Tuesday, June 24, 2014

on Ashen Stars pt3

Ah it's been busy lately, but I have been playing stuff, just not so much writing about it.  I finished my run of Ashen Stars and now we are two session into a Trail of Cthulhu run.  My guy got killed already- RIP Dr. Krombach but I have stated up a new guy to get killed with - so that's all right.

I thought that I should give my final impressions of running a short Ashen Stars campaign before I forgot too much.  I imagine that since it's an investigative genre a lot of Gumshoe games are one off-adventures or con games and so many people might not get into the campaign rules and I wanted to make sure that I did focus on those rules and see how they worked for Ashen Stars.  I ran a very money oriented game because I wanted to have emergent story arise from that mechanical pressure.  I think it worked for the most part.  I did find that when the economic pressure was high the reputation and upkeep mechanics worked better.  There was a lot of arguing about PR and reputation that was undercut with money talk.  I don't think that reputation would have worked nearly so well without the money woes.  I did find that the downtime rolls were a bit too easy to game but this could have been because the players did not generally use their business skill and saved it just for the downtime roll and once they had some reputation built up, this meant very little downtime.  I made sure to provide opportunities for side deals to soak up some of those business points in all adventures, but the players didn't generally follow up on them.  I think that this was because aside from the Cybe player and the player running the ship books, there were no real incentives for the individual players to acquire credits.  Any money coming in went to ship and cybe upkeep and after that there were no worries - no 401ks among the Lazers -  it was assumed that the future was taking care of itself.  Some players might have had a couple big creds* upkeep to worry about but aside from the Cybe player they were banking more than they were spending.  I did try to rectify that later in the campaign by giving one player an economic incentive (blackmail) and another an economic goal (securing breeding rights), but the players didn't act on these - probably because it came too late and events were already rolling along.  I would do this kind of life event economics again, and much more of it, in a future game.  Giving all players divergent economic goals is the way to go here if you want to play an business orientated game.  I think that without either story pressure or money pressure it is too easy for the upkeep and reputation mechanics to become "managed" and they become either a gm fiat 'story of the week' thing or a toothless mechanic.  I don't think it would be good to mistake economic inducement for materialism however.  I do really like the game's focus on large scale economics and not everyday inventory management.  I would rather generate up a big ol' table of Life Events and Social Obligations for Ashen Stars instead of a big ol' table of +1 Swords and Power Armours.

I really liked the Space combat - we used playing cards for the point spending aspect and I think it worked really well overall.  I saw how the point spend added some character to the ship fights - a cautious pilot or a reckless gunner on either side could really change the outcome.  I do kind of wish that the personal combat had a similar feel to it.  Rolling against a hit threshold got a little boring especially since there were not so many options as there would be in a d20 type system.  I would certainly consider an alternate combat system using opposed rolls and hidden point spend like in the ship combat - perhaps not four full axis of attack but perhaps one force/armour based and one agility/dodge based axis for both ranged for non-ranged combat.  It would slow down combat a bit, however it would be more engaging than the simple roll to hit option.  We are looking at using some of the Nights Black Agents advanced combat rules for our pulpy Trail of Cthulhu game and they look pretty good, I'd consider adopting them for Ashen Stars too.  I do think something with more opposed rolls could be interesting as well.

The setting was very good and it flowed very well.  I was a little nervous my first real run of a sci-fi setting since it is hard to establish a common understanding when dealing with so many unknown social and technology cues - but with the Ashen Stars Lazer framework and a few establishing proclamations, the players quickly fell into the swing of things and were able to make logical projections.  I did have to establish that there was no communication while in trans-light and that there were no ubiquitous galactic networks, just a collection of planetary and corporate systems.  This was important because investigative games need to be active not passive and having universal access to cameras and personal files and history records has to be curtailed or the game will suffer.   The first couple of games there was a natural tendency for players to want to lean on the technology and call in Ossa One troops for every traffic offense, but I made it clear that they would have to prove their suspicions and that there were privacy and legal protocols that had to be followed.

The Lazers for hire nature of the game was very interesting and was a great setting conceit. I wanted to be in the background as much as possible and feed different players different information so that they would generate their own motivations.  I did send players informational emails between games, including the aforementioned economic incentives, but also little nuggets of personal mail or advertisements they could really take up and own as characters.  At one point this lead to a whole off-screen story about a character's cat going missing and the players all had different perspectives on what had happened.  I made sure that I only presented the "Bagger" character with the options for jobs and had them decide how to choose which to take - even  if that meant informing the other players or not of all their options.  I really tried to have the players run the game as a business.  It thought it was important for buy-in to have them make choices about which jobs they were taking.  Sometimes I was hard pressed to know ahead of time which adventure I was going to have to prepare, and in a couple cases I had two different adventures prepped and waiting.  It worked very well from my perspective, however it was a shorter campaign and I'm not sure there was enough time for much of that to get acted upon.

I also had a bit of a disconnect when I was trying to populate the setting with interesting worlds.  At first I found it hard to see how I would balance having a star map of places and work that in with the downtime travel mechanics, especially when I wanted players to decide which cases they were going to take next - something that involved travel.  This played less of a role than I thought it would since they looked more at the case than the location and they didn't chew through the adventures as quickly as I thought they would.  As for having a comprehensive star map - well I didn't need it.  It really did resolve down to 'world as a problem' as outlined in the Ashen Stars book. The simple map of the Bleed and the travel time rules were a great building block and I managed to build a map of event/locations as the campaign progressed.  Over time the character of the different worlds was built up so having the spartan map and slotting in planets as the story progressed worked much better than trying to fit the story to a fuller and established starmap.  I had to let go and wing it more than I was comfortable with at first but it really did work out better.  I did carefully note where things were afterwards so the setting gained coherence.  Knowing that the ice planet of Ijiraq is in the Medusa Outzone is now important and I want to make sure that the stories can emerge from those relationships.

This was probably one of the most fun campaigns I have run.  I think Ashen Stars has a lot to offer in a campaign type setting as opposed to one-shots and I'm looking forward the supplemental book that's coming out with more material.  I'd run this again certainly.  I'd even pick up the same campaign.  I would have to add in some more work on economic inducements and probably try to get a better handle on some of the business skills that effect downtime, but all in all it was a very satisfying game experience.



  1. It was an excellent game. One of the most enjoyable campaigns I've played in. I think the NBA Thriller rules have potential to spice things up combat wise - we'll see how they work in the ToC game. A table of life events and unexpected costs would be cool - maybe add the opportunity to gamble a bit as well. Stock investments that could go up or down for instance.

    1. Yes although the game is geared towards a common resource pool and a team economic advancement I think there is a lot of fun to be had in doing the individual macro economic approach. It gives the players a lot of things to argue about. There were some great discussions about how the Cybe was using up his share of the cash and of switching the poor bugger off during downtime - something he really resented!
      The way I'd handle stock speculation is through the side deal mechanic I think. Letting the players with business affairs skill find an investment opportunity and let them know the risk as some sort of% if they spend points on it. Maybe even let them use forensic accounting. Then roll the dice. This lets them use up the points at the expense of other things.
      Anything that gives the player a sense of control but still chews up credits or skill points is good in my book.