I was completely sold on the core GUMSHOE mechanic from the moment he blogged a little about the principle behind it, but I resisted picking any of the games up until Mutant City Blues. I've never really been hooked by Mythos games, and most of my Unknown Armies games end up looking a little bit like what I imagine The Esoterrorists plays like. I've never been a supers fan, really, but the mashup with CSI in Mutant City Blues, and the stark utility of the Quade Diagram, made it an excellent purchase. I tried sessions with big, shocking Law & Order -style cases, but I actually preferred taking down a notch to be more like classic episodes of The Bill. Social police work in the context of superpowers just seems more engaging for my players.
So what does Ashen Stars do with GUMSHOE? It's tempting to just call it GUMSHOE in space, but there's a lot more to it than that. If you've ever listened to me get all talky about RPGs, you'll have heard me call 'big settings' out as being obstacles to enjoyable play. Despite the size of pre-order pdf (300 pages!), the setting detail is mostly confined to terse summaries of plot hooks the setting gives you. For a sci-fi setting, where almost everything has to made up from scratch, that's a remarkable achievement. Rather than describe planets X, Y and Z, it lists different types of planet the players might encounter, and leaves the rest to be made up in GM prep or during play. There's still a mite too much detail for my taste, but that probably means it's perfect for people with a less extreme viewpoint on setting than me (i.e. the rest of the world).
The delight in the setting is that it is constructed from the ground up to suit role-playing, unlike any licensed property would be. Player groups are usually chafed by strict chains of command, so the PC crews don't have a captain. Similarly, being bound to a large organisation and its rules won't sit well, so the setting gives the players authority, but little back-up, and huge leeway in solving problems as best they can. The prospect of players doing evil deeds is controlled not by court-martial or artificial barriers, but by the way it will limit the party's ability to get future contracts. It's clear that at some point Robin's thought 'What would players actually try to do in this sort of setting, and how can I adjust it so that that is also what the setting fiction would expect characters in their position to do?'. Then there's this excerpt concerning tone:
Today's popular shows and TV series tend to be remakes of classic properties from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Reboots tend to bend the original material they're teeing off from in one of two directions. They either:
- shoot for campy nostalgia, referencing the tropes of the original in a winking yet loving manner
- adopt an edgy, revisionist take on the source material, making it gritty, tough, and more adult-themed
Ashen Stars focuses on the second approach. Think of its post-war malaise as the new grim plot device that justifies the reboot's darker tone. The earlier Ashen Stars that never was would have been optimistic, and in retrospect maybe a little campy by comparison. Yet at the heart of the dark version is the affection the audience feels for this artifact of a quainter time.
None of that is the biggest draw for me, though. I imagine most people who like to tinker with game mechanics have at some point, like me, tried to come up with a character/spaceship combat system and run into the problems that bedevil it. The problems are many and varied:
- How to balance character and weapon abilities in resolution
- How to make sure everyone has something to do
- How to manage edge cases like boarding, crippling and escaping
- How to make is interesting, rather than an exercise in endurance dice rolling
- How to do all of that in a simple way, so you don't end up with some limping, tracking-heavy monster like B5 Wars
The fact is this perennial problem has been solved in Ashen Stars. Some players may find the level of abstraction disappointing, but the system is designed to support description of the attacks and defences to keep things entertaining, and even at a cursory read-through I can see many ways of expanding on the basic system to add mechanical detail if you really want to. I won't summarise it here, because it's one of those things where you have to see how all the bits fit together (not that it's complicated, really) to see how it addresses the list of problems above. I'm guessing - and hoping - that there will be more options for ships in a later supplement, but only so players can get their teeth into more elaborate customisation of their trusty vessel.
That the art released so far looks gorgeous is just icing on the cake.
I was in two minds as to getting Ashen Stars, and the pre-order bonuses pushed me over the edge. I'm glad they did, because the product itself is amazing.