What Do I Know About First Impressions? Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG Player’s Survival Guide
I’ve been playing in Sean P. Kelly’s (of Gaming and BS fame) Mothership game on Thursday nights (which you can see here). As we have been playing the game, I realized I had to do a first impression article for this product. I’m going to write this as a first impression because I think, from what I understand, there is going to be a more comprehensive single volume for the core rules coming out in the future, and the current version is pay what you want.
Currently, Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG is divided between the Player’s Survival Guide, which is what I’m looking at for this first impression, and the various adventures that are published. The reason I’m making this distinction is that there is no game moderation, NPC, or creature stats included in the Player’s Survival Guide. There is a lot that you can infer from the Player’s Survival Guide, but for the full game moderation experience, you need to pick up one of the adventures for a better look at the “other side.”
The Mothership Player’s Survival Guide is 44 pages long in PDF format. This includes a Player’s Cheat Sheet to summarize the rules, a two-page blank character sheet and a two-page sheet for ship creation, a weapons summary chart and a table of contents.
The format of the book is two-column, black and white. Headers are clear and numbered for the individual topics that they cover (for example, the character creation headers are numbered 1.1 to 1.6, in addition to having a topic header.
There are several charts inserted into the book, some sample numbered and filled out sheets, and many of the creation rules for both characters and ships have a flowchart style designs. In addition, in the equipment section, weapons are summarized with illustrations, with stats appearing in call-out boxes for those images.
The first section of the book is a character creation page, which summarizes all of the steps on a single page. This walks players through randomly rolling for states, checking the right boxes for starting saves, marking off starting skills, rolling for a random trinket and patch, and then finishing up derived stats and gear.
It’s worth noting that part of why the summary is a single page is that the character sheet has various sections that highlight the differences between character types and just require the player to check off the right areas of the sheet to indicate the choices made.
The class descriptions don’t appear anywhere outside of the character sheet, so the sheet does some heavy lifting in defining the differences between character types. Characters include the following:
Each class has modifications that it applies to stats and saves, and has a special way to deal with stress and panic. For example, the Teamster is specifically the steadiest character regarding panic, the scientist affects the stress of others when they fail a sanity test, androids unnerve others, and marines cause fear saves when they panic.
Dice, Stat Checks, Advantage, & Disadvantage/Critical Hits, Opposed Checks/Saves
This section explains the general rules conventions for resolving tasks in the game. In general terms, it’s a percentile-based game, where rolling under your stat indicates that you were successful. Skills in particular areas allow you to add a number to your stat, giving you a wider range to roll under.
The game utilizes advantage and disadvantage, meaning that characters roll d100 twice, and take the better roll, depending on if they have advantage or disadvantage. Characters may get advantage or disadvantage from circumstances around them, or from having help from allies.
There are a wide variety of skills, with related specialties representing Trained (+10%), Expert (+15%), or Master level (+20%).
Characters roll saves as a reaction to something happening to their character, as opposed to the active rolls used to adjudicate proactive intervention in a situation. These rolls are affected in the same way, being granted advantage or disadvantage given the circumstance.
Armor saves can be modified by wearing different types of gear.
Survival/Combat: Surprise, Turns, Actions, Attacking, Cover/Hit Location, Damage, Healing, Death
This section goes into more detail on how to adjudicate situations that come up in the game. In some cases, it’s just a notice of how long a character can go without food, water, or oxygen, or what kinds of jobs characters in the setting will be taking. However, it also introduces a Crisis check. This is a more complicated form of adjudication that is ranked from 1 to 3, indicating the number of successful rolls, in succession, needed to succeed at the task.
Crisis checks allow for a retry if the character accepts additional stress, which plays into some of the later mechanics in the game.
Initiative is a matter of who passes a speed test, with successful characters going before the oppositions, and characters failing the roll going last. Causing damage in combat is a matter of winning a successful combat versus armor opposed check. There is a chart on how characters that are injured regain consciousness and what happens to them, and optional hit location rules.
The weapons sections include rules on ammunition (untrained characters might unload everything a weapon has whenever they fire), individual weapons (including tools that can be used as weapons), and bonuses from range and aiming.
Armor includes items worn that increase the armor save, even if that gear isn’t primarily used for armor, like vac suits. In addition to the statistics for armor bonuses, this section lists things like how much oxygen certain suits have, and any integrated equipment, like communication devices.
Equipment is summarized on a page and a half with quick descriptions of what those items of gear do, like granting bonuses to different types of skill checks, the range of communication equipment, or the amount of air in an oxygen tank. It also includes some pieces of gear used for alleviating wounds short term, like pain pills and stim packs.
Some rules address addiction and the ongoing, diminishing effects of items that mask pain or other symptoms.
Trinkets and patches are bits of “personality” that a character gets in addition to their gear package or any items that they buy. These are both on 0-99 charts.
