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Friday 1 March 2019

Blue Collar Sci-Fi Horror

It is over twenty-five years since the hobby had a roleplaying game set in the same universe as the films as Alien and Aliens. The roleplaying games the Aliens Adventure Game, published by Leading Edge Games in 1991. Now the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG is not the Alien or Aliens roleplaying game anew, but a Science Fiction roleplaying game in which a starship crew must survive the horrors of outer space, of confronting the unknown on worlds yet unexplored, of salvaging derelict spaceships and discovering what drove its crew to abandon their vessel, and of being terrorised by aliens intent on using them as incubators for their eggs. This is a roleplaying game of blue collar Science Fiction, of films like Outland, Dark Star, Silent Running, and Event Horizon, as well as Alien and Aliens.

Published by Tuesday Knight Games, Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG looks like a thick fanzine. Even at forty-four pages, its content is rather cramped, but around some rather scrappy illustrations, Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide covers character creation, game mechanics and combat, handling stress and panic, and all you need to know about the starships. There is no specific background supplied for Mothership, but any Warden—as the Game Master is known in Mothership—should be able to develop something of her own with relative ease.

As presented in Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide, this is a Class and Level roleplaying game. Characters are defined not only by their Class and Level, but also their Attributes and Saves, Skills, and how they react to Stress and Panic. The four Classes are Teamsters, Scientists, Androids, and Marines; the four Attributes are Strength, Speed, Intellect, and Combat; and the four Saves are Sanity, Fear, Body, and Armour. Character creation is a matter of rolling six ten-sided dice for the attributes, picking a Class, noting down various values, and finally choosing some skills. These come rated at Trained, Expert, and Master levels, indicating the bonus they grant to any roll. Each Class starts off with the same basic skills in addition to giving some options and some points with which to take more skills or improve those already known. No character begins play with any skill at Master level, but will typically have one skill at Expert level as well as a handful at Trained. Lastly, there is the matter of the Loadout, the equipment they start play with. There are four to choose from—Excavation, Exploration, Extermination, and Examination. A character also receives a random patch and a random trinket.

Character generation is simple and quick, taking no more than five minutes if you take your time. What speeds it up is the fact that the process is actually built into the character sheet. In a clever piece of graphic design, character generation can be done on the page. All a player has to do is go through five steps following a flowchart and he is done in minutes without any real reference to the Player’s Survival Guide. It is as simple as it is impressive.

Our sample character is an Android currently owned by Rasmussen Salvage Rights, a husband and wife, now husband and wife and android salvage team, which operates a salvage scow called the Mother’s Pride. She is a reconditioned Matsui-Poulton Class-12 model who has been named Sindy, a name that everyone laughs at for reasons she does not understand. Her current tasks involve computer operations aboard ship as well as tending to the hydroponics bays. Sindy sense that that is something that is missing from her programming, something that her owner is not telling her. Unfortunately she cannot break into certain files on the computer. Nor can she answer why is wearing a DNR Beacon Necklace and who it belonged to. In her spare time, she has been searching for answers in religious texts.

Name: Sindy
Class: Android Level: 1
Strength: 36 Speed: 43 Intellect: 53 Combat: 32
Sanity: 20 Fear: 85 Body: 40 Armour: 25

Stress: 2 Resolve: 0 Health: 72

Trained (+10%): Computers, Hydroponics, Linguistics, Mathematics, Theology
Expert (+15%):; 
Master (+20%)

Loadout: Excavation Trinket: DNR Beacon Necklace  Patch: #1 Worker 

Fear saves made in the presence of Androids have disadvantages.

In terms of mechanics, Mothership is a percentile system. Rolls are either made against an attribute or an attribute plus an appropriate skill. If a character has the Advantage in a situation, his player rolls twice and keeps the best result, but rolls twice and keeps the worst result if the character is at a Disadvantage. Rolls of doubles are counted as critical successes or fumbles depending upon if the roll is a success or a failure.

