Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Dungeon Dioramas - In the Light of a Ghost Star & Earth Expedition One

In the Light of a Ghost Star is an ultralight ruleset that includes a mini campaign setting, sample hexcrawl, and sample dungeon. It's written and illustrated by Nate Treme of the Highland Paranormal Society.

I bought Ghost Star because I was drawn in by the cover art, and by its compelling opening description. I recently had a chance to play the sample hexcrawl, Earth Expedition One, and to give the entire ruleset a close reading. I played with Joshua LH BurnettLeighton Conner, and Peter Kisner, who served as the referee.
The Setting

The opening description, the one that drew me in, paints an evocative image of a dead Earth beneath a dark sky, tells of the last bastions of human civilization on Mars, and outlines both the structure of the campaign and the role of the player characters.
"Earth was abandoned ages ago during the red giant expansion. Now, dimly lit by the ghost light of a dead white dwarf, it lies layered with eons of forgotten civilizations. From the warmth of Martian reactor cities, scavengers hire illegal transportation to earth to delve into its depths, looking for ancient treasures. There they must deal with ghosts, machines, and the strange life that has evolved on humankind's abandoned home planet."

The economy of words is impressive. The imagery is strong, and I can easily imagine the world's being described. But the setting I imagine when I read this paragraph, and the setting described in the rest of Ghost Star are not the same place. I see an Earth like the ocean floor - filled with rusted wrecks, weird plants, alien life - inspired by William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land and Chris Beckett's Dark Eden

Nate writes something different. We get a world of war apes, humanoid cockroaches, space slugs, and robots straight out of Looney Tunes, Futurama, and The Jetsons. For me, the dissonance between expectation and reality was almost jarring, but I don't know if others would experience the same gap.

As we'll see when we look at the sample adventure, the campaign is exactly as described. From the start, you know who you are, what you're doing, and why.

Aside from the introduction, Nate's setting emerges from lists of treasures and artifacts, the hexmap from the sample adventure, a handful of named NPCs, especially from the encounter tables. This is a world where an astro-lich assembles a library inside a perpetually levitating flying saucer, where war apes worship a giant slug amidst the ruins of an ancient city, where you are as like to discover Twinkies and crayons as you are functioning pre-Martian artifacts like a hologram generator or gravity reverser.

The elements fit together to create a rather gonzo mini-setting, one that's more Gamma World than I expected, but none the worse for it. The limited number of setting elements probably limit the replayability of the game unless you are prepared to either accept a great deal of repetition, or write your own setting for each subsequent expedition.
The Rules

Just as with the setting, the actual rules of the game are described in many places throughout Ghost Star. As an ultralight game, there are very few rules, and relatively little guidance on how and when to use them. I suspect there's an unspoken assumption that everyone involved will be playing D&D with modifications. There is only one paragraph devoted to "gameplay", and it isn't actually enough to play the game.

"The referee describes situations then the players get a turn to move up to 30 feet and perform an action. If an action’s success is uncertain then the player rolls the appropriate stat die. A 4 or higher succeeds. At referee’s discretion, special circumstances such as tactics or disadvantages give +1 or -1 to the roll."

There are three stats - Fighter, Explorer, and Scientist - and players initially assign d4, d6, and d8 dice among them. The phrase "if an action's success is uncertain" is doing a lot of work here. People who are basically playing D&D will likely have ideas about when to roll, although players from different traditions might make different assumptions, and Ghost Star offers little advice about how Nate would recommend resolving those disagreements.

From the equipment list, we learn that using weapons to attack requires a successful Fighter roll, and using the Cell Patcher device requires a successful Scientist roll. From that, I infer that using Ancient Alien Tech found on Earth also requires a Scientist roll, although that's an assumption on my part, since the text doesn't address the issue.

The "example of play" is an important source of rules advice here. This kind of text is notoriously difficult to write well, but in Ghost Star, it provides invaluable insight into how the designer thinks the game should be played. In the example, nearly every action the players attempt calls for a roll of the dice. My one critique of this text is that of the six rolls, only one fails, and the lone failure comes one of the two characters attacking the same monster, who is defeated by the single success. We get no idea, from this example, how Nate thinks the referee should handle failed dice rolls.

It's an important question, because the players are going to be rolling a lot of failures. With success coming from a 4 or higher on a d4, d6, or d8, each character has only a 25%, 50%, or 63% chance of success on any given task. 25% is miserable - even worse than the 33% so many old school designers insist on making the default in their rules, and that so many old school players complain about. A penalty of -1 to the roll, from hunger or disease for example, lowers the players' chances to 0%, 33%, and 50%. And as I said, in the example of play, nearly every action the players attempt calls for a roll.

In my playthrough, we were predictably, comically awful at all of our skills and failed at most things we tried. The characters are also quite fragile with only 3 hp. If you want to portray characters who are at all competent, I recommend raising the starting stats to d6, d8, and d10. Ghost Star's advancement system allows characters who survive the expedition and recover at least 5 valuable artifacts each to gain 1 additional hit point and increase a single stat by one dice-type, but I don't think there is enough game here to support campaigns of more than a handful of expeditions without doing a lot more writing for yourself.

