Thoughts after 16 Sessions of Ashen Stars

I’ve been game-mastering Robin D. Laws’ gritty space-opera detective role-playing game Ashen Stars since September with a group of four players. In this game you’re free-lance FBI agents in a space federation on the skids after a war. We’ve had fourteen sessions and played six scenarios. I’ve also re-played the intro scenario with another group of four, so a total of sixteen sessions. We’ve had lots of fun!

Ashen Stars offers a rich background of world building, scenario hooks and advice on how to design your own scenarios. There are nine published scenarios for the game, and we’ve played five of them so far plus one of my own. Here are some thoughts.

The game has detailed rules for designing space ships and running space battles. But none of the published scenarios contain any space battles. The only expensive stuff you can buy with the in-game money a player group makes from solving cases is spaceships and ship upgrades. Which you never need. So my group soon stopped paying attention to how much money they have. It’s just piling up. Of course I can put in any number of space battles that I like, but I’ve told the players that this will only happen if they take an interest and learn the rules themselves. So far nobody has.

The central design principle in the Gumshoe family of role-playing games is that you never fail an attempt to get core clues using an investigative skill. If a player tells me that she uses Data Retrieval to look up the alien arms dealers online, then she rolls no die: I just give her any core clue I may have lined up. Less important clues can be bought with skill points. And then there are situations where I just tell a player that “here’s some information that’s immediately obvious to everyone who has the skill Forensic Accounting”. So there’s a) active skill use on the player’s part, which is free. And there’s b) semi-active skill use with a point fee, that I need to prompt for. And there’s c) passive skill use where I just blurt information. I often find it hard to determine whether the scenario designer has intended that a player would use a skill actively or passively in a given situation.

I’m starting to feel like it is never more fun to deny a player extra info because she’s run out of points, than to simply give her the clue anyway. The point-spend rules are intended to divide spotlight time evenly between the players. When an imaginative and talky player runs out of points, the theory goes, he’ll have to give other players more room for the rest of the scenario. But my players don’t seem to care who found a clue. I don’t hand the clue on a slip of paper to the player who bought it with her points. I just tell everyone that their pilot has realised something interesting about the alien arms dealers, and then they discuss what this clue means for their case. When nobody cares much whose skill points bought the clue, then it becomes less meaningful to keep track of those points.

So after 16 sessions of Ashen Stars we’re still having fun, we have no idea how the space battle rules work, we don’t care how much money the characters have because nobody ever buys anything, and we’re losing the motivation to keep track of their investigative skill points. To be continued!

(And one more thing. The PDF version of the rule book is so graphics-heavy that it takes ages to scroll through it. Instead I use the EPUB file that has no illustrations. Works great! I’ve put it on my Kindle and I bring that to game night instead of my laptop.)

Addition 20 April after 22 sessions: I remembered another piece of rules machinery that’s fallen by the wayside: the group’s reputation score. A high score means a short time between paid missions, which allows you to save money, if you care about how much money you have. Space battles demand ship upgrades demand money demand a high reputation score. Take out the space battles and all four become unimportant to gameplay. Of course, my players still always neatly fulfil the missions. It’s just that their reputation score has proved unimportant.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

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