There is a section in the book that includes hiring other characters to aid the group. There is a procedure for negotiating for pay, general stats for different types of employees, and a section on “scum,” cheaper potential employees with troublesome quirks that might make them a liability in some circumstances.
Stress/Panic & Resolve
One of the ongoing elements of the game is the accumulation of stress. Under certain circumstances, a character will need to make a Panic check. When a panic check is made, a roll is made on the Panic Effect chart, adding the stress level of the character. The highest level results include circumstances a character cannot permanently low there stress below a given threshold, the character completely breaks down, or has a heart attack and dies.
Space Travel, Hyperspace/Basic Ship Classes/All Ship Sections
The next eight pages are dedicated to ships and ship operations. Ship classes are given, but the ship classes do not have set stats. Instead, every ship is customized by following the ship design flowchart and adding the number of modules of individual types indicated by the ship type.
There are stats for how long it takes for FTL ships to move between regions of space, how many fuel units are burned up doing different things, how much effort it takes to repair a ship, what ship weapon stats are, and the critical hit effects on a ship.
All of the options up front make this section look a bit more daunting at first than it may actually be. When you follow through the flow chart to the ship components, the process breaks down the procedure to bite-sized bits, but looking at it all at once can be a lot.
Experience Points/Leveling Up
The next section in the book details the number of XP a character gets for surviving a session, as well as bonus XP they get for various emerging story goals, or class-based tasks. Levels go from 0 level to 10th level, and there is a chart showing the ever-increasing numbers needed to gain a level.
Unlike a game like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, characters just have a set number of things they can gain when they pick up a level, rather than a constrained list of benefits that come from leveling up. Characters can choose between improving one or two stats, healing stress, removing phobias or addictions, or getting extra skill points.
What I Have Seen?
We’re currently playing through the Dead Planet adventure. Most of what our characters have interacted with has involved combat, basic tests, sanity, fear, and body tests. We haven’t interacted much with the Crisis check mechanics, or with anything other than basic checks with the ship itself.
What I Would Like to See
I’ll be honest, I’ve had a lot of ideas on how to structure a game using this system while we have been playing, and I do wish there were a little more GM facing information in some kind of core book. I know in this case, a lot of the tone of the campaign is set with the adventure, but it’s such a robust toolkit, I want just a few more tools . . . if that makes any sense.
I’m not sure that the amount of effort spent on ship generation is as fruitful as it could be given the scenarios I’ve heard discussed. It feels like it would be more useful to have a few example ships rather than the modular creation system, especially since the emphasis is that most player characters are never going to own a ship, and are often working on a ship owned by “the Man.”
While I like that the rules are open-ended in their descriptions, I wouldn’t mind a few examples for some of the more interpretive elements. Not only is this good for gauging how broad or constrained your own ideas should be, it also helps to have a list for players that just can’t come up with something on the fly. Some places I’d like to see examples would be in what some common Crisis checks from the sci-fi horror genre look like, or a list of example phobias that a character might develop.
It feels like there is a lot of room to create campaigns based on what classes or equipment you constrain, and the kind of campaign framework you come up with. To that end, I would almost like to see example campaign structures in broad terms, and maybe even a chart that characters could roll on to see how they started working this job.
The actual rules introduce the themes of survival horror in space by mentioning the scarcity of items and introducing the stress mechanic into the game, and in the fact that characters have stress or panic modifying abilities. Beyond that, there isn’t much in the way of a discussion of the horror or gritty science fiction tropes.
This wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but some of the patches and the Hiring Mercenaries: Scum section introduce elements that could signal that content is okay for some players, without much of a discussion on if that content will work for the table. For example, one of the “scum” entries is The Sex Bot, which has sex manuals, and lube and is described as hypersexual.
All of this serves to remind me that I would really be way more comfortable if the game itself were to bring up things like lines and veils and active safety tools. Both gritty science fiction and horror genres are going to bring baggage that not everyone at the table will be comfortable with, and mentioning potentially fraught topics in passing may be worse than not addressing them directly.
Its interesting that I see this game mentioned as being “old school,” because while I see some elements of that, like the mercenary hires, a lot of this just feels like applying a d100 system and some fear and stress-based subsystems to the science fiction horror genre. It’s not quite as idiosyncratic about some of its rules as some “old school” games are, but it’s not quite as over-designed as it could be for the style of game it is presenting.
There are a lot of “sci-fi horror” adjacent games I can see this set of rules addressing, because the sci-fi horror structure of Mundane Situation/Mysterious Danger/External Pressure is a pretty broad narrative form that can include a lot of storytelling. Depending on what exactly the “External Pressure” is, that can help determine the length of the campaign you can run for something like this.
Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing whatever form this game takes, especially with more robust GM tools in a core rulebook, more campaign structure discussion, and more table safety discussion included.