You may be wondering, either as a thought experiment or something to actually put in place, how to combine Injury and Shock cards from QuickShock, as seen in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, with the more traditional combat system found in other GUMSHOE games.

Reasons to do this: It shortens the learning curve for players who already know the other version. It extends fights longer, allowing excitement to build. It provides more details of the blow-by-blow, requiring less abstract thinking to narrate.

Reasons not to do this: It takes the most complicated element from one version of the game and bolts it to the most complicated element from another. It extends fights longer, devoting an increased chunk of time to bashing and getting shot that could be used interacting with GMCs and solving mysteries.

For those who feel the pros outweigh the cons and are ready to tackle a surprise wrinkle or three, these unplaytested initial notes might point the way

Final Card

As in QuickShock, decide how many cards of one type, Shocks or Injuries, a character can take before leaving play: a harsh 3 or a forgiving 4.

Shocks

Entirely replace the Stability point loss system with the QuickShock approach. Players test Stability or Composure to avoid lingering emotional consequences, usually with a Difficulty of 4, taking a Shock card in the case of failure. The character receives a minor Shock with a margin of 1 or a major Shock with a margin of 2 or more.

Reach your Final Card threshold, either 3 or 4 Shocks, and your character leaves play.

Hazards

Physical dangers outside of combat work the same way, except that you’re testing Athletics, Health or Sense Trouble to avoid Injury cards, taking the minor on a margin or 1 or the minor on a result higher than that.

Fighting

Combat proceeds as it does in standard GUMSHOE, up until the point where a player character drops to or below one of the Health pool thresholds: 0 points, -6 points, and -12 points.

At the 0 threshold, the character takes the minor Injury card dished out by the opponent who landed the blow. If that takes you to your Final Card threshold, you die, narrating appropriate details for your demise. Depending on the situation, your G may let you expire with a touching dying speech, surrounded by your grieving colleagues, after the fight has wrapped up.

At the -6 threshold, the character takes the major Injury card dished out by the opponent who landed the blow. If that takes you to our Final Card, you die, as above. Otherwise, you continue. Your character will also almost certainly have the minor card still in hand. Effects of the two cards stack. Where the two cards present effects that are incompatible or make no sense when combined, the character keeps the major card and swaps the minor one for “Reeling” below.

At the -12 threshold, the character takes the Shock card “Down for the Count,” below. Once more, if that’s a Final Card, the character dies immediately or by the end of the scene.

An attack that blows through two thresholds gives you two cards. Three thresholds, three cards.

REELING

Injury

-1 to all tests.

Discard when you discard another Injury card, or after an hour (table time.)

DOWN FOR THE COUNT

Injury

You collapse to a prone position. You can’t make tests or stand unaided. Your Hit Threshold drops to 2.

Trade for “On the Mend” after a day in intensive care (world time.)

The GM may design certain foes so that they dish out custom equivalents of these two cards.

Further Adjustments

Reskin and adjust cards for the game and genre you’re playing.

Divide general abilities into the three sub-categories (Physical, Presence and Focus) if your version of GUMSHOE doesn’t do that already. Use YKRPG as your model for that.

Make sure cards refer only to abilities that appear in your game. Revise references to Pushes if your GUMSHOE uses investigative spends instead. Rename cards to reflect your world: you’ll need laser blasts for Ashen Stars and damage for obscure super powers in Mutant City Blues.

Ignore Shocks from games that don’t take characters out of play for mental strain, such as Ashen Stars.

For Trail of Cthulhu, drop Sanity as a separate game statistic. Achieve its effect by making Shocks arising from Mythos contact Continuity cards with punishing or nonexistent discard conditions.

Create cards whose effects leverage statistics that appear only in standard GUMSHOE, from Hit Thresholds to Armor to weapon damage.

Conversely, don’t use “Don’t For the Count” in actual QuickShock games, where Hit Thresholds are not a thing.

And if you try this, let me know how it goes!


QuickShock GUMSHOE debuts in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game. YKRPG takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The GUMSHOE Community program is now even bigger!

Earlier this year we launched the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. We have now expanded the content available, and so the program now includes the following game lines:

If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of these GUMSHOE games (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own GUMSHOE 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.

With physical conventions off the table for the moment, Pelgrane Press is cooking up a series of virtual panels over on our newly bustling YouTube channel. To kick things off Ken and Robin entered the Dreamlands of Zoom to take questions from a crew of stalwart volunteers. Now you too can watch as they nerdtrope the 100 Years War, share online RPG play tips, blackguard Joseph Campbell, praise Charles Portis, contemplate socially distant game snacks, and more.

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.
Previous Entries