Thursday, December 20, 2012

Running the Ashen Stars One-Shot: Hacks and Complications

Talking about unsuccessful game experiments offers different insights from successful ones. I hack and change rules often- that’s how we ended up with playing and revising the same homebrew for the last 10+ years. I’ve talked in other posts about the odd reaction several groups I played with and ran for had with GUMSHOE, primarily in standard action resolution. They bought into the investigation side and the settings, but often disliked the d6-based mechanics. So I’ve considered a number of solutions to that problem. Prior to this I’d run GS for Esoterrorists, a spy-game hack, and Mutant City Blues. I’d also played in a Victorian-era campaign.

We had a break night after I wrapped up my FATE-based Scion campaign and before the players would be moving on to another GM’s Pathfinder game. I offered to run a one-shot for the five players available. I considered several options before ultimately deciding I wanted to try out Ashen Stars on them. I had the Dead Rock Seven anthology as well as the double-adventure Tartarus/Terra Nova. I settled on running the Terra Nova adventure since it seemed to rely least on knowledge of the setting and at first glance looked like something we could get done in an evening. It is a solid adventure, worth picking up.

Of the group, only one had played Gumshoe before. I decided I wanted to try out another standard resolution system. Since I’d played it for the first time recently and like the speed of it, I bolted on Savage Worlds’ mechanics. I used the sample characters from DR7. In order to calculate their die roll for a General Ability, they essentially raised it one die rank for every two points So if someone had a 1-2 in Preparedness, they used a d4. If they had a 5-6, they used a d8, etc. None of the players had played Savage Worlds, but if figured it would be just as easy as explaining the usual GS system, since it is disconnected from the investigative skills. I made a few other tweaks as well and offered the players some extra points to spend on both sides. I had a couple of handouts with the skill descriptions on them.

The session as a whole went fairly poorly, with more frustration and confusion than I’d seen in play for a number of years. I ended up stopping a little early since we had a ways to go and would have had at least another hour of frustrated play.

  • The group’s generally focused on fantasy. It has been years since we’ve done anything harder sci-fi. The most recent versions have been a brief HALO game, Star Wars, and Fallout. Switching to this from Scion, while the group was getting ready for a fantasy game may have contributed. I like the Ashen Stars setting, but it is one that rewards a longer campaign play. Even then, if I were to run, I’d probably dial down the number of alien races. As it was, the PCs had a lot to track about the setting- despite my attempts to reduce that.
  • Related to that, when I handed out the characters, I gave them the background material from Dead Rock Seven. That meant everyone had to slow down and absorb that on top of the new and complicated character sheet. I could have probably skipped that or put a short descriptive post-it note on each one. I also suggested no one take the pilot character, since the adventure would have less of that. Announcing that was a misstep on my part- it pointed to players with back-up piloting skills that those wouldn’t be as useful. I should have skipped mentioning that (since there were plenty of other skills which might see marginal use) or have figured out a way to bring those into the scenario.
  • Two large sets of differently operating skills combined with weird and obscure names for those skills absolutely killed people. They zoned. I went through those as best I could and distributred handouts. But some of the terminology present isn’t immediately intuitive. It fits with the setting and offers depth, but for a one-shot it elicited confusion, constant questions, and frustration. Having so many skills felt overwhelming. The granularity of those skills made the players unsure about what they could or could not do. Details for PCs races and implants compounded the problem. If I’d be more experienced with the setting and rules perhaps I could have alleviated those issues, but I’m not sure I could have fully fixed it with a group coming in cold.
  • The structure of a one-shot invites looser and less concerned play. That’s a good thing to me. It also makes the players acutely aware that this isn’t something they’re going to be going back to. Other structural issues also affected the run: we got started late, we took a break for food, and everyone seemed more prone to wisecracks and giggles throughout the night. As a GM had a couple of choices- go with it and just goof or try to drive things back onto the rails. I chose the latter- and with another set of mechanics I think I might have been able to do it. But I got sidetracked as well often, so it may well be that I’d goofed things up in terms of tone right from the start.
  • Terra Nova’s a good mystery- but I don’t think that great as a first adventure. It is more complicated and challenging for the GM than it first appears. It puts the players into corners in a couple of ways and has some central mysteries that require several complicated pieces to put together. It also needs a full four-hour session to play out well. It would make a solid third or fourth adventure for an Ashen Stars campaign. I should have chosen a slimmer scenario with a clearer and firmer through-line. That’s a misjudgment on my part.
  • Players, as usual, liked the approach to investigative skill- when they could figure out what a particular skill does. That continues to be something I’ll be borrowing for every game I run.
  • Players also liked the Savage Worlds resolution system once they grasped it. It was fun, fast, and dangerous. I will likely make this one of my go-to “pick-up game” systems (along with Unisystem).
  • Choose a less challenging module for a quick one-shot of Ashen Stars with players who hadn’t encountered Gumshoe before. That’s especially true where I knew we would probably have at most three hours of play.
  • Consolidate and rename the Ashen Stars skill lists on both sides. This isn’t a solution for campaign play, but purely to offer an approachable one-shot. Right now there are 46 Investigative Abilities, broken into three categories. I think no more than 18 could be approachable, in three groups. There are 31 General Abilities, with 9 being for specific races. I’d leave those latter ones off the sheet except for those races. I’d probably reduce those skills down to 12-15. Ideally I could get all the skills on one sheet- with equipment and a skill explanation on the back. I would also rename the skills so that someone coming into the game cold could easily grok their use. This wouldn’t be Ashen Stars, but instead Ashen Stars-lite. It would be a useful way to introduce the game to new players. I suspect I might take the same approach for one-shots and demos of the other GUMSHOE games from now on. That could work even if you stick with the existing challenge resolution system.

