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Sunday 12 January 2020

A Post Space Opera Companion

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.

Since its publication in 2011, Ashen Stars has received only slight support, all of it the form of scenarios, such as Dead Rock Seven and The Justice Trade. Accretion Disk is support of a different kind, a supplement which takes its name from the structure formed by diffuse material in orbital motion around a massive central body, typically a star. In terms of a roleplaying supplement what we have in Accretion Disc is a collection of unrelated material—new character options, new playable species, new ability options, new weapons and equipment, new contracts, new aliens, and more. Accretion Disc is essentially, the Ashen Stars Companion.

The supplement wastes no time in getting down to business. The first fifth of Accretion Disk is devoted to Investigative Abilities—knowledges which get the Lasers clues, and General Abilities—skills and so on which allow the Lasers to act. Every entry for an Investigative Ability includes sample benefits from Spends of an Ability and sample clues and plot hooks, whilst for General Abilities include possible investigative clues and possible ‘Cherries’. So for the Data Retrieval Technical Ability, a Laser’s player might spend a point to protect the team’s own data or disseminate an enemy’s secrets to the general public, whilst sample clues and plot hooks include being able to access the captain’s logs of a crashed spaceship, determine clues from a ransom video in a kidnap case, and so on. 

‘Cherries’ were introduced in Night’s Black Agents specifically to meet its thriller angle. Now, as with Night’s Black Agents, if a Laser in Ashen Stars has a General Ability with a rating of eight or more, he is regarded as being skilled enough to gain a special benefit. So for example, with an Athletics score of eight or more, a Laser have the ‘Hard to Hit’ and so become harder to target in combat, or he might take the Might Cherry for his high Athletics Ability, enabling his player to expend points from his Athletics Ability pool after the roll rather than before. Other Cherries give simple points in other Abilities or a free pool of points to spend on specific things. For example,  ‘Follow the Money’ for the Business Affairs General Ability, grants a free point in the Forensic Accounting Academic Investigative Ability, whilst the ‘Viro Wizardry’ Cherry for the Viro Manipulation General Ability to provide the Lazers with an extra pool of points to spend on the second use of a one-use Viroware. Overall, the section on Abilities—Investigative and General—is useful for both Game Master and player alike, adding further helpful description and utility. In general, the use of the Cherries also make the play of the game more cinematic in flavour and feel. Even further the write-up of the Flattery Interpersonal Investigative Ability is amusingly, exactly what it says it is.

‘Crewing Up’ expands upon the discussion of the Warpside and Groundside mission roles of the Lasers from the Ashen Stars core rulebook. It provides a list of the basic Investigative and General Abilities needed for each role, a discussion of the role, the role’s typical day-to-day routine, suggested equipment loadouts, specialised techniques and jargon, and classic media archetypes. So a Communications Officer or Hailer will be receiving communications, dealing with clients, tracking and analysing signals, hacking, and so on. He might be a polished corporate spokesman, an eccentric hacker/DJ, a military signals expert, harried technician, and more. Again, there is a lot of information here for both Game Master and player, giving the former ideas on how to bring them into play and the latter ideas on how to play each role. 

One of the aspects of Ashen Stars and of Gumshoe System roleplaying games in general is its direct implementation of Drives and Arcs to help involve Lasers in campaigns and plots. In the core rule book for Ashen Stars, they are discussed from the Game Master’s point of view since she is the one who will be implementing them. In Accretion Disk, they are examined from the player’s point of view. There are some general suggestions on how each player might bring them into play and do it judiciously, plus three sample Arc Drives for each. Ashen Stars then adds six new playable species to the Seven Peoples of the Combine, some of whom have held more prominent positions in the past. They include the warty, boney Cloddhuck, who once revered the Durugh as gods and served them as shock troops, but since the Mohilar War have used their combat intuition as mercenaries and criminals, and now, to solve crime! The Haydrossi evolved in the atmosphere of a gas giant and can not only float, but have excellent three dimensional spatial awareness and are driven to seek new places in search of a lost utopia. Unfortunately, they are not covered by the treaties which forbid the Kth-thk from eating certain sentient species. The Icti inhabit and animate the fresh corpses of the recently dead, the higher up the food chain the better, and can access the memories that the corpses had in life as well as preventing their newly inhabited ‘meat-shells’ from truly rotting for years. It is entirely for a Laser to die in game and his player chose to have come back as an Icti! The Ndoaites are even weirder, shell-residing lizards who consume radioactive ores and whose bowel movements are classed as type II biohazards. Consequently, as Lasers they serve Warpside happily, but send drones to represent them when Groundside. They can also generate and emit radiation, often in modulated, targeted bursts. The Racondids are bipedal reptiles overconfidently keen on the Combine and seeking out new challenges with a rapid metabolism which allows them to vomit flammable material! Lastly, the Verpid are a corporate-owned species, genetically engineered to change shape and have fled their masters in an act of self-emancipation.   

All six of the new races are interesting and different, but not necessarily useful or much-needed additions to Ashen Stars. They are again, another option for a campaign. More useful though are the sets of deck plans for the six most commonly used ships used by Laser teams. From the stalwart, reliable Runner to highly defensive, but uncomfortable Porcupine, all of the ins and outs of these vessels are discussed, as their foibles and quirks. If there is an issue here it that the deck plans are presented in greyscale rather than colour, so much of their definition and detail is lost. Accompanying this is a selection of new ‘Ship Bolt-Ons’, complete with Cost and Upkeep values, such as the Cannon-Nanny which prevents shipboard weapons from being used by over-zealous gunners so as to prevent Public Relations disasters or Particle Streamers which stream and excite particles hamper attempts by attackers to lock on and tow the ship. Shuttles receive a similar treatment with several alternatives to the standard shuttle carried by most Laser vessels, including Cargo Shuttles and Racing Shuttles. As does the section on personal technology, which includes a communications device, cybernetic enhancements, medical, forensic, and protective gear, and miscellaneous and investigative tech, viroware, and more. Players will enjoy the Dirty Harry Mod which makes a Disruptor weapon look a whole bigger and thus more intimidating; the Muckraker Suite, semi-intelligent systems and customised software for digging up dirt on a target; and the Wingman Ultra, which enables a Laser to mimic a colleague or friend’s Interpersonal skills, including of course, Flirting.

Rounding out Accretion Disk are over thirty ‘Hot Contracts’, giving the Game Master a wide array of tasks for the players’ team of Lasers to undertake, followed by an expansion to the ‘Entity Database’ with twelve new monsters and creatures. Lastly, the appendices provide rules for ‘Ashen Stars Warp’, a stripped down version of the rules with fewer skills and abilities. This is also intended for convention play where quicker mechanics might be of use.

Physically, Accretion Disk is cleanly laid out, decently edited, and nicely illustrated. It comes with a good index too. The only downside to the supplement is that it is presented in greyscale rather than colour, and some of the artwork—and certainly the deckplans—would have benefited from being in full colour.

Until now, Ashen Stars has not had a supplement to support both its play and its setting. Accretion Disk fulfills that need, with an array of useful and interesting bits and pieces, some of them connected—for example, the deckplans, the ship bolt-ons, and the shuttles—some not. Given the time between the publication of Ashen Stars and the publication of Accretion Disk, this is the supplement that will bring veteran players of the roleplaying back to play with its selection of new options, or support a group coming to the roleplaying game for the first time with advice and expanded explanations. 

Accretion Disk is more than welcome support for Ashen Stars, not necessary to play, but helpful, useful options and advice to expand and support a campaign. The perfect companion to Ashen Stars.

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