by Chris Sellers

I recently ran a short campaign of Ashen Stars where the group played crooks instead of Lasers. They were honorable thieves, like the crew of “Firefly,” or maybe the Han Solo we’ll see in Solo. The game was set in a vast Bleed where they also had to dodge a still-powerful Combine. Although we didn’t always get very investigative, I think Ashen Stars and GUMSHOE have real possibilities for scoundrels.

We got into this odd hack when I asked the players what flavor setting they wanted to be in, and they chose smugglers who pulled heists.

We tinkered with the setting in other ways, they suggested some of the beats they wanted in the story, and they chose their Icon relationships. In the spirit of 13th Age and Gareth’s Icons of the Ashen Stars, I came up with 13 Icons drawn from a broad palette of space operas, which gave the galaxy some texture.

We used the simpler “Warp Play” list of Abilities found in Accretion Disk. To model the situations they foresaw getting into, we added Downside and Protocol to the Interpersonal list. To keep the crew motivated to be honorable and think past their next score, we kept the Reputation mechanic, which now signified how much the criminal underworld thinks they can be counted on to complete a job.

We had a lot of fun, but we ran into some trouble finding situations where the crew needed or wanted to use their Investigative Abilities. In a normal game, when a Laser crew gets assigned an investigation, they have a natural motivation to dig into it and solve it. But a crew of smugglers more naturally gets capers, which are only secondarily, perhaps artificially, part of any investigation.

The characters had lots of natural motivations – grasping for bigcreds, keeping the ship flying, and staying one step ahead of their many enemies – none of which lend themselves to puzzle-solving on their face. There was indeed a central mystery, and the gigs they got did lead them deeper into it. But when the crew’s primary motivation is to make a quick buck, it’s harder to give them a reason to ever address the mystery. We veered toward a dynamic that emphasized power politics, dogfights, and grand theft astro.

At the very beginning, I dropped them in medias res into a job, to steal the ship that they would fly throughout the campaign. Right away, it wasn’t obvious what the front side of the character sheet was for, with all its intriguing Investigative Abilities. GUMSHOE allows players to avoid the analysis-paralysis of planning via the Preparedness Ability: spend some points and roll well enough, and you have what you need. But in hindsight, a good use of investigative skills in a burglary scenario may have been to do a reconnaissance run before the action started.

Their Icon relationships motivated them to dig deeper, as did the promise of a big payday at the end of the puzzle. They used Downside to pump the bartender in a cantina on a desert planet, Authority to interact with a secret contact in military intelligence, Scanning and Analyst to figure out the best way into a guarded space station, and Bullshit Detector for lots of things.

The next time our group visits this galaxy, I’ll probably introduce a “to catch a thief” arc, where the crew is hired to track down another criminal (one without honor), whose methods they need to figure out. That makes them a little like Lasers, at least for a little while; maybe that’s cheating.

Most of all, I’d like to make the galaxy itself a puzzle to figure out: how to survive, how to stay ahead of implacable pirate hunters and bounty hunters, and how to find a job at all. That might change the Abilities list more profoundly, perhaps introducing finer variations of Downside, like: Finger in the Wind (see Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing), Goading, Scuttlebutt, or Skulk. We’ll probably re-introduce existing Abilities with slightly new purpose: Bureaucracy to suss syndicate hierarchies, Forensic Accounting to sniff money trails and find a score, Forensic Engineering to spot traps, Impersonate to get into the wrong parties, and Intimidation as-is. I’ll have to discuss it with the players, but I’m happy to do whatever it takes to keep flying.


About the author:
Chris Sellers is an enthusiastic GM, player, and cartoonist who lives in Ohio. He believes that if only octopuses lived longer, they would evolve into that other sentient life in the universe we’re always looking for. On Instagram at chris.a.sellers.

Ashen Stars Tech Cards

Ralf Schemmann of Profantasy Software and long-time fan of Ashen Stars, has made up some Tech Cards. These are to aid in tracking tech, gear and viroware and contain all the info players need to keep all their add-ons in order. You can download the zipped PDFs here.

