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

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

We’ve got a number of great Ashen Stars PDFs already available, to show you what’s possible. These include:

If you’re interested in learning more about the GUMSHOE Community program, check it out here.

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

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

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

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

What’s The Scope?

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

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

 Key nearby locations include

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

Why Here?

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

Who Are The Factions?

Key factions:

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

Who Are The Criminals?

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

Who Are The Faces?

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

What’s New?

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

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

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

What’s The Station?

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

Possible Cases

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

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

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

What’s The Scope?

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

Why Here?

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

Who Are The Factions?

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

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

Who Are The Criminals?

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

Who Are The Faces?

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

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

What’s New?

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

What’s The Station?

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

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

 Wire Up The Arcs

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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

In Ashen Stars, players portray freelance law enforcers working the spacelanes of the frontier sector known as the Bleed. Their ability to secure lucrative contracts depends on their reputation, which goes up when they solve cases well and honorably, and drops when they get caught cutting ethical corners.

The game simplifies this by assuming that the crew always gets a good contract, but after an expensive fallow period if they have dragged their Reputation.

The existence of desirable contracts suggests its opposite—there must be terrible contracts none but the foolish or desperate ever accept. Players may ask you what they passed up while waiting for a decent job to appear on their comm screens. For flavor’s sake, here are some examples you can give them:

* The Nufaith of Eregrinism offers a bounty to the crew willing to dislodge the possessing alien entity from the body of their founding prophet, Eregrin. Several crews have found Eregrin over the years, leading a peripatetic existence spending the money he absconded with as he departed the church. Repeated scans have proven no unusual brain activity. The Eregrinists’ explanation for their prophet’s apostasy cannot be correct, rendering their contract unfulfillable.

* The Daralala clan wants the muckworm of Leipzig-7 apprehended and transported for trial to their space station in the Cerberus Outzone. They first mooted this contract a decade ago, and it’s easy to see why no one has taken them up on it. The muckworm dwells in the toxic sludge comprising the mass of Leipzig-7. No one has yet invented a hazard suit capable of sustaining survival in this environment. Nor has any independent researcher established the muckworm’s sapience, and thus its criminal liability in the death of explorer Heran Deralala. Also, the worm is ten miles long and weighs as much as a large moon. No known technology would facilitate its successful transport.

* Towerreach, a wealthy cybe real estate developer from Muscadin, has lodged a complaint for criminal libel against a rival, a durugh named Esagalius. He disputes Esagalius’ claim of having built a more perfectly symmetrical skyscraper than his own. The charge of criminal libel is not recognized on the durugh’s home planet, Farcin—nor, indeed, anywhere else but Muscadin. He is thus not extraditable. Nabbing him from Farcin would constitute kidnapping, a crime devastating to any laser crew’s reputation.

  • A tavak spice merchant, Bedat Who Encompassed the Unsurpassable Flavor, offers a hefty reward for the apprehension of her wife’s killer. However, a clear holo-image has since come to light showing Bedat herself fatally strangling her. No one has offered to pay for Bedat’s apprehension. Though the contract she put out as a show of her innocence remains in the system, no one believes she’d pay for her own arrest.
  • The current and past president of Nusardia have extended competing embezzlement charges against one another. Though both undoubtedly committed the charged offenses, the Nusardian High Court famously nullifies all laser contracts naming the planet’s corrupt high officials. It typically slaps laser crews with civil and criminal penalties if they try to act on them. Only greenhorns get mixed up in Nusardian politics.
  • Balla environmentalists offer a reward for the apprehension of polluter Zimax Zell, whose ships befouled the rings of Olumba. However the contract acknowledges his likely death in the explosion of the freighter Constant, which had him registered as a passenger.
  • The bereaved family of transport fleet magnate Zimax Zell seek the arrest of the eco-terrorists who blew up his flagship, the Constant. Three previous laser crews all reached the conclusion that an interaction between a stellar anomaly and an engine fault caused the ship’s destruction, exonerating the activists named in the contract.
  • A trade consortium offers a reward for the utter destruction of the Ultraviolets, a pirate fleet of the Kraken Outzone. Lasers all know that the consortium itself acts as a fence for goods and ships seized by the Ultraviolets. Everyone suspects that they promulgated the contract as a lure to bring ships to the Kraken for capture.
  • The Operating Board of Patrune offers apprehension contracts for numerous citizens accused of violating its draconian immigration statutes. Lasers avoid working for Patrune for two reasons. One, they find it dispiriting to arrest desperate people who run afoul of their unjust legal system. Two, the Operating Board pays on an infamously slow schedule, when it does so at all.
  • An alliance of laser crews offers a reward for the apprehension of the Operating Board of Patrune for non-payment of outstanding invoices. This contract has clearly been lodged for symbolic reasons, as the promised fee in no way compensates for the logistical challenges of arresting the entire executive of a sitting government.
  • The vas mal scholar Honorious Miike will pay a sizable reward for the recovery of his yamagchan, an object (or perhaps abstract force?) he is unable or unwilling to describe. “You will know it when you find it,” the contract simply states.

Players being players, yours may decide that they want to turn one of these entries, all written as time-wasting dead ends, into an actual adventure.

