From the planet Sumter the call goes out: the wargames are on. Before the Mohilar War, Sumter existed as a synthculture planet. It appealed to both permanent and transient populations wishing to relive the period of the US Civil War, including its major battles. Those reenactments took place with fake weapons and robust technological safeguards.

Sumpter’s new martial sports unfold in a hail of live, lethal fire. They attract damaged and discontented veterans of the past war who feel they fit in only when fighting for their lives. Remaining 19th-century trappings include uniforms and energy beam rifles shaped like muskets. Most combatants regard these as irrelevant curiosities. The war they’re here to relive isn’t ancient history, but is torn from their own biographies.

Your laser crew has been hired to find an enlistee in the upcoming wargames. Former atmospheric paratrooper Xino Voss intends to fight until she dies. Haunted by the wartime loss of her comrades, for which she blames herself, she aims to go down in a blaze of glory.

Her rich and terminally ill mother has other ideas. She wants the lasers to find her daughter, administer her anti-trauma meds (forcibly if necessary) and extract her before she achieves her death wish. That requires them to wade onto the games’ vast playing field, half a continent of live fire zone. There the green and purple teams fight to the death as pieces in a brutal struggle devoid of strategic goals or political meaning. Once the lasers step into the playing space, they become targets for both sides. If they’re there, they’re worth points, even if they wear the armbands of neither side.

Investigation involves finding the target, identifying a safe way to approach her, figuring out how to get her out against her will, and then escaping intact. Along the way, they might also discover the formless energy parasite who is stoking the wargames in order to nourish itself on the agony of death and the adrenaline of combat. Neutralizing the parasite ends the wargame, as the vast majority of players realizes they’ve been acting not out of their own desires, but due to the siren psychic call of an alien intelligence.


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.


As vengeful space effectuators of the Gaean Reach, you know what the interplanetary war criminal Quandos Vorn did to you—and what you must do in return to him, when you catch him.

That part remains more easily said than done.

Rejoice, then, in these latest intercepted transmissions. They detail some of the identities Quandos Vorn has recently traveled under in his never-ending quest for greater acts of barbarity. As is well documented, the chameleonic Vorn gains and sheds disguises with frustrating ease. Some of these people might be real individuals he has impersonated; others, his entirely fictional creations.

Elbin Throm, collector of rare militaria. The stooped, shaggy-haired Throm walks with the aid of a cane. Demanding and quick to take offense, Throm uses his wealth and expertise to bully finders, brokers and auctioneers of antique armaments. The tip of his cane contains a paralyzing toxin that dissolves its victims from the inside out, leaving the brain and screaming nerve endings as the last portions of the body to die.

Gascade, poet and troubadour. Famed for his quatrains in praise of Quandos Vorn. Of willowy frame and limpid blue eyes, he exerts a powerful sexual magnetism on women and men alike. His bright purple goatee precedes him into art festivals and bacchanals throughout the Reach. Dogged by accusations that he drugs his famous paramours in order to sell their organs to collectors. Evidence has yet to substantiate these rumors. May be a henchman of Vorn’s who occasionally lends him his identity.

Jebbas Mrin, hero of the rebellion on the planet Quane against starmenter (pirate) usurpers. Bald, broad-shouldered, with a musical baritone speaking voice. Never goes anywhere without the halberd he used to behead the starmenter Brerum Sosk. Though revered by the people of Quane, the taint of corruption surrounds his administration as its World President.

Castrel Flogg. A shadowy identity known chiefly as a set of signatures on documents claiming ownership over the platinum mines of Vesro.

The Ebbast, champion fencer and high priest of the religious order of Kolf. Won the tournament of Vosto by applying a neurotoxin to his epee. Described as possessing a skull-like countenance with deep-set eyes and a grinning, scarred mouth. By becoming a criminal and fugitive he invalidated the Kolf credo, leading to dozens of devout suicides. A schism among the surviving Kolfites centers around the question of whether the crimes were committed by the true Ebbast, or an impostor.


The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A while back we learned of the vials of supposedly destroyed smallpox virus that turned up in a laboratory storage room in Bethesda, Maryland. Luckily, no one was exposed to the deadly disease, allowing us to guiltlessly mine the incident for scenario inspiration. How you might use it depends on the game you’re currently running:

Ashen Stars: The lasers get a contract to find out what happened to an archaeological survey team tasked to explore the ancient alien ruins of the outlying world Cophetus. They arrive to find the team’s base, with evidence that they had located the tomb of a great emperor and were set to open its entry hatches. The team’s interpretation of the hieroglyphs found on the side of the complex alert them to a different story—this was the tomb of the ancient pathogen that nearly extinguished this mystery civilization. Can the team learn enough to locate, rescue and decontaminate the archaeologists before they succumb to the disease—or spread it to the stars?

