An Endzeitgeist.com review
The player’s guide/rules book for the Mothership RPG clocks in at 44 pages (in 6’’ by 9’’/A5), 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, leaving us with 42 pages of content. Yes, I mean 42 pages of content. In the saddle-stitched softcover version, the back cover is a handy player’s cheat sheet, and the player sheet is 2 pages, as is the ship sheet; if you take away these pages from the total, we’d be left with 37 pages, but these sheets are very handy.
This review was requested by my supporters and thus moved up in my reviewing queue.
It should be noted that this book is a great example for extremely tight information design: What at first glance might seem like a mess of arrows on e.g., the character sheet, quickly becomes a rather clear and easy to read example of very tight compression of information. This extends to the inside of the front cover doubling as a page of all weapon stats for easy reference. Mothership uses d10s for everything.
So, character creation is pretty simple: You roll 6d10 4 times and record the results in order: These are your attributes (aka stats in the game) Strength, Speed, Intellect, Combat. When you check something, you roll a d% under the stat to succeed. Unsurprisingly, you can have advantage or disadvantage (rolling twice and taking the better or worse result, respectively), which, as customary, cancel each other out. Advantage is indicated by [+], disadvantage is indicated by [-]. Simple, easy to grasp. There is an interesting twist here: If you roll doubles, it’s a critical! (so 11, 88, 77, etc.); if the roll would be a success, it becomes a critical success instead; if the roll would be a failure, it becomes a critical failure instead. 00 is always a critical hit, 99 is always a critical failure. In opposed checks, whoever rolls higher WITHOUT going over their own stat wins.
This mechanic ties in with skills: Each class (we’ll get to that in a bit) comes with skills. If you aren’t trained in a skill, you roll a stat check; skills are grouped in three layers: Trained -> Expert -> Master. Trained nets +10%, Expert +15%, Master +20%. These values are added to the stat check you roll, and the skills have a skill tree of sorts; in order to take an Expert or Master skill, you need to have ONE of its prerequisite skills. So, e.g., a Trained skill would be Piloting; once you’ve learned that, you can unlock the Astrogation expert skill, and from there, you can unlock the Hyperspace master skill. Trained costs 1 point, Expert 2, and Master 3 points. For prolonged tasks, you may need to succeed at multiple checks in a row—this would be a crisis check, and you can reroll a failed check by taking 1d10 Stress. Even with master skills, the more mathematically-inclined will notice that the average success rate based on the stats isn’t that high.
This is intentional; this is a scifi horror RPG, and as such, it is deadly. It also emphasizes the importance of teamwork and trying to get that precious advantage. And that you’re pretty screwed if you’re alone… Anyhow, there are 4 base classes, each with their own starting skill array, and individual points for skills to allocate. The classes (plus my unsolicited comments in brackets) are teamster (crew, aka monster-munch), scientist (probably mad), android (killer and/or creep-azoid model) and marine (shoot the hull/go berserk in 3.2…1). The classes determine the save values, and boyo, here you’ll have fun: There are 4 saves (sanity, fear, body, armor): Teamsters have 30, 35, 30, 35; androids 20, 85, 40, 25; scientists 40, 25, 25, 30; marines 25, 30, 35, 40. The choice of class also notes modifications to the stats on arrows: Scientists net +10 Intellect; androids +5 Speed and Intellect…you get the idea. Now that you have really determined your stats, you can multiply Strength with 2 – that is your Health.
But back to saves: They work like stat checks, but if you fail, you gain 1 or more Stress (you start with 2 Stress) and suffer some other consequences as well, depending on the save; critically failing makes you subject to a panic roll. More on that later.
