Southlands Campaign Setting

Southlands Campaign Setting

This massive campaign setting-style book clocks in at 302 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 4 pages of ToC, 2 pages of KS-backer thanks, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 290 pages of raw content, so let's take a look!

I was a (hesitant) backer for this book's KS, but otherwise unaffiliated with the production of this massive tome. My book is mainly based on the print version, though the electronic version was consulted for the purpose of determining electronic functionality of e.g. bookmarks and the like.

What do I mean by "hesitant"? Okay, before we dive into this book's subject matter, a brief history lesson: I consider myself a pretty faithful fan of Kobold Press, ever since it was Open Design  -I own literally every supplement and even have, back when I actually wasn't dirt poor, acted as a high-level-patron to get my very own special, unique module. I *really* like Midgard and the evocative potential Kobold press brings to the table. Alas, Deep Magic, the previous big book, was a heartbreaking exercise for me (see my review of that book) and it took, frankly, quite some prodding to dive in. I had a minor windfall and invested that, back in the day, in this book, as a kind of "make it or break it"-test. Did it pay off? Let's see!

The Midgard campaign setting's allure, so far, did lie primarily in its dark fantasy Germanic/Slavic flair, somewhat expanded upon by the Argonaut-style adventuring in the Journeys-books, but yeah - the focus was arguably euro-centric and thus, I was very much interested to see how the respective mythologies and power-dynamics would interact with the massive Southlands. The first thing you'll notice, though, is that the structure and organization of this book eclipses that of Deep Magic by leaps and bounds: We begin this book with a deatiled history of the Southlands - and it is a glorious read.

No, really - I mean that - the history as presented already takes you right into this book's world; it's prose is evocative and makes you remember immediately what you wanted, what you craved in fantastical settings. Still, this is the general history, the time-line. The book also is suffused by small sideboxes, where an in-character narrator provides quotes as a guide and adventure hooks/bucket-lists for adventurers for the respective regions can be found. The book also provides 5 general, new races that can be found throughout the Southlands: Gnolls, Trollkin, Tosculi (see the advanced races-installment for more on the wasp-people), Nkosi (feline shape-changer humanoids) and Kijani (plant humanoids that seek to become mammalian). The races themselves are pretty powerful (plant-immunities, for example), but not excessively so - they should work within the context of most fantasy games, though, if your gunning for gritty gameplay, you may want to take a close look at them. An innovation used here for the first time (for the tosculi exclusively) and later expanded in the Advanced Races Compendium is advice on racial scaling - so yes, you can scale down the tosculi by a bit, though imho the race does not require this in all but the grittiest of games. On a nitpicky side, some races are "lopsided" with attribute bonuses allocated to physical attributes, so if you're like me and prefer your races with a strong suit in both physical and mental attributes, that may be something to be aware of.

It should be noted that ethnicities of regular races as well as age, height and weight tables are part of the deal here. Now the interesting component here, ultimately, does not lie in the crunch (though it is significantly more solid - kudos to the authors! The intriguing component, however, would be the seamless and smart integration of literally thousands of years of history within the mythology of Midgard as a whole - whether it's the origin of Boreas, the frigid northern wind and the tie to the survivors of sunken Ankheshel or Umbuso, the ancient empire of titans, fleeing from the domains of Wotan - the most intriguing aspect here is that this massive continent of pure historicity manages to weave its meta-narrative seamlessly into the overall context of Midgardian mythology, extending the diversity and organic feeling of the world by leaps and bounds. An interesting component is also how mythic rules are handled - as a basic tenet, they are considered to be the effects of remnants of divinity sparks, left behind by fallen pantheons and titans, which provides a nice in-game rationale for the existence of powers like that.

