Dark Nebula Returns from the Grave

“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

Love that quote. I’ve used it before, will no doubt use it again, and make no apology for it. The Dark Nebula is back; it happened like this…

-o0o-

The core players of the old Shadows of Keron group approached me recently about doing some roleplaying over the summer, and of course I said yes – I’m very pleased that they want to carry on playing, despite everything else that’s going on.

We quickly settled on space opera as the genre and Savage Worlds as the rulebook (although Classic Traveller came a close second); and there was a specific request for Stars Without Number as the setting. When we discussed who the PCs are and what they do, there was wild enthusiasm for the misfit crew of an over-insured, leaky freighter on suicide missions, which regular readers will recognise as the premise of Bulldogs! (There was, in fact, actual jumping in the air and shouts of “Yes! Suicide missions!” from the ladies. Truly, the female of the species is more deadly than the male.)

So much for me swearing off mashups and purging them from the blog. Still, it’ll work, it’ll be fun, and as always, I care more about who I play with than what we play.

THE CAMPAIGN

Using SWN as the setting will save me a lot of time, but I still need to think about the overall campaign framework. This needs to be strange enough that it feels like sci fi rather than the present day with FTL drives, but familiar enough to be accessible to infrequent players with a lot else on their minds, and one does this with the careful use of tropes.

Guided by the Zhodani Base and the Standard Sci Fi Setting, I select the following as the palette for this flight:

  • Two rival states, both intent on controlling the campaign’s region of space (note that they don’t necessarily need a permanent presence in it). In line with tradition, one of these will be a human-dominated Federation, and the other will be an alien Empire ruled by a Proud Warrior Race.
  • A sealed menace imprisoned in an isolated area by the Ancients/Forerunners/Precursors. Stereotypically, humanity and the Proud Warrior Race are at war, but join forces to suppress the menace (usually killer robots) once it is unleashed.
  • Lots of backwater planets dripping with adventure hooks, where PCs can frolic unencumbered by the rule of law.
  • Somewhere that feels like home. This is often an idyllic planet, not part of either rival state but coveted by both, where the Hero’s Journey begins; however, in the TV shows I’m trying to emulate, it’s more often the characters’ starship. That way you don’t have to detail anyone’s homeworld, and the constant travel keeps the game fresh by allowing you to use different NPCs every session; less work, more flexibility.

The players are divided between those who prefer sandbox play and those who prefer a scripted story arc, so I need an arc in a sandbox – and if the players abandon it and gambol off into the wilds on their own recognisance, so much the better. The most obvious arc looks like this; at  (say) 20 episodes per season, the PCs will be just over the border into Legendary Rank at the end of season three.

  • Pilot: Introduces the PCs, their ship, and key elements of the background. Normally, I wouldn’t flesh out the rest of the setting until we’d played this and I was sure the group were interested in continuing with the campaign. (In a published game this is the obligatory introductory scenario.)
  • Season One – Backwater Planet Adventures. The PCs roam through campaign space and get to know key people and places; adventures develop their characters and foreshadow events in later seasons. The season finale features the outbreak of war between the Federation and the Empire.
  • Season Two – War with the Empire. Humanity and the Proud Warrior Race go to war; adventures shift from picaresque roguishness to a military story arc, and the PCs become the Federation’s go-to black ops team. The climax of the season deals with the Sealed Menace escaping and being discovered by the players.
  • Season Three – Into the [Mysterious Region of Space]. The PCs form a coalition of the Proud Warrior Race and humanity to defeat the Sealed Menace. Roll credits. Prepare new setting, because once you’ve thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, everything else is an anticlimax.

You’ll notice that so far, the campaign could use almost any SF RPG or setting; it’s pretty much the default space opera plot from Gray Lensman to Mass Effect.

However, that is about to change, because one of the key elements of any SF setting is how FTL drive works, and there is a chasm between the camps, driven by one question: Is there a starmap?

THE STARMAP

Having a starmap has pros and cons, and different games have different stances on the question. The Savage Worlds Sci-Fi Companion advocates being able to hyperjump from anywhere to anywhere, which is how things work in the TV shows Andromeda (with a ship) and Stargate SG-1 (without a ship). The Last Parsec has a network of nav beacons like Babylon 5 or Star Wars; you’re either on the net and easily accessible, or off it and isolated. Ashen Stars, like Mass Effect, has regions in which travel is fast and easy, connected by trunk routes and separated by regions which are slower and more difficult to traverse. Old School SF RPGs like Traveller and SWN have more traditional maps, in which space is de facto an ocean, with trade routes and defensible choke points.

The question is, which is better for your specific campaign?

