Needed to take a break from redlining Changeling, and I've been reading this game as my before-bed book, so here we are.
The Game: Ashen Stars
The Publisher: Pelgrane Press
Degree of Familiarity: Some. I played it at Origins (I think) some years back. Might've been GenCon. Anyway, I remember very little about that game, which doesn't speak well of the experience. I seem to remember it was passable, but pretty lackluster. Hungover GM, maybe?
Books Required: Just the one.
Ashen Stars is a space opera game in the Gumshoe system, which isn't an immediate intuitive leap for me, but it makes sense. Characters are "lasers" - Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators - basically space cops or space Marshals. There's the usual chapter of history, but it goes by nicely (we don't get a play-by-play of the major battles of the war), and like a lot of Robin Laws games it doesn't define what it doesn't need to define.
Put another way, some aspects of the alien races' cultures are provided, but the players are invited to do a lot of that work in play, which is how I like to approach both sci-fi and fantasy. I like a bit of collaboration in my tea.
Anydangway, character creation. We start off by choosing a race. The game details "Seven Peoples," which is humans plus six alien races (though, really, everyone's an alien in space...or no one is. Deep). I think when I played this at the con I played a kch-thk, which are like big warrior mantises that eat everything (only they've agreed not to eat humanoid races anymore). So I don't want to make one of those or a human, I think. Hmm.
Well, I kinda like the balla. They're beautiful and ethereal and they feel emotions so strongly that if they don't control them (there's even a device they use to do it) they might slip into an extreme emotional state. By default, other species want to worship the balla, but the species' ethos teaches them that all species are equal and so they need to repress that "power." Yeah, this sounds fun.
Their names are two syllables and begin and end with vowels, so my laser will be named Ezha (long e, "zh" like the middle sound in "treasure," unstressed vowel like a schwa). I get boosts in three of: Botany, Geology, History (Balla) and Zoology. I think I'll wait to decide which three until it becomes relevant. I also get a bunch of cyberware and viroware that's better or worse for me, but again, that's a later step in the process.
Step Two is "assign crew packages." Everyone has a job they do dockside (while on a planet) and warpside (in space). I like that; it's nice for people to have jobs to do because it cuts down on redundancy and encourages niche protection. Anyway! What does Ezha do?
Warpside, I like Communications Officer (or "Hailer"). I'm basically responsible for receiving and routing communications with other ships, but that also lets me get into some psychological warfare with other ships and do PR. Now, you say, this might be an odd choice for a species that has to keep itself so in check, but that's exactly why Ezha likes it - in space, his species powers aren't an issue. This package gives me: Linguistics 1, Flattery 1, Reassurance 1, Decryption 1, Data Retrieval 1, Communications Intercept 6, Sense Trouble 4.
Then dockside. I think I'll play to my strengths and be the Survey Officer (or "Mapper"). Basically my job is to, well, survey, and be an explorer, cartography, species collector, and so forth. I like the idea of my character in a lab, running comms from there with a series of touchscreens, rather than in a cockpit. I need: Botany 1, Geology 1, Zoology 1, Astronomy 1, Bio Signatures 1, Chemistry 1, Energy Signatures 1, and Sense Trouble 4.
Now, all of these points come out of my totals later, so it's not like Night's Black Agents where I pay for the packages up front. That means I have to take Sense Trouble 4 and it covers both of these packages; I don't have to take 8 points.
In any case! Now I choose the rest of my Investigative Abilities. I get points based on how many players my "group" has, and since I'm sure there would be at least 5, I get a total of 21. I've already "spent" 12, which leaves me 9 left. This'll be easy.
