Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ashen Stars - The Witness of My Worth

I ended up spending a fair amount of time looking for a good starter adventure for Ashen Stars. The demo offers up a taste of what the game is like, but I didn't want to kick off the campaign with it. I bought and read all the Ashen Stars adventures available to date. They were good, but not as jumping off points. I considered writing an adventure, but I didn't feel confident enough with the system. In the end, I sheepishly decided to run the adventure provided in the core book.

Yeah, I know. Core book adventures tend to be mediocre. Writing for a group that is, naturally, unfamiliar with the game means keeping things simple. The need to introduce game concepts and mechanics overshadow the things that make for a memorable game. Cunning plot twists and strong NPCs might take away from the process of learning how the game works. These assumptions, based on long experience, were why I initially didn't even consider the one in Ashen Stars. I changed my mind after reading through it while looking for ideas.

Oh, right. Robin Laws wrote this. Maybe I should have picked up on that particular clue a little sooner.

"The Witness of My Worth" did the job of introducing Ashen Stars without feeling like there were training wheels attached. The multiple ways through the adventure gave the players meaningful choices. The plot, based firmly on space opera troupes (specifically Star Trek), kept the players engaged throughout the session. Important elements of the setting were presented in a way that did not interrupt the flow of the action. Mechanics were introduced without feeling forced. The group felt challenged by a "real" adventure rather than going through "AS 101: The Keep Along the Borderspace."

The players initially had trouble getting into the mindset of an investigative game. While there are events moving in the background, there is no GM directed story to sweep the player characters along a predetermined course. It requires player characters to assert themselves over the adventure and drive it forward. Simply reacting to events doesn't work. They have to ask questions, get answers, and use those answers to determine their next step.

Likewise, the GM has to be willing to give up some control to the players. Ashen Stars is neither a railroad or a sandbox. It hands the GM a road map, shows the road signs to the player characters, and lets the players decide between the highway, the back streets, or the shortcut through Albuquerque.

I was surprised to blow through the whole thing in one session. I expected to run it in at least two sessions, since the group tends to give out after three hours. The desire to find that next piece of the puzzle kept the players going until the climax. The need to solve the mystery kept them going to the end.

We're all looking forward to the next time.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Half Price Books Finds #2 - How to Make Wargames Terrain (In Stereo!)

New school from a decade ago and old school from almost two decades ago. The 2003 How To Make Wargames Terrain (left) and the 1996 How To Make Wargames Terrain (right), both by Games Workshop.

I found these awhile back on separate trips and decided to compare them. The two books present some sharp contrasts. While both books cover the same topic, each takes an approach firmly rooted in the trends of its time.

Now, to be clear, this isn't a full review of the books. I do offer some opinions on each book, but the focus is contrasting the two due to the differences in publication date.

The 1996 version is written as an instruction book for someone new to the process of creating terrain. Everything is laid out in logical steps. It starts off with much terrain is needed for Games Workshop miniatures games as they existed at the time, so a newcomer can plan out what he needs. It explains the tools and materials needed for terrain projects. And it presents some simple projects to start off with and continues with progressively more advanced projects as the reader's skill level develops. This approach was necessary at the time due to the lack of alternatives. The vast amount of online resources covering the topic didn't exist back then, after all.

The 2003 version assumes some familiarity with the subject matter. It leads with the need to construct a game table and creating terrain for that table. This is quite a challenge for somebody just starting out, but is a good place for someone with experience to start the planning process. Descriptions of tools and materials is pushed to the back. Most of the book is organized by terrain type: hills, woods, water, buildings, etc. Overall, the book is better suited as a reference work for someone who has already picked up the basics.

The 1996 and 2003 versions reflect very different views on materials. The 1996 presents less expensive materials as a viable option. The 2003 is set solidly in the insulation foam, plasticard, and MDF era. Granted, there are excellent reasons for using the more expensive materials - they look good and are very durable. On the other hand, someone new to the hobby does need to know about the less expensive options. Cardboard and styrofoam may not look as convincing and will not last as long as MDF and insulation foam, but they are more accessible to a hobbyist with a limited budget. Besides, the first few projects for someone starting out will be learning experiences, so why bother driving up the price of materials?

The pictures in each book really bring home the different times they were published in. The terrain in the 1996 book is less detailed, lacking the professional polish of the terrain in the 2003 book. Likewise, the models in the 1996 books are boldly painted with the green bases of the "paint it red" period. The 2003 book's models look more familiar to a current gamer. Each one shows the full panoply of techniques and materials: blending, highlighting, washes, and various basing materials. Neither approach is wrong, mind you. I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable painting a model without washes, static grass, and paints available in triads. But the look of the models in the 1996 version does have a certain charm.

