Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ashen Stars – Indie Space Opera

[this post was written up back in..what…early November? Maybe late October. Though it may not be entirely timely, I know SOME folks are tired of reading superhero discussions…I thereby offer this up as “new content” for the blog]

You know why people are crying out for space opera RPGs? Because in the imaginary fantasy world of space opera, all your child care needs are as simple as handing off your child to your portable android while you and the wife are busy flying the rocket ship or fighting the forces of the villainous emperor or making sure the color of your capes match that of your ever-charged ray guns.


At least I live in a day and age where my ability to eat is not based on my personal ability to cultivate crops or hunt the local wildlife.

Ah, well…so in looking over my recent posts, I see I STILL haven’t finished my “Benjamins” series, nor even yet posted my “offensive post” (exactly 1500 words in length and only about half finished…ugh!). And yet here I am with an urge to discuss my latest RPG acquisition and the points of interest are directly related to these (un-posted) topics. What O What is one to do in this kind of situation.

Press on, I guess.

Ashen Stars is yet another GUMSHOE system RPG, this one written by Robin D. Laws and featuring a space opera setting that is about as space opera as space opera gets…in the old school, serial series sense of the phrase. I know I’ve talked GUMSHOE before (Mutant City Blues, Trail of Cthulhu, etc.), largely heaping it with praise and when I first saw Pelgrane’s space opera offering a few months back I immediately wanted it…until I remembered that I’ve yet to play a single one of these excellent, excellent games.

Here’s the problem: I’m the only person I know that actually owns these games. Which means that if I want to play one, I’ll probably be the one introducing it and running it for folks. And in addition to the normal headache of trying to interest non-interested parties in learning a new RPG system (let alone getting them fired up and enthusiastic) investigation-type role-playing really isn’t my thing. I like fantasy adventure, not mystery solving. I suppose I’d be much more comfortable PLAYING such a game (as a player myself) as opposed to running it…but there again I have the issue of being the only person I know who even owns these books.

In other words, the usual issue. 

Whatever…this isn’t just a woe-is-me post (really!); I’m simply explaining my reservations at buying yet another GUMSHOE game. But Laws and Kenneth Hite (the other main GUMSHOE designer) are excellent at what they do and usually good for both insight and inspiration (not to mention good reads) AND space opera has been my flavor-of-the-month for awhile now and I’m trying to get my hands on as many different games of the genre as I can find. So when Diego and I were in the game shop a couple days ago with a little extra money, we picked up a copy (D really liked the pictures). My first impression?


Laws doesn’t disappoint. Well, actually, he does disappoint (we’ll get to that in a moment) but his entry into the space opera genre of RPG is one of the best I’ve seen. I mean it’s really got some good stuff going on, and I’m not just talking about the artwork and layout and writing (though those bits are pretty good, too).

[just by the way, did WotC ever carry an original SciFi setting for D20? I know they did Star Wars, and I seem to recall a D20 Future game, but was there ever anything more “space opera” specific? Just wondering…having had my fill of D20 I sincerely doubt I’d ever buy such a thing; it’s a question of curiosity]

Laws, like Bezio, takes a lot of the same design tactics I was using myself when attempting to design a space opera RPG…in fact, if you were to remove the unique settings and splice Ashen Stars together with X-Plorers, you’d have a (very) rough approximation of the direction I was going, pre-DMI. My problem, though, was in my attempts to “pull it all together,” and the way both Mr. Bezio and Mr. Laws manages to do so is by adding specific space opera settings to their games, something I was extremely loathe to do (I was shooting for a more “generic” space game with an “add setting to taste” sensibility…in the end it hamstrung my efforts).

This is actually something that would make sense more (to my readers) if I’d bothered to do the original posts on Action/Reaction and Benjamins/Motivation. I know, I know…cryptic references to un-published blog posts really don’t really help explain anything, but without going into to great of detail:
  • Player behavior can be self-motivated or GM motivated
  • Self-motivation is better but requires tricky game design
  • A strong theme can keep players on the same page
  • Most games take this shit for granted
Prior blog topics regarding “reward systems influence behavior” can all be filed as a sub-heading under this very broad category of discussion. The fact that I haven’t (yet) been able to pound it out should tell you something of the slipperiness of the subject matter.

