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Ashen Stars Cover
Ashen Stars is the ENnie and Golden Geek-nominated SF GUMSHOE game from RPG legend, Robin D. Laws.

They call you lasers. Sometimes you’re called scrubbers, regulators, or shinestars. To the lawless denizens of the Bleed, whether they be pirates, gangsters or tyrants, you’re known in less flattering terms. According to official Combine terminology, the members of your hard-bitten starship crew are known as Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators. You’re the seasoned freelancers local leaders call when a situation proves too tough, too baffling, or simply too weird to handle on their own. In the abandoned fringe of inhabited planets known as the Bleed, you’re as close to a higher authority as they come.

In this gritty space opera game, the PCs are Lasers, freelance troubleshooters and law enforcers operating in a remote sector called the Bleed. They’re needed in the wake of a massive retreat by the Combine,  the utopian empire that colonized it. Amid the ashes of a devastating war, the lasers solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space—all on a contract basis. They balance the immediate rewards of a quick buck against their need to maintain their reputation, so that they can continue to quickly secure lucrative contracts and pay the upkeep on their ship and their cyber- and viroware enhancements.

Featuring seven new and highly detailed playable species -

  • The eerily beautiful, nature-loving, emotion-fearing balla
  • The cybes, former humans radically altered by cybernetic and genetic science
  • The durugh, hunched, furtive ex-enemies of the Combine who can momentarily phase through solid matter.
  • The humans, adaptable, resourceful, and numerous. They comprise the majority of a typical laser crew.
  • The kch-thk, warrior locust people who migrate to new bodies when their old ones are destroyed.
  • The armadillo-like tavak, followers of a serene warrior ethic.
  • The vas mal, former near-omnisicent energy beings devolved by disaster into misshapen humanoid form.

Ashen Stars also contains extensive, 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 in the Bleed.

Read feedback, reviews and see sample chapters here.

Status: Out Now. Includes PDF.

Price: $44.95

Buy

Do not expect your quest for vengeance against the interstellar arch-criminal Quandos Vorn to be met with universal equanimity. Especially uninterested in the havoc you may wreak while doing so are the Gaean Reach various officials and gatekeepers. Here appear reasons they might give you for dragging their feet or refusing cooperation entirely. Be prepared in advance to refute them.

  1. I recently supplied some information of a like nature and am now being sued. Can you idemnify me against all legal exposure? Do not reply; the question is rhetorical.
  2. By expressing yourself so violently, you have engaged in active ill-feeling. Please be advised that emotional assault contravenes local law.
  3. Though apparently sound on a practical basis we need to know more about the philosophy underpinning your proposal. Please refer to the attached style sheet for information regarding the format of the required essay.
  4. I’m afraid that your application to hunt Quandos Vorn has been queued for future attention, as many others claim the right to bring about the same result. We must not show favoritism.
  5. Due to mental disability I am unable to remember requests. Though I do not discourage you from making them I am obliged to warn you that all effort shall prove bootless.
  6. I shall attend to your requests with maximum dispatch. To which planet shall I mail the results of my inquiries? What? No, I’m sorry, responses may not be mailed to the planet of request. Labor relations demand strict adherence to this policy.
  7. Religious scruples prevent me from taking action before the Ides of Yench.
  8. I have already accepted bribes to stop you from proceeding. The suggestion that I would go back on prior promises traduces my honesty.
  9. Lest I be accused of entertaining the receipt of bribes, your request must be heard in the presence of a bureaucratic chaperone. I shall put in a requisition for such services. Typical wait time is four to six weeks.
  10. Quandos Vorn? Incised on the form here it clearly says Quandos Chorn. A common input-output error of the form inciser, but needless to say we must start over.
  11. I will be frank and say that the thought of satisfying your entreaty terrifies me.

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.

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk holy ashes, Mary Sues, a GUMSHOE fallacy and Immanuel Velikovsky.

Super Mad

Super Man

In fiction, supporting characters often function as reflections of the protagonists. As we know from DramaSystem, main characters in a dramatic story can be defined as torn between two competing impulses. In the game we call these Dramatic Poles.

In Hamlet, our title character is torn between Action and Contemplation. And wouldn’t you know it, two minor characters exist in relationship to him, each of them expressing one of those poles alone.

Horatio reflects Hamlet’s contemplative side—he is all thought and caution, and thus (spoiler) the one who survives to tell the tale.

Fortinbras marches through seemingly only to prick Hamlet’s guilt about his inaction. Later he also helps provide closure at the end. Tellingly, the last interaction is between the two foils, Horatio and Fortinbras, indicating that Hamlet’s story is done, his story having been fatally resolved in favor of action.

