A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

In Ashen Stars, players portray freelance law enforcers working the spacelanes of the frontier sector known as the Bleed. Their ability to secure lucrative contracts depends on their reputation, which goes up when they solve cases well and honorably, and drops when they get caught cutting ethical corners.

The game simplifies this by assuming that the crew always gets a good contract, but after an expensive fallow period if they have dragged their Reputation.

The existence of desirable contracts suggests its opposite—there must be terrible contracts none but the foolish or desperate ever accept. Players may ask you what they passed up while waiting for a decent job to appear on their comm screens. For flavor’s sake, here are some examples you can give them:

* The Nufaith of Eregrinism offers a bounty to the crew willing to dislodge the possessing alien entity from the body of their founding prophet, Eregrin. Several crews have found Eregrin over the years, leading a peripatetic existence spending the money he absconded with as he departed the church. Repeated scans have proven no unusual brain activity. The Eregrinists’ explanation for their prophet’s apostasy cannot be correct, rendering their contract unfulfillable.

* The Daralala clan wants the muckworm of Leipzig-7 apprehended and transported for trial to their space station in the Cerberus Outzone. They first mooted this contract a decade ago, and it’s easy to see why no one has taken them up on it. The muckworm dwells in the toxic sludge comprising the mass of Leipzig-7. No one has yet invented a hazard suit capable of sustaining survival in this environment. Nor has any independent researcher established the muckworm’s sapience, and thus its criminal liability in the death of explorer Heran Deralala. Also, the worm is ten miles long and weighs as much as a large moon. No known technology would facilitate its successful transport.

* Towerreach, a wealthy cybe real estate developer from Muscadin, has lodged a complaint for criminal libel against a rival, a durugh named Esagalius. He disputes Esagalius’ claim of having built a more perfectly symmetrical skyscraper than his own. The charge of criminal libel is not recognized on the durugh’s home planet, Farcin—nor, indeed, anywhere else but Muscadin. He is thus not extraditable. Nabbing him from Farcin would constitute kidnapping, a crime devastating to any laser crew’s reputation.

  • A tavak spice merchant, Bedat Who Encompassed the Unsurpassable Flavor, offers a hefty reward for the apprehension of her wife’s killer. However, a clear holo-image has since come to light showing Bedat herself fatally strangling her. No one has offered to pay for Bedat’s apprehension. Though the contract she put out as a show of her innocence remains in the system, no one believes she’d pay for her own arrest.
  • The current and past president of Nusardia have extended competing embezzlement charges against one another. Though both undoubtedly committed the charged offenses, the Nusardian High Court famously nullifies all laser contracts naming the planet’s corrupt high officials. It typically slaps laser crews with civil and criminal penalties if they try to act on them. Only greenhorns get mixed up in Nusardian politics.
  • Balla environmentalists offer a reward for the apprehension of polluter Zimax Zell, whose ships befouled the rings of Olumba. However the contract acknowledges his likely death in the explosion of the freighter Constant, which had him registered as a passenger.
  • The bereaved family of transport fleet magnate Zimax Zell seek the arrest of the eco-terrorists who blew up his flagship, the Constant. Three previous laser crews all reached the conclusion that an interaction between a stellar anomaly and an engine fault caused the ship’s destruction, exonerating the activists named in the contract.
  • A trade consortium offers a reward for the utter destruction of the Ultraviolets, a pirate fleet of the Kraken Outzone. Lasers all know that the consortium itself acts as a fence for goods and ships seized by the Ultraviolets. Everyone suspects that they promulgated the contract as a lure to bring ships to the Kraken for capture.
  • The Operating Board of Patrune offers apprehension contracts for numerous citizens accused of violating its draconian immigration statutes. Lasers avoid working for Patrune for two reasons. One, they find it dispiriting to arrest desperate people who run afoul of their unjust legal system. Two, the Operating Board pays on an infamously slow schedule, when it does so at all.
  • An alliance of laser crews offers a reward for the apprehension of the Operating Board of Patrune for non-payment of outstanding invoices. This contract has clearly been lodged for symbolic reasons, as the promised fee in no way compensates for the logistical challenges of arresting the entire executive of a sitting government.
  • The vas mal scholar Honorious Miike will pay a sizable reward for the recovery of his yamagchan, an object (or perhaps abstract force?) he is unable or unwilling to describe. “You will know it when you find it,” the contract simply states.

Players being players, yours may decide that they want to turn one of these entries, all written as time-wasting dead ends, into an actual adventure.

If you can see a way to turn the dud contract they fixate on into something, do that. This might be a simple matter of having the wild goose chase implied by the contract lead them to a completely different mystery—perhaps one you already had in mind. Or you could devise a way around its supposedly insurmountable obstacles.

