Wednesday, February 19, 2014

News Net Nine Special Report

The following blog post contains some pretty big SPOILERS concerning the Ashen Stars supplement Dead Rock Seven.  This post is primarily supplemental material for my game group but may be of interest to you if you are running Ashen Stars games or have already run or read the Dead Rock Seven materials.

DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU ARE A PLAYER OR WANT TO PLAY ASHEN STARS OR ADVENTURES FROM DEAD ROCK SEVEN.  Seriously it will spoil it for you.  It will even spoil it if you don't play this adventure because your GM might rip off some of the ideas.  Don't even peek if you are curious because THESE ARE SOME GOOD ADVENTURES AND YOU WANT TO PLAY THEM. Go buy the PDF or something.

If you are still good to go then scroll down for the post.  If you are playing in my game then please dig in.

################ LAST WARNING HERE BE SPOILERS. #########################

"Hello Capitoline and the Bleed.   Th-Kurst here with a News Net Nine flash update.  The infra-web has been well cooked with speculation when it was discovered that former lazer Denna Bonner had been taken into custody and implicated in the destruction of the Princess Beatrix starliner.  Bonner is well known as being one of the first wave of licensed effectuators, a delicious career that came to an end with her resignation two years ago immediately following the acidic conclusion of the Mo'toka trial.  Bonner has been a staple feature of conference circuits since her retirement.  She is also outspoken critic of Combine policies regarding the Bleed, a tasty side-dish that has not gone unnoticed on the forums.  Officials from Ossa One have neither confirmed or denied rumors that Bonner was working with a highly placed official from the Caver government on Pioneer, an historical synthculture in the Darrian Colonies.  News Net Nine's own Abbi Longren has secured a rare interview with Pioneer's Minister of Security.  Are you there Abby?"

"Yes, hello Th-Kurst.  I have here on holo Fina Rossi, the top Minister in President Caver's cabinet and the head of Security and Internal Affairs.  Minister Rossi, can you shed some light on this troubling news linking your government with the destruction of the Princess Beatrix."

"Thank you Abby, and greetings to all gentlebeings of the Bleed.  Before we continue, on behalf of President Caver and myself, I want to express my heartfelt and humble condolences to the families who lost loved ones in that terrible terrible accident.  The Caver government wishes to offer our full cooperation into this investigation.  I believe it was Kima who said ‘There are none of us so vast that can not be brought low by our sorrow.’"

"Minister, can you speak to our listeners about the allegations that one of your own staff is implicated along with Denna Bonner in this criminal investigation.”

“Yes Abby, I believe you are speaking of Mr. Vos, a junior security officer on my staff.  It makes me very sad and distressed that Mr. Vos is implicated in this alleged crime.  He was a good man and it pains me to think that his generous and open nature may have gotten him into such trouble.”

“Excuse me Minister, I’m not sure I understand.”

“Ernst Vos was an ardent admirer of Denna Bonner and had followed her career with great interest.  This was during the rebuilding, a time when emotions were very high and we were all glad to be survivors. Almost everyone had some hobby or passion that helped them get through that dark time. However he was a quiet man. He did disclose his interest in Bonner when he asked to be assigned to her personal security during her recent visit, however his psych records showed no indication that this might cloud his judgement."

"Are you saying Vos was in love with Bonner?"

"Oh Abby, no. I believe he was infatuated with her however. Perhaps he imagined himself on her crew, a Laser himself, when she was ambushed in a dark car park. Perhaps he thought himself her savior when he opened fire upon that crew of bounty hunters?"

"So is it the position of your government is that Vos was acting on his own?"

"It is our position that the situation was handled very poorly. Although the Caver government is willing to extend full support to agents of the Combine, we were not informed of their presence on Pioneer and we were not extended the courtesy of learning that Bonner was a person of interest. Perhaps if Ossa One had deigned to work with our people we could have settled this matter without violence and the death of two of our officers. We realize that one of ours, a minor but good officer, may have overstepped his authority, however we hope that these extenuating circumstances are taken into consideration in the coming days."

"Minister Rossi, why was Denna Bonner on Pioneer? Did your government know she was a fugitive? Did Ernst Vos know?"

