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.

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.

Gar O'BrienUnder the glorious new regimen, my articles get upgraded to a column with a running title, which is like an academic getting tenure. Bear with me a moment while I suckle at the pelgrane’s noisome teat.

* * *

Accretion Disk, the Ashen Stars expansion book, continues to live up to its name. More and more motes of text are drawn inexorably into the gravity well of the project folder, and there’s a huge chapter on abilities by the masterful Kevin Kulp that’s about to slam into the existing draft.

Adding detail to the Ashen Stars system and setting opens up the possibility of running other styles of science fiction adventure. Of course, the default setup of ‘licensed freelance problem-solvers’ can bleed into any of these styles.

Space Traders

The PCs are the crew of a small tramp starship, bouncing from system to system taking on whatever cargoes and passengers they can find. One week, they’re delivering terraforming equipment to a new colony; next, it’s a cargo load of cryogenically frozen space cows, or a few hundred metric tons of chemical waste, or just a bunch of mysterious sealed containers. GMs and players with an interest in speculative economics could explore the weirdness of a super-high-tech post-scarcity economy suddenly feeling the bite of scarcity again. Another interesting wrinkle is the change in the characters’ legal standing – they don’t have badges or any legal authority, so they’ll have to be careful about staying on the right sight of the law.

Investigative abilities are used to spot business opportunities, to solve problems when delivering cargoes, and to deal with troublesome clients, so stock up on Bargain and Assess Honesty. In this setup, the characters rarely get regularly contracts – they’ve got to support themselves solely with freight or other trading contracts, which means a high Business Affairs to keep gaps between missions to a minimum.

The anarchic nature of the post-war Bleed means the characters are kept busy in the early part of the campaign, bringing supplies and exploiting opportunities to profit from the chaos. As law and order return, the megacorporations expand back out from the Combine. When they seize control of trade routes and contracts, it becomes clear that the small free traders like the PCs are going to be squeezed out of existence. Do the characters try to stay ahead of the megacorporations by running out to the fringes of known space, or do they try to protect their lifestyles by stirring up instability and chaos in the Bleed?


Let’s Be Bad Guys

You could either borrow from Firefly, and have a crew of semi-legitimate traders who occasionally turn to crime, or go all the way and play a gang of specialized thieves (space pirates)! GUMSHOE works great for crime if you flip some of the investigative abilities around so they’re about concealing evidence instead of finding it. So, you now use Holo Surveillance to avoid being picked up by sensors, or Decryption to conceal your transmissions from law enforcement, or Evidence Collection to make sure you collect all the evidence of your intrusion before you leave. (This twist works very well in other GUMSHOE games, like Trail of Cthulhu – bootlegging Boozehounds of Innsmouth, anyone?)


Ashen Troopers

The characters are all soldiers in the Combine’s armed forces. As roleplaying games work best when the players have the freedom to get themselves into horrible trouble, they either start on some sort of detached duty (‘we’re an elite commando unit that lands on enemy-occupied worlds, gathers intelligence, then sabotages the planet’s defences in advance of the landing’) or get separated from their regular chain of command in the first session of the game. Optionally, borrow some Thriller Combat rules from Night’s Black Agents, and Accretion Disk adds plenty of new equipment that becomes military gear when given a coat of reactive camouflage.

And who are they fighting? Bleedist separatists? Nufaith terrorists? Hostile Class-K aliens like the Jaggar, Nanogons or Phyllax? Or hostile galactic powers, like the bizarre Crysolis gestalts or the crumbling tinpot dictatorship of the Galactoid Legionnaires? You could even go back to the Mohilar War, and pit the characters against durugh and Combine turncoats, leading up to a final confrontation with the Mohilar themselves!


Brave New Worlds

Your continuing mission is to take a small scoutship into the unexplored reaches of the Bleed, and survey whatever planets you encounter. You won’t be alone out there – in addition to unscrupulous rival explorers and prospectors, you might run into hostile aliens, refugees who fled the war, durugh fleets who refused to follow their king’s command to switch sides, lost starships, temporal anomalies, and the remains of long-vanished civilisations. On each world, you must assemble a thorough survey report, which means scanning it from orbit, then flying down in your shuttle to gather samples and investigate any indigent cultures or mysterious sensor glitches.

