Looking at the Building Blocks in Mothership

One of the things that convinced me to do my first impression of Mothership is that, as I’ve been playing the game and reading the Player’s Survival Guide, it strikes me that it’s a pretty flexible system for running science fiction that is based on stressful situations with mysterious developments. The system itself is billed as a science fiction horror RPG, and I definitely won’t question that, but there are a lot of “sci-fi horror adjacent” science fiction stories that use the same tropes as science fiction horror.

Building Blocks

Looking just at some of the stories from the genre, you have the Aliens movies, Pandorum, and Event Horizon for movies, and video games like the Dead Space games, and I would argue the more slower paced, survival horror feeling of Doom 3. These movies have a few story elements in common.

  • Limited Access to Greater Resources and Support
  • An emergent mystery that causes complications and tension
  • An ongoing stress that acts as a timer for the protagonist’s actions

Looking at these elements, we can then look at a lot more media that is adjacent to this form of storytelling, even if it shifts the dial a bit from “horror” to “thriller.”

Star Trek First Contact

  • Trapped in the Past
  • The emerging mystery of the Borg having a singular leader never before encountered
  • Ongoing stress with the timetable of getting Cochrane’s launch to happen on time

Lost in Space (Netflix)

  • Trapped in an unknown region of space
  • The emerging mystery of FTL technology and the robots
  • The ongoing stress of being able to return to the colonies


  • Trapped on an orbital prison overtaken by prisoners
  • The mystery of where the person that you need to save is located
  • The ongoing stress of the degrading state of the space station

The Expanse

  • Holden and the crew are often on the run and/or reliant on gigs from the outer planets
  • The ongoing mystery of what the proto-molecule is capable of and if it has an agenda of its own
  • The ongoing stress of avoiding the machinations of opposed political factions

None of these stories is a true horror story, although both First Contact and Lost in Space have moments that are closer to being framed in this manner (the Borg are cyborg zombies, and this movie makes that even more expressly clear than any of the TV show appearances). Despite that, there is clear tension, and tension and pressure is the key to using the tools that are evident in Mothership.

Campaign Dials

Looking at those three elements, it’s a little bit easier to see where you can turn the dials up or down to move a game of Mothership from a one-shot, a story arc, or an ongoing campaign. The key is the degree to which you want to play with each of those settings.

How Much of the Game Do You Want to Use

Because there are a lot of modular bits to Mothership, it might also help to think about what bits you want to use. If you want to have space battles, hire mercenaries, and have time for players to use long term advancement rules, you may need to widen your scope a bit.

If the ship is just a location, and the focus is clearly on the player characters, without worrying too much about recruiting outside help, then it’s a lot easier to calibrate for a one-shot or a story arc.

Limited Access to Greater Resources and Support

In a one-shot or a short story arc, this is a dial you are going to turn all the way to “really limited.” Players may be trapped on a single ship, building, or space station (a limited location with many “rooms” essentially) for a one-shot.

For a short story arc, you can expand the number of wider locations. More than one ship, maybe somewhere to land. This gives players options to explore more places and get into more trouble, which can spread out over a few sessions.

For a longer campaign arc, the other side of the dial still needs to be limited. This sector of the galaxy only has backwater space stations and settlements, and doesn’t have the best equipment available. You can’t expect to call in a full-blown military ship for backup if something goes wrong.

This still gives you the constrained feeling that the PCs will have to deal with the stuff they encounter, and not leave it for anyone else. It still leaves room for you to introduce the full range of gear, recruiting mercenaries, and paying for fuel and upkeep for which the game is written.

calibanAn Emergent Mystery that Causes Complications and Tension

The mystery is going to be a key item to incorporate to play with some of the game’s mechanics. The difference between a sanity save and a fear save could easily be that the player characters don’t know enough about something to know how it functions yet, and that challenges their concept of reality. Once they know how something works, then it can just scare them senseless.

