Mothership: First Playtest

August 22, 2017 game design horror lessons learned mothership sci-fi rpgs playtesting gen con

At Gen Con this year, I finally got to run a one-shot session1 of my sci-fi horror RPG, Mothership. We had a good spread of players: two were really experienced, having written or designed RPG material in the past, two semi-experienced with multiple sessions or campaigns under their belt, and two had played less than three or four sessions in their life. Six player party, that’s a good spread. We had:

I’ll try to keep this short, so my thoughts are in the footnotes.

Character Creation

Chargen went by fast, which is good. The game runs on a d% system, so it’s fairly easy for people to get the hang of it. Everyone wrote their own character sheets on small pieces of graph paper and we were off.3

World Building

I ran Stowaway,” the module on the back of the rulebook4 with a small info-dump at the beginning to get them started. I also asked them to offer up some starting plot points to get things moving, since a tiny bit of interactive improv is probably better just to get people to put down their phones and start playing than reading some box text is. Here’s what they came up with:

The players are all crew of the Leviticus, which is on its way to drop off the scientists Prof. Straud and Dr. Caterpillar at a distant planet to study some tadpoles there, with the help of Droidy. The marines, Ray and Theepo, are there to protect the scientists when they land, and De Slappin is there to make sure everyone gets to and fro in one piece. They’re on their way there when they receive a distress signal from an abandoned mining vessel, the Prospero, which is adrift in a nearby asteroid field.

We begin here.

Distress Signal

The first thing that happened was an argument between lead scientist Straud and the ship’s captain, De Slappin, about whether to investigate the distress signal or not.5 Straud wins out, but De Slappin sets a time limit of 20 minutes before he wants to pull out and get back to their mission.

They scan the Prospero6 and see that the ship is in a low-energy life-support only mode and then decide to board. They send the marines and the android in to investigate while the scientists stay back on the ship with the captain.

The Airlock

After docking, they move through the pristine and brightly lit airlock into a completely dark corridor thick with floating dust. They all take Emotion Saves from the darkness. A few of them suffer some sanity damage7. The android turns on his infrared8 scanners and sees some heat prints that look like hand prints.

They move through the corridor and Theepo tests whether the thick dust in the air is flammable by firing his flamethrower a couple times. There is a general hubbub about this, but nothing much comes of it. Body Saves for the thick dust. Everyone passes. De Slappin asks pulls up a map of the Prospero so he can guide the crew through the ship.9

The Crew Quarters

They found a bunch of hibernation chambers with piles and piles of dirty laundry overflowing. They’re a little confused, but decide to head to the bridge.

The Bridge

En route to the bridge they take some damage from the dust (the android of course, does not) and the airlock is re-locked for some strange reason. People take some Emotion Saves even the crew on the ship, and they decide to send Droid to the bridge and send the marines to check out the airlock10. Having an android around gives humans disadvantage on their Emotion Saves as well, so there was some incentive to keep it away from the others. However, this meant the people on the Leviticus could only see through Droidy’s camera-eyes, they wouldn’t have a visual on what the marines saw, and the marines would be at a loss without Droidy’s infrared vision.

The marines discover that the airlock has been locked from the Prospero’s side, and will need to be hacked or broken through in some manner. Also, some of the piles of clothes have moved since they last passed through the crew’s quarters.

Meanwhile, at the bridge, Droidy plugs into the ship’s computer and I reveal some data to the player privately.11

The Prospero has actually been missing for at least a decade. It was a mining vessel, but some accident occurred and no search party has ever found it. There was a crew of ten previously. The locked airlock can be reset by cycling power to the engine, which will leave the entire ship without power for approximately three minutes.

The PCs listen to Droidy give this information as soon as he is able. Again, the De Slappin argues that they should leave the Prospero behind and get back to their mission. Dr. Caterpillar heads down to the airlock in order to attempt to hack the doors open. Professor Straud orders that she be locked into the airlock so as to prevent anything from boarding the Leviticus.12

The Engine Room

On the way to the Engine Room, Theepo fails another body check from the huge amounts of dust contaminating the corridor and sees an undressed man distantly ahead of the group (the marines + Droidy), motioning Theepo to come forward and follow him.13 Theepo tells Ray and they start firing at the man in the distance, however, when they approach where the man’s body should be, there’s nothing. Prof. Straud orders Ray to take Theepo’s weapon away. Ray, however, only tinkers with it, insisting to Theepo that he’s tightening the beam of the flamethrower into a tighter, more controllable burst, so they can use it to cut through the airlock doors.

Inside the engine room, Droidy discovers a makeshift tunnel, lined with organic material and scavenged cables. He’s unsure where it leads, but the crew decides to jumpstart the engine, which they do to no special event.14 While inside the engine room, Droidy notes that the ship has been repaired numerous times with scavenged parts from dozens of ships.

Return to the Leviticus

De Slappin orders the men to return to the ship, which they all agree to do. However, on their way back, they run into a disfigured and mutilated woman who howls about a dangerous man named Orvar” who won’t let her leave. She begs the crew to take her to the mess hall where her daughter is supposedly hiding. With the airlock doors now open, Ray, not wanting to waste more time on the Prospero knocks the woman unconscious and brings her aboard the Leviticus, much to the crew’s chagrin.

