Ashen Stars Limited Edition
This review originally appeared on rpg.net in October 2011 and was reprinted in the November/December 2019 issue.
Stars. Robin D. Laws.
Pelgrane Press https://pelgranepress.com
304pp., Hardbound (Leatherette) (May be out of print)
Ashen Stars = GUMSHOE of investigative system (free and loose rules) + Space Opera. At first glance, I thought what in the world would investigation have to do with science fiction?, as I am sure some of you also have wondered. However, as I thought about it, almost every Star Trek episode revolves around investigation. But, to have it tacked onto Space Opera? Parts of it work really well and capture the fly-by-seat of your pants that GUMSHOE is famous for in the area of character development. And, I love how GUMSHOE facilitates and creates easy-to-play characters fast and easy. There is no sanity/stability axis in this game; rather, everything hinges around reputation—Altruism improves your reputation and Greed takes away prospects—a nice mechanic that keeps players on the straight and narrow. Reputation is the key to getting lucrative jobs, as all jobs are issued through an interstellar clearing house (although some jobs could conceivably be done on the side). While this mechanic works very well for Ashen Stars, games that delve more into the shades of grey or deal with high level intrigue (involving realpolitik) might find this harder to adapt (but then again, maybe I am not thinking of Soft Space Opera but gritty realism…). Where it breaks down is in combat. It tries very hard to give players multiple chances to redeem themselves – again, very much like Star Trek: The Next Generation (as the old joke goes, the computer announces that the Enterprise will self destruct in 3 minutes, so Picard and company leave to discuss the matter in the Ready Room). This is very much a space opera feature that does not sit well with me, as it goes a little too much in the way of being player-friendly. For my Science Fiction games, if players act stupidly, things get deadly. But, it is so consistent with using GUMSHOE in a pulpish fashion having the purist streak find this not really palatable – but there are those who like their Science Fiction like those hand dripped cones – brittle hard exterior and soft and mushy on the inside. GUMSHOE would seem to be a perfect fit. But, here is hoping that Pelgrane will release a “harder” version or supplement that will do a “harder” version of Ashen Stars.
The alien player races (including humans) are straight out of space opera, so you get the emotionless hottie elf, the flesh-eating bug, and the warlike armadillo. I am glad that they did not do the Traveller thing and do Cats & Dogs (to be fair, the Aslan & Vargr are much more than that…but it has always been my beef with Traveller not to have started with more alien aliens). What is nice is that these aliens have their own drives and unique characteristics that are not already worn-out clichés. There is the possibility of devising your own alien player races should players want to deviate from the template but each of these races add balance to each other. Drives and personal story arcs really propel adventures in this game, giving added depth to any game session and allow players to assume personas quickly and effortlessly (thus ensuring opportunities for real role play and not merely playing themselves) and also escape the “man in the rubber suit” syndrome.
The background to the milieu is equally Space Opera. Adventure is assumed to take place out on the frontier where freelancers are hired where previously an interstellar Empire once ruled. But now, thanks to a disastrous war with an alien species, as powerful as or more powerful than the Empire, the Empire has now fallen apart with everyone going their own way. This produces lots of room for rival ideologies and religions and just about any other fractious divisive belief system (such as age old rivalries, racial hatreds, etc.) to nicely complement players’ own personal drives. There is a bit of Star Wars in there, with the Empire falling within the lifespan of many individuals but if they start young and naïve then they will not really have a memory of the good old days. Furthermore, as one last weapon this impossibly strong enemy created a meme or weapon that affects everyone’s ability to remember the Past and even portions of the Present correctly. While it is integral and needed for this milieu, I found this a rather lame plot device. I always like the stories of old generals being cast aside by younger individuals (“Young Turks”) with greed and ambition rewriting the history rather than artificial plot devices which reek too much of Virus (Traveller players will know to what I refer).
Tech is deliberately left ambiguous, as you can create virtually anything and it either works like magic or just as it does in everyday life. Careful attention is played to balance. There are no outlandish devices like lightsabers or disintegrator pistols (OK, there are disintegrators pistols, but they give players a shot at surviving) but the right equilibrium between deadly and mundane. As it would seem that most problems are supposed to be solved through negotiation and problem solving. So players looking for a shopping list will have to wait for a later supplement or just wing it. Again, this is well suited to a GUMSHOE-type mechanic.
The art is a bit of a disappointment as I have come to expect a higher standard of art, rooted in gritty realism, from Pelgrane Press—but this art, while of a very high standard reminds me of D&D 4e – very good but just different. And, for someone who insists on gritty, dark art for space opera this is a step back to fantasy gaming (funny enough, I noticed in a series of adventures published the same time, they opted exactly for that dark and gritty style which I would give a solid recommendation that they retain for Ashen Stars). For outside of the cover (which I do like), it has a very pulpy feel throughout, which renders the starships as somewhat laughable. The first book of Ashen Stars adventures (Dead Rock Seven) that will be reviewed later has excellent art; even though it is black & white it is what I would like to see more of.
