Leveling Down

4 August 2020 mothership rpgs gen_con ennies

I don’t think Mothership needs levels anymore. I don’t think they serve the game in any meaningful purpose. Here’s a few things that I think could easily stand to replace levels but still give a sense of progression and advancement to players.

Note: This post was heavily inspired by two articles by Dreaming Dragonslayer about running games for young kids. But I’m starting to think rpgs designed for young kids get a lot right that rpgs designed for adults get wrong. Check out the Playing With Youngers series, particularly the articles on 50/50 Resolution and Advancement if you want to know some context of where my head is at.

1. Exchange Stress for XP at Port.

This is something we’re almost certainly moving towards. Basically whenever you make it to a port you can relax and relieve Stress. When this happens, you gain XP. This has the nice effect of creating a sort of risk vs. reward scenario and ties nicely into our Survive, Solve, Save ethos. Essentially, you can improve your character faster if you risk life and limb more. This is taking the word Experience” pretty literally. You’re learning from your past Stressful experiences. If you want to take it slow and be safe, you’ll Survive longer, which is great, but you’ll become Stronger at a slower rate.

2. Spend XP to improve your Saves only.

So, what does this experience do? It makes you more resilient to damage. It strengthens your Body Save, or your Sanity Save, or your Fear Save. You’re less afraid now, more stable, heartier. And appropriately less likely to gain Stress from failing saves. It’s a natural balance. Now, I can already hear players in the discord screaming about not being able to improve their stats, so let’s unpack this a bit too.

If you’re going to do this, you’ll need to raise the baseline stats at character creation. Something like (1d5*10)+15. You’ll want a stat between 25-65% if you’re never going to increase it again. This is similar to how Traveller does it. You are as competent as you’re going to be. In Mothership, these stats are specifically a measure of how well your character acts under extreme pressure. Think of it as their flight or fight response.

But I rolled a 30 at character creation! I can’t get better ever?? Well, no. First, you’d get a bonus from your class. Probably something like +20 for the thing they’re good at, +10 for the other two stats, and +0 for the thing they’re bad at. This would mean that the worst possible character you could roll would have stats like this: 25, 35, 35, 45. Pretty bad, but not that far off from how a lot of Mothership characters start off currently.

But my character can never get better than 45? That’s bullshit” I hear you typing. Well, no. You’d add a skill in most of the time, most likely, which would take you above the 50/50 threshold. And then you’d have advantage/disadvantage occasionally as well.

In a survival horror game, I currently don’t believe characters need to be much better than 50/50 at succeeding rolls. However, Wardens should be vigorous about defining the stakes beyond pass/fail.” Let’s take the example I feel like is going to come up a lot: Violent encounters.

So you’re saying that if an enemy is right in front of me and I shoot at him there’s only a 50% chance I’ll hit?” No, not exactly. In that specific case, I would rule that you automatically hit. But in a more granular example: The xenomorph charges directly at you, what do you want to do?” I fire at it with my combat shotgun.” Okay, let’s flip a coin. On a heads, you’ll blast it in the face and kill it. On a tails, you’ll hit it square in the chest but it’ll keep coming and get to attack you. Does that sound fair?”

There’s a larger argument to be had here about whether referees and Wardens can be impartial and make good rulings, but I think that’s better discussed in a post about teaching rpg literacy rather than relying on the rules for everything.

But my point is, 50/50 can be just fine if you can frame it right. But, let’s say you’re the Marine with the piddly 45 in Combat and you want to get better at shooting things, how do you improve?

3. Self improvement through gaining Skills.

Well, here’s the good news, you can gain new skills! Now this is the hardest part to get right diegetically, skills take awhile to learn. I think there are a few different ways I might handle it, but I’m not 100% sold on any of them right now. The first would be to fail a roll that skill would’ve helped, mark that skill, and now you can spend XP to get it later on. This seems dumb because I don’t know how failing to give surgery twice all of a sudden makes you a good surgeon.