In Casablanca, Rick’s dramatic poles are the ever-popular Selfishness vs. Altruism.

Laszlo (Paul Henried) serves as the foil who is purely altruistic—almost annoyingly so, since we want Ilsa to be available to resume her relationship with Rick.

Claude Rains as Captain Renault reflects the opposite pole, supplying cinema’s most delightful portrayal of pure selfishness. Notably, he too flips to altruism at the end. (Whoops. Another spoiler. Hey, it’s been out for six decades.)

Villains and mentors sometimes also serve as foils. To cite a more nerdly example, you could argue that if Luke’s poles are Light Side vs. Dark Side, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader each represent one of them. (Really Star Wars is a procedural with a few nods to drama, so the analogy breaks down when squinted at too hard.)

As a DramaSystem player, you can give your GM something to work with by inventing and interacting with supporting characters who each embody a single one of your poles.

As a GM, you can conceive of supporting characters as foils, pushing a character toward whatever pole she’s currently neglecting.

So if your Hillfolk game includes a chieftain torn between expediency and mercy, his supporting character foils might be:

  • Hard-Talker, a grim-faced, veteran adviser who always argues for the cruel but effective course
  • Petal, the fresh-faced priestess who speaks up for forgiveness

Often you can retrofit a supporting character created on the spur of the moment to fulfill a need in one scene, adjusting her so that she becomes a long-term foil.


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.

Illustration: Jonathan Wyke

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk creativity rewards, sanity and atrocity, lightning round, and a worse WWI.

Worldview

Worldview

                                                                                                                                     ROB_tile

by Rob Heinsoo     

Jonathan and I had two overarching goals when we designed 13th Age. First, we wanted to create the game we wanted to play together, and hoped that other people would want to play it too. Second, we intended to give people who were already busy playing other games new tools they could use to improve their games. Examples of the new tools include the escalation die, the One Unique Thing, and icon relationships.

What may not be readily apparent about the upcoming 13th Age in Glorantha supplement (presently in Kickstarter mode)  is that it maintains both of our original goals for 13th Age. First, 13th Age in Glorantha (13G) is our ticket to enjoy Gloranthan gaming in our preferred d20-rolling/indie-storytelling style. Second, some parts of 13G will be phrased as notions that people playing other games could loot. Glorantha is very much its own world, and the focus will be on presenting Glorantha, but there are aspects of Glorantha that other games could have figured out how to loot a long time ago, and somehow didn’t.

This article takes one of the key elements of Gloranthan adventure, the forays into the world of myth known as heroquests, and explains how heroquests can play a role in 13th Age games played in the core setting of the Dragon Empire . . . . and by extension, any 13th Age games played with their own unique icons.

 

When in Glorantha . . . . .

In Glorantha, heroquesting takes you across to the Other Side, the timeless world of the gods, the Godtime in which the world was created and nearly destroyed. When things are going right, you tap into a story in which your god (or perhaps just an ancient Godtime heroine) gains power, or wisdom, or accomplishes some great thing for the world, or at least for your clan or for your river valley or maybe just for the magic shield you discovered in a ruin that you think might be connected to a story of the great guardian god Elmal! (When things are going wrong, you aren’t quick or powerful or knowledgeable enough and some aspect of the heroquest kicks your ass and punts you out of the Godtime damaged or disturbed or dead.)

 

. . . and in the Dragon Empire

The Gloranthan version of heroquesting doesn’t translate directly to the core setting of the Dragon Empire. We deliberately set the gods far away from the world to make room for the icons. No gods in the Dragon Empire heroquests then—but the icons work perfectly as the central characters in the stories that will supply the Dragon Empire’s heroquests.

There were two reasons we chose the 13th age as the setting for our game. The first, of course, is that 13 is ominous, 13 is the number that tells you that the player characters’ lives will be complicated.  The second reason is that setting our game in the 13th age of the world gives gamemasters and players almost unlimited freedom to invent stories about what happened in the world’s past.

Heroquesting in the Dragon Empire isn’t about intersecting with stories of the gods. Heroquesting in the Dragon Empire is about using the power of an icon you are involved with to cross over into legends involving the earlier incarnations of your icon. In the world of legend, you interact with the stories that shaped the icon’s power, you participate in battles that shaped the world. As in the bizarre environments of our setting’s living dungeons, heroquests don’t always follow the logic that governs the rest of the world.

I suspect that Dragon Empire heroquesting usually involves performing a ritual at a location tied to the original legend you are trying to quest into. The location requirement is important to the GM, because it sets up plots in which the characters need to travel to specific locations, clean them out, and keep them secure long enough to perform the ritual. Heroquests may occur in the world of legend, but you’ve got to set them up specific locations in the land, the underworld, or the overworld, wherever the legend holds its power. (Gloranthan heroquests have similar geographic variables that may require dangerous adventuring before you can even cross into the dangerous world of the myths.)

