Writer: Sean McCoy; additional development by Donn Stroud, Nick Reed, Tyler Kimball, Fiona Maeve Geist
Layout: Sean McCoy
Art: Sean McCoy
Maps: Sean McCoy
Editing: Jarrett Crader
Publisher: Tuesday Knight Games
Length: Approx. 44pp
First Edition, First Printing 2018
***UPDATE AT BOTTOM***
Look away, ye old-school purists: this is not, strictly, a genuine TSR-derived old-school game. Everyone else: read on.
Mothership RPG made a splash at the end of 2018 (and continues to do so now!) by launching a highly-lauded zine-format rulebook and, following on its success, a possibly even more acclaimed first module. I’ll get to the module in a separate article. For now, let’s focus on the core ruleset presented in the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG Player’s Survival Guide (only its mother uses its full name, and only when she’s angry). Nominally, this is an OSR blog – more or less – and it’s a rare case where I deviate and speak about things like modern D&D or Traveller or whatnot. This is another such case, but I think this one comes very close to the OSR for many reasons, which I hope to outline a bit in this review.
Mothership is the brainchild of Sean McCoy, co-founder of Tuesday Knight Games. It’s a class-based game which uses d10s (quite a few d10s, ideally) and attempts to use these mechanics to focus in on the horror and tension of being a very small human being interacting with things much larger, more dangerous, and more alien than yourself in the vast expanse of outer space. I initially picked this up as a PDF last year, but in January had a chance to cop the physical editions from Jacob Hurst’s PAX 2019 booth. I am glad I did.
First, the art and design, because that’s just what we do here. I think the reason is that I am a fairly dim light bulb and so when I open a book the first thing I do is note the pretty pictures and the layout of those pictures in relation to the text. Then I actually read the thing I paid to read. Anyway. Mothership is wholly illustrated by Sean McCoy himself, and it begins very strong. The cover is stark, well-framed, and shows an astronaut with their chest absolutely devastated outward by, presumably, some alien horror. It is at once highly detailed and also loose or sketchy; I find I am often impressed by artists who know where lines need to be, but moreso they understand where lines do not need to be.
The art throughout Mothership is excellent at conveying a sense of uncertainty and tension, which I think is the point. It is like the sketches of a witness trying to explain what they saw, but what they saw, they have no frame of reference from which to do so. Without being insulting, I hope, I want to say that it intentionally captures the sense of urgency of an amateur trying very hard to explain themselves after the fact. I don’t mean the actual artist is amateurish in the least, just that Sean did a fantastic job of putting himself in the space of the people drawing UFO sightings and such, and people who witnessed crimes trying to show law enforcement what happened. Several images, like those on pages 4, 6, and 12, really have a sense of fear to them as well. There are two or three styles to the art, but overall the consistent theme is that the art is understated. It is in an uncommonly loose, almost impressionist style at times, and it very much lends itself to the topic at hand.
The layout of this book is very good. There is a lot of information crammed into such a small zine format. It does not feel confusing at all, because elements are laid out in an intuitive manner and proceed in the direction of information as you would naturally want or need it. The black border at top is sharp and also often conveys information besides just telling you (very usefully) where you are in the book. This conveys a very military or government sort of technical manual feel without needless extraneous graphical queues to do so. There’s great use of bold text and headings to direct your eye in a very useful, natural flow across the pages. It’s not wholly a spread design, which is an unfortunate side effect of the limitations of the zine format (you’ll hear that a bit in this review), but it does a good job nonetheless of tying connected elements together and doing two-page spreads wherever it can.
The layout does feel somewhat cramped at times, but that is an artifact of the very constrained zine format more than anything else. The more complicated functions are assisted with flowcharts built into the layout, so character and shipbuilding is fairly quick even for the uninitiated. The character sheet at the back is absolutely fantastic. It looks great, it has graphic design appropriate to a sci-fi game, it lays out absolutely everything you’d need to know at a glance. It is the epitome of the flowchart layout I have mentioned – you could fake your way through character generation with just this and a page or two from the book without reading too deeply if you really wanted to, and that’s fantastic. It is to Sean’s credit that the book is so capable of laying out fairly complex processes in such a tight format.