But MEANWHILE let’s just grapple with Ashen Stars; here’s the basic premise:

  1. The setting is a multi-(alien)-culture galactic quadrant that is a few years removed from an interstellar war (THIS, by the way is new…I usually classify space opera in three ages: Golden Age, Age of Corruption, and Age of Strife (war). What Laws does is find a fourth stage to the cyclical space opera paradigm following Strife but precursor-ing the new Golden Age…call it an Age of Reconstruction).
  2. Characters are all members of the LASER profession: highly competent individuals acting in a capacity of mercenary troubleshooters/detectives/peacekeepers in the absence of strong government/law enforcement due to the aforementioned war.
  3. The PCs are all members of the same ship crew. PCs pick their ship and customize it, then have to upkeep it by accepting and fulfilling contracts (“missions”). Most normal GUMSHOE procedures regarding investigation and task resolution applies.
  4. Characters main driving motivation is one of Reputation: being successful LASERS and handling things in an altruistic or heroic fashion increase their Rep while being scumbuckets (acting in selfish or homicidal fashion) will lower Rep. Having a low rep means time between lucrative contracts is increased, meaning characters can run low on money and fail in the upkeep of their ship and equipment leading to a reduction in their personal (and ship) capabilities.

And if they stopped right there that would be a good enough AND cool enough game. However, in emulation of the genre (especially such serial shipboard trouble-shooting TV shows as Star Trek or Firefly), Mr. Laws oversteps in his design process, with (to my mind) nonsensical results.

[by the way, there’s a lot of other neat stuff I’m leaving out: like the various races/species, the classifications of lifeforms, the various cyber-enhancements, etc. all of which are cool and well-thought out and neater-than-your-average-inside-the-box-RPG. But those things aren’t pertinent to this discussion. However, I’d strongly recommend purchasing or thumbing through a copy if you’re into “cooler-than-usual” space opera weirdness. Lots of stuff worth stealing for your own game even if you don’t want to play in the world of Ashen Stars]

The over-stepping is with regard to Drives and “arcs” (both story and personal) which are “personality mechanics” even less useful than “alignment” in a standard D&D game. And I’m talking about usefulness with regard to mechanics and effective game design.

The funny part is I went through the exact same thought process with my last couple games, especially with my space opera game. Hell, I even called these character motivations “drives” in my game, too…and while mine were based on Jungian (astrological) archetypes, I still ended up with a lot of the same ones (duh…there’s a reason they’re archetypes). However, while mine have mechanical effect (and fail to work in practice), Laws’s Drives have almost ZERO mechanical effect…and appear to fail in practice.

[I say “appear to fail” because I haven’t played the game, but the principles seem to be in place for a failure…or at least for an extraneous system that adds little to the game]

[hmm…I’m not a very nice critic, just reading back over what I wrote. I’m not even in a bad mood or anything!]

By not providing game mechanics (i.e. a system) that describes how the mechanics impact the game you end up with little more than useless “color.” Oh sure, the author describes how the GM should take these drives and arcs into account when shaping a story, and how players should pay attention to them when determining behavior…but nothing in the rules COMPELS participants to pay any attention to such things, and nothing INCENTIVIZES participants either.

And if there’s nothing compulsory and no incentive then, um, why do I care?

Now I don’t think Laws includes this information just to “pad” the word count or something, nor simply as a writing exercise/practice. My guess is that his idea was (by including drives as a part of the chargen process) to try to draw players’ minds deeper into the role-playing “immersion experience;” something that is either unnecessary (because your players are already on-board with developing characters) or a waste of time (because players are NOT on-board and the whole idea is unenforceable within the rules).

I mean, alignment in D&D has some consequences of behavioral compulsion…specific alignments are required for some classes and the use of some magic items, and some characters run the risk of loss of class effectiveness for failure to follow their alignment (not to mention XP loss suggestions given in the DMG for alignment violations). Even though it matters little whether or not a fighter is Lawful or Chaotic (with the possible exception of picking up an intelligent sword), it still has SOME enforceable game effects.

“Okay, okay, JB,” I already hear some of you yelling. “We get it! You don’t like it! So what? If it has no mechanical effect on the game, just ignore it and play the game without it. The rest of the rules work, right?” Well, sure, I guess they do. But here’s the thing:

I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. Laws’s motivations for including it at all is a mystery to me…and I’m afraid I’m missing something here.

