Ashen Stars First Session – Off to Pleasure Planet

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I’ve long had an urge to try out one of the GUMSHOE systems. I played a lot of investigation roleplaying as a teenager, and the genre still holds a certain appeal. That made me curious to see GUMSHOE in action, to see if it makes for fun and interesting roleplaying. There are two implementations of GUMSHOE I’ve been particularly interested in trying out. First and foremost Trail of Cthulhu, particularly in the Bookhounds of London setting. Trail of Cthulhu is, as the name implies, the GUMSHOE variant of Call of Cthulhu, and in Bookhounds, you play sellers and procurers of rare tomes and manuscripts in 1930’es London who get lured into the occult world of the Mythos by the hunt for old and valuable tomes.

The other is Ashen Stars, a space opera investigation game. In it, you play Lasers, lawmen-for-hire in the slightly lawless outer fringe of a galaxy that’s fallen into chaos after a great war. It has a feel that is too law-abiding for Firefly and not moral enough for Star Trek.

Now, while Trail and Bookhounds appeals more to my feelings of nostalgia, I have a soft spot for space opera. And so, when Niels asked me if I wanted to play Ashen Stars with him, I knew I had to say yes. Continue reading Ashen Stars First Session – Off to Pleasure Planet

17th of December: The Esoterrorists

Esoterrorists-Corebook-2e

Protect reality from human fear

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

From: The Esoterrorists Bundle

GUMSHOE really became famous with the publication of Trail of Cthulhu, but Esoterrorists was the first game to feature these rules. That was my reason for picking up this bundle: I was curious to find out what Esoterroists was all about.

The premise of Esoterrorists is this: supernatural phenomena exist. Wherever and whenever humanity becomes sufficiently unsettled and frightened, and they start to doubt reality, the Membrane separating this world from the world outside – dramatically called the Outer Dark – starts to thin, and beings from outside can communicate, and can even be summoned into our world. And of course a bunch of people have decided that doing just that would be a great plan of action. These people are called the Esoterrorists, and they are a very disparate group of people who have the common goal of weakening reality, so the Outer Dark Entities (or ODE’s) can get through).

If that was the end of the story, the prospects for humanity would be grim. Luckily, a number of people know about this and are trying to stop the esoterrorists. These people are members of a global, semi-official conspiracy called the Ordo Veritatis (OV). The OV is backed by several world governments, and many of their agents are law enforcement officers, crime scene technicians or similar for most of their lives, but ready to spring into service as OD agents whenever they are called.

The game comes with a very particular structure for a game – even more structured than its little brother, Ashen Stars, has. Agents are called, meet up with each other in one place, then meet up with “Mr. or Mrs. Verity” (a generic cover name for a briefer) for their mission briefing. Then they go out, investigate, and neutralise anything they find. Then, before they leave, they conduct the “Veil-Out” – cleaning up the mess, removing evidence and disseminating a cover story for what happened. The last bit is important, because rumours of the truth would weaken the Membrane.

Characters in this game are experienced and capable investigators, who have training from somewhere. That is reflected in character creation. Each character has two kinds of abilities (like in other GUMSHOE games): investigative abilities and general abilities. Investigative abilities deal with investigating – not just things like Evidence Collection and Forensic Accounting (yes, that is an ability), but also things like Impersonate and Intimidation that might not usually be considered as belonging to that kind of category. These abilities are not rolled – instead, you always get clues you have the right skills to get, and can spend points for better effects.. General abilities, on the other hand, are rolled, and deal with things like fighting, stealing things and being prepared.

The antagonists fall in two categories: Esoterrorists, and ODE. Esoterrorists are people who are dealing with ODE and trying to break down reality. They are usually organised in cults, and there is a system for classifying both cults and members, to help you better detail them. ODE, on the other hand, are supernatural beings, inhabiting some form of biological, but strange, body. These are described with stats for what they do and how to fight them, and often also a drawing.

The last half or so is an in-depth look at an example of an alternative kind of scenario for the game, called Duty Station: instead of being assembled to deal with one specific issue after another all over the place, this cell of OV has been stationed in a particular city, and will be trying to weed out the Esoterrorists hiding in the community. This section includes several fully fledged NPC’s. Also, while the book is peppered with little story seeds, this part has a whole scenario ready to go.

My impression: I’m a bit ambivalent about this game. On one hand, it looks like a good setup for a really classic, straightforward supernatural investigation game. On the other hand, the game seems rather bland, particularly compared to many similar games.

The game doesn’t really put the player characters in focus. Instead they are mostly just competent proxies for the players. There are no drives, player arcs or similar features in this game (as opposed to Ashen Stars, and also Trail of Cthulhu). Just characters and their abilities. This meshes well with many investigative games I played as a kid, where the story was the important thing, and the investigators were pretty flat.

On the other hand, I think I might prefer having player characters with built in conflicts and personal goals that I can play with in the game. Particularly in a campaign game, where we’ll be hanging out with the characters for a long time.

The scenario structure is also a little stiff for my taste. It meshes well with the premise for the game, with the very structured police-like agency of the OV, and it’s also a good help for quickly getting a game off the ground. On the other hand, it seems the different cases would feel disjointed, and I’m not sure whether a campaign would feel at all like a coherent story.

The Duty Station setup seems more likely to accommodate a cohesive story. Not only will we be dealing with many of the same NPC’s over and over, and to some extent the same enemies, the player characters will be living in the community of these NPC’s, so anythings that happens will hit much closer to home.

On the other hand, I do quite like the way the game introduces the antagonists. The human antagonists are presented as real humans, and asks the GM to consider the history and motivations of the NPCs. In many of these kinds of supernatural investigation games, there is a tendency to skim over the reasons for the evil foe being evil. It’s good to have a game encouraging the GM to make their antagonists into whole and believable characters.