Now, it is after this that we focus on the first overall region, which would be Nuria Natal, the eternal realm - Nuria Natal, at first glance, seems very much like the pseudo-Egyptian realm, but it is distinct from e.g. Osirion and Khemit or similar realms in several key aspects, the first of which is the focus on the river that defines it - springing from a planar rift of the world-tree Yggdrasil, it blends the mythologies of the Nile and Midgardian theology in a truly distinct and unique vision. Similarly, the trope of undying godkings has a twist that goes far beyond what you'd expect - the legendary rulers of the land, semi-divinities and halfgods, have achieved a sense of immortality and may return from the grave to vanquish the foes of Nuria Natal, thus also explaining why the powerful, draconic sultanate Mharoti has failed to conquer this powerful nation. Similarly, the gods, while utilizing the themes of real world mythologies, never feel like simple carbon adaptations of real-world mythology, instead acting as a properly woven-in essential component of the vista portrayed.

Nowhere does this become more apparent than in Per-Bastet, the city of the everlasting cat, home of the deity...and basically a modern metropolis seen through the lens of the fantastic: A distinct patriotism unifies the quarters and their diverse residents, which contains gnolls and catfolk in abundance alongside werelions; from planar alleyways to a churning river of elemental-inhabited sand making its way through the chaotic jumble of the metropolis, the influence of Bastet, her church, the god-queen and her agents or the vampiric masterminds in the shadows, the vision of a true melting pot of fantastic ethnicities resonates with a character one usually only ascribes to real world cities. The writing here is impeccable and, much like the entries on a certain city and its necropolis, the staggering panorama extends in its quality throughout the whole chapter - from sandships as a vehicle-modification to a well-written ecology of the mummy (with ample variants and death curses), this chapter is abask in inspired writing and makes the places jump forth from the pages - whether they be the aforementioned places or the Ghatazi salt pits or the dreaded city of Per-Anu, devoted to ending lives in all manner of ways. The church of Aten and its diverse teachings, variant mummies, a city of undead and 4 archetypes (including archetypes for Theurge and White Necromancer) as well as a 10-level-PrC complement this chapter. While not universally awesome and sporting some minor deviations in rules-language, the content herein still is rather solid and well-ingrained within the context of the world. The book also sports multiple nice traits for further customization. The book also sports a HUGE number of hieroglyphs - these work akin to how rune magic or ankeshellian glyph magic work - and, while powerful, their limitations per associated cult do offer a rather easy way for the GM to control their availability - want that trick only followers of Anu-Akma have? Well, you better buckle up and join that organization!

The second, massive chapter details the nation under the auspice of the remaining wind lords, the same entities that sent Boreas packing with his aspirations of genocide - but that does not mean these eternal lords of the lands are kind - far from it. Their description very much makes clear that these elemental spirits do not adhere to the same morality as mortals. It is also in this domain that the twin lands of the gnolls (with a delightfully nasty gnoll-tactics sidebar) can be found. What do I mean by these? Well, here's an entry: "Three words: leucrotta sorceror chieftain." If you're like me, this made you grin from ear to ear. The pages chronicling these harsh regions also tell of a depressed sphinx and her honor guard watching over the verdant ruins of a fallen empire and of the fate of Roshgazi, minotaur-nation and Catharge-equivalent - the nation has been razed to the ground by Mharot's might, but in the ruins of this place, the sentient maze still draws visitors inside, hoping for salvation...before its other personality comes to the surface - and the "Broken" does not take kindly to intruders...

Goblin-occupied Mardas Vula with its black pyramid still exerts a lure on others and, wandering the sands, a colossal dire camel prophet sports howdah-like gnoll-encampments. The jinnborn race hearkens back to the genasi or planetouched and can be pictured as the elemental-themed mortals and the race sports quite a diverse and well-crafted array of options, including limited protection versus one's element, endure elements and elemental blasts that can be upgraded via feats. That being said, this is very much a strong race, stronger than the "core"-races of the book, so take care when using them. At the same time, I thoroughly enjoyed their unique psychology and culture...but still. At their pretty high power-level, I wished more abilities were alternate racial traits instead of jamming all those abilities into the base frame of the race. The archetypes here are interesting - an elemental-themed paladin, gnoll caravan raiders and janni-calling summoners can be found and a PrC depicting the elite guard of aforementioned sphinx priestess is part of the deal. The chapter, like those before and after, also sports several unique spells and magic items - the latter of which deserve special mention, after all, we get an enchanted bed of nails and several unique carpets. One belt should be eyed very carefully, as it lets you pilot willing outsiders, fusing your body with them, which is exceedingly powerful when not handled with care.

