A Game Per Year: Astra (Bonus 1991)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of Astra

Astra was published in the first wave of Finnish roleplaying games, in 1991. When roleplaying landed in Finland in the late Eighties, there was an initial burst of activity which resulted in both domestic releases and translations of U.S. games. Publishing petered out almost completely by the late Nineties, to resume with more vigor in the 00’s.

Astra is a pastiche of Call of Cthulhu, complete with investigative gameplay, a sanity system and monsters with unpronounceable names such as Koqakinha and Erlechot. It’s from the era when presenting a system, character creation rules and a bunch of creature descriptions constituted a roleplaying game. Fortunately there’s also an extended example of play and a sample adventure from which you can figure out the Cthulhu-style Investigator-based play.

The game’s system and the equivalent of the Cthulhu mythos was created by the grand old man of Finnish roleplaying design, Risto J. Hieta. It was written by Ari Tukiainen and illustrated by Hans Zenjuga. Both Hieta and Zenjuga are still active, the latter contributing many of the striking visuals in new games such as Sotakarjut. The Astra boxed set also contains a short comic although it’s more comedic in style than the approach the game itself suggests.

The system is based on the idea that skill levels multiply dice results. This means that the difficulty curve is extremely punishing for low skill levels. You simply can’t achieve the necessary results without the multiplier provided by a high skill score.

The game’s mythology is built around the idea of a monstrous creator spirit trapped in the Earth’s molten core. If there are enough cultists around the world seeking to worship it, perhaps it’s kind will arrive from the stars to free it and to allow it to rampage across the world once more. Meanwhile, it has dumb servitors, giant monsters awakening around the world to destroy and consume. These are known as “Sijaiset”, “Substitutes”.

What’s interesting about the way the game is written is that it’s text suggests experience with running games. It talks about the kind of things players usually try to do, attitudes they might have and even difficult assumptions they might carry over from other games. This is striking because at the time of the game’s publication, roleplaying had existed in Finland for less than ten years, only a few of those as any sort of a popular hobby.

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