This isn’t the place for a heroquest system. That’s coming in 13th Age in Glorantha. For now, here is one outline of the type of fun heroquesting will add to Dragon Empire campaigns that want to cross over there.

 

The Emperor’s Winter

In some campaigns, the strongest imperial legends concern the Blessed Emperor, who threw down the Wizard King and who tamed the Midland Sea. In other campaigns every Emperor’s reign is notable for the legends he emphasizes to reinforce the power of his rule.

Here’s an example of a powerful legend from the middle centuries of the Empire, a story from the 7th Age known as The Emperor’s Winter.

 

Sometime in the 7th Age, the frost giants invaded the Empire by freezing all the rivers that came down from the mountains. The giants followed their new roads of ice, advancing ever closer to the Midland Sea. The Empire fought back but was defeated again and again by the frost giants on the rivers the giants had transformed into glaciers.

(Station One: Ice Rivers is a ritual that must be performed on a frozen river, preferably in the mountains. You and your allies slip into the world of legend and fight an ever-escalating battle down advancing ice-rivers against frost giants and their allies. The legend expects you to lose this battle, so even death in this battle doesn’t harm you much so long as you give a good account of yourself and slow the giants.)

 

All seemed lost, but the Emperor (some versions of the story say it was actually the Emperor’s champion, a bastard son who’d entered the legions as a paladin) donned magic shoes created for him by the Archmage and skated up the worst of the rivers of ice, catching the frost giant king (who has many diverse names, often depending on local encounters with frost giants) in the midst of a great feast in which he was dividing the sections of the empire between the strange members of his own court.

(Station Two: The Magic Shoes can follow immediately after station one or be started later at the mouth of any river that spills into the Midland Sea except the Bronze River that runs past Axis, because everyone knows the Emperor had to travel to get to the worst of the frozen rivers. Everyone knows that the magic shoes are in fact ice skates, but any participant in the ritual who misses a chance to talk about the magic shoes or slips up by using the word ‘skates’ greatly endangers the quest (increasing DCs by 5 and all defenses by 3). Note also that trying to use magic shoes/skates in the first station of the heroquest ruins the quest completely. This station of the quest is a sort of obstacle and endurance and evasion course. The central actor representing the Emperor must wear heavy armor as they move (skate!) up the frozen river of legend. Everyone else can wear what they like, except that all heroquesters must wear ‘magic shoes,’ and anyone flying generally also spoils the effect of the quest.)

 

One of the Emperor’s traveling companions used magic, or tricks, or god-gifts, to make the frost giants think that the Emperor and his party were also frost giants, come from far away to join the feast. After initial greetings and toasts, the Emperor asked if he might also have a share in the spoils of the Empire. The frost giant king grew churlish and refused him, saying that the victory was his alone. The Emperor dropped the magic concealing his identity and replied that the giant was no true monarch, but that it was just as well that he had not dared to try to make a gift of something he did not own to the land’s true owner. They fought and the Emperor slew the frost giant king and most of the giant’s followers. The rivers of ice melted and until the end of the age, the Emperor could summon or banish winter as he wished.

(Station Three: Winter’s True Ruler must follow immediately after station two. Its first passages require trickery and illusion. No one likes to mention it to the current Emperor, but it’s likely that followers of the Prince of Shadows are extremely helpful in this portion of the heroquest. They might have been around from the beginning. The finale is a perilous frost giant battle enlivened with ice party extravaganzas, and characters who take a moment to loot instead of fighting with every breath can sometimes find treasures that the frost giants never meant for tiny mortals.)

 

Succeed with the quest and you increase the Emperor’s power over giants and the natural or supernatural forces of winter. Fail and relationships that should have remained strong grow cold, both in your lives and and between pieces of the Empire that should have remained in contact.

Why might the quest of The Emperor’s Winter come to matter in your campaign? Perhaps it’s simply that the Archmage’s failing wards against the worst of what nature has to offer need help. Or perhaps the PCs have taken a campaign loss, allowing the frost giants to complete a great magic spell that ushers in yearlong winter. Or perhaps the icon/dragon known as the White has resurfaced in Moonwreck and something has to be done to put a stop to the great icesheets creeping down from the north.

 

Back in Glorantha

In the 13th Age in Glorantha book, heroquests like The Emperor’s Winter will appear complete with playable stats, variants, rewards, navigation challenges for performing the stations of the myth out of order, and the myriad surprises and special wrinkles that make each myth special.