If you can see a way to turn the dud contract they fixate on into something, do that. This might be a simple matter of having the wild goose chase implied by the contract lead them to a completely different mystery—perhaps one you already had in mind. Or you could devise a way around its supposedly insurmountable obstacles.

Otherwise, you can play out the expected failure of the mission as a quick vignette. It could lead into a character subplot or provide the spark for fun inter-character banter. After you’ve wrung all the interest you can from that, they find a new contract actually worth pursuing.


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop. Ship plans appear in Accretion Disk.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

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.

[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.

See P. XX

a Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

Was it a whole ten years ago that Simon Rogers and I sat by ourselves at a small table on the far fringes of the Gen Con exhibit hall? It feels like only yesterday, that forlorn time when we had nothing to lure passersby but a stack of The Esoterrorists first edition and some Dying Earth books. Yes, it’s the tenth anniversary of GUMSHOE and although we were slow burners at first, the system has gradually inveigled its way into gaming’s collective consciousness. We could have no more humbling/ego inflating proof of that than Pelgrane’s amazing showing at this year’s ENnie Awards. I should count myself lucky that Simon, Cat, Ken and Gar left a few medals on the table for Feng Shui 2.

View from Pelgrane Gen Con booth, 10 years ago (Artist’s Rendering)

On such occasions, one’s thoughts naturally turn to think pieces, and Simon has asked me to look at ways in which GUMSHOE scenarios have changed since the early days.

To me the key innovation has to be the addition of Lead-In and Lead-Out lines to the scene headers. These immediately show the GM where the scene probably fits in the investigative sequence the players create as they wend their way through the mystery. For example:

Harp’s Place

Scene Type: Core

Lead-Ins: The Bait, What’s Up With Chuck

Lead-Outs: Irland is Missing, Dawley, The Water Commission

Although we sometimes also still do scene sequence diagrams, they only really work for very simple, more or less linear scenarios. The more possible ways through the investigation a scenario provides, the more tangled and confused the web of scene connections looks when expressed in diagram form. Instead of acting as a play aid, a diagram makes the scenario look more daunting than it really is. Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs put the information in front of GMs when they really need it—while they’re running the scenes.

From a scenario design standpoint, they encourage the writer to include multiple ways in and out of their scenes, giving players additional options and fighting linearity.

* * *

The other big change, Gar has pointed out, can be seen in the way Investigative point spends are treated. Some early scenarios went a bit off-model by requiring overly high spends for benefits. If you see a 3-point spend in an early adventure, you can almost always strike that out in exchange for a 2 or even a 1. Other early adventures sometimes get stingy by making only the core clues free, and charging for other information you don’t need. Since those first scenarios we have more consistently adopted the approach I have always used, which is to provide plenty of info for free and make the players separate the pertinent from the incidental.

Over the years we have also learned how emotionally invested players become when they choose to spend an investigative point. I initially conceived of investigative spends as just a grace note, a fun minor occurrence that would happen every now and again. No big deal. That thought underestimated the cognitive difficulty of letting go of a resource—any resource. Early scenarios allowed you to find out information in an especially cool way, or add dimension to your character, in exchange for spends. For example, in one of the Stunning Eldritch Tales adventures you can specify that you already know one of the key characters—but it’s up to the player to squeeze a concrete advantage out of that. It turns out that players want a bigger, clearer gain when they spend points. So in more recent scenarios you’ll see us moving more toward palpable game advantages, like bonuses to general ability tests, or being able to avoid a clearly undesirable plot outcome.

You’ll see this thought carried through into the simplified equivalent of investigative spends that appears in GUMSHOE One-2-One. In that iteration of the game they become scarcer resources, and must always deliver something strong when they are spent.

* * *

Roleplaying scenarios in general sometimes lapse into extended passages of background information that might be of interest to the GM while reading but has no likely way to come up in play, and will thus remain undiscovered by the players. GMs need enough information to run the scenario and understand the logic behind the actions of the supporting characters they’ll be playing, in case players hit them with unexpected questions. But when writing it can be tempting to just start spinning out details of the fictional world without finding a way to make them pay off at the table. Even in the early years I think we mostly caught and fixed such passages during the development phase. The Great Pelgrane who sits atop our London eyrie remains vigilant against them today, snapping up transgressors of this principle with his piercing beak.

Another factor I’ve been more cognizant of over the years: the possibility that GMs will over-interpret a throwaway line of in-world description. For example the tradecraft Ordo Veritatis agents use to conceal their identities isn’t mean to become an obstacle during play. Instead the GM should describe it as challenging without making it a genuine uninteresting additional hassle. But if I don’t come out and say this while writing, I can easily mislead the GM into making a big deal of what I regard as an atmospheric element. The general fix for issues like this is to break more readily from fictional world voice to speak directly, designer-to-GM about what I hope to help you make happen at the gaming table.

Other than that the changes to scenarios mostly come from the emulation of the new genres we take on. Ashen Stars required a look at the way investigation works in shows like “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” Likewise with Night’s Black Agents and contemporary spy thrillers like the Bourne Trilo… er, Quadrilogy I guess it now is.

With Cthulhu Confidential and The Yellow King on the horizon, we’ll continue to refine GUMSHOE for particular experiences. I look forward to seeing what our scenarios will look like in another ten years’ time.

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