Beyond the dominion of the wind lords, the book finds its full-blown stride with the high jungles, where access to the fabled well of urd can be found, as powerful aeromancers guard the Black Lotus Mesa as intelligent white apes afflicted with arcane wasting prowl the jungles. More unique and perhaps one of the most awesome and disturbing components of the whole book would be the fact that an Old One, verdant and all-consuming, ever-growing, extends its tendril'd reach beyond the confines, ever seeking to mutate and grow - it should then come as no surprise that the nation of Kush has, in efforts to stem the tide, turned to all manners of magicks most dark - but it may not be enough, as the corrupted Kijani that couldn't escape its influence spread spore pods far and wide, creating horrid tendril slaves. The chapter also is a JOY to read due to an actually neat aeromancer archetype and, more than that, due to the vast array of hazards and the 8 lotus-types, which act as addictive, yes...but they also serve as powerful power components. This chapter is twisted, inspired and absolutely glorious.

The kingdoms of salt and steel, bustling and defined by commerce - here, the land of serpent-scholars beckons, while in the land of ancients, the living reliquaries roam. This section is not only brilliant for its take on themes usually not represented - a royal mythic naga lich rules over Ankhrimari, while the Narumbeki legions with their battle tactics and unique combat options represent a powerful militaristic force - the themes evoked here are seldom seen, borrowing heavily from Africa's mythologies, with magical masks and awesome incantations sweetening the deal, while powerful combat divinations make for a unique and compelling magical tradition.

On the Corsair Coast, the holy city Shuruppak beckons, while the city of Sar-Shaba contains horrific demonic legions, warded and sealed await intrepid adventurers. The fabulously wealthy island nation of Shibai and wicked corsairs can be found...but there is also the happiest land, Kesara, realm of the saffron rajah, where everyone smiles - a smile of desperation and fear, for the tyrannic rajah of the land is capricious and nasty indeed - a realm devoted to the decadence of the horrible rakshasa master that sits bloated on its throne. Fiercely meritocratic lion kingdoms of Omphaya, led by a returned titan and his rakshasa vizier may not be a nice place to visit either. - but it sure should prove interesting.

The heartlands of the Southlands, the abandoned lands contain vast stretches of desert - it is here that the massive, black towers of the disturbing hive-cities of the tosculi can be found. Why disturbing? Well, there is one that consists of the resin-hardened corpses of the fallen. Yes. Awesome and so perfectly evocative. Someone has also probably read China Miéville's excellent "The Scar", for there is a floating city in the style of Armada to be found. Mechanically, these lands are brutal, as the web of ley lines is damaged, which makes primal magic rather powerful...and excessively dangerous. The long-limbed Ramad are a balanced race sported here and significant ley line magic expansions and delightfully disturbing living tosculi items complement this evocative, harsh land as we turn our gaze southwards, to the fringe of the southlands, where dinosaurs roam and the minotaur nation of Sudvall stands guard. The xorn sultanate of Zanskar can also be found here...and should you hesitate to set a whole campaign in the southlands...did you know that one particular bottle contains a whole city of assassins? Yeah...if you don't come to the Southlands, they may well come to you.

The pdf's last chapter is devoted to the pantheons and gods of the Southlands - and their depictions are inspired, utilizing concepts and names from real-world mythology, but putting a thoroughly unique spin on them. The book concludes with an equipment table as well as a feat-index. My copy also sports a truly superb, glossy poster-map of the gorgeous cartography.

