It’s a game of normal people caught up in the strange dark truths of the universe. It’s based on Apocalypse World by way of World of Dungeons.
This document is incomplete. It presumes that you’ve read Apocalypse World (and/or Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, Sagas of the Icelanders). This document only describes how this game differs from AW. If you're not familiar with those games, you can read Dungeon World for free at http://book.dwgazetteer.com/.
A good way to describe what the characters do: you know how in The X-Files Mulder and Scully are always showing up to different places where strange things are happening? You’re going to play the people in one of those places, but Mulder and Scully are never going to show up and save the day. Good luck.
You'll need one GM and 3-4 players.
A setup serves to launch a game into motion. It provides a general idea of the situation the PCs find themselves in. Each setup has some choices for the GM to make, as well as some decisions for the players to make. Each setup lists which careers it's meant to be used with.
A career describes what a player character does. Like many people, a player character's abilities are largely defined by what they do. A career provides values for the three basic stats (Sharp, Steady, Fit), moves, lifestyle, recovery, and advancement.
Each player chooses a career from the available careers at the start of play. Every career not chosen becomes an NPC (and potential replacement PC).
Getting ready to play Black Stars Rise requires a little time before the session, plus a half-hour to hour at the start of play.
Before sitting down to play, the GM should read over this document. The players can read it too, if they like—there are no secrets here—but they don't need to. The GM will also need to print materials: the setting (one sided), the basic moves (two sided), and the breaks (one sided).
The GM presents the setup they've chosen. They should make sure to touch on a few key points:
Each player chooses a career from those available. Once every player has a career, the GM takes the other careers and makes them NPCs. The GM should make sure that each non-player career turns into an NPC—as the players make their characters, find ways to connect them to the NPCs. GM NPCs, even when based on a player career, don't need to be made like player characters—they don't get stats, moves, etc. The GM uses the career to suggest the NPC, but the career sheet is only needed if the NPC becomes a player character.
Each career provides instructions on how to set the three core stats.
Each career has a selection of moves, the player gets to choose two.
The GM hands out one basic move card of each type to each player. Each move card has two sides: a normal side and a wounded side, marked by a splatter. Make sure to hand out each card normal side up—the players don't get to look at the other side until a move or the GM tell them to.
Go around the table having each player introduce their character. The GM should ask follow-on questions about anything pertinent—where they live, family, etc.
The characters are bound together by relationships. Each career has relationship statements. Fill in a name for each relationship. Relationships are charged during play and then used to help keep a character together. PCs or NPCs may be named in relationships.
The most basic move is Take a Risk, which is a lot like Defy Danger or Act Under Fire. It’ll cover most everything the players do.
Providing Aid to someone else is a specific case of taking a risk, and usually grants the person being helped a +1 on a 7+ (with complications on a 7–9). If a move tells you to take +1 to aid, that means you get +1 to take a risk when helping someone else.
Keep it Together and Suffer Harm are reactive moves. They happen when something happens to the characters—facing something horrifying or taking damage, respectively. Failing at these moves can have profound effects for the characters.
Study happens when a character carefully studies a person, thing, or situation. Think of Study as their character’s logic and knowledge: you are the players’ eyes and ears no matter what, the Study move is their characters’ knowledge, deduction, and intuition.
Each player character has relationships to other characters (player characters or otherwise). A relationship states some way the characters are connected. At character creation you fill in the starting relationships for your career. At the end of a session you can cross out an existing relationship and write a new one if you like.
Relationships that are strong are called charged. When you willingly take a risk on because of a relationship, or when you take concrete action to reinforce a relationship, put a check mark by the relationship—this means it's charged.
Relationships are either charged or not. If a relationship is charged you can't put another checkmark next to it.
You can spend the checkmark from a charged relationship to reroll any roll+steady. You get to keep the better roll. You can spend as many checkmarks as you have on a single roll if you like.
Once the checkmark is spent the relationship is no longer charged.
Each career lists a lifestyle which describes the money and resources the character has so long as they are employed. These careers are all middle class or well-off, but you can assume there’s rich above that, and struggling below, plus more.
If a character is ever cut off (due to being fired, disowned, absent, or otherwise) the GM will mark down their lifestyle to a lower category. If this endures for a while the GM may remove their lifestyle entirely—at this point they're essentially broke and credit-less.
When a player wants to buy something above their lifestyle the GM will tell them one or more of the following:
The players will probably end up fighting something, or themselves, sooner or later.
Weapons and their damage potential are measured in dice. Light weapons are smaller or multi-purpose: a pistol, a baseball bat, a crowbar, a knife. Light weapons deal one dice of damage.
Heavy weapons are larger, tougher to conceal, and sometimes illegal. They’re clearly weapons: a rifle, a sword, a pitchfork. Heavy weapons deal two dice of damage.
Special weapons fit neither category. Sometimes they’ll do 3 or more dice of damage. Sometimes they’ll have +x damage.
When rolling damage, roll all the dice and take the best one.
Some humans (and many stranger things) have armor. Armor reduces damage. For humans, just about any normal gear (bullet proof vest or the like) is 1 armor at most, except maybe magical protection. The average human has no armor.
Each NPC has a Threshold. Damage below their threshold is relatively minor, over the threshold is serious business.
When an NPC takes damage, subtract their armor (if any). If any damage remains after armor, the NPC takes a condition appropriate to the situation of the GM’s choosing. If the damage after armor is greater than the NPCs threshold, they take one more condition for each point over.