DieHard Game Fan offers this in-depth review of Ashen Stars from a reviewer who is not keen on the GUMSHOE system’s resource management.

Ashen Stars breaks new ground in that genre with its narrow focus on mysteries and problem solving. GUMSHOE fans and those looking for a new sci-fi setting with an emphasis on drama over technical details will get the most out of this game.

Handouts

Wallpaper

GM Screen

Pistacchio has designed a lovely Ashen Stars GM screen – you can download it from here:

Quick Start Adventure

Download Stowaway – the Ashen Stars 30-minute demo. Includes pregenerated characters.

If you want to introduce your players to Ashen Stars, it’s much easier to get them into it if it just takes up 20 minutes of their valuable time at the beginning or end of a session.  It’s also a great convention demo.

Listen to Kevin Kulp run the Stowaway quick start demo for Ashen Stars:

Download here.

Thanks to the players: Tim Crosby, Chris O’Gahan, Leah Shuldiner

Samples

Articles

Reviews

  • A review of Ashen Stars from rpg.net
  • A review of Ashen Stars from Halfway Station
  • A review of Ashen Stars from diehardgamefan.com
  • A review of Ashen Stars from ageofravens.blogspot.com
  • A review of Dead Rock Seven (a collection of four adventures for Ashen Stars) from Reviews From R’lyeh

Stowaway is a 20-minute demo for Ashen Stars from ENnie Award presenter and all around nice guy, Kevin Kulp. This demo premiered at GenCon to rave reviews. It’s a great introduction to Ashen Stars and includes six pre-gens, and you can try it at the beginning or end of a session when you have another game planned.

You can download the PDF here.
 
 
You can listen to a recording of the actual play of this demo here:

And if you’d prefer to download the actual play, you can do that here.

 

We want your ideas as part of the GUMSHOE Community on DriveThruRPG! The GUMSHOE Community is a home for independent creators to upload products like adventures, rules supplements, monsters, and whatever else you can dream up. If you’ve got a wild idea, whether it’s a new planet you homebrewed for Ashen Stars, or a creature of unremitting horror for Fear Itself, or if you’ve written up scenario notes that really terrified your Esoterrorist investigators, consider writing up any of these for the GUMSHOE Community Contest.

How it works

The GUMSHOE Community program is a place where you can upload your homebrew content for various GUMSHOE systems and sell them straight through DriveThruRPG. For this contest, write up any of your wild and/or successful ideas for one of the supported GUMSHOE systems (see “What can I submit?” below), submit them through the form at the bottom of this post, and Robin D. Laws will select one winner, whose piece will get a professional cover illustration and be professionally laid out (see “What do I get?” below).

The best part about all this is that, even for those of us who don’t win, at the end we’ll have put in the work and have a finished written product that we can still upload to the GUMSHOE Community. If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at publishing an RPG product, this is a great way to dip your toes.

What can I submit?

Anything that fits with the GUMSHOE rulesets currently supported in the GUMSHOE Community program: that’s Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch.

As to the style of submission, nearly anything goes. Full-fledged scenario? Groovy. Collection of scenario hooks? Rad. A single new monster? Sure, why not? You don’t need to write a 10,000-word manifesto (though you could), and you don’t need a 5,000-word write-up for a new planet. Give us your short, pithy ideas, alongside your longer masterpieces. Give us your best.

Multiple submissions are fine.

We’ll ask that you only submit text files, unless you have illustrative examples you think are completely necessary, and these should be incorporated into a text file. The way that Google Forms works, you’ll need to submit either a Google Doc or a PDF saved to Google Drive.

It doesn’t need to be PG, but nothing rated NC-17, please. See the GUMSHOE Community Content Guidelines for more resources about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

What are the judges looking for?

First of all, we won’t be judging based on things like art or professional layout (though that doesn’t mean your writing shouldn’t be organized).

Here’s what Robin says he’ll be looking for in a winning entry:

  • engaging prose,
  • original and inspiring mysteries (or support material that inspires them),
  • apt use of GUMSHOE mechanics,
  • material presented for use in play,
  • evocation of your chosen game line’s themes and tone.

What do I get?

