Sunday, January 19, 2020

Mothership After-Action Report and Reflections: The Hateful Eight

I ran my first Mothership game today, and had a pretty good time of it. I just had a pair of players, so making a couple characters and trying a new system was a breath of fresh air. Lots of fun, but a lot went wrong too, which is how you learn.

If you see an odd similarity to The Hateful Eight, that's because I watched the movie on Friday, planned the game on Saturday, and ran it Sunday, so the movie was quite fresh in my mind.

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Our cast victims

Norbert: Scientist, possible bioterrorist.
Ash: Android, very matter of fact.

Our protagonists began the game on Station Minerva, looking for a ship to take them to Point Crimson station, where they were seeking employment. They decided on the Six-Horse, a junky courier vessel with extra thrusters haphazardly attached to it. The pilot was Judy, an astrogator from Space Australia. The vessel's jump drive was non-functional, so the trip would be made on thrusters, taking a week.

Their companions on the vessel were... varied. Sam Ruth, bounty hunter, was transporting something in the cargo hold. Chessy, a would-be cowboy, claimed to be the new security chief of Point Crimson. Miguel, a Truxican asteroid miner, was a man of few words distrusted by Chessy and Sam. Shepard was an ex-neo-USSR war android, looking for his creator on Point Crimson. Finally, Oz was a doctor on searching for employment of his own.

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The players spoke with their companions for a time, getting to know them, before Judy was ready to take off. The first few days are uneventful and boring, with Sam and Chessy in stasis and everybody else resting in a cramped common room. That is, until the fourth day, when the ship is wracked with a piercing alarm.

Ash wakes from sleep mode and boots up, insisting that Norbert come with him to investigate. They trace the alarm to the cryopods, where Sam and Judy are arguing loudly.The alarm is coming from Sam's wrist, indicating that his bounty has breached containment. He demands the keys the cargo hold, which Judy refuses; she holds the only keys to several parts of the ship in her personal safe. The party convinces them to get a headcount instead, making sure everyone is accounted for.

Oz and Shepard are still in the commons, Shepard trying to lay chess against himself, very poorly. But Miguel is missing. They leave Oz and Shepard in the commons. The only other unlocked region of the ship is the Medbay, where they find Miguel clutching his head and groaning on the floor. The vent grille next to him is torn open. The vent that leads straight into the cargo hold. They inspect him, and find that he suffering from an intense migraine. They seal up the medbay doors with a hand welder and take Miguel to Oz. Immediately, Oz demands they un-seal the medbay so he can give Miguel proper medical attention. They give him a laser cutter and leave him to take care of the incapacitated Truxican.

At that point, they hear a horrific scream, followed by gunshots, and run into Sam in the corridor, massive claws marks raking over his chest. He says he was searching the life support bay and was attacked by the creature, which he still refuses to name. They join up, with Sam now demanding Judy give him the key to the computer room so he can check on the security footage. She goes to open her safe, but Sam follows her and points his revolver at her, angrily shouting for the keys. The players manage to talk him down, and she hands over the computer room key.

At that moment, the players split up. Ash goes with Judy and Sam to look at the security footage, and Norbert grabs Shepard and Chessy to check in on Miguel and Oz, having heard some scratching and movement in the vents between the cargo hold and medbay. They return to find Miguel recovering. He describes how he had a series of terrible dreams, a feeling like being in somebody else's body, and a sense of being stuck in a box. He also insults Oz for not being by his side to take care of him, but Oz insists he was there the whole time and Miguel is delusional.

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It's coming....
Back in the computer room, Ash is standing guard as Judy and Sam inspect the ship's cameras. All of a sudden, Sam starts yelling and telling Ash and Judy to get to the Medbay, as 'some shit is going down.' They inspect the feed, and see nothing happening, just people talking. Sam insists violently, and Ash complies rushing over to Norbert and the rest of the passengers. Judy remains, and she argues loudly with Sam.

Ash arrives at the medbay and gets caught up with the events of the past few minutes. Their discussion is cut short when they hear Judy's scream, followed by another, inhuman and terrifying, that causes everyone to roll Fear Saves. The stress piles on, and they follow to find the computer bay doors shut again. Done with keys, the party takes a laser cutter to the door and forces it open, finding only a small patch of blood, and another vent grille open. Ash searches the feed, and the records from inside the computer room in the last few minutes were erased.

