[ACRP] Onwards, to the Ashen Stars

Previously, I’ve talked a bit about our short campaign of Ashen Stars. In this post, I’ll be diving into a few more details about the game book, though it won’t be my own musings entirely.

This autumn, I started recording a podcast about roleplaying games with three other Danish roleplayers – Morten Greis, Oliver Nøglebæk and Nis Baggesen. The podcast is called Lænestolsrollspil, which is Danish for Arm Chair Roleplaying – because we are sitting around a mike talking about a roleplaying book that we’ve read, but not necessarily played (though in practice, we choose books we have an interest in, which usually means at least one of us has played it).

We launched three weeks ago, and our first episode was on Ashen Stars. I’ve been debating what to do with it since. I want to write about our podcast here. Now, I have reason to believe that a great many of my readers are Danes. For that reason, I don’t want to just rehash everything we say in the podcast – I’d rather you go here and listen to the podcast.

I made this blog in English, though, so that it would also be accessible to foreigners, and so I’d like to give a taste of what we talk about in the podcast.

And so, below I’ll try to give a brief overview of Ashen Stars, including some of the main points from the podcast.

What is Ashen Stars?

Ashen Stars is a space opera investigation game by Robin D. Laws. To put it crudely, take a world a bit like Star Trek or Babylon 5, add in a crew and a ship like in Firefly, but turn them into investigators, and make it a police procedural instead of a Western.

The rules, meanwhile, are an iteration of the GUMSHOE system of rules. GUMSHOE was developed by Laws as a way to make investigation without the risk of stalling due to poor dice rolling. In character creation, you divvy up all the different investigative skills, so that all of them are represented in the crew. If you have a skill, you get the associated clue, but you can sometimes spend a point from that skill to gain a benefit.

The other skills, including the more action-oriented ones involved in fighting and flying a spacecraft, have a separate budget of points. When you roll one of these, the GM chooses a difficulty (without telling you), then you select a number of points to spend from your skill and add a d6 to that. If you roll equal to or higher than the difficulty, you succeed.

To that is added a system of story generation. Each character has a Drive, which is something that makes them want to go out into space. To this is added an “arc”, that is, a personal story the player wants their character to live through.

Skills: An economy of abundance

A lot of the game is tied up in the point spending economy. Unfortunately, that part doesn’t seem as smooth as we would have liked. When we played it, we never had to think about spending points from our investigative abilities. Can I spend? Sure, I will. I have so many abilities, and so many points, it’s not that likely I’ll run out of spends, unless the GM really wants me to. Then he’ll focus on one or two of my abilities, but that would be a somewhat dickish move.

I’m also not a fan of the way all the investigative skills get partitioned out among the players. It means we can get all clues merely by having the right guy show up on the scene. I think I would prefer having us decide which skills we feel fit our characters. If we’re missing some skills – well, then we’d better get creative and learn to do without.

One final comment on the skills: I find them a bit difficult to get a grip on. I think this is where the space opera setting interferes with the investigation. What, for instance, can you do with an “Energy Signatures” skill? Or how about “Industrial Design”? These skills make perfect sense in the setting, but they are difficult for me as a player or GM to understand intuitively.

Stories: Planets and cases and arcs, oh my

The book gives some pretty good advice on telling stories. Introducing story arcs work well to distribute spotlight. Meanwhile, the chapter on creating worlds for cases is pretty good, helping the GM create very distinctive planets for their cases. It would have been nice to have some advice for GMs on turning their cases into a cohesive whole – an “arc” for the whole campaign, and maybe mechanics or guidelines for tying up a season, changing arcs and Drives, and changing direction of the campaign.

While the book does pretty well on the big picture stuff, it seems there is very little advise on how to actually run the game. It tells you how to make core clues, but how do you use them in play?

Setting: the gritty reboot

The setting of the game is a rehash of other space opera shows, with a few peculiarities of its own thrown in. It frames itself as the gritty reboot of a hopeful sci-fi show, set after the near-collapse of the great galactic Fede… Combine.