OK, this game has a bunch of new ones, so I need to look those over. I'll take a point in Archaeology and Anthropology; seems appropriate to me as Mapper and as Hailer (predicting how people will respond). I think I should take one in History (Balla). I'll take Imaging; you figure he might set up cameras and sensors while planetside. That's 4; I have 5 left. I should take one in Negotiation. Ooh, I like this new "Respect" ability, too, and it seems very appropriate. I'll take a point each in Virology and Xenoculture, too. That leaves me 1 left; I'll put it Forensic Anthropology so I can do autopsies. I'll put my boosts in Geology, Zoology, and Botany. I don't see this guy as especially keyed in to his species' history.
Now I pick the rest of my general abilities. I get 75 points, but I've spent 10 (6 in Communications Intercept and 4 in Sense Trouble), so I have 65 left. Here we go!
Well, you're stupid if you don't take Athletics, so I'll put 4 there. Looks like I'd better take Emotion Suppression. I'll put 6 there. That takes me 55. I think I'd better know how to handle Ground Craft (5 points). Ooh, Health. I'll put 5 there. 45 points.
Preparedness! Oh, definitely. 6 points. Public Relations seems smart, given my job, so I'll 6 more there. That's 33 remaining. I'll bump Sense Trouble up to 8 (4 more points). I need something combatty, so I'll put 7 into Shooting (22 left). I'll put 5 into Shuttle Craft, 5 into Surveillance, and 7 into Viro Manipulation, but that still gives me 5 left. I'll put 3 more into Communications Intercept for a total of 9, and the remaining 2 into Emotion Suppression (8 total). Sounds good.
Now I choose my Drive, my motivation for going into adventure and being a laser. Every species has a unique one, but the balla one (Self-Exclusion) doesn't do it for me. Hmm. There are a couple that I like; Scientific Inquiry makes sense. But given Ezha's position as Hailer in addition to Mapper, I'm going with Chronicler. He's not just in it for the discovery, but he's making a travelogue of the planets he visits in addition to the people he meets. He channels emotion that way, by describing what he sees, he allows other people to feel in his place.
Step six would be to choose the ship, but that would be a group exercise. I think I'd want a ship with some range, kind of investigating shit on the "outer rim," as it were, but that's just off the top of my head. Otherwise I think I'll skip this.
Step seven is "choose tech and enhancements." In our hypothetical 5-player group, we'd get 108 credits to share. That doesn't divide evenly, which is sort of weird, but let's assume I'd have 20.
Well, I want a Dataloader, and it's a compatibility for balla, meaning it only costs 2 instead of 3. Likewise for a Headdisk, which lets me record anything I see or hear. That only costs me 1. I'll take a Headlight (useful for caves; 2 points), Nightvision (1 point), and hell yes a Pherotracker (I shoot someone and I can track them for the rest of the episode). That's 8 points of my 20.
Then I should look at viroware. It's basically special viruses that alter your DNA and let you do cool things. I'll take Thirdeye, which refigures the hairs on the back of my neck to let them transmit visual information to my brain; basically I get a bonus to Sense Trouble. I like that.
Well, that's as much money as I want to spend. Now I finish up by doing a personal arc. These are basically story hooks that affect my character and get woven into larger stories. I also give the GM open subplots, which I really like (though I have players who would struggle, I suspect).
My first one is become a famous explorer. Ezha wants to be known for his forays into the wild. My open subplot is "someone has a dangerous mission for me," basically giving me a chance to get cred while doing her dirty work.
Next up: find a place I can let go. Ezha understands the need for his people to remain in control, and he's good at it. But one of the reasons he likes the wild so much is that maybe, somewhere out there, there's a place he can succumb to the beauty of it all and be safe. My open subplot here is "smugglers spotted on remote world," which is pretty basic for this game anyway, but I think could play into this arc nicely.
Finally: reconnect with Amli. Amli was another balla, also a Hailer on a different ship. We never actually met in person but had a delightful chat while our ships were in proximity. Ezha really wants to talk with her again, but there was some unpleasantness that cut off our conversation and he's never managed to reconnect. Open subplot: "a garbled, fragmented transmission from her ship."
And that's it!