Pawns of Destiny, Episode 1: Chicken Karma

In the place that is not a place, Hordan, Lady of Darkness, sits across a game board from her unwilling husband Hulian, the Smith. The board portrays the Dread Sea Dominions in great detail, and assorted pieces in red (for Hulian) and black (for Hordan) are arrayed on it in complex patterns of conflict and dominance.

“Your move, husband,” breathes Hordan, while demonic sychophants on her side of the table perform acts Hulian affects to ignore. He pushes a piece into the space representing the city of Gilaska; a complex piece, representing a group of individuals moving as one – a Scoundrel, a Sage, a Lotusmaster, a Gladiator, a Monk and a Barbarian of the North.

“Oh, Hulian,” laughs the Queen of Night. “Is that the best you can do?”

I managed to persuade the WFRP3 group I play in to try Savage Worlds and Beasts & Barbarians last weekend, and as a taster I ran them through the adventure Thieves in the Night, from Savage Insider #3, using some characters from Archetypes of Jalizar and the Dominions.

Thieves in the Night, like several other adventures in the B&B line, has a duration that can be adjusted easily by adding or dropping sections; because I was rusty, and none of the five players were familiar with the game, we didn’t play through all the possible encounters, but it worked well. Be warned: Spoilers this time; the adventure was published in 2011, it was free to download, and if you haven’t played it yet you have only yourselves to blame!

-o0o-

Stopping over in Gilaska, while watching a funeral procession the bulk of the party encounters the Scoundrel (a native) and Balcor the Beggar, who for a cup of wine and the promise of a share in the loot explains how to get inside the Earthenware Pyramid of Gilaska and take possession of the newly-dead lord’s jewels. The armed guards and crocodile-filled moat are merely courtesy details.

Sneaking around the back of the pyramid, the party gets their Barbarian to build a raft and carry a line across to the edifice, where he acts as one end of an impromptu zipline as the others cross. All goes well until one of the sacred crocodiles takes an interest in the Sage; the Scoundrel kills it outright with a lucky pebble from his sling, providing an early demonstration to the players of how aces work. I take great delight in pointing out to the Scoundrel, who worships Etu, that he has now vandalised the goddess’ pyramid, and used the piece he broke off to kill one of her sacred crocodiles. Etu, the Great Mother, is not angry – but is terribly, terribly hurt.

As the dead crocodile rolls over, the Sage decides to take it with him for further study. Alas, he is unable to manage hanging on to the rope one-handed while steering a dead crocodile using his staff with his other hand, and falls in, to the great interest of the other sacred crocodiles.

At this point the Monk distracts them by throwing a roast chicken from their food supply some distance from the Sage, explaining that the chicken will gain great karma by saving a human life, and any damage the crocodiles inflict on each other is their own fault for not sharing.

Entry to the pyramid is easily gained, thanks to Balcor’s instructions, and pausing only to vomit after finding the headless body just inside, they move on into a strange circular chamber with a hole in the ceiling and a socket in the floor. Looking for secret doors, they discover the lair of something unpleasant, filled with decapitated rat skeletons, and decide whatever lives there is responsible for the thief’s death. While the Lotusmaster (Dorjee Pema) and the Sage debate the room’s purpose and operation, the fighting-men and Scoundrel advance, discovering a side passage leading down into a sarcophagus room. Immediately deciding that this is a false treasure room and unworthy of their attention, they leave without triggering the trap, to my disappointment.

Moving on, they find a room acting as a T-junction, occupied by a group of worried guards and a headless corpse. Zosimus the Gladiator intimidates them with the convincing (but imitation) noises of something they don’t want to argue with approaching down the corridor, and they withdraw. But behind them, the dreaded Tomb Baboon, a giant carnivorous ape, has attacked the intellectuals (and the Barbarian, left behind to guard them)! The Barbarian is stunned into immobility by the baboon’s special intimidation attack, but the Lotusmaster draws a dagger and makes an impressive full defence roll it cannot penetrate; the fighters barrel back in, and thanks to the Sage’s screamed advice of “Go for the armpit!” they fell it easily – and then drag the corpse back to where they found the soldiers, setting it up as a primitive ventriloquist’s dummy in case the troops return. I felt I should reward this by having the guards come back, and the players are delighted to scare them off again with gorilla imitations and the adroit use of sticks to wave its arms around.

The Monk demands a map of the complex, and I draw a schematic one based on what they’ve seen so far. He points out that the baboon couldn’t have attacked the rearguard without the advance party passing it, and I put on my best poker face and leave the players to work that one out; they decide there must be a secret room, and roll to Notice it; when the Sage scores over 20 on his Notice d6, I obligingly add the room of engravings as a secret room, and the Sage gets a chance to shine by finding clues to the Citadel of the Winged Gods, which I expect they will follow up at some point. The players pose the question of how the baboon learned how to open all these secret doors, and get the poker face treatment again; after a few moments they decide it must have watched the priests of Etu burying people – monkey see, monkey do.