In a one-shot, the mystery can be something that isn’t evident at the start of the game. You introduce how things should work, remind them that they have limited access to resources, and then the mystery can show up. The mystery for a one-shot doesn’t have to be deep. An alien artifact is on the ship and it turns people into cannibals . . . that can be a two-step reveal that doesn’t even require much in the way of investigation, but seeing the artifact, then people not acting normally, then evidence of cannibalism, creates interest in finding out more about the situation.

The emergent mystery for a story arc should be something that can be partially revealed from running into trouble, but may require some investigation from the players. For example, you run into a weird techno-virus creature, but you have no idea how long the techno-virus takes to overwhelm the system, or if it can be reversed. That requires active research.

The longest arc for the emergent mystery is going to be for a campaign. In this case, you don’t want to introduce more unrelated mysteries. Traveling from one sci-fi horror trope to another starts to transition from feeling like horror or thriller territory to monster of the week monster hunting, which I love, but it’s different than straight-up horror.

In this case, you need to figure out the “rings” of your mystery, but make sure each ring is related. First, you find out about a weird mutation that hits people in this sector of space, then you determine that it’s caused by a weird pulse sent out by sabotaged FTL drives, then you find out there are mechanics on the take at various space station repair bays, then you find out there is a cult that worships a weird alien space god trying to mutate people into the mutant space god’s image. That’s several nested rings that can take a while to unravel, while still being connected, and flowing from one to another.

lockout 05An Ongoing Stress that Acts as a Timer for the Protagonist’s Actions

Stress gives you an excuse for your characters to make bad decisions. We don’t want our protagonists to be incompetent, but we can totally understand if they drop a wrench into a reactor core when acid saliva starts dripping on their vac-suit.

Stress is what helps to make the characters feel at least a little bit out of control, and feeling out of control is another thing that draws the line between a monster-hunting theme and a horror or thriller theme. You can’t just focus on solving the mystery, you have to deal with the ongoing stress as well.

I would also argue that “Mystery” provides opportunities for sanity saves, while “Stress” provides the opportunity for fear saves, but I don’t think that statement is an absolute, just a trend.

Unlike the mystery, I think you can shift what the stress is that keeps pulling the character’s attention away from the mystery. You can have a space station falling into a sun as the “limiter” for both a one-shot, and for a single session of a longer campaign. You don’t have to go the Dragon Ball Z route of finding a way for the space station to fall into the sun for 12 episodes and pretend there is still suspense.

You may want to tie the stress into the mystery, however. For example, if a space station starts to fall into the sun, and then the next session the ship’s thrusters misfire, causing the group to need to make emergency repairs before they slam into a satellite, that might all tie back to the mechanics on the take from a cult.

Like the mystery, you can also “nest” the stress, by creating a broad theme of stress (we’ll never find the caravan of ships we were traveling with), and then come up with related rings of stress (we’re trapped in an unknown region of space, then we see the caravan, but our fuel source gave out, but we got their jump coordinates, etc.)

ScarecrowThe Mystery Box

One of the other elements of horror stories is finding out what all of this was about. Why would anyone start slipping space gremlins into starships, and where do they come from? Were these really ghosts, or was there some kind of scientific explanation for the residual psychic impression.

You may not want to reveal everything, and you may not have an answer for everything, but you probably should have an endpoint in mind. The big mystery reveal is X, or if they don’t fix Y before time runs out, it’s all over.

My recommendation is not to try to end your horror story with too much of a highbrow, “what did I just watch” kind of ending. It’s fine to give away a major piece of the mystery as the group is roasting to death because they never found the bodies that the mob hid in their air ducts, and they never convinced the specters that they didn’t have anything to do with the last owners of the ship.

On the other hand, making people wonder if the campaign ever really happened, if they are actually in the afterlife viewing events from a different perspective, or are trapped in a simulation may not go over well, especially in longer campaigns where the characters have been invested in finding out about the reality they actively interacted with.

One comment

  • This is awesome analysis. I think there’s a another set of dials that could remove the “horror” aspect entirely and replace it instead with a sense of lost “hope” in the case of trying to build or crush a galaxy spanning grit and sandpaper rebellion but I haven’t thought it out as much as you have yet.


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