Mutant City Blues: Conspiracy blogger Warner Osterman is found dead in your jurisdiction, a .22 bullet in his brain. His last story was about finding serum sample vials in a disused military laboratory. According to the contents of his laptop, Osterman believed these contained a version of the disease that caused people around the world to gain super powers ten years ago. That’s the angle that gets the case assigned to the HCIU. Did Osterman die because he got too close to the secret of the Sudden Mutation Event? Or just because he made people think he did?

Dying Earth: Locals in an isolated village your neer-do-wells happen to traipse through run a lucrative sideline in waylaying treasure hunters. When visitors come, they let slip the presence of an ancient treasure vault, one they pretend to be too superstitious to venture near. Over many years they’ve learned the right words to trigger the greed of arrogant freebooters. The adventurers head off to plunder the ancient temple, which in fact is the repository of an enervating energy left behind by a heedlessly experimental arch-magician. The magical plague kills off the visitors. Then, armed with protective amulets, villagers head on down to strip their corpses of valuables. Can our anti-heroes escape the fate of so many likeminded troublemakers before them. If so, do they turn the tables on the rubes who so impertinently used their own greed against them?

DramaSystem series pitches do not typically describe particular Game Moderator characters. They are better invented during play than set out for you in advance. This allows you to tailor the GMCs to the player characters, ensuring that act as foils rather than drivers of the action.

However in Hillfolk one-shots, I do find myself returning to a particular GMC again and again. He occurs when the players do not include a chieftain character. When the group does include a chieftain a one-shot, as I’ve noted before, usually becomes a struggle to depose the chieftain. When that’s not the case I often find a use for an ineffectual, doddering old chieftain. His job, like any DramaSystem GMC, is to raise the dramatic stakes and incite PC action. Typically a naïve believer in outmoded values over hard realities, Graybeard mostly urges characters to foolish courses of behavior. Though his plans are bad, he does zero in on the burning desires of the characters he seeks out. He typifies that most dangerous figure: a persuasive idiot. In narrative terms, he embodies the need of a storyline for its characters to get into trouble. This brews useful conflict between the characters he’s urging on and the others who oppose their goals.

That’s all you need to establish about Graybeard before you know exactly what you’ll need him for. That way he’s free to be the doting father of a power mad daughter in one run of the game with one group, and the decrepit upholder of cruel patriarchal values with another. If Graybeard has shown a common agenda throughout his various incarnations, it’s in selecting the absolute least qualified player character as his anointed successor. To make the imminent import of this clear, Graybeard speaks with great difficulty, fighting a wracking cough.

In a one-shot, Graybeard also gives the GM a fun cliffhanger ending as an option to keep in pocket if needed. More than one of my runs has ended with the sudden death of Graybeard, leaving a power vacuum for the second episode with that address. Now, of course in a one-shot there’s not really going to be a second episode. But players can imagine it nonetheless. Open endings tend to go down better than the fast and brutal escalation that characterizes an episode meant to have a conclusive ending. My watchword for giving a new DramaSystem group a good time has become “leave them imagining more.”

Over many runs, Graybeard has been a great help in that regard. Surprisingly, despite all the coughing and the full weight of foreshadowing it ought to bring, groups usually react with surprise to his final keeling over. It’s funny how a trope you’d spot a million miles away in a movie or TV show still has the power to surprise at the gaming table.

Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

We all believe that players should have meaningful choices when running their characters through adventures, whether they’re published, prepared by the GM, or created on the fly. Although we decry gaming stories that can’t go in multiple directions, you often also hear GMs at troubleshooting panels wondering how to keep players “on track.”

Published and prepared adventures that do offer meaningful choices have to account in advance for the many directions a premise might develop in. In other words, they require the writer’s time, and the room in a published book’s page count, to create more material than will be realized at any single gaming table.

Even improvised branches have a cost, in the thought energy of the GM as she thinks up a response on the spot and wonders how that might impact all the other dominoes she and the group have set up so far.

To help us wrestle with the eternal tensions between GM-driven and player-driven narrative, let’s step back to categorize the various ways adventures branch.

Resolution Branching

Whenever a game’s rules get used to resolve something important, it can change the direction of the story. If the cleric gets wounded, you have to take him back to town. If you fail to protect the witness, you lose her testimony. This is the most common type of branching, and one often that takes care of itself—as long as the GM or adventure writer remember to give the characters chances to use their abilities. Choices grow from an interaction of the random (the die roll) and choices previously made by the players, when they created their characters or boosted them through experience. However because it doesn’t involve a player huddle it’s easy to leave it off the list of choices that pivot the story.

