Horror

[Review] Tabletop RPG ‘Mothership’ Has All the Tools for Exploring the Terrifying Corners of Outer Space

In 2019, the first iteration of Mothership, now known as 0e, won several awards at the Ennies, one of the biggest awards in the tabletop RPG space. A couple years later, they ran a massively successful Kickstarter campaign for a print run, earning over $1.4 million. Not only did this include updated 1e rules, but also a core set that contains four additional books along with some fun pieces to bring life to your table. While the game was obviously well acclaimed in its original incarnation, it’s clear that everything in the new Mothership 1e Core Set has improved upon it, making it a total package for any RPG fan.

Mothership allows players to play out sci-fi horror stories about the terrifying things you’ll encounter while exploring the reaches of outer space. While this isn’t exactly new (I’ve previously reviewed both Alien RPG and You’re in Space and Everything’s Fucked for this site to name a few), but it stakes out a space for itself in the genre through a set of rules that are easy enough to learn, but have a character-focused level of complexity to them.

The Player’s Survival Guide is your core book in this set, with all the rules you’ll need to both play and run Mothership. It’s a pretty slight book, clocking in at just about 40 pages, but it packs a lot into its small page count. The dice resolution is done by rolling two ten sided dice, with one representing the tens and one representing the ones, giving you a number between zero and ninety-nine. You have scores for both Stats, which are used to do actions, and Saves, which are used when your character is reacting, and you’ll be attempting to roll under your number anytime you do a Stat or Save check. These Stats can also be boosted by specific skills that come from your class, but those skills only come into effect if they are relevant to the roll. For example, if you have the Botany Skill, that will give you a +10 to investigating a horrible plant growth that’s infecting your ship, but not to all intelligence rolls in general.

Should you fail, not only does the situation get worse, but your character also earns stress, which will come into play when making Panic Checks. These Panic Checks use a twenty sided die, and should you roll less than or equal to your current stress value, there is an effect that is chosen from a panic table that can permanently affect your character going forward. This can be as simple as gaining another stress point or as impactful as being haunted by visions of something visiting them in their dreams. Since the game is about throwing players headfirst into high-pressure situations, adding in these psychological effects will help players roleplay them more complexly, creating a more interesting journey for their characters.

And that character’s journey will likely be a short one. Mothership is meant to be a highly lethal game, so characters often do not survive very long. There’s even a high score that you’re meant to keep track of at the top of your character sheet which keeps track of the number of sessions this character has survived as you continue to rotate in new characters for the players to inhabit. The core of the character survival system is a combination of health and wounds. Characters will start a specific amount of hit points and a maximum number of wounds. Should their hit points reach zero, they reset their HP to max and roll on the wound table. There’s a D10 table with columns for the die result as well as the type of damage you received to help figure out what happens to your character. This could be anything from a snapped collarbone that gives you disadvantage on strength checks or a gunshot wound that will require surgery to survive.

If you reach your maximum number of wounds, you’ll be forced to make a death save. The game encourages you to roll the die and keep it concealed under a cup, only allowing players to find out the result if another player spends a turn checking their vitals. Like the panic system, the wound system does a good job of tying the health mechanics of the game to your character’s development, making for a desperate narrative as you continue to get more and more beat up as you go. The game intends for you to center an adventure on a single, very powerful threat, and it’s thrilling to see how quickly you can go from in control to completely on your back foot.

In addition to the basic rules about stats and dice resolution, the Player’s Survival Guide also includes lots of supplemental rules to make it more of a fully rounded experience. There’s a long list of equipment, including firearms, armor, and trinkets, that can all be purchased in order to aid your character in their adventures. If you want to lean more into the survival aspects of the game, there are rules for dealing with food, water, radiation, cryosickness, and the like so you can fully portray the dangers of outer space travel. You’re also provided with rules for shore leave, where players can reduce their stress levels and convert that stress into improvements of their Save scores, which is a smart way to reward players who embrace the danger and let their stress levels increase through play.