Editing and formatting are top-notch for a book of this size - while I did notice an instance where the page-reference was still the layout-stage's "$$", the crew of Kobold Press has done a vastly superior job when compared to Deep Magic; the formal editing is more than solid and while I consider not all crunchy bits to be perfectly balanced, the rules-language is significantly more precise than in Deep Magic. Layout adheres to a 2-column standard in full color and is absolutely stunning; much like the lavish amount of original full-color art, the aesthetic components render this book frankly one of the most beautiful RPG-supplements I own. The pdf comes fully bookmarked. The hardcover uses high-quality, thick, matte paper and glossy, high-quality paper for the huge map. The cartography of the book is superb for the most part, though some of the more ruined cities look "only" very good - still, overall, this is one of the most beautiful books you'll ever see.

Wolfgang Baur, Eric Cagle, David "Zeb" Cook, Adam Daigle, Dan Dillon, Amanda Hamon Kunz, Steven T. Helt, Steve Kenson, Ben McFarland, Richard Pett, Marc Radle, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Ted Reed, Stephen Rowe, Adam Roy, Owen K.C. Stephens, C.A. Suleiman, Brian Suskind, Henry Wong - ladies and gentlemen, congratulations are in order.

You see, Golarion and similar setting have often drawn upon the tropes of Arabian nights and pharaonic Egypt - but never this way. The creative approach to this book could be summed up as follows: The book took the classic real-world mythologies that resonate with us and put a spin on it - so far, so common. However, the true excellence of Southlands lies not within this; no. The massive achievement of this book lies in the concise manner in which it brings the truly fantastic to the table and treats it seriously; the Southlands feel alive and concise, because it takes a very much logical, concise approach to world-building - whether as stand-alone or as part of the Midgard campaign setting, the Southlands excel. The blending of mythologies and use of more obscure themes collides with pure imaginative potential in a true, creative firework. I wouldn't have expected this book to be that great a read - as a huge fan of Catherynne M. Valente's "Orphan's Tales", my bar for myth-weaving is ridiculously high...but here's the thing: I loved reading this book. Much like the best of mythpunk novels, much like the most inspiring of fantastic novels, this tome is a true page-turner and contains more imaginative potential than just about every setting I could list. This is not Al-Qadim v. 2.0. - it surpasses this excellent classic and mops the floor with it.

Now granted, I am not sold on all design-decisions herein, not perfectly convinced regarding the balance of some components - but all of that ultimately pales before a book that is true excellence. I haven't enjoyed reading a campaign setting this much since the original Midgard Campaign Setting and honestly, enjoyed this book even more - because it takes less familiar concepts, because it brims with the spark of genius and more evocative locations than multiple settings combined. There is not a single campaign setting book that is comparable in scope and ambition and, better yet, while not all the crunch reaches the constant, almost frightening level of genius of the prose, there are ample instances where I simply fist-pumped - the lotus-magic is pure awesomeness and similarly, quite a few of the magic items just feel magical, unique, awesome...and the hazards...oh boy, do I love me some hazards!

Here's the most important component, though: Beyond simply being a superb read and surprisingly, in spite of heavily quoting real world mythologies, Southlands is a book of jamais-vus, of the novel and still familiar, an accumulation of brilliant ideas that practically DEMAND that you run modules, campaigns, whole APs in this wondrous, exceedingly captivating setting. My only true gripes while reading this tome pertained to the organization of player-material - out-sourcing that to a Player's Guide would have probably been a prudent move - but I'm ultimately just nitpicking. If anything, just about every nation herein made me crave more; each chapter made me want a whole AP set in it so bad... Southlands is a furious return to form for Kobold Press. This book very much shows how and why Kobold Press became as popular as it now is - even if you're not actively gaming, this is well worth buying: Flip open those pages, start reading and dream a dream of harsh jungles, enchanted deserts and gorgeous cities, both bustling and ruined, of a savage land of splendor and glories untold. Go to the Southlands. Get this book. Dream. There are very few books of this size that manage to maintain a sense of narrative consistency, much less at the thoroughly impressive level of quality the ideas in this tome have.