Anyone who submits will get an 8.5″ x 11″ art print of the cover art for the line they submit to (submitting for Ashen Stars? That’s the cover you’ll receive). Additionally, Robin D. Laws will be judging the entries, and one winner will have their product professionally laid out by Jen McCleary, of The Fall of DELTA GREEN and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, with cover art by Jérôme Huguenin, who’s done the covers for Trail of CthulhuCthulhu Confidential, and more.

The “prize,” in other words, is custom cover art and custom layout for your product before you upload it to the GUMSHOE Community program on DriveThruRPG.

Deadline – Updated

The deadline for your entries will be Monday, September 7th, 2020.

Submit your entries… HERE

In the new Community Content Spotlight, each month I’ll be writing up a short review of a community content title, all of which are available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!
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Rogues' Galaxy Cover
With Rogues’ Galaxy, Chris Sellers turns the standard Ashen Stars setup on its head. Rather than playing official Lasers in the mode of Star Trek or Babylon 5, Rogues’ Galaxy gives you all the rules modifications and additions you need to play the lovable (or despicable) crooks the Lasers normally hunt.

In Rogues’ Galaxy you’re playing Firefly or Cowboy Bebop, and you’re striking a tone that, depending on what appeals to you and the other players, might fall anywhere along the spectrum from gritty noir to goofy heist flick. Sellers has put a unique spin on the Ashen Stars setting that tonally complements the shift from law officer to rascal, and I found myself imagining campaigns based around his new Class-K entities, the hierophants (which cause “irreversible psychosis in intelligent creatures” and reminded me of something out of the novel Blindsight) and the shroud (which have an ability to blink into star systems without warning, and thence onto non-shroud starships: “the ensuing mortality rate on those ships is total”).

This supplement includes new Groundside roles, variations on the original Warpside roles, and a list of all-new drives for your criminal player characters. There are new or modified Investigative and General abilities (while some remain the same as those in Ashen Stars), and write-ups of 13 icons (inspired by the 13th Age system) for your criminal Ashen Stars campaign.

Sellers’ text is canny about its audience: “If you’re reading this, you’re already hacking Ashen Stars, so you may want to customize your setting further,” and Rogues’ Galaxy provides folks with short sections providing guidance on customizing faster-than-light travel, rival gangs, and your own galaxy, before introducing Sellers’ own setting information.Rogues Planning

Sellers has tied each new aspect of this new (totally optional) setting material “into the inequitable power structures of the galaxy.” For instance, in the Rogues’ Galaxy version of hyperspace, the “augur drives” used for FTL travel only function at particular sites of spatial instability called “boreholes,” and because the mathematics of FTL travel are so complex, every augur drive comes equipped with its own computational artificial intelligence. But, because you’re in the Bleed, your AI has its own neuroses and psychopathologies (think HAL 9000). The AI becomes an in-built NPC the GM can immediately make use of, whether to help the PCs out or as a wrench to gracefully lob into their well-considered plans.

Sellers has expanded on ideas we’ve seen in See Page XX articles and in Accretion Disk (for instance, the porting of 13th Age’s icons into Ashen Stars was originally proposed by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan), making Rogues’ Galaxy an excellent addition to your collection of Ashen Stars options.

***

The introduction of Rogues’ Galaxy lets us know right away the kind of universe we’re playing in:

Let’s assume that in real life, you and your friends are law-abiding citizens of a just, equitable government. But what if we imagine the government is not just? Or the economic playing field not level? “Revolution”? That’s easy to say but hard to do. So what then?

A crime is just a revolution on a personal scale.

The tone of the book is something I can absolutely get behind, with the art (all by Sellers) vacillating between comedic, serious, and shameless callouts to Star Wars. The supplement also comes with a new character sheet for your roguish characters, a new galaxy map (including territory owned by those Class-K baddies), and a thirteen-page adventure to cap things off.

Perhaps the best praise I can give Chris Sellers’ Rogues’ Galaxy is that, reading it, I wanted to play. I just wanted to build a character and get going (former Laser who’d been ousted after refusing to keep cover for another officer in a scandal… who now works as consigliere for a thief ring à la Ocean’s Eleven… only survivor from a shroud encounter who’s emotionally scarred…?). I think that you’ll find lots of inspiration for your own Ashen Stars games here, even if you don’t decide to go the full criminal direction.