Blind Choices

A blind choice is one in which the players get to decide the direction of the storyline but have little or no context for the decision.

The classic example here is the dungeon corridor with two doors, one leading to the left and the other to the right. The adventurers have no advance knowledge to base their decision on, and must choose arbitrarily.

A more GUMSHOE-y example occurs at the start of an investigation, when the team decides which of several promising leads to pursue first.

Though blind choices aren’t the richest possible branches, they do show the players that they control the story’s direction. They might allow interesting character moments—by wanting to talk to the ladies at the nursing home before the bikers, I reveal something about my Ordo Veritatis agent. And because the players have little to go on, they have less to discuss, making for a quick decision.

False Choices

A false choice presents the group with an apparent branch that isn’t.

The classic false choice is the dungeon corridor with two doors, one of which leads to an empty expanse of trackless passageways; the other, to all the monsters and treasure and fun stuff. The fun stuff is behind whichever door the players choose. So if we, the players, pick the red door, we go through it and have our adventure, coming back later to peek through the blue door and discover that we picked the best one in the first place. But if we’d picked the blue one first, it would have been the fun one.

To coin a phrase, this is one of those techniques that works only if it works. Your players may be quite happy to savor the feeling of choice, without ever knowing that you steered them toward the only option you prepared for them.

This goes to one of the great conundrums of adventure design, the subjective way in which we experience choice. Players given no true decision-making power can feel that they had it, and players who had many sharply different choices can still leave with the impression that they were railroaded.

Informed Choices

An informed choice is one in which the players have enough information to weigh the consequences of their decision.

In the door example, they might have been told that there are orcs behind the left door and mushroom people on the righ. They can then decide which type of monster they want to hit first.

An adventure can frame an informed choice as a trade-off, with pros and cons on each side.

If you decide to ally with the kch-thk, you’re choosing the superior fighting force, but can exert less control over their actions on the battlefield. If you pick the ragtag human colonists, you can rely on them to follow orders, even if they can’t muster the numbers or firepower the kch-thk would.

Informed choices give the players a high degree of control over the story’s direction. However, if they’re not tough choices, the GM or adventure are actually still nudging the story toward a predetermined path. And if they are tough choices, they’ll take a while to make. How much fun they really are depends heavily on how well the group makes complex decisions. Players who always butt heads with one another may prefer less narrative control, if it also means cutting down on the wrangling. Also, many people feel they face enough tough choices in real life and prefer their roleplaying narratives to present them with simple, comfortingly binary right-or-wrong answers.

Player-Driven Branches

Player-driven branches occur when the players create a choice point the GM or adventure writer did not anticipate.

Instead of picking the red door or the blue door, they don’t even go to the dungeon. Instead they decide to foment a gnome rebellion in the dwarven mine they pass on the way.

Instead of interviewing the witnesses the adventure mentions, they decide to go delving into a suspect’s banking records—a logical step the scenario doesn’t anticipate.

The fun value of a player-driven branch turns on how readily the GM can respond to it. In a crunchy combat-driven game, it might be hard to whip up stats for dwarven slavers and whip up a satisfying environment to stage the battle in. Simpler rules sets foster easier improv.

The more logical the players’ surprise choice, the less freeing it will feel to them. Of course any investigator would check the bank records first! What’s the big deal?

Random Branching

This might also be called a GM-facing choice. Sometimes you’ll find an element in an adventure where a die roll, hidden from the players, determines the direction of a story. A scenario that tells you that “There is a 40% chance that this room contains a ghost” is engaging in random branching. As is any mechanism that asks you to roll on a random table to see who the characters encounter, whether there are any cabs driving by, what businesses ply their trades on a particular street, or if the planet the spacefarers see on their viewscreens is habitable.

Players expecting to interact with a modeled world that isn’t set up to provide them with story opportunities may prefer lots of random branching.

In general though, if a choice falls in a forest and no one is around to perceive it, the objective of multiple possibilities, to give control the players, remains obscure.

To give freedom-seeking players influence over the scene, another choice type must be arise from the random roll. Once they’ve found that statistically generated habitable planet, they might then decide whether they should explore it themselves, or merely sell the coordinates to the big settlement company back on the homeworld.

