This week I ran a pick-up Mothership game for some friends on short notice. Despite running from very little prepared material, we all had a pretty good time. I thought it might be an interesting exercise for me, and possibly helpful to some people new to running Mothership, if I wrote up a play report that described my thought process as I was running the game, as well as post-mortem observations. Please let me know if you find this at all interesting or helpful.
What follows are the notes I prepared before our game:
Fall of the Jump-9 Colony Ship Vagabond
- Comes out of warp near a watery terrestrial planet.
- Ship hit with a spear thrown by a giant from the planet.
- Crew just woken up from cryo--explosions and warnings telling everyone to get to the escape pods.
- Crew can immediately recover their gear.
- Every 10 minutes: Roll a ship critical hit.
- Route to the pods:
- Hydroponics: Dozens of Androids restrained by overgrown plants and begging for help
- Cargo Bay 13C: Mech loaders staged in poses of battle. Tally marks on the walls.
- Main Computers: Enormous, rough hewn wooden shaft bisects the hall. Zero-G. AI listing procedures broken by ship's Androids during the trip in a glitchy, annoyed tone.
- Stateroom Wing Alpha: Blanket tents and pillow forts.
- Escape Pods: Crew desperately piling in.
- Alt Routes:
- Med Bay: Gory remains of failed Android-human hybrids.
- Recreation Hall: Androids performing The Producers while others watch loudly.
NOTE: If the length of the following play report looks too daunting or you want to skip to pithy takeaways, jump to the conclusion at the bottom of this writeup.
I began the session by describing the massive, multi-tiered Cryobay from which thousands of colonists awoke to a monitor-projected view of their new home planet. The Vagabond was still in orbit. The PC crew--3 marines named Sylvester, Marcus Lilith, and Jessica Boggs--marched to the galley to grab some grub and their gear, though I forgot to ask their names or anything else about their characters until much later.
The ship lurched to one side and rocked with internal explosions as it was skewered by the giant's spear (a fact the players didn't yet know). I should have called for a d5-failure Fear Save, but this too I forgot. The crew grabbed their duffel bags of gear and headed towards the nearest escape pods. I described the most direct route, the one I had prepared. I had no ship map handy, so I planned to offer the Alt Routes or and begin winging it once those were exhausted if they decided to deviate from the main path.
I described the deafening noise and panic in the ship's corridors as all the other colonists surged towards the escape pods (missed Fear Save #2). The players asked if they could pinpoint exactly what damage the ship had sustained, I responded that the PA system was reading out dozens of warnings concurrently. The damage was significant, but the situation confused. The crowds blocked the crew's path towards Hydroponics and ignored their shouts to get out of the way, but parted when Sylvester unloaded his Pulse Rifle into the ceiling. At this point, I had not called for a single dice roll. Burning an entire magazine to clear this obstacle was enough of a sacrifice to progress.
Inside Hydroponics, the crew discovered the overgrown plants and the Androids trapped within (missed save #3, this time probably Sanity). The crew paused for a moment to investigate here. Because they did, I rolled a ship critical hit as the internal damage from the spear cascaded throughout the ship. Some Cryopods got taken out, and the players heard more internal explosions (missed [Fear] Save #4). Jessica and Sylvester suspected the plants might be alien, but I explained they all looked familiar and weren't lashing out to grab anyone. Marcus freed an Android using his hand welder, and was thanked with glitchy, nonsensical babble before the Android fled (missed [Fear] save #5). All the evidence of strange Android behavior pointed towards dramatic software degradation over the centuries or millennia-long voyage, so I tried to play into that.
The crew moved on into the Cargo Bay and chuckled at the mech loaders and tally marks. Here I remembered that I didn't know any of the character's names so I paused and let the crew introduce themselves. I rolled another ship critical hit--a hull breach. I decided the breach should occur in this room, particularly given it was adjacent to the spear. The far wall began buckling outward. This time I remembered to call for a Fear Save: one Marine failed and gained 3 (1d5) Stress, the other critically failed and gained 6 (1d10) Stress, then made a Panic Check which they passed. Only Marcus carried a vacsuit in his duffel bag, so the others began scrambling for safety. "Are there any other vacsuits floating around?" I made a luck roll--50/50. Failure, no vacsuits. Jessica asked which mech seemed like it had won the most battles, and critically succeeded an Intelligence + Rimwise roll to locate it: A 3-seater behemoth with enclosed cockpit and adorned with dozens of Android-skull trophies. One player asked what the Android heads were saying, and I said they were all cycling through traditional war cries from different human cultures. The crew climbed into the mech and braced for decompression.
The far wall ripped away and the sudden decompression sent the other mechs flying out of the room and away into space. The absent wall afforded a view of the spear's shaft (missed [Sanity] roll #6) and the ruins of the main Computer Bay. The crew debated the best course of action to cross the massive rift the spear head had left in the hull. They asked if the mech had any tools equipped, and I said they could pick one. They chose a jackhammer--it never came up again. The mech mag-booted to the edge of the rift and the crew looked around for useful floating debris. Could the infrared goggles pick up any survivors? Failed luck check said no. How about a Rigging Gun? Success on this luck check. I have players call high or low when I roll for luck checks. It's a fun and simple way to resolve situations with uncertainty, but don't involve player actions.
