Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 2

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

About a week ago, we finally managed to schedule a session to finish our Ashen Stars play test1. I’d been trying to think how to flesh out the end of the adventure to fill in an entire session – we only had one or two scenes left – and threw together some combat encounters to use. As it turned out, I really didn’t need them.

The Lasers did some more speculating and discussing of the information they had so far, trying to figure out what was going on. They had a number of pieces of the overall puzzle – computer intrusion, rewriting of brains via the headsets, air clearing in a formerly polluted area, stuff like that. What they didn’t know was what was causing this – the Durugh, the Mohilar, someone2 else.

After going around in circles a few times, they remembered one of the basic tenets of GUMSHOE games – if you’re stuck, it means you need more information. They had one lead – a set of co-ordinates out in the ruined city that seemed to be at the centre of the strange occurrences. And so off they went.

I spent a little time this session describing things – coming up with descriptions of the surroundings, working a little harder to paint a picture of the world. I also worked harder at smoothing out the use of Investigative abilities in the game – trying to make them more transparent to the players. I had some pretty good success with the first part, but not so much with the second.

The problem with the Investigative abilities not being transparent was two-fold, I think. First, there was the simple fact that all of us – GM and players alike – were new to this game3.Now, that’s a problem that will arise with any new game, and it can correct itself after a few sessions. Familiarity and mastery will come.

The second issue was something that compounded the first one: the Investigative abilities in Ashen Stars are not intuitively named. Instead, they are named in keeping with the space opera setting. This is great as far as flavour goes, but it adds an extra level of learning between the players and mastery.

Anyway, our heroes made it to the site, and found that it was a museum devoted to Brian Hudd, native son of Ares-3, and hero of the Mohilar war. Something4 had restarted the computer that ran the museum, which immediately turned on the air scrubbers, resulting in the clear air around the building.

Investigating further, they found that the computer had achieved sentience, but had been damaged. All the records of the diplomatic, alliance-building Brian Hudd had be been lost, and only the records of Brian Hudd as a ruthless, cunning, and triumphant warrior remained. The building had also lost its holo facilities, so it was making do with reprogramming any sentients that happened by5 to refight Brian Hudd’s battles.

They found this out the hard way, when Returner-U directly interfaced with the museum computer, and was reprogrammed into Brian Hudd, fighting off the Mohilar6 and trying to reunite with his crew7. So, there was a desperate struggle with Returner-U, as Maxine managed to synthesize a viro deprogramming agent to cleanse Returner-U’s mind.

Once they had their Cybe compatriot back to his regular charming self8, the Lasers made their way down to the main computer room in the basement and tried to shut down the computer, only to find that it had a back-up version of itself recorded in the strange electrical activity in Ares-3’s atmosphere.

Now, this is all part of the scenario-as-written, to set up a very specific kind of climax to the adventure: one where the characters, in the best tradition of Captain Kirk, convince the AI that it is flawed and must destroy itself. But, I must admit, as I was giving the characters that last clue, I rebelled against it. It was a little too, well, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb9.

Okay, “dumb” is a little harsh. And there are alternative solutions offered in the scenario. Perhaps a less judgmental way of putting things was that the solution seemed to clash with the moderately gritty vision of the setting that our group shared.

Whatever the reason, as I said, I rebelled, especially once I started getting some of the clue out, and felt the resistance to it building in the group. So, I changed things slightly, and explained that, with the ability of the AI to exist in the atmosphere, there was no way to physically destroy it.

And then the group showed me again why I game with them. They convinced the AI to accept a download of the rest of Brian Hudd’s accomplishments, and persuaded it to keep working to clear the air of Ares-3. They even talked it into spreading itself through the ionosphere and reactivating other air scrubbers on the planet. And they convinced it to create a child AI that they could load into their ship’s computer.

“Now that’s a pilot episode,” was the response from the group.

We faded out on Aron telling the bartender on Ares-3 to be ready for the Combine to come calling. And that they didn’t need to rush into backing the Combine – they had the right to their independence.

The gang talked about how they’d consider playing more Ashen Stars10, but the more they talked about how they had enjoyed this session – specifically the last half of this session – the more I was convinced that this is not the game for this group. Why not? Because the bits they liked most were the bits where I had departed farthest from the game system.

