Saturday, September 5, 2020

REVIEW: Mothership Player's Survival Guide

The early history of the Old School Renaissance was dominated by the publication and dissemination of retro-clones like OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry. This is completely understandable, given the pre-eminent position played by Dungeons & Dragons in the history of the hobby of roleplaying. But there has always been a significant percentage of gamers who either outright dislike D&D or who want something else. These attitudes, I think, limited the initial appeal of the OSR, which was, somewhat unfairly, seen as being little more than a fan club for older editions of D&D and thus having little to offer those with differing tastes.

True or not, this perception of the OSR lingers. This is a shame, because, since the beginning, there have been games that stepped outside D&D, both mechanically and thematically, that are nevertheless broadly within the "old school" camp – or, if one prefers, the "do it yourself" sensibility that characterized the early hobby. Stars Without Number is a good example of what I'm talking about, though there are many others.

Which brings me to Mothership Player's Survival Guide, the science fiction horror RPG published by Tuesday Knight Games. Released in 2018, the Player's Survival Guide (hereafter PSG) is a 40-page black and white rulebook written and illustrated by Sean McCoy. Inspired by science fiction movies, television, and literature where the protagonists are trapped in space and facing inscrutable, relentless enemies – think Alien, Event Horizon, or even The Black Hole to cite a few cinematic examples – Mothership is not a game for the faint hearted. Much like Call of Cthulhu, characters can and do die, often horribly. Also like Call of Cthulhu, dying is part of the fun in Mothership. In my own play of the game, characters regularly undertook dangerous and foolhardy actions without concern, which is as it should be in a game that so gleefully takes inspiration from the classics of sci-fi horror.

Character creation is quick and easy (as it should be in a high lethality game). Stats (Strength, Speed, Intellect, Combat) are generated randomly by rolling 6D10 and adding up the results. There are also four character classes (Teamsters, Scientists, Androids, Marines), each of which is differentiated by its saving throw bonuses and starting skills. It's worth noting here that the character sheet is incredibly useful, since it doubles as a flowchart for the character generation process. A player armed with the sheet needs nothing else to create a new character. The game's back cover likewise consolidates all the basic mechanics of the game for ease of reference. Helpful features like this appear again and again through the Mothership PSG. It's an exceptionally well presented book, one of the best I've ever seen and a model for others to emulate.

Mothership uses ten-sided dice exclusively, something used as percentiles and sometimes simply as D10s. Skill resolution is percentile, with criticals (both successes and failures) being the result of rolling doubles (22, 77, etc.). The game also makes use of the advantage/disadvantage system of rolling two sets of dice and taking the best/worst result that seems to be commonplace these days (popularized by the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I believe). Saving throws (Sanity, Fear, Body, Armor) are a key aspect of the game, with, as noted above, each character class having certain strengths and weaknesses. Relatedly, characters can also suffer stress and panic and the PSG covers these effects and how they can be relieved. 

Combat, equipment, hiring mercenaries, and starships are also detailed, all topics of importance not just to any RPG but specifically to a science fiction horror RPG like this one. In each case, the presentation is every bit as important as the content. Mothership excels in presenting rules in a way that are easy to use and remember. In most cases, everything relating to a particular topic is placed on a single page. For example, all the rules for combat are included on page 9, while all the damage rules are nearby on page 10. This makes it easy to find what you're looking for, which encourages a fast-moving, nimble style of play – exactly as it should be in a game in which your characters regularly find themselves fleeing from extraterrestrial horrors.

I struggled with this review. No enumeration of the contents of the Mothership Player's Survival Guide can adequately convey its strengths or what makes it so compelling. In play, the game runs smoothly, simultaneously providing a solid mechanical foundation for players and the referee (called the Warden) and serving as a spur to one's own creativity. Mothership is not a mechanically complex game nor does it present a fully-fleshed out setting of its own, leaving that to each Warden to create. For example, its starship design rules are not long – just a couple of pages – but they are presented in such a way that they enable the designer to produce a deckplan at the same time with little effort. Likewise, there is no lengthy history of the future or discussion of interstellar society, but there are random tables of trinkets and clothing patches that are highly suggestive and inspiring. Sample trinkets include pamphlets entitled Against Human Simulacrum and Android Overlords and there are patches saying "I am my brother's keeper" and "Smile: Big Brother is Watching." Much like the game's rules, these little touches of flavor punch well above their weight, giving Mothership a unique and compelling voice.

The Player's Survival Guide offers not just a tight, well-oiled little game engine but also imagination fuel for creating your own dark tale of truckers in space, which, as we all know, is where no one can hear you scream. I can't recommend Mothership highly enough. I've had a great deal of fun with it and I expect you will too.

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