You see, the players will do a lot of the work for you, if you only let them, and reward them by adopting their ideas.

After a little more exploration by the party I notice the session end approaching and advance them to the tomb proper, where they meet the dead lord’s assassin soliloquising about his plot before getting his comeuppance at the hands of the  ex-ruler, now a mummy, who shakes off phenomenal amounts of damage thanks to his invulnerability. The Scoundrel scuttles around collecting the gems while the fighting-men hold the undead at bay, then the team withdraw to the round room, where the Sage pauses to stick his staff in the socket. In my haste I misread the effect, and the Sage now has a staff-shaped power point battery which is no use to him at all, except that since it has at least one power point in it, it counts as a magic weapon – however, he thinks he used up all its charges in the final battle, when Zosimus, the Barbarian and the Monk immobilise the monster, and between the magic stick and Dorjee Pema’s Lotus Reserve (Red Lotus of the Phoenix Fire), they manage to take it down.

The Scoundrel now dresses himself in the assassin’s hooded robes, effectively disguising himself as another local noble, and with an imperious gesture dismisses the guards as he emerges from the tomb. The party complete their looting at a leisurely pace and emerge victorious.

REFLECTIONS

  • It’s the first time I’ve had either a Lotusmaster or a Sage in the partry, and both worked really well; considering neither player had used SW before, they quickly got the hang of their special Edges and used them to great effect.
  • I have been playing the No Power Points rule for so long that I had forgotten how power points worked, and had to look it up.
  • Completely abstract dungeons didn’t work for this group, so I had to draw them a map eventually; but the Savings Rules were accepted with no adverse comments, in fact with a laughing acknowledgement that they accurately reflect the genre.

Next time for the Pawns of Destiny: Wolves in the Borderlands.

TLP Suspicions: Politics

“What do you know?” he would have asked me, and “What do you suspect?” – Robin Hobb, Assassin’s Apprentice

In preparation for some Last Parsec space opera, I have been rereading my SW Sci-Fi Companion and all the pieces of The Last Parsec I have, starting with politics; and I have some suspicions.

I know that the United Confederation’s troops use the basic Soldier/Marine and Starship Crew profiles (SFC p. 74). I know that those templates are probably human (SFC p. 66) because they have no racial abilities. So, I suspect that the UC is human-dominated.

I know that the Tazanian racial enemy is the largest organised opposition in the setting (SFC p. 73). I know that there are only three “empires” mentioned in the SFC (pp. 72-74); the Rigellian Slave Fleet,  the Tazanian Empire, and the United Confederation. I know that the Rigellians are wanderers from a distant, long-lost system (SFC p. 72), that the UC has dozens or hundreds of member worlds, and that the Tazanian Empire has thousands of conquered planets (TLP Primer, p. 10) and a policy of militaristic expansion (SFC p. 73). So, I suspect that the Tazanian racial enemy is humans, and the UC was originally a defensive alliance intended to fend off Tazanian aggression.

I know that the Rigellians are slavers, selling captives to unscrupulous empires (SFC p. 72). I know that subject races on Tazanian worlds toil beneath the lash of their overseers (TLP Primer p. 10). So, I suspect that the Tazanians are some of the Rigellians’ biggest customers.

I know that JumpCorp is a galaxy-spanning corporation, big enough and influential enough that its company scrip is the de facto interstellar currency (TLP Primer, p. 4). So, I suspect one of the themes of the setting is a futuristic reflection of the contemporary tension between nation-states and large corporations.

CONCLUSIONS

Already, I can see that my Last Parsec campaign is likely to diverge from the official setting, which is disappointing. This gives me several options:

  • Wait for Pinnacle’s future TLP products to resolve my questions. Who knows when that might happen, or if I will like the answer?
  • Build a TLP campaign based on my suspicions, and retcon it later as and if those are contradicted; or more likely not, because my players are unlikely to have enough TLP products to spot the join.
  • Build a campaign which sidesteps these issues entirely by not using the Tazanian Empire, for example by using one of the plot point campaign books.
  • Scrap TLP completely and drive on.

I shall reflect on all this, and pursue other interests for a while. There’s no point investing a lot of effort in this campaign only to delete it later.

“We demand rigidly-defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” – Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Welcome to Lygos!

“In the far future, the [human group] fights a pitched battle against the mighty [alien name] Empire, but deep in the mysterious [region of space], among the ruins of the past, a darker threat looms.” – TV Tropes, Standard Sci-Fi Setting

Time for some space opera! Let’s try The Last Parsec, shall we?