This may well be the best sourcebook Kobold Press has released (I'm a fanboy of some adventures...), perhaps this is even one of the best sourcebooks I've ever read. If anything, I do hope that Northlands at one point get a similarly detailed second edition. Southlands is excellence - if you even remotely are interested in the subject matter, do yourself a favor and get this glorious tome - it contains enough ideas and adventure for a lifetime and I am not engaging in hyperbole here. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and I'll also nominate this as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. (Scheduled for release soon!)

You can get this superb campaign setting here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.


Ashen Stars (GUMSHOE)

This massive sourcebook clocks in at 304 massive pages, 1 page cover (though the front cover of the print edition is its separate pdf), 1 page editorial, 3 pages of ToC, 1 page blank, leaving us with no less than 298 pages of raw content - so let's fire up the engines, shall we? Yes, we shall!

This was moved forward in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

First of all, what *is* Ashen Stars? The unimaginative and not really helpful reply would be that it represents a variant of the brilliant GUMSHOE-rules-system for a Scifi-context. Since I already have covered plentiful GUMSHOE-systems in my reviews (Be sure to take a look at Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu and Night's Black Agents), I will assume a basic familiarity with how the system works, the tenets of its design (failing forward etc.) and similar basic assumption.

Genre-wise, you could glean as much from the description or a single glimpse at the cover, so *what* kind of scifi? There are, after all, plenty of iterations and sub-genres: From Grim Dark Warhammer 40 K over gritty Firefly to Gene Roddenberry's utopian societies and light-hearted space-operas, there are a lot of nuances in this genre. While Ashen Stars' system generally supports all of these genres, it should be noted that Ashen Stars describes itself rather well in tone - basically, this is the 25th century and mankind has joined an alliance of species in a vast, star-spanning empire called "The Combine." Problem is, said empire has been ravaged by a war with the mysterious mohilar (Why mysterious? I'll get back to that in a bit...) and now, the fringe-regions, here exemplified as the so-called Bleed, require the policing via private contractors, the so-called Lasers - it is said work that remains the focus of the campaign and while you could reskin it appropriately, I consider the basic tone pretty much perfect.

The tone the book tries to evoke is basically one of a slightly grittier reboot of an utopian scifi-series - and it succeeds in that endeavor perfectly - think of it, basically, as in line with Firefly - a long shot away from grimdark despair and cataclysms, but neither is it all clean and smooth and problem-less...at least per the base system. Now I already mentioned the Combine, so what about the races featured herein? Do they work? Races in scifi need to appeal to our own sensibilities to some extent and often work best when externalized a deep-seated anxiety while blending the familiar with the exotic. Taking this as a premise, the first race depicted herein would certainly qualify: The Balla are basically space-elves - beautiful, graceful...but also controlled. Unlike Vulcans, they are defined by an underlying, exceedingly strong capacity for emotion, which requires precise control - when losing control, the results can be nasty. They also are not that compatible with cybernatics and viroware and balla actually become more beautiful with every year - to the point, where long-lived individuals have to enter seclusion to avoid driving even their own kind mad by their very presence- beauty as a curse. The Cybes would be just what you'd expect - cybernetic beings that seek distinction from their erstwhile species, either following a course of new race versus keeping ties with the original species.

The somewhat hunched durugh are the latest allies of the Combine - after generations of hostilities with the Mohilar, it was, or so it is assumed, the durugh's doing that turned the tide against the foes of the Combine...oh, and they can dimensionally phase, making them superb infiltrators. Easily the weirdest of the races in appearance, the Kch-Thk are the four-armed locust-people. Yes, you hear right. Interplanetary conquerors, these creatures had a tough time adjusting to Combine ethics and values, mainly due to a blending of Klingon-esque warrior-culture with an emphasis on consumption (for this is a constant need of the race, tying in with the locust-theme). While at this point, the Kch-Thk have been modified to not want to consume other people, the hunger prevails - and there is another unique factor: They are basically quasi-immortal. If a Kch-Thk dies in battle, its "soul" if you will, travels back and roots in a larva to be reborn and grown - though even this process will fail eventually. The armadillo-like Tavak provided the philosophical backbone for the forming of the combine and walk a balance between tranquility and a body uniquely suitable to make them powerful warriors indeed. Finally, there would be the Vas Mal, and they are few and tie in very strongly with the history of the Combine.

