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?

Live at Dragonmeet, Ken and Robin talk Hindu mythology’s secret role in the Norman Invasion, crisis on infinite podcasts, drinks to write by, and the real reason Ken had to make Trump president.

Because most RPG play advice goes to GMs, we tend to focus on them as the source of possible roadblocks in a session’s pacing. However, although in most game systems players lack the narrative control of GMs, they can also throw wrenches into the machinery of any plot.

I’m not just talking about moments when players shoot each other’s plans down (though that too can easily become a drag if you’re not careful.) No, I’m talking about the moment when the player leaps in, trying to turn a GM yes into a GM no.

As a player, when you hear another player propose an action to the GM, you may from time to time feel the temptation to leap in with a logical objection.

Other player: “I rush out onto the fire escape.”

GM: “Okay, once there, you—”

You: “Oh actually buildings in this part of the country typically don’t have fire escapes.”

Other player [fumes silently]

GM [fumes silently]

Now, put as baldly as that, you may be saying to yourself, “Oh actually I don’t do that.” And, as you are a fine and delightful person and a habitue of the Pelgrane blog, let’s stipulate that you wouldn’t.

But some people do, and you might be surprised if you were to inventory your past in-game utterances. Player-side blocking happens reflexively, and I don’t think that anyone who does it means to or realizes the implications of what they’re doing.

Some of us suffer a particular susceptibility to the urge to block GM approvals of other players’ actions. The temptation can strike players who mostly GM. Plot-hole-seeking viewers who have trouble suspending disbelief while watching genre movies and TV shows can also blurt out action-blocking statements at the gaming table.

As in the scripts you’re spotting implausibilities in, GMs are often letting strict practical logic slide in an effort to empower participation and keep things moving. Busting them on this slows or stops the action, shifting focus to picayune detail, at the expense of the broader narrative.

When you feel the tingle of a plot block dancing on your tongue, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Just don’t say that. At the end of the session you can regale the rest of the group with your superior fire escape knowledge while also implicitly praising the GM for not letting stuff that doesn’t matter kill momentum.

Alternately, in cases where your realism needs simply can’t be contained, find a way to turn a block into an adjustment. Instead of saying that the action the GM is ready to allow can’t work, propose a way that it can.

“Oh actually, there aren’t fire escapes in this part of the country, so likely Sajid watches the burglars from a balcony. Is it maybe made of frosted glass, helping him hide while he does it?”

In the latest episode of their visionary, extravagantly muscled podcast, Ken and Robin talk Blake at the Tate, Colby Elliott, and Ken’s latest London book raid—complete with record-scratching twist!

The holiday season is quickly approaching and we’re looking forward to spending quality time with family and friends. The Pelgrane office will be closed from December 25th through January 1st.

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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.

An epic arc reaches its pulse-pounding conclusion as Ken and Robin confront the wonder and terror of the Sno-Voyageurs Cookbook! (And also talk the system matters debate, Profumo Affair and 1911 Ark of the Covenant expedition)

In the latest episode of their podcast of many things, Ken and Robin talk magical artifacts, the Shakespeare riots, Dr. Jekyll, and Dick Nixon, FBI.

In the world of Mutant City Blues, there’s a single origin for mutant powers:  a mysterious virus called the ghost flu caused approximately 1% of the population to develop incredible abilities. In most campaigns, the ghost flu’s just part of the background, putting the focus on regular criminal investigations flavoured with tasty mutant weirdness.

However, if you want to push the mutant mystery to the forefront, here are four alternate origins for mutant powers. All these origins leave the signature Quade Diagram unchanged, but offer an additional line of investigation.

Mutagenic Meteor

Ten years ago, a meteorite broke up as it approached Earth. Portions of the meteorite fell through the atmosphere (other portions are still in orbit, and expected to pass close to Earth in a few years…) Much of the planet was bathed in dust; larger chunks of alien rock crash-landed more-or-less intact. People exposed to the dust developed mutant powers. Some of the fragments were collected and studied, but others have ended up on the black market. Snorting ground meteorite dust can trigger mutant powers; larger chunks have been fashioned into jewellery or tools, and are rumoured to boost mutant abilities to astounding levels or warp reality in other, stranger ways.

Investigating dust dealers and mutant-rock incidents are part of the remit of the Heightened Crimes Unit. Mutant City was hit especially hard by meteor fallout; they’re still finding meteor rocks in backyards and parks after all these years. And finding one of those rocks can literally change your life…

The Outsiders

The abductions began 10 years ago. About 1% of the population got beamed up by flying saucers (or stolen by the fairies, or folded into a higher dimension by hyper-beings). Those abducted sometimes developed mutant powers; others came back transformed in other ways, or were returned apparently unchanged. The military tried to intervene, but the aliens possess hypertechnology far beyond anything humanity can muster – and while the aliens’ intent may not be benign, it’s not overtly hostile either. These days, the abductions are just part of background weirdness – everyone knows someone who’s been abducted, and it’s common enough that ‘alien abduction’ is accepted without question as a reason for taking a sick day.