You’re even authorized to make first contact on behalf of the Combine with any newly-discovered intelligent species. Just try not to start the next war…



Ashen Stars Review

A thorough review of Ashen Stars from Matthew Pook.

In fact, in comparison with other Gumshoe System RPGs, Ashen Stars is fundamentally straightforward and unfussy. Were it not for what the RPG does to the genre it is emulating, that is rework it as an investigation game, Ashen Stars would be considered to be a very traditional RPG. Instead it highlights and makes its focus upon the usually ignored investigative nature of the genre, the feature of Ashen Stars and so refreshes the genre.

Ashen Stars Tech Cards

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

By Robin D. Laws

This is the second of two installments covering additional combat options for Ashen Stars. See part one for explanation and disclaimers. While the rules themselves are from the Esoterror Fact Book, the enhancements and gear are new and have not been playtested. Because, seriously, who playtests columns?

Critical Hits

Fact Book

When your raw die roll on an attack attempt is a 6, and your total result after pool expenditures are taken into account exceeds the target’s Hit Threshold by 5 or more, you score a critical hit, rolling two instances of damage and adding them together.

Nadia, escaping from an organ harvesting complex run by radical cybes, punches a guard, whose Hit Threshold is 4. Her player, Piera, spends 3 Scuffling points on the attack, then rolls a 6, for a final result of 9. This exceeds the Threshold by 5, allowing a critical hit. Nadia deals damage equal to two punches, with a -2 damage value. Piera rolls a 5, for a modified result of 3 damage, and a 6, which modifies to 4 damage. The guard loses 7 Health, going from 5 to -2.

If PCs can score critical hits, their dramatically important enemies can, too.

Viroware Enhancement: Occipital Overclocker

Initial Therapy Cost: 1

Upkeep: 3

This enhancement allows you to divert your brain’s processing power to visual acuity and hand-eye coordination, briefly granting you a supranormal ability to zero an enemy’s weak spot and execute the perfect attack against it.

Spend X academic or technical investigative points to turn any successful hit, regardless of your die roll or the difference between result and Hit Threshold, into a critical hit.

The value of X starts at 2 and doubles each time you use the occipital overclocker over the course of a single case. When a new case begins, the cost resets to 2. So in one case, the cost accelerates from 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 and so on.

Defensive Mode

Fact Book

By going into defensive mode, you can opt to decrease both your chance of being hit and your chance of hitting anyone else. For every 2 Athletics points you spend, your Hit Threshold increases by 1, up to a maximum increase of 3. When you try to hit anyone else, their Hit Thresholds against you increase by 2 for every 1 point your Hit Threshold increased. While in defensive mode, you duck, weave, backtrack, and otherwise concentrate on not being hit. Announce that you’re going defensive at the beginning of your action for the round; doing so does not cost an action itself. The effects last until the beginning of your next action, at which point you can renew them (provided you can afford the cost.)

Badly pressed and running out of Scuffling points, Nadia attempts to fend off a lipovore while waiting for her fellow lasers to swoop by on their shuttle, dangling an escape-ready rope ladder. Her player, Alex, declares evasive action and spends 4 Athletics on a 2 point Hit Threshold increase, taking Nadia’s threshold from 4 to 6. The lipovore’s Threshold increases (against Blake’s attacks only) from 4 to 8.

Viroware Enhancement: Limbic Defender

Initial Therapy Cost: X

Upkeep: 1

The Limbic Defender virus harnesses the power of your fight-or-flight reflex, flooding your body with additional adrenaline. You needn’t spend Athletics to go into Defensive Mode. Instead, you may, once per case, add X, the cost you chose to spend when installing the enhancement, to your Hit Threshold. When you attack others, add 2X to their Hit Thresholds. The effect lasts for the duration of a single fight.