For once, they were infinite, the Vas Kra, beings of pure energy, evolved beyond the measly constraints of physicality, with thoughts echoing through space and time, modeling reality and pervading everything - neither good, nor evil, happiness or gloom - the species just was. But, alas, from time to time, they manifested and acted - the Vas Kra intervened as quasi-deities. They exiled a renegade of their kind to a strange dimension. However, this proved your undoing - for the mohilar realized that by caring, by intervening, the Vas Kra had tied themselves to the specific - and thus, they were devolved and became the Vas Mal, mortal once again - and 5 years have passed. Physical existence may be tedious...but at least the species has kept some fraction of its erstwhile power in the guise of several unique, psychic skills...all of which impose a strain on the Vas Mal body, though.

The thing you're probably asking yourself by now would be this: How could the mohilar do this? Who are they? And this is perhaps the best dramaturgical decision in the hole book: No one knows. How were they defeated? No one knows. The biggest threat the Combine has ever faced is GONE...and nobody has even the slightest clue how it happened. Researching the event has all kinds of utterly weird repercussions that can be described as rather disturbing - and it creates a thoroughly unique core mystery at the very heart of the setting. Did the durugh really betray the Mohilar? How were they tied with the devolution of Vas Kra to Vas Mal? The phenomenon, called the Bogey Conundrum, is obscure and yet current, tied with everything and still completely opaque...and brilliant. For it allows every GM (GM) to choose the respective truth, to weave the respective stories.

Also accompanying the mohilar war, the eponymous Ashen Star effect REQUIRES mention, for it represents the second absolutely brilliant narrative stratagem: Strange, dark sunspots erratically show up, in a pattern reminiscing visual static. This strange effect is what makes the job of the GM infinitely easier: Know how there usually are consistency errors in most long-running scifi-series? Well, the ashen star effect exists basically as the ultimate justification for this, as an easy to use narrative plot-device: Need communications or scanning break-down? No problem. Want to limit or expand travel speeds/durations? Ashen Star effect. Do you have a particularly epic adventure planned, one where the crew and their ship needs a power-boost? That can, just as well, be the result of the Ashen Star effect - beyond being visually stunning and disturbing, this explains basically any deviations from established lore between your campaign and published material, allows you to de-emphasize and emphasize certain components from adventure to adventure...or even modify whole storylines - much like the bogey conundrum, it represents a crucial, brilliant narrative device that irons out central issues any long-running campaign can encounter. While you still shouldn't be too sloppy regarding technological inconsistencies between adventures, this provides a way out that means you don't have to meticulously keep tabs on what can be gleaned and what can't.

Now, as mentioned before, the races sport unique abilities and after playtesting the system, I can attest to the respective races being well-balanced among themselves - neither the Kch-Thk nor the Vas Mal, for example, can be considered more powerful than the other races. But, unlike traditional or fantastic roleplaying, science fiction roleplaying has a crucial challenge most books I've read on the topic failed to address - namely operating as a unit and ship-to-ship combat. It is my from conviction that more character-focused RPGs, be they grimdark or light-hearted space opera, are more popular due to a prevalent failure of many crew-based RPGs to make either work as an engaging group-play-experience. (A failure you can see in naval/aerial combat rules of a variety of fantasy-systems as well, just fyi...)

The biggest triumph of Ashen Stars from a design-perspective also co-exists with the one aspect of the system that doesn't manage to reach its loftiest levels of quality...but let me elaborate: First of all, Lasers, are expected to have a hierarchy that resembles to some extent that established by the Combine, the in-game justification being that it's considered to be more professional. Thus, the system does reward adhering to this convention in a minor way, though it sure is not required. Still, clear-cut tasks, from operations officer to systems officer, both groundside and on board, mean that the respective characters have their tasks cut out for them. So that would be smart decision one - it rewards mimicking series à la Firefly et al. Secondly, there would be the ship to ship combat.

