In Which I Break Focus After One Day, and talk about Ashen Stars

So yesterday I was talking about how easy it is to go off on a tangent and lose your focus, and then last night I was talking to someone about my Gumshoe whining and he said “you gotta read Ashen Stars” and I’m like “dude, I know it” and he’s like “here it is” and bam, I’m off focus, reading away on something I can easily read in five years from now.

To be fair, I was right based on my first impressions – it is hella awesome. It’s not just one of the coolest sci-fi settings ever published, containing five of the most well-crafted alien species you’ll ever see and a fantastically strong premise (“what if the Federation lost a huge war and so had to hire Han Solo and Mal Reynolds to police deep space in the aftermath”) it also has some great depth of detail and infrastructure to that, all the things that aren’t really setting but aren’t really system (or core system) but make a game unique and strong, like a fantastically detailed exploration of the intricacies of the justice system and a simple but detailed guide to making planets and some awesome cyberware and a huge list of ship stats and what might be (haven’t plummed it in detail yet) the best ship-to-ship combat system ever written…

…and on top of all that, it has Laws’ usual sense for the dramatic and narratively-styled. Like Leverage and Smallville (and to a lesser extent, Buffy), it puts genre tropes front and centre (although I wish it hadn’t called itself space opera, it sounds cheesy and you can play this plenty dark and grounded).  Planets are designed for the story around them, first and foremost. Adventures are built around premises and twists, because twists are what makes the half-hour ad-break interesting. But it keeps the core basis of simulational mechanics, which helps keep players grounded in the fictional world. It’s a nice balance, and the kind of thing that neither the old school hard-core sim games nor most bleeding edge indie games ever really got.

And speaking OF, it has what is at once the oldest rule of GMing (depending on your style) and also one of the most revolutionary rules ever written down. In the section on setting difficulty levels, it doesn’t have a useless table explaining that 2 is “Trivial” and 4 is “average” and 8 is “impossible”. It doesn’t go to great lengths to determine how hard your average lock is to pick in the setting. No, it explains the core of pretty much all mechanics I’ve ever used:

If succeeding would be boring or kill the story, make the target number impossible or nearly so.

If failing would be boring or kill the story, make the target number very low or just let it happen.

If both success and failure would be interesting, set it at 4 (average).

At first glance, that might seem obvious to you, but to any hard-core world-simulationist, it is insane. To the hard-core anti-“railroading” anti-die-fudging types on RPGNet, it is mind-breaking heresy. To Ron Edwards and co, it is the GM setting an agenda of “his” story and taking agency away from the players, and violating a sacred trust of everyone having input . It’s the kind of rule that is like the exploding of Alderaan – I could hear the screams echoing across the internet the moment I read it. Like the initiative rules in Fvlminata.

And I thought that was interesting. It was nice to see it written down so simply. For those of us who GM to present stories as much as react to them, it’s an instinctive tool, but as I said, I don’t think it’s ever been written down quite so explicitly and clearly and simply. It is effectively permitting dice fudging, as a written rule. Which is super sexy awesome.

So, Ashen Stars: worth checking out even if you don’t like Gumshoe. Hell, it would be almost trivial to turn the system into a roll-under one (actually, Blue Planet’s Synergy would be a good fit) and still use 95% of the book. Unless of course, you think this is railroading insanity. Then you should go play Smallville, which, alas, is much, much harder to fudge because you have much less control over probabilities.

And now…I must stop reading about the awesome armadillo people and put it aside….do it…DROP THE BOOK STEVE! THIS IS THE WRITING POLICE!

*shots are fired. Fade to black. To be continued…*


3 thoughts on “In Which I Break Focus After One Day, and talk about Ashen Stars

  1. I don’t mind Gumshoe and in fact own Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu, but had ignored everything about Ashen Stars because I just figured it was “more of the same” but in space. That setting sounds great and that advice is awesome. Damn. Damn you Robin Laws, and damn you Steve!

    • Yeah, he does that. I also hear Night’s Black Agents is an incredible resource on conspiracy design, too. That’s the problem – RPGs are often far more awesome than they should be…

  2. The best I’ve ever seen in this way is a back page of paranoia :
    “Quick rule reference : roll a die, ignore it !”
    But the true question, I think, is always the same, it’s not about what you want to do, it’s about what your players are waiting for ?

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