[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.

Ashen Stars First Session – Off to Pleasure Planet


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

15th of December: Bulldogs


Tempt your Fate in action packed space adventures!

Author/Designer: Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard

From: Bundle of Fate

Fate has gone through a lot of development, from the main breakthrough with Spirit of the Century to the current wave of games using Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Bulldogs! lies in the middle of that evolution, coming out after the success of SotC, but before the birth of Core and Accelerated.

Bulldogs is a space opera game, taking place in The Frontier Zone between two competing empires. Big interstellar corporations are among the movers and shakers in this region, and the players are employed by such a corporation, manning a Class D freighter carrying cargo around the frontier and encountering all sorts of mayhem.

When starting a new campaign, the players and the GM create the ship and the captain together, assigning aspects to them and talking about the basis for the crew. The book stresses that the GM should have no more say in this than the other players. It also recommends that the captain be controlled by the GM, and not be a player character. Then each player will create their own characters, choosing a species from the list or making one up, devising aspects and assigning skills and stunts. Stunts work much like they do in Atomic Robo: The book comes with examples of stunts, but the idea is that you should design your own stunts.

The book is neatly laid out, with clear headings and a logical structure. As a nice little touch, each chapter has an associated picture, and a circular cutting from that picture is in the top corner of every even page of that chapter.

My impression: In many ways, Bulldogs! seems to be a mix of Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo. Just like Ashen Stars, you are travelling around your section of space, solving problems and having adventures. It also features a similarly varied set of alien species. But the tone is much lighter than in Ashen Stars, and more like Atomic Robo – the same ridiculous attitude and silly hijincks. The alien species would also be more at home in the zanier world of Atomic Robo than in Ashen Stars: one is a race of mad, trigger happy teddy bears, for crying out loud! Many of the others are anthropomorphic animals of different kinds, like a race of big cats, a race of humanised snakes and a race of a-sexual, cloning slugs. I suppose this goes with the more gung-ho, action oriented kind of space opera featured in this game.

Where Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo both have a very firm description of what you will be doing, Bulldogs! has only some vague indications. You will be delivering goods, often of a dangerous and unstable kind. And then? Well, then action happens, of some unspecified kind. Th game does indicate that it might be a good idea to involve players’ aspects in the creation of scenarios, but that is about it. There is no recommended structure for a scenario, and no outline for how you should put a campaign together. This is somewhat disappointing, not least because the players’ immediate circumstance – as something akin to galactic FedEx’ers – doesn’t naturally lead to great games.

To be frank, I was somewhat surprised when I saw what the basic premise for the campaign was. You are hauling stuff, which is a trade that is most successful when you just land, unload and take off again. Not what you’ll want to be doing every Wednesday night for some excitement. Now if you were freelance haulers, you’d be negotiating contracts and sometimes ending up with a deal going south. But no, you are corporate wage-slaves, getting your assignments from HQ. Granted, you are going to be transporting dangerous and volatile cargoes, but that also seems to have a limited novelty factor.

At the back of the book are some alternative suggestions for campaigns that sound more interesting. You can be a mercenary crew, explorers, an espionage crew or perhaps even pirates! I am left to wonder, though, why none of these were chosen as the basic model for a campaign, or maybe just written into the chapter as equal ideas. All of these seem to more readily afford a varied series of exciting adventures.

As stated before, the captain is supposed to be an npc. This doesn’t seem an obvious choice to me either. The game states that in this way, the captain can be an adversarial force who can help create problems for the players. Fair enough. But it also means taking a fair deal of agency away from the players. Unless the first part of the campaign involved getting rid of or sidelining the captain, I think I would prefer to have a player assume the role of captain. That way, it will be a player having to deal with HQ, making unpopular decisions and taking the spotlight during a tense dogfight. And I’m not worried about one player nominally having authority over the others – a bit of PvP can mean hours of fun play that the GM doesn’t have to initiate.

I like the universe of Bulldogs! and the tone of the game seems fun and very appealing. Having the players and the GM make the space ship together as part of character creation is a great idea, as it makes the ship a unifying part of the party, and implies a conversation about the kind of game the group wants to play. I could easily imagine Firefly as a prototype of a campaign of Bulldogs! where the ship is like an extra character in the party.

Unfortunately, the game seems unfinished, or at the very least, unpolished. To my mind, no modern roleplaying game is complete without some form of instructions in making the kind of scenarios and campaigns it wants you to play. This game provides mostly alludes to the kinds of situations that could arise, without really telling me how to put it together. The whole GM-section of the book is 9 pages out of 170, with several going to general moment-to-moment advice on running a game of Fate – much of which is practically identical to advice from the superb GM-section in Spirit of the Century – and two pages being the alternative campaign ideas. “Adventure Design” is barely half a page of vague advice. A pity they didn’t adapt some of Spirit’s excellent advice on creating adventures.

I do have faith in my abilities to create an interesting campaign of Bulldogs! But with so many cool and interesting games beckoning, I’m likely to skip it for a game that provides me with more structure to create a good basis for fun and engaging games.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted a fun game of rogue operators in space, in the vein of Firefly, I might very well look to Bulldogs! (I might even think this game would better emulate that series than the actual Firefly roleplaying game). I’ve said this a lot throughout this advent calendar., but it might also be a good game for young roleplayers with an experienced GM.

13th of December: Ashen Stars


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.