Getting Rid of Dogfights

22 June 2022 horror mothership sci-fi rpgs ship-combat

I wrote about this a little on twitter the other day, but we’re changing the way we do ship combat in Mothership.

In Mothership, ship encounters are social encounters, not dog fights. The game assumes that the minutiae and logistics of conducting space warfare can largely be handled by the ship’s computer. What can’t be handled is the decision making: should we risk death to fight with this other ship. This means we’re placing a heavy emphasis on a ship’s innate capabilities over the talents of the individuals aboard the ship.1 This feels very on point for a horror game to me. You’re stuck inside the ship that might be your tomb, whether you decide to fight or flee may be one of your last decisions. Also, any aspect of the game that means players are going to talk more about the risks of a given scenario is a good one in my book.

Let’s talk specifics.

The Evasion & Pursuit Phase

This may take weeks or even months depending on how far apart the ships are. Regardless of the outcome (escape your predator or capture your prey), the entire phase is handled in one roll.

Each ship secretly notes on a scrap of paper whether they are Evading (E) or Pursuing (P) and writes down how much fuel they are spending to make this happen.2

Pursuing ships are free to spend as much fuel as they want, but Evading ships must spend a minimum amount based on how far away they are to even attempt to evade.

Both ships must spend at least 1 fuel to pursue or evade. Writing down 0 means they are not attempting to do either and are willing to let the other ship approach or disengage as they wish.

The scraps are placed face down in clear view of everyone and then each ship rolls a d10 and adds their speed/10 (round down. Eg if your speed is 57 you add 5 to your roll).3

Then you each flip over your scraps of paper and add the fuel spent. Whoever has the higher total achieves their goal. Both sides lose the fuel spent regardless of the outcome.

If the Pursuing ship won, then you enter the combat phase. Otherwise, the Evading ship escaped and the encounter is over.

The Combat Phase

At the start of every round of combat, each ship will take 1 Hit, this damage increases by 1 for every round combat continues. These Hits are essentially Critical Hits, each one hurts a lot (and could lead to your destruction).

Once the initial damage is taken for the round, each ship states their intent. A list of non-comprehensive examples include:

Then each side makes a combat check and look up how many Hits you will deal/take on the damage table:

Combat Check Hits
Critical Fail Take +3 hits.
Fail Take +2 hit.
Success Deal +1 hit.
Critical Success Deal +2 hits.

Next, total up the damage you will receive.

Once both sides know how much potential damage they will take, they each have a decision to make: do they want to take the damage, or do they want to let the enemy have their stated intent.4

For example:

A Cargo Freighter is attempting to smuggle contraband past a planetary blockade. An enemy patrol craft detects them and wants to intercept them. The Cargo Freighter is light on weapons so attempts to evade the PC, unfortunately their roll fails and they enter combat. Each side rolls a hit on the Megadamage table. The Cargo Freighter suffers a hull breach and the Patrol Craft loses one of their weapons. After the initial damage is dealt, their intents are pretty clear:

The Cargo Freighter thinks the damage could possibly kill them, so they decide to let the Patrol Craft board them, the Patrol Craft meanwhile thinks the 1 hit is no big deal and decides to take the damage. Both sides write down what they want to have happen: Patrol Craft writes damage” and the Cargo Freighter writes intent.” They reveal them at the same time and combat ends with the Patrol Craft boarding the Cargo Freighter.

What if it had gone the other way? What if for example the Patrol Craft had agreed to let the Cargo Freighter escape and the Cargo Freighter had agreed to be boarded? In these cases the Warden will decide what makes the most sense. In this case the Warden would have ruled that since boarding happens after escaping, the Cargo Freighter would have escaped before the Patrol Craft got to board.

If both sides wish for another round of combat, first check in on what’s happening on the player ship and deal with any issues there. The players can talk, try and make quick repairs, etc. When they’re ready, move on to the second combat round.

Combat continues until one side gives up, escapes, or dies.

Stress & Ship Combat

Whenever a ship fails a check of any kind, all players aboard the ship gain 1 Stress. When a ship critically fails, all players make a Panic Check.

Attacking Multiple Ships

Your ship may attack more than one ship, but it does so at disadvantage.

What are we hoping to achieve with this?

A few things: first in the four or so years since Mothership 0e debuted, I’ve heard maybe 2 stories of ship to ship combat. It’s just incredibly rare. So with 1e I really want to zero in on how a horror game should handle ship to ship combat, and the short answer is: it’s a natural disaster. You’re not in command of your ship, you’re stuck in your ship.

Basically this is what we’re going for.Basically this is what we’re going for.

I want players arguing about the stakes, I want more situations where players decide that it’s better to be boarded than blown out of the sky. I want more captures, near misses, crash landings. I want less Okay make a piloting check.” I want less players sitting around because they don’t have a ship role” to fulfill. All of this feels like busy work to me. In reality it’s either a group of workers screaming at each other, begging not to start a fight with some territorial authority, or else it’s some insane captain just saying Fire.” It’s all about distilling things down to that single decision point and then facing the consequences whatever they may be.


  1. We’re removing the Gunner skill in 1e, and Piloting is on deck to axe as well.↩︎

  2. This is a low number, probably between 1-10.↩︎

  3. We won’t do this division at the table, it’ll probably be notated on the Ship’s Manifest.↩︎

  4. This is inspired by one of my favorite posts of all time.↩︎



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