Review: Ashen Stars

Posted: 25 March 2015 in Reviews

“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.

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Comments
  1. I vote Andy Slack for grumpy old git! What’s all this complaining about world building and detailing? I just printed out an eight page Traveller sector and found a site that prints world maps based on water and ice cap percentages. Select a map for the appropriate Hydrographics level, mark the starport and then add whatever cities you need. You’ve been around Traveller long enough to creatively interpret a UWP and throw in some SWN World Tags. If you like Python programming there are both Traveller and Stars Without Number programs on GitHub (there’s that word again!). You can still keep your worlds general enough to fit your current plot. Just some suggestions because I was pulling together my own sector this weekend. Some of the aliens sound like they are right out of Star Frontiers. I have yet to find a quick way, other than putting the Spacemaster alien generator into a computer program, to make quick aliens. GURPS Uplift and the latest GURPS Space have alien/animal generators, but they are time consuming to go through. Another thought – why aren’t you recycling some of your Traveller worlds from the epic game you ran years ago? Just a thought. Thanks for the review. I like the artwork, but am not yet wild about the game. I’m using Stars Without Number to expand my own non-canon (created from scratch – like GURPS Space) Traveller game. I may yet hybrid the Megatraveller and Mongoose Traveller rules. I like the task system and one die does all in Megatraveller, but Mongoose Traveller does better with creating a character background during character generation. IMHO. Or not so humble opinion.

  2. andyslack says:

    Many would agree with you, Charles – there’s a reason we’re called grognards, you know…

    However, my grumpiness is with Gumshoe as a rules system, the world generation thing is more of an “Aha!” moment – “Ahh, so that’s how you do this space-opera-without-a-starmap thing!”. I’m still thinking through the ramifications of that approach, and deciding whether or not to adopt it.

    Either way, this is a great time to be GMing a space opera game, with a lot of exciting tools and ideas around, worldbuilding or not.

  3. steelbrok says:

    I found your review of ashen stars almost exactly mirrored my own thought son it.
    I did get as far as Savaging the various races though I haven’t actually used them although I have lifted a lot of ideas inspired by the game into my solo Savage Star wars campaign.

  4. andyslack says:

    I thought about that, but then decided it would be easier to use the SW/SFC races and tweak the backstory a bit. I think I will wind up doing something similar, there are a lot of good ideas in Ashen Stars.

  5. I am very pleased to read this review. I love Laws’ ideas and advice, but rarely like his systems which start simple and then become complicated since they rarely scale. As a fellow Savage/MongTrav fan I now know that the setting in Ashen Stars is worth lifting, the advice worth taking, and the system leaving behind. Which is also how I viewed NBA BTW.. Ta!

  6. […] Rules of Reprisal (34 pages): The Gumshoe rules – I’ve reviewed these before here and here. I don’t like them, but the salient points are that they preclude the PCs missing anything […]

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