Reckless Attacks

Fact Book

By fighting all-out, taking no precautions against being hit yourself, you can increase your chances of hitting your opponent—at additional risk of being hit yourself. Spend 1 Athletics to decrease both your and a chosen opponent’s Hit Threshold by up to 3 points. The minimum Hit Threshold achievable through a reckless attack is 1. Your opponent’s Hit Threshold decreases only against you, but your decrease occurs against all potential opponents. The decreases last until the beginning of your next action, at which point you can renew them by paying another Athletics point.

Confident that his clones will flee if their genetic exemplar is taken down, Nadia fights recklessly against the nufaith crusader Eln Tholar. Piera spends 1 Athletics point and decides on a 2-point decrease. Eln Tholar’s Threshold decreases from 3 to 1, but only against Nadia’s attack. Against the attacks of her crewmate, gunner Maggie Flatt, the exemplar’s Hit Threshold remains 3. However, Eln Tholar’s clones strike at Nadia as if her Hit Threshold is 1.

Viroware Enhancement: Rageaholic’s Delight

Initial Therapy Cost: X

Upkeep: 1

This colorfully named virus awakens the latent aggression of your lizard brain (or lizard-like primordial evolutionary precursor, in the case of non-human species.)  You needn’t spend Athletics to take Reckless Attacks. Instead, you may, once per case, subtract X, the cost you chose to spend when installing the enhancement, to your Hit Threshold, and from the Hit Threshold of a designated opponent (but only against your attacks.) The effect lasts for the duration of a single fight.

If you are a Tavak and use this enhancement in a fight, the Difficulty of any Resist Battle Frenzy tests taken for the rest of the interval increases by X.

Support Moves

Fact Book

If your Athletics rating is 8 or more, you may perform support moves. In a support move, you use your action to execute an Athletics maneuver, which then places one of your comrades in a superior position against an opponent. Describe, in exciting detail, how you intend the action to either improve your comrade’s position, or degrade an opponent’s. If your suggestion seems plausible, the GM clears you to make an Athletics test. Although your GM can adjust Difficulties according to described circumstances, you usually test against a Difficulty of 4. If successful, you allow your comrade to add the difference between your result and difficulty to a Shooting or Scuffling roll against the designated opponent. If the comrade fails to attack that opponent as his next action, the benefit is lost.

On New Peru’s windswept mountains, Nadia finds herself pinned in a narrow crevasse as a gelatinous native organism attempts to melt her face. Maggie, higher up on the cliff face, has dropped her rifle but wants to assist her comrade. Her player, Livia, describes a support move: “I rappel down and kick a loose chunk of rock so that it sinks through the thing’s outer translucence into the brain tissue below!” The GM rules that this is possible and not extra difficult (though dangerous—if Maggie fails, she’ll have to pass a second Athletics test or fall and hurt herself.) Livia adds 3 to her Athletics roll of 6 for a final result of 9. The creature attacks Nadia, reducing her Health from 11 to 5 as the flesh of her skin puckers and fizzes. Now it’s Nadia’s turn to act; she may apply a bonus of 5 (the difference between Maggie’s difficulty and result) to her roll. Piera spends a Scuffling point of her own, for a total bonus of 6, and rolls a 1, for a result of 7. This is just enough for Nadia to overcome the creature’s very high Hit Threshold and deal it the first of two stun attacks needed to down it.


By Robin D. Laws

In this, the first in a two-part series, I’ll be looking at ways to inject additional combat options into your Ashen Stars games. Next month’s selections adapt existing combat add-ons first found in the Esoterror Fact Book to throwdowns in the Bleed. This column floats a new rule concept in unplaytested form.

Before the rules, the disclaimer: GUMSHOE’s main focus remains on investigative action, with combat a secondary activity. We keep fighting simple so that it will also be fast, and not take up a disproportionate chunk of any given session. Most GUMSHOE GMs and groups prefer this stripped-down approach to fighting, considering it a feature. If you fall into this category, by all means continue to ignore the extra crunch. This material is for gamers who, for aesthetic reasons outside the game’s main scope, want its  punching and shooting to feel more detailed. Although these rules add options, they still conform to the game’s central design credo, in which we emulate fictional models, rather than trying to simulate real-world physics.

