Ashen Stars Cover

Play the gritty reboot of your favorite science fiction TV series. Winner of the 2012 Silver ENnie award for Best Setting, designed by RPG legend Robin D. Laws and powered by the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system. Out here in the Bleed, you’re the closest thing there is to a higher authority. You’re Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators —”lasers” for short. You’re the seasoned freelancers that local leaders call whenever a situation is too tough, too baffling, or simply too weird for them to handle. It’s a dirty job, but it pays. And sometimes, you get to make a difference. In Ashen Stars you take on the role of freelance troubleshooters and law enforcers operating in a remote sector of space called the Bleed. Amid the ashes of a devastating war that ended with a massive retreat by the Combine, you’ll solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — balancing the promise of a quick buck against the need to maintain a reputation that wins you lucrative contracts, and pays the upkeep on your ship and your cyber- and viroware enhancements. Play one of seven species: The eerily beautiful, nature-loving, emotion-fearing balla The cybes, former humans radically altered by cybernetic and genetic science The durugh, hunched, furtive […]

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In the latest episode of their anomaly-detecting podcast, Ken and Robin talk science mystery scenarios, a cannibal fugitive, hardboiled 30s Mutant City Blues, and changing the condiment timestream.

A Scenario Hook for Ashen Stars

The lasers pick up a contract for what appears to be a simple rescue mission. The massive freighter Never Given has lost faster-than-light capability and has become lodged in a translight corridor.

Characters with Astronomy or Forensic Engineering want to hear that last bit again. Lodged in a translight corridor? That isn’t possible!

Well, replies the client, it might not be possible, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening. Worse, the freighter’s presence prevents other ships from using the corridor. In an area with few FTL jump points, the accident threatens catastrophic shortages on a dozen worlds.

Hails to the Never Given garner nothing but static and garble. The contract calls for a crew to establish contact with them, rendering whatever aid is required to get that ship moving again.

The mostly automated ship runs with a skeleton crew. Once aboard, the lasers discover the survivors suffering from acute sensory disruption. They’re hallucinating, experiencing their memories of the Mohilar War. Like everyone, including the investigators, they lost all recollection of that conflict when it ended. Whatever they’re reliving, it’s traumatic, and jacking their medical readings into the danger zone.

Not long after boarding, the lasers start to flash back to their own repressed war histories.

Through investigation, the group discovers that radiation from cutting-edge computer components in the cargo hold has altered the temporal frequency of the entire ship, causing everyone on board to exist in two times at once. As they race for a fix before they too succumb entirely to the chrono-hallucinations, they must ask themselves—do they stay in their altered states long enough to learn more about the Bogey Conundrum? Or do they decide that the knowledge of the war ought to remain in the box some unknown force so dramatically put it in?


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.

In the Community Content Spotlight, each month I write up a short review of a GUMSHOE 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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Stick around after the review to hear the results of the GUMSHOE Community Contest!

An original supplement for Ashen Stars, Solo Laser is a clever (and cleverly simple) attempt to add a solo, improvisatory ruleset onto GUMSHOE. At only 14 pages, the PDF was a breeze to read through, but it accomplishes a lot in those pages, including adding a simple die roll to answer questions about a setting, event, or NPC interaction, and a system of tonal descriptors that function both to kickstart a new play session and to answer more difficult questions (perhaps investigative ones) that arise during play. This solo ruleset even includes lightly modified character generation instructions, to ensure that your laser (or rogue) will be well-rounded enough to meet (many, though not all, never all) of the challenges that come their way. The author, Peter Rudin-Burgess, of Parts Per Million Limited, has adapted several non-GUMSHOE systems to solo rulesets already, which gives him a handy background for this conversion.

Coming into this reading, I’ll profess to a certain hesitation about playing a GUMSHOE game solo — and we do mean solo, GM-less. What about the investigation? What about the clues? How do you have a fulfilling mystery story without someone who already knows the answer? The answer to this dilemma, for Rudin-Burgess, effectively comes through a re-orientation of the player-GM relationship (I mean, obviously, since we’ve nixed the GM in this equation). Rudin-Burgess points out that “solo roleplaying tools… are in fact used as writing aids by authors,” and Solo Laser will give you the tools to assume that authorship even while playing your spacefaring “hero.”

But don’t worry, you don’t write yourself a trail of clues or a scenario spine before play, there’s plenty of room for discovery and spontaneity (in fact, it’s all discovery). All you do at the outset is develop your contract and get to exploring. And I say “exploring” because that’s what this PDF really wants you to do: set out on a logical path, add a bit of randomness through the simple mechanics I’ve mentioned above, and then improvise. From those improvisations you acquire facts that we would call clues — some of which you’ll determine are relevant, and some of which aren’t. Eventually, after you’ve accrued enough clues and met enough NPCs, a picture will fall into place and you can “solve” the mystery. (I’m reminded of Chinatown: Gittes has two suspects near the end of the film, and the solution only coheres at the last moment.) As Rudin-Burgess says, “solo adventures are so spontaneous that no one will know who the culprit is until the clues fall into place!”

The big takeaway for me is that the systems Rudin-Burgess introduces are potentially portable into other GUMSHOE games. You’d likely a new list of randomized tone descriptors — dark and brooding for Esoterrorists, fantastical and swashbuckling for Swords of the Serpentine — but even that would be a fun exercise, telling you exactly what kind of scenario you’re interested in playing (picking the apparently non-interesting descriptors, of course, would also be a fun experiment). And, good news, Rudin-Burgess let me know via email that he has plans for future adaptations of Esoterrorists and Fear Itself.

Solo Laser was a fun read that got me excited to try roleplaying a GUMSHOE system (Ashen Stars, sure, but like I said, the ideas are super portable to any other GUMSHOE worlds — solo terror in Fear Itself, anyone?) all on my lonesome. Have you ever played a GUMSHOE game solo? Excited to try Solo Laser? Let us know in the comments!

Title: Solo Laser
Author: Peter Rudin-Burgess
System: Ashen Stars
Price: $4.95 PDF

GUMSHOE Community Contest Results!

We had a good turnout for our first-ever GUMSHOE Community Contest, and we’re excited to announce that the winners are:

  • First Place: Dark Entanglements by John WS Marvin
  • Runner Up: Game Reserve by Michael Duxbury (Michael has already made his entry available! Check it out!)

Thanks to everyone who participated, and keep an eye on the Community page on DriveThru — we’ll hopefully see everyone’s entry published there soon, and I’ll post a round up of all the entries once they are.

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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. We currently accept material for Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch. 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.

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.

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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.

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.

Replication

A scenario seed for Ashen Stars

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

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

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

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

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

by Chris Sellers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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