See P XX: Recreational Drugs in Ashen Stars

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.

One Response to “See P XX: Recreational Drugs in Ashen Stars”

  1. Sean McCauliff says:

    I think in Ashen Stars the skill is called Downside and not Streetwise.

Leave a Reply