Words by David C. Obenour
Are we alone?
A constant wonder for our species, the Space Race of the 20th century further ignited our collective interest and with it came a golden age of science fiction art, architecture, literature, music, cinema and more. But for every vision of advancement and modern luxury, the bleakness of space was also filled with a dread of the unknown filling the vacuum in our imagination.
Taking inspiration from some of the best examples of this dread, Mothership is a retro-modern sci-fi horror RPG. A defined ruleset for an open galaxy all contained within a zine-style format, players bravely (or notso bravely) set out into the future we were warned about.
After releasing the core rulebook, Mothership has seen a number of official and unofficial modules created and compiled – the most recent of which, Gradient Descent (raising over $63,000 on Kickstarter) plays with another classic trope – all to intelligent artificial intellegence running against humanity’s best laid plans.
Off Shelf: Did the theme for Mothership come first or was it the mechanics for a new RPG system?
Sean McCoy: Definitely the theme first. Our mechanics aren’t super groundbreaking by any means, and the original prototype was a pocketmod just meant to get the game up and running. We wanted something simple and easy to hack, and it was important that players knew their chances of success so they could make hard decisions — a d100 system helps with that. My general thinking was that I love sci-fi, but good sci-fi modules are hard to find. I wanted to get to that content, and the system was just a means to an end.
OS: Mothership has a very retro feel to it – with imagery that brings up classic genre pieces from the 70s and 80s. Can you talk about your own history with the sci-fi horror genre?
SM: I’ve loved sci-fi since I was a kid. The first two albums I ever bought were the Armageddon and Men In Black soundtracks [laughs]. I grew up watching the X-files and my dad had old copies of Foundation and his favorite movie has been 2001: A Space Odyssey. More recently I got into the amazing writer Brian Evenson and his story The Dust really helped set the wheels in motion for Mothership.
OS: How do you think the retro modernism plays into how we view the genre today?
SM: Some of it is just nostalgia for sure, an there’s a cool aesthetic there. When I picture a spaceship I want to see giant CRT terminal displays and clunky mechanical keyboards, I don’t want to see sleek iPhone-esque aesthetics. A lot of this comes from the bootstrapped explorer vibe you get when reading about the Space Race.
For Mothership it’s about that blue collar, trucker aesthetic that comes from Alien. We’re not in that sleek, Tyrell Corp, billionaire futurism, we’re in the working class version of the future and it sucks. And that fringe is where the horror happens. From a gaming standpoint most players have an easier time adapting tech of the past into an imagined future rather than imagining hypothetical technology that doesn’t exist yet. So retro-futurism helps in that regard immensely.
OS: The Stress mechanic seems a great way to really immerse yourself in the genre. Can you talk about how you developed that and what it means to you in the game?
SM: I think in horror games people worry a lot about actually scaring their players at the table, which while I think can be fun, is probably an unrealistic bar for most situations. You can enjoy a horror movie without being scared and I think the same is true for gaming. The Stress mechanic is about seeing where the character is at and helping to model that a little more. It’s had some nice side benefits as well – for instance, if you fail a normal stat check, like say a strength check to open an airlock – you gain Stress. It’s a nice way to keep combat lethal but still have a way to chip at characters over time.
OS: Mercenaries are another fun bit of flavor and gaming to get into the genre. Do you have favorite archetypes you created? What do you think these types of non-player characters add to the game?
SM: I love mercenaries for a few reasons. One, I think it’s important for a lot of groups to be able to have extra characters to jump into if their characters die, or if the party splits up, etc. Two, I think it helps crews to think of themselves as part of a larger unit. As opposed to just like the four players. Instead you’ve got maybe a doctor on the ship, or a couple people down in engineering. I want to encourage more “Troupe play” where players each have a few different characters and I think mercenaries help a lot with that. I don’t think I have a favorite archetype, though I love the Teamster and I’m glad they’ve caught on as well as they have.
OS: You’ve had a great response from people taking Mothership and running with it for their own created stories and scenarios they share online and through you with Hivemind. Is there anything that particularly excited you from a narrative standpoint and in terms of game mechanics?
SM: It’s been fun to see people run through their version of Prospero’s Dream or their version of the Dead Planet. We have a saying that there is no canonical Mothership other than what happens at your table when you’re playing. But also seeing people add to the world with new maps or new NPCs, etc. is really amazing. The things I’m most excited about right now are the toolkits we’re building internally for new modules, or just our ideas of where to take the game from here. We have a lot of ground we want to cover.
OS: You’ve just had a wildly successful Kickstarter for Gradient Descent, your latest module for Mothership. Can you tell us a little about the setting and your inspiration for it?
SM: So Gradient Descent is our version of the HAL story from 2001. It’s our “AI is bad” module. That’s basically where it started. Luke Gearing and Jarrett Crader and Nick Tofani have done an amazing job turning that idea into a real thing. The basic premise is that there was an android manufacturing factory that was run by an AI named Monarch. It started making androids that were basically indistinguishable from humans, which freaked out its corporate shareholders, and everyone, and they started talking about shutting the whole thing down. Monarch figured this out and changed course – making androids cheaper to produce but not human-like. They did this so well that eventually its shareholders laid off everyone at the facility and just let Monarch run things. That’s when Monarch took over the plant – and now there’s an uneasy standoff between the corporate blockade and Monarch. “Divers” go into the facility, now called “The Deep,” to treasure hunt. There’s a lot more to it than that I’m excited for players to learn about.
OS: What additional rules and ways to play were you excited to be able to add with Gradient Descent?
SM: We really wanted to tackle the megadungeon, and how to make running one as low prep as possible. That meant spending extra time on “keying” the dungeon, writing the room descriptions, in a way that could be parsed quickly at the table without making notes before a session. We wanted some focus on social interactions with the denizens of the Deep, all these forgotten androids and their strange factions. This is, more than any other Mothership modules, a dungeoncrawl of sorts — so we wanted to put our stamp on that.
OS: I have to imagine that creating a RPG and its modules becomes a hard balance of wanting to flesh out a world and ruleset with the reaches of your own imagination, but also wanting to not go too far as to allow for the players to create and explore their own. How do you find that balance?
SM: We say “encounter design beats system design.” We try not to flesh out the world through lore or rules, but instead through adventure seeds and encounters that are memorable. We try to give a lot of guidance on what the consequences of player actions could be in the module, both internally, and reaching forward after the module is over. I think the temptation is to go “oh we should make a rule for that!” and we try to fight that temptation.
OS: Are there other RPGs that you’d like to release in a similar manner? Do you think you’d stay within the same game mechanic system if you were to explore them?
SM: There’s a couple other RPGs that we’re developing right now. I think some would be ripe for zines for sure, but others I think we need to go straight to hardcover, etc. I think zines are the proving ground basically. If you can make a good zine you can make a good book. Aesthetically, I feel like the zines really fit with the kinda look we were going for in early Mothership releases, so I’m glad we found it. But even if we moved on to all hardcover slick glossy books, I think we’d always use the zine as a way to release experimental projects just because the cost to produce is so small.