Friday, September 24, 2021

On Mothership and The Haunting of Ypsilon-14

Mothership RPG and its first two modules (Haunting of Ypsilon-14 and the mega module Dead Planet) are available on  Roll20 now, so it was easy to get a game going at long last. By using Roll20 I was even able to create a mixed A team of local players and friends I gamed with across the country in my prior incarnations (or who moved elsewhere), so it was a great group!

The Haunting of Ypsilon-14 module in print is a wee cardstock trifold brochure promising an entire module. The online version through Tuesday Knight games' website conveniently includes three MP3 recordings you can play as the group finds various discarded cassettes during the module. These are professional-sounding recordings illuminating the grim last days of certain characters (one has some music), and lend to the mood quite my group is not too used to such theatrics so finding them in play is a novel reward.

I think the Haunting module is intended to be a one-shot to last an evening of play, and arguably it can probably take about 4 hours to complete by a highly organized and risk-embracing gang of players. My group took three sessions to complete the module, and I will admit I buffed it up a bit both to provide some extra challenge but also to motivate them to explore areas that my often more risk-averse players were resistant toward exploring. 

Mothership is the kind of game where players work best when they approach the experience with a tiny bit of delight in the nihilistic nature of it all. If you go in to Mothership determined to make level 10 and steal boasting rights from Ellen Ripley over your alien moderation skills then you might be missing some of the point of Mothership. Can you get to level 10? Sure, absolutely. But should you do so through the safest course of action possible, without a backup character? Most decidedly not!  As with Call of Cthulhu, if your character lives long enough to be committed to an insane asylum then you should consider that the best case win; CoC and Mothership both are games where if you find you truly love your character to the point that you wish them no harm, then your best course of action is to send them home, safely, to let other more daring souls with shorter lifespans handle the mysteries and many deaths lurking throughout the universe.

With all that said, my entire group did not lose a single character, though the NPC mortality rate was an astronomical 80% or more. The group, on average, took a fair amount of damage, and everyone's stress levels (Mothership's take on the sanity mechanic) are skyrocketing....therapy and recuperation alone do not readily reduce the Stress level of your PC, you have a chance to drop it a bit when leveling and maybe if the Warden (GM) is feeling especially kind and that's about it.

The Ypslon-14 module in print and with the MP3s is perfectly playable at the game table though some sort of general station map to track the action would help the warden. The Roll20 version was particularly nice, though, and the first time I ever bought and ran a preprogrammed module using Roll20. It was a nice experience, though I was hopelessly lost in figuring out how to handle map overlays and ended up defaulting to the old fashion fog of war option.

The Roll20 version includes NPC sheets and tokens, module pieces for all locations, the MP3 recordings and a nice retro SF map of the entire mining station your group will be trapped on while investigating the mystery surrounding Ypsilon-14.  It's a nice package, and as I mentioned it lasted 3 nights for us, a total of about 12 hours of gameplay.

Before I go any further in talking about the module: SPOILERS! I don't want anyone to stumble into secrets and information they did not want to know. Here goes....


Okay, so Ypsilon-14 is a mining station on which the party, while visiting on their freighter for routine company pickups, is asked by the station superintendent Sonya to check into the disappearance of a missing crewmember. As the group further investigates they discover more crew go missing, and something which is insidious, dangerous and invisible appears to be lurking....there is a secondary related mystery involving a dangerous yellow goo, and another visiting ship, locked in its own docking bay, with a mad doctor on board. Oh, and there's Prince the cat who has now been adopted by my players for reasons.

The trifold module provides an incredibly space-efficient layout for how to run the module. Too efficient, actually, because it provides no instructions on how to absorb the content it offers, and you sort of have to stare at it a bit and read through to realize what it is doing, but once you see it it will "click" and make total sense. It works like this:

1. There's a paragraph on why the crew is here, which if read verbatim can dispense with literally dozens of minutes of conventional preamble and warmup (my game started with them being mysteriously diverted to the mining station, building a little tension as to why the company sent them there). 

2. You then get a flow-chart layout of the station; a map can be nice, and is great in Roll20 to track who is where, but the trifold itself lets you see what is in each area descriptively, with arrows, connectors, lock icons and such to tell you how the place connects. It's direct, no-nonsense descriptions give the warden the outline and you can use it as directly or with as much additional riffing as you see fit.

3. You get a table of NPCs. You roll on this periodically to see which one goes missing.

4. You get a monster. Every few minutes you roll a D10 and that is the region of the ship the monster is lurking in next. It's tough, but if the group is tougher (has a marine or two) they can probably take it with some luck if you are not careful (they technically blew it to bits at the close of session 2, but more on that in a bit). The creature is meant to be a stealth striker, and does enough damage to hurt but not usually kill a PC in one round. How easily you make it for the PCs to get around on the station will impact how readily the beast is likely to corner and strike with success. 

5. You get three complications: the yellow goo, which is a substance that heals the monster but turns humans into a slushy over time, Dr. Gillespie who is on the locked down ship Heracles and is slowly dissolving to the goo while studying the monster, and the three tapes, of which the first is easy to find, the second requires the PCs to climb into vents (which a risk adverse group is unlikely to do), and the third requires boarding Dr. Gillespie's ship and confronting him. In the end, to insure they got to hear the tapes I places tape #2 near the vacant space suit in the mines and tape #3 was the mysterious final broadcast from the Heracles before the group left (they never investigated the Heracles, instead using laser cutters to weld the ship's