Ashen Stars is Pelgrane Press’ Science Fiction roleplaying game of investigation and action. Using the investigation-orientated Gumshoe System RPG written by the Gumshoe System’s author, Robin D. Laws, it takes the idea that Space Opera stories, especially those screened on television, are essentially mysteries to be solved and adapts it to an interesting frontier setting. This is the Bleed, a rough, wild fringe of space that barely twenty years ago was the enticingly glamorous frontier of The Combine, a two-hundred-year-old interstellar, culture-spanning government dedicated to peace, understanding, and self-determination. The Combine was an idealistic utopia that enabled numerous races and peoples to live happily under its governance, but then the Mohilar attacked, and employing technologies unknown to The Combine their vast war fleets stormed system after system until The Combine’s heart, Earth itself, was devastated. Then following an unexpected defeat at the hands of a last-ditch effort by what remained of Combine forces, they vanished. That was a decade ago and yet, due to an effect known as the Bogey Conundrum, memories of the Mohilar race have become hazy and inconsistent. Try as they might, no one call recall exactly what the Mohilar were, and certainly, no one has any idea where they are now…
In the wake of the Mohilar War, both the interstellar economy and government have collapsed and whilst The Combine exists, its reach has been pulled back from the Bleed. Thus, the worlds the Bleed, many scorched and blasted by war, have been left to their own devices, bound only by a common currency and cultural ties. Where Combine patrols once kept the peace, peacekeeping missions and criminal investigations are now put out to private tender and assigned to independent ship operators known as ‘Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators’ or ‘Lasers’. As Lasers, the player characters will crew and operate a ship on a tight budget, hoping to pick up assignments that if completed will enhance their reputation and so lead to better and more profitable assignments.
The first release is the scenario anthology, Dead Rock Seven. This is a collection of four, dirty, detailed, and involving mysteries to be investigated that can be run singly or in sequence as a loose campaign. The links between the four scenarios are quite light, although they build to a denouement in the final scenario. Certainly, the links are light enough that the Game Master can slot scenarios in between them, whether those of her own design or published by Pelgrane Press—though sadly, there are few of those. These links run in two strands throughout the four scenarios. One is the Restreamers, a nufaith which believes that history in the wake of the Mohilar War has run in the wrong direction and that through their efforts that the current universe can be ended and restarted again to follow the correct path. The other is the appearance of ‘CKEMGMCs’—or ‘Class K Entities of the Game Master’s Choice’, Class K entities being the deadly and implacably hostile aliens who may or may not be the Mohilar. They appear throughout the anthology in various ways and the Game Master is free to select either the Class K entities given in the Ashen Stars core rule book or the three news ones given in the Dead Rock Seven.
All four scenarios in Dead Rock Seven follow the same format. The ‘Contract’ provides the Lasers with the details of their next job; the ‘Twist’ explains the basic situation for the Game Master, whilst the ‘The Backstory’ goes into it in more detail, including the NPCs and their connections, and ‘The Investigation’ outlines the general outline of the core spine upon which the scenario is hung. ‘Complications’ add red herrings, other suspects, and corollary lines of enquiry, all culminating in ‘The Choice’ which gives the choices that the player characters are likely to have to make once their investigation is complete. Together this sets up the scenes which make up the bulk of each scenario, all given in the general order that a team of Lasers will investigate. The degree of organisation here is excellent and helps to make the quartet here very easy to run.
In addition, Dead Rock Seven comes with a set of six ready-to-play Lasers—including character sheets—and their ship. The six are a good mix of character types and include heroes as well as war criminals, with all six including some excellent roleplaying links and hooks. All six though require a little customisation before play, but that should not take too long.
The quartet opens with ‘The Pleasure Bringers’. The Lasers are hired by a corporation to find one of its executives who has gone missing on the pleasure planet of Andarta. Now this is the same corporation as appeared in the introductory scenario, ‘The Witness of My Worth’, in the core rulebook, so that the Game Master could easily this scenario as sequel to it. What follows is a murky tale of greed, criminality, sex, and more, all against the neon backdrop of world which specialises in sex and carnality. Although not explicit, this means that the scenario has a strong adult tone, so it may not be suitable for all gaming groups. As well as introducing the Restreamers, the scenario explores issues of immigration in the wake of the Mohilar War, of sexually transmitted diseases, and exploitation, but really building upon them and using them in interesting ways to create a sordid and nasty mystery with an air of grim desperation.
