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.
New creature for The Esoterrorists
The membrane between this world and the Outer Dark is everywhere. Even inside your computer. That’s where seepers break through. They sense the particular stink of paranoia and latent aggression stoked on the Internet’s blackest shoals. When you drink in conspiracy theory or wallow in mythologies of victimhood, they wriggle from the swirling chaos into your CPU, out through your motherboard, and into your keyboard cable. Using a wireless keyboard? A seeper is fine with that; it can transmit itself along your wi-fi connection. As you spiral down the rabbit hole of electronic disinformation, as you type your screeds against the government and You Know Which Ethnic Group, the seeper works its way under your fingernails and into your bloodstream. 9/11 was an inside job!
Once it infests you, the seeper doesn’t turn you into a rampaging maniac. Instead you become a vector for madness. You take that extra step from posting and commenting on conspiracy theories and start to network in person with fellow believers. When you meet an especially unstable hanger-on in the world of fringe politics, the seeper floods your brain with endorphins. Unconsciously seeking that biochemical reward, you befriend damaged, repellent people you’d normally shun. The seeper uses you as a broadcast beacon, intensifying the fragility of its secondary target. It might even require you to do things behind your new friend’s back to worsen his life and drive him further to the edge. Maybe you “accidentally” let his boss find out about his white supremacist views. Or you tell a story on him that gets him kicked out of his responsible gun club, or pushes him away from the one family member who still keeps tabs on him.
That way, when the secondary target embarks on his kill spree and shoots himself in the heart when cornered, or takes a sniper shot to the head, the seeper remains alive and in this world. You go on television to decry the way the media is exploiting this tragedy to score cheap political points. You mourn your friend and cultivate your sense of martyrdom.
Eventually the seeper impels you to move to another city, where it draws you to its next secondary victim. It teaches you to be careful, so no one ever puts it together, IDing you as the common factor connecting two, three or even four spree killers. Meanwhile, the seeper grows psychically fat on the grief and carnage it causes, sending its energy back through the membrane to grow offspring, which wait for their own chance to stoke the spree-kill epidemic.
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.’
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.
- 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.
- By expressing yourself so violently, you have engaged in active ill-feeling. Please be advised that emotional assault contravenes local law.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Religious scruples prevent me from taking action before the Ides of Yench.
- I have already accepted bribes to stop you from proceeding. The suggestion that I would go back on prior promises traduces my honesty.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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
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.