Given the persistent weirdness of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, it should come as no surprise that they were the first major sports administration to permit the use of mutant powers in professional competition. In the DNA-twisted future of Mutant City Blues, only one thing has changed about the world’s love of football: America now adores it too. After all, the US team boasts such world-class players as Kirk “Force Master” Larson, Lyle “Nonstop” Watts, and Shane “the Ghost” Lowe.

Larson uses his concussion beam to move the ball around, and kinetic energy dispersal to fizzle the opposing team’s kicks. Thanks to his pain immunity and endorphin control (self), Watts simply doesn’t tire. And, attracting the greatest hate from rival fans, Lowe’s mutant brain makes lightning decisions, instantly evaluates threats posed by the other side, and allegedly reads their minds from time to time, too.

This year the World Cup has come to Mutant City, with all the revelry and security issues needed to keep a police officer up at night. HCIU officers have been pulled from normal duty to keep the city safe for visiting fans from around the globe.

The juxtaposed atmospheres of celebration and terrorism fear that accompany any high profile sporting event might hang as a background element over several other cases the squad pursues as the World Cup rolls on.

After sufficient foreshadowing, a case puts the tournament center stage. Options include:

  • The squad gets evidence of a credible death threat against one of the above-named players. FIFA won’t hear of a star player being pulled, so the players have to track down the would-be killer without being able to stash the victim safely.
  • Anti-mutant terrorists, angry that non-mutant players have been pushed to the sidelines, regard the games as a prime target. This allows you to stage your super-powered, footie version of Black Sunday.
  • Trinidad Güngör, the FIFA board member most responsible for bringing mutation into the game, is found brutally murdered in his hotel suite, with several underage prostitutes dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Initial indications point to an attack by a non-mutant player whose career declined after the genetically enhanced were permitted on the field. Investigation points to another possible angle— Güngör was about to implicate fellow board members in a bribery scandal over the bid to hold the next games.

Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In his January Rolling Stone profile of Pope Francis I, writer Mark Binelli supplies a classic bit of color reportage:

Outside St. Peter’s Square, hawkers are selling everything from Sistine Chapel tours to airbrushed paintings of Tupac, Bob Marley and the pope. I ask one of the vendors, a tall Belizean with a shaved head, if the increased crowds under Francis have been good for business. He scowls and shakes his head, then answers in perfect, New York-inflected English, “Naw, this guy, all he does is talk about the poor, and so he’s bringing in these poorer tourists from places like Argentina. They ain’t got no money, these people! When Ratzinger was pope, Germans would pull up on a bus. They’re organized, they spend! Now everyone wants a discount.”

The reminder that vendors of religious souvenirs might be motivated by less than the utmost spiritual concerns put me in mind of The Dying Earth. It just so happens that the area around Shin’s Stadium near the Marketplace of Kaiin now teems with pilgrims. These hopeful believers have erected a tent city in hopes of getting near to the Glandive. This earthly representative of a once-moribund—one might frankly say obscure—creed has energized a new generation of worshipers. Her previous earthly incarnation, that of a doddering, querulous old woman, attracted an ever-dwindling core of adherents. With her passing, the matriarchs of Glandive pronounced that the unceasing spirit of the Glandive has rooted in the pleasing form of a young woman with silken gold hair. The newly charismatic and outgoing Glandive inspires travelers from all over Ascolais and Almery. None doubt the purity of her vision, encouraging charity and empathy toward all—none, at least, who do not desire a good kicking from intemperate followers. With her rising popularity has risen a brisk trade in memorabilia, from small ceramic portraits of the new Glandive, to locks of golden hair. (Warning: hair samples not guaranteed to originate on the head of the Glandive herself.) All of these items are considered to be powerful amulets conferring luck and protection from swindle and robbery upon their owners.

The head of the cartel selling these amulets, Imgo the Gaunt, surprisingly does not answer to the Glandive or her matriarchs. An independent operator, he fiercely defends his trade against unauthorized talisman hawkers. He doesn’t pursue relic sellers elsewhere in the city, but around the tent zone and the still-modest Glandive temple, his mighty-thewed enforcers ensure that only his merchandise winds up around the necks of the pious.

Your PCs might be engaged by the matriarchs to drive Imgo and his gang off, or by Imgo to prevent competitors from horning in on his action.

New creature for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself

A hole opens up in the road outside your house. You pay no attention to this. Guarded by construction fence, it shows every sign of being regular repair work. Maybe they’re fixing the water mains. Or resurfacing the pavement. But then it gradually dawns that you never see anyone working on it during the day. It couldn’t possibly have opened up during the night, could it? You’d have heard them, and been disturbed by the noise. What construction projects get done in the darkness?