The Zhodani Base recommends four things for an interesting Traveller subsector; at least two nearby interstellar states, backwater worlds, obvious adventures and a place that feels like home. Since those don’t depend on specific rules or a map, they are equally useful here, and they are easy to do in TLP: The United Confederation and the Tazanian Empire are the main states; backwater worlds can be easily inserted into the mapless setting as needed; there are obvious adventures driven by the conflict between the two states, abductions by Rigellian slavers, the machinations of JumpCorp and those who hire it, and the predations of the obligatory space pirates; but we need a place to feel like home.

I could make the PCs’ homeworld a member of a third state – since we already have a Federation and an Empire, this would be the Kingdom – but since the defining feature of a Confederation is that there is no strong central government, that’s an unnecessary complication; the homeworld can be part of the UC.

Alternatively, I could make the PCs’ home their starship, but that means they start off travelling, and I can minimise world-building effort by starting with a single world and limiting the PCs to it. To paraphrase Tolstoy, that means most adventures will be “a stranger comes to town” rather than the more usual “go on a quest”. The reasons I want to do this are first, to minimise the risk of clashing with future releases in the TLP line, especially the promised setting book, and second, I’m still not entirely comfortable with how hyperspace travel works in this setting.

To feel like home, the base world should be familiar; it should be reasonably Earthlike, and have a cultural and political background that the players can relate to, so something vaguely like the present-day Western democracies – this isn’t about whether those are the best or most likely form of society, it’s about how much I have to explain to players before we get down to the adventure.

However, to expose the players to TLP canon, the base world should have a starport where strangers of many races gather, suggesting a trade hub. Since that implies a lot of traffic, the world is likely rich and desirable; therefore it should be populous and technically advanced enough to defend itself against the Rigellians and the Tazanian Empire, who would otherwise enslave or conquer it while the UC was debating whether or not to act. That immediately makes me think of Istanbul, Byzantium, or whatever you want to call it; for much of history, a military superpower and a major commercial port. Those names are too obvious though, so I shall use one of its earlier monikers: Lygos.

It will enhance the not-Kansas factor if the starport is in orbit, and I shall dub it Halfway Station, because there is always a space station called that in my SF games, whether or not the PCs ever find it. I’m enamoured of the original von Braun-style hub-and-spoke stations, and those are appropriate for TLP because antigravity is Ultra-Tech, beyond the reach of most worlds – which leaves you simulating gravity by rotation. To save time, I shall use the stock space station from p. 50 of the Sci-Fi Companion, which has a population of about 25,000 – a small city, which immediately suggests the right spaceport size is Large; that’s also appropriate as it is the smallest type which can repair critical hits, and players will need that eventually.

A base world needs a number of NPCs to bond the players to it, and the easy way to do that is to have one of each type of Wild Card from the Travelers and Xenos chapter of the Sci-Fi Companion; that also gives me a starting list of NPCs for use with the Mythic Game Master Emulator, which initially includes a Master Assassin, a Pirate Officer, a Pirate Captain, a Psi-Knight (wait, what?), a Psionicist, a Starship Captain, a Chief Engineer, a Chief Medical Officer (those three probably run the starport), a Tazanian Officer (probably an envoy of some kind), and on the non-sentient side a Hunter Queen and a Space Leviathan.

LYGOS

Planetary Gravity: Normal. Dominant Terrain: Temperate forests (it’s a “Vancouver planet“). Atmosphere: Normal. Average Temperature: 60 F (15-16 C). Population Density: Average. Dominant Government: Republic. Dominant Law: Average. Customs: Hmm, let’s leave that one for a bit and see what inspiration strikes in play. Technology Level: Average. Spaceport: Large.

Lygos is a major trade hub and member of the United Confederation; aboard the orbiting spaceport are a Tazanian delegation and a number of characters of dubious morality, as well as a UC command crew. We’ll figure the rest out in play.

Witness Protection RPGs

“Retma in his caution, Estelle in her compassion, Dee in her fear all would be giving birth to some version of the standard model; but Amalfi had driven the standard model until all the bolts had come out of it, and was so tired at even the thought of it that he could hardly bring himself to breathe.”
– James Blish, The Triumph of Time

Here’s another thought experiment along the lines of Desert Island RPGs: Witness Protection RPGs.

While that was about choosing a limited number of items to be cast away on a desert island with, this one is about starting over.

Here’s the premise… On your way home tonight, you’re taken into witness protection. You literally can’t go home again; you’re given a new name, relocated to a new town, and can’t contact any of your family or friends again, because it’s too dangerous for you and for them. You can still enjoy gaming, but you can’t do anything that could be traced back to your old life.

QUESTIONS

  1. What games that you currently own would you buy again? How would you change them to be new, exciting, and unrecognisable?
  2. What new ones would you buy and gamemaster, or hope to play?
  3. How would you find new players?

