I finally had a chance to finish reading the Ashen Stars pdf that I got with the Stellar Nursery preorder.
I have to admit, going in, I was hesitant. It’s another GUMSHOE game, which was originally billed very much as a system for mystery games, like police procedurals. And Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues both lean heavily on that sort of idea. I didn’t know if playing space cops was going to be different enough to be interesting.
But Trail of Cthulhu works so well, that I figured Â was worth looking at. I mean, Pelgrane Press and Robin Laws turn out good books, so I had little to lose.
Ashen Stars goes so far beyond cops in space that I’m almost embarrassed that that’s what I thought at first. See, Robin Laws made a realization that had escaped me: most space opera stories, as shown in shows like Star Trek and Firefly and their ilk, are about mysteries. Not necessarily in the traditional whodunit sense, but in the sense that the stories start with a problem that requires the characters to acquire and interpret information to solve.
It’s this realization that makes Ashen Stars really work. The default setup, where the characters play freelance police1, gives it the cops in space premise, but the sample missions and discussion of setting, episodes, themes, and genre show off the range and breadth of the source material. The setting provided is interesting, gameable material, but the game could be used to replicate pretty much any space opera setting: Star Trek, Firefly, Andromeda,Â Mass Effect, the Vorkosigan books, all of that is doable with minor tweaks. Pretty much any story from those sources can be reproduced easily using Ashen Stars.
Aside from the setting material, the game provides some nice tweaks to the basic ruleset. Space opera needs aliens2, so there are rules for different alien species, with different benefits and drawbacks for them. The skill set has been adjusted in keeping with the setting, adding Investigative skills like Energy Signatures. And there are, of course, spaceships.
The ships are interesting. There are several different classes of ship, with different strengths and weaknesses, and the group gets to pick one for their crew to use at the start play. To support the ships, there’s a set of space combat rules that look amazing.
One of the problems with spaceship combat in RPGs is that, while the situation tends to involve everyone, often there isn’t something for everyone to do. Those without shipboard skills ted to wait around for the spacey guys to save the day. Ashen Stars avoids this through a combination of almost-classes that make sure everyone has something to do both groundside and warpside3, and the tactical rules of space combat.
I haven’t played through it, yet, so I can’t vouch for how they work in play, but there is an extensive example in an appendix of the book4 that is quite illuminating.
In case you can’t tell, I love this game. I wish I had time in the schedule to start a new campaign, or even just for a playtest5, but that’s not gonna happen until one of the current games wraps up. But this is going on a short list for the next campaign.
I do have two quibbles with the game, and those are very much personal preferences as to tone. First, the name for the freelance police teams in the game are called Lazers – Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but the name and the acronym are just a little too cute for my taste6. Second, a lot of the examples deal with mind-controlling viruses, artificial intelligences run amok, and god-like intelligences acting like six-year-olds. These things, to my mind, should be used more sparingly than they seem to be in the rules. But the beautiful thing about an RPG is that they can be in the game you run.
So, neither of those are anything but personal preference, and they’re not big issues. They certainly don’t come close to outweighing the very cool things in the game. Aside from the things I mentioned above, some of the best bits in the game include:
- The Bogey Conundrum – the strange effect that prevents people from remembering too much about the enemy aliens that almost wiped out the utopian galactic government five years ago.
- The nice addition of genetic engineering and cybernetics to the more vanilla space opera setting.
- The vas mal, who used to be gods, and are now a player character alien race.
- The ex-enemy alien durugh, who switched sides to help win the last war, but no one remembers how.
- The ideas of personal arcs for each character, which gives the GM a great way to build in subplots and spotlight scenes for the characters.
The part I like best, though, has got to be the discussion of genre and intended feel of the game. I’m going to quote here from the book:
The Ashen Stars setting is designed to feel like a contemporary space opera property. In other words, it feels like a reboot of something older.
Today’s popular shows and TV series tend to be remakes of classic properties from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Reboots tend to bend the original material they’re teeing off from in one of two directions. They either:
- shoot for campy nostalgia, referencing the tropes of the original in a winking, yet loving, manner
- adopt an edgy, revisionist take on the source material, making it gritty, tough, and more adult-themed
Ashen Stars focuses on the second approach. Think of its post-war malaise as the new grim plot device that justifies the reboot’s darker tone. The earlier Ashen Stars that never was would have been optimistic, and in retrospect maybe a little campy by comparison. Yet at the heart of the dark version is the affection the audience feels for this artifact of a quainter time.
That, to me, is an amazing focus for the tone of a game.
Look. Just go buy it, okay? It’s worth it, and then some.
- Thank you, Sam & Max!
- You may wish to point out that Firefly had no aliens in it. I would like to remind you about the Reapers, and ask you if you really think that’s true. Just because they’re human doesn’t mean they aren’t alien.
- This is the term the game uses for “in space.”
- This is something that I wish more games would do – explanatory examples are extremely helpful, especially for games with new ideas. This is why I played Fiasco and haven’t tried How We Came To Live Here.
- I also want to find time for a playtest of Smallville, a Leverage campaign, a new D&D campaign, and a few others. What can I say? I’m a gamewhore.
- This from a man who has a superhero character named S.P.E.C.-T.E.R. Obviously, my house is pretty glassy for me to be throwing stones.