The Heightened Crimes Unit is responsible for following up on reports of abductions, and monitoring recent abductees to determine if they develop mutant abilities. HCU’s also tasked with investigating UFO sightings and other alien activity. Whatever the aliens are up to, they seem to be increasing the scale of their experiments in recent months.

Project HELIOS

Experiments in genetic enhancement of humanity began during the cold war; both the USA and the Soviet bloc carried out experiments to create super-soldiers. Their greatest success was Project HELIOS – a retrovirus that unlocked incredible powers. Only a handful of test subjects survived the HELIOS procedure, and the whole experiment was conducted in the greatest secrecy…

… until an augmented, airborne version of the HELIOS virus was released in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in what’s now called simply the Incident. The virus rapidly spread all over the world, causing an outbreak of mutant powers. Unlike the military version, HELIOS2 caused few casualties. A year to the day after the Incident, a mysterious group called the Ascended claimed responsibility for the augmented virus, and declared that mutants would soon control the world.

There have been several other, localised, HELIOS outbreaks in the years since the Incident; these are referred to as HELIOS3, HELIOS4 and so on. These local outbreaks all caused powers restricted to a particular part of the Quade Diagram; while some credit the Ascended with these outbreaks, the official line is that they were caused by mutated versions of HELIOS2.

Wild rumours that might be true:

  • One of the original HELIOS subjects developed either super-intelligence or the ability to control viruses, and was responsible for the Incident.
  • The Ascended are a global network of mutants, plotting to overthrow society and usher in a mutant-dominate era.
  • The Ascended are a psychological operation, designed to turn ordinary people against mutants and justify oppression.

Mutant Vector

Taking a leaf from Greg Stolze’s Progenitor, in this setting, mutant powers are contagious. The first mutant was created by the Ghost Flu, as usual, but everyone after that developed their powers after being exposed to the powers of another mutant. Get hit by a lightning blast, and maybe you’ll develop your own lighting powers. Or superspeed. Or a totally unrelated power, although in general acquired powers tend to be closely related to the triggering power on the Quade Diagram. More likely, you’ll get third-degree electrical burns. Power transfer isn’t guaranteed – it’s a 1% chance per mutant ability point spent on the power use, or a flat 1% for Pushed investigative abilities. If you fail to develop powers on first exposure, you probably never will.

This has created ‘dynasties’ of mutant powers – many of the mutants in Mutant City, for example were created by fallout from an early terrorist bombing by a Self-Detonating man. Tracking ‘promiscuous’ mutants can help solve cases; if four victims of a con artist all develop mutant powers, you’re dealing with a mutant crook.

 

 

 

“Nobody wants to see that, smell that…”

When a news story starts with the phrase “In what sounds like a scene from a horror film,” the media monitors at the Ordo Veritatis sit up and take notice.

When a basement floods with gore and bone, as happened in Bagley, Iowa in mid-October, they send a team of investigators, alert to possible Esoterrorist activity.

It might just be that the neighboring meat locker shares a drain with the unfortunate homeowner’s basement. That will certainly be the story the agents spread when they later conduct their Veil-Out.

Or it could be a blutkeller, an Outer Dark manifestation that forms around abattoirs and meat-packing facilities. A spell propagated by Esoterror operatives conjures it into this reality. The working requires the dumping of a human corpse amid animal waste products at the facility. An entity enters the mixture of blood and flesh, either remaining in the facility or slurping down the nearest drain or sluice. It then periodically surfaces to opportunistically attack lone victims, pulling them down into itself and devouring them, ooze-style. When it disappears into a partially clogged drain after an attack, it leaves a portion of itself behind. The blutkeller can come up through any connected pipe, or through demonic multilocation, phase into another nearby underground room. It can only phase into buildings visited by persons who have come into skin contact with its liquid residue. During the mission briefing, the team’s Mr. Verity strongly advises the use of hazmat suits when examining any potential blutkeller effluvia.

The demonic entity lacks solid substance and cannot be fought by normal means. An ingenious team might manage to contain or slow its rampage by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. To permanently banish it from the world, they must place the person who summoned it in its presence. Compelled to attack and devour its benefactor, it shrieks with thwarted rage before a red vortex sucks it back into the Outer Dark.

Until that happens, the summoner gains an infusion of psychic energy each time the blutkeller kills. This attracts luck, positive attention, and physical vitality. Agents may concentrate their search on local individuals gaining sudden wealth, popularity, or fame. To prove their case, they seek evidence that the target researched the ritual and had its corresponding, distinct sigil tattooed somewhere on the body.

It is not possible to cast the spell without expecting an ensuing series of horrible deaths. While agents may regret the necessity of feeding the summoner to the entity, they can assure themselves that the target made its bargain with the Outer Dark knowingly and

[sunglasses off]

…in cold blood.


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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