"Miss Longren, Denna Bonner was to be the keynote speaker in a conference being hosted on our planet.  Many other prominent speakers were also in attendance, many of whom incidentally have spoken out against Combine policies in the past. If we had any knowledge that Denna Bonner was a fugitive we would have taken appropriate action. However we did not know. In fact it is apparently still unknown what the status of Miss Bonner is by anyone except Combine agents. What Mr. Vos did or did not know is not mine to say, he alone is responsible for his actions. But is that not all any of us want? To be responsible for our own actions, to make our own decisions? And how can we do that if we are not given all the information? I think that we in the Bleed need to seriously consider where we stand in the eyes of Ossa One and the Combine. Thank you."

"Thank You Minister."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

on Ashen Stars (pt2)

One of the things that really excites me about Ashen Stars is the economic system.  Isn't that a hoot.  But it is true and not at all sad.  We ran a game of Diaspora which is a Fate based Sci-fi setting and it was alright, but I didn't enjoy the abstraction of wealth in Fate.  I like my money crunchy and countable, not a roll on a status track. In Beacon I made sure that it cost a lot to buy things because money was so worthless in D&D proper, and one of the best things about Dungeon Crawl Classics for me was the fact that a bow and some arrows cost more than your life was worth at level 1.  I was really chuffed when we took the bows from the bandits that attacked us.  Good times.

I like tracking resources in games because it is a huge lever you can use in telling stories and providing motivations that feel real.  Everyone likes to get ahead and I think it's good to leverage that.  Also most people know what it's like to be in debt or to need more of something and that is also good material to draw upon. I do however understand when the economic mechanics of the game become too burdensome.  Lots of players don't want to track arrows or their meals and as a GM it's not practical to force them to do it or do it for them.  People play games to have fun so keeping a spreadsheet is not always going to be the fun option.

But I really like how Ashen Stars handles this.  Having Big Creds allows me to have all those economic story levers that come with the detective and the space opera genres.  There are lots of stories of space captains with bounties on their heads or detectives tempted to do the wrong thing for an easy payoff.  Having to pay the bills makes players consider interesting choices they might not otherwise entertain and having them sweat over their reputation in order to keep their bank balance in the black is one of the best ways to naturally curb those darker murder hobo or anti social character tendencies.  I love how this macro economics works and that players don't need to keep track of their bar tabs and hotel bills but can still panic to scrounge up a cargo run to some mudball planet to pay their upkeep.  It's great.

When I decided to run a campaign in Ashen Stars I knew I would have to lean on the economics so that the player choices would have meaning.  I didn't want to simply have the characters worrying about their upkeep, I wanted them to be invested in building their Lazer business.  I also wanted to make the economics drive some inter-player interaction. The one thing about economics in Ashen Stars is that is is a little but of a group hug.  Since Robin Laws is Canadian and therefore a communist it's not so surprising that the book references the mechanics of upkeep and payouts from a crew perspective.  I thought there should be all those economic business pressures from the book, but the players should also have individual relationships with money, some would want or need it and others would not care so much.  I wanted both friction and a cohesion to come from this.  

In order to facilitate this I did was do away with the economic budget in crew creation. I did let players have a little money to start out, but I decided that I wanted to see the game be orientated around personal finances instead of a group equipment template.  I wanted there to be some tension between paying out salary to the crew while also doing ship upkeep.  To add to this I also wanted to have them paying off the mortgage on their business and their ship - a very Traveller kind of thing I realize.  The first stumbling block to this was there were no prices for ships in the book.  I asked around a few places online to see if anyone else had done this but didn't get back any useful replies.  I even had some people on G+ tell me that if I wanted to do this I should go play Traveller!  Silly person.  I knew Ashen Stars could do this so much easier.  

After a very short deliberation I decided that a secondhand ship/laser business should cost around 1000 bC*.  I imagined this would, emotionally at least, be roughly between 1-4 million bucks just for some perspective.  I created a CFO role and told the players that they would have to decide which character was managing the finances and also that they as business partners would have to determine how to pay out salaries and service their business.   I added in a 2.5bC minimum payment to the monthly upkeep to service their debt just to twist the screws a bit tighter.  I told them that the characters would have to pay personal upkeep out of their own money and work with the CFO to manage common inventory and such. The players would provide the drive to pay down the debt faster or not according to their character.  What this was intended to do was give them all a stake but also some different perspectives on it.  The upkeep heavy players would naturally want higher salaries while other players with fewer obligations might want to invest in or service the business.