Back on board their ship, Ray and De Slappin get into an argument that turns violent when Ray attacks De Slappin. De Slappin relents and allows the woman aboard, which she is taken to the sickbay to be examined by Professor Straud.

Abandoning the Prospero

The crew undocks from the Prospero and heads towards their original research mission destination. Professor Straud’s examination reveals that the woman, Ilse, has never been pregnant, and that her mutilations (lost legs, missing an arm) have been imposed by a small blade over several years. She only mutters about Orvar” and the dust,” while the crew flies away.

Conclusion

We had a good time, though some of the players wished less time was spent arguing about whether they should board the Prospero or not, since that was the module that was prepared. This didn’t particularly bother me. Though, I feel like I should have brought out more antagonists more quickly, and brought out a satisfying climax for the one-shot. In terms of Survive, Solve, or Save in this adventure, the PCs chose to Survive and Save, which they were able to do. They survived with very minimal damage, since that was their first priority, and they were able to sort of” save one person, Ilse. Though whether that ends up being a good or bad thing remains to be seen.15

We’ve made plans to play again soon.

As always, you can download the Mothership files here.


  1. We started at about 10pm and everyone was already drinking, so I set a hard 2-hour time limit on our play time to make sure that I kept things moving, and to set some realistic expectations for the players that this wouldn’t go on forever. At a convention, I think it’s better with playtests to make them as short and sweet as possible. You get 80% of the feedback from 20% of the playing, and all that.

  2. Teamster” is the best name I can come up with here. But essentially its a catch-all for crew members which are not military, scientists, or androids. If you have something better, get at me.

  3. I love this because I think it gets people in the mindset early on that this is your game, you can tear it apart or build it up however you want,” as opposed to this is a product that has to be interacted with a certain way or everything breaks down.“

  4. Mothership exists in its current form as a pocketmod, which is essentially an 8.5x11″ sheet of paper folded up into a small 8 page booklet (including front and back cover). I love this format for a

  5. This is probably good for a campaign (limited resources and all that), but probably not super helpful for a convention one-shot. Then again, I made it very clear that they can do and go wherever they want, so a little player conflict wasn’t a bad thing. People were invested and treating the situation like it was real.

  6. This is the tough part about running a brand new sci-fi RPG, I have very little library content. So I was answering a lot of questions like, We have scans right? Can we scan the ship?” or Can we display that on the viewscreen?” In general, I just said Totally.” This RPG fits on essentially three index cards, so a lot of margin space is to be expected.

  7. One of the major notes I took away from this was that the sanity checks are just too much of a slow burn. We’ll probably make this more like a Panic Check” where you can quickly go crazy” for a minute, but then quickly recover. This kind of game does better with you were out of your mind for a bit and fucked a lot of things up.” I may also implement a more standard insanities system like in Call of Cthulhu where the player just gains certain insanities and you say Okay, so act like you are paranoid now.“

  8. This is the tough part about running a brand new sci-fi RPG, I have very little library content. So I was answering a lot of questions like, We have scans right? Can we scan the ship?” or Can we display that on the viewscreen?” In general, I just said Totally.” This RPG fits on essentially three index cards, so a lot of margin space is to be expected.

  9. At first I outlined the ship and had the player map it out for themselves, but when they got confused later the player got frustrated that I wouldn’t just tell them where everything was, and I got frustrated that the player wanted a perfect map. I was the one at fault here, since you would easily have access to a map on a spaceship that would be near perfect. Next time I’ll have player aids handy that they can refer to, and have my own map with the secret locations, etc. The other note here is that in a sci-fi game, players will have access to a lot more information than you’d be comfortable giving out in a fantasy game without making the players work for it a little. It’s better to just roll with it, than risk railroading the players because you forgot what technology would be available.

  10. I like this aspect, they did a good job of splitting themselves up on their own. In a sci-fi game, more people can be in more places at once, so you have to allow scares from just seeing something on a view screen, etc.

  11. As soon as I said, Let’s step aside for a second,” the whole table went, OooooOOOOoooooh,” which is the correct response. I think essentially all information with androids should be shared in secret, to again increase the natural distrust the PCs have again androids to begin with.

  12. In retrospect, this is exactly what I should have done, had the main villain board the Leviticus where the wimpy scientists were. I wasn’t thinking clearly.

  13. Again, handling this hallucination in private worked out really well.

  14. A fear of losing my main bad guy kept me from having him attack in situations where he was at an extreme disadvantage, which led to some anticlimactic scenes. In retrospect, I would have had him attack the marines at the airlock, then run away. Attack, and then run away. Jump ship to the Leviticus, then run away. Be more aggressive.

  15. Which I like for a continuing horror game. Are their choices going to continue to be a liability for them in the future?



Previous post

Mistakes We Made at Gen Con 50

This was our fourth Gen Con as a company, I think my seventh overall. While we’ve done a lot of things right over the years, we’ve also made a lot...

Next post

B/X/R/X: Monster Manual

There’s something really magical to me about Moldvay & Cook’s Basic/Expert boxed sets of D&D. From a product design standpoint they hold up...


Copyright © 2018 Failure Tolerated | Mothership | About