Mothership (p)review

Mothership, a sci-fi horror OSR game by Sean McCoy & Tuesday Knight Games, is quite popular. Seemingly any time someone asks for a game that has anything remotely to do with sci-fi or horror, Mothership will be among the recommendations. What’s interesting is that Mothership isn’t even properly out yet: what we have is effectively an Early Access player guide, 0e as the author calls it. At the time this post is published, the kickstarter campaign for the full version of Mothership is well past the million dollar mark with almost a week left to go.

This unfinished nature of the game hasn’t prevented numerous Mothership adventures from being published, both first- and third-party. What is the allure of this game that has attracted so many creators, what does it look like right now, and what can we expect from the full rules? I’ve been running a weekly game for the last few months, so naturally I have opinions to share.

Mothership has firmly occupied a niche that is surprisingly underserved: the grimy and gritty future of space exploration that movies and video games have promised us. Somewhat paradoxically, its distinguishing feature is the lack of a setting attached to the game. There’s just the general vibe of getting killed by horrible things out in the darkness of space.

There are very few established facts to contend with: space travel is common, including hyperdrives; there are human-like androids; you probably owe a lot of money to a corporation. The rest is up to you. Sentient aliens? If you want them. The Alien-like aliens? Inevitably. Mind-warping artifacts, cybernetic viruses, megalomaniacal AIs, evils of (space) hypercapitalism? All this and more. The possibilites are as vast as the space itself.

Sci-fi horror tabula rasa is well and good, but what about the game itself? That’s the unfortunate part: 0e is functional at best. The core mechanic is a fairly standard d100 engine: roll under attribute + skill (if you have one) to succeed. In case of an opposed check, both characters roll. If both succeed, the highest roll wins. Doubles on a success are a critical success and doubles on a failure are a critical failure. Items and circumstance can also grant advantage or disadvantage, enabling the player to roll twice and pick the better or worse outcome, respectively.

In addition to the attributes you roll when a character acts (Strength, Speed, Intellect, Combat), characteres have saves (Sanity, Fear, Body, Armor) that are typically rolled in response to something happening to the character. Failure on a save inflicts Stress as well as whatever other consequences you might suffer. A critical failure on a save leads to a Panic Check: if you roll 2d10 over your Stress the character panics, and you roll 2d10 again, this time adding your Stress, and look up the result on a panic table. These range from an adrenaline rush to a heart attack, and indeed Stress can be deadlier than physical damage. In addition, most classes have special clauses around Stress and Panic. For instance, when a Marine panics everyone else makes a Fear save.

The Stress rules avoid a common pitfall with such sub-systems: they don’t grind the action to a halt all the time. Fail the save, mark stress, move on. Panic rules, on the other hand, plunge right into this pit. First, there’s no good reason to have two distinct rolls during a panic check that use the exact same numbers, character’s Stress. Second, it’s a different mechanic to the rest of the system, and it requires a table lookup to boot. Moreover, it often causes a cascade of saves and panic checks, roll upon roll, completely destroying the momentum of the scene.

As is traditional for OSR games, combat is deadly and fairly straightforward. Characters get two significant actions each round (great if you’re doing something tricky, kinda boring if you just want to shoot). Attacks are an opposed check with defenders rolling a save (and thus gaining stress on a failure) or perhaps Combat to counter-attack in close quarters – the rules are frustratingly vague on this. As written, it is the strictly superior option most of the time: not only do you get a chance of damaging the enemy, you won’t gain stress if you fail. But if the enemies follow the same rules, close quarters combat devolves into a frenzy of stabbing and counter-stabbing that the PCs are unlikely to win.

Monsters have a built-in defense against lucky one-shot: Hits. A typical monster’s stats look something like Hits 2(30), meaning once it takes 30 or more damage, it looses a Hit, with no carry-over damage. Narratively the monster sustains a significant injury and may change its behavior as the result. Unfortunately, these rules are not a part of the only official rules text, Player Survival Guide (0e), despite Hits being used in the published adventures. A curious gamemaster has to look for supplemental sources such as the game’s discord server to figure them out.

On paper, combat rules are fine. In practice, problems crop up almost immediately. It may take everyone a couple of sessions to get comfortable with opposed checks, which is not ideal for a system often used for high mortality one-shots. More importantly, combat is drowning in these opposed checks, which often have minimal impact: percentile systems are already prone to high failure rate, and both sides rolling and counter-rolling twice each round just gets cumbersome. A back-of-an-envelope calculation shows it takes well over a hundred rolls to get through an equally matched firefight. Now, granted, standing and fighting is not a good idea in an OSR game, but sometimes the characters don’t have much of a choice.

Probably the best part of the game is the character sheet. It is basically a flowchart for character creation, slick and stylish, just hand them out to players and they’ll be ready to go in a couple of minutes. There is, however, a nuance. Not all skills are created equal: some offer additional benefits that could be crucial, like Firearms training allowing you to reload quickly, or Tactics giving a bonus to your initiative check. This is not reflected on the otherwise perfect character sheet – even an asterisk next to the skill name would have helped.

This is becoming a major pet peeve of mine, minor caveat rules that you read and nod along because they make sense (sure, if you know how to handle firearms you know how to reload them quickly), but that slip so easily out of mind during the actual game. At worst you remember there was something important, something that could potentially tilt the odds in the PCs’ favor, and flip or scroll desperately through the rules: was it under Skills or Combat? Nope, Weapons.

