This is another long, narrative review originally posted on Explorers https://www.theexplorersco.com/home/2019/mothership-review. Check it out if you want to read with images, links, and layout. Meanwhile, if you want more nitty-gritty details about the game, check out Questing Beast on Youtube or the terse and all-knowing tenfootpole.
I played this game for about three months. Like Blades in the Dark, it hits a place very personal to me.
A quick primer (with some copy and paste from the publisher)...
Survive. Solve. Save. Pick one.
Mothership is a sci-fi horror roleplaying game where you and your crew try to survive in the most inhospitable environment in the universe: outer space! You'll excavate dangerous derelict spacecraft, explore strange unknown worlds, exterminate hostile alien life, and examine the horrors that encroach upon your every move.
Mothership is actively in development. This is a beta release. There will be limited print releases of the beta at most major conventions (Origins, Gen Con, BGGCon).
Looking for an adventure to run? The first adventure for Mothership, Dead Planet, is available and it’s stupid-good. And now they’ve started pre-orders for A Pound of Flesh. Find all on the Tuesday Knight Games website.
I had a short stint building cars. The archetype of a factory worker is true. Grizzled, blunt, and a little crazy. Their ritual was to suck down a pack of Marlboros, zip up my jumpsuit, clap me on the back, then drop me into the furnace to “clear slag.”
The insides were light-devouring, sweltering, and fumed with acetone. When I breathed it was strained and recycled like blowing sweat through a straw. The slag was congealed and the vents were caked in ash that hung like motes of fiberglass. Then the headlamp started flickering, a problem with a problem, a Russian nesting doll on a mobius-strip kind of problem. It was horrific and primal and claustrophobic, and I loved it.
This is what it’s like playing Mothership.
Mothership puts characters in jams. It’s an RPG about vacuum-sealed chumps made to solve problems. The game excels when it leaves politics and ennui in the airlock. The characters don’t have time for such nonsense, they have issues to blow up, or harpoon, or buzzsaw, or jettison into space and pretend it wasn’t an issue in the first place.
Problem solving in Mothership is lethal. Players learn from their mistakes while their wannabe Ripleys cannot. First lesson of Mothership—in space no one can hear you scream, and if they did, they’re probably next to die. People shouldn’t foster relationships with coke cans from vending machines, and players shouldn’t write backstories for characters plopping out of cryosleep.
In some ways this game is like those in the OSR or Traveller. But it isn’t. Characters are short lived, and death can feel arbitrary, but horror cannot feel arbitrary. It’s impossible to fear what we don’t care about. But Mothership finds gravity in weightless lethality with success.
Failure means death, but success means there are stakes. The more characters survive, the deeper they sink their hooks into you. A survivor in Mothership is a miracle. Like oxygen molecules turning into gold, they’re statistically improbable. Yet here they are – breathing ash through a straw – and it’s hard not to love them.
It’s this emotional tug-of-war I found most intriguing during play. At first, it was like any other deterministic RPG, “find the problem, solve it, feel like a winner.” But the more you win the more you start to push your luck, watching, waiting to see if the characters pass the event horizon. Which they almost always do.
When I was in the factory, every finger-gnashing, limb-ripping gear was on display behind chicken wire.
Mothership’s mechanics feel exposed and visceral like that.
It’s a roll-under percentile system, with probabilities between 0 and 99 percent. Numbers beyond that, like damage, belch in pyrotechnic displays. Like a shotgun, which can deal 200 damage, or a ship’s railgun which can deal 10,000. Meanwhile, a character’s health stays well within that 0 to 99 range.
When there’s conflict in the story, the players come up with a plan. In some games, characters know information and how to use it. Players don’t have to explain how they roll for investigation to know the truth. Not the case In Mothership. Characters might know Xenobiology but they still need players to come up with ideas on how to apply it.
This leads to one point of friction in the machine. What’s the science of your science-fiction? For example, what happens when we release someone into space? Some media says you turn inside out. Others say you freeze. Others say you burn. Others say you can be revived after a few minutes. Each individual game group decides the minutia of space. Which, because their plans depend on it, they eventually will.