The ODE’s are also well designed. They are weird creatures, but have a distinctly unique feel, different from Cthulhoid horrors or other “creatures from beyond” that would help Esoterrorists stand feel different than other, similar games.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure this game is for me. I don’t have enough interest in police procedure, and I would prefer characters with a bit more flesh to them.

How would I use this: I could see myself using this game for one-shot investigation games, particularly if I ever went back to teaching adolescents. I could also be persuaded to run a short campaign of Duty Station – I could see it as a great basis for a game that is part Twin Peaks, part X-Files and part undercover police drama.

Other than that, I might lift the Esoterrorist creation chapter in a Cthulhoid game, when creating the cults that are summoning the horrors from beyond.

13th of December: Ashen Stars

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Freelance Justice among the fading stars

Author/Designer: Robin D. Laws

From: The Bundle of GUMSHOE

Today I’m looking at Ashen Stars from the Bundle of GUMSHOE, a bundle that contains this game, the police procedural Mutant City Blues, and Ken Writes About Stuff and See Page XX, two series of articles by GUMSHOE designers, Robin D. Laws and Kenneth Hite. It was a toss-up between this and Mutant City Blues, but in the end, I decided to go with Space Opera over police procedural with super mutants. Ken Writes about Stuff and See Page XX was interesting as well, but I’m more interested in the cohesive systems, not least because I have yet to play any GUMSHOE.

GUMSHOE (for those who don’t know) is a system designed by Robin D. Laws to facilitate good investigative roleplaying. In GUMSHOE, a character will never have to roll to find important clues. If you have the right skills, you will find the relevant clues. This system has been implemented in a number of different ways. First in Laws’ Esoterrorists game, a game of occult investigation, and most famously in Kenneth Hite’s revamp of Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu.

Ashen Stars takes GUMSHOE to the stars, with a space opera setting reminiscent of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Firefly. The game is deliberately set after the end of the galactic utopia, in a time of restoration after a great calamity. Ten years ago, a great war against a terrible enemy came to a close, and now the Combine of all the planets is licking its wounds and trying to rebuild.

This means that there is not enough resources to maintain control and safety in all the areas once under firm central control – notably the Bleed, the outer edge of the settled universe. Enter the Lasers – freelance lawmen and problem solvers. They travel in small groups from planet to planet, being hired to come solve crimes and deal with problems.

The role a character fulfils within a crew is used as a jumping off point for character creation. You have a Warpside role – like Pilot, Communications or systems – and a Groundside role – like Cultural, Operations and Survey. Each package will give you certain skills. You also get to pick out some skills on your own.

Of course, this being proper space opera, you also have to select your species, choosing from seven different options, including humans and the Cybes – humans who have been so heavily modified by cybernetics and genetics that they have turned into another species. The races are quite different, both in abilities and in their outlook and culture. The outlook is reflected mechanically in the drives available to each race. Drives are expressions of what drives each character, and each race apart from humans has a list of appropriate drives including one or more that only they can take.

Each player will also make a “personal arc” for their character. A personal goal centres around a special goal that the player wishes to accomplish, then adds details about what he wants to achieve. In this way, the players will each have something that can engage that player and throw spotlight on his character, just as each of them will be contributing something to the structure of the campaign.

Speaking of the campaign, the book gives a good overview of the main political realities of the Bleed. Then it provides the tools to create worlds, fraught with problems for the PC’s to deal with. The world creation guide is a very easy-to-follow process, where each step allows you to create interesting problems, and worlds to go with them. The game also has rules for creating and structuring the cases that the players will encounter in a given session. Again, the game provides a very well structured and easy-to-grasp guide.

It does seem that there is a certain overlap between creating worlds with problems and creating cases, and I am not entirely sure where the difference lies. In one, you create a world with a problem the players need to solve, in the other, you create a case for them to solve. The chapter on creating scenes gives a lot more detail, as it’s the chapter to actually tell you how to run the game.

My impression: I am actually quite impressed with this game. It looks like a very interesting and engaged take on an investigative game. It also sounds like it has a good spin on space opera, sufficiently in line with genre conventions to engage the fans, while different enough to feel different.

The alien races are more than just stats and outside description; instead, the descriptions are written from the point of view of each race, and gives a good introduction to how the races think, feel and act. This gives a lot of good input into playing members of each species.

The crew assignments seem like a good way to give players a leg-up into building characters, and also help ensure that the group has everything they need when the game starts. It also helps define the characters’ relationships to each other, without pegging them too much.

Finally, I really like the drive and personal arc. Drive gives you a good indication of what the character cares about, while the personal arc allows you to build a story into the game that is about something you care about, and something that is about you.

The chapters for the Game Moderator are also quite good. The rules for making worlds and cases help the GM make good stories that evoke the feel of the game, and make sure that there is enough interest for the players to engage with. The chapter on running the game also includes loads of good general advice on being a good GM, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to a relatively new GM, as long as they know something about Space Opera and investigation.

I have an idea for a Space Opera game using the Apocalypse Engine rattling around in my brain, which was par of why I wanted to look at this game here. But after reading it, I’m wondering if I might not want to take this game out for a spin sometime. It is also reminding me a lot of Star*Drive, and making me itch to take a look at that again.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted to host a game of investigation in space, I might definitely look here. Like I mentioned above, I have an old love for Alternity’s Star*Drive, but this is probably more accessible and less clunky mechanically. I might also well decide to use it if I ever teach adolescents about roleplaying – this is very accessible in both mechanics and theme, and so it might well be a good way to introduce them to investigation.