The real highlight of the package for me was the Warden’s Operation Manual, which is a comprehensive guide on advice for running Mothership. This is less about the specifics of the rules and more about the philosophy of conceptualizing and organizing your prep for each session, and it’s full of a ton of great lessons. Since most of the adventures are organized around facing off with one horror, as they call it, they lay out a very smart system they call TOMBS for planning them out. This stands for Transgression, Omens, Manifestation, Banishment, Slumber, the five acts they see in the narrative of interacting with the enemy. This system does a great job of pacing your tale, allowing you to appropriately build tension as players find out more about the nature of what’s going on.

Since stories at the table often come from forcing players to make compelling choices, another piece of advice they give is trying to force players between three different things in the narrative: survive, solve, or save. When you have to make a meaningful choice between helping the scientist get free, figuring out the mystery of the signal that’s been broadcasting, and escaping with your life, it’s guaranteed to make for a memorable session no matter how they react. This book not only helped me think about running the game of Mothership, but also was amazing advice about running any other horror tabletop game, making it a valuable tool that I’ll refer to constantly.

Two of the other books included are supplements that will provide you with some more tools for your GMing arsenal. The first is the Shipbreaker’s Toolkit, which gives you some rules for running a ship, from combat to upkeep, and a list of ship models to give you some base stats and deck plans to work with. The second resource book is a monster manual of sorts, evocatively named Unconfirmed Contact Reports. Inside you’ll find not only stat blocks, but wonderfully creative descriptions of the monsters. As I flipped through this, I found several creatures within that would be easy to center an adventure around. Some of them are more ‘simple’ monsters like zombie or greys, but many of them are more out there than that, ranging from a VHS that makes people into cannibals to a field of energy that can revive any biological life, no matter how many pieces it’s been cut into. The descriptions are well-written, giving you just enough flavor for the entity without filling in all the blank spaces, allowing you to use them however you see fit.

Rounding out the set of books is Another Bug Hunt, an introductory adventure for Mothership that’s meant to span four sessions of play. As the title would indicate, it takes a lot of inspiration from the setup of Aliens, but there are some wonderful twists to the formula that makes it standout. It’s a great storyline with a solid cast of characters and lots of options to present to the players. Carrying forward the tradition of the Warden’s Operation Manual, Another Bug Hunt has a wealth of advice for running the adventure, telling you when and how to present information to the players and how to handle their actions in specific situations. It does a great job of demonstrating how to pace an adventure, starting out with a mission that slowly ramps up the dread and ending with a desperate fight for survival.

The box also contains a bunch of little extras that can give the game a bit more punch at the table. Not only does it give you a set of the dice necessary to play, but it also gives you a set of more than a dozen standees of people, monsters, and ships that can help bring your scenario to life. There’s a double side map that works as an example for a ship layout and a place to play out ship combat scenarios. My personal favorite bonus is a tri-fold GM screen that features all the tables you’ll need right at your fingertips. These elements aren’t all entirely necessary, but they make the total Mothership package feel more special than just a game manual.

All these different books and extras are unified by a nice black-and-white art style that feels very dark and ominous. The images throughout the various books play with several sci-fi horror tropes, but add their own little spin to them to make it their own. Unconfirmed Contact Reports in particular has drawings that range from horrific but clear renderings of monsters to more impressionistic nightmares that capture the entire vibe of the beast in a single image.

The Mothership 1e Core Set is a great package for anyone looking for a sci-fi horror game to bring to their TTRPG group. At its most basic, its rules are simple enough that anyone can pick it up quickly, but there’s also enough to the game beyond the resolution mechanics to allow you to play either a quick and exciting one-shot or a long-haul space-faring campaign where you rotate through a cast of characters as people continue to succumb to the horrors of your journey. Not only is it a great package for players, but the tools Mothership gives you as a GM will set you up for success. There’s a great amount of content that you get for the price, and there’s years worth of extra supplements out there that you can pick up if you’re looking for a thrilling adventure to run for your group.

Mothership is currently available for purchase at the Tuesday Knight Games store.

4 out of 5 skulls

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