And so far it seems to be working out well.  With very little work the macro economics in the game serve to drive story but not bog it down in detail.  There is enough there to make payment for rare and interesting things work while the preparedness system manages to handle the smaller issues quite nicely.  The only additional thought I have had is to maybe make a upkeep price for standard of living since there is a big space in the game where characters with little interest in cyber or viro ware or high end gear have little economic outlets.  Maybe a little table like this:
Standard of Living      Upkeep Modifier
                 Normal                   N/A
                 Well to do              +1
                 Extravagant            +3
                 High Society           +5
                 Rock Star               +10

This would let some players burn off bC in amusing RP ways.

So all in all the game provides some good tools to manage money in a campaign and I really like how the upkeep and reputation mechanics work through this macroeconomic system to help create some natural narrative.

* I use bC as the currency symbol for Big Creds in the game and in the spreadsheet I use make the CFO track the finances.

Friday, February 7, 2014

on Ashen Stars (pt1)

If you wandered in here off the Internet and are wondering about the last two posts, well it's all about the Ashen Stars RPG I'm running right now.  The Pioneer poster is a hack on some content from the Pulp-O-Mizer all slicked up to provide some theme for the adventure I'm running.  The News Net Nine feed is some feedback and more theme for the same.  Just like all the other little story snippets you see on here from my characters or the session notes I post.   I think it's a good way to provide some extra oomph for the games and I'm going to continue to do it.

I did however want to break a bit from the vanity press shtick and write a bit about the Ashen Stars system and the things I'm liking about it.  First thing, I really like the game and I like it more now than when I started liking it.  I played a one shot and then I ran a one shot and then I agonized over using Ashen Stars out of the box.  I thought about trying to tack the things I liked about it onto a Mongoose Traveller game or something.  I even looked a bit into the Traveller 2300 AD material they put out so I could avoid dealing with some of the deeper depths of Traveller.  I admit I was hesitant to run a longer game in Ashen Stars even though I liked the basic concept.   Mostly I was worried that the Gumshoe system was too simple to handle a decent fight and too 'meta' to let the players loose themselves in the story.  In the end I decided to stick with Ashen Stars as presented and I am glad that I did because both those apprehensions were mis-apprehensions.

Combat, it turns out, seems to work just fine.   It is dangerous and so the characters are motivated to interrupt it after the first punch gets thrown or avoid to fights altogether and thus the combats seem much more fluid and natural than the big production numbers you find in some systems.  The point spend mechanic isn't getting in the way and I don't notice players hording their points.  The NPCs certainly don't have a problem, and I've found that having the points lets me control the NPC reactions to a much finer tune - having an NPC be calculating or cautious or desperate is a simple matter of spending accordingly.  I don't feel I have to pull punches or make tactical errors like I might in a d20 system -I can just do acting.   I can have a NPC throw out a couple points and a roll as a cautious feint, or load up the points if they are out of control or perceive themselves to be in dire situation.

Also, the setting material is much better than it seems.  The Ashen Stars setting material is a deliberate homage to a lot of mainstream sci-fi tropes and that might seem a bit goofy when you are reading the material.  But it isn't goofy at all in actual play.  Players pick up the tropes and benefit from all that associated material without bumping into objects in the mirror or stumbling over canons.  I can load up a alley with a press gang of Tavik, and it is easy for the players to feel like they are in a dangerous place without making jokes about Klingons or any of the other baggage that label entails.  Same for the technology, everyone gets tethers and NLD mode and osmotic punches right away.  It works because we are all thinking about klingons or tricorders and hyposprays, however the name has been filed off and everyone is free to have them act as the campaign requires.  It's the sci-fi analogue of the Elf/Dwarf/Halfling thing is so represented in fantasy.  The setting therefore feels fresh and new, but still very familiar and there is less time needed to set up things for the payoffs.

I wanted to get into the economic system but I think this post is too long already now.
So this is now a two part review of Ashen Stars.