Some Gloranthan quests will translate easily to the Dragon Empire. Many others won’t translate so smoothly. But every Gloranthan heroquest will contain elements that could be used inside quests or adventures of your own composition. You can use 13th Age in Glorantha as a key to open your version of a wonderful game world, or you can use even Glorantha’s unique heroquesting as a toolbox to tinker with your own campaigns and worlds.

 

In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk assassins, breaking into game design, contrivances and synarchy.

Anger

Anger

logogumshoeSee P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

As a general rule, writers learn to avoid repetition. In the immortal words of David Byrne, say something once, why say it again?

When writing roleplaying material I have to keep reminding myself to strategically violate that general rule.

If there’s one thing playtesting has taught me, it’s that you can write a rule or piece of guidance once, twice, or even three times and still have readers miss it. And roleplayers belong to a pretty elevated class of readers.

But roleplaying texts are dense, and are often read in a non-linear order.

Also, some best practices, even ones we all think we know deep down in our gaming bones, remain elusive in the heat of the moment. Basic common sense they may be, but playtest comments remind us that they need constant hammering home.

One of them is that, although scenarios link clues to a specific ability or abilities, the players can always get the clue if they present you with a credible alternate method. This means credible for the genre, not for our prosaic reality.

Another point you might consider basic to the hobby but nonetheless frequently requires reinforcement is that the GM may have to improvise new material, from minor details to whole scenes and branches, in response to unexpected player choices.

Along with these, here are two more things I often find myself writing into GUMSHOE scenarios, wondering if I should prune them back in favor of a general word in the introduction. In the end I wind up putting each reference back in. Because they can’t, it turns out, be repeated quite enough.

In Response to Specific Questions

A block of scenario text will often provide a set of bullet points a particular witness, suspect or other target of Interpersonal abilities might provide. For example:

After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou says:

  • He was down at the docks to collect a debt from a guy. You know, the kind of debt you collect at 2 am on a lonely pier.
  • He found the mope he was looking for and was in the middle of applying persuasive means to his sensitive parts when a strange glowing figure flew overhead.
  • It had arms and legs and a head, like a person, but was real long and stretched out, with a set of what looked like freaking moth wings.
  • The glow reminded him of a firefly, except it was all over and not just coming from one place.
  • He was so distracted he let the guy go to chase after it.
  • It looked like it landed between the warehouse and the propane depot over there, but by the time Lou got to the spot it was gone already.

I always wind up inserting a phrase into that intro line, so it goes like this:

After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou answers specific questions as follows:

This serves several purposes.

One, it encourages you as GM to break up the information into bite-sized pieces. The scene becomes a back-and-forth between you and the players and not a pause to paraphrase or read text from the scenario.

Two, it requires the players to do more than name the Interpersonal ability they’re using and sit back for a flood of exposition. They still have to ask the right questions to get the info they need.

I’d like to treat this as a given but the lure of text on paper makes it all to easy to forget to keep it interactive.

No Need to Squeeze the Rind

The basic area-clearing adventure many of us cut our teeth on instilled certain expectations about the amount of scenario text that actually comes into play at the gaming table.

In a dungeon crawl, the PCs might miss out on entering particular rooms. But once in a chamber, you expect most of the stuff listed in its entry to happen: the heroes fight the monsters, encounter the traps, and strip the room for loot. Later innovations, like “taking 20” in D&D 3E and its heirs, go further to ensure that everything that can happen in a room, does.

In an investigative scenario, the writer needs to cover more material than any one group will ever uncover. GUMSHOE gives players lots of information, requiring them to sort out the incidental and flavor facts from the core clues required to move to the next layer of the mystery. It must anticipate the most common questions a group will ask.

But that doesn’t mean that any one group will ask all the questions the scenario answers. Some may efficiently ask only the one or two germane questions and move on. Others will pose every query they can think of. No two groups will come up with same list of queries. In a well-designed scenario the logic of the situation leads the players to ask the question that prompts the witness to mention the core clue.

By its very nature, any adventure genre scenario that allows for plot branching has to include text for more scenes than any one run of that scenario will touch on. If it gives you the option to form a bond with the vicar over your mutual interest in pagan sculptures, but no one in the group chooses to pursue that, that’s the price of true choice. Even if the scenario writer included some really cool stuff featuring the vicar.

The players haven’t failed to engage in all possible interactions. They’ve made the choice to interact with other things—the family who live near the graveyard, or the folklorist staying with them at the inn, or whatever.

Nor has the scenario failed to force them to do everything. If an adventure eventually requires you to exhaust every alternative, they’re not really alternatives.

A scenario that provides freedom and choices must include more material than any single group could possibly activate. If that means you as GM see the potential for cool scenes that your players never touch, that’s not just acceptable. That’s a non-linear scenario working as designed.

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