I have also been spoiled by I2TO's automatic combat damage setting a standard for rules light gaming. Your preference may vary, but I would recommend using the Fighter dice to determine damage, rather than deciding whether an attack is successful. This would take a bit more modification, because you'd need to figure out some reason to wield weapons, and you might want to revisit those hit point totals.

All that said, I actually quite like the merging of stats and skills in Ghost Star. Each common task has a single stat associated with it, and each implies a broad enough array of expertise to make it easy to decide how to apply them to novel situations. They're like a combination the good advice on stats I read recently from Holothuroid and The Viking Hat GM.

Aside from the use of skill rolls, Ghost Star also has rules for inventory and travel. Characters start with 10 inventory slots, and can gain another each time they return to Mars with 5 artifacts. Presumably, items from the equipment list take up 1 slot each, although this isn't mentioned. Ancient Alien Tech is more cumbersome, and each one takes up 2 slots. 

Rations are a little odd - each ration feeds you for 2 days, meaning you really only need three rations per expedition. In my playthrough, this created a memory issue. I would recommend a modification here, either making each ration feed you for 1 day, or else using something like The Scones Alone's "expedition resources" so that each ration provides a single meal for the entire party.

"The transport ship lands in the dunes in the center hex. The pilot tells the scavengers she’ll pick them up at the same spot one week from now. Their job is to explore the area and find as many valuable artifacts as they can before it’s time to leave. Five hexes have named locations which are described below. When the scavengers enter a hex without a named location, roll on the encounter table (pg. 6) to see what they find. It takes a day to travel across a hex."

The rules for travel appear at the start of the key for the sample adventure. One key rules update between the 1.0 and 1.1 edition of the game was reducing movement from 2 hexes per day to 1 hex per day. The Retired Adventurer and Necropraxis have good explanations for why you might prefer single-hex travel, especially in a rules light game. I think Nate was wise to make that simplification.

The Adventure

Earth Expedition One covers a small region of 19 hexes with four obvious landmarks and a hidden dungeon that we never found in my playthrough. Peter added some of his own house-rules, but I believe we had substantially the expected player experience. 

We began by meeting the astral-lich and volunteering to find books for his library, a task we never accomplished. We scouted the city of the war apes and narrowly avoided being slain by them. We had several random encounters en route to the pylon and the lake. We were unable to make it back to the landing zone in time, but had fortunately found an artifact that allowed us to contact our pilot to set up a new pick-up site. We had enough treasure to pay our fare, but not to "level up" at the end.

With so few keyed hexes the experience of this adventure is largely governed by the random encounter table. I like that Nate put effort into facilitating the social element of the game. Each keyed hex offers a named NPC to talk to, someone who wants something or has something to offer you. The faction occupying each random location has a goal they're pursuing. Robot bandits would rather trade insults than get into gun-fights. Not everyone is friendly, but everyone has an agenda you can interact with. It's a nice touch that adds a surprising layer of complexity to an otherwise simple game.

The random encounter table is focused enough to create a specific setting, but reusing it would start to accumulate a lot of repetitions. I do have a concern about the robots on the encounter table. Both "rumors" and "ghostly apparitions" appear as sub-tables nested within the main encounter table. First you learn that there's a rumor, then you roll again to learn what it is. But each robot is on the top level of the encounter table. The robots are all well-thought out, humorous, and highly specific. They would be perfect for keyed encounters, or for a sub-table, but I think they're not quite right for the top layer of a random encounter table.

To see how random tables would function over the course of an entire region, I created my own 19 hex mini-setting using the hex stocking rules from Ghost Star. Since I'm generating this for review purposes, I used the exact results of each table, rather than creatively modifying anything as I might if I were prepping a session as a referee. If you were to run this adventure, you might want to replace some of the duplicates the birthday paradox gives us. This region seems to me to be the site of a robot carnival, perhaps set up to celebrate a rare sighting of the Legendary Space Whale.

Earth Expedition Two - click here to view


  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful review, I think I'm in agreement with all of it! I hope y'all had a fun session! A new edition is in the works and this is very helpful.

    1. Nate, I'm very glad that you found the review useful! One of my hopes for my series is that these reviews will be beneficial for designers (and for referees who are designing their own scenarios). I don't mean that to sound like I think I have special access to wisdom that people can only get through me, just that I hope that seeing me think through some aspects of the game is helpful to other people who are doing the same kind of thinking.

      We did have fun playing ITLOAGS, and I think we'll likely play it again. I think Peter is still revising his house-rules in preparation for a future expedition. I'll be very interested to see the new edition you're writing!

  2. This blog is rapidly becoming one of my favorites

  3. What a delightful review! This is exactly the kind of thing that really helps to figure out if I'm going to like something, thank you.


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