An Extract from Ashen Stars by Robin D. Laws
They call you Lasers. Or scrubbers, regulators, or, out in the Scylla Outzone, 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 federal authority as they come.
Sometimes that’s not saying much. Nearly any planetsider can tell you a horror story of effectuators gone wrong. Motivated by profit and operating on razor-thin margins, Laser crews are all too tempted to cross the line, to become the kind of scum they’re paid to hunt. You may despise the crooked contractors who give your profession a bad name and make it harder to win the trust of honest citizens. Or you might be hanging on the edge of corruption yourselves. However deep your ethical commitments, you struggle to maintain at least the appearance of a sparkling reputation. The value of your next contract depends on it.
The Bleed wasn’t always the untamed fringe it is today. Less than a generation ago, it was the glamorous frontier of an interstellar, culture-spanning government dedicated to peace, understanding, and self-determination. The Combine, an amalgamation of interstellar empires founded two centuries ago, had achieved its apex. With humanity at the forefront, its united peoples expanded throughout the dense belt of solar systems then known as the Wave. Sleek, generously manned star vessels patroled its FTL corridors, keeping the peace, confronting anomalies, and solving problems. Shielded by their universal ideology of cooperation, the peoples of the Wave slumbered safe in their beds.
Then came the Mohilar War. For the first time in a century, the Combine faced an enemy strong enough to threaten its very existence. The Mohilar arose suddenly, on planets throughout Combine space, which were thought to be uninhabitable. Due to a bizarre psychic effect dubbed the Bogey Conundrum, memories of the Mohilar race have grown indistinct and contradictory, even though the last of them vanished less than a decade ago. What they did is remembered all too well. Mastering a strange and incompatible material technology, they roused vast war fleets, attacking without warning or mercy. They rampaged through Combine space. The atmospheres of its core planets, including Earth, were irreparably poisoned. Billions of civilians died, on both sides. Industrial production flatlined, provoking economic collapse in a society that had transcended the need for currency. The Combine’s glittering fleets of patrol vessels, pressed into unfamiliar service as military ships, were largely destroyed.
Seven years ago, the war ended. After suffering a surprise defeat in a decisive last-ditch engagement at Myndaro Station, the Mohilar abruptly vanished. Fears of their return remain high. In the meantime, a reconstituted, decentralized Combine has begun the tortuous process of rebuilding its economy, government, and war fleet.
Barely able to administer its surviving core worlds, the Combine has abandoned central control over its far-flung frontiers. More than any other sector, the once-proud Bleed has been left largely on its own. Combine vessels venture here only in direst emergency—usually to investigate signs of a possible Mohilar resurgence. The Bleed’s various planets are now essentially autonomous, though united by a common currency and various economic and cultural ties.
The old duties of Combine patrols are now outsourced to private contractors like you.
You may cruise around the spacelanes waiting to respond to emergency distress calls. This activity, known as “swooping”, is looked down on by higher-end Lasers, who pick and choose their missions. Through this procedure, a distress call is routed through a Combine outpost. The outpost then sends a proffer to all registered Laser ships within hailing range. Each ship bids on the contract. The Combine authorizes the winner to proceed to the site of the call and solve whatever problem the locals report. The bid system takes into account the reputations of the bidding vessels, giving the scrubbers incentive to keep it honest. Or what passes for honest in the Bleed.
It is the year 2468.
5 years ago, in 2463, the Mohilar War ended.
17 years ago, in 2451, the Mohilar War began.
206 years ago, the Combine formed, in the halycon year 2262.
276 years ago, in the wondrous and awful year of 2192, humanity encountered its first sentient alien species, the tavak, and promptly went to war with them.
330 years ago, in 2138, humankind discovered the secrets of faster-than-light travel and began to colonize other planets.
A detailed history starts on p. 163.
What You Did In the War
Sooner or later, players will want to establish what their PCs did during the war. You might choose to start with this decision and envision your character around it, or find a likely answer after establishing other facts about your Laser, for example: crew position, species, and or drive. Your wartime activities might explain how you gained the training that made you the ultra-competent problem-solver you are today. The list is not exclusive; players are free to find answers that don’t appear on it. Your character:
- Fought the Mohilar as a member of the Combine fleet
- Fought planetside as an infantry soldier or officer in Combine forces
- Fought in a local militia
- Fought Mohilar invaders as an irregular or partisan
- Saw action while serving in a non-combat or support role, for example as medical officer or military policeman
- Served as a civilian in Combine administration; positions might range from high (Assembly Command) to low (local government in a Bleed backwater)
- Bribed or finagled your way out of military service
- Was called up for duty but granted conscientious objector status
- Was deemed medically unfit for military service
- Was imprisoned as a criminal or deserter
- Served the war effort as a scientific researcher, developing anything from weapons to new battlefield cures
- Spent the war hospitalized for a debilitating but now-cured condition, physical or mental, possibly caused by Mohilar bioweapons
- Was too young to fight (and is therefore a young adult today)
- Was trained to fight, but stationed planetside in an obscure location and saw no action
- Worked as civilian in a crucial industry
- Was a swirling energy being untethered from limited notions of space, time and causation (standard answer for all vas mal.)
The Ashen Stars setting pursues a balance between the new and the recognizable that is essential to successful space opera roleplaying.
Nods to beloved genre themes and imagery provide players with the baseline of familiarity they need to orient themselves. Keying from these elements, they can make reasonable guesses about the sorts of actions their characters ought to be taking when faced with the game’s mysteries and challenges. On top of this necessary accessibility we layer offbeat elements to keep the experience fresh and a little bit strange. For example, wetware and cyberware technology are not commonly thought of as space opera elements, because they entered the SF lexicon relatively recently. Their pervasive use in this setting adds an outward dash of alien-ness to even its human characters.
In dusting the enjoyably familiar with a thin coat of strangeness, we’re helping you follow today’s most common and effective pop culture strategy. The most successful properties dare to be simple. They drink deep from the well of classic storytelling. They put just enough of a spin on their time-honored devices to let us see past their debt to what has gone before. Call it the willing suspension of originality.
We might smirk when we spot a borrowed or repurposed element summoned from the space opera collective consciousness. It is a weird duality of the geek tribe that we relentlessly condescend to the entertainment we nonetheless love.
Deprive us of our genre touchstones, however, and we feel confused or cheated. In roleplaying we especially need these shared assumptions; they’re the building blocks, the shorthand, from which collaborative narrative springs.
The setting earns its homages by commenting on the themes of the genre. Most notably, its core theme is the conflict between utopianism and bitter reality, and who we become when we have to choose between the two.
Within any given group you’ll find different levels of attraction to core genre elements. GMs can adjust their portrayal of the Ashen Stars setting to match their responses. This is a tricky and ongoing process. Some players think in genre tropes. A few really want a wholly unfamiliar world. Most think they want more originality than they really do. For a group with avowedly classical tastes, you can throw in constant, thinly disguised hat tips to classic TV shows and movies. In other groups you might need to scrub out anything that seems like a reference or recapitulation of something they already know.