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.

You may be wondering, either as a thought experiment or something to actually put in place, how to combine Injury and Shock cards from QuickShock, as seen in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, with the more traditional combat system found in other GUMSHOE games.

Reasons to do this: It shortens the learning curve for players who already know the other version. It extends fights longer, allowing excitement to build. It provides more details of the blow-by-blow, requiring less abstract thinking to narrate.

Reasons not to do this: It takes the most complicated element from one version of the game and bolts it to the most complicated element from another. It extends fights longer, devoting an increased chunk of time to bashing and getting shot that could be used interacting with GMCs and solving mysteries.

For those who feel the pros outweigh the cons and are ready to tackle a surprise wrinkle or three, these unplaytested initial notes might point the way

Final Card

As in QuickShock, decide how many cards of one type, Shocks or Injuries, a character can take before leaving play: a harsh 3 or a forgiving 4.

Shocks

Entirely replace the Stability point loss system with the QuickShock approach. Players test Stability or Composure to avoid lingering emotional consequences, usually with a Difficulty of 4, taking a Shock card in the case of failure. The character receives a minor Shock with a margin of 1 or a major Shock with a margin of 2 or more.

Reach your Final Card threshold, either 3 or 4 Shocks, and your character leaves play.

Hazards

Physical dangers outside of combat work the same way, except that you’re testing Athletics, Health or Sense Trouble to avoid Injury cards, taking the minor on a margin or 1 or the minor on a result higher than that.

Fighting

Combat proceeds as it does in standard GUMSHOE, up until the point where a player character drops to or below one of the Health pool thresholds: 0 points, -6 points, and -12 points.

At the 0 threshold, the character takes the minor Injury card dished out by the opponent who landed the blow. If that takes you to your Final Card threshold, you die, narrating appropriate details for your demise. Depending on the situation, your G may let you expire with a touching dying speech, surrounded by your grieving colleagues, after the fight has wrapped up.

At the -6 threshold, the character takes the major Injury card dished out by the opponent who landed the blow. If that takes you to our Final Card, you die, as above. Otherwise, you continue. Your character will also almost certainly have the minor card still in hand. Effects of the two cards stack. Where the two cards present effects that are incompatible or make no sense when combined, the character keeps the major card and swaps the minor one for “Reeling” below.

At the -12 threshold, the character takes the Shock card “Down for the Count,” below. Once more, if that’s a Final Card, the character dies immediately or by the end of the scene.

An attack that blows through two thresholds gives you two cards. Three thresholds, three cards.

REELING

Injury

-1 to all tests.

Discard when you discard another Injury card, or after an hour (table time.)

DOWN FOR THE COUNT

Injury

You collapse to a prone position. You can’t make tests or stand unaided. Your Hit Threshold drops to 2.

Trade for “On the Mend” after a day in intensive care (world time.)

The GM may design certain foes so that they dish out custom equivalents of these two cards.

Further Adjustments

Reskin and adjust cards for the game and genre you’re playing.

Divide general abilities into the three sub-categories (Physical, Presence and Focus) if your version of GUMSHOE doesn’t do that already. Use YKRPG as your model for that.

Make sure cards refer only to abilities that appear in your game. Revise references to Pushes if your GUMSHOE uses investigative spends instead. Rename cards to reflect your world: you’ll need laser blasts for Ashen Stars and damage for obscure super powers in Mutant City Blues.

Ignore Shocks from games that don’t take characters out of play for mental strain, such as Ashen Stars.

For Trail of Cthulhu, drop Sanity as a separate game statistic. Achieve its effect by making Shocks arising from Mythos contact Continuity cards with punishing or nonexistent discard conditions.

Create cards whose effects leverage statistics that appear only in standard GUMSHOE, from Hit Thresholds to Armor to weapon damage.

Conversely, don’t use “Don’t For the Count” in actual QuickShock games, where Hit Thresholds are not a thing.

And if you try this, let me know how it goes!


QuickShock GUMSHOE debuts in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game. YKRPG takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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.

With physical conventions off the table for the moment, Pelgrane Press is cooking up a series of virtual panels over on our newly bustling YouTube channel. To kick things off Ken and Robin entered the Dreamlands of Zoom to take questions from a crew of stalwart volunteers. Now you too can watch as they nerdtrope the 100 Years War, share online RPG play tips, blackguard Joseph Campbell, praise Charles Portis, contemplate socially distant game snacks, and more.

It’s official – the GUMSHOE Community program is live!

We announced in our Swords, Spies and Shoggoths panel at Gen Con (which you can listen to here, thanks to our friends at the Plot Points podcast) that we were launching the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of Ashen Stars (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own Ashen Stars 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.

A previous article outlined an alternate campaign frame for Ashen Stars. Here’s a worked example. (The inspiration for this example, by the way, came from an episode of 99% Invisible about the Great Bitter Lake Association.)