Otherwise, you can play out the expected failure of the mission as a quick vignette. It could lead into a character subplot or provide the spark for fun inter-character banter. After you’ve wrung all the interest you can from that, they find a new contract actually worth pursuing.


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop. Ship plans appear in Accretion Disk.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

Replication

A scenario seed for Ashen Stars

The lasers pick up a contract from an independent scientific consortium to investigate the fate of one of their Sherlock-class survey vessels. It sent out a distress call several days ago and has not been heard from since. The Linnaeus was orbiting a supposedly barren planet in the backwater Samian system when its call went out.

Arriving at Samian-III, the team finds the wreckage of the downed ship planetside, with no survivors. They also locate its shuttle, drifting in the supposedly dead world’s now teeming ocean. The murdered bodies of its crew members have been stashed in their biomatter collection pods—as if to prevent the corpses from contaminating planetary life.

Contrary to past surveys, a rich ecosystem of aquatic animals exists on Samian III. More bizarrely, they are not just similar to, but exactly the same as, species from Earth’s PreCambrian period. The team’s Xenobiology expert identifies specific organisms, until now known only from fossils. Included are the disc-shaped sea floor dweller Obamus coronatus and the grooved ovoid Attenborites janeae, With so little to go on, paleontologists were never able to reliably assign them to family groups. But here they swim about in abundance, ready to give up the secrets of their DNA.

The crew’s investigation leads to missing biologist Kan Kanfar and an underwater biodome. Before serving in the Mohilar War, he studied these creatures, known collectively as the Ediacara Biota. Slowly dying from toxin exposure sustained during the conflict, he has thrown moral qualms aside, employing an ancient alien technology to finally crack the secrets of his field. After irreparably altering a planet by setting it on the path to an Earth-like ecosystem, a few murders of pesky scientists meant little to him.

He has leagued himself with pirates, who downed the Linnaeus in exchange for a promise of priceless treasure. Does the team deal with him by informing his murder-happy confederates that the loot he has promised is actually only biological data on soft-shelled fauna? Or do they recognize that his judgment has been impaired as a consequence of his service to the Combine, and try to remand him for treatment?

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.

[Contains a mild spoiler for the most recent episode of Discovery…]

A note on tone in Ashen Stars invites you to think of it as the gritty reboot of a beloved TV space opera show from the past.

Enough episodes of Star Trek: Discovery have dropped to see that it is very much reading out of the gritty reboot playbook.

This raises the question: what kind of model does it give us for Ashen Stars scenarios?

Discovery asks itself how many of the bedrock assumptions of past iterations you can strip away and still have a Trek show. In particular they’re taking out the bits that made it SF comfort viewing: the overlit old school TV look, the absence of conflict between main characters, the idealized view of humanity in the future.

My guess is that if the show survives long enough to execute its overall arc, its intention is to withhold and then restore all of the above except the wash lighting.

Plus new photon f-bombs, of course.

Another element the show has switched out is the structure. In place of the episodic, space mystery of the week setup we’ve seen before, the show uses the structure pioneered by J. J. Abrams in Alias. Procedural problem-solving still plays a key role, but now comes second to serialized emotional drama. As is common in so many post-Alias shows, the drama can take up most or all of the fourth act, with the problem of the week dispatched at the end of act three.

Discovery still uses the device in which an investigation leads to a moral dilemma which must be resolved to bring the story to a conclusion. You see this in the most recent episode, “Choose Your Pain,” where Burnham uses her Xenobiology ability to realize that the ship’s experimental propulsion system is ethically insupportable.

This introduces a conflict with the episode’s action-oriented plot thread, the resolution of which leads to dramatic scenes in which pairs of main characters make or grant emotional petitions, as seen in Hillfolk.

In other words, I’m glad to live in our dimension, where Modiphius and not Pelgrane has the Trek RPG license. In the mirror universe where that is reversed, alternate me has to finally figure out how to fully merge GUMSHOE with DramaSystem!

03-ashen-starscoverThere are a lot of books in the pipeline right now, but none of them are quite cooked yet, so here’s a little bit of whimsy before the cannon of self-promotion is brought to bear on this space. As you know, Bob, Icons are a lovely little mechanic from 13th Age that model the player characters’ relationships with various powerful individuals/factions – the Archmage, the Emperor, the Lich King and so forth. (There’ll be lots of new – or rather, old – Icons in the upcoming Book of Ages, but I said I’d save the self-promotion).

We’ve adapted Icons to other GUMSHOE games before – here’s Ken talking about Icons in Night’s Black Agents, and in the Dracula Dossier, and in Trail of Cthulhu, and now that I think about it I should really do a set for Cthulhu City (more self-promotion – for shame!). They work especially well, though, in the wild and vasty space of the Bleed in Ashen Stars.

