Monday 25 January 2021

Ask the Stars - The Right Questions

As the name might suggest, Ask the Stars relies heavily on questions.

While the Signs and Positions give you the answers, they're not much use unless you know what to ask.

Open/Closed Questions

It can be easy to think of open questions as good and closed questions as bad, but I think there's a spectrum of opportunities beyond those two.

If you just use the Yes/No column of Ask the Stars then you can still ask a question that leads to interesting places, or one that might end up hindering your creativity.

A good Yes/No question should:

  • Give interesting results for both Yes and No
  • Allow a distinction between soft and hard Yes/No
  • Provoke further ideas rather than searching for a definitive judgement

That third point is the tricky one here. Asking "is the tavern open?" doesn't do much to inspire on results of Yes/No, so maybe reframe the question before you roll. 

Instead you could ask:

  • Is the tavern busy?
  • Does the tavern feel dangerous?
  • Has the tavern burned down?
Yes, you're making some assumptions with each of those questions, especially the third, but for this sort of game I think you need to run with what feels right. 

You can push this even further, especially if you're playing solo, and ask some genuinely provocative questions like you would see in something like the prompts in For the Queen or the Quiet Year. 

Pre-Chaining Questions

Back in an earlier iteration of this idea I wrote about chaining questions. A fun twist on this idea is thinking of a set of questions before you roll any dice. Adding a question after each result is great for digging down on details, but you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. 

Instead, think of the three most interesting questions you can ask about a particular thing, then only roll the results after locking them in. Sometimes the first two results make your third question an odd fit, but that's the sort of stuff I love! It forces you into some strange explanations and drives you into places you wouldn't have thought of on your own.

Of course remember you can roll 2d12 and keep the higher/lower to nudge the results in a specific direction if it makes more sense, especially following on from the previous answers.

For example, let's go back to that stock-fantasy tavern and think of three questions before rolling anything. We could even use all three questions from our previous example.

  1. Is the tavern busy?
  2. Does it feel dangerous?
  3. Has it burned down?

And we roll...
  1. [7 - Yes] It's a bustling tavern. Not especially interesting, let's hope things build from here.
  2. [1 - Hard No] Everybody is super friendly, in fact you know a few familiar faces in here. Seems like a genuine safe haven from the world outside.
  3. [10 - Hard Yes] Well, after getting cosy you feel an explosion blast one of the tavern walls to pieces, fire spreading among what's left standing. Now we're somewhere interesting!

You could argue with question 3 I moved the fire from past-tense to present, but you're not being held to account here, there's no audit of your authorial integrity at the end of the session, you've just got to agree what feels right with the others at your table, or your own conscience if you're playing solo.

Don't Sweat the Balance

Try to think of the Stars as another person at the table, whether you're playing solo or with a group. Sometimes it feels right to let the Stars run and run, chaining one answer after another, throwing out signs and positions, almost acting like a procedural content generation algorithm. Other times you might get carried away with your own ideas, realising after an hour that you haven't actually rolled any dice.

You don't need me to tell you that these are both perfectly valid, and I expect the reality is you'll sit between these two extremes most of the time, occasionally drifting into one direction or the other before snapping back.

I love games that focus on problem solving challenges and have the sense of an impartial system run by a neutral referee, but that isn't really how Ask the Stars is best utilised. It's built to allow for a bit of floaty inconsistency, and more of the focus is on indulging in creative interpretation of those results and rolling with the consequences that arise from them.

Monday 18 January 2021

Ask the Stars - The Positions

Onto the second part of my exploration of the Signs and Positions from Ask the Stars.

While the Signs give you a sense of the core of the issue, the Positions tend to act as a modifier of that, a secondary theme, or a sense of how that core is changing. Often they ask you questions that give you more context.

The Signs represent general shapes formed from the stars, while the Position represents their shifting form and relationship to their surroundings. Nothing is permanent, and nothing exists in isolation from its neighbours.

As with the Signs, sometimes the meaning is more literal than symbolic. Reflected can mean reversal or vanity but could also be referring to an actual mirror. 

1 - RISING (Growth/Possibility)

The Sign is moving upward from the horizon or other large reference point. Things often start small, and call for patience or nurture, assuming you want them to grow.

