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  • Writer's pictureJames Kerr

Mothership 1e and Participation Mechanics in TTRPGs

A middling dive into Tuesday Knight Games' Mothership and why I don't jive with it

After backing the Mothership Kickstarter from Tuesday Knight Games to the nines, I ended up with the rare joy of unboxing an entire line all at once. For presentation, the thing’s aces. I could write a whole blog about how I think Mothership is, or is just about, leading the pack in indie TTRPGs in page and graphic design. And in terms of dollar value I got so much in this darn thing it makes me worried that they may not have actually made anything on this product. Playing Mothership itself, however—the part that matters to me most—is where it falls down. It has taken me about a month to figure out why. I am secure in my criticism partly because I had an especially good GM, so it’s fairly easy to separate out what was the system, and what was good GMing. I think I’ve got it, and, as apparently the only indie TTRPG fan on the Internet that does not like Mothership, I thought I should make a post about my opinions.

You Don't Play the Game, the Game Plays You

To avoid burying the lede: I think Mothership has a problem with “player participation”. Specifically, I think Mothership actively discourages its own play experience, makes sure you don’t care to invest in playing, or at best sacrifices its own play sustainability for the sake of short-term novelty. At the heart of this criticism is the idea that what you do as a character in Mothership really, truly, does not matter, on many levels.

  1. Within the game world

  2. At the game table

  3. To each other in the party, or,

  4. To your own character, really.

Mothership may dare to ask—how can I do the perfect Alien game? Without considering: WHY? Why do people do the things they do in Alien? I don’t know if Mothership is really the perfect representation of Alien, but it’s clearly the whole sum of what they’re channelling, without deviation, so, let’s give them an A for Alien and then tackle where I have a real problem.

The thing is, I think in Alien, Aliens, Alien: This-or-That, the main emotional operating standard for the first half of any given movie is “because it’s my job, I guess—I don’t want to be here and I hate you guys” and the second half shifts to: “survival via blind luck” and, “no one will mourn me if I die”.

Neither of these are great conceptual pegs upon which to hang a TTRPG play experience. Play a little while and you’ll just be Bill Paxton saying: “It’s game over man, game over!” And then you die. Or go insane. Or go insane and then die.

And nobody, not the game world, not the party, and not your own character, cares.

The Main Draw is Flawed

So much of the praise I've seen on the Internet for Mothership has been: "It's so much fun, you go insane, and you die." I'm all for play-to-fail, but that only goes so far. At a certain point it’s hard for me, as a player or a GM, to care what happens anymore.

I'm suspicious that the players who really revel in that experience are doing so because it feels unique to them, which, it will only feel that way for a game or two. After a while, you stop caring. But by that point have they already moved on to another system? Has Mothership, then, done its job?

Putting on my cynical publisher's hat, that's fine—people are only going to play your weird little indie TTRPG in brief spurts and then move on, so they may not notice how short-term your play goals are.

But I think Mothership's design sacrifices the short-term play experience as well. This...might get a little pedantic, but here goes...

Player Participation

I think a lot about player participation in TTRPGs. For this I mean a feeling of involvement on the part of the player, that they feel their character can affect change within the in-game world on a big or small scale, or at least a scale relevant to the genre conventions of whatever they’re playing, and at very, very least to say: “I did something neat”. You don’t need to matter on every level, certainly, but your actions need to matter at least a little, or what’s the point?

The main conceit of all TTRPGs is that you want to imagine, within the shared social contract of this performative fiction, that your in-character actions have an effect on the game world. You don’t have to feel like Mr. Fancypants all the time, but you do want to feel like you being there has a relevant impact on some level.

There is no intrinsic truth to these imagined actions. They’re only as relevant as you’ve let yourself be tricked into believing. If the game does not support how your effect on the in-game world is meaningful, then it is not.

In this way, I think Mothership fails. I’ll break this down into a few levels.

The Big Level of Participation

This level of participation is: do your actions matter on a “grand” scale? This is more or less irrelevant to a game like Mothership. It’s only relevant in games designed around it like Noblis or Amber Diceless or Avatar: The Last Airbender where you’re the chosen one off to save the world. The world revolves around you, so of course you’re participating.

Sure, that’s kind of already the case with the fact that you’re playing a TTRPG. It does not happen without you, and when you stop playing the game world stops. But, games are rarely so admitted or overt about that concept. It depends what experience you’re trying to encourage if you even what this level of participation.

Mothership certainly does not. You’re a mook and a moron and you’re in space. Nobody expects really anything from you except failure and death. That can work, I just don’t think it works here.

The Medium Scale

I’ll identify the “medium” scale of TTRPG participation as the meat-in-the-sandwich play loop, specifically how the mechanics work to reinforce the setting and strengthen the meaning behind play actions. This is often a weakness in indie TTRPGs.

Let's step outside Mothership briefly and talk about this a little more broadly. It’s important to me that even though I’m a developer, I play as many of other people’s games as I can. I play a lot of little weirdo indie games to see what other things little weirdo developers like me are doing—and from that I can tell you what they’re NOT doing very often, which is play-testing. Too often the actual play loop, the “what are the players expected to do?” gets left out. The “medium” part of participation mechanics in TTRPGs is ignored. The GM is just expected to shove you this way and that. So, the path to play is vague or its many borders are invisible (when you hit on something the system just cannot do, and the only way to move on is to acknowledge it’s “just a game”).