  • No map at all is very little effort for the GM, and places almost no constraints on the campaign, but poses questions about trade and warfare for which I have neither ready answers nor historical analogues. If your group is following a story arc, this is the best option, because it doesn’t matter what’s on either side of the railroad, they’re never going to go there; so there’s no point putting any work into it. The GM’s effort in this kind of game is focussed on writing adventures.
  • A full-on starmap is the opposite; quite a bit of effort to set up and detail, and places many constraints on who can go where. Trade and military operations follow familiar thought patterns. If your group prefers a sandbox, this is better, because their decisions on which route to take matter. In this kind of game, the GM’s effort is spent mostly on the setting, because the players decide what the plotline is.
  • A regions-plus-trunk-routes map or a network of nav beacons lets the GM turn easy travel on or off like a light, according to the needs of the scenario, and is midway between the two extremes. Maybe next time.

As you may have guessed from the title, I’m going with the map from the old Dark Nebula boardgame, partly because I can recycle previously-culled posts and hit the ground running, and partly because it’s an excellent fit for the Standard Sci-Fi Setting. I will adjust things for lessons learned, but I won’t purge the Nebula again – at worst it will languish in the Tryouts category.

So, next up, the map… This is a well-worn path for me, so post frequency will increase for a while as I blitz the setting to get to a playable game.

Review: Strange Stars

I’m still looking for the perfect space opera setting, and I was intrigued by the approach this one takes. So…

In a Nutshell: 32-page system-agnostic space opera setting book from Armchair Planet, written by Trey Causey. $10 PDF or $16 softcover at time of writing.

CONTENT/FORMAT

I’m noticing more and more setting products designed without a specific RPG in mind, and this is one of them. It’s hard to separate content from format for this book, because every concept has an illustration, almost always in full colour. With the exception of a how-to-use-this-book page, it’s all written from an in-game perspective, so you can leave it on the table for the players to browse through.

The cover is an obvious homage to Star Frontiers, TSR’s space opera game from the 1980s. (People have tried to explain to me why this game is so good for years, and I still don’t understand; but it clearly has a lot of nostalgic fans about my age who do.)

Inside, you get the following, but not necessarily in this order:

  • A two-page historical overview of the four epochs of human space. Earth is long-lost, and nobody is sure where it is or how long ago humans went to the stars. Since then, two galactic empires (the Archaic Oikumene and the Radiant Polity) have risen and fallen, and the modern age is one of successor states partially filling the vacuum left by the Polity.
  • Full-page illustrations of a dozen archetypical characters, each annotated with explanations of their gear and unique physical attributes.
  • Commentary on the three classes of sophont: Biologics (meat), moravecs (metal), and infosophonts (substrate-independent data).
  • Commentary on hyperspace travel; maps, including a top-level one with half a dozen regions, then slightly more detailed ones for each of those regions.
  • Paragraph descriptions and thumbnail illustrations for 3-6 places of interest and/or indigenous species in each region.
  • Paragraph descriptions of the most wanted criminals (individuals or organisations) in known space, some inimical species and psionics.
  • A short glossary and pronunciation guide.
  • A page of about 40 McGuffins for scenarios: People, places, cargo, things.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The author is already working on conversions for FATE and Stars Without Number; I’d be interested in a Savage Worlds port, obviously, but that’s just laziness on my part – you could merge Strange Stars and The Last Parsec seamlessly, no-one would ever find the join.

The other thing one might wish for is an adventure generator; there’s one on the author’s blog, along with numerous other goodies and expanded information on many of the ideas in the book.

CONCLUSIONS

If Dorling-Kindersley made RPG setting books, they would look like this. As the book itself explains, this is a setting book written from the bottom up; interesting pictures and semi-random snippets of information to entice the GM into creating the setting himself.

It does what it sets out to do; there are a lot of adventure hooks crammed into the book, and it’s also fun playing spot-the-reference – there’s everything from Jack Vance to Iain M Banks by way of George Lucas; a heady mix indeed. Most SF games and game settings I’m familiar with don’t feel very science-fictional now; they’re grounded in the tropes of the Golden Age and the standard sci-fi setting. Strange Stars, with its asteroid-sized hyper-intelligences, drugged teenage slave-soldiers in powered armour, and post-human entities endlessly reincarnating amnesiac criminals, feels fresh on my jaded palate.

There’s debate on the internet about whether 30 pages is worth $10, but personally I’d say it is – colour art isn’t cheap, and this book is packed with it.

However, the acid test: Will I use it? I’m honestly not sure. That probably says more about my present parlous state of motivation than anything; you could pick this up and be running a Savage Worlds game in the setting in less than an hour, with or without the Sci-Fi Companion, and I may well do that very thing over the summer holidays.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5, and it’s growing on me.

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.