The writing in Mothership is terse. It has to be, again, because of that very compressed zine format. Zines have a limited number of pages. The number has to be even. If you try to inflate the number of pages, the staples burst and/or it does not lay flat when closed. It is a delicate balancing act. Sean walks a fine line here with Mothership as he has to convey the theme and give clues to how to achieve the desired tension and tone without running over the word count limitations inherent to the format he chose. It is very clear and it mostly gets the job done. I feel like a lot of the tone and theme ideas are conveyed mechanically, but very underserved in terms of explicit text; because Sean cannot dedicate the space to much fluff, we’re left scavenging for clues. The D100 trinkets table is brilliant, and an absolute goldmine for ideas and hooks, but overall I would say that you need to come into this game prepared with your own understanding of the sci-fi horror and sci-fi thriller genres. You probably have that background if you’re interested in Mothership for its own sake, however enough acclaim has emerged about this game and its highly competent layout to draw in potentially diverse audiences without that background. For you folks out there who purchased Mothership to see what the fuss was about without any idea of what the game is trying to emulate, please watch:
- Event Horizon
- Black Hole
- The Thing (1982)
- 2001: A Space Odysse
- Pitch Black
- Apollo 18*
I do not think too much is left poorly explained – for the most part. I think the aforementioned flowchart design would have been put to good use to show examples of how Stress and Panic can interrupt existing action procedures. It is a very “interrupty” sort of check mechanic and without using Stress and Panic correctly (which means interrupting things sometimes), you will probably have a harder time enforcing the tone and theme of a horrifying thriller.
I think shipbuilding is more complicated than character building, and could have used a little more room to breathe, but if you read the text closely and really internalize the example ship, the Falstaff, which is provided, you should be able to crack the code pretty easily.
I think that will probably take the most time of any system in this game, but vehicle construction is notoriously time-consuming in almost every RPG where it appears and frankly compared to some games, Mothership shaves off a ton of time from this complex process. If you were in a hurry to run a game and didn’t want to use the provided Falstaff ship, you could probably handwave the majority of it.
The d10 mechanics present in this game are not as simple (or at least, they’re not as familiar to me, and the notation is not as easily interpreted) as a d20 system in my opinion. However, they are simple enough once you get used to looking very closely for underlining in the rules (as it changes the math of the roll). As an example, 2d10 is very different from 2d10. The former gives you a result between 2-20. The latter gives you a result between 20-200, because it is multiplied by 10. You must note this for different types of rolls, but once you get going it becomes pretty second nature. It’s generally like a percentile game with a lot of rolling-under. I enjoy the break from d20, but it does require some attention to be paid at first.
Some of the mechanical interactions are a little fiddly. I feel like there’s more up-front math than I want to do, but I am naturally math averse. It’s not that it’s extremely complex ever, it’s just a little more complicated than I’d ideally like. I don’t have enough in-depth experience with systems of this type to immediately figure out what I’d change, exactly, but I feel like there’s enough interactions between moving parts in this game that slow me down mentally that I’d want to maybe see revised somehow by someone smarter than me. I’ve mentioned Stress and Panic interrupting things, but really it’s a combination of a lot of things, variable targets, etc – I gotta do math, and that’s naturally my enemy. Math is my hungry xenomorph chestburster. It is my HAL. That’s just me, though, probably.
Mothership is in a weird state where this book is nominally the player-facing book (like a D&D PHB) but it contains a lot of mechanics which rest squarely on the Warden’s (referee’s) shoulders. It’s in a strange state where it’s trying to be both. This results in more information than players need, but not quite enough for the needs of a Warden. For example, the book completely lacks mechanics for devising enemy aliens and monsters. That’s sort of a big deal. Some stuff has been done outside the confines of the book to help correct this, but it’s a pretty big oversight and probably my biggest issue with this game. I feel strongly that Mothership needs a Warden’s Manual/Xenobiology Textbook (a D&D DMG and MM respectively) that could spread the rules around and reorganize things to fill gaps and offer breathing room. As it stands, you can absolutely play Mothership as written and stat stuff up on your best intuitions and/or download official and fan-made supplementary documents from their site and Discord and subreddit – but in a perfect world, I suggest the above.
I’d like to talk about why I feel this game resonated with me, as someone who enjoys primarily old-school games.
First, it reminds me of Traveller in a lot of little ways, and that’s an immediate positive for me. I think (but do not know!) that Sean intentionally leaned a little on Traveller, and the game benefits strongly for it. There’s a few little clues here and there of a Traveller “lineage”: calling space combat armor “battle dress” feels like a nod, the skill system seems inspired by some Traveller skills, and so on. I really appreciate this as a Traveller fan.
Second, the gameplay reminds me a lot of old-school percentile games. It makes its own kind of sense in the way that WHFRP did back in the day, which I played a little of, or Rolemaster, which I didn’t play until much later. It feels comfortable once you get used to the dice notation.