I own several of these GUMSHOE products, and I don’t recall seeing something like this in any of the previous books. They’re not necessary…the setting provides all the motivation you need! In Trail of Cthulhu the PCs are investigating weird Cthulhu happenings, and work as a team to do so. In Mutant City Blues the PCs are members of a (super-powered) police force trying to solve cases and keep the streets clean (and work together to do so).

In Ashen Stars, characters are all members of the same LASER crew, on the same ship, taking contracts and making money. They already have incentive to work together (completing missions) and doing things in a particular (heroic) fashion: the Reputation mechanic, which affects the monies received which affects the team’s ability to perform maintenance and upkeep which affects the crew’s effectiveness (if you can’t keep up your ship, rules-wise it starts to deteriorate) which affects the ease with which you complete missions. What did Laws find (in play-testing or the design process) that made him think it was necessary to include this aspect of the game? Is it a gross over-sight? Laws seems too good a designer for that to be the case. Did he find players would lack the proper motivation without drives? Was there something particular that “bugged” without a named character “arc” for each PC?

It confuses me and muddles things (for me) putting a damper on an otherwise excellent game. 

[I do also have some gripes with the STARSHIP COMBAT mechanics…which I have described in an earlier post…but those gripes aren’t with principle design tact taken so much as the EXECUTION of that tact; but like I said I already wrote about that]

All right, that’s enough of that…since picking up Ashen Stars (and writing the bulk of this document), I’ve since nearly completed my own space opera supplement for Bezio’s X-Plorers AND drafted the basic core of a DMI Supers game AND moved onto other things, none of which are GUMSHOE related. I really don’t want to beat up on the book; I just think it might be a little misguided in including “too much” (something I’ve been guilty of on occasion myself).

You know, one of these days someone will come out with and RPG that deals solely with the interaction of different personalities in a cloistered environment…like a spaceship or a submarine. It IS one of the more interesting aspects/dynamics you find…in film and fiction anyway…and a lot of RPGs simply take it for granted that such “interesting group dynamics” will spontaneously develop. And they do…but without some direction, some “help,” from the game mechanics/design it’s going to be kind of happenstance how it happens. And maybe THAT’s what Laws was aiming to do, but I think the execution of it was less-than-adequate (to be charitable).

Incidentally, Kayce (who will be joining the play-test tonight) has been running Bulldogs! recently, a FATE-based space opera RPG which I do not own. For her, the most interesting part of the game has been the interaction between the various PC crewmembers and their drunken oaf of a captain. But I’m not so sure that interaction was intended to be the EMPHASIS of the game (hard to say without reading the rules)…it’s just developed that way due to the disparate personalities of the players. But that’s the thing…you can’t count on your players always stepping up to that particular plate (and sometimes, you might not want them to!)!
: )


  1. Drives are actually pretty important in Trail of Cthulhu; they're a key way to get Stability back during a game session, and help to put characters in harm's way.

    Example: As a player, I know it's a bad idea for my character to go into the dark cellar alone... but my "drive" is Curiosity, and I'll get a load of stability points back following on my drive... so I do it anyway. Now, it's a horror game, so hopefully something horrible happens anyway.

    I can't speak to the implementation in other Gumshoe variants, and I've eyed Ashen Stars for a while, but drives are a useful carrot (and sometimes a stick) in Trail.

  2. but without some direction, some “help,” from the game mechanics/design it’s going to be kind of happenstance how it happens.

    isn't that a good thing?

  3. @ Beedo: it's been awhile since I last picked up ToC, so I don't remember this, but I'm not surprised...I was expecting a similar mechanic in Ashen Stars and found nothing.

    @ Shlomo:

    Depends. Many (if not most) designers have a vision for how they want their game to play, and happenstance character drama doesn't seem like a usual design choice...nor a strong design choice for that matter (though others may beg to differ).

    And while there's a certain amount of "letting go" that happens in the publishing process (I can't control what anyone does with my book/rules after they buy it), a well designed game is less likely to be hard-core tinkered...and thus more likely to be played as originally envisioned.

  4. The Drives work the same in Fear Itself as in Trail of Cthulhu. Are you sure you didn't miss how they work, rules-wise? Or perhaps it's an editorial glitch.

  5. When I ran a scenario based on "The Thing" movie using Fear Itself, Drives were really one of the, well, "driving force" behind the player's actions. I love GUMSHOE games!

  6. @ Antonio:

    I will triple-check (I did look long and hard previously) and review side-by-side with my ToC and will let folks know if I find anything.