They liked the setting, they liked the characters, they even liked parts of the scenario. But they didn’t like the idea of fiddling with the Investigative abilities, and then trying to figure out the mystery. The more we discussed things, the more certain I became that the game system is the thing they liked least about the whole play test.

This is not to say that Ashen Stars is a bad system – it’s not. I love it. I would need more practice to run it smoothly, and there are a few things about it that I find irritating, but the same is true of any system.

But not every system works for every game group. And this system does not work with these particular players. And so, I said that I would keep the game in my back-pocket, as it were, for possible future play11, but that I didn’t think we should keep going with it as a regular game.

Instead, I offered them a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game that Clint had suggested at one time: street-level superheroes in Gotham City. Everyone thought that was a splendid idea, so that’s what we’re doing. In discussing it, though, it became clear that there was not a common vision of such a game being shared among the group, so this coming Friday, we’re going to get together and use the Fate Core game creation rules to create our MHRPG setting12.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  1. You can read about the first session here. []
  2. Or something. []
  3. I had run Trail of Cthulhu previously, and one of the players had played it, but we were all new to Ashen Stars. []
  4. They assumed the Ashen Star incident of a few days previous. []
  5. Using their headsets as the reprogramming vector. []
  6. That is, the other PCs. []
  7. That is, some random, reprogrammed Ares-3 inhabitants that I had statted up in case I needed a fight. []
  8. This is a bit of a joke. Returner-U has absolutely zero interpersonal skills. []
  9. Sorry, Robin. []
  10. Well, one player was not interested. He’s not a fan of investigative games. []
  11. Or conversion to a different space opera game system, maybe? []
  12. The Fate Core stuff is just so good for this. We can even create the aspects for everything, just call them distinctions to fit with the Cortex Plus rules. []

Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 1

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

A little over two weeks ago1, instead of some sort of Valentine’s Day celebration, I had a group of friends over to play our first session of Ashen Stars, the space-opera GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press by Robin D. Laws2. We had done character creation by e-mail, which turned out to not be ideal, but we got through it, and I, at least, was excited to actually start playing.

Only one of my players3 had ever played a GUMSHOE game previously, so I spent the first bit of the session explaining the system. I think it’s a good thing I did; my explanation of how the Investigative abilities worked caused a couple of characters to rearrange some of their points. I also talked about the part that always messes up new GUMSHOE players: if you don’t know what you should do next, go get more information.

I also explained that I had the Ashen Stars soundtrack, All We Have Forgotten, loaded up on my computer, and that I would be using musical stings to end scenes when the characters had got all the information they could from a scene, as well as using the other tracks to provide thematic background music. Then I pretty much immediately forgot to do all that. Oh, I think I managed to pull in the proper track twice through the evening, and used a sting maybe once, but it turned out to be just one more thing for me to keep track of, and it got lost in the shuffle. With some practice, that might change.

I had also printed out Kevin Kulps 30-minute demo scenario, Stowaway, thinking that I might use it as a sort of trailer for the game, giving people a taste of how things worked before jumping into the actual investigation4. I discarded that idea, though, simply for reasons of time. We’d already spent over an hour with the introductory stuff5, and I really wanted to finish this scenario in one session6, so I decided not to use the short scenario, and jumped into the main scenario.

I had typed up a one-page hand-out for the players, outlining their mission from The Witness of My Worth, containing the main datapoints of their assignment, and I gave it to the bagger to read first. When she had read it and started passing it to the other players, I explained that this was a good time to start using some of their Investigative abilities to fill in background and detail on the contract – what their destination was like, what the legal complications might be, etc. They spent a little time doing that, getting a little more comfortable with the concepts behind GUMSHOE.

When they looked to have had enough of that, I jumped them into the Ares-3 system, and sprang the first little surprise on them: the ship immediately started plotting an automatic attack run on a nearby hauler. Returner-U managed to wrest control away from the computers before things went badly, and our Lasers were able to prevent an unprovoked attack by their ship on the unsuspecting hauler. They hailed the hauler, and found that they were heading to a settlement on the far side of the planet from the site of the EvBase.

Making their way down to the planet surface, the Lasers landed as near as they could get to the EvBase in the ruins of the capital city. They managed to bypass the fence of security pylons around the base, and even defuse the booby-trapped bomb on the door. Inside, they found the entire crew of the EvBase dead. They managed to reconstruct the sequence of death, determining that a group of the crew returned from outside and attacked those inside7.

