Saturday, June 12, 2021

Game Review: Mothership

Author: Sean McCoy
Cover, Mothership Player's Survival Guide;
©2019 Tuesday Knight Games

Publisher: Tuesday Knight Games
: Custom d100 roll-under 
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG 

Mothership is a space opera horror game in the vein of Alien, Event Horizon, Cargo, Screamers, and Ghosts of Mars.

After listening to an episode of Thought Eater a couple of months ago, I had to rush out and grab the Mothership Player's Survival Guide while I still could. I've been hearing about the game on the podcasts I listen to like Spellburn for some time. Mothership had been has attained cult status in the DCC fan community.

Sean McCoy had just announced that a boxed set would be coming out soon to replace the original Survival Guide that has been making the rounds at conventions for the last couple of years. I realize that this would be a rare opportunity for me to review a product in it's original format, the one that helped it attain cult status, and then see it again in a few months - fully realized - after a couple of years of play testing.

I had been putting off getting Mothership for a while, because I really wanted to try the game, and when I really want to try something that's pay what you want, I try to put down the author's full asking price. It's only when I'm flat broke, or getting something to review for the sake of completeness that I ever consider paying less than full asking price. Not that I think poorly of people who put in $0 totals. It just doesn't suit me to do it. And I has been broke for some time.  Thankfully for me, I had just got a generous art commission. 

So, I grabbed Mothership, read it right away, and, as I had just completed a short Index Card RPG Core 2E game, I decided to create a mini series of five adventures for Mothership, fusing the plots of Mass Effect and Deep Rock Galactic with a touch of Event Horizon thrown in.

Image from Event Horizon; ©1997 Paramount
(It basically stole the original plot from DOOM, if we're being honest.) 

I have to say, I understand it's populartity: I had a blast, even though my five-part series turned into a two session lead up to a TPK.

Mothership runs on  a d100 game that reminds me a great deal of eclipse phase, but with some elements of Dungeon crawl classics.

Characters have four abilities scores determined by rolling 6d10 randomly down the line, and then choose a class which modifies their ability scores and sets their initial skills and saving throws. The ability scores are Strength, Speed, Intellect, and Combat. The saving throws body, fear, sanity, and armor.

The four classes, marine, scientist, android, and teamster are taken right out of the Alien movies.

All rolls are done by rolling 1d100 and aiming to get under the appropriate stat or saving throw. If a character has an appropriate skill, it adds plus 10, 15, or 20 to the stat before rolling. Certain pieces of equipment like smart gun systems and body armor also increase and ability score or save.

Characters also have a hit point score that can range from 18 to 175, and a stress rating that starts at 2 and can climb up to 20. 

The system is entirely player-facing. Things the character actively tries to accomplish are handled with ability score checks. Things the character is trying to resist or survive or handled by saving throws. Attacks are resisted by the armor save roll. Catching yourself while falling is a Body save. The GM needs only roll when a character has suffered damage to determine how much. Although, even that job can be offloaded to the players.

Whenever a character is injured, their ship is badly damaged, they come across something difficult to understand, are subject mind control, etc, they can receive stress points. Each time a significant number of stress points happen at once, character rolls too d10. If they roll under their current stress, they roll on a panic table with a modifier equal to their current stress. The results can be anything from feeling a sudden lunatic calm that relieves stress all the way to dying instantly of a heart attack. Stress is relieved by relaxing, meditating, praying, having someone psychoanalyze a character, drinking, or doing drugs.

The rules for Starships are modular: a starship is built by choosing a combination of necessary and optional modules. I can see influences from BattleTech, Traveler, and the old Palladium games in their design. Ship to ship combat uses a mega damage system like something straight out of RIFTS.

Rules for oxygen supply and food are the most fiddly parts of the system, but even they are relatively lightweight and easy to handle.

Play is incredibly fast, and feels very old school. A lot of GM adjudication is required because the rules are so light.

What really impresses about this game are it's little flourishes, however. It doesn't incredible job of adding little touches that really make it a pleasure to play, and it's very smart design choices for genre emulation.