Conditions can be whatever makes sense. Sometimes a condition will take an NPC out of the fight immediately. A player taking advantage of one or more conditions gets +1 to any rolls involved (it’s +1 no matter how many conditions). An NPC with a number of conditions equal or greater than their threshold is almost certainly dead, though they may be dead before that (if they get the dying condition and aren’t treated, for example).
Example: Sam shoots the mad cultist bearing down on him. He rolls 4 damage. The cultist is a typical human: 0 armor and threshold 3. Since some damage gets past the armor, he takes a condition, and the GM decides on “Winged: blood spilling down a gash in his forehead.” The damage after armor is one greater than his threshold, so he also gets “Disoriented.”
When a player character takes damage the GM will tell them the worst it could be:
The player takes this as a modifier to their Suffer Harm roll. One possible result of a suffer harm move is taking wounds.
Wounds are always applied to moves. When a move is wounded, flip it over to its wounded side, it can’t be wounded again.
Medical aid, human companionship, or the passage of time may enable a move to return to its unwounded side. Otherwise it stays wounded indefinitely. The details of recovery are described in each career.
Note that usually only the basic moves can take wounds, and that generally the wounded version is worse for the player than the unwounded.
Example: The cultist carries through onto Sam on momentum alone, driving a dagger into him. The GM says this is 0 damage, so Sam makes the Suffer Harm move with no modifier. Unfortunately he still rolls a 5. The GM describes the dagger digging into him, and the blood that starts to leak out, telling Berkowitz to wound his Suffer Harm card. He flips over his Suffer Harm card and finds the other side not to his liking.
Possibly more dangerous than physical harm are breaks. A break is a mental mishap—think "break with reality" or "breakdown." Breaks are printed by the GM. When a move or the GM tells a player they gain a break, they draw one from the top of the break deck.
The card will describe what happens. Some may be instantaneous: some missing time, maybe. Others will stick around, like compulsion or disorder.
Breaks that stick around may be cured with time and treatment, as prescribed by the GM. Good luck with that. Humans are complex piles of irrational and poorly understood mental mechanisms.
For the most part, GM as you normally would AW or DW. That’s hand waving a huge amount that’s actually changed, but this is a playtest document. A few important twists:
Still do this, of course, but think carefully about what you ask the players about. Freely ask them about their characters’ normal mundane lives, and use that everywhere. Let them have typical human possessions and relationships, let them fill them in.
Then, when the strange mythos comes up, don’t give them so big an input. Still ask them questions (about how their character is reacting, what they least want to happen, etc.) but don’t let them fill in the mythos for you. It’s big and scary and most importantly unknown.
Within the normal confines of life let them fill in as large an area as you please, detailing as much of the setting as you want, the more the better. Beyond the normal life it’s your domain.
Your job as the GM is to show the players a world where ordinary people see their understanding of the world twist into something stranger. Note “twisting,” not “twisted.” It may be twisted, sure, but more importantly its changing and uncontrollable and therefore scary.
You don’t need to think of story or drama or any of that. The characters are poised at the edge of the unknown, interesting things will happen.
Start the first session with encroaching weirdness and steadily dial it up. With the help of the setup, place the players in the path of strange occurrences and let them play out what their characters would do. They’re under no obligation to investigate—running away (or at least trying to) is a reasonable response, but one that comes with its own dangers. The setup will embroil them in weirdness—getting out will be no easy task.
Your NPCs—both those provided by the unused careers and others you create—are your greatest tool in forming a real world that can fall down on the player characters. Without NPCs, the player characters are vortexes of strangeness floating in a void. NPCs allow you to both see how far the player characters will slide and show the strangeness around them without confronting them directly with it.
If every strange thing happens to the player characters they'll quickly become overwhelmed and cut off from normal life entirely. Confronting your NPCs with the odd feels more like real life—the players are in the midst of big events, not the focus of them. They allow you to spread around the weird. How does the barkeep react when the strange stuff his regulars have been complaining about happens to him too?
Most advancement will be descriptive: if the characters somehow gain new training or position, they get the matching move.
If a character achieves some considerably victory (saving something they care for, getting to the bottom of a mystery) you can give them an advancement. Each advancement lets them choose one new move from any playbook in play. The person playing the character from that playbook gets first dibs—if the Doctor and Detective both have advances and they both want the Forensics move, the Doctor gets it.
Campaigns are made up of arcs; arcs are made up of sessions.
A session is one night of play. It’ll usually involve the same characters for the entire time, but if someone dies that character’s player can make a new character and start playing them immediately.
The first session and setup establish some odd goings-on. The process of dealing with those (by trying to unentangle the characters from them, getting to the bottom of them, or otherwise) makes up an arc. There’s no set arc length, just look for when the setup has been clearly dealt with, at least for these characters.
The end of an arc is a fine place to stop, but you can also keep a campaign going. To build a campaign, start a new arc with a new first session. Use a new setup, new characters, a new location, and maybe even a new time. The player characters will likely know nothing of the previous arcs, but we as the players and GM will get to see how this incident relates to other earlier arcs we’ve played. For example, after dealing with the old man’s death (and the captured spirits he was tending) we might jump to 130 years earlier when the mansion is being built under mysterious circumstances.
As a GM, whenever you start a new session or arc assume it's taking place in the same world as every previous game you've run. Slowly, over time, you'll develop the big picture—and the players who play with you regularly may start to see it too.