Third, the feedback cycle of this game trends towards the same difficulty of old-school D&D. Finding clever solutions and struggling against odds stacked way against you without concern for “encounter levels”, “challenge ratings”, and “balance” is very much old-school D&D to me. Your character is very small, space is very big, and even a futuristic rifle and some spacesuits won’t protect you from the horrors that want you very, very dead. You are constantly looking for back routes (ventilation systems?), alternative plans (blow the whole ship up with the aliens?), and potentially having to make very difficult choices (sacrifice your friend intentionally to save everyone else?) in order to try desperately to survive. That’s D&D. The promise of gold and glory is largely absent from this game, and survival becomes its own reward. This is terrific.
Sanity, Stress, and Panic are great mechanics that really help put the focus on the turmoil and tension inherent to the genre. I have always liked Sanity in games. My first run-in was Call of Cthulhu, of course, but it has been adapted to AD&D 1E and AD&D 2E games I’ve played over the years by house rules and I have always found it fun. I will write an article about that someday. But its presence in Mothership, flanked by Stress and Panic checks, is immediately a crowd-pleaser for me.
I think Mothership rides a fine line where it squeaks in just enough old-school inspirations and elements of play to really strike a chord with me. I think this is true for many folks, because when it was released it received a ton of praise from other OSR community members who seem to feel the same.
So, conclusion time. What do I think about Mothership overall?
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.
MOTHERSHIP PLAYER’S SURVIVAL GUIDE: 9/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:
Mothership gets four possums who have no mouth and must scream out of five! It is a terrific game, with absolutely incredible layout in a very restrictive format. The format is really fun, but it also limits what Sean was able to include and I think if he ever released a second “Warden’s Manual” or reprinted it in a larger format and could add a bit more with the extra breathing room that would result, it would be an instant buy and clear up any tiny details that I would like to see. What a great game. What an impressive achievement for a single designer/writer/layout artist/illustrator! I cannot say enough great things about Mothership. I want you to go buy it right now. It’s PWYW with a suggested price of $7.00 for the PDF on DriveThruRPG – support Sean, because he’s raising the bar to astronomical (no pun intended) levels and everyone is going to be playing catch-up for awhile. There have only been a very small handful of game products outside D&D-specific things that I have been excited for in the past few years, and Mothership and its modules is one of them.
Time-sensitive note: As an aside, Mothership has a Kickstarter in its last few days over on the Zine Quest event that was hosted in February. It’s called A Pound of Flesh, and it’s a module for this game being made by Sean and Donn Stroud (he wrote Dead Planet, the module I will review shortly). It is a whopping 64x funded! I backed it on day one. You want to back this. I need you to trust me on this. It even has a tier that will get you Mothership RPG, Dead Planet module, and the upcoming module all together so you can dive right in from zero.
Okay, that’s that. Mothership is great. If you disagree, or you agree and want to tell me about how Martian brain bugs murdered all your friends last weekend on game night, or you just saw a real UFO and you want to talk about it, hit me up on Twitter. I am there as @dungeonspossums and I am always up for a chat!
*These movies are actually pretty bad, but they do show the themes and the plot progression very well.
Addendum: Updated 01 Mar 2019 @ 1355 CST
After showing this review to the Mothership Discord on the day of publication, some chat began about fixes and upcoming changes with channel members and also staff members Sean McCoy and Jarrett Crader. We got the following information:
Sean McCoy said, “Thanks @DungeonsPossums I think your thoughts on the shortcomings of the book line up largely with mine and the stuff we’re working on fixing for the future releases. … We don’t have anything solid yet, but the dev team has been shown it and told ‘go’.”
Jarrett Crader said, “The PSG is and always will be pwyw in pdf. Wardens’ Operations Manual (DMG) and Aliens & Other Horrors (MM) are in planning stages. … It’s all that: PLANS but thus far we’ve done well with turning plans into realities.”
Oh yeah, and then Sean dropped this mockup of the Mothership “Black Box” box set that would contain these updated products:
So keep your eyes peeled, friends. Mothership is about to get completely crazy.
I *badly* want to play or run Mothership. I have a copy of the player's guide, and a pledged to Kickstater for the great big print bundle with Dead Planet and everything else. I'm so very eager to grind some player through it all.
I really want to play Mothership — It's rattling in my skull, influencing how I think about my design.
Great review, I totally agree. I am very happy to have found Mothership. I was looking for something exactly like that for a while. I backed the KS at the top level to get the physical books (I have the PDFs).
You forgot another nod to Traveller in your review: the LBB! It totally makes me think of the original Little Black Books edition of Traveller.
I want to come up with The Perfect Horrorbeast for an Aliens knockoff… but I think Giger already did!
That's a great point – the black and white and the size/softcover presentation do kinda hearken back!
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