The combat achieves one crucial goal - it engages the whole group of players: First, you determine a goal-  depending on your goal, there is a different array of points you need to achieve: Escaping is easier than crippling a foe for towing, for example. Combat begins with ships determining initiative and then determining attack mode: Attack, maneuver, Override, Trickbag, with each of them being associated with another crew-role. When deploying an attack mode before having cycled through all available options, you're "egging" it and take penalties, as the enemy gets a significant bonus - while this does sound odd, ultimately, it makes the crew consider cycling through PC-chances to shine a valid, desirable option, even if their ship is not balanced between the respective capabilities. Every ship has an output spec - these are a variable pool that replenishes after the fight, which can be used to enhance an attack mode. Ships have a set of paired stats - for each of the attack mode, there is a number for dishing it and for taking it - the relation between dishing and taking for the winning and losing ship, respectively, determine the number of points added to the skirmish point total. Showdown results are compared and rules for rocking the ship, mop-up operations etc.  are provided...and yes, actions have consequences: Most laser-crews have someone in charge of public relations for a reason...destroying crippled ships can result in nasty blows to one's reputation.

Now the plus-side of the system is definitely that it manages to engage the whole group and provides chances to shine for each character. At the same time, in spite of some significant GUMSHOE-experience under my belt, I still had to reread the section iin which the ship-combat rules are depicted. The explanation of the rules itself is not that well structured and makes the per se nice system feel a bit more opaque than it should be. That being said, once you've understood it, it's not that hard to grasp and you'll wonder, much like I did, why the presentation, in spite of quick-reference and example, feels so complex when it actually isn't. A second complaint one could field against the system would be the need to establish a predetermined objective for the combat - the need to do so adds a kind of abstraction to the whole proceedings that takes a bit away from the experience of the narrative space combat. While a good GM can gloss over this aspect, it's the one thing that imho would have benefited from less abstraction and a more direct, immediate approach. That being said, this form of space combat still excels at what it does rather well.

Now it should be noted that the book sports a significant array of sample ships and provides guidance on making your own ships as well as advice on e.g. depicting combats that are not based on 1:1-duels. Un a character-level, viroware (basically, biological modification) and cybertechnics feature, as expected, and similarly, weaponry and ship-combat based options are ample and detailed. Indeed, one of the components I loved most about this book is that it's serious: It may not be humorless or dry, but it doesn't constantly wink at you; neither does it constantly beat you over the head with pop-culture references. Much like the most compelling of examples of scifi literature, it takes its own setting VERY serious - and this makes it compelling. Believe me, a crew that features a reincarnating locust-man and a balla write their quips, puns etc. at the table for themselves - in spite of what one would expect, Ashen Stars, while serious, is, again, much like Firefly, not dry and can be rather funny.

Still, this seriousness translates to conviction, to methodology regarding what you require - whether it's nomenclature of species, the tone of how universal translators tend to replicate the languages of the races, or the philosophical and political conundrums affecting the Bleed - the level of detail is excruciating...and personally, I had more fun reading this rule-book than I had reading 2312. Whether it's rules for cannibalizing ships, repairs, navigational hazards or scanners - the book covers just about all things you would expect from the genre. Of course, a wide array of sample stats for creatures is presented herein, alongside some exceedingly inspired Class-K-entities. What are class-k entities? Well, these would be creatures with a kill/annihilate on sight classification in the slang of the Combine (which btw. never becomes tedious or overburdened with make-believe words): Take the dermoids, quasi-sentient bodysnatchers or truly disgusting, nigh-cthulhoid abominations or the predatory lipovores, whose name already shows what they do...oh, and the racial enemy of the kch-thk are horribly powerful space wasps. I did tell you that this does support space-opera-style gameplay, right? I did say that, while serious, it'll be fun at the table? If your players are in any way like mine, the latter will result in "OH NO...NOT the Wasps...FROM SPAAAAAAACEEEEE!" blending of memes for universal hilarity...until they notice how dangerous these things are, at which point hilarity gives quick way to intense loathing. Have I mentioned the intensely creepy plant-species called Phyllax and their seedships? *shudder*