Projects by the workmen do. These beings from the Outer Dark materialize beneath busy urban areas. Drawn to neighborhoods in flux, they absorb and reflect anxieties of homeowners and renters alike. The nature of the change matters not. They show up where foreclosures are rampant, and where rising rents threaten to price out longterm residents. Anyone who gazes down into their holes becomes a psychic power battery. Once empowered they sneak from their tunnels, unlock your doors, and to stand over your bed at night, drinking your essence. As you start to die, your symptoms mimic those of hazardous chemical exposure. Doctors may try to find the source of the contamination, but no matter how many soil tests they perform they never turn up the real truth.

To end an infestation you have to descend into their tunnels. Once underground one finds a labyrinthine dig defying ordinary geometry. Stopping them means finding the original gateway to the Outer Dark. The workmen, with their helmet-like heads, glowing eyes and skulking bodies, individually pose no greater threat than an ordinary person. But there are so, so many of them. And if they take you out in their subterranean home ground, you join their ranks, slaving eternally for more scraps of emotional residue…

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Weapon: +1 (pick-axe or shovel)

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +2


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.’

Yung Chang’s documentary China Heavyweight, now streaming at a video service near you, follows the impact of a high-school boxing program meant to recruit amateur fighters on two young men who buy their coaches’ promises of a way out of their poor tobacco-farming community. In addition to providing a window into cultural change in today’s China, its fly-on-the-wall style allows us to see real-life examples of the dramatic structure at the heart of Hillfolk.

In the game’s DramaSystem rules engine, conflicts between people who care about each other identify one participant in the dialogue scene as the petitioner and the other as the granter. The petitioner seeks an emotional reward or concession from the granter, who chooses either to grant it, or to withhold it. This structure underlies all dramatic storytelling, and is powerful because it boils down the ways we really interact with one another.

The style of documentary that simply shows us people behaving over time lets us see this in action.

In one scene, restless young would-be “boxing king” Yunfei Miao seeks his hardworking mother’s blessing to pursue his boxing dreams. Struggling to contain her anger, she sees nothing but disappointment from him, and withholds her approval. If this were a DramaSystem scene, Yunfei would be the petitioner and his mother the granter. She shuts him down, and he earns a drama token.

In another scene, Yunfei tells his coach he’s taken a construction job. After briefly protesting that the young man still has the potential to win, he resigns himself to Yunfei’s decision. Here Yunfei seeks his coach’s emotional acceptance and, after some resistance, gets it. In this case, the coach’s player would get a drama token, for granting Yunfei’s request.

In another instance, the two young boxers sit on a bench in a shopping district girlwatching. The shier of the two, He Zhongli, both fears and admires Yunfei’s apparent superior skill getting phone numbers. He seems to be petitioning Yunfei for tips, but under the surface really seeks permission to be shy. Yunfei, lost in his own cockiness, scarcely notices what is being asked of him. In a DramaSystem scene, He’s player would snag a drama token from Yunfei’s.

Next time you’re watching a character study doc shot in this style, watch for the petitioner/granter structure and the movement of invisible drama tokens across the screen.

NASA’s Cassini probe has detected any icy object in Saturn’s rings that may be a nascent moon.

The small object may already be falling apart, making for a story less less impressive than the “baby moon” headlines suggest. So let’s fix that by ripping it from the science headlines for Ashen Stars.

The lasers snag a contract to investigate and retrieve the object of an unusual theft. The Xeno-Eco Foundation a balla-run organization created to curb environmental crimes in the Bleed, hires the crew to find out who stole a moon. Remote probes located in the Athos Outzone detected the formation of a new moon in the rings of the gas giant Ninurta. They also spotted what looked like a battered hauler entering the rings, capturing it with a tractor beam, and taking it away. In accordance with Combine anti-poaching laws, the Xeno-Ecos want the moon pirates identified and their ship destroyed. As a bonus, they hope that the lasers can restore the moon to its rightful spot around Ninurta.

The twist comes when the lasers use stellar forensics to track the missing moon to its new location just outside the absorption zone of a black hole. The hauler that stole it belongs to the ragtag, wayfaring fleet of a nufaith colony. Its adherents believe that Ninurta is the material manifestation of an evil goddess destined to devour the known galaxy. Whenever Ninurta births a moon, they believe, it is their duty to take it away and destroy it, before it blossoms fully into a marauding engine of death that will eventually undo the big bang and unravel the universe. As the lasers arrive, sect leaders have commenced the multi-day ritual, after which they’ll tip the baby moon into the black hole.

How do the lasers reconcile the conflict between ecological protection and sincerely held religious belief?

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