Think about what could be, and how this could just be the start of something so much bigger. What factors are causing this growth. What would happen if it were left untended, and what is your place alongside it?

2 - ENTOMBED (Memory/Death)

The Sign is tightly surrounded on all sides. It cannot be touched, the tomb cannot be broken, but its image remains clear.

Are you looking at something real, or just a shadow of the past? Our memories define us, but they can hold us back. It can be difficult to come to terms with an ending, but even those that die leave an imprint on the world. 

3 - TWINNED (Intimacy/Dependency)

The Sign is repeated nearby. It is strengthened by its twin, but both are dependent on each other. Often when one leaves the skies the other will follow.

What relationships are strengthening this sign? Are they actually a source of strength, or is the co-reliance holding things back? An enemy could use this to exploit an alternative angle of attack, removing the Queen to trap the King.

4 - WANING (Hunger/Decay)

The sign is closing in on itself or its light is fading. All things must pass, but this sign is clinging onto its light, fighting against the darkness.

Consider how this inevitable decline changes things. What would allow things to remain for just a little longer? What desperate things we would do to survive in these last throes?

5 - ROOTED (Stability/Plenty)

The Sign is interlocked with the horizon or another large point of reference. A position of safety, but immobile.

What foundations are holding things in place here? What is providing this position of strength? What source of abundance is allowing things to flourish?

6 - BOWED (Submission/Mercy)

The Sign is small and sits below a much larger object. It is content in its position below a greater power, simultaneously dominated and protected by it.

Consider the power dynamics of this situation, who is submitting to whom? What structures are in place that allow the weak to survive here? If there is a dominant power here, why is its hand steadied? 

7 - COLLIDING (Change/Violence)

The Sign is moving towards another object, or has already begun to meet it head-on.

Great change often comes from a clash of two opposing forces. What are the opposing forces here, and what change would come from their collision? If the clash is inevitable, which side will you take?

8 - BURNING (Honesty/Pride)

The Sign is displayed clearly, brightly, and seems to be growing more intense. Such a roaring flame surely cannot burn forever.

Something is proclaimed loudly here, or perhaps a declaration is needed. What will be the outcome of such plain honesty? Is truth the ideal at play here, or are these declarations a display of self-importance? If pride comes before the fall here, what truth would bring things crashing down?

9 - VEILED (Faith/Deceit)

The Sign is difficult to see, partially obscured by another object. Maybe you can't see it at all, but you feel it's there.

What unseen powers are at work here? Not necessarily malicious forces, but the invisible hands moving the pieces. They could be impartial to us, or perhaps we like to think they're on our side. The veil could be concealing those hands, or blinding our own eyes, asking us to step into the unknown in a trusting stride.

10 - EXILED (Guilt/Autonomy)

The Sign sits alone in a sea of darkness, even the nearby lights appear to be slowly drifting away.

We crave the support and approval of others, but sometimes we must embrace ourselves. What sits alone here, and how does it survive without support? Was it banished, or did it seek solitude?

11 - CROWNED (Ambition/Ruin)

The Sign is capped with a brighter star, its luminance making the Sign appear duller by comparison.

A great achievement can bring rewards, both material and otherwise, but it is rarely enough. What achievement is being recognised here, and what comes next? Who is climbing the ladder, and how far left before they run out of rungs? All towers must fall. 

12 - REFLECTED (Reversal/Vanity)

The Sign is mirrored in another part of the sky. They appear identical at first, but time reveals subtle differences.

When we observe ourselves we must acknowledge our flaws as much as our strengths. Focusing on either one alone presents a distorted reality. Is there another way of looking at things here? What boon could actually be viewed as a bane, or vice versa? For every action there is an opposite reaction, where can this be seen? 


So now we have all of the Signs and Positions fully fleshed out, let's put it to work with three rolls, asking for a character, location, and event.

Character: 10/11 - The Fleet, Crowned
Somebody striving toward their ambition relentlessly, to hell with the cost. Perhaps the wreckage they left in their wake is slowly amassing to drag them back down to earth.

Location: 3/1 - The Cage, Rising
A place where growth is simultaneously protected and nurtured, but destined for a set purpose. A walled city that appears at first as a thriving metropolis, but is working towards a selfish goal.

Event: 9/10 - The Elder, Exiled
The old faith is thrown out, kept alive by a few hermits. Where will they retreat to find safety?

Monday 11 January 2021

Ask the Stars - The Signs

The Signs are designed to work as oracles, similar to how I've used Spark Tables but with a dash of Tarot's symbolism and openness to interpretation. I want to strike a balance between being vague enough to suit a range of situations, but specific enough to offer actual direction for your creativity.

The Signs make up the first half of the Ask the Stars system. The Signs don't represent static constellations, instead looser patterns that appear to reform commonly among the shifting positions of the Living Stars.

When combined with a Position, the Sign generally gives you the core of the issue at hand, with the Position acting as a modifier or accent to this.

Each is condensed to its symbol and two words. Let's dig a bit deeper into each.

1 - THE FANG (Hostility/Fear)

The survival-obsessed beast that lurks behind all of our civilised words and facades. The Fang represents the terrible things that we would do to ensure our own safety, and the unpredictable things that others would do to protect their own. These things tend to snowball out of control. A misplaced glance here, a crossed-wire there, and before you know we're enemies tearing at each other's throats. 

The Fang speaks to you when you're holding a knife and your eye lingers on it for just a touch too long. It may have been the first Sign that we learned to recognise in the stars, and without it we might have never made it beyond our first campfires. 

It can represent spiralling tension between two neighbours, a paranoid recluse, or a cowardly lickspittle parroting their leaders words of hatred. 

2- THE WINGS (Freedom/Nature)

That feeling of just wanting to leave everything behind. What could be more important than this ultimate freedom? Everything around you is just holding you back, like rocks pinning down a bird's wings. Don't overthink it, that's what you've always done up to this point.

The Wings speak to you when you gaze out of your window or into the night sky. It's the comfort you feel when you turn your back on obligations and responsibilities, or allow your animal brain to take full control. 

It can represent elopers heading off for a new life together, a hermit embracing wilderness life, or even nature itself acting as a great leveller.

3 - THE CAGE (Protection/Obligation)

The sacrifice of liberty for security, but consider that the danger can positioned be on either side of the cage. Stick to your word, laying down your life for the cause you have sworn to protect if that's what it takes. Some say that cages are made to be broken, but it's not your place to question, just to hold strong for as long as you can. 

The Cage tells you to close ranks and stay true to your oaths. If it all goes wrong, then at least believe that your sacrifice would be worth something.

It can represent a soldier throwing down their life to protect their liege, a secret society forming a square around a member when threatened by slander, or a monk dedicating their life to the spiritual salvation of their peers. 

4 - THE HAND (Creation/Misdirection)

The power and mastery that we all possess. By our own hands we wrench our vision into reality and feel our power grow even further. But a hand rarely works alone, so always consider what is happening behind the flashiness in front of you. The craftiest hands do their work out of plain sight.

The Hand puts your plans into action and forces your will onto the world around you, whether by your own hard work or the manipulation of others. 

It can represent a visionary leader uniting disparate followers, an engineer creating devices beyond their own reckoning, or a shadowy power behind the throne.

5 - THE MASK (Persuasion/Shame)

Everything that is false, hiding behind your face. We look at others and constantly fail to see the same insecurities and self-loathing that lurk and whisper to us. We seek their approval, but do not allow ourselves to enjoy it. Still, we can't get enough of it.

The Mask puts on a presentable face to the world, following social norms and building connections, all the while gnawing at you with its other side, never letting you show your true face.

It can represent a charismatic performer craving approval, a righteous politician hiding a dark secret, or a nation rising in anger to reclaim its shattered pride.

6 - THE EYE (Judgement/Secrets)

You just can't resist, can you? Peering over that fence, listening in on that conversation, reading that letter carelessly left out in the open. But just knowing isn't enough. You must pass judgement. What did they do wrong? Something rotten at their core? You'd better make sure your own secrets are carefully locked away.

The Eye draws you towards your neighbour and asks you what you really think of them, longing for an opportunity to be able to proclaim your judgement out loud.

It can represent a vengeful inquisitor, an intrusive relative, or a vault-keeper that revels in holding so many prized and secret possessions. 

7 - THE CHILD (Learning/Greed)

The empty vessel that we all were at birth. A cup longing to be filled with knowledge, but at times can feel impossible to even half-fill. The more we learn, the more we want. The more we have, the less we appreciate those things. The more questions we ask, the less we like the answers we hear. 

The Child is a constant voice inside you, always asking "But why?" and never being satisfied with the answer. 

It can represent an iconoclastic young scholar, a gluttonous socialite, or a bickering circle of conspiracy theorists.

8 - THE TRAVELLER (Wandering/Chance)

Symbolised as a walking stick or a sword, this is the romantic version of ourselves that follows the wind and leaves everything to fate. They close their eyes and trust that their destiny is planned, stepping boldly into whatever the universe has planned or them. Forget about your origin and your destination, all that matters is this step on your journey.

The Traveller wants your mind to shut off from worrying about past and present, and focus on what makes the now interesting. Stop to smell the roses, but don't stay for too long. 

It can represent a Knight without a liege, an artist travelling in search of inspiration, or a gambler that lost everything on a roll of the dice.

9 - THE ELDER (Authority/Tradition)

Listen. This is the way it is. I've been around, I've done the required reading, and everybody agrees with me. Who do you think you are to question this? Some things just work, so why should they change? Progress isn't a march towards some utopian destination, you know. It's much more complicated than that, but you really don't need to understand. Just get in your lane and you'll be happier.

The Elder speaks with harsh words that can, at times, feel oddly comforting. It's nice to not have to agonise over every ethical decision, so just follow orders or do things the traditional way.

It can represent a Prince inheriting great power through his bloodline, a despot stamping out resistance, or an ancient festival uniting a culture in celebration. 

10 - THE FLEET (Direction/Struggle)

The easy journeys are hardly worth thinking about. At some point we're all due a great pilgrimage, whether we're a lone ship or part of a sprawling armada. The journey makes us, and the destination allows us to reflect on the price paid. Was it worth it? And where next?

The Fleet pushes us towards our ambitions and desires, manifesting around us when we finally take those first steps towards progress. Its momentum keeps us going forward, sometimes preventing us from reconsidering the direction we're travelling in.

It can represent a battered army refusing to stand down and return home, an explorer leaving behind a loving family, or a great leader rising up through a life of hardship.

11 - THE COUNCIL (Opposition/Cycles)

Everything comes back around to where it started eventually, so what's the point in it all? We've got to keep the wheels turning, or else somebody will feel their side isn't getting the fair share of sunlight. Go through the motions, make them work for what they want or else they'll just keep asking for more.

The Council is the friction you feel even when you're doing something you've done a million times before. Why can't this just be simpler? Everything needs some sort of opposition, like the universe itself acting as Devil's Advocate.

It can represent a difficult harvest season after a particularly good year, a ruler unable to get reforms through their parliament, or a formerly ridiculed pastime coming back into fashion.

12 - THE LEGION (Unification/Identity)

The individual is nothing compared to the crowd, and the crowd ascends to something truly special when they act as one. A fighter is nothing next to a knight, and a knight nothing next to a crusader. We can do so much more when we cast off our own names and chant for our cause as a single voice of thousands.

The Legion is the rush you feel when you're marching in step with your compatriots, when you cheer at a flag being raised, and when you almost feel no control over your own body and voice. 

It can represent an army marching under a new banner, a traveller adopting the local culture, or a choir singing in perfect harmony.

Next time we'll look at the Positions that give each sign even more possibilities.

Monday 4 January 2021

Ask the Stars - Putting the Core to Work

I've been thinking some more about the Ask the Stars system. 

I wrote that last blogpost with a focus on solo play, but the bridge to co-op seems pretty effortless. Similarly, I'd be interested to try it out in a more traditional GM/players structure.

But most of all I'm excited to continue this "make a simple core and put it to work" thing that's been stuck in my head recently. 

Putting the Core to Work

I've touched on this a few times but maybe I should be ultra-clear what I mean by this.

The games that I really connect with, both tabletop and digital, have a very simple mechanical core and then fully explore the possibilities of that core while remaining faithful to the original concept. 

For videogames think N++, Outer Wilds, Into the Breach, all of which I've spoken about before. For Tabletop RPGs it's trickier. There are lots of complex games that go deep into exploring their system, but they tend to lack that simple core that I crave. Similarly, rules-lite games often carry their lean presentation over to content, leaving much of the exploring to the individual game groups.

Risus, when read alongside the Risus Companion, stands out as a good example of what I'm describing here. Mothership is almost there, with its lean Rulebook serving mainly to support a diverse set of adventure modules that explore the system's possibilities. PBTA as a whole seems like a perfect fit at first, but they're a massively mixed bag,  and I feel like overall there's still too much focus on the intricacies of the mechanics rather than what you can actually do with them.

Yeah, I know I'm being super fussy here, but as always the point here is about identifying my own tastes, rather than trying to prescribe anybody else's.

And what's the point of all this? Well it's all so that I can make the game that I want. 

Putting Ask the Stars to Work

So Ask the Stars boils down to 

  • Make Notes for anything that seems important. Similar things stack up to three, when it generally becomes a more critical and permanent in its impact.
  • When you're unsure, roll d12 on the Ask the Stars table for a Yes/No answer or a cryptic oracle.
  • Advantage/Disadvantage on rolls that are more/less likely to answer Yes. 
There's some guidance on structuring your Notes and interpreting the results of a roll, but then you're mostly left to work out the rest for yourself.

So let's look at how you actually put that core to work.

The Conversation

It's sometimes useful to think of a game as a conversation. There's that Sid Meir quote that "A game is a series of interesting decisions" which I quite like to twist into "An RPG is a series of interesting questions". In actuality it's not a perfect fit, but I've noticed I often find the questions part of a game more interesting than the actions part. 

So, whether you're acting as soloist, player, or GM, keep the following questions on hand.

When a character is taking an action, consider asking:

Action: What exactly are they doing?

Objective: What is the desired outcome?

Leverage: What established fiction makes this possible?

When you are unsure what to do, consider asking another player or the GM:

Information: What if I examine this more closely or in a different way.

Choice: What are some alternatives here?

Impact: What’s the likely outcome in the case of success or failure?

Yes and No

As standard, this table gives a equal 1-in-4 chance each to your Hard Yes, Yes, No, and Hard No results. 

At first glance your only tool to modify this is the option to roll two dice and keep the higher/lower die for a more/less positive shift.

But really you have more options than that. Consider the points made when I discussed difficulty in Electric Bastionland. In that post I rallied against the idea of adding an Advantage/Disadvantage mechanic, but here that mechanical is essentially a replacement for Ability Scores, allowing characters to be outright more likely to succeed in areas of strength and fail in areas of weakness. But still, remember those other ways of modifying difficulty, recapped here:

Alternative Advantages
  • Free Entry: It just happens.
  • Enhanced Success: If you succeed then you get more than you normally would.
  • Lower Risk: If you fail then the consequences aren't as bad.
Alternative Disadvantages
  • Barrier to Entry: You can't do it. Find another way.
  • Mixed Success: Even if you succeed there will still be a complication.
  • Increased Risk: If you fail then it'll be extra-bad.

Degrees of Success

Another area where this minimalist system is technically more complex than Electric Bastionland. Remember that the distinction between a Yes and a Hard Yes is not a constant, and varies depending on the situation at hand and the question being asked. 

With the presence of Hard Yes as an option, the temptation might be there to think of Yes as a Yes but... and I can see the appeal. But really it's just Yes, and the fiction will hopefully guide you in whether that's followed by but or and or just a full stop. 


I look forward to a point when the word Zoom doesn't carry the negative weight that it does in January 2021. Until then, this is simply deciding how closely you want to view the fiction in a specific situation. There's no right or wrong here, but just remember that you have the choice. You don't need to work through every day of the three-month voyage if you're more interested in the destination, so maybe just ask a broad question covering the entire journey. Obvious, but something I know that I've forgotten in the past.

Signs and Positions

Next time I'm going to dig into the specific Signs and Positions on the table and how they can be best put to use for inspiration.