Role Playing Game (2011). Pelgrane Press. Designed by Robin D Laws.
Ashen Stars is a Space Opera game which – like Trail of Cthulhu (2008), an earlier work which makes use of the same core mechanics – focuses on the solution of mysteries. As in Trail of Cthulhu, player characters can fail at any task except those required to reveal a clue relevant to their current conundrum. Discovering the truth behind the peculiar events with which sessions of the game generally begin is thus a problem for the players' intellects alone, as if they were reading a detective novel and attempting to guess the ending (see Crime and Punishment). Many of the puzzles encountered by the players will not be the result of criminal activity, however, but rather the kind of unexplained natural phenomenon or xeno-archaeological mystery often encountered in Hard SF novels or episodes of Star Trek. While early sf RPGs such as Traveller (1977) typically drew their inspiration from sources in the written genre, this game's background shows the influence of such examples of visual sf as Alien (1979), Farscape (1999-2003, 2005) and Firefly (2002). It is set in a broken Utopia, in the aftermath of a devastating war between a benign galactic alliance and an alien invasion in which collateral damage has been inflicted on reality itself. The victors – who are what remains of the peaceful pre-war coalition – find themselves short of resources, struggling to maintain their civilization, and unable even to remember the precise nature of the enemy, for reasons which remain obscure (see Amnesia). In frontier regions law enforcement has been outsourced to private contractors who must balance the desire to see justice done with the need to make a profit; the player characters are members of one such group.
The game's design consciously sets out to mimic the tone of a grimmer revision of an optimistic twentieth century TV series, as was done by the makers of the reconstructed Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009). It could perhaps be epitomized as a vision of what the future of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) might become, after the Fall. (In terms of the history of Role Playing Games, Ashen Stars might be seen as a darker reimagining of Star Frontiers .) Nevertheless, the milieu is original, with a multiplicity of sentient Aliens – including a Transcended race which has been forcibly Devolved to a mortal state and a locust-like species which practises "hunger tourism" – as well as Biologically and Cybernetically enhanced Posthumans, a religion which claims the universe requires rebooting by a superintelligent AI, and synthetic cultures which deliberately reenact past atrocities. Games of Ashen Stars are intended to revolve around conflicts between self and others, cynicism and idealism. Arguably, its themes echo the politics of privatization, in which a scarcity of resources leads public bodies to pursue communal goals by competitive, individualistic means. [NT]
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