In the Ashen Stars setting, ships travel fast-than-light along translight corridors. The largest starships – massive industrial supercarriers, mobile refineries, and bulk cargo freighters – are too large to pass through some corridors. At the height of the Combine’s reach, titanic tachyonic buttresses artificially widened the corridors, allowing these great ships to move through otherwise impassable routes.

Then came the war. The buttresses were prime targets for Mohilar raiders, and many were destroyed.

In the wild space of the Bleed, the destruction of the C97-Kraken buttress trapped a fleet of a dozen megaships in the Gallereid system. Rebuilding the buttress is definitely on the Combine’s to-do list, but it won’t happen for years. In the meantime, the fleet is stuck. It’s cheaper for the megacorps to pay for security and a skeleton crew to monitor the trapped ships than it is to transfer the cargos to smaller ships. So, the Gallereid fleet waits there in deep space, slowly succumbing to entropy, their hulls turning yellow as sulphur particles from the nearby volcanic moon accrete…

What’s The Scope?

The action’s centred on the ‘Yellow Fleet’ of stranded metaships
, with occasional jaunts to the moons of Gallerus. The ships include:

  • Kullervos: A severely damaged Combine warship, on her way back to be decommissioned and scrapped. A skeleton crew of loyal Cybes consider her their home.
  • Blue Haven: During the war, the Combine world of Azura was evacuated aboard the Blue Haven. Before they could reach the Combine, the ship got stuck here. The passengers have long since been decamped to other worlds, including the Gallereid moons, but the Blue Haven is still full of personal items and equipment salvaged from Azura.
  • Northwind: A mining ship, full of valuable ores and mining equipment.
  • Costaguana: Northwind’s sister ship – a mobile refinery.

 Key nearby locations include

  • Bitterness: The hellish volcano moon the fleet orbits.
  • New Azura: A mining world. Before the war, the Northwind and Costaguana chewed up most of New Azura, turning it into a wasteland; now, many of the refugees from the Blue Haven have been moved there, into the mining tunnels.
  • Gallereid Prime: The most habitable of the moons, home to a Bleedist settlement.

Why Here?

The Lasers are here to protect the Yellow Fleet from thieves, raiders, quarrelling crews and other threats.

Who Are The Factions?

Key factions:

  • BVS Incorporated: The corporation responsible for managing and maintaining the fleet, while they wait for the replacement Tachyon Buttress to be installed.
  • Scrubbers: The underpaid, bored, and increasingly troublesome crew of techs responsible for maintaining, effectively, 15 giant space cities.
  • Monks of the Yellow Oracle: Eccentric monastic nu-faith that many of the scrubbers have joined. They claim to be able to see the future in the sulphur clouds.
  • Cybes: The cyborg crew of the Kullervos, who object to their homeship being decommissioned. Some want to purchase the ship, and have become mercenaries to earn some extra credits.
  • Gallereid Bleedists: Denizens of Gallereid Prime, who don’t want the tachyon buttress built – they want to be mostly cut off from the Combine.
  • Azurans: Refugees settled on the blasted moon of New Azura; they claim ownership of the cargo of

Who Are The Criminals?

  • Gallereid Organised Crime: Gallereid Prime’s the home of the local crime syndicate, the Kch-Tkh-dominated Hive Lords. They don’t appreciate having a bunch of Lasers hanging around on the other side of the gas giant.
  • Cargo Ticks: Low-grade raiders who break into the hulls of the freighters using reconfigured mining ships and steal cargo. They work closely with criminal elements among the scrubbers.

Who Are The Faces?

  • BVS Incorporated: Mik Reiser, corporate executive. Ambitious, eager to get out of this dead-end assignment. Conceals slimy amoral core beneath a mask of earnest concern for the safety of those heroic scrubbers.
  • Scrubbers: Kima Adros, leader of the scrubber crew on the Costaguana. Torn by doubts about the Combine.
  • Monks of the Yellow Oracle: Abbot Zhar, cryptic robed figure, rumoured to be a Vas Mal.
  • Cybes: Commander Navzero, the leader of the Cybes who claim the warship. Navzero’s literally built itself into the ship, permanently wiring its core systems into the networks of the Kullervos.
  • Gallereid Bleedists: Alten Brase, the mayor of Gallereid Prime. In a relationship with Kima Adros. He’s also aided by Vogik, a shady Tavak enforcer who’s the law on Prime.
  • Azurans: Lady Io Sunwater, the representative of the exiles from Azura.
  • Gallereid Organised Crime: Run by the Durugh Ishuk – a long-time foe of Vogik.
  • Cargo Ticks: One notorious tick is “Lucky” Lar, who’s so incompetent a thief that he’s turned informant for the Lasers.

What’s New?

During the war, the convoy of megaships was in the process of entering the translight corridor when the Mohiliar blew up the Gallereid tachyon buttress. The lead ship, the mighty Thunderchild, was in transit when the buttress collapsed, and was assumed destroyed 10 years ago.