Title: Rogues’ Galaxy
Author: Chris Sellers
Price: $8.95 PDF, also available as a softcover color book for $11.95

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The Pelgrane Press Community Program brings you into the fold with other GUMSHOE game designers, affording creators (whatever that means to you!) the opportunity to post and sell their own products on DriveThruRPG. Currently Ashen Stars, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, and TimeWatch are the only game systems we’re accepting material for, but keep an eye out for expansions into others! Have a kooky idea you’d like to write up and get out there? A flushed out scenario you think others would enjoy? The Community Program is the place to showcase these ideas. If you’re interested in creating something for the Community Program, read more about it here.

Page XX logo (2015_04_01 16_53_09 UTC)

We continue to be in the grip of the toughest pandemic of our lifetimes, and we’ve shifted towards a more virtual way of living here in the Pelgrane’s Nest. Find out what’s new and happening in the Pelgrane in the Time of the Corona below, and check out new pre-orders Swords of the Serpentine, Honey & Hot Wax – An Erotic Art Games Anthology PDF, and the 13th Age Book of the Underworld.

New Releases

      • Swords of the Serpentine: The Adventurer’s Edition pre-order – A GUMSHOE sword & sorcery game of daring heroism, sly politics, and bloody savagery, set in a fantasy city rife with skullduggery and death. Pre-order now and get a limited edition colour print map of Eversink.
      • Honey & Hot Wax – An Erotic Art Games Anthology PDF pre-order – A digital-only anthology of games about sex by a diverse group of 10 designers, which will challenge how you think about roleplaying, sexuality, and human relationships.
      • Book of the Underworld pre-order– Pre-order this campaign setting for 13th Age, revealing the secrets of the Dragon Empire’s Underworld, and get the final PDF now.
      • Book of the Underworld PDF – A campaign setting for 13th Age, revealing the secrets of the Dragon Empire’s Underworld.
      • The Yellow King RPG – Four full-colour 6″ x 9″ hardback books in a slipcase, with accompanying GM screen. The dread horror of Robert Chambers’ King in Yellow stories take RPG form, confronting your players with an epic journey across four Carcosan-drenched time periods.
      • The Yellow King RPG Basic Shock & Injury decks – These optional accessories allow The Yellow King Roleplaying Game GMs to quickly grab and dish out Shock and Injury cards during face-to-face play.
      • Absinthe in Carcosa – An 8.5″ x 11″, full-colour hardback, this indispensable city guide for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is yoked together from travelogues, newspapers, and the disquieting ephemera of the occult tradition.
      • The Missing and the Lost – A thrilling, thought-provoking novel, which can be read as a mystery of a dread-drenched alternate reality, or use it as a model for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game when you play its Aftermath setting.
      • Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition – Pre-order the updated and expanded mutant-powered police procedural GUMSHOE game, and get the final PDF now.
      • Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition PDF – Pre-order the updated and expanded mutant-powered police procedural GUMSHOE game, and get the final PDF now.
      • Even Death Can Die – Pre-order this adventure collection for Cthulhu Confidential and get the pre-edit draft PDF now.

Articles

13th Age

It’s been a long two months, and we hope that you’re staying safe and well, and adapting to life in self-isolation. We’ve been very fortunate in that both our UK and US warehouses are able to work while remaining compliant with the regulations of the UK & Nevada state authorities’ health recommendations. All US & Canadian orders are shipping as usual; our UK shipper has some postcode- and country-level restrictions due to a lack of international freight options – you can read more about these exceptions here.

What seems now like couple of years ago, when it became clear that we had to retreat to the safety of our respective nests to weather this storm, we asked you what sort of resources, articles, and products you were interested in. Here’s a run-down of the most common responses we got, and what we’ve been up to on that front.

