The other area requiring significant work will be converting Tech over to a new set of rules. Given the extensive and interesting list of options Ashen Stars offers, it will take some serious rewiring. I think there’s significant pay-off and Pelgrane themselves have a forthcoming hack of GUMSHOE to Pathfinder (Lorefinder) and have given license to Evil Hat Enterprises to produce another hack of the system. How much work this conversion requires will depend on your system of choice.
GUMSHOE vets will find some interesting concepts in Ashen Stars which could be taken over to another setting. The sections on cybernetics and viroware could be used as the backbone of a cyberpunk version, perhaps echoing the noir of George Alec Effinger’s When Gravity Fails. The starship combat rules could be applied to any kind of vessel skirmishes, with fantasy and steampunk airships coming first to mind. The ideas on building character arcs could be adapted over to any other GUMSHOE or other campaign setting as well.