Combat is fast and deadly and is classified in the traditional turns and rounds; a turn is when one creature/character acts, a round is the time during which everyone acts once. When you’d be surprised, it takes a fear save to act in the first round. Initiative is handled by the players making Speed checks. On a success, they act before the enemies, on a failure, they act after them. You get two significant actions per turn, such as attacking, checking wounds, opening doors, etc. Attacks are an opposed check of the assailant with Combat against the defender’s armor save. In close combat/melee, the opposed check can be Combat or a Body save instead. You can Aim by using both your actions. If you do not take damage during the round, you gain advantage with your next shot. Reloading is simple and actually has a small and efficient rule for trigger discipline being a factor with automatic weapons. Nice. Ranges are classified in three categories: short, medium (-10%), long (disadvantage). Cover nets advantage on the Armor save. Some weapons might penalize the Armor save, help with Combat checks, etc. Note that some weapons note their damage with an underline, e.g. 3d10. This is shorthand for a damage range of 30-300.
You can move half your Speed stat in meters each round as a significant action, but in heavy suits, you might need a Strength check, or you move only half the distance.
When you take damage exceeding ½ your max health, or when you are critically hit, you need to make a panic roll. When resting for at least 6 hours, you make a Body save, and if you succeed, you heal Health of an amount by which you succeeded the save. If you failed, your wounds won’t heal naturally and need treatment, and on a critical failure, they become worse, and you take further damage. You can only heal wounds from resting 1/day. When you reach 0 Health, you make a Body save; on a failure, you die; on a success, the GM (dubbed Warden in Mothership) rolls on a nasty consequence table.
Well, that’d be the basics, but there is more to note: Beyond equipment and the usual shopping, the book also offers some flavorful patches to roll if you’re so inclined…and the XP system, particularly the optional aspect, deserves mentioning. Mothership knows 10 levels, and saving e.g. another crewmember’s life nets 3 XP, interacting with strange beings might net an XP, etc.; the cool stuff though, would be relegated to an optional list: XP by class. Marines, in that system, would gain 1 XP when they kill an enemy. Scientists when they secure a piece of tech or an organism; androids when they interface with alien tech…you get the idea. This rewards the players for acting in a way that is consistent with the genre tropes. It might not be WISE to do that…but few are the roleplayers who can withstand the delicious lure of XP…
When you level you can increase one Stat by 5 and another by 3 OR improve all saves by 4 – in both cases, the system caps advancement at 85. You also choose a minor benefit: 1 Resolve, remove one phobia or addiction, or heal all Stress. You also gain 2 skill points. The game is lethal, and as such, progression is pretty quick. Food & water and oxygen rules are provided. The booklet also provides the information for hiring mercenaries, determining their stats, motivations, and some sample personas.
But yeah, Stress and Panic. When you fail a save, when the ship’s hit, etc., you gain Stress. When you rest, you can attempt a Fear save to get rid of Stress: For every 10 by which you beat the save (rounded down), you lose 1 Stress; crits double that. Docking in civilized environments, therapy-related skills, drugs etc. can also help you deal with Stress. A panic check makes you roll 2d10 over your current Stress; on a success, you don’t panic and reduce Stress by 1. Equal or lower, though? You panic. This is bad news. You roll 2d10 on the panic table (which ranged from 2-3 to 30…with 30 being instant death), and this includes developing phobias, a death drive…or, if you’re lucky, a laser focus/adrenaline rush. For every Resolve you have, you reduce the result by 1. (so yeah, high results on the panic table are worse.)
The game also includes a rather succinct and simple, yet effective ship-builder system with some serious customization options; instead of Health, it has Hull, and 75%, 50% and 25% thresholds are important. Some basic ship classes are provided, or you can just take a careful look at the ship sheet: The good news here is that the engine used for characters also applies with variations to the ships. (As an aside note: Yes, there are rules for what happens when really big weaponry hits paltry small critters like player characters…MDMG. Mega Damage.)
Sooo…was that everything? Not exactly. You see, each of the 4 classes has a special feature: Teamsters may 1/session reroll panic; whenever a scientist fails a sanity save, every ally takes 1 Stress. Androids have great Fear saves (85!), but everyone else in their vicinity has disadvantage on Fear saves. And when a marine panics, every ally nearby must make a Fear save. Nice.
