Mothership’s box set gives newbie game masters something to hold on to

Key art from Mothership’s game master’s screen shows a viscous, otherworldly creature — all teeth and gooey flesh — with an M inscribed in its eyeless, noseless head.
Image: Tuesday Knight Games

Don’t give up the ship

All too often, tabletop role-playing games get lost in their own fine print. As the author of a core rulebook, you want to keep things short and sweet, but it can be easy to confuse carefully explaining a game with unnecessarily expanding it. The designers of Tuesday Knight Games’ award-winning TTRPG Mothership have successfully resisted that urge.

The science fiction horror game’s final form, a first edition starter set, knows exactly what it is — a grim and grizzly experience for players, and a challenging crucible for those running the action. Setting and themes notwithstanding, Mothership’s is probably one of the most welcoming guides for game masters that’s been published in years.

Mothership is a mature game that takes its inspiration from sci-fi classics like Alien and Event Horizon. In it, players take on the roles of scientists, teamsters, androids, and marines on the hunt for unexplained phenomena in derelict space stations and abandoned colony worlds. Unlike in other game systems, however, provoking violence is rarely the best course of action. That’s because combat is both brutal and deadly.

How deadly? Well, each player’s character sheet has a field used to list the number of play sessions they’ve survived. The average “high score,” as the developers call it, is four. With only three to four players recommended for each session, it’s all but guaranteed that every time you sit down at the table, someone is going to die. That’s an incredibly intimidating bit of information for newbie game masters, but thankfully the provided materials are full of great advice.

The Mothership box set is packed with valuable materials, including a modest GM’s screen, some cardboard standees, custom dice, a scenario booklet, and a dense starting adventure. But the meat of the experience is in its three core rulebooks, namely the Player’s Survival Guide, the Shipbreaker’s Toolkit, and the Warden’s Operations Manual. It’s the latter of those books that GMs will cling to for their first few sessions, and not a single one of its 60 pages is in any way wasted. Even the kerning of the font seems customized to fit as much information as possible onto every page.

Inside the Warden’s Operations Manual, you’ll find plenty of high-quality art, including some clever diagrams that make the game’s systems immediately clear. There are loads of tables and charts as well, meaning you should be able to pick up and play a random adventure with just a few rolls of the dice. But it’s all the detailed advice for running a game — any tabletop role-playing game, really — that will have you coming back for more.

Four astronauts walk across a desolate moon covered in bones. A giant lays dead near a throne before them, while a ringed planet sets on the horizon.
Image: Tuesday Knight Games

Take the book’s opening spread, which shows a graphic of what the GM’s notebook should look like before the very first play session. Page after page, the Operations Manual teaches GMs less about how to do simple math, and more about how to create a setting filled with interesting conflicts. It does so by breaking down, step by step, how to build an interesting adventure.

Don’t overprepare, the Operations Manual stresses repeatedly, because players will always surprise you. Set the stakes, clearly and repeatedly, because actions are meaningless without consequences. And do more than just say “Yes, and…” every time players want to try something interesting. Even the written-out samples of actual gameplay include lots of great modeling for what to do at the table. There are even instances where the book shows the GM simply being quiet and letting the players do the talking — a very hard thing to remember to do your first time leading a table.

By far, my favorite part of the Operations Manual is the lengthy section titled “Planning for Failure.” Instead of enumerating all the ways that a single session or a lengthy campaign can end in disaster, what follows is more resources for creating interesting gameplay when things go off course, or to prevent interruptions from happening in the first place. It teaches GMs to create clearer maps, make better keys, and think of ideas for catering to a variety of player needs and wants. It’s the same section of the book that includes clear and well-written guidance on safety at the table. “Solve disputes as people, not characters” and “Never shield players from the consequences of their actions” are just a few examples of the many pearls of wisdom found within.

A sample of a composition notebook with notes for a science fiction campaign. Textbook-like materials at the edge of the frame detail what each section of the page should be.
A typical two-page spread from Mothership shows you exactly what you need to do.
A sample of a composition notebook with notes for a science fiction campaign. Textbook-like materials at the edge of the frame detail what each section of the page should be.
Image: Tuesday Knight Games
The materials neither force your hand nor talk down to you. Each page says: “You can do this!”

Priced at $59, the Mothership box set is more than just a collection of handy aphorisms. The included Shipbreaker’s Toolkit is its first major expansion, and it contains everything you need to know to manage and fly your own spaceship — including rules for both combat and bankruptcy. Unconfirmed Contact Reports, meanwhile, is an unexpectedly robust bestiary with dozens of vile critters that you could easily wrap an entire campaign around. Taken together, these add-ons read like a victory lap for the developers, who have been working on this game for the better part of a decade now. While it’s well more than first-time players are probably ready for, they are the cherry on top of an already overflowing package.

Mothership was reviewed with a retail copy purchased by the author as part of Tuesday Knight Games’ crowdfunding campaign, which ran on Kickstarter in 2021. Copies are available now online and at local game stores.

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