What I loved

Character Generation 

Character generation is exceedingly fast. Once I made my first couple of characters for my one shot, I caught on and could build a character in less than 3 minutes. After rolling stats, hey character has to choose a class, choose a few optional skills in addition to the one set for their class, choose a gear package, and randomly roll for one trinket they have taken with them into space, and one patch on their jacket or spacesuit.

Those last two items are a real triumph. Each is a d100 table that adds a lot of flavor, you get a good idea of what kind of character you are playing. Given the rapid rate at which characters perish, you don't want a system that demands a powerful backstory or hours of decision making. 

Stress and Panic Rules 

The stress and panic rules are very robust. You can figure out a save and an amount of stress for almost any situation that might push a character to their limits. Stress piles up slowly at first, and then quickly later. It incentivizes playing characters who don't spend every waking moment focused on the task at hand. Resting, drinking, carousing, or doing things that you can imagine a hard-working space farer might do in their downtime actually have a strong mechanical benefit.

Players who push their characters too hard are pushing them towards an early grave, which scans for the high pressure environment of space.

When a character finally breaks, the results can be entertaining. The longer they have managed to hold it together, the more dramatic the break can be.

A good role-player can take the psychotic break described in the panic table and roll with it to create incredible events that belong in a good sci-fi horror movie.

That is how my Mothership campaign ended, by the way. I had one of the party space marines , Mathilde "Megadamage" Helming lose her shit after having a leg ripped off by an alien crab spider. The table determined that she had to do her utmost to make everything around that is not a human die, and so she decided to throw a grenade, regardless of the tight quarters. Her roll to throw the grenade exactly where she wanted it failed miserably, and I rolled an impromptu scatter table and had it land short, putting the entire party in the blast radius.

We all had a really good laugh over the results. When we have accidental damage caused by one player to another now our group refers to it as taking megadamage.

The Character Sheet

While a bit busy, the Mothership character sheet is possibly the most useful one I have ever seen. It has on it the entire character generation process. Interconnecting lines show how different scores affect each other. Once you have skimmed the rules once, you can use the character sheet to cover almost everything else except the detailed rules for stress, and healing.

Mothership Character Sheet; ©2019 Tuesday Knight Games 

The ship character sheet does the exact same thing for space travel. In essence the entire rules are distilled down to four pages that cover everything a player needs to know and most of what a GM needs to know as well.

The NPCs

The rules for NPCs are nice and straightforward. A huge cast of potential characters I contained in one convenient chart. What I really loved, however, was the scum table. This is the table for hiring cut-rate crew members who will not do a very good job, but may be all the player characters can afford when they need to fill in their crew in and don't have the credits.

These characters are far more detailed than the generic crew members, and almost all of them are the kind of golden comedy relief that a good horror movie has. Characters you either love, or celebrate when they die messily.

Automatic Weapons Rules 

Just about every weapon in a character's hands are as much of a threat to everyone around us they are to any aliens or killbots the player characters may have to face. No weapon in the rule set isn't well designed and uniquely flavored.

One of my favorite rule connected to weapons, however is about automatic weapons fire. In essence, a character who has no military training does not have the trigger discipline do anything but a single fully automatic spray with a fully automatic weapon. After one attack, the magazine is empty. Characters with military training may instead fire in several controlled bursts, getting more shots out of the same weapon.

I might also add that no weapons in Mothership have a lot of endurance on the battlefield. This game is meant to emulate a horror story like Aliens, not a military science fiction story like Mass Effect. 

In many ways it reminded me of the happy times as hey kid I enjoyed playing the Phoenix-Command driven Aliens Adventure Game , where a character often and ran out of bullets just as things were getting hairy, and you couldn't carry an infinite supply.

Starship design

I only had called to design two ships for my short series. The ship design system lets you create a map as you build a starship that's design makes sense. You have a list of mandatory systems, as well as a lot of systems that you have to take in order to have certain functionalities added to your ship. Each module requires a 20x20 Square minimum of space. In some cases, like in the case of galleys or cryostasis chambers, it makes sense for you to fuse them together. It also includes a minimum number of bases used for corridors, bulkheads, airlocks, etc.