Another way is to embrace time skips. Learning skills takes time. I’d say 1 year for a Trained Skill, 2 years for an Expert Skill, and 4 years for a Master Skill.1

This goes against the way a lot of people play RPGs, but I think there’s a lot lot lot of value here.

First, time skips are cool for story. Think about how much time passes between Alien and Aliens. 57 years. The bad part of this metaphor is that Ripley doesn’t really learn any new skills in this time since she’s in cryosleep the whole time. But the whole world has changed and shifted.

If you handle skills this way then a Mothership campaign starts to look like: terrifying adventure that almost destroys an entire crew, long period where everyone gets back to normal life and tries to forget about the horrors they encounter, evil rears its ugly head again, but the players are more resilient as a result of their Stress from last time, and to boot, they’ve picked up a couple skills since then.

Another way to do it would be to have skills slowly unlock during downtime if you spend time training. With Trained skills taking something like 3 downtimes, Expert skills taking 7, and Master Skills taking 10. This way your character can be studying biology in their downtime between missions, etc. Maybe they can have a couple going at once. Maybe Scientists can have up to 3-4 being studied at the same time! This way I like a lot because you can combine it with the time skip system as well. It’s easy to be like okay it’s three years later, what did you all do in that time?” Have them each make an intellect check, those that succeed gain 5 Skill Points to spend, those that fail get 3. There’s a lot of different ways to handle it.

And finally, there’s an easy way to gain skills that’s already possible in the game as written, go find some skillslicks and install them like cyberware. I think this way also should be combined with the others above too. Find a trainer, find a teacher, find ways to cut down on the time required.

To revisit our example above: The weak Marine with the 45 in combat takes Military Training. Now they have a 55 in combat. Then they take firearms, a 65 in combat as long as they’re using a gun. Then, finally, after a lot of training, they get Weapon Specialization. A 75 in combat as long as they’re using, say, a Pulse Rifle. 75%! From the character who rolled the worst stats possible. I don’t know how much powerful you want to get, but I think 75 is pretty baller for a horror game where you’re only rolling when you absolutely have to.

4. Change Level” to High Score.”

Finally, the hardest beast to kill: Your character’s Level. I love levels, I love the sound of a Level 3 character.” I like the way they make me think of video games and progressing to new levels. But I think there’s a new phrase from video games we can steal to have a great impact on Mothership: The High Score.

So, instead of Level, which is just sort of an abstract measure of power used as a holdover from D&D. Let’s just cut straight to the arcade and call it your High Score.” And let’s have that score increase by 1 every time you play a session.

This tracks something that, to me, is really interesting. It just very simply tells you how long the character has been played. This is a survival horror game, how long has your character survived? And can you beat that number next time? Got a level 0 character? Oh tonight is your first night. Meeting a level 53 character? Whoa, you’ve seen some shit.

Additionally, my good friend Donald Shults suggested also using this as a sort of reputation mechanic. If an NPC rolls under a player’s high score then they have heard of it. Anyone who has played 99 session of Mothership and survived is a galactic legend.

What is the point of all this?

Mothership doesn’t have a ton of rules (and I have a lot of thoughts about that for the future), I want the rules it does have to be in service of something, to facilitate better play from better players. The object of Mothership is not to amass power, it’s to survive, solve some mysteries, and save some people if you can. I want leveling up and advancement to serve that. I want to reward play and in particular I want to reward engaging with the fictional reality in a real way. And in particular, I want to reward those who failed, they are stronger for it.


  1. One of our playtesters, Ian Yusem, just made me realize that there’s another cool thing you can do with this: you can start your characters at any level of competency that your adventure requires. Play kitted out special forces space marines with weapon specialization and command and all that stuff. But keep their saves still like a high score 0 noob. They may be competent in their real lives, but they haven’t come face to face with true horror yet!



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