Originally Published at http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/11/08/tabletop-review-ashen-stars-dead-rock-seven/
WHAT IS IT?
Set of four substantial adventures for the Ashen Stars RPG.
Released at the same time as Ashen Stars, Dead Rock Seven gives GMs a diverse set of adventures. These sci-fi stories move from noir to political intrigue to civilization threatening. Each story has plenty of meat to it and GMs could move through them quickly or take the time to develop and play out the stories over several sessions. While independent, the collection offers some threads connecting each one. It wouldn’t be hard to construct a series arc from them. Ashen Stars GMs will find much to love here, as will GMs of other sci-fi rpgs who could adapt these stories to their own campaigns.
THE BOOK ITSELF
Dead Rock Seven again shows off Pelgrane’s skills with design. It carries over the same basic layout, font and formatting used in the Ashen Stars core book- with a few changes. Those minor shifts point the GM to the information they need for running each scenario. The 144 page perfect-bound softcover has a nice full-color cover and greyscale interiors. The book feels great, printed on solid glossy stock. Though the design has several tone backgrounds for the pages, even in the pdf these don’t interfere with the readability. Pascal Quidault provides the cover and interior art. He shifts between sharp lines, gritty darkness and organic creepiness. DR7‘s another product which absolutely clicks in design and presentation.
Spoilers will follow, though I’ll try not to give too much away. Gareth Hanrahan, author of several Trail of Cthulhu adventures, takes over writing duties here, working from Robin Laws’ story designs. I’m always amazed at how well Pelgrane presents the complexities of mysteries. By its nature, cases take twists and turns- a far cry from linear adventures or even sandbox-style game material. Dead Rock Seven works hard to provide GMs with the tools they need in the places they expect them (with timelines, relationship maps, etc). That’s necessary because some of these adventures have a host of red herrings, change ups, conspiracies and connections. Two ideas tie the four cases together, more or less. The first are the Restreamers, a nufaith which believes that history has been broken and somehow this universe must be rewritten. The second is the presence of a Class K entity waiting to be released. GMs may choose to use one of the Class K species from the core book or one of the three new ones presented here. Note that the ties between adventures are loose- a reference here, an NPC there. GMs can tighten or release those knots as they see fit.
Each adventure begins with an excellent set up for the GM presented in several parts. “The Contract” establishes the stated mission for the PCs. “The Twist” details the key change-ups which will make that case more difficult. These twists aren’t a simple obstacle, but, in each case, a set of interesting and interrelated problems to be disentangled. “The Backstory” lays out the key NPCs, their roles and relations. “The Investigation” lays out the typical order of events in the case. “Complications” presents a menu of false leads, suspects, and misdirects which GMs can choose from to tune the adventure to their group’s taste. Finally, “The Choice” presents the key decision the Lasers will have to make in dealing with the situation. With this established, the rest of the adventure is presented as a series of scenes. The most important of those are Core scenes which form the spine of the case. The adventures supplement those with Intro, Hazard, Antagonist Action or Reaction, Subplot and Alternate Scenes. Eventually players will reach Conclusion scenes and some form of Epilogue. GMs and players have a lot of freedom in running or pursuing the case, and I imagine any particular play of these stories will look radically different. These are complicated and detailed stories- so GMs will have to read through and do some serious note-taking before running. Presenting these on the fly would be pretty difficult.
Its worth noting that the book does provide a set of six sample PCs. Each gets a nice background write-up, complete with personal arc and questions for the player. They also get full stats on two page character sheets. That means that a prepared GM could skip character creation and move right to play. Alternately, the section also offers some advice and options for customization, so the GM could allow some time for that.
THE PLEASURE BRINGERS
The collection begins on a noir note, and one that also presents some pretty dark and adult themes. The Lasers are sent by shady corporation (which was featured in the core book adventure) to look into the vanishing of a executive on the pleasure planet of Andarta. The Lasers dive into a seedy and unpleasant den of iniquity, charting a course between pimps and prostitutes. This can bring the group into conflict with an array of factions and criminals. The story starts in the city to better emphasize that griminess. The Lasers have to look into the sex trade and trace the various partners of several of the key characters. Some groups may not care for this, but the book offers a few suggestions for dialing back on those details.
The case eventually leads to a hospital and the discovery of a weaponized virus. That virus transforms victims into members of a lost race. To find answers and bring the infection to a stop, the Lasers must head out into the planet’s jungles, a deliberate parallel to the earlier urban jungle. This brings them back into conflict with some of the factions they already fought as well as new ones tied to a nuFaith. The adventure can end in several ways- with a compromise or a shoot out. Either one is valid, and the book offers an additional scene if the players choose the diplomatic option. This gives them the chance to deal with one of the other groups involved so that the story ends with dramatic action before the epilogue.
I like this adventure- but it does have some pretty visceral bits to it. It moves around from place to place and yet requires the players to really make sense of the motivations and people involved. The actual problem of the virus gets a decent mid-point reveal and doesn’t come completely out of left field. I like that the switch suddenly shifts a more conventional mob and murder story into something more fantastic and dangerous.