MY ANSWERS

Nobody who has seen my usual level of tweaking and mashups would suspect me as long as I stick to the Rules As Written and just a couple of games. Especially if neither of them are Traveller.

  1. This one is easy. I would repurchase Savage Worlds Deluxe and Beasts & Barbarians, and possibly Stars Without Number. I would run those exactly as written, casting aside my reservations about things like starting at Seasoned rank.
  2. This one is harder, because it has to be a game I haven’t tried before; but I’m tempted by Night’s Black Agents, because it rocks and I don’t normally do horror.
  3. I’d try Google Hangouts and Roll20 for online gaming.

CODA

Tell me about your answers, please; I’m curious. Then, look at them – carefully. They’re telling you how to break out of your comfort zone and reinvigorate your gaming.

What’s stopping you?

Review: Ashen Stars

“Your players decide whether to make it matter. You decide what the truth is.” – Ashen Stars

I’m still looking for the game that will enthuse and re-invigorate my SF gaming the way Beasts & Barbarians did for fantasy, and given how impressed I was by Night’s Black Agents, the obvious next place to look is the space opera game from the same stable.

In a Nutshell: Space opera RPG that strives to emulate a gritty reboot of a TV series that never was. 305 page PDF, $25 at time of review, author Robin Laws.

CONTENT

Where the Stars Turn Grey (2 pages): What a roleplaying game is, although the book (reasonably) assumes you know that by now; other Gumshoe games you might want to try; overview of the rest of the book.

All the Justice Credits Can Buy (12 pages): The game premise is that a utopian interstellar society much like Star Trek’s Federation (the Combine) was recently destroyed in a great war, by enemies who have since mysteriously vanished (the Mohilar). While the core worlds rebuild themselves, the frontier worlds are left to their own devices, and everything the USS Enterprise would have handled previously is now contracted out to freelance mercenaries like the PCs.

PCs are created in several steps: Choose a species, assign crew skill packages to ensure that between them the party can do everything the PCs will need to do, choose other investigative and general abilities (these would be characteristics and skills in most games), choose a drive; then as a group, choose your ship and equipment and rate the group’s Reputation. Players are also encouraged to create a personal arc for each PC, a quest which will be woven into the campaign plotline as it moves forwards. Like the icon relationships in 13th Age, this is a way of ensuring that the PCs matter in the context of the game; on its own, this concept takes up four of the 12 pages in the chapter, which tells me it’s important.

There’s a lot of flipping backwards and forwards through the book as you create characters, and it’s best done as a group process, since the group needs to cover a lot of different skills between them, characters need to be differentiated so they all have a chance to shine in play, and they need to agree on how they spend shared points on buying gear and a ship.

Reputation is the mechanism by which the game’s key theme is rewarded or punished; at its core, the game strives to maintain tension between doing what’s right (which increases your Rep) and doing what’s good for yourself (which generally decreases it). The higher the group’s Rep, the more often it will find work, and the better off it will be.

The Seven Peoples (12 pages): Here are the playable races, which I really like.

  • The Balla are part-elf, part-Vulcan; nature-loving, striving to contain their emotions and occasionally failing with disastrous consequences.
  • Cybes are genetically- and cybernetically-enhanced humans, created as super-soldiers for the war recently ended, and now unsure of their position. I can’t help thinking of them as liberated Borg.
  • The Durugh are short, ugly former enemies of the Combine who changed sides before the end of the recent war. They have the ability to go out of phase, enabling them to walk through walls.
  • Humans are, as usual, the Mario; numerous, adaptable and determined.
  • The Kch-Thk are a proud warrior race of humanoid locusts, who at death can migrate their consciousness to a nearby larva, much like the skin jobs in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or a videogame character respawning at the last save point. The downside to this species is a voracious need to consume organic matter, like terrestrial locusts. The Combine’s decision to remove restrictions on Kch-Thk breeding to produce vast armies for the Mohilar War means there are now huge numbers of ravenous combat veterans looking for food and trouble.
  • The Tavak are another proud warrior race; it’s unusual for a game like this to have more than one, but here they are. Serene and sleepy under normal conditions, these humanoid armadillos are roused to berserk frenzy when they need to fight.
  • The Vas Mal are few in number and resemble the Greys of UFO lore; they are the de-evolved remnants of godlike energy beings, physically weak but retaining some of their former psychic powers.

What You Can Do (26 pages): This covers investigative and general abilities, starting with the skill packages for each role a PC crew will need; each PC has both a shipboard and a groundside role, and based on these it looks like the optimum party size is six characters (some of whom may be NPCs). This is where my first beef with Gumshoe as a rules engine arises; too many skills, 50 investigative and 30 general.