Quick rules reminder. Each player gets three Relationship dice to allocate among the Icons. Relationships can be positive, negative or conflicted. At the start of each session, everyone rolls their Icon Relationships (d6s); a 6 indicates that that Icon is going to get worked into the adventure somehow in a way that benefits the player, and a 5 means that things are complicated and messy. And, given this is Ashen Stars, a spend from an appropriate Investigative Ability like Cybe Culture gives a re-roll for the matching relationship.

Rasal, The Practitioner

Coordinator of the Combine’s reconstruction and redevelopment projects, Rasal embodies the distant, technocratic civilisation in its efforts to reclaim the Bleed. Rasal makes little effort to hide his distaste for the rough, chaotic region, and makes as many trips back to the safety of the Proper as he can. Whenever he returns, though, he brings vast resources – both financial and technological – to help solve the problems of these war-torn stars.

Allies: The Viceroy, the Princess in Exile, the Merchant       

Enemies: The Rebel, The Transer

Judy Coyle, The Viceroy

The commander of Ossa One, the Special Legate to the Far Settlements is in charge of keeping law and order in the Bleed. She’s responsible for licensing Laser crews, as well as commanding the Combine naval forces in the region. Coyle must balance her loyalty to her distant superiors in the Ministry of Settlement to the needs of the local worlds.

Allies: The Practitioner, Grand Arbiter Koket, the Merchant

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, The Seeker, the Rebel

 Azela Shaw, The Rebel of the Bleedinsect

The most outspoken of the Bleedists, Shaw is a former naval officer who now rejects Combine control of the region. She’s proved to be a formidable organiser, rallying the disparate groups and worlds that oppose the Combine into an ad hoc alliance. Coyle claims that Shaw’s rumoured criminal connections taint the whole alliance, but Shaw’s allies dismiss such claims as Combine mudslinging.

Allies: The Healer, the Merchant, The Transer

Enemies: The Viceroy, the Practitioner, the Connoisseur

The Master of the Plunderbund

The Plunderbund is a syndicate of criminal gangs, pirates, thieves, unscrupulous mercenaries and shady corporations – a shadow economy, even a shadow government, slithering into the gaps left by the shattered Combine. The Plunderbund, for all its many faults, gets things done – if you need something, they can get it for you, but at a high price. The mysterious Master of the Plunderbund is an elusive figure, and may be the figurehead for a ring of crime lords.

Allies: The Rebel, The Princess in Exile, the Connoisseur

Enemies: The Viceroy, The Merchant, Grand Arbiter Koket

Klaadarr, The Seeker

The stagnant, sterile Combine is a secular realm, devoid of spirituality. The Bleed, though, is afire with mystic revelation and revitalized nufaiths. New religions – or resurrected old ones – boil across the stars, finding eager converts and fanatical followers on worlds desperate for something to believe in now that the Combine is gone. Into this tumult comes the Seeker, an alien prophet of all Nufaiths and none, who claims that that God can be found in the Bleed. Listen to him – he’s right.

Allies: The Transer, the Healer

Enemies:  The Meddler, the Pracitioner

Anacar Inatuy, The Merchant

Inatuy and her corporate allies made their fortune in the Bleed in the chaotic years after the war. There is still unimaginable wealth to be made out here, in the wild frontier, as long as they can thread a course between the stultifying control of the Combine and the apocalyptic chaos of a galaxy without law or justice. Of course, moral ambiguity is very much within the Merchant’s wheelhouse.

Inatuy is merely the most visible member of a cabal of corporate magnates and industrialists; the Connoisseur remains aloof from this cabal, and while he may be wealthier than any one of them individually, they vastly outmatch him as a group.

Allies: The Pracitioner, The Rebel, the Princess in Exile

Enemies: The Healer, The Connoisseur, the Transer, the Master of the Plunderbund

02_ashenstar_BallaStarwind, The Healer (Balla)

Starwind led an exodus of Balla artists, scientists and adventurers out of Combine space to settle in the Bleed. Her movement seeks to channel Balla emotional energy into healing and remaking the galaxy, instead of suppressing it. Her followers – the Chorus – have the potential to accomplish wonders, but might equally drag the Bleed down with them into madness.

Allies: The Transer, the Viceroy, the Seeker

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, the Rebel

Grand Arbiter Koket (Tavak)

Koket is a legend back in the Combine – a decorated general, an accomplished philosopher, and a legal scholar who helped shape the decisions of the Combine Bench for decades. He was rumoured to be a candidate for Chief Justice, but instead chose to travel to the Bleed instead. While semi-retired, he retains his status as a judge, and serves as arbiter or investigator in especially complex or controversial cases.