DEAD ROCK SEVEN
The Lasers travel to a mining asteroid to oversee decommissioning of the mine and investigate a suspicious death. This case requires the players to navigate the physical and dangerous maze of the mine, as well as the treacherous maze of relationships among the mine workers. I like that we flip from an open and urban planetside adventure to this one which offers an intense and claustrophobic experience. The tie to the Class K theme comes from a case of mistaken identity, with suspects covering up for fear of calling in a strike force for clean up.
Despite that wrinkle, the story here’s fairly straightforward. It plays with classic tropes and themes. We have a monster on board and the players have to deal with it. The guidelines suggest playing up that angle, to keep players from guessing the actual solution. Unfortunately, at least for me, all I could think about when reading this mission was “The Devil in the Dark” episode from original Star Trek, which shares the same solution and set up as this adventure. Depending on the group, a GM may have to play the Alien references pretty heavy-handed to avoid players jumping to that conclusion. The adventure’s solid and would probably make a good and fairly straight-line introductory case. It suffers from a few too many cliches (the NPC who falls into religious fascination with the monster), but makes up for that with strong details. The weakest adventure in the set, it is still quite good.
PERIOD OF TYRANNY
This adventure introduces some of the potential political overtones of the Bleed. It also presents a synthculture, one of the cooler Ashen Stars concepts. The Lasers follow the distress call of a passenger liner, the Beatrix. They arrive too late, but take up the task of investigating the attack on the vessel and tracking down the culprits. This leads them back on the trail of Bleedist terrorists who attacked the liner to get at the senior Combine personnel aboard. That trail leads to the planet Pioneer, a synthculture based on a fascist regime from the early days of space colonization. Investigating that planet offers special dangers- the local government fears the return of Combine authority which could undermine their own. The Lasers represent that threat. The PCs have to follow several lines of inquiry while evading government agents. They must infiltrate Pioneer, duel with the secret police and somehow figure out a way to use the local politics to bring the criminal to justice.
This is an excellent but difficult adventure. The players have to battle the environment while keeping up their investigations. The GM will have to maintain a careful dance between the threat of the police state and not making the PCs feel completely trapped. There’s a change towards the end of the adventure where the players have to shift into full political manipulation mode to get things done. There’s the additional problem of having several alien species, potentially some of the PC’s, marked out as threats which creates more complications for those players. This makes this the toughest case to run and the one requiring the most planning.
Like the last adventure, elements of this setting echo classic Star Trek adventures like “Patterns of Force” and “Bread and Circuses.” In this case, the local peoples have deliberately taken on their culture to create a kind of purity. There is a little case of ‘double mumbo-jumbo’ going on here in that in a science fiction game, the historical culture the planet’s based on is one still several hundred years ahead of us. That requires teaching future history to the PCs so they can get the references. An enterprising GM might decide to switch the culture to something more relevant (like Victorian England or North Korea), but that would require serious work.
THE ANAITIS GAMBIT
The last mission has the Lasers serving as guards for an interstellar cooking contest. You’ll be forgiven for picturing the Futurama episode “The 30% Iron Chef.” The Anaitis Station hosting the event lies at the junction of several key translight corridors. As soon as the PC’s arrive, the station comes under attack by a debris projectile. After dealing with that threat, the Lasers work to figure out the who and why of the attack. This leads to a complicated combination of Restreamer saboteurs and the mystery ingredient for the contest. The Restreamers wish to destroy the station in hopes of causing a universal reboot. They believe that the energies from the collapse of the nearby corridors will cause this. However, it may instead release a Class K entity from its subspace prison. The players must hunt down the Restreamers and their insane prophet.
I like that we go in yet another completely different direction with this adventure. While it takes place primarily on the station, it has plenty of scenes elsewhere- adding to the feeling of action and movement throughout. The Cooking Contest could be over the top, but instead it offers an interesting set of NPCs to interact with and investigate. The story has excellent and clear acts, allowing successes along the way to the big resolution. If the GM opts to have the Class K entity released- as the start to a new desperate series arc- they will want the players armed with a few victories before that tragic climax. This is probably the most interesting and fully developed of the four adventures offered.
If you’re going to run or are thinking about running Ashen Stars, go ahead and pick this up. These stories are smartly written and presented. They provide many ways for the GM to tune the experience. If you think that a mystery adventure has to follow a fairly straight line, these cases will disabuse you of that notion. Hanrahnan’s put together an excellent collection that shows off the many different kinds of missions which could be taken on in the Ashen Stars universe.
Ashen Stars offers a pretty distinct setting- one with many alien races and high-tech augmentation. These adventures could be adapted over to other sci-fi games which share similar premises. Serenity or strict Traveller referees may find these less useful. But in general these cases are clever and twisty enough that adapting them over would be worth the effort.