I found many things that could be stolen and used in other game systems, so if rules are not your thing, then many pieces of advice can be ported into other games. For this reason, Ashen Stars is certainly worth a look. For I must confess, as much as I do like the GUMSHOE system (and I really do), I happen to like other systems more. GUMSHOE provides a nice game form, between what is too loose in systems like FATE and overly-structured older systems like MegaTraveller. For this reason, I like it; it puts the tools in the players’ hands to determine their destiny or doom without having to FUDGE it. As regular readers know that I am a Traveller Man – is this good for Traveller? Well, not really. Traveller is much harder than Ashen Stars and should stay that way. However, as Traveller is also a universal toolkit of sorts, if your Traveller game is Space Operatic then you might like this. However, if you still mourn over the loss of Star*Drive or Star Frontiers, this rule book will give you an updated, shiny new game. As with the art, I got a distinctive D&D/Feng Shui sentiment to it.
Detailed breakdown of the book now follows.
All the Justice Can Buy
What did you do in the war, creating your crew is the subtitle for this section. Essentially, it is the elements of character creation. The emphasis is upon creating a balanced crew; thus, gamers used to playing traditional space opera games where there can be an all-Merc crew or Merchant crew will not be happy. However, given that all SFRPGs tend to mix up different campaign categories this should be no surprise but it is a nice way of making sure it all works. GUMSHOE is a points-based system, in which the number of points allocated depends entirely upon the size of the group. One interesting part of character generation is that it assumes that players will acquire their own starship straightaway rather than having to work for it, as is the case of some other SFRPGs.
The Seven Peoples
The different alien races (including humans) ranging from space elf to warrior insectoid to de-Ascended Greys to just plain old human. Although these are the default races, the Game Master can introduce new ones. But, these are the major dramatis personae that are the movers and shakers in this version of Galactic history. Each race has its strengths, as well as its drawbacks – again, the emphasis is upon balance although it is tilted toward the human side.
What You Can Do
Crew Packages and Character Creation are divided nicely into two aspects. Warpside Assignments (just work in space), Groundside Assignments (but born in Idaho) – I like this dichotomy as it creates much richer characters that other systems have attempted with Homeworld Generation but having dual “career tracks”, I think, is rather brilliant. Mixed Assignments – the Medic/Cleric. Abilities or what some other game systems might call Skills but because it is points-based, you can distribute them to make them aptitudes rather than learned knowledge – plus in the future where all things could be directly written on the brain – skills become rather moot. Remember, this is Space Opera, stay in school kids – this might be cool but don’t be a fool.
Drives form the personal motivation for characters and explain why players do what they do. This is one of the nice features of GUMSHOE in that it provides a ready-made template for a character’s psychological motivations – those inner qualities that make their character tick which can be used as part of the overall story arc.
Unsurprisingly, lays out the resolution systems for mystery-solving and for other exciting actions. For those who are familiar with the system, Pelgrane shows the way by constantly tweaking this system and making it better. This section lays it all out in a very simple way. This section includes Tests or how to perform Tasks, how to regain your Pool Points. The Time Increments for the tasks move according to the Speed of Plot. And, the ways of improving your character and the role that Boosts play in the course of the game. And, the Hazards that can afflict your character or just the run of the mill dangers of working in a job that tries to kill you every day.
Space Combat is something that will apparently happen quite frequently…only after I read the appendix did I fully understand and appreciate the rules for Space Combat. On the plus side, it is not math-based and is very cinematic, on the minus, it provides a feel rather than actual description. Ship Classes, you were uncertain that this is a space opera game – just even a preliminary gander that the Starships listed here would tell you that you are no longer playing a game that wants to obey any of the laws of physics. Custom Ships & Repairs and Upgrades – fundamentally rules to build your own ships that will add chrome to what is a generic ship outlined above.
Space is not safe. There are all sorts of dangers and hazards, including the all-encompassing powerful plot device. Essential a short chapter of some of threats that are (in)credible to confront and confound the crew. When the hyper drive goes down, it is more than a type 3 meson spanner that will fix it or asteroid fields are meant to be cinematic, not follow Newtonian mechanics.
Things can be safe in orbit or they can be hazards. How very Star Trek that the party can beam or shuttle down to confront the exploration of a brave new world or one that sent you the distress signal and it is your job to help these people. Out of Your League is when you are outgunned/or and outnumbered – how can the GUMSHOE system basically save your bacon and let you get away?
Shuttles is the rules for small craft engagements rather than bigger ships duking it out…ranging from what the title implies – Shuttles to small fighters.
Explains the bits and pieces of advanced technologies the characters rely on all through their adventures, from disruptor pistols to gene-shifting viroware (my personal favourite… why not let DNA be a weapon or give traits that augment abilities …NOT!, this is a inconspicuous way of saying mutation, but, hey this is Space Opera, so I guess mutants are welcome here) including the interesting…Unclassified Items.