Allies: The Viceroy, the Practitioner, the Transer

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, the Princess in Exile

Krtch-Ick, The Connoisseur (Kch-thk)

Krtch-Ick is an immensely wealthy Kch-thk; he made his fortune back during the Mohilar War in dubious circumstances, and moved to the Bleed to evade Combine jurisdiction. He collects all manner of things – new foodstuffs, alien artefacts, “interesting people”, wrecked starships, military hardware. Whole planets, on occasion.

He owns corporations too –  among his assets is the Freedom Egg, a Bleed-wide media conglomerate that broadcasts news and entertainment across the region. Krtch-Ick’s word can shape opinion throughout the Bleed, so rumours that he’s becoming more unstable with each reincarnation worry the authorities.

Allies: The Rebel, the Seeker, the Master of the Plunderbund

Enemies: The Merchant, the Viceroy

Ukshqnza, The Princess in Exile (Durugh)

The death of martyred King Ukshqa and the Mohilar War transformed Durugh society. The old police state hierarchy collapsed, leaving their civilisation in a state of near-anarchy. Princess Ukshqnza was one of the few members of the king’s immediate family who escaped the chaos. She fled to the Bleed with an entourage of loyalists – not to mention several warships, a large portion of the Durugh state coffers, and (allegedly) a complete copy of the fabled Silent Gallery, the archive of Durugh espionage and blackmail. While the Durugh are now part of the Combine and Ukshqnza has no official standing, many Durugh see her as their ruler in exile, and the Combine look warily at her as a rallying symbol for Durugh separatists in the Bleed. At the same time, her combination of military force and unmatched intelligence-gathering capabilities make her a vital ally to Combine forces trying to keep order in wild space.

Allies: The Practitioner, the Master of the Plunderbund, the Meddler

Enemies: Grand Arbiter Koket, the Transer

Remaker, The Transer (Cybe)

The military records that might have identified who Remaker was before she was transformed were lost in the war. She emerged onto the political scene in the Bleed full-formed like Athena, as the champion of a wide-ranging coalition of cybe veterans. Remaker’s allies include mercenary legions and charitable foundations, cybe researchers and prophets, raiders and lasers alike – wherever one finds cybes, there too are her followers. Her avowed goal is to establish an independent cybe state in the Bleed; rumours connect her to illegal experimentation in creating new cybes, and some claim that her secret aim is to transform the entire population of the Bleed into her mind-slaves.

Allies: The Rebel, The Healer, the Seeker

Enemies: The Viceroy, The Practitioner

The Meddler (Vas Mal)02_ashenstar_vasmal2

The mysterious Meddler is a Vas Mal who retained considerably more of his cosmic awareness than the rest of his kind. He can, it seems, see the future, and can also see the temporal nexuses and pressure points that can change that future if poked in just the right way. The Meddler manipulates events and individuals to bring about those changes.

Allies: The Seeker, the Princess in Exile

Enemies: The Master of the Plunderbund, the Practitioner, the Connoisseur, the Merchant

The Ashen Shadow (Mohilar)

And they are still out there, moving in the dark places between the stars. Their recent defeat stripped away much of their power and has shown them they are not invincible. They must work in secret, through agents and intermediaries – until the stars turn dark, and the Mohilar can return…

Allies: None

Enemies: All

Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

See P. XX

a Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

Was it a whole ten years ago that Simon Rogers and I sat by ourselves at a small table on the far fringes of the Gen Con exhibit hall? It feels like only yesterday, that forlorn time when we had nothing to lure passersby but a stack of The Esoterrorists first edition and some Dying Earth books. Yes, it’s the tenth anniversary of GUMSHOE and although we were slow burners at first, the system has gradually inveigled its way into gaming’s collective consciousness. We could have no more humbling/ego inflating proof of that than Pelgrane’s amazing showing at this year’s ENnie Awards. I should count myself lucky that Simon, Cat, Ken and Gar left a few medals on the table for Feng Shui 2.

View from Pelgrane Gen Con booth, 10 years ago (Artist’s Rendering)

On such occasions, one’s thoughts naturally turn to think pieces, and Simon has asked me to look at ways in which GUMSHOE scenarios have changed since the early days.

To me the key innovation has to be the addition of Lead-In and Lead-Out lines to the scene headers. These immediately show the GM where the scene probably fits in the investigative sequence the players create as they wend their way through the mystery. For example:

Harp’s Place

Scene Type: Core

Lead-Ins: The Bait, What’s Up With Chuck

Lead-Outs: Irland is Missing, Dawley, The Water Commission

Although we sometimes also still do scene sequence diagrams, they only really work for very simple, more or less linear scenarios. The more possible ways through the investigation a scenario provides, the more tangled and confused the web of scene connections looks when expressed in diagram form. Instead of acting as a play aid, a diagram makes the scenario look more daunting than it really is. Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs put the information in front of GMs when they really need it—while they’re running the scenes.