Drives (9 pages): 32 different motivations for your PC, 7 of which can only be taken by specific races. These guide roleplaying but have no mechanical effect, unlike (say) Savage Worlds Hindrances.

Gumshoe Rules (22 pages): As usual, Gumshoe is divided into clue-gathering skills and general abilities. Reading through this implementation soon after reading Night’s Black Agents, I’m less impressed this time round – maybe that’s because of implementation differences, maybe it’s because I’ve given the rules more thought, maybe I’m just a grumpy old git who’s worked too much overtime this month.

Clue-gathering skills always succeed. Gumshoe makes a big thing about this, but really you can do it in any system by looking at the PC’s skills or character class. Aragorn is a ranger? Fine, he finds the orc tracks and the hobbits’ dropped brooch then, no need to roll for it. This is my second beef with Gumshoe, I think this part is needlessly complex.

General abilities (including combat skills) succeed if you make a skill test, which in Gumshoe you do by spending points from a pool, rolling 1d6, and meeting or beating a target number to succeed. Your PC’s “skill level” is the size of the points pool for that skill. Pools refresh at certain points, and you can increase pools by spending what are effectively experience points.

Damage is deducted from the PC’s Health, and he passes out when he has none left.

Starships (40 pages): It’s a given that the PC team has a starship. We have a range of ship types, a recommended ship for players not sure what to take, and upgrade options. Where this game is different is in the highly abstracted combat; it’s like watching the Star Trek bridge crew, or playing the Artemis computer game, in that there are several key roles in ship combat, each of which has a chance to shine. Mechanically, the objective is to accumulate enough points to achieve your objective – each ship may have a different objective (there are 10 to choose from), and the first to achieve its goal wins, in the sense of ending the engagement on its own terms. At the extremes, you need 6 points to Escape, and 21 points to Destroy your opponent. These numbers increase dramatically if you’re outnumbered.

Each turn, the crew decides which of four attack modes to use (fire, manoeuvre, override the opposing ship’s computers, or trickbag, which is a collection of dirty tricks); the PC responsible for that mode engages his opposite number on the other ship, and the winner garners points. There are penalties for overusing one attack mode compared to the others. The loser of the “showdown” may take damage or casualties, which bring the other two roles (medic and engineer) into play to repair/heal them.

Tech (23 pages): The gear chapter. Again, I applaud the game for its Preparedness attribute, also seen in Night’s Black Agents; rather than obsessing over minor items of equipment, your Preparedness allows you to have one available if you succeed at a skill check. We have communicators, some unusual cyberware which is tightly integrated into the game mechanics, medical and forensic items, protective gear (most of which defends against non-standard attacks such as pheromones), investigative equipment, tailored viruses which give you assorted genetic alterations, weapons and accessories. This is the section where the game transcends the usual sci-fi setting and edges into New Space Opera, in line with the gritty reboot theme.

Between the end of this chapter and the start of the next is a basic map of the Bleed, the volume of space in which the game takes place. Space is divided into clusters, in which FTL travel is easy, and outzones, in which it is not. Like the beacons in The Last Parsec, this allows the GM to choose whether the PCs reach their destination in hours or weeks.

The Feed and the Bleed (18 pages): This section provides extra detail on the setting; but the GM is advised that until a piece of information is discovered by the PCs, it is not yet part of the established “series continuity” and can be changed at whim. The GM is encouraged to do this to incorporate player input.

Here we find provisional goverment structures for the Combine, which have been imitated by most worlds; the Combine’s (cursory) presence in the Bleed; the concepts of synthcultures and nufaiths, which allow the GM to insert a world based on any culture or religion into the campaign with ease; a history of the Combine and the Seven Peoples; how to handle the Bogey Conundrum, a mysterious effect which makes it impossible to remember anything about the Mohilar; Bleed slang and jargon.

On the Contact (13 pages): This chapter explains the business the PCs are in, namely freelance problem solving and law enforcement, and what they can (and cannot) do. First we look at Reputation, mentioned above, and how if can be influenced by Public Relations material spread by the PCs and others.

This segues into a discussion of what sort of contracts PCs get, and how much downtime they have between contracts – the better their Rep, the more they are in demand. During downtime, all the boring stuff happens, and upkeep has to be paid for the ship and your equipment; if you can’t pay the upkeep, items have to be taken offline. There are also a number of side deals you can take on in parallel with the main mission, and loans in case the contracts are too far apart.

Next comes an explanation of law and justice; which laws apply, jurisdiction, trial procedures, sentencing and punishments. Not that your PCs would ever get in trouble with the law, or course, but they may actually be the law on a world.