In the end, both books are products of their respective times. Side by side, the two provide alternative views on the same subject. The 2003 version is relatively current. Mastering the materials and techniques in the 2003 version will allow the reader to make quality terrain. The only big change in the decade since the book was published is the growing availability and quality of pre-made terrain, something well outside the scope of this discussion. However, the 1996 presents an alternative view - older techniques using cheaper materials can also produce quality terrain. Will it lack the polish of the terrain in the 2003 book? Maybe, but for many gamers, that doesn't matter. There is good stuff in both books, depending on the project and the situation.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Look at Character Creation in Ashen Stars

Spent last month's gaming sessions working up new characters. The group is new to Ashen Stars, so it took awhile. The mechanical parts were relatively straightforward. The emphasis the game places on character development took the players a little off guard.


The players divide up shipboard and groundside roles between them. The shipboard roles relate to the operation of the player's ship in combat. The groundside roles define what each character brings to an investigation. The mechanical aspect of the roles amount to a title and a list of the skills needed to be effective in the role. The roles are not as restrictive as classes. Players can even opt out as a group from using roles and simply pick out their skills directly.

Skill selection is a simple point buy. There are no conversions between experience or other points to skill points. One point buys one rank in a skill. Points may be banked for use after character generation. These banked points can be used later, even during an adventure, to purchase new skills.

Equipment is simple. No need to go through lists to purchase every single item. Player characters are assumed to start with what they need to perform their role. This includes a sidearm, a communications device, and a data retrieval/scanning device. The only time players need to pour over lists is when big ticket items like cyberwear or their ship come into the picture.

Character Arcs

Players create a character arc with a beginning, middle, and (if desired) conclusion. These arcs relate to some goal of each player character (find a lost sister, reestablish and uphold lawful government, have a grand adventure and look good doing it). The goal and each step in achieving it are presented as one sentence ideas. These are the seeds for future adventure subplots. It is still up to the GM to incorporate these ideas into the campaign. The details (who, what, where, when, and how) are controlled by the GM, but this allows the players input into the development of their characters.


The group had no problems with the mechanical aspects of character generation. Looking up what each skill or piece of cyberwear did take time, but grasping the concepts was not an issue.

Coming up with character arcs was a little more challenging. It's an approach to character development that places more on the players' shoulders. It is more proactive than writing up a backstory and seeing what, if anything, the GM decides to use. It allows the player to decide what is important to their character and how that effects future game sessions.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Painting By Numbers #9 - More Earth Exploration Teams

The appearance of these 15mm soldiers is inspired by a popular and long-running science fiction franchise. They'll be useful as security or light infantry in near-future or hard science fiction settings.

Note that one group has helmets and the other has patrol caps.

Base colors as follows:

Uniforms: Reaper Camouflage Green.
Vests, weapons, and boots: Reaper Stormy Grey.
Faces: Reaper Fair Skin or Russet Brown.

Washes as follows:

Vests, weapons, and boots: Citadel Badab Black.
All other areas: Citadel Gryphonne Sepia, followed by Devlan Mud.

I was going to paint the vests, weapons, and boots black. This would have resulted in a flat appearance. The dark grey with a black wash looks dark enough while letting the details show.

The first wash of Gryphonne Sepia was too subtle and too red for the effect I wanted. Going over the same areas with Devlan Mud provided the shading the models needed.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Painting By Numbers #8 - Earth Exploration Team

These are 15mm miniatures inspired by characters from a popular and long-running science fiction franchise. In addition to representing those characters, they will be useful as team leaders for security or light infantry teams.

The sunglasses on the one model is a nice touch.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Painting By Numbers #7 - Space Portal Guards

Part of my latest completed 15mm painting project. These alien warriors with their jackal-shaped helmets are pretty distinctive. That distinctive appearance limits their overall utility, although they could be used as a Egyptian themed army in a pulp or space opera setting.

The one with gold armor is the squad leader. The team leaders are picked out with blue details. The regular troops have red details in homage to a certain science fiction franchise.

Painting was straightforward. The armor was based with a medium grey followed by an overbrush of metallic silver. The gold areas were based with brown and overbrushed with metallic gold. All areas got a diluted dark wash followed by a brown wash to bring out the details and weather the figures a little.

A Little Overdue for an Update

Yeah, so... it looks like I missed out on updating this blog for... all of February. I'll take all the blame for that one. There was alot on my plate last month and something had to give. Blogging had to take the hit to free up the time I needed to get things done. I'm sorry and will do my best to make sure it doesn't happen again. Until next time.

I did spend time thinking about this little blog, though. Up until now, I've done little more than chronicle my painting and terrain projects with a few reviews on the side. Those are worthy pursuits and will continue. But I do have ideas on other topics to add to the mix. I hope that you will enjoy the greater variety of posts.