As we value genre fidelity more than universality over multiple game iterations, we sometimes tailor combat options to particular genres. Mutant City Blues grenades work differently than in The Esoterrorists, because in one instance we’re emulating comic book reality, while in another we’re getting as close to Clancyesque as we’re willing to venture. Here we present quite a different take on suppression fire than appears in the Fact Book. This one gears itself to a universe of NLD fire, where the Fact Book version is more about your proverbial hail of bullets.

Suppressing Fire


When opponents in a Shooting combat take Full or Partial Cover, and you are armed either with a disruption pistol or rifle, you may specify that you are laying down suppressing fire. As your action for the round, spend 1 point of Shooting and specify a single barrier or obstacle, behind which any number of combatants are currently taking cover. Specify also whether you’re using lethal or non-lethal fire.

You do not take a Shooting test.

Any opponent abandoning that cover between this action and your next gets hit.

If you specified lethal fire, the opponent is hit and damaged without the need for a Shooting test on your part. Armor reduces this damage as per usual.

If you used NLD fire, the opponent falls unconscious, regardless of its current Health pool.

Targets who are somehow immune to your chosen disruption setting are unaffected by your suppression fire. Protective gear, such as poppers, reacts as it normally would to the fire type chosen.

If a friendly combatant enters your specified cover area, you can (and probably will) choose to drop it. Your ally is unaffected, as are any enemies moving out of the cover area until at least your next action, when you may choose to re-establish your suppressing fire. Should you choose to maintain suppression fire, your ally is affected as an opponent would be. Expect the post-combat ready-room operations assessment to get heated.

In complicated cases your GM may find it clarifying to draw a sketch map of the fight and the positions of its participants. You can only create covering fire when you have a suitable vantage point from which to do so.

When there is more than one escape route from a covering position, and you can hit either from your present vantage, specify which of them your covering fire precludes. Your suppression fire kicks in only when combatants cross the line you’ve laid down.

Sentient or otherwise battle-savvy opponents avoid crossing lines of suppressing fire, doing so only as a desperation move. If your suppression fire strikes no targets during the course of a fight, you refresh all of the Shooting points you spent on it.

Upon entering an abandoned research facility on Asteroid Q-80923, you are fired upon by strange silica-based lifeforms. Two of them hide behind a partially dismantled console, granting them Partial Cover. They could abandon this cover either from the near side (advancing closer toward you) or from the far side (fleeing deeper into the complex.)

The entire melee pits four lasers, including yourself, against four silica lifeforms. You are the third laser to act. The lifeforms act after the lasers.

The first two lasers having fired, it’s now your turn to act. You don’t want the lifeforms to get away, and so declare that you’re laying down suppressing NLD fire, specifying the console’s far side as your suppression zone. You spend a Shooting point, dropping your pool from 8 to 7.

The last laser acts, then the four lifeforms. Neither of the two in your designated cover area tries to get away.

As the first action of the following round, a fellow laser drops one of the lifeforms with NLD fire.

When your turn to act comes up again, you decide to continue the suppressing fire. You pay another Shooting point to maintain it, lowering your pool by 1, from 7 to 6.

The next laser to act also drops his target with NLD fire.

The GM then describes your two pinned-down opponents as fleeing in panic through your suppression zone. They both fall unconscious.

From the GM’s point of view, this conveniently ends a fight whose conclusion is on longer in doubt. Since your suppression fire did in fact hit them, you get no refund for the Shooting points spent on it.

Disruption Accessory: Double Downer

Cost: 1

This pistol or rifle modification bifurcates your gun’s barrel and adds a special targeting nanocomputer. During an action, you may both pay 1 Shooting to lay down suppressing fire, and make a second, standard Shooting attack.

Part 2 of Ashen Stars Combat – Duking it Out

From the composers of the Eternal Lies Suite comes a six-track theme for Ashen Stars. James Semple and his team are working on six tracks of evocative, atmospheric melodies to become the soundtrack of your stellar adventures.

Listen to a sneak preview now.

Previous Entries