Worlds are Stories (16 pages): This section profundly affected my thinking on SF RPG campaigns, and I’m still working through the ramifications. In short, it extols the virtues of spacefaring as a way of constantly refreshing the game, and casts aside any notion of world generation; the important thing is the scenario, the story of the episode; you start with the adventure premise, and build the world to bring that premise to life, linking it to the PCs’ personal arcs and your overall story arc if any. This central premise is well thought through, and fleshed out at some length.

This chapter also explains how FTL travel works in the setting, and introduces the ubiquitous meson shrapnel and the ashen stars for which the game is named, relics of the Mohilar War which interfere with technology to explain why the PCs’ gear works differently according to what the plotline requires.

The Bad, the Worse and the Alien (22 pages): Here’s the bestiary and a selection of stock NPCs. Some of them are designated as Class-K species, ones so inimical to sentient species that any PCs encountering them need to abort their official mission to eliminate them, or at least get out a warning. You get nine Class-K entities, nine stock animals, and 23 stock NPCs.

Here we also find that Gumshoe is player-facing, which means that if at all possible the players roll the dice; for example, if sneaking up on someone, the PC makes a Stealth check, but the NPC they’re stalking doesn’t roll at all.

Running the Bleed (22 pages): This is about constructing scenarios; the game calls them cases, or episodes. In each episode, the players travel to a new world, where they face a problem to solve, mostly by gathering information; encounter a plot twist; and may advance an overall story arc, or the personal arc of one of the characters. Episodes consist of scenes, which the PCs may traverse in one of several sequences, gathering clues as they go. As well as detailed guidance on how to do this, a wide range of sample episode premises (adventure seeds) is provided, any of which I’d be comfortable running off-the-cuff as an improvised scenario.

That will take you as far as a monster-of-the-week campaign, but the chapter also includes advice on building those individual scenarios into a larger arc by introducing links to personal arcs, gradually revealing an over-arching and escalating threat, and adding recurring characters. It then covers how to avoid the appearance of railroading the PCs, before finishing with an example of play.

The Witness of My Worth (23 pages): The obligatory example adventure, in which the PCs respond to a distress call from a war-ravaged planet, and find things are not as they seem.

Appendices (31 pages): Sample names, detailed example of ship combat (you’ll need that), character sheet, tables and charts.

…and we finish with an index.

FORMAT

The PDF download includes a pretty version of the game, and a printer-friendly one. In either case, two-column black text, quite readable,  especially the tables – most games make these too small or otherwise hard to read, but they are very legible here.

Colour illustrations every few pages, as is the norm, and a tasteful but non-intrusive background in the pretty version.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Since character creation is complex and requires knowledge of the setting, the playable races, and the use and relative value of 80-odd skills, this game could really do with some pre-generated characters.

CONCLUSIONS

Ashen Stars is essentially a gritty reboot of Star Trek; imagine if the Federation had lost the Dominion War big time, but then the forces of the Dominion had mysteriously vanished and whatever those things in the wormhole were had lost their powers and been precipitated into normal space. I can’t help observing, though, that gritty reboots are often franchise-killers; look at Star Trek: Enterprise or Stargate: Universe, for example.

Mechanically, I feel that the page count and skill list for intelligence gathering is overdone. Since the PCs are always going to find the clues anyway, do I really need 50 different skills and many pages of rules to explain that? I think not.

I love the setting, and the advice to GMs is very thought-provoking, but I’m not enamoured of the Gumshoe system, so I would probably want to Savage this.

Bulldogs, The Last Parsec and Daring Tales of the Space Lanes tell you there is no starmap and not much setting, and leave you to get on with it. Ashen Stars tells you how to turn that into a series of adventures and a grand story arc; the GM advice alone is worth the price of admission, Robin Laws has clearly spent a great deal of time and effort in understanding what players and GMs need, and how to give it to them.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. Great setting, great advice, but the Gumshoe system doesn’t do it for me. I’ll probably Savage the Bleed at some point. Meanwhile, this game has made me question and rethink what I should be doing in my SF game slot, and that’s a bigger topic for its own post; I am more likely to play Night’s Black Agents, but Ashen Stars may have a bigger impact on the way I game.

Not for Trafficking

We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
– James Elroy Fletcher, The Golden Journey to Samarkand

What I’m finding is that interstellar trading, simple though it is in the Science Fiction Companion, is very boring for me. You may enjoy it, and if you do, more power to you; it’s just not what my games are about these days.

I spent some time crafting a faster, easier system, and some time researching how contemporary tramp freighters actually operate – mostly on charters arranged by brokers, it turns out; speculative trading of the kind SF RPGs emulate has practically disappeared since (and possibly because of) the invention of radio.

None of that made it any more fun, sadly. So I’ve circled back around to the Daring Tales of the Space Lanes approach; the characters spend a lot of time trading, but that all happens off-camera and generates just enough money to offset the ship’s operating expenses; the players don’t get involved in it.