Mostly it works well, but in the podcast, we object to a few things. One major thing is the major gimmick of the game: there was a big war, but nobody remembers it. Why? Nobody knows, and it’s difficult to even think about it. Ah, so this much be a central part of the game? Nah, not really. It seems to be primarily a way to have it not be about the war. But it seems weird, and not all that elegant. You’re putting a huge plot right in front of the players, but then telling them: “But that’s not what our story is going to be about.” Why not? Why not just say that the Mohilar were defeated, or retreated, or something? The amnesia is such a huge thing, it’s almost impossible to get around.

…but do you like it?

To conclude, I’ll say what I said in the podcast: I like the idea of Ashen Stars much more than I like the actual rules. The races seem interesting, the universe is mostly good, and being crews of freelance investigators is a great way of framing an investigative adventuring party. But the implementation is often inelegant, and frustrating, because it doesn’t really help me do the investigative stories I would like to do. It’s a pity, but that sees to be the long and the short of it.

The next episode of the podcast is already up. In it, we look at something completely different: In a Wicked Age by D. Vincent Baker.

22 December: Gregor MacGregor

Even as a young man, Gregor MacGregor seems to have been obsessed with appearances.
Even as a young man, Gregor MacGregor seems to have been obsessed with appearances.

Name: Gregor MacGregor

Tagline: A Scotsman who, after a stint in the Napoleonic Wars, went off to South America to join the wars of independence.

Claim to Fame: Perpetrating several plots to enrich himself at the cost of others, including twice selling off land in a non-existent province. Continue reading 22 December: Gregor MacGregor

20 December: Carsten Niebuhr

Carsten Niebuhr dressed and ate like the natives of the countries he passed through - as opposed to his travelling companions, who most likely tried to hold on to European sensibilities.
Carsten Niebuhr dressed and ate like the natives of the countries he passed through – as opposed to his travelling companions, who most likely tried to hold on to European sensibilities.

Name: Carsten Niebuhr

Tagline: As a young man with a knack for cartography, Niebuhr was selected for the Danish king’s expedition to the “Arabia Felix”. After his travelling companions died in the early stages of the trip, he travelled alone throughout the Middle East, returning to give the world a much better understanding of the Arabian Peninsula.

Claim to Fame: Literally writing the book on the “Happy Arabia”.

Carsten Niebuhr was born in 1733, Niebuhr was originally planning to become a surveyor, but attended university instead. He caught the eye of an academic, who recommended him as a participant for the Danish king Frederick V’s Danish Arabia Expedition.

The expedition set sail in January 1761, sailing first to Marseilles and Malta, before going to Istanbul and Alexandria. After arriving in Egypt, the expedition went to Cairo and to Sinai. Then they crossed the Red Sea and entered Mocha.

And this is where the story turns a bit bleak. Cause this is where the first member of the expedition died on May 25th, 1763. A month and a half, the next member died on the way to Sana, the capital of Yemen. After an audience with the Imam of Yemen, the remains of the expedition set off to sea towards Bombay. On the 29th and 30th of August, two more members of the expedition died at sea. And finally, shortly after the ship landed in Bombay, the second-to-last member of the expedition died.

Niebuhr was a cartographer and surveyor, and prepared maps of the places he visited. This one is of Yemen.

Which left Niebuhr all alone. He spent 14 months in Bombay, before travelling home by land, visiting many countries and cities on his way.

On his way, Niebuhr spoke to many, many of the local people he met. Not only that, he dressed like them, ate with them, and integrated himself with them to a large extent.

And of course he brought home notes and samples of all kinds of things. Apparently, his drawings were essential to cracking the old Cuneiform script, and he is considered one of the founding fathers of Assyriology.

I would posit that he can also be considered a founding father of ethnography. He was a keen observer of people, and understood to describe them more or less on their own terms.

How would I use him: Niebuhr is a stellar example of an explorer. He goes around, meets people, has adventures, and reports it all to his home. Use him as a mold for a fantasy game about bold adventurers – or maybe try moving him into space.