He manages to piece them together though, and sees himself leave the room, an argument, and Sam knocking Judy unconscious, deleting the footage, tearing out the grille and carrying her into the vent with him. The vent, according to the ship's map, leads to the engine room.

The party runs over to the bridge, deciding to grab the master key. They cut through the locked door and the safe, leaving everything a mess. They then rush over to the engine room, unlock the door, and find it... in perfect order. In fact, the jump drive, which Judy insisted was out of order, is humming along and looks just fine.

They trace Sam's movement with their bioscanner, and see motion on the bridge. They rush over, but a shot rings out as Ash turns the corner. Norbert returns to the medbay, looking for chemicals with which to whip up a surprise. At that moment, the automated intercom comes on, "10 minutes to jump."

Ash tries to negotiate with Sam, and can see Judy behind him in the astrogation chair. Sam's not having it however. Ash moves into action and launches a pair of flares into the bridge to blind Ash, though he takes a bullet in the arm. He rushes in with a stun baton, trying to incapacitate Sam while Oz follows with a tranquilizer.

At that moment, Norbert bursts into the corridor with a makeshift smoke bomb, launching it into the bridge and blinding everyone except himself, who's wearing infrared goggles. Ash succeeds in stunning Sam and holding him down, and then the rest of the passengers rush in and pile on. They grab a pair of fluffy pink handcuffs from Judy's memorabilia shelf and cuff Sam to the wall.

Judy is pulled from the astrogation chair and the jump is canceled with minutes to spare. Her pupils are massively dilated, and she seems in a similar condition to Miguel, but will likely recover. The passengers take a moment to rest and regroup, having barely avoided a hyperspace jump to an unknown location when Oz inspects Sam and announces, "He's dead."

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This was the first time I've ever run Mothership, and my players enjoyed the experience. That said, a lot went wrong, and there's more than enough space to improve.

I wasn't clear on a few of the rules even after several read-throughs of the guide. That's just me. Relatedly, I wasn't too well organized. I had notes, but they were on a doc and difficult to consult in play.

I knew I'd only be having two players, so I decided on a Hateful Eight/the Thing/Alien setup, so that there were plenty of other characters involved. Too many, probably. A few times we forgot about one of them, and when the game is all about knowing where one character is and what they're doing, that really slows the game down.

Also, the other characters are fodder and backup characters. Which means I'm upping the lethality in the next session.

Also, nobody is what they seem and everyone is angling for some hidden objective. Some of them, the players were immediately on to, but others have still snuck past them.

I'm never quite sure what to do when a character is lying to the players and the players find the exact right question to ask. I just have them become angry and irrational, but it's not very satisfying. I'm just not a very good manipulator myself, so it's hard to run manipulative characters.

The players should have had their own map of the ship, instead of me just hogging my flowchart.

I'm not sure how long some things should take, or how to adequately track time in Mothership. I'm tempted to just import dungeon procedures from GLOG, but I don't know how well they would work.

The players noted that Sam's lies and aggressiveness were a bit railroady, but 'the good kind of railroad,' which I interpret as 'not aggressively bad.'

I was trying to maneuver into a position where none of the characters trusted each other so the players could navigate that Hateful Eight paranoia. It didn't happen here, but ti just might work in the next session.

Otherwise, there was some fun flavor that didn't make it into the summary, like Norbert claiming that the creature was a capitalist bioweapon to convince Shepard to join them. Now, of course, Shepard wants the creature for the glory of the neo-USSR, so that'll be a problem.

I'll have another session scheduled for next week, and plans on ho to improve. As for any impressions of the game itself, Mothership is excellent. Character creation was a breeze, it was mostly role-play with only a handful of rolls. The players especially loved the atmosphere. I'll see you all with another after-action report then.

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  1. You said that your players liked the atmosphere in your session - what did you do to create that atmosphere?

    1. Music was a big part of it. I read on the Mothership Discord that one Warden used the Alien Isolation soundtrack to great effect. I couldn't find it on short notice, but a Spotify playlist with music from Split, Alien Covenant and Prometheus came up, which worked just fine.
      Beside that, a hint of wacky humor (space Australians and soviet robots) in the depths of isolation and horror takes the edge off the tension. The players knew everyone on the ship was bound to die, but they didn't know how. That genre-savviness actually didn't hurt the experience at all, and probably improved it. We all know where this is going, let's get to the good stuff.