From a scenario design standpoint, they encourage the writer to include multiple ways in and out of their scenes, giving players additional options and fighting linearity.

* * *

The other big change, Gar has pointed out, can be seen in the way Investigative point spends are treated. Some early scenarios went a bit off-model by requiring overly high spends for benefits. If you see a 3-point spend in an early adventure, you can almost always strike that out in exchange for a 2 or even a 1. Other early adventures sometimes get stingy by making only the core clues free, and charging for other information you don’t need. Since those first scenarios we have more consistently adopted the approach I have always used, which is to provide plenty of info for free and make the players separate the pertinent from the incidental.

Over the years we have also learned how emotionally invested players become when they choose to spend an investigative point. I initially conceived of investigative spends as just a grace note, a fun minor occurrence that would happen every now and again. No big deal. That thought underestimated the cognitive difficulty of letting go of a resource—any resource. Early scenarios allowed you to find out information in an especially cool way, or add dimension to your character, in exchange for spends. For example, in one of the Stunning Eldritch Tales adventures you can specify that you already know one of the key characters—but it’s up to the player to squeeze a concrete advantage out of that. It turns out that players want a bigger, clearer gain when they spend points. So in more recent scenarios you’ll see us moving more toward palpable game advantages, like bonuses to general ability tests, or being able to avoid a clearly undesirable plot outcome.

You’ll see this thought carried through into the simplified equivalent of investigative spends that appears in GUMSHOE One-2-One. In that iteration of the game they become scarcer resources, and must always deliver something strong when they are spent.

* * *

Roleplaying scenarios in general sometimes lapse into extended passages of background information that might be of interest to the GM while reading but has no likely way to come up in play, and will thus remain undiscovered by the players. GMs need enough information to run the scenario and understand the logic behind the actions of the supporting characters they’ll be playing, in case players hit them with unexpected questions. But when writing it can be tempting to just start spinning out details of the fictional world without finding a way to make them pay off at the table. Even in the early years I think we mostly caught and fixed such passages during the development phase. The Great Pelgrane who sits atop our London eyrie remains vigilant against them today, snapping up transgressors of this principle with his piercing beak.

Another factor I’ve been more cognizant of over the years: the possibility that GMs will over-interpret a throwaway line of in-world description. For example the tradecraft Ordo Veritatis agents use to conceal their identities isn’t mean to become an obstacle during play. Instead the GM should describe it as challenging without making it a genuine uninteresting additional hassle. But if I don’t come out and say this while writing, I can easily mislead the GM into making a big deal of what I regard as an atmospheric element. The general fix for issues like this is to break more readily from fictional world voice to speak directly, designer-to-GM about what I hope to help you make happen at the gaming table.

Other than that the changes to scenarios mostly come from the emulation of the new genres we take on. Ashen Stars required a look at the way investigation works in shows like “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” Likewise with Night’s Black Agents and contemporary spy thrillers like the Bourne Trilo… er, Quadrilogy I guess it now is.

With Cthulhu Confidential and The Yellow King on the horizon, we’ll continue to refine GUMSHOE for particular experiences. I look forward to seeing what our scenarios will look like in another ten years’ time.

men-in-blackBy Kevin Kulp

The baby had been born three hours ago, healthy and beautiful, and now it was asleep in its mother’s arms.

The three men pushed open her bedroom door, stood there in the doorway, blocking the gaslight from the hall. All three wore identical black suits. Their skin was sallow, almost gray, their jaws were square, and when they spoke through fake-looking teeth it was in a dull monotone. “You have created new life,” one said to the new mother.

The second spoke. “It grows up to act contrary to our desires.”

“Look at it,” said the third. “Memorize its features. You will have less exceptional babies that will not depart. You will not remember this one alive, not when awake. Time is about to change.”

And it did.

By the time the mother started screaming, the three men were nowhere to be seen.

Servants of a False God

In the investigative space opera GUMSHOE game Ashen Stars by Robin D. Laws, one of the playable races is the vas mal. This race of psychic, grey-skinned, large-headed aliens used to be called the vas kra. They were mysterious psychic consciousnesses that spanned the stars, evolved beyond the need for flesh, playing with worlds on a whim and guiding mortal creatures’ development when they so chose. All that changed when the Mohilar War began and the vas kra were de-evolved into a loathsome, frail physical form named the vas mal.

One of the interesting throwaway lines in Ashen Stars is that at least one vas mal has directly interfered with Earth’s development over millennia, playing the role of the devil and possibly pretending to be divine in other religious and supernatural roles as well. That leads to an interesting question. What would Earth be like if the vas kra never intervened at all, and what (if anything) are they shaping our history towards?

