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The Ashen Stars are right

S. Ben Melhuish • Wednesday, April 18, 2012 • filed under shelves

Robin Laws has written some of the most interesting parts of my game shelves. From games like HeroQuest and The Dying Earth to essays about gaming and storytelling (Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and Hamlet’s Hit Points), he applies a thoughtful and methodical approach to his works.

One of his more recent game systems is called Gumshoe. Not a game in itself, the system is appropriate as the infrastructure for any investigative procedural game. Laws started with the realization (not unique to him) that a game grinds to a halt if a critical clue goes undiscovered due to an unlucky Search or Interrogate roll. He then built a system around this.

Most importantly, if a character has a relevant skill, he or she will always receive the a clue that is necessary to proceed with the investigation. Merely having the Search skill will let the character find the note tucked under the mattress; the Architecture or Magical Theory skill will let the character realize the temple focuses its energies to bind a demon; etc. Characters have pools of points associated with their skills; spending points will let them accomplish this with in-game benefits (they discover this more quickly, or in a way that impresses an important NPC), or will let them find “non-core” clues that will similarly help their investigation beyond the basics. (The system also has a non-investigative side, mostly geared to staying out of the way, involving six-sided dice and similar point pools; this is a more traditional part of the system.)

The core of the Gumshoe system — critical clues are always found — is so important to an investigative game that it can (and should) be grafted onto any other system whenever possible. But it also serves as the core for several complete, independent games.

Trail of Cthulhu, by Kenneth Hite, takes the system and applies it to one of the classic investigative game settings, Lovecraftian horror. Hite is a master of the subject1, and clearly loves the material; one of the nice touches in the book, in classic Hite form, offers a half dozen or so versions of each entity, most mutually contradictory.

Many games include a sample scenario, which serves as a guideline to how the designer expects the various aspects of a game (both setting and system) to work. This is more important as games deviate more from the traditional. The scenario in Trail of Cthulhu serves well, with a gradual introduction to both the Gumshoe system and the horrors that face the investigators.

Another game using the system is Ashen Stars, by Laws himself, applying it to the space opera TV series genre (as exemplified, though he doesn’t state it in so many words, by Star Trek). The genre is often simply a dressed-up investigative procedural (the characters arrive on a planet, investigate a mystery, and solve it by the end of the episode), making it a natural fit for Gumshoe.

Laws imagined a TV series featuring a vaguely Trek-esque setting (human-dominated stellar empire with various iconic alien races). He then imagined a “gritty reboot” of that series, set in the future after a war has devastated the empire, leaving its farther reaches to fend for themselves. Ashen Stars is set in one of those backwater reaches of the former empire, featuring the characters as chartered law-enforcement-for-hire, traveling from one planet to another to earn fame and fortune.

This is very clever. It takes a traditional game setup (wandering adventurers searching for loot) and applies it to a setting with 21st-century sensibilities, shaping it as necessary to subtly nudge the players to create entertaining, genre-appropriate stories.

Ashen Stars, too, is supported by a sample scenario. It also has plenty of GM advice, including a step-by-step guide to creating “cases”, with such steps as “decid[ing] which player’s personal arcs will come into play in this episode” and “pos[ing] a choice for the [characters] between altruism and self-interest”.

As suggested by the title of this blog, I of course haven’t played either game, but I would love to run at least a one-shot of each.


  1. Among many other things, he has also written Tour de Lovecraft, a collection of essays about each of Lovecraft’s stories. [return]