I told the players their mech's pincer arms were far too large to manipulate a human-sized rigging gun trigger, and prompted them to come up with a solution. The crew carefully manipulated the mech's arms to thread a loose computer cable through the Rigging Gun's trigger (successful Speed + Heavy Machinery check), and pulled the loop to fire a wire across the room. They hauled themselves past the rough-hewn spear shaft and made their way towards the far airlock. This mech was too large to fit though the airlock, so they opted to rip an arm off to make room. The operator failed an Intelligence check, so they pulled off several other critical components along with the arm (missed [Fear] save #7). I took this as an opportunity for the players to fail forward, so they managed to shrink down their mech to airlock-size but severely damaged it in the process.
The mech's remaining arm punched the single-door airlock and rushed through as air and debris began flying at them from the Staterooms. The arm-operator critically succeeded a Speed test to shield the mech from debris. I couldn't immediately think of any bonus to give the player for her critical, so I asked her what she wanted. She asked if she could grab any useful equipment that flew at her as the hall decompressed, so I described a vacsuit with women's clothes stretched over the exterior and a face pained on the helmet in makeup (the Androids were playing house). She caught it, and the legs-operator shoulder-checked the keypad on the opposite side of the airlock to close it. The crew disembarked from their damaged mech for fear of it exploding and searched the Staterooms for survivors and things of interest. They discovered a survivor stuck in a ruined pillow fort wearing a vacsuit clothed with a tophat and black-tie suit--Simon, a frightened Geologist. I had just recently named another character Simon in a game I had run for a couple of these players--I'm terrible with on-the-fly names. After learning Simon didn't know anything more about what was happening to the ship than they, the crew moved on with him in tow. On their way out, they opened a room filled to bursting with gleefully babbling Androids which spilled out into the hall (failed Fear Saves, +1 Stress).
The crew made their way to the pod bay, a long corridor full of desperate people openly slaughtering each other for the few remaining escape pods (missed [Fear] save #8). Sylvester cleverly tossed an unarmed grenade over to the crowd surrounding one of the pods, calling "fire in the hole." Under normal circumstances that would have easily been enough to disperse a crowd without involving a roll, but in this case I thought the settlers might be desperate enough not to run. I rolled "resigned" on a reaction table I had handy, so the crowd ignored the grenade. If they couldn't make it off this ship, they were dead anyway. I could have interpreted "resigned" another way, but that's what made sense to me at the time.
A player asked if there were any catwalks or other methods of approach, and I described a mezzanine overlooking the pods. The crew headed up a ladder and moved towards a nearby pod with the fewest number of people trying to get in. They used their Rigging Gun (successful Combat + Military Training check) to create a zipline over to the top of the pod, where there was an entrance hatch. Marcus and Jessica made it down the zipline, their weapons sliding perpendicular to the top of the wire, without issue and without rolling. Sylvester had become attached to Simon at this point, and had him hop on while they ziplined together. I called for a Strength check to see if Sylvester could hold on, which he failed. They both went sprawling into the crowd.
Atop the pod, Marcus attempted to disperse the crowd with threats. Normally I don't like to call for rolls for social situations, as I prefer to play things by common sense and require situational leverage for difficult attempts at persuasion. However, the player's roleplay was so fearsome and the outcome was uncertain enough that I called for a Combat + Military Training roll to intimidate the crowd away, which failed. Meanwhile, Jessica jumped down to find Androids patiently waiting in 3 of the pod's 6 total seats, and a Marine fighting with a Teamster to push back the crowd and close the door for takeoff. Jessica alerted the humans to her presence, doing the math that the pod could hold both her friends and these capable-looking folks who might be helpful when they landed on a strange planet. Again, I rolled on my reaction table and this time got "Infected". I took a second to consider what that might mean, then remembered the brutal cyborg experiments I wrote up for the ship's Medbay. I described the Teamster and Marine's faces as flayed, exposing crudely implanted circuitry and wiring (Fear Save, +1 Stress). The crew proceeded to cut down both their cyborg foes and the surging crowd with military efficiency, and not a little help from their Pulse and Smart Rifles. They retrieved their lightly trampled pal Simon from the floor, cleared out the cyborg bodies and defective Androids from the pod, and hit the "GO" button. The crew escaped from the Vagabond with no casualties.
Conclusions and Summary
- You can prepare a successful play session with scarcely more than a few lines of notes.
- You can make tons of mistakes and still have a great time. If you followed along with my missed Fear and Sanity Save count, you'll know that I missed at least a whopping 8 opportunities to load my players up with stress over the course of the session. Despite that, there was still a good deal of tension as the scenario felt inherently dangerous, mysterious, and claustrophobic.
- Call for more Fear Saves, Sanity Saves, and Panic Checks! Clearly it's something I need to work on, but it's a good thing to keep in the back of your mind as you run Mothership.
- Mothership works great if you want to go for Aliens more than Alien. This was easily the most action-packed Mothership game I've ran or played in, and it still felt right at home in the system.
- Failing forward is a great way to keep the session moving while layering on consequences and dangers.