At least one vas kra (and not one with humanity’s best interests in mind) has decided to interfere directly with humanity’s history. It does so by creating physical servants when and where they’re needed, using them to alter time and historical events. Their process is slow, but they’re patiently playing a very long game, even if no one but they know what the winning condition is. Challenging their actions can be as dangerous as challenging the servants of a God itself.

Enter La Kreitaj

The most common servants of the vas kra call themselves “La Kreitaj,” which is Esperanto for “The Created.” They often impersonate divine servants – and from their point of view, perhaps they aren’t pretending. La Kreitaj are typically tall men and women who wear black, with sickly skin and unnaturally perfect teeth. They often wear sunglasses to hide their pure black eyes. They speak in monotones, show no fear (it’s thought they can’t comprehend it), and can’t technically be killed; a La Kreitaj whose mortal form is slain forms an identical form somewhere nearby within 30 seconds, although their original corpse remains. La Kreitaj who are slaughtered multiple times leave multiple corpses, possibly confusing law enforcement to happen on the scene after the fight in complete.

La Kreitaj typically carry out their duties with their Rewrite Time power, allowing them to change the past in fairly minor ways while standing in the present. It makes their actions particularly difficult to pin down during a TimeWatch investigation. No one knows why they primarily speak Esperanto. That’s either a joke from the vas kra who forms them, or a clue to a secret no one has yet deciphered.

La Kreitaj Stats

Defense: Hit Threshold 4, Health 8

Offense: Scuffling +2, Shooting +2; Damage Modifier +0 (iron-hard fists), +2 (futuristic beam weapon), Stun 5 plus Destabilize (Rewrite Time – see below)

Abilities: Tempus 15

Special Abilities: Clock Out (cost 2, no time machine needed), Exile (cost 2), Regenerate (cost 0; an identical La Kreitaj appears somewhere nearby within 30 seconds, with full Health and Tempus), Technology (cost 2)

Special: La Kreitaj have a unique ability known as Rewrite Time (cost 3) that they prefer to use over physically injuring a target. A successful weaponless hit with Scuffling or Shooting (Close Range) allows them to change something small in the target’s past, triggering a Stun 5 test as well as a D4/L4 Paradox test. They will typically use this to weaken a target before using Exile to banish it into the distant past and remove it from the relevant time stream.

All La Kreitaj have identical DNA and fingerprints – even when they differ in appearance, sex and personality.

Using La Kreitaj

In the same way that many TV shows have a “monster of the week” interposed against longer-running secrets that last an entire season, La Kreitaj and the goals of the vas kra that backs them make for an excellent multi-session mystery. They typically act in the background, making small and unimportant alterations in the timeline that add up to a momentous change at some point in the future. They resent interference and will act to remove it, although they’re reluctant to kill anyone who isn’t one of their targets.

It’s unknown what goals La Kreitaj have, and what the GM chooses is affected by whether they wish to fold the far-future timeline of Ashen Stars into the TimeWatch timeline. Goals might include:

  • Turning humanity into a vast army to be used by the vas kra against an enemy
  • Ensuring that humanity never join the Galactic Combine (or ensuring that they do)
  • Taking actions that affect whether the Mohilar war ever occurs
  • Prepping humanity for ultimate peace and global consciousness (which might involve the removal of free will)
  • Using humanity as a vast biological computer to answer a philosophical question
  • Raising a psychic food source to later be plundered
  • Focusing all of history to create a single, uniquely talented individual
  • The pure egocentric joy of manipulating an entire species
  • Dismantling (or even creating) TimeWatch

It’s possible for GMs to have La Kreitaj in play without initially deciding on what the vas kra’s true goal is; perhaps it really is ineffable, and the Agents only clash with La Kreitaj when they act against TimeWatch interests. Use this antagonist as a mysterious foil to complicate other mysteries and missions, and let them develop slowly as background threats. With their abilities, there’s no telling who or what they’ve affected.

A column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

At the height of the Combine’s prosperity prior to the Mohilar War, recreational drugs had been rendered safe by technology. All manner of pleasurable sensations could be delivered as viral treatments encoded with anti-addictive measures. Physical wear and tear on the body caused by their side effects could be easily reversed with advanced medical techniques. Yet in the sober, emotionally centered Combine culture, with its emphasis on personal improvement, exploration, and the advancement of knowledge, social mores kept a lid on their use. Young people finding themselves might go through a period of sustained recreational viroware (recroviro) use, but settled adults found little use for them.

