Saturday, January 19, 2013

Initial Thoughts on Ashen Stars

I finished reading through Ashen Stars during the holidays. I gave the rules another going-over and ran my group through a demo last week to get a feel for the game. Ashen Stars is a sc-fi tabletop RPG using the GUMSHOE system. Both the game and rules system were created by Robin D Laws. It is published by Pelgrane Press.

GUMSHOE solves an issue with "investigative" games. In an adventure that relies on giving the player characters information needed to continue the story, what happens when they fail to acquire that information? Many systems require a successful skill check to get information. If none of the player characters have the skill needed to find a particular clue, they don't get that clue. If one of them does have the skill, but fails the roll, they also don't get the clue. Without that key piece of information, they cannot continue the adventure.

Faced with that situation, a GM has three basic options. One, accept that the player characters have failed to complete the adventure and deal with the fall out. This is like a murder mystery where the detective doesn't catch the killer. It can be done, but may not be a satisfying end. Two, fudge the skill check and hope the players don't notice. In that case, why require a skill check in the first place? Three, find another way of getting the information into the hands of the player characters. Again, this brings requiring a skill check into question.

GUMSHOE circumvents the whole issue by just putting the information into the hands of the player characters. During character generation, the players determine which character buys a given investigative skill. The entire range of investigative skills is doled out between the player characters. This avoids the issue of not having a specific skill. If a player character possesses the required skill to obtain a particular clue, they find the clue automatically. This is a more elegant solution that keeps the adventure running seamlessly.

Note that this only applies to core clues - those that are needed to continue the adventure. Information that is helpful or optional, but not critical to keeping the game going, is not automatically given.

The core mechanic for Ashen Stars is simple. A single die (d6) is rolled against a target number based on the difficulty of the task. The die roll result can be modified by spending points from a skill pool refreshed at the beginning of an adventure. The difficulty is adjusted due to circumstances. For example, the base difficulty for hitting a target with a disrupter pistol is a 3. However, trying to hit a target using cover and in poor lighting would change that to a 5. The player has the option of offsetting the increased difficulty by spending points from the Shooting skill pool.

Combat is quick, but abstract and dependent on GM descriptions to provide context and flavor. There is no map and modifiers are kept to a minimum. Such a simple system might not hold the interest of a group with a more tactical play style. Fortunately, the investigative system and the task resolution mechanic are easily separated from each other. This allows a group to run the GUMSHOE investigative system with a more robust combat system. I might try combining GUMSHOE with Savage Worlds in a game with a bigger emphasis on combat. But that will have to wait.

The setting for Ashen Stars tries to solve some issues related to sci-fi roleplaying. It sticks to the usual troupes of space opera to keep things familiar. But there are enough twists on those troupes to make the setting interesting.

A specific issue that Ashen Stars addresses is the military or paramilitary command structure in many sci-fi settings. The usual approach to space opera is a big ship with a big crew run with a hierarchical organization. This implies rules, regulations, and a chain of command that players may find confining. There is also the issue of creating adventures that the players can bludgeon into submission with their capital starship and crew of specialists.

Ashen Stars makes the player characters independent problem solvers working under contract. Their ship is something small enough to run with a crew of about half a dozen people. This makes the player characters less like starship bridge officers from Star Trek and more like the crew from Firefly.

The Ashen Stars setting mixes utopian and dystopian concepts and explores the conflict between the two. It takes an interstellar civilization of high ideals and wrecks it with a decade-long war. Picture the difference in tone between Star Trek the original series and late-season Deep Space Nine. The player characters are
faced with the desire to live up to the example of a golden age and the desperate needs of a now that is barely getting by.

Ashen Stars avoids being too grimdark with a Reputation mechanic. Players have to balance the temptation of having their characters take pragmatic or self-serving actions versus upholding a more idealistic and moral stance. In some ways, this reminds me of similar mechanics in the Mass Effect games.

Overall, the game looks pretty good. I'll be running my group through some published adventures until we all get a solid grasp of the game. Then I'll see about working up a short campaign to fill out the next couple of months.