Since this has been the outcome whatever setting and rules I’ve used since the late 1980s, I’m going to knock trading on the head now; you won’t see it here again.

That does leave me with the question of how much money PCs should reasonably have available, so for the time being I shall adapt the Savings rules from Beasts & Barbarians, summarised and modified as follows:

  • At the end of each adventure, PCs get paid or fence their loot, replenish supplies, and replace lost items.
  • They retain $500 per Rank (more than in B&B because the SF PC tends to have more, and more expensive, gear) for emergencies. This is adjusted by the Rich and Filthy Rich Edges, and the Poverty Hindrance, as usual.
  • They then spend everything else they made on the adventure before the next one starts – on the traditional “ale and whores”, starship repairs, training, collection of pet fish, or whatever.

I’m also bored by the hyperspace astrogation rolls and variable trip time. Henceforth jumps succeed and take a week each, and we’re not interested in how much of that week is in hyperspace and how much in realspace. So there.

So much for trafficking. On with the lust for knowing what should not be known!

Review: Night’s Black Agents

"One of us always stays awake, in case of vampires." – Peanuts

It looks like I might get to GM for another group, and in looking for something exciting and different to run, I landed on Night’s Black Agents.

In a Nutshell: It’s The Bourne Identity meets Underworld; badass secret agents vs vampires with the world at stake. (Hur hur.) No pressure, then. 233 page PDF, written by Ken Hite.

CONTENT

Introduction (3 pages): This explains the goal of the game, which is to create a vampire spy thriller, and the modes in which this can be done: Burn, which focusses on the psychological cost to the characters of what they do; Dust, which tones down the over-the-top cinematic defaults to give you a gritty, deadly game; Mirror, which focusses on issues of trust and betrayal; and Stakes, which assumes the PCs are driven by a higher purpose. You can of course mix and match those; my all-time favourite vampire show, the British TV mini-series Ultraviolet, was a Dust/Mirror mix with some of the characters having Stakes as well.

Characters (34 pages): Character generation is a point-buy system in four stages. First, you choose a background, or several; this isn’t a character class per se, but does denote the PC’s role in the team – wheelman, muscle, hacker, and so on. Second, choose investigative abilities – streetwise, tradecraft and so on; these always work, so the PCs will never miss a clue, although they may misinterpret it. Third, choose general abilities – shooting, hand to hand, driving; these require a die roll (on 1d6) to succeed, but the points you put into them can be spent to modify the roll. In this stage you also pick the PC’s MOS; this is one general ability at which you excel, even for a superspy, and once per session you can declare that you automatically succeed when using it. Finally, you create the PC’s personality and dossier; this is partly just backstory, but also optionally includes sources of stability – the people and places that keep the PC sane, and allow him to destress between operations. (Naturally, these will at some point become targets for his enemies…) The PC also has a Drive, which is the thing that motivates him to keep fighting the vampires rather than run and hide.

Adventures in NBA are composed of either intelligence gathering, which uses investigative abilities, or confrontation, which uses general ones. At its most basic, dangerous situations get you information, which leads you to the next dangerous situation, which leads you to another clue, and so on.

General abilities also have "cherries"; these are special features that kick in when you have at least 8 points in the ability. My favourite is Preparedness, which is the ability covering how well you select and pack your gear for the mission. At 8 points, you can retroactively prepare timely specific actions in flashback during play – "I thought this might happen, so last night I rigged his car; I can cut his engine anytime using this…"

Character creation works better as a group effort, because the group will need every investigative ability at some point, so you need to make sure that between them, the group has them all. If you are using the optional trust and betrayal rules, the PCs also need to record how much they trust each of the others. Trust acts as a kind of roving modifier whereby one PC can help another; by betraying each other, PCs can get significant one-time bonuses on actions that hinder the one betrayed.

Players are allowed to reserve build points and spend them in play, as a staple of the genre is suddenly revealing that you could speak Bulgarian all along.

Rules (51 pages): The rules chapter is long, and mostly special cases. What you need to know is this:

  • You always find the clues. Always. You may not understand them, but you will not miss any. However, by spending points, you can get more information – you don’t need this extra information, but it can help speed things up.
  • In a confrontation, you roll 1d6 plus the number of points you want to spend on it, and try to hit a target number, usually 4. You commit the points before rolling the die.
  • Points you spend grow back either at specific points in the game, or when you do something especially cool (for example use your 8 points in Athletics to free-run across the roofs of Paris).
  • Points are not skill levels in the usual sense. Points are a way to signal how much a particular scene is about your character doing cool stuff.
  • You have Health (resistance to damage, lose too much and you die) and Stability (resistance to emotion shocks and betrayal, lose too much and you go insane).