Video

Many of you expressed disappointment about missing out on conventions – specifically, watching panels and seminars, as well as hanging out with other Pelgranistas. We’ve ramped up the video offerings on our YouTube channel, and we’re releasing new videos a couple of times a week. There’s a list of our new videos in this article.

And if you want to stay connected with what we’re doing outside of YouTube, find Pelgrane Press on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and now Discord.

More Virtual Tabletop assets/advice and tips for playing online

Most of our team has made the switch to gaming online now, and Robin and Wade have both pulled together tips and advice on how you can make the transition to virtual play smoothly.

Production Apprentice Noah Lloyd has been hard at work building new character sheets and expanding the range of adventures available on a variety of VTTs such as Roll20, Fantasy Grounds and Astral – read more about what’s on offer in his article below.

Support for retailers

We believe that Friendly Local Game Stores are the lifeblood of our hobby, and we know that they’re being hard hit by widespread closures at the moment. We’ve implemented a number of ways to support them:

  • Give your FLGS 20% of the sale amount of any print products you bought in the Pelgrane webstore in April or May, which your FLGS currently stocks. Email your Pelgrane webstore order number, and your FLGS’s store name and address, to support@pelgranepress.com and we’ll send them 20% of your order total at the end of May.
  • All our pre-orders are available through the Bits and Mortar program, so your FLGS can offer any of our pre-orders along with the PDF.
  • While distributors are closed, game stores can order stock direct from us by emailing us at support@pelgranepress.com.
  • We’re delaying the retail releases of Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition, Book of the Underworld, and Swords of the Serpentine until stores have safely reopened.

More One-2-One resources

  • We’re working with a number of authors on new, self-contained PDF-only GUMSHOE One-2-One protagonist characters, settings, and adventures. We’ll be releasing these as they become ready over the coming year.
  • We’ve also made both Cthulhu Confidential and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, as well as the adventures for both, available at a bargain price at the Bundle of Holding until May 18th.

Advice and tips on roleplaying with children

This is Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s specialist subject, as he’s been running games for his two boys (now aged seven) for the last couple of years.

  • Gaming for Kids – Some hints and tips on how to make roleplaying games more enjoyable for the smallies
  • GUMSHOE Kids playtesting – Provisionally titled “GUMSHOE Kids”, Gareth’s also been working on an adaptation of GUMSHOE for younger players ages 7-12. We’re looking for playtesters for this until the end of May.

Other customer offers, events and discounts

  • During 2020, we’ll release the PDF versions of all new products as soon as we have the final PDF (so The Yellow King RPG PDFs, Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition PDF, and Book of the Underworld PDFs are all available now in our webstore and shortly on DriveThruRPG).
  • We’re offering a PDF upgrade option during 2020 – if you buy any PDF from the Pelgrane webstore in 2020, you’ll get a voucher for the total amount of the PDF off the print version. We’ll send these vouchers out periodically through the year, or you can contact us at support@pelgranepress.com to get one.
  • Some of you have mentioned that you’ll miss our special convention 4 for 3 offer, so that will be a standing offer on our webstore until September 1st, 2020. If you buy any four items – print or PDF – you get the cheapest one for free with the voucher code COVID20@4FOR3.
  • Want to grab the PDF of any of our Free RPG Day adventures? You can pick them up for a Pay What You Want charitable donation.
  • Another reminder that our existing One-2-One settings and adventures available for a bargain price at the Bundle of Holding until May 18th.
  • Pick up a Night’s Black Agents or The Yellow King RPG mask in our Threadless store, and get free shipping with the code FREESHIP520ebd78d 
  • The Origins Game Fair has moved their physical convention to October 7th-11th, and will be hosting a virtual convention on its original dates, June 19th – 21st. We’ll be supporting this virtual convention with as many seminars and games as we can get volunteers to help us with, so watch this space!

The GUMSHOE Community program is now even bigger!

Earlier this year we launched the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. We have now expanded the content available, and so the program now includes the following game lines:

If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of these GUMSHOE games (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own GUMSHOE content on DriveThruRPG.

We’ve got a number of great Ashen Stars PDFs already available, to show you what’s possible. These include:

If you’re interested in learning more about the GUMSHOE Community program, check it out here.

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