Well, the Thunderchild just dropped out of translight. No life signs, minimal power, lots of damage. It’s possible that she’s been bouncing around in translight for years, in the unstable hyperspace outside the corridor, and precipitated back into lowshift space by chance – but the odds against that are millions to one.

It looks like the Yellow Fleet’s about to gain a new and mysterious addition… once the lasers have confirmed there’s nothing dangerous on board that vast megafreighter…

What’s The Station?

A chunk of one of the Yellow Fleet ships, given over to the lasers. The players get to pick which wreck is home…

Possible Cases

  • Kima Adros warns that Thunderchild is going to fall into Gallerus’ gravity well unless secured – but she can’t get the ship’s engines restarted until the Lasers clear the engineering section of mysterious translight predators that feed on fear.
  • A smuggler is murdered on New Azura. He dealt in relics from the Blue Haven, selling personal items back to the Azurans. How did he steal that cargo – and why was it worth killing over? What ancient secret from Azura was hidden in those trinket?
  • A tip-off warns the Lasers that notorious Bleedist terrorist Azo Hoop is in-system, and is rumoured to be planning to obtain weapons from the warship Kullervos. Is Hoop working with the Bleedist sympathisers on Gallereid Prime, or the Cargo Ticks – or has he gone straight to the Cybes? Or is the rumour a plan to distract and discredit the Lasers in the eyes of the other residents of Gallerus?

The 2nd edition of the Esoterrorists includes the Station Duty campaign frame, in which a Esoterrorist team is placed on long-term assignment to a particular small town for an ongoing investigation instead of the usual mystery-of-the-week. That approach also works in Ashen Stars. (The obvious worked example: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine swapped out the ‘planet of the week’ structure of the original series and The Next Generation for an ongoing plot involving Bajor, the Cardassians, and the wormhole aliens.)

Key questions to be answered, either by the GM or collaboratively with the players:

What’s The Scope?

Is this a single planet? A single star system? A group of systems? You could do as small a single city, or as wide as a whole cluster or outzone – maybe the station’s located at a crossroads in space where multiple translight corridors intersect.

Why Here?

Why does this place justify a permanent Laser presence? Is it strategically important – a choke point, maybe, at the mouth of a wormhole, er, translight corridor? Is it especially lawless, a pirate haunt that must be patrolled? Is there some vital industry here that must be protected? Is it a new government outpost that’s trying to return Combine order to the chaotic Bleed? Maybe this was the site of a major battle in the Mohiliar war, and there’s a scrapyard of wrecked warships here – or researchers investigating the doomsday weapons used by the mysterious enemy.

Who Are The Factions?

You need at least four or five major groups. What alien races are present? (At least some should be the same species as some of your more unusual player characters.) What major corporations? Nufaiths? Planetary governments? What are their attitudes towards the player characters and towards each other? Ensure there’s at least one conflict between every faction, even if they’d normally be closely aligned.

Possible factions include all the major Combine people (Human, Cybe, Durugh, Balla, Kch-thk, Tavak, and maaaaybe Vas Mal), plus the new peoples from Accretion Disk (boisterous Cloddhucks, drifting Hydrossi, corpse-stealing Icti, radioactive Ndoalites, fiery Raconids or shapeshifting Verpids); the various Nufaiths and Synthcultures, and the various political ideologies (Bleedist, Atomist, Combinism, Mercantilism, Empiricism and Racial Separatism).

Who Are The Criminals?

It’s a game about space cops, so stick in some space criminals. Having at least one established organised crime outfit (smugglers, illegal cyber-dealers, etc) and one bunch of space pirates or thieves is an absolute minimum. Which factions have ties to crime?

Who Are The Faces?

For each faction, come up with at least individual representative to give the players someone to talk to. Texture these characters by giving them a point of disagreement (possibly hidden, to be discovered by later investigation) with their own faction, and a connection to one of the other factions.

Also create a major location or headquarters for that faction, if one isn’t obvious already.

What’s New?

In addition to the arrival of the lasers, include some recent disruption to the status quo. This disruption might be something that lasts for the whole campaign (“the Combine’s returned to this sector”) or a plot arc that lasts for a few adventures (“space plague!”). Disrupting the status quo from the start lets the player characters become part of whatever new equilibrium is eventually established.

What’s The Station?

Is it a custom-built station? A derelict ship? A surface building? A moon colony? An old Combine military outpost?

The player characters still need a spaceship, as per the regular rules.

 Wire Up The Arcs

The final step is to plug the player characters into the web of factions and plots. In a station duty campaign, there’s much more scope for long-running plots, so integrate player character arcs into the setting. If a player’s arc is “find my missing sister”, her disappearance must be closely connected to one of the factions or some location (maybe she vanished into that wormhole). If it’s “prove my worth”, then the character might become the leader or chosen, er, emissary of one of the factions.

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?
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