Tartarus is another fine offering from Pelgrane Press for their Ashen Stars line. The group is called upon to investigate the disappearance of a mining exploration crew on a “Bad Planet” (Ashen Stars own particular vocabulary for Red Zone or dangerous planet) by taking gene samples of the crew and an extra bonus would be applied to find out the fate of the crew. This involves first the relatively benign investigation of the company on its idyllic garden planet before venturing into stranger locales eventually taking the players to the Bad Planet.
As with all of Gumshoe adventures, it involves the balance between investigation (flat foot research) and some action nicely balanced between the two. The secret is to keep players ignorant, as this adventure is a blatant rip of major Hollywood summer blockbuster. Although, as that film will recess in popular amnesia this adventure will become more significant and the full glory of it can be revealed to unsuspecting players. However, it extends beyond a mere copy, it builds and improves by utilizing the full range of the Ashen Stars background and seamlessly integrates into the adventure. There is, naturally, an encounter with “Class K entities” (big bad and dangerous life form that seems awfully common in the Ashen Stars universe). While, the adventure follows a fairly strict timetable of events, in way are players, dictated how they are going to die (and yes, it is expected that there will be casualties) – invariability, through their own careful plans that are destined to go array, as they get deeper into the adventure, the dangers increase proportionally toward an ultimate climax that could result in a Total Party Kill (TPK) or more accurately produces a moral quandary what to do.
That said, players are encouraged to do the legwork themselves and unfortunately fall into the same pitfalls as their intrepid movie counterparts. The difference is the logic behind those actions makes perfect sense, whereas, in the movie, it stretched credulity. Robin Laws provides enough flavor and purple text throughout the text to create the moment and mood. Like many Gumshoe adventures, it is missing things like maps and detailed encounter stats. In this way the adventure is very sandbox, in spite of the scripting. However, what I found missing that has been present in other Gumshoe products – is the props or physical clues needed to run the adventure. Similarly, artwork is sparse, just enough to give a feel but not overwhelm the piece. I would have liked more and unfortunately does not involve the near photo realism of Jerome but instead is the art of a more traditional sort. The adventure can easily be run as a One-Two Shot Adventure and the flexibility of Gumshoe is that it allows the Gamemaster to decide how many clues or how few clues are needed to complete adventure…fewer clues need not lead to more gunplay but Gamemasters can structure it that way. It is an attribute to excellent writing that the adventure could also be run seamlessly with only one reading. Needless to say, it does it home all of Robin Laws’ tips for successful Gamemastering. Also, nice is how, Pelgrane Press has laid out the adventure in a manageable very readable synopsis in the beginning then fleshing it out – something that I found their previous offerings did not do – hence made adventures very difficult to read – the first time around.
The rules are adequately interpreted and anyone with a passing knowledge of Gumshoe knows how to translate these rules into their own particular game system. For Gumshoe relies upon you passing the tests, with minimal difficulty, that said things are hardly a cakewalk for players, for as noted above, it premised upon a staircase of difficulty – the closer players are to the conclusion, the closer to apex – the closer they are to certain doom.
Because this is an unashamed and unconcealed rip of my favorite Science Fiction cum Horror film, it is hard to score this one. However, as I did play with a group who had never played who had never hurt of the original film that spawned the franchise – love it or hate it. All of us have stolen from it, so, Robin D. Laws can be excused.