The second scenario is the eponymous, ‘Dead Rock Seven’. The Lasers are hired to investigate a suspicious death aboard a mining asteroid which is in the process of being decommissioned. Where ‘The Pleasure Bringers’ took place planetside and across a major city, this scenario is really confined to just two locations—the asteroid and its labyrinth of hand-dug tunnels and a tethered habitation module. This is much more claustrophobic affair, echoing both the horror and the Blue-Collar Sci-Fi of films like Aliens and Outland (such that it could well with the recently released Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG [http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2019/03/blue-collar-sci-fi-horror.html]. The enclosed nature though, does make the cast of NPCs feel bigger and more difficult for the Game Master to handle, as does the intensity of relations between them. This is intentional though, as really what the Lasers are investigating is the labyrinthine nature of the relationships, although this is not to say that there is not the wealth of physical evidence for them to find too. It also means that the Game Master has good cast of NPCs for her to roleplay. ‘Dead Rock Seven’ also introduces ‘CKEMGMC’ for the first time and does so in a clever fashion which initially appear confusing to the Lasers.
‘Period of Tyranny’, the third scenario begins almost en media res, with the Lasers racing to answer the distress call from a stricken passenger starship, the Beatrix. Along with the distress call is a clause that gives the right for the Lasers to investigate the cause of the accident aboard the vessel and arrest those responsible—if anyone is, of course. Then again, this being a scenario for Ashen Stars, there is. After a harrowing rescue mission aboard the Beatrix, the trail leads to the nearby synthculture planet of Pioneer. Now in Ashen Stars, a planet with a synthculture is one which has adopted a culture other than the one that the colonisers originally from, often a historical one. In the case of Pioneer, it is of the frontier drive to settle America, but when the Lasers arrive, they discover that it has been subverted into a fascist, xenophobic regime that echoes an earlier period of Earth’s future history. So essentially it allows the Lasers to explore a bit of history as well as getting involved in pro-Combine and pro-Bleed politics as they attempt to work out who was behind the destruction of the Beatrix and why. It also gives the Lasers a definitive enemy in the form of Pioneer’s secret police as their constant presence and surveillance works to hamper their investigation.
Lastly, ‘The Anaitis Gambit’ adds a degree of silliness and levity before the action kicks in and brings the quartet to a close. Located at a nexus of several translight corridors, Anaitis Station is hosting a cooking contest—essentially ‘The Great Galactic Bake-off’—as a publicity stunt and hires the Lasers to handle the security. This gives an excuse for the Game Master to roleplaying lots of outrageously over the top NPCs before things get nasty as first someone lobs a gigantic heap of star junk at the station and then the dead bodies start piling up. The question is, is this all an attempt to sabotage the cookery contest or is there something to it? Well, yes and yes. The cookery contest is important, but clues from that will lead to an encounter with some strange aliens, reveal just what the Restreamers want and are prepared to do it in order to achieve it, and more… This is fun, fast, and furious adventure which nicely brings the quartet to a close, leaving the Lasers with having saved both the Bleed and the Combine, or having started a whole new war…
Physically, Dead Rock Seven is a clean looking, greyscale book printed on glossy paper. It is only lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent. Unfortunately, it is not in colour, which much of this artwork should be to show of how it actually is. As well organised as the book is, Dead Rock Seven does need another edit, which is disappointing.
There is a surprising degree of adaptability to these scenarios, so that they would work in other Science Fiction roleplaying games. They do require of diversity in terms of their aliens and their worlds, so that they would work better in Traveller or Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game, for example, rather than Firefly Roleplaying Game. Indeed, it could be argued that ‘Dead Rock Seven’ is not unlike ‘The Devil in the Dark’ and ‘Period of Tyranny’ is not unlike ‘A Piece of the Action’ and ‘Bread and Circuses’, all three Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. All of them would work well with the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game too (thank you, Dave Lai). It would take some effort to adapt them to the system and setting of the Game Master’s choice, but the option is there.
Dead Rock Seven presents four good Science Fiction mysteries that are detailed, murky, and convoluted—for the players and their Lasers, for the Game Master they are efficiently explained and organised—and thus exactly what an Ashen Stars Game Master needs. They are also mature of tone and successfully show off aspects of the Ashen Stars setting, whether that is its politics or its recent history as well as gently exploring some timely themes. Worth getting to peruse for ideas for any Science Fiction roleplaying game, Dead Rock Seven is simply excellent support for Ashen Stars.