Tools (25 pages): Here’s the gear chapter, and my eyes are not glazing over, which is almost unique. The PCs are superspies, and they have access to any conventional item appropriate to the genre, or anything a middle-class European would be able to buy. Acquiring gear only takes up screen time when it has narrative importance (like Bourne’s cache of passports in the Swiss bank) or can be handled very quickly. There’s no money in the game as such; if something is easy to get, you’ve got it, and if it’s hard to get, you make a general ability test to get at it. The gear list is therefore a short descriptive paragraph for each item, generally with no stats attached.

The Tools chapter is more than just gear, though; it’s also a primer on tradecraft for players. It encourages the group to maintain an adversary map – one of those things the protagonists in the movies always have, a cork board covered in photos, notes, and little pieces of string linking them together. How is the terrorist cell in Marseilles connected to the overall conspiracy? Who sent the hitman after them? Why?

Vampires (45 pages): This is where GM-only territory starts, with a build-your-own vampire kit. Are the vampires supernatural, damned souls, aliens, mutants, or some combination? Where did they originate? What are their powers, weaknesses and objectives? How many of them are there? Can they be cured, and if so, how? Some modes work better with some types of vampire, and there’s guidance on this. There are five different example vampires if you want to cut to the chase and start staking, and a dozen unnatural creatures they might have in support, as well as animals related to vampires in various folkloric traditions. (Stock human NPCs are elsewhere in the book.)

The vampire kit is followed by a conspiracy kit, and the GM’s conspyramid, which is a pyramid of nodes in six levels, from street gangs to the vampire elders themselves. This is the narrative framework of the game, showing who the opposition is, what clues can be found when they are defeated, and – when linked with the vampyramid below – what the conspiracy does in retaliation for being poked at that level. In the example conspiracy provided, a raid on a radar station (level 1) can provide clues leading to a member of the Israeli mafia (level 2) or a ring of heroin smugglers (level 3).

There are several non-pyramidal conspiracy structures, but my instinct is that they would be too confusing for the players.

Cities (24 pages): Most of the action in NBA, especially gathering information, happens in cities – the game as written assumes somewhere in Europe. The chapter explains how to set up one or more cities for the game, with a few examples; provides capsule descriptions of the nations, and also the real-world intelligence, terrorist and criminal organisations operating on the continent.

Stories (10 pages): This is advice to the GM on how to set up adventures; the rhythm of spying and fighting scenes which drive each scenario, the conspyramid which shows where the clues take the PCs and who they fight when they get there, the framework of scenes in a standard thriller and how to modify them, the types of missions that the PCs or their opposition mount, and the vampyramid I mentioned above; this is a list of retaliation options the vampires have when you poke their nest with a stick, such as offering to pay you off, framing you for murder, etc. The GM is encouraged to avoid repetition here; being framed once is a challenge, being framed twice is boring.

Scenarios dealt with, we move on to campaigns; the default NBA campaign begins with the PCs learning that vampires exist, the vampires finding out that they know, and then shifts into a race to see which side can wipe the other out first.

Finally, there is a section on alternatives to the vampire conspiracy; straight-up spy stories, Cthulhu, or psionics.

(S)entries (9 pages): This is a introductory scenario, in which the PCs are hired to suppress evidence of something. The action takes them across the Balkans, through fights, car chases and double-crosses, to the realisation of what the evidence is, and how far the opposition will go to suppress it.

Addenda (15 pages): Character sheets, GM worksheets, quick reference sheets.

FORMAT

Unusually, this document is laid up in three columns, black on white with red or grey headings, and the occasional colour illustration. Crisp, clean, a pleasure to read.

CONCLUSIONS

I love spy stories almost as much as I love science fiction, I love playing with conspiracy ideas, I’m OK with vampires, and Ken Hite is the ideal author to merge those elements into a kickass game, which he has duly done.

It does rely on the players sharing responsibility for the narrative, and in my experience not all groups are comfortable with this. The conspyramid is effectively a sandbox; like a dungeon map it presents the PCs with choices of routes to follow, but they must decide which lead to follow up and how.

The GM also needs to prepare quite a lot in advance; the actual sessions may be improvised, but you need to know what your vampires are like, how their conspiracy is structured, and what their objectives are; these give you the framework within which you can improvise.

If you plan on running this game, watch Ultraviolet first. Seriously.

If you don’t, there are a lot of ideas here that are worth pilfering. The conspyramid for the overall campaign structure; the vampyramid for how the bad guys react to the PCs’ meddling; the notes on how to run a thriller story. These are things that I will take with me into the next campaign – in fact I can retrofit them into the Shadows of Keron adventure in Caldeia which will start next time the PCs foregather. Be a shame not to, really.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5. Man, I want to run this now; and I think it could be done online, too. Got some prep work first though…