Some of the records they unlocked from the main database led them to go and investigate  the settlement nearby. There, they found that the locals weren’t all that welcoming – though the Durugh arms merchants did offer a job to Arrud – and weren’t too forthcoming with information.

At this point, I found myself fretting about some of the false assumptions that the group was making, and the number of clues they weren’t picking up. You see, this was the first time I found myself running a published GUMSHOE adventure, being far more used to running the improvisational style of mystery found in The Armitage Files. Published adventures, I have found, lay out a much larger number – and a broader range – of clues, to make sure that the characters can always find the path forward. In improvised adventures, the GM can be more parsimonious with the clues created, because they are created at the intersection of the mystery’s background and the investigators’ actions.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that, even though the investigators didn’t uncover every clue in every scene, they still got all the core clues, and were able to move forward in the investigation, even if they were moving forward with false assumptions.

Still, at this point I realized that the Lasers didn’t have the clue to lead them on to the next stage of the investigation. And there didn’t seem to be much chance of them finding that required clue in the current scened. Fortunately, I turned the page, and saw that the answer was in the next scene.

So, I had a huge ground transport come lumbering down the avenue toward the bar, with a couple of people firing weapons out the windows. Our Lasers sprang into action, saving some bystanders and crippling the transport. Investigation of the driver and passenger showed that they had brain deformations similar to those found on some of the crew of the EvBase, along with burns along the points where their headsets touched flesh.

Data in the transport revealed a site where strange things were happening, the next bit of vital information to drive the investigation forward. They decided to head off there to see if they could get to the bottom of this strange thing that seemed to be reprogramming the brains of those who came into contact with it.

That was the point we decided to call it an evening, as it was getting late. I need to flesh out some of the end of the investigation to fill up an entire session, because there are only a couple of scenes left, and it could be wrapped up in a little more than an hour. That shouldn’t be too difficult, though.

I’m looking forward to the next session.

  1. I started writing this post the morning after the game. Honest, I did. But life kept intruding and keeping me from finishing it. I’ve changed that reference to when we played three four times now. []
  2. I think that’s a record for number of links in a single sentence on my blog. Yay! []
  3. Maybe two; I can’t remember if Fera had played in a Trail of Cthulhu one-shot. []
  4. I even worked out a way to tie it into the backstory for the characters that they had worked out. []
  5. Waiting for everyone to arrive, getting everyone fed and settled, going over the rules, talking about True Detective, talking about work, etc. []
  6. Spoiler: didn’t happen. []
  7. I really should have spent some more time prepping this section. The notes in the  adventure did not provide the sequence of death – specifically, who died when and where – and I was forced to reconstruct it on the fly logic-puzzle style. And there was some question about the timing of the bomb set on the door that I couldn’t immediately resolve, so I resorted to the old GM trick, “Yeah, that does seem odd, doesn’t it?” []

Ashen Stars: Recruitment

I seem to sort of wander backwards into running GUMSHOE games. What I mean by that is that I usually spend several weeks or months planning to run a campaign1, but with GUMSHOE games, I wind up running them after a casual conversation and a quick agreement, and then scramble to get the campaign ready to run. That happened when I ran the Armitage Files campaign, and it happened again with Ashen Stars.

In both cases, I had been talking the games up to various people, but not expecting to have a chance to run either any time soon. For Ashen Stars, I had offered to run a one-shot between earlier this month at a game night, but we opted for board games instead. Still, the group was interested enough in the pitch that I’ve agreed to run a mini-campaign, about four or five sessions, covering two to three cases, I’m guessing.

Because of timing and scheduling issues, I decided to do character generation via e-mail, basing my experience on the Trail of Cthulhu character creation process that I used for Armitage Files. I had been dreading running that character generation session, but it turned out to go quickly and easily and got everyone excited about the game, so I figured that this would go pretty easily, as well2.

It has not gone as smoothly as expected.