The profound psychic malaise left behind by the aftermath of the Mohilar War has left some in the Bleed, the region of frontier space patrolled by freelance lawkeepers like your Ashen Stars characters, embracing the self-destructive side of drug use. A new breed of users regards the possibility of addiction, overdose and sudden health catastrophe as an integral component of the experience. Deliberately unsafe viral cocktails called SRVs or “swerves” cater to the desire to put the risk back into risk-taking behavior. The S stands for stripped, as in stripped of all health safeguards. Particularly shady dealers may sell SRVs as the safe versions, hoping to increase market share by addicting unwilling customers.

The breakdown of interstellar authority allows local officials to adopt controlled substance policies that differ wildly from world to world. Some keep everything legal, even the swerves. They argue that prohibition merely adds a criminal profit motive to an activity a certain segment of the population will engage in regardless of penalties. Others maintain a veneer of illegality but in practice accept that the drug trade is too expensive to reliably regulate. Planets where elites or citizens demand tighter regulation of behavior invest heavily in anti-swerve efforts, sometimes banning the harm-free recroviros as a gateway experience to the hard stuff. On Caligula (formerly Cygnus IV) it is illegal not to have at least least one mind-altering recroviro in your system on an imperial feast day—which covers 45% of the local calendar.

Recroviros your laser crew may encounter include:

  • Draftline: causes the body to produce alcohol on mental command. With experience you can calibrate your experience, maintaining anything from a gentle buzz to utter incapacity.
  • Floaty: instills a feeling of oneness from the universe and spiritual insight while in zero gravity.
  • Solitude: allows the user to filter out the physical and emotional presence of others. Favored by introverts, and by crewmen in small, cramped ships desiring respite from the voices, smells, and demands of colleagues. Using while on duty can lead to disaster and is considered cause for dismissal or worse.
  • Phantom: makes you think that one of your limbs is missing. Few prefer the leg variant. For maximum effect, select the formula that affects your sense of your favored hand.
  • Pseudopod: conversely, creates the powerful sensation of having a twelve-inch prehensile tentacle emanating from the center of one’s forehead. Attempting to manipulate objects with this nonexistent appendage may cause accidents or injury. Do not operate heavy equipment.
  • Ecosphere: allows you to perceive an environment through the sensations of its plants and microorganisms. Non-balla take this to understand what it is to be balla, which the ball themselves regard as ridiculous. Ecosphere provides only an illusion of this sense. Some users claim the addictive stripped version delivers the real thing.
  • Pulse: as above, but you (seemingly) sense the world as a collection of electrical impulses. (Pictured.)
  • Deathball: randomly simulates the sensation of one of 12 hideously violent deaths, as selected by a random algorithm. Variants include a pain-free version, or doses that allow you to select the death experience you want to undergo. (Connoisseurs turn up their noses at this practice, arguing that it misses the point.) Originally designed for therapeutic use, a one-time dose can instill the euphoria and sense of purpose associated with a near-death experience, while skipping the part where you actually nearly die. This wears off over time. Habitual users may be chasing that feeling, with diminishing returns. Or some of them just like the intensity of being devoured alive by Rigelian ants. Tavak warriors use deathball to train themselves in stoic disregard for mortality. Durugh enjoy it on a perverse physical level. Administering deathball without consent is illegal nearly everywhere—you may be hired by victims to track down and bring to justice the person that did this to them.
  • Cocaine: a viral simulation of the original, bestowing manic energy and manic grandiosity. The non-stripped version allows you to turn off the effect at will. The SVR, not so much.
  • Heroin: another viral simulation, instilling physical bliss and the desire for complete inaction. Like the above, increasingly likely to be found in swerve form.

Humans use more recroviros than anyone else. Durugh outdo them in the consumption of swerves. Some durugh disdain viral recreational drugs for the old school addictive substances of yore. Spacefaring durugh drug labs once made and sold their historic equivalents of cocaine, heroin and quaaludes, before they discovered that the old Terran stuff hit them even harder. Encounters with durugh ships whose occupants are completely baked on bath salts may sorely test your negotiation abilities.

Kch-thk don’t generally bother with mind-altering substances. For them, no high exceeds that of eating. Balla disdain them for spiritual reasons.

Your character can use the Virology ability to identify the properties, side effects, and safety level of recroviros and swerves. Forensic Anthropology lets you find their traces in a body’s blood and tissues. Law tells you what legal restrictions, if any, apply to their manufacture, sale, possession and use in a given jurisdiction. With Cop Talk you can quickly determine how aggressively these laws are enforced in a given place. Streetwise leads you to users, dealers, and the viral engineers who make the stuff.


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop. Ship plans appear in Accretion Disk.