Exceedingly detailed advice for the GM on how to structure modules and campaigns complements this  book...but much like most GUMSHOE-titles, to truly notice how different Ashen Stars plays ultimately requires actual play experience: And the book does contain a sample scenario, called "The Witness of my Worth." Now I'm not going to SPOIL this introductory scenario beyond the base set-up: 3 days ago, the ashen star effect manifested over the world Ares-3. Once a mining colony, it also was the place of one of the first engagements in the mohilar war. An EvBase (environmental base, made to determine whether the planet can be re-settled) has issued a distress call - and it's up to the Laser-crew to investigate said call - alas, the truth of what is going on directly related to the past of the planet and the odd effects of the ashen stars...but this is how far I'll go regarding the actual plot of this adventure. Now the thing you'll notice when playing this is the fluidity of transition between operations aboard their ship and on groundside - it requires a blending between both to solve this scenario and it presents the fluid transition between these game-play modes in surprising ease, leading by example - if anything, the module left me with a distinct curiosity what the authors can do with these transitions.

This massive book also features numerous appendices for nomenclature, a fully-depicted space-combat example, character sheets, ship tracker sheets, ship combat tracker sheets, episode worksheets for the GM. Ship-bolt-on reference sheets, tech reference sheets, invetigative ability check-lists and an exceedingly detailed index help making the playing experience of Ashen Stars rather comfortable.

Editing and formatting are very good, though there are slightly more glitches herein than in other GUMSHOE-books I've read. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard and the book sports numerous pieces of nice artwork. The pdf-version comes with extensive, nested bookmarks for your convenience. Additionally, the book features .mobi and .epub-versions of the file and there is a second, more printer-friendly pdf included in the deal - kudos! My version also included "A Pirate's Life", a nice 14-page short story. The pdf is layered for your convenience, btw.

If you have the option, by the way, then I'd STRONGLY suggest getting this in print - the full-color hardcover, stitch-bound and solid in the finest sense of the word, is a true beauty, with nice, high-quality paper making the book a joy to hold and just flip through.

Robin D. Laws' Ashen Stars is a fantastic book. There are no two ways around it - granted, I can name systems with more direct ship-to-ship-combat; I can name systems with slightly more pronounced character customization-options - but that would be missing the point. Ashen Stars excels in that it manages to actually portray in roleplaying games the feeling of series like Star Trek, Andromeda or Firefly, in that it manages to work equally well both on a crew level and on a personal level. That, and the emphasis on investigation, mystery and exploration are what makes this scifi-rules-set great, though I really wished the ship-to-ship combat was a bit more direct and explained a bit better.

But that's not what you'll take out of reading Ashen Stars. This rpg-book made me feel like I had just entered Mass Effect's Citadel for the first time, like I had just started checking out Hyperion or Ubik - this roleplaying game manages to evoke an internal consistency I absolutely adore. Its mysteries are genius and compelling and it actually is a great read - this book captivated me more than quite a few scifi-books I've read. It also manages to have the potential to serve all kinds of subgenres, without being tied to them and manages to depict advanced technology that remains believable, while not hamstringing itself with over-explaining matters (and inevitably stumbling). In one short sentence: This setting managed to captivate me, makes me want to know (and play) more.

As a reviewer, the didactically somewhat unfortunate depiction of the ship combat rules constitutes a flaw I have to acknowledge in my final verdict. However, at the same time, the setting is quite frankly the most compelling scifi setting I've read in AGES, with the brilliant narrative strategems employed rendering it so much easier to run this than similar systems while maintaining internal consistency. In the end, I want to see more and, even as just reading material, still have to whole-heartedly recommend this gorgeous book. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform...and for the superb world-weaving, this also receives my seal of approval.

You can get this evocative, detailed scifi-setting here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.