As a game, with dice and structured conversation about the fiction, Mothership is old school like Basic Roleplaying or Call of Cthulhu. It’s not abstract or high-minded or “indie” as the storytelling demographic might call it. Mothership is made of iron. It’s filled with pistons and hoses with oil leaking out of it. It’s objective. It relies on its numbers. There are no tags, or aspects, or points for roleplay or pacing. It’s not malicious, it’s indifferent. The odds are slim but they’re printed on the character sheet.
This often poses as a strength for the game. Because it doesn't define everything, talented players and game masters can push it wherever they want. It reminds me of simple, hardworking machinery like early Ford engines. They can't do anything without a good operator, but they can be fixed and modified with paperclips and chewing gum. They work better caked in mud.
However, it does have weaknesses. Specifically the balance between structured "hard" rules and unstructured "soft" rules. For example: combat. This game has detailed, objective rules about attacking, evading, and killing, including illustrations of weapons with stats. But it doesn't have rules for the tension leading up to it. So when combat does happen, the table halts as it transitions from the game master's tension-building to the prescriptive turn-order of combat with dice rolling.
This is partly because of how the game values smart play. Without reliable consequences, and expected results, problem-solving can feel rudderless. Players need to know how and when death is coming. Math does that really well. But, I can't help but wonder if that lethal consequence couldn't be faster than two or three rounds.
The design’s iron comes to life in the product design. Attention all game designers: study this game’s layout and information architecture. It has more in common with an auto mechanic’s bible than an RPG book.
That means narrow margins. Headings are numbered by page and order of appearance (ex: headings on page 5 would be labeled 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, etc.). Cross-references. Bolded keywords. Bullet points. And tables – so many tables. It feels like the ephemera of a spaceship’s engineering department, not just in appearance, but in function.
When you use a Mothership product, you don’t search, you flip pages and drag your finger like a heat-seeking missile. Think of how you look up things in a D&D product: you play roulette with the index and start scanning. In this product, you’re tubed around on flowcharts and section headers.
In architecture, this design and aesthetic might be described as “brutalist.” Unpretentious, raw, and functional. In a cityscape, the brutalist building is often the civic courthouse made of concrete. This game looks and behaves like that. It has no free-flowing curves or philosophical filigree. This game is about rigid right angles and dense construction. It’s brutalist. The Soviet, nuclear fission lab, and 90s webpage of RPGs.
And it all points to the sweat-stained, indifferent space. Mothership products are hyperfunctional down to their foundation. They’re not books or even digests – they’re zines in their beta release. The product’s still evolving. One real-life teamster after another is playing this game, fine-tuning charts for how to build a spaceship.
Either pour some concrete or get buried in it.
Buy or not buy?
Yes. Mothership has its problems. Like a factory, its parts are constantly being greased while new ones get shipped in.
There’s a mantra in this game. “Survive. Solve. Save.” Survive the problem. Solve the problem. Save everyone from the problem. In the game, characters only get to pick one and live (or die) with the consequences.
Right now the designers, writers, and community are making that same decision, but I don’t think it’s going to be fatal. The game is too good. And as Mothership makes the interstellar journey from beta to mass release, I think the team will get to accomplish more than one. Something their titular chumps in vac suits never will.
In the factory, you don’t judge the machine by its complexity and number of parts. You judge it by how well it works with the bare minimum. Mothership runs well on one engine. It might need the occasional dive, a clap on the back, some attention from the game master. Maybe it’ll burn you, force you to get your hands dirty, but that’s why you’ll love it.
- Landmark layout and product design
- Hyperfunctional, pick-up-and-play
- Practical, transparent mechanics
- Pithy setting like Alien and Dead Space
- The game is still in development
- Combat pales compared to pre-combat tension
- Requires talented GMs and players
- GM/Warden guide not available yet
Anyway, that's my long, long review of it, but I want to hear what everyone else thinks. Have you played Mothership? How did it play for you? Let me know down below. Thanks for reading