Most of this comes down to bad choices on my part. I could have and should have anticipated some of these problems. I ended up doing a poorer job of offering fun than I usually do (I hope). I continue to like GUMSHOE conceptually, and I enjoy all of the settings crafted for the game. It does, however, present some barriers to entry. That may be less for groups which play crunchier games or a wider variety of them. I still want to show off some of these to the players, but I will invest some more prep work next time before heading in. 


  1. I think one of the contributing mood-killers was the Hacking skill combined with system unfamiliarity. It's akin to Magic for people who don't know what hacking really is and only have Hollywood to guide them. Trying to use it to quickly close down alarms & surveillance aimed at ourselves--sure. But the frustration mounted when they wanted to use it to make the system do things -- and do things they weren't designed to do. Was it CyberPunk that handled hacking with Scripts or Modules -- little single-purpose abilities to mix and match in an assault on a system? Something like that strikes me as a better way. Those are easy to understand--what you can and can't do. And really, most hackers are called script-kiddies for a reason.

  2. Riffing on the Fear Itself list...

    • Xenoculture (anthro, archaeo, xenoculture, other culture stuff)
    • Biology (biology, botany, zoology and forensic anthropology)
    • Geology
    • History
    • Law
    • Linguistics
    • Forensic Psychology
    • Forensic Accounting

    • Scum and Villainy replaces Downside
    • Respect is part of Reassurance

    • Astronomy
    • Data Retrieval (includes Decryption)
    • Engineering (replaces Industrial Design, chemistry )
    • Forensics (includes evidence collection, kinetics and explosives)
    • Sensors (bio sig, energy sig, holo surveillance, imaging)

    1. yeah- that's about perfect, especially the consolidation of the Technical abilities.

  3. You may have needed to completely recreate the characters, to make the rules work better in the setting. Perhaps there is a sci-fi set of characters out there on the Internet that could have worked with less tweaking?

    When I have played Savage Worlds, I've only ever had the skills I know on my character sheet. No others.

    As to the pilot character, maybe not offering at all, instead of discouraging it, would have been better.

    Perhaps a more action based scenario would have worked for that group?