The whole expedition also offers a great opportunity for a story of intrigue and politics on an expedition. There was a lot of drama connected with the beginning of the expedition, which I don’t have time to go into – and while it’s not such a mystery why so many of Niebuhr’s travelling companions died (they were ill adjusted to the climate, and didn’t have resistance to the many tropical diseases they encountered), it would be easy to make a mystery out of their deaths.

There is also a great case to be made for using Niebuhr as a precursor. In the Cthulhu game, he is the one who wrote the tome on the weird rituals of certain cults. Or maybe something followed him home, hidden in some object sent home to Copenhagen … getting ready to awaken …

19 December: Erich Mielke

Mielke in 1976, almost 20 years into his tenure as head of Stasi. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0522-177 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Mielke in 1976, almost 20 years into his tenure as head of Stasi. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0522-177 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Name: Erich Fritz Emil Mielke

Tagline: Joining the communists at an early age, Erich rose in the hierarchy of the newly formed GDR.

Claim to Fame: Head of the East German secret police (Stasi) throughout most of its existence and one of the fathers of the Berlin Wall. Continue reading 19 December: Erich Mielke

18 December: Artemisia of Halicarnassus

Artemisia ruled her city on behalf of her son.
Artemisia ruled her city on behalf of her son.

Name: Artemisia I of Halicarnassus

Tagline: Warrior Queen of the Greek city-state of Halicarnassus, satrap (Persian governor) of the satrapy of Caria, fought for the Persians against the Greeks during the second Persian invasion of Greece, 480 BC.

Claim to Fame: Artemisia of Halicarnassus was the only Persian naval commander to come out of the disastrous battle of Salamis with both life and honour largely intact. She was also the only Persian commander in the invasion to give the Persian King Xerxes honest advice rather than flattery. Continue reading 18 December: Artemisia of Halicarnassus

17 December: Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen

You can almost see this guy's duplicitous nature shining from his eyes.
You can almost see this guy’s duplicitous nature shining from his eyes.

Name: Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen, nicknamed ‘The Professor of Cunning.’

Tagline: played a father and son against each other in a regicidal drama.

Claim to fame: Pahlen is a source of inspiration for weasels everywhere. A combination of duplicity and luck led him nearly unscathed through the murder of Russian Emperor Paul and the accession of Alexander. Continue reading 17 December: Peter Ludwig von der Pahlen

16 December: Odin

Odin is, deep down, a trickster. That's probably why he keeps Loki around.
Odin is, deep down, a trickster. That’s probably why he keeps Loki around.

Name: Odin, The Allfather. Woden, Wotan and similar variations. Also, more than 200 other names. Seriously, take a look at this list of his many different names!

Tagline: The ruler of Asgard, he sits in his tower in Valhalla, his keep, from whence he watches the world and lays plans for defeating the Giants of Jotunheim.

Claim to fame: Though he’s not quite as famous as some of his subordinate gods, like Thor, Loki and Freya, Odin is the chief of all the Norse gods. He is also one of the creators of mankind, and a powerful god of magic and wisdom. Continue reading 16 December: Odin

15 December: Bishop Absalon

Bishop Absalon is the only non-king to have an equastrian statue in Copenhagen. Photo by Calimo, CC SA BY 3.0.
Bishop Absalon is the only non-king to have an equastrian statue in Copenhagen. Photo by Calimo, CC SA BY 3.0.

Name: Absalon

Tagline: Born into a famous Danish family, he became a powerful bishop and ally to the king.

Claim to Fame: Founded Copenhagen. Also, he paid the guy who wrote the first history of Denmark Continue reading 15 December: Bishop Absalon

14 December: Enkidu

Enkidu defeating a lion.
Enkidu defeating a lion.

Name: Enkidu, “Enki’s Creation”

Tagline: Created by the god Aruru from clay and spit to humble the hero, Gilgamesh, he starts off as a wild man, until he is civilised by a temple prostitute. He becomes friends and fast companions with Gilgamesh

Claim to Fame: being Gilgamesh’s right hand man for much of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Continue reading 14 December: Enkidu