To a certain extent this applies to equipment, too. A party that found pain pills and stimpaks in the equipment list will be at a significant advantage compared to the party that blinked and missed them. On the other hand, monsters are not balanced with drug use in mind – in the grand tradition of OSR they’re not balanced at all.

While character creation is a straightforward process, the same cannot be said for ships. The game features fairly involved rules for modelling your space ship, with various modules taking up hull points, which in turn require greater amount of thrusters and engines to power them. It’s not rocket science, but a fragment of the ship creation flowchart on the right should give you some idea of how complex it gets. It’s a good flowchart, I like it.

Ship creation does take a while, going over the components, figuring out the invisible thresholds crossing which means you need extra support components which in turn mean you need extra hull which means your ship gets much bulkier. It’s an interesting minigame, ruined only slightly by being ultimately meaningless.

The reason you should care about ship size is its cost: a single hull point costs 10 million credits. A Courier ship, capable of delivering a few people and a tiny payload from point A to point B and little else, has a minimum hull of 30 points, or 300m credits. A ship actually capable of combat starts at 55 hull points. That’s half a billion credits, with credits very roughly equivalent to dollars.

The rules suggest the ship the group owns is of a minimum viable size, with 6d10 percent paid off. They further suggest 10% of all credits earned in-game go towards repaying the debt, “for simplicity’s sake”. While certainly simple, it doesn’t feel right. I’m not advocating for modeling a mortgage calculator, but the whole “you’re half a billion credits in debt, so just pay 10% of your income whenever you’re able, no worries” thing just doesn’t ring true.

Economic woes go further: it costs a lot to operate a space ship. A unit of fuel goes for 10k credits, and you burn one of those per day, more when landing on a planet, more still when using a hyperdrive. The game sets up this enormous economic pressure on the party that would, ideally, push them into accepting dangerous missions we the players want them to engage in. The problem is that at the same time the rules don’t offer any guidelines for actually relieving this pressure.

This part of the game is obviously directly inspired by Traveller, the classic debit-driven sci-fi game which I’ve only read about. However, my understanding is that Traveller does in fact offer a robust economic system where the party can conceivably keep themselves afloat by undertaking various jobs, and an entire campaign can spin out of them trying to make ends meet.

Mothership, in contrast, just indicates that money are important but leaves the GM to figure out how the players are going to get them. Running a spreadsheet of fuel expenses and ship mortgage payments and trying to match it with similar payouts for deadly tasks is presumably not why you chose to run Mothership, however, which means you’re probably just going to handwave this, which in turn means money is basically meaningless. Except getting paid was supposed to be the motivation for going out into the unknown in the first place!

This is where a system should come in and offer some guidelines, but alas, alack. I understand we’re talking about a 40-page early access players’ guide, but it has four pages dedicated to mercenaries (which our group has never touched, but I guess they’re a staple of OSR), I feel it could have spared a couple pages to develop its economy.

Some of the adventures take a non-systemic approach to rectifying this: Gradient Descent lists the going rate of various [REDACTED], while A Pound of Flesh has tasks and their payouts scattered throughout. Maybe it’s just how my mind works, but I find this entirely unhelpful. I’d much rather have a simple table of task difficulty ranges and corresponding rewards than feeling like I need to collate all the sample data and extract this information.

This economic mess is further compounded by there being essentially two economic scales: macro ship costs that measure in hundreds of thousands to millions of credits, and micro personal costs that rarely go above thousands. In a campaign where the party operates their own ship, personal expenses are a rounding error. The relatable issues like choosing between a nicer hotel or a bigger gun fade into insignificance. Making both macro- and micro-prices relevant in the same game is a tough nut to crack, and I just might have to try my hand at it if Mothership doesn’t.

If you got this far, you can see I’m quite critical of Mothership 0e. Yet despite having these issues with the game, I’m still running it weekly, and having a great time with it. The rules are not fantastic, but they do work. It’s the adventures that shine. We’ve started the campaign with Haunting of Ypsilon-14, followed it up with Dead Planet, and are currently wading through Gradient Descent interleaved with A Pound of Flesh – all official adventures. Perhaps the PCs will elect to take a vacation on the Desert Moon of Karth next, or discover What We Give to Alien Gods. Or any other of the third-party adventure, there are so many and they all look so good.

And it’s very important to underscore that all of my criticisms are for the 0e version of the rules. In fact, the reason I listed all the issues I have with the rules that are about to become obsolete is because the 1e rules promise to address most if not all of them. Opposed rolls in combat? Gone. Panic checks? A single roll. Auxiliary skill benefits? Gone. General promises of smoothing out edge cases and simplifying the rules aplenty.

Reading the kickstarter campaign page and various previews and discussions surrounding it has been a very pleasant surprise. It would have been so easy for the creators to declare the game was already popular and therefore good enough. Instead, it is clear they’ve listened to player feedback, played their own game, and iterated upon the rules. In short, they’ve actually used the 0e as an Early Access game.

Of course we don’t yet know how well any of this is implemented, that’s the nature of many kickstarted projects. But I very much look forward to digging into the fully released game. It has the potential to be easy to run, evocative, flexible, brutal. A steadfast companion in exploring the horrors of the universe.

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