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.


  1. Hey Chris. I've been trying electric bastionland, but I have some reservations. The combat seems brutal ("overly decisive" you might say.) Could I use 1d6 vs strength instead of 1d20 without messing up the balance? Also, could I use 1d6+2 instead of 1d8 for weapon dmg, if I have no 1d8s? Please advise, thanks.

    1. Hi. You could use d6 for your STR Save but it would mean combat lasts longer, and there's more chance for a character to suddenly hit STR 0 and die outright.

      For d8 you can use d6+1,, as it has a the same average result with a slightly narrower range.

    2. I'll have to try that, thanks for the info.

  2. Have you played or read Ironsworn? You and Shawn Tomkin are brothers, but just don't know it.

    1. Not played it yet, but reading through it and watching some actual plays really helped me formulate what I wanted to get out of a solo game.