See Page XX

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

During a session GUMSHOE players sometimes wonder if they can use their interpersonal investigative abilities on each others’ characters. I’m not sure this special case needs to be heavily featured in any of our core rule sets but here’s how you might handle it if it comes up.

This most often comes up in the case of Bullshit Detector— or Assess Honesty, for the genteel antiquarians among us.

In that case you can definitely indicate that one investigator’s untruthful statements trigger suspicion in others who have the ability. Players tend to volunteer to pay a point for the privilege but that’s unnecessary in almost any case you care to name. Often, the player with the ability already knows the other is lying and is merely asking game permission to proceed as if the character realizes it too. A point spend might be appropriate if the player of the lying character hasn’t made clear that she’s being deceptive. In that case, a point spend requires the target player to state whether she’s lying. As usual, Bullshit Detector never reveals the real truth, just that the character isn’t on the level.

On a more cooperative note, you might use Reassurance to assist another character. Let’s say you’re playing mythos-busting hobo Princess Sadie, with Marcel taking the role of Xavier Paradis, a reluctant new recruit to the cosmic horror scene. Xavier just lost some Stability after seeing the mangled victim of a Deep One attack. Accordingly, Marcel plays him as panicked and momentarily unwilling to let his Curiosity drive draw him further into an underground grotto. No one doubts that Marcel will eventually play Xavier as recovering his composure enough to keep the story moving forward; he’s just having fun getting to that moment. This gives you an opening to spend Reassurance points. Princess Sadie dispenses folksy hobo wisdom, showing why Xavier decides to get a grip. Instead of an interior moment in which Marcel takes one position and then switches, you have an interactive dialogue that gets him to the same place. For each point you spend, Marcel gets a +1 bonus on any general ability test called for during the ensuing action. This might be Xavier’s next Stability test, or any other situation requiring confidence.

You may decide that certain cases require too much of a logic stretch to qualify. For example, it’s hard to explain how a boost of confidence could have helped Marcel already have a needed item on hand. So Preparedness doesn’t make sense as a place to use that bonus.

You might likewise use Inspiration, in those GUMSHOE games that include that ability, to justify why a character overcomes his selfish motivations to undertake an action. Let’s say you’re Ashen Stars freelance law enforcement official Fodi Jones, and Marcel is playing gruff fellow crewman Uvuk. You’ve been hired to rescue a kidnapped industrialist. After poking around on the asteroid where she’s being held, you discover that her captors also run a gladiatorial combat operation featuring mind-controlled fighters. Marcel knows that the scenario has taken a turn from the original premise, but to remain consistent with his hard-bitten character, argues that the crew lacks sufficient profit motive to help the gladiators. As Fodi, you perform an extemporaneous monologue appealing to Uvuk’s carefully-hidden higher ideals. Marcel can now have fun playing his expected, grumbling foray into altruism. As with the Reassurance example, Marcel gains a bonus equal to the number of Inspiration points you spent on an ensuing general test of his choice.

You might repeat this pattern with Flattery, persuading a fellow PC to do something by boosting his ego, then allowing the player to convert the Flattery points you spend to a general test bonus.

To do this with Negotiation, you offer the other investigator a deal of some kind. To stick with the Ashen Stars example, you might agree to visit Uvuk’s home planet to assist him in a war ritual if he first helps save the gladiators.

Intimidation and Flirting present tougher cases.

Threatening another PC into taking action makes your character unsympathetic. The group’s acceptance of your bullying undermines suspension of disbelief. It might work if the target of the Intimidation has been set up as a skeevy, not-quite-trusted member of the group who has to be kept on the straight and narrow by the others. If one of you plays his character like Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or Quark from “Deep Space Nine”, the odd comic scene in which a more respectable member of the team puts the squeeze on him adds fun to the proceedings without breaking emotional logic.

Flirting could work if you’ve already established a will-they won’t-they romantic undertone to the relationship between the two characters. Although this sort of thing happens all the time in movies and TV shows, gamers usually steer clear of it. It requires two players with the panache to pull it off without coming aground on the shoals of awkwardness. Be 100% certain the other player is as down with this as you are before trying this.

Interpersonal abilities keyed to win the cooperation of GMCs from particular walks of life don’t much fit this pattern. Examples include Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Streetwise and Trail of Cthulhu’s various Credit Rating levels. I suppose you could get it to work if the target PC is a bureaucrat, former cop, or crook, but then they’d also have to have the same ability. So the chances of a practical example ever occurring remain rare enough that we don’t need to furrow our brows about it.

And Interrogation get us to the edge case of all edge cases. You can justify that only when you have the target PC under the duress of official (or quasi-official) detainment. If things between you and another character have gone that far, and you can both then lift that trainwreck back onto the narrative tracks, congratulations! But if you do make that happen, the target could well spend your Interrogation points on a later general test.

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