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Saturday, 11 May 2019

An Ashen Stars Duo

Ashen Stars is Pelgrane Press’ Science Fiction roleplaying game of investigation and action. Using the investigation-orientated Gumshoe System mechanics written by 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 for Ashen Stars was Dead Rock Seven. This presented a collection of four, dirty, detailed, and involving mysteries to be investigated that could be run singly or in sequence as a loose campaign. The second is Tartarus/Terra Nova, collects two scenarios, each of a very different nature. Both are investigative in nature of course, but one is a ‘ship in a bottle’ style adventure—though not the Lasers’ actual ship, and the other a horror scenario. Both also involve races against the clock. It should be noted that the book comes as a ‘Double Cover’, so that after reading or running one scenario, the Game Master needs to flip the book over. Essentially there are two front covers, so instead of reviewing them in chronological order, they will be reviewed in order of increasing interest.

‘Terra Nova’ is written by Leonard Balsera and it begins much like ‘Period of Tyranny’ from Dead Rock Seven. The Lasers are tasked to come to the rescue of a passenger liner in distress, the eponymous Terra Nova, and also determine the cause of the accident. Of course, it was no accident and the luxury liner, its glory faded from the days before the Mohilar War contains a terrible secret which the culprit at the heart of the scenario’s plot has discovered and wants to take advantage of. Once the Lasers are aboard the shattered vessel they will find it strangely twisted, its systems oddly belligerent, and the handful of survivors acting oddly.

This is a conventional murder-mystery style adventure set aboard a shipwreck floating in space with just a cast of five NPCs or suspects. What lifts this scenario above the ordinary is not just the fact that also the NPCs are suspects and that any one of them could be the culprit, but the fact that it supports this set-up from start to finish. Although the scenario has a plot and the villain of the piece has a plan, at the start of the scenario, exactly who that villain is yet to be determined and determining who that villain is, well depends upon the actions of the player characters. Each of the NPCs, including a faded celebrity, a crew member, a radical medical researcher, and more, in addition to their well-drawn descriptions, is discussed in terms of three roles. As innocent, as red herring, as culprit. Clues are written so that they can work with each of these roles and so enforce the NPCs’ roles.

The intention here is for the Game Master to adjust their role to fit the interests of the players and the investigative efforts of their Lasers. Thus, if the player characters take a strong interest in one NPC, that person might become a red herring or another might be pushed their way when the first NPC is actually the culprit. Overall, ‘Terra Nova’ is a solid plot combined with an excellent and well-explained toolkit with which to build a murder mystery plot. In fact, this toolkit is so good that it is worth a Game Master consulting again should she want to run a murder mystery style game whatever the genre or roleplaying game.

The other scenario is ‘Tartarus’, written by Robin D. Laws. Shrawley-Gosha Industries recently received an automatic message from one its ships, the Francis Crick, which indicated that her crew might be in trouble. That crew included board member, Charles Shrawley, who was leading a survey mission, and worse, the ship is currently orbiting what is known as a ‘Bad Planet’ (‘Bad Planet’ being the colloquial term for what the Combine calls a ‘ULC’ or ‘Unremittingly Life-Compromising’ world). The Lasers are hired to determine what has happened aboard the Francis Crick, rescue her crew and the survey team, and if unable to, extract their DNA to determine their cause of death and status.

If the Lasers do some research they can discover that Shrawley-Gosha Industries is looking to get rid of Shrawley as quietly as possible and that there is more to his survey team than the crew manifest states. After all, who needs a xeno-biologist and an archaeologist on a mineral survey team? As their investigations take the Lasers from the corporation’s Eden-like headquarters to the hell world which the Francis Crick is currently orbiting, they should really be worrying about what exactly Shrawley is up to and just what sort of a mess will they be expected to clean up.

Which is perfectly sensible because as the players roleplay their way through the scenario, what will likely become apparent is that essentially, ‘Tartarus’ is following the plot of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Now if that sounds like a bad thing, then it is, but only if the author was following the plot of the film exactly. Which thankfully, he is not. Instead, Laws addresses some of the issues raised by the plot of the film and divorces the plot of the scenario from the film, instead tying it into Ashen Stars’ background. Further, it gives reasons for both the NPCs and the player characters to investigate deeper into the situation on the planet—a dangerously unstable world which echoes the unstable nature of the mission that the Lasers find themselves in—and so discover what exactly is going on and confront its consequences. This is in addition to 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.

‘Tartarus’ is a nasty scenario, a potential team killer as the Lasers get closer to the truth of what Charles Shrawley has been doing and is currently planning, encountering some of the horrors he has left in his wake. It is also a distinct change of pace and genre for Ashen Stars and whilst that may not quite fit every Ashen Stars campaign, ‘Tartarus’ makes for a good one-shot as it does a better treatment of the plot to a contentious movie. 

In between ‘Terra Nova’ and ‘Tartarus’ is an unannounced demonstration scenario—unannounced that is because Tartarus/Terra Nova has no back cover and therefore no back-cover blurb (it also does not have an introduction). ‘Stowaway’ is designed to offer twenty minutes of play as the Lasers fight a desperate battle to retain control of their ship and fight off a Class-K invader. Primarily action-orientated and designed to be played by two players as much as it is five—though four is a good number—it can be used as a demonstration scenario or prequel scene to help teach the players the rules and some of the dangers of the setting.

Tartarus/Terra Nova is clean and tidy, but does need an edit in places and it feels a little under-illustrated in comparison to other Ashen Stars titles. What it really lacks are handouts and maps, which again feel a bit light given the investigative nature of the two scenarios.

Tartarus/Terra Nova is great support for Ashen Stars. ‘Terra Nova’ presents a great toolkit and advice for the Game Master to run mysteries, whilst ‘Tartarus’ ups the ante by combining invasive body horror with the investigative process. The fact that it does so on the back of a well-known Science Fiction film and does a better job of it is just icing on the cake.


Pelgrane Press will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between May 31st and June 2nd, 2019 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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