The first time I was exposed to Mothership I was lucky enough to do so in a cozy after-hours game at GenCon run by the creator, Sean McCoy. From the start it hit a lot of my buttons with quick character creation and an easy to grok rule set. The theme of the game was also an easy sell since Alien and Event Horizon are movies I consider a good social barometer saying: if you don’t like them – we’re probably not friends. All of this comes together in a small zine format with some excellent and innovative graphic design.
Mothership is a new system created by Sean and operates with a percentage based stats and rolls (d%, d100). I’m personally most familiar with d% from the BRP (Basic Role Playing from Chaosium) system used in Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green and to be honest, that’s contrary to a selling point for me. I spent many years running CoC and enjoyed it quite a bit for the scenarios and theme, but this was in spite of the d% rules system. Once I got a hold of Trail of Cthulhu and the Gumshoe system it effectively fired CoC. The d% system didn’t work that well for investigation and times when Delta Green required action, the characters just felt like useless failures. BUT, Mothership doesn’t come off like that. With some modern tweaks such as the much loved (by me at least) advantage/disadvantage modifiers, adaptable skills, and a simple system for critical success/failure (roll doubles on your d%, i.e. 22 or 88) it mitigates the blandness I usually associate with percentage dice rolls.
Creating something that is rules-lite while still being dynamic is an art form for RPGs and I feel like Mothership succeeds there. I enjoy playing a lot of different games to scratch the itch for varied genres or different mechanics. With that, learning a whole new rule set and setting (or really, expecting all the players to as well) just isn’t going to happen all that often. It’s invaluable to have a game that you can sit down to for the first time as a player and fully engage character creation, understand how to play, and know the setting in less than 20 minutes. I see a lot of games being created these days that are focusing on these traits and I hope that the eventual result is more games like Mothership to carry that along. I’m not a fan in general of crunchy rules and bloated settings and Mothership is a great counter to that.
The design of Mothership is amazing in its ability to be both aesthetically pleasing and functional at the same time. It’s clear that a lot of thought went not only into the presentation, but also how to make the layout easy to use on the fly. This is important in ways that I’m not sure why it’s overlooked in so many games. The character sheet specifically encapsulates these principles with its flowchart-like layout that makes it easy to create a character, understand specific rules, and quickly reference during play. Sean’s artwork throughout is excellent and evocative as well. The one criticism I’d levy here is in regards to the standard load-out bundles (which remain a great way to speed character creation) that took a lot of game interrupting page flipping to get to know what each item did. To mitigate this I made my own reference from hacked together pieces from the rulebook (find them here).
Dead Planet is a supplement to the Mothership core rules. It’s not necessary to run Mothership, but it’s not to be missed. Sean’s co-creators on DP, Donn Stroud and Fiona Maeve Geist, do a great job in rounding out some of the core concepts for running the game while being evocative for the GM bringing it to the table. Jammed into this small package is nothing less than a full adventure, a sandbox, rules expansions, plenty of random tables (I’ve used the Jump Drive Malfunction table gleefully many times), and even an excellent random Derelict Ship Creator that’s worth the price of admission by itself. All of these aspects are done in a manner that holds up the original tenants of the game (great design, functional content, and fun theme) while sparking a lot of creativity instead of holding your hand and enforcing it’s will.
After running Mothership a number of times I found running it smooth both mechanically and adaptable on the fly. Every player I’ve gotten this in front of also expressed how much they enjoyed it. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just explain that using a very small subset of the start of the Dead Planet adventure I was able to have three vastly different stories play out. A couple of these game sessions ended in ways that that while the immediate goals were reached and tension eased they still didn’t feel safe – giving implications for where the next session or a campaign could take them. One particular game ended in my favorite way to end a horror game – one character went quietly insane and killed everyone else in the crew at the first chance given.
If you want more information on Mothership, here’s a recent AMA on Reddit to check out.