Not every game should be a power fantasy. Myself, I usually avoid power fantasies. But, on some level your character has to matter, if only to you, their player, or if only to each other among the player characters. That’s usually where games like Mothership have their ties, have their meaning—at least you have each other! But in Mothership, specifically, you actually...hate each other? You have to, functionally, for play to continue.

For example, if there’s an android in the party in Mothership, everyone else rolls worse on their Sanity Saves. If there’s a marine, it’s mechanically reinforced that they are more likely to panic and gun you down their teammates by accident. Hilarious once, sure, but even Paranoia has a better sense of trying to make a more overarching play structure than a macabre Monty-Python joke out of play.

Play mechanics should bring people together, not drive them apart. It sucks to be the player in that moment when you recognise that your character being there makes the party worse and not better. Mothership drives you apart as an aspect of its standard play loop. Does this reinforce the genre conventions at the heart of its lore? Technically, yes, but not towards the betterment of the play experience.

A mechanic that drives you apart like this does reinforce genre conventions, making PCs separate and go off on their own foolishly, which is great for the genre emulation, but you can only do that so long before someone says the quiet part out loud: "Why do we even need a party, then?"

Small Scale Participation

Mothership is structured to follow the “gotcha” style of GMing. The GM plays a game of “I know something you don’t know”, and you poke things until the GM gets to say “gotcha”, and your character suffers.

In Mothership, small scale participation—that is to say, action-to-action behaviours—does not matter much because play is highly reactive. Your Saves seem to matter more than your behaviour, actions, or personality.

Again, "play to fail" can be its own fun. My own Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart is pretty “eek out your few victories from hardship”, which I’d argue is not quite the same thing, but whatever. Mothership brings this to a whole new level, when even your androids can go insane.

On top of that you have a literal tally of all your failed rolls, just to remind you how much you suck.

There is an appeal to “meat grinder” TTRPGs where characters live fast and die hard, and many of them have been very successful. I think if the whole thing had a narrative lean this could have worked a lot better, but in Mothership you’re pretty much expected to play Dungeons & Dragons on spaceships. And space-bases, and planetary bases, which are functionally spaceships in terms of the play experience. You’re still talking bulkheads, winding unknown corridors, room-filled-with-X, and airlocks.

Am I being a sourpuss? I’m sure there’s a more interesting way to throw yourself into a meat-grinder; something that feels more thematically relevant—something where you get to feel a bit more involved.

Scale Overview

From the top, let’s go over Mothership. Do your actions matter in a bigger sense? No, not at all! You’re a corporate wage-slave space bum. It does not matter if you defeat the alien menace or die horribly, it will not affect you, or anything in the setting, at any time, really. Do your actions matter on the small scale? Well, it’s not terribly proactive, and even if you get to do something to escape or defeat whatever Space Evil is out there, there’s...just going to be another one, until you die. So, I think no, you do not. Do you at least matter to each other? No! In fact, you’re basically cursed to work together. This is the really troubling point for me. You don’t even help each other. You actively harm each other’s ability to accomplish this mission.

One of these aspects has to give—you have to matter to somebody, somehow, or (at least the way I think about these things) there is nothing calling to me to play. Why does this universe need me? Why does my group need me? Why do I need to be doing any of these, rather than retiring and living in the woods with many, many cats? If the act of play can’t involve a sense of participation, then as a player—and certainly as a GM, I do not feel like I want to participate.

Good Examples of Participation Mechanics

Games where I feel like there’s a good sense of participation:

  • King Arthur Pendragon by Greg Stafford. You’re knights, which means you’re responsible for your serfs. If not for you they might starve in the winter. Sure, life is fragile and difficult—you are not some great hero, but you have a duty of care to them, and a duty to your duke to serve.

  • Blades in the Dark. No matter what you’re doing in Blades there’s still a sense that your PC group in particular are the only ones brave and foolish enough to take on a job like this. Maybe it’ll all go sideways, but that’s okay—you had the guts to do it!

  • Mouse Guard. The mice look to you for protection. They dare not venture off into the wilderness. Only you have the training, and the calling to do so. Maybe delivering this letter won’t matter much in the greater scheme of things, but it’s important to the Guard. And you band together as a group for the greater good!

I wonder if what I’m really getting at here is community. I have no idea how broadly applicable these concepts are, or if it’s just how I work, but it sounds like I’m landing on the idea that there is no sense of participation without a sense of community. Even if we take some mainstream examples:

  • Dungeons & Dragons: You saved the day, you did it together. Maybe you burned down an orphanage or something, but you did it together.

  • Vampire: The Whatever: Your clan is mean to this other clan who doesn’t like those guys over there. Oh, your struggling humanity! Everything you do brings you closer to being a monster! Oh, look—those guys I don’t like. That lady knows something. But at least what you do matters to your clan, and it matters to you.

  • Call of Cthulhu: You’re probably going to go crazy or die, but only through your collective cleverness working as a team did you unearth the cultists’ plot, and only you can stop them! Maybe you fail and a great old one awakens, but you gave it the old college try. Yeah, community. 

Conclusion: Community

Ultimately, I think the secret sauce in TTRPGs and what Mothership lacks, is community. If there’s enough of a sense of participation on some level or another, it’s okay that there’s not participation on every level, certainly. It does not matter if the world does not care, if you care. It does not matter if your character does not care if they live or die, because the Spy Society needs them for one—more—job! You can get by with a lot, but there needs to be a need, or there is nothing driving play.

There is no community in Mothership, and for that reason it fails me.

James Kerr

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