Saves represent a character’s reaction to bad situations and his ability to survive against the horrors of space. Again, they are percentile rolls. If a Save is failed, a character gains Stress and potentially other effects too. For example, when a character is shot at, his player makes an opposed roll of his character’s Armour Save against his opponent’s Combat roll. If the Armour Save roll is failed, not only does the character gain Stress, he also takes damage. Making a Save with a critical success and a character will gain some other benefit, such making better use of cover in combat or gaining insight into a situation. Fail it with a critical fumble and a player will have to make a Panic roll. This requires a Stress Check, a roll of two ten-sided dice against the character’s current Stress. If the player rolls over his character’s current Stress, he succeeds, the character loses a little Stress, but if it fails, the player needs to roll on the Panic Effect table. This is another roll of two ten-sided dice, but modified by the character’s Resolve score. It can result in the character being struck by crippling fear, gaining a nervous twitch, or even suffering an Adrenaline rush. 

Although it  is possible to gain relief from Stress through rest, but this will only be a few points, if that, at a time. Instead, there is a constant chance of a character gaining, whether from when the ship a character is in is hit, going without food and water, from certain locations and creatures, and so on. So it is likely that a character will be constantly accumulating Stress. The Panic Rolls will be occurring when the ship a character is in suffers a critical hit, he sees another character die, encountering a strange and terrifying alien, and so on. The There is some balancing between them across the four Classes, so that the Android has a better Fear Save, the Scientist a better Sanity Save, the Marine a better Combat Save, and so on, but the Save mechanics in Mothership are designed to be unforgiving.

Combat itself is pretty straightforward, generally involving Combat versus Armour Save opposed rolls. Weapons are as deadly as you would expect and include a mixture of military small arms as well as utility devices which in an emergency could be used as weapons, like rigging guns and hand welders. Where the rules for character creation, combat, stress, and panic are all relatively simple, those for starship creation are less so. Starships are treated basically like characters, but do require working through a step-by-step design process and a fair bit of arithmetic and balancing of numbers. The rules also cover starship travel as well as starship combat, which works mostly like personal combat.

In addition, there are rules for handling and hiring mercenaries and running them in combat. This includes multiple roles, so starship crew as well as soldiers. The Warden can also roll for their motivation and some sample Scum—cheap and barely competent—are given as quick and dirty examples.

And this is all that the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide covers. There is no advice for the Warden, no background, no threat or dangers defined, and no campaign set-ups. The sample mining ship lends itself to a certain type of campaign, working class and blue collar much like Alien, whilst the inclusion of the Mercenaries rules lends themselves to not only providing a military sci-fi campaign like Aliens, but also provides a ready source of NPCs. Yet what the rules do not allow is for characters to be created straight out of the book with the ability to command a ship. So a character is always going to be a member of the crew, not its captain, at least initially. This is despite the fact that the players are going to be running the ship anyway. Similarly, for all that Mothership is a horror roleplaying game, there is not a great deal beyond environmental dangers to be horrified about.

In terms of design and presentation, Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide could have been better. The design of the character with its flowchart for character creation is undeniably clever, but it is not as effectively carried out in other parts of the rules. There is one for combat on the Player’s Cheat Sheet on the book’s back cover, but not one for panic and stress. The one for starship design is too cramped to be of easy use. It needs an edit in places and the layout could have been better organised. That said, there are plenty of examples throughout that do show how the mechanics work as much as they hint at what the sort of threats the characters might face.

As rough as it is around the edges, there is a great to like about Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide. Its look and its mechanics effectively evoke the film sources it draws very heavily from, the blue collar Science Fiction movies of the seventies and eighties, but it leaves the Warden left wanting more—a lot more—when it comes to taking both characters and rules up against the type of horror it wants to portray. If the players have the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide, then the Warden deserves her own Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Warden’s Horror Guide. Although the Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG is not the Alien or Aliens roleplaying game, it is a very good evocation of its genre and its aesthetic.

1 comment:

  1. You might be interested to know they have written an expansion module for the setting called 'Dead Planet'. The basic plot idea is that the players ship is drawn to a world that is a Sargasso Sea in Space and must figure out how to escape.