Review: Dead Planet for Mothership by Donn Stroud


Writer: Donn Stroud; with Sean McCoy and Fiona Maeve Geist
Layout: Sean McCoy
Art: Sean McCoy and Stephen Wilson
Maps: Sean McCoy
Editing: Jarrett Crader
Publisher: Tuesday Knight Games
Length: Approx. 48pp
First Edition, First Printing 2018

A couple days back I reviewed Mothership, a sci-fi horror game that tries to lean on OSR playstyle at the table quite successfully. It’s a terrific game. I also said I’d review the lone (currently) extant module for this game, called Dead Planet. For those of you who read this blog purely for D&D, this probably isn’t your thing, but if you have even a passing interest in graphic design, game/adventure development, or how to lay something out exceptionally well, I need to stress strongly that you either read this review or skip it and just buy a copy for yourself right now. Anyway, on with the review.

Let’s start where we always do, with visual design, by which I mean let’s just get this over with and say outright that this is one of the best modules ever devised. There, I said it, you can close your browser. The layout and graphic design on this book is completely off the scale and raises the bar so high that other people are going to have to redouble their efforts to catch Sean McCoy’s projects. Period. In fact, I feel so strongly that this is the case, I am going to do a very unique thing for reviews on this blog and throw some pictures in here (with permission of the game’s creator, Sean McCoy), because until you see this for yourself you may not realize how good this layout really is. Let’s do it:

That’s the first thing you see when you pass the intro pages. If you do not immediately understand the hook, the theme, and the aesthetic of the module, you may already be dead. But if not, break it down with me: Fixedsys-like font for the location-based roll tables instantly tells you we’re in some kind of sci-fi territory. Black box details instantly give the referee a degree of actionable information even without deep reading. Horrifying, twisted flesh creature shrieking in agony? Oh, so we’re going to die horribly. Cool. My one quibble here is the black boxes shouldn’t interrupt text, but we’ll survive.
Boom. This is an incredible piece of graphic design. This is so immensely thematic, but it’s also readable very quickly and provides information in a digestible manner so that the referee and the players can feasibly make use of some or all of the data on this page, including the art. The art, by the way, is gorgeous. But look at how this treads a fine and utterly gorgeous line between “artsy” design and high-utility design expertly. You can immediately run this, but you’re genuinely going to enjoy looking at it the whole time, too. It’s as inspiring as it is useful.
Look at this. Areas of influence color-coded in a thematically-appropriate style that instantly reinforces “sci-fi movie.” Readability is high. Critical structures and locations are pointed to. Roll tables are present in-line, so you can instantly proceed with gameplay the minute this map becomes relevant. You’re not looking from a map page to another page with keyed information, you’re not left with a half-scale map to couch all the text around, you’re not looking at inset art on a plain white page. You’re in the middle of this. Again, as the referee, you’re given something beautiful and immersive to enjoy while you create this universe for the players. You get to enjoy what you’re looking at.

The maps in this are phenomenal isometric designs with color-coding, number keys, and inset art. You can look at any room and see at a glance what is going on in there. There’s like four styles of maps in here (I’m only showing you one or two!) but they all make it insanely simple to actually describe and run and reference these locations at the table. Visualization is easier than in any other book you can point me to. Necessary side details – like those vehicle stats, for example – are placed exactly where the referee needs them. You’re not flipping pages away from this spread to find that information. This isn’t even the best map in the book, but I’m not gonna give you the whole damn module.

This isn’t even all of the impressive spreads in this book. Every single two-page spread in this book is excellent. You cannot get better than this right now. Period. Sean McCoy and Stephen Wilson just completely upended RPG layout here.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the adventure itself, because this isn’t style over substance. Donn Stroud, with assistance from Sean McCoy and Fiona Maeve Geist, produced one of the best-written modules to be produced in years, period.

Donn’s writing in this book is sharp, to-the-point, and effective. It doesn’t lose sight of the aesthetic or tone anywhere, but it is still clean enough to drive home the important mechanical details. The tables and events throughout this book are where his creativity really shine. Each section and event of the adventure has a good, concise explanation, but it’s the little details that Donn does a good job of ensuring add up to a really alien, ominous adventure. While I am dealing with the matter of text, I want to hit several highlights of his work in this book:

The scenario is made up of numerous subsections, including derelict spacecraft, nightmarish ground explorations, and more. This means you have several sessions with cogent start and stop points, perfect for groups where time is a factor. It also means you have a clear sense of progress and there’s zero fixed path through the overarching module structure. Explore this, explore that; nothing but your choices and the resultant circumstances dictate anything akin to an “order” to this module. Huge playability boon here, and every group you run through it will experience the scenario in very different ways.

The NPCs are great. More importantly, they have clearly-defined motivations and plans, and this means referees are not left grasping for straws as to the whys and hows of their behavior. It also means players get to roleplay, to explore factional divides and choose sides. They get to meet characters, see what makes them tick, and make real decisions on how to proceed with each of them. Faction gameplay like this is present in all great modules. This is what makes roleplaying so much fun. I mentioned difficult choices being a huge point of commonality between old-school play and Mothership; Donn really enables that in this module. It’s here in copious amounts, and most of it will directly impact how your party comes out the other side of this adventure.

The tables are killer. Almost every page has roll tables of one kind or another. The back cover is a quick-reference body search roll table! Every part of this book is mechanically useful and the roll tables are a great example of that. Most of them are stuffed full of setting-building gameable lore, which you may know, I love and strongly approve of. This ensures these details aren’t trapped in the book’s text, but actually make it to the table. I believe Fiona Maeve Geist either wrote or contributed greatly to the Nightmare event tables and related text and they’re absolutely incredibly good at being horrifying, disquieting, and engrossing. It’s easily a high point of the entire module, hands down.


Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they’d all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.

End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:

Dead Planet earns every one of the five emaciated, hunch-backed Gaunt possums out of five that I award this book. Donn wrote an amazing module. Stephen and Sean illustrated and designed the best looking module in years. This is the bar to reach. If I could award this book six possums out of five, I would. I highly recommend this book. Lastly, big thanks to Sean McCoy for answering me when I pestered him out of the blue on Discord and for allowing me to use some big fancy images of his product here.

If you want to talk about visual design in modules and how Sean and co. are making embarrassingly good stuff, or you want to point me to other modules with exceptional layout, please hit me up in the comments or over on Twitter where I post too many times per day as @dungeonspossums.

Oh, also, as I said in the Mothership RPG review, these people are Kickstarting a new module as part of February’s ZineQuest. It’s in the very last hours, it’s going to be bonkers, and as of the time of this writing you have juuuuuuust enough time to squeeze in a pledge to get what will undoubtedly be a beautiful book. Anyone who reads this too late, sorry, but I’m certain you’ll get to buy it later anyway.

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2 comments on “Review: Dead Planet for Mothership by Donn Stroud

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