Action Begets Setting in Ashen Stars

Earlier I talked about the way every SF game calls for a unique setting, whether the designer likes it or not, because there isn’t a complete enough assumptions set to present a default universe.

Ashen Stars creates its setting to serve the action. This of course is how a creator in a non-interactive story form would create a new SF world—to make the story happen.

The action in Ashen Stars, as in any GUMSHOE game, is the investigation of mysteries. Alex Johnston got to this thought before I did: space opera TV shows are typically structured like other procedurals. An ensemble of characters confronts a situation, discovers more information about it, and then acts to bring about a resolution.

In Ashen Stars, then, the PCs solve interstellar mysteries.

From this observation arose the obvious brief for the setting: it had to feel like a procedural TV show that never was.

It also had to sidestep the traditional stumbling blocks we face when translating actual TV space opera properties to gaming.

Like their cop show counterparts, TV space opera problem solvers tend to operate within a command structure. This simplifies storytelling, especially the flow of exposition, and the division of screen time between cast members.

Command structures cause endless problems in an RPG context. Nobody wants to be bossed around. The player who gets to be the high-ranking officer usually lets the authority go to his head. In a game, you want the traditional consensus-based decision making, where each PC gets equal input.

So we needed a world where problem solvers operated as collectives, but which referred to the shows we all know and can tee off of.

Thus was born The Bleed, a remote sector of space formerly patroled by command-oriented problem solvers, but has now been abandoned. Why would this happen? Why, it must be that the once utopian interstellar empire has had to pull back, after a disastrous war. The people of the Bleed now have to hire freelance troubleshooters to solve their problems.

This fed back into the TV conceit. Today’s shows, in this age of recycled IPs, are often reboots that darken up previously sunny properties. So Ashen Stars would feel not only like a TV show, but like a grittier reimagining of a classic program. This allows gamers to have their classic tropes, but to readdress them up according to a more jaded contemporary sensibility.

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