I’ve been trying to think about why that is. The first thing that came to mind is that this game, unlike ToC, deals with gear in some detail, and wading through the sections on cybernetic and viroware enhancements is a little daunting. But that led me to a number of other choice points in character creation that slowed things down and caused some confusion:

  • Roles. Unlike ToC, where you just pick a profession, AS uses the concept of roles to focus character concepts and ability selections. Roles are different than professions, in that it’s good to have all five roles covered to be an effective squad. Well, all ten, really, once you factor in both warpside3 and groundside4 roles. Actually, eleven roles, including the medic, which is both a warpside and groundside role. Sorting out who was going to take which role and what to do with the leftovers took some discussion.
  • Ship. You start with a ship, picked from a selection of eleven different classes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing these and deciding between them was another choice-point that required discussion. And a vote.
  • Gear. As mentioned above, the shopping expedition took time. As part of getting gear and enhancements involves divvying up a pool of group money5 and then budgeting for upkeep for your own cyber or viro enhancements.
  • Personal arc. The personal arc is a beautiful idea for this kind of game, but it takes some time to put together. Especially because it’s a new idea for the gaming group. Fortunately, this is something that doesn’t need to happen right away, and it’s something that each player can do individually, with just a little input from me. The point is that it’s not something that requires group input and decisions.
  • The Bribe(TM). I gave the players six questions about their characters that they could answer or not. For each question they answered, I let them pick from a short list of stuff. Everyone got me their answers6 in quick order, but took their time picking out their rewards. Again, though, this is something that doesn’t require group discussion. Also, it’s completely my fault, and not part of the rules for the game. But it has introduced a delay.

Now, these points are not necessarily bad things. They do a lot to flesh out the characters and the setting, and the end result is going to be some very cool characters.

But.

They do not lend themselves well to creating characters by e-mail discussion. Maybe if I had thought to put up a forum to run character creation, it would have gone smoother and quicker, but I honestly doubt it.

Looking at things, I really should have done more to schedule a character creation session. There’s nothing like being face-to-face for group decision-making. And for explaining some of the more slippery concepts. And answering questions, voting, brainstorming…

There’s been some frustration from the players at what seems like far too much work to create a character. One of my players said to me last night, “I’m really looking forward to playing the game, but man, the character creation just blows.” I don’t think the character creation blows, but the way I managed it certainly does.

In addition to the frustration for the characters, I’ve found that I’ve had to do a lot more work on my end managing the whole process. Keeping everyone on the same phase of the process turned out to be important, as the stuff I sent out for those who were ahead of things turned out to be information overload for those who were on earlier phases. I had to build a spreadsheet and keep sending out updated versions to show people what abilities had been covered. And I think I’ve sent out about 15,000 words of explanation, lists, instructions, examples, and updates over the past three weeks.

Much of what I sent out was aimed at making things easier for the players: suggested gear and enhancement packages, short descriptions of the different ship classes, worked examples of personal arcs, new gear developed at player requests, etc. I don’t begrudge this at all, because it’ll help them have more fun. And besides, I did it to myself.

To help take some of the sting out of this process that has ballooned and morphed from quick-and-easy to long-and-tedious, I’m preparing extensive cheat-sheet packages for each character, with descriptions of their abilities and gear, and such. Hopefully, that will make the actual play move quickly and easily despite the new system, and soon character creation will be a distant memory.

The big lesson learned from all this? Not every game system has a character creation process suited to every type of situation. While I think that e-mail character creation would work fine for ToC or D&D, it does not work for Ashen Stars. And I wouldn’t even try it with Fate.

Despite all of the above points, we have all four characters at a playable state. We were going to have our first game last night, but real life intruded and we’ve had to delay it. But here’s the list of our doughty crew of Lasers:

  • Arón Santa-Ana: Human Stratco/Gunner/Chopper7
  • Furan Arrud: Durugh Hailer/Face/Mapper
  • Maxine Kemper: Human Medic/Wrench/Bagger
  • Returner-U: Cybe Pilot/Techo

Tough part is over folks. I promise. From here on out, it’s freelance police in space!

 

  1. Even a mini-campaign, like this one is going to be. []
  2. You see what’s coming, right? []
  3. Aboard the ship. []
  4. I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? []
  5. Some of which you probably want to save for an emergency fund to repair your ship or pay for maintenance if you wind up waiting a long time between contracts. []
  6. For all six questions, I might add. Everyone answered every question. []
  7. I don’t know if the Stratco/Gunner split is going to cause problems in play, but we’re going to try it out. If it’s a real problem, we’ll work something out. []