Editing and formatting of the current iteration of this extremely densely-packed RPG is impressive indeed, on both a formal and rules-language level; not perfect, but impressive indeed. In my print copy, there is one single example where the otherwise superb layout and information design falters slightly: The sample ship sheet that illustrates the ship rules covers two pages, and has 2 other pages in between the example ship sheet stuff. This may be intentional, but since the ship sheet also uses arrows from relevant components to explain how stats and other components are tied together, this imho makes grasping how it works actually a bit harder. Getting the full ship sheet first and then the rules, or vice versa, would have been the didactically smarter move, but I’m complaining at a very high level. The saddle-stitched softcover I have is b/w; its artwork (apart from the ones for equipment, which are solid), are okay, but probably won’t be the main reason for you to get this. The pdf is PWYW…and I can’t recommend it. Why? Because it…drumroll DOESN’T HAVE ANY BOOKMARKS OR HYPERLINKS.
It's a roleplaying game that is an exercise in incredibly TIGHT design; the booklet manages to cram a ton of well-wrought content into its few pages. It is an impressive achievement regarding how one conveys information. It requires close reading as a consequence, but yeah. Considering this, considering that Mothership actually has quite a lot of helpful “see page XYZ”-references, it’s doubly puzzling to me that the pdf has no hyperlinks, and no bookmarks. This makes navigating the pdf a colossal pain. In short: Consider the pdf t be a kind of teaser, but if you actually want to run the game, I suggest printing this, or getting the rather affordable print version. Using the pdf in its current state was aggravating to me.
That being said, this game written by Sean McCoy, with development by Donn Stroud, Nick Reed, Tyler Kimball, and Fiona Maeve Geist, actually succeeds VERY well at what it tries to do.
If you want to play a game of high adventure among the stars, of heroes fighting monsters…then this is not the game for you.
Mothership is focused on scifi horror. You will fail, even in your specialties, and do so quite a lot. There’s a good chance you’ll only rarely have a 50% success chance; without teamwork and care, you will fail and die. This is intentional.
The GM needs to adopt a fail-forward mentality to a degree, and indeed, I think that a Warden’s/GM’s guide as a companion tome to this pdf would be helpful, as getting the degree of lethality right isn’t as easy as one might think. Similarly, creature design, prolonged campaigning, when to allow for a proper rest, etc…there is a lot of stuff that lurks on the side of the Warden that definitely requires an experienced roleplayer, which might be an unnecessary complication for an otherwise well-presented game.
That being said, this review is here not to bemoan the absence of a Warden’s guide, but to rate these core rules/player’s guide, and what can I say: The game does a pretty darn fantastic job at depicting a gritty horror framework where player skill is important, but certainly won’t be enough to save everyone. Indeed, a part of the fun of this game is that it encourages, with its composition and class-specific tweaks, the escalation of plots alongside the lines of established tropes. The characters do have a good reason to take that sample on board, to kill that googly-eyed alien thingy; the game rewards the players for playing their roles and having the situations, as a consequence, escalate.
I really like Mothership. In its print version. The booklet is delightful to handle, and it does a great job conveying information. That version gets a serious recommendation from yours truly—5 stars. The same can’t be said for the pdf-version; the lack of bookmarks and even hyperlinks renders it a mess to use, and that’s a big no-go for a rules-book. The pdf gets 3.5 stars; in total, that’d amount to 4 stars, but there is one more factor to consider: The pdf is PWYW, and the softcover is really inexpensive. That has always counted for something on my scale, and in this instance, I’d give this +0.5 stars for being so fair. You can just check out the guide, and see if it’s something for you. This leaves me with 4.5 stars, and I’m going to round up. Why? Because all of my real gripes beyond the navigation aids amount to me wanting stuff that should not be in a player’s guide.
Will I get a Warden’s guide if we get one? Heck yeah. Until then, I’ll grumble, but also chuckle with glee with this highly lethal scifi-horror-game.