The Feed and the Bleed
This section is the beginning of the GM section and goes into greater depth on the background, as well as prevailing political circumstances, the structure and history of the interstellar empire (now a fragmented polity irrelevant as all action in main rulebook takes place on the Frontier far from the Core Systems), along with burgeoning belief systems (Synthcultures (“why does this planet look like Ancient Rome?”), Ideologies (“In the Days of the Combine…things were better. No, they were not. etc.”), NuFaiths (I have come here to convert you to the one true faith just stop listening to the other guy)), and the mysteries of the menacing and apparently departed alien enemy, the Mohilar. Lastly, there is a short discussion of the Bogey Conundrum or why does everyone forget.
On the Contract
The Business of Justice details the subject of surviving as a Laser, from contract terms to rates of compensation. A very good discussion the important mechanic—Reputation—basically how you move from Jane Varda to either stellar heroine, savior of worlds or scum of the universe (who nobody will even talk to). Securing Contracts and Judicial Procedures and because you serve the law—sentencing.
Worlds Are Stories
Gives the GM an idea about how to describe and populate the worlds of the Bleed (that frontier we were talking about). Ashen Stars provides you with as much setting particulars as one is expected to find a comparably sized Space Opera rulebook (I emphasize Space Opera, as there will be no discussion of orbital paths or why Terrestrial planets might have a ring system). It does so as a jumping off point and little more than that. For it is designed to give the GM the tools to grow and develop the GM’s own version of its science fiction of a setting as you go, on the same episode-by-episode basis the writers of a space opera TV series would employ. The GM and the players organically produce the Bleed to be what they want it to be – to allow the central narrative to meet and satisfy the wants of your central characters.
The GM and Players does without locking yourself into a pre-digested background bible (why do I get a sense that they do not like this aspect of Traveller (or at least how some people play Traveller)?) that minutely details, worlds, economies, stellar distances, planetary ecologies, lists of space stations, and in-depth profiles of NPCs who are more important than your crew.
Lots of good points here but I for one do like the flexibility of Traveller which allows one to create minutely described worlds and at the same time still retain enough of a sandbox – come-on guys, 11,000 worlds of just one interstellar polity allows a lot of weird $#!+ to happen. But, if you are fan of the FUDGE or FATE systems – this is pretty well old hat and second nature.
The Bad, The Worse, and the Alien
Sentients—those assignments involving intelligent life – that have to be brought to justice – killing them is a big taboo. Quasi-Sentients is frowned upon but still deemed as acceptable such as Androids and Robots or Bug Eyed Monsters from LV-426. Lifeforms are essentially animals, so ok to kill unless you are a Balla/Space Elf where all life is sacred but even then it might be part of the harmony that underlies the universe – that this lion, tiger or bear be killed, lest the universe lose one of its more beautiful creations—yourself.
Aliens as Opponents and Rivals. Opponent Statistics. Entity Database (Class K) – the nastiest of all creatures that do deserve to die or the imperative of characters to kill these lest the universe lapses into total irredeemable chaos.
Generic Xenological Threats
Non-Alien Opponents are the everyday – the routine encounters that provide the filler for any game. Most games would simply call these encounters but given the strange and alien nature of the space opera universe perhaps this name is better suited.
Running the Bleed. A good sized how-to-run-adventures for Ashen Stars by giving examples of how to build cases (including the all-important advice – you can buy them, as they are very difficult to fashion). Building Series, otherwise tips for a campaign. And, lastly general GUMSHOE tips.
The Witness of my Worth
The Witness of my Worth (sample adventure/episode), in which the lasers respond to a distress call from a survey team on a war-ravaged planet. Has enough twists for an introductory adventure and does a good job employing the rules that it has just described, as well as introducing players to some of the stranger aspects of the Bleed.
Appendix I: Sample Names
As the name implies, sample names from all the seven peoples. Glad Pelgrane avoid the temptation to go the route of Star Wars with the likes of Starkiller and similarly fantastical names.
Appendix II: Space Combat Example
As the name implies, sample names from all the Space Combat Example, as this is potentially the most confusing and bewildering part of the whole book, having an actual example of what promises to be a major component in many games is a welcome edition.
Why here? is my question…Why not at the end of the book?…but doesn’t really matter.
Appendix III: Tables and Charts
A bringing together of all the major charts and tables from throughout the rules in one central place for quick reference. Kudos to Pelgrane as this a very nice feature that most game/rule books ignore but having everything in one spot makes it easier to get hold of the right rule and in a pinch can easily be transferred onto a Game master’s Screen.
Just as the name implies, it is a comprehensive index to the book’s contents and a very good one at that. Would have been nice, if a glossary was also added here rather than having it buried within the text but as it stands now. As the fact is the index does not include the alien terminology is a shortcoming that a glossary would have fixed.
By way of a conclusion…
So, despite my reservations, I do like the game (so, yes, still a Traveller man). I think it is a well thought out exercise in making GUMSHOE into a more universal system. Parts, as noted in the review that I found questionable are more to do with style of play – Space Opera versus Hard SF. Those wanting to play in a Space Opera universe akin to Star Trek: The Next Generation will enjoy Ashen Stars; those wanting Firefly or even (new) Battlestar Galactica might have to look elsewhere. Preliminary examination at the adventures book actually improves the game substantially. However, the ideas contained in the book does offer much in the way of stimulating thought for other games and as a device for making you think – Pelgrane has another winning product here.