By the time you are done designing a ship, you have a great map that your characters may find themselves stalked through and buy some alien horror for deranged crewmate.

Ship map created in Dungeon Scrawl using icons by
Lorc, Delapouite, Skollm and Lord Berandas from game-cons.ner (CC-BY 3.0)

Above is the map I used for the starship B├║rinn in my short series. 

The Art

"Cyborg Heads" Image by Sean McCoy; 
©2019 Tuesday Knight Games
I have been seeing some of the art for the upcoming Mothership boxed set on my Twitter feed, and it is stunning. However, I hope that some of the original artwork by Sean McCoy will remain in the upcoming manuals. His style is rough and sketch like, but incredibly evocative. I really enjoyed the places where artwork was added into what is otherwise a fairly sparse manual.

End pages

I love it when a book makes good use of its end pages. And the mothership players survival guide does an amazing job by including weapons and damage tables along with other incredibly useful rules summaries on the end pages of the book. There is very little space wasted in mothership.

Growth points


The Mothership manual is well organized. It has a useful table of contents and appendix, which for a small Indie publication is stunning. The order in which chapters are presented, can be confusing however. I find myself having to browse a fair distance through the book to go from combat to healing.

The document itself is laid out rather like a 1990s-style software manual. With numerated and subnumerated sections. So you might be referred to section 26.3 for one piece of information and 25.2 for another. It is useful for reference, and certainly it probably helped in designing the game. However, I find it detracts from the experience of reading the manual.

A few small tweaks to the order in which information is presented, and doing so with more conventional section headings and page number references is a shift I would really appreciate in the boxed set.

No Sample Threats 

As this is the sole core book for the original version of Mothership, I could have used some examples of alien head crabs, demented cyborgs, space zombies, and kill bots to have an idea of what a threat should look like. As is, mostly I just decided how many hits something could take, what kind of damage it did, and let the engine do the rest. It was a bit of a guessing game to figure out what was going to work effectively.

I think it bares noting that almost all NPCs work on a limited number of hits scale rather than a damage scale. The player character damage output seems to exist mostly to determine what happens when they accidentally hit one another. The GM is free to use either a limited number of hits or a hit point total for a threats, estimate very high damage as multiple hits. The last of which is good sense when you have weapons that can do hundreds of points of damage and I wish that there had been some guidance on it.

Hopefully that will be something included when we have some kind of game Masters guide book in the boxed set.

Some Sample Material Would be Helpful 

Thus far, there are only a few adventures available for Mothership. I have not had the pleasure of reading them yet. I'm told that Dead Planet gives an extremely good example of how to design an adventure for and play Mothership. It is my hope that in the upcoming boxing set, that adventure or one like it will be included.

Definitely not for Beginners 

While Mothership's rules are simple enough, I would not suggest to be played by beginner players. It requires a lot of previous knowledge of how role-playing games are played for a GM to provide a good experience. Because there is so little in the way of information for the gm, and so little guidance on common threats are cases that might come up, the GM has a lot of adjudication to do in order to run the game smoothly.

I don't think this is a bad thing. In fact, I think that a lot of role-playing games could use to lighten their rules a bit and allowed for more adjudication. But, I think that it is a valid criticism that it relies very heavily on the judgment of the GM, has it provides so little guidance. You are going to have to work for it to provide a smooth experience.


Mothership deserves it' cult status. I have played a few horror in space style role-playing games, and none of them did as good a job of emulating the horror sci-fi genre.  It is a game where characters can handle the day-to-day operations of a starship, but where things go wrong fast the moment the situation gets dicey. Where mounting stress can cause even heroic characters to eventually have a break. And where the alien and horrifying genuinely poses a risk to player characters enough to give players a reason to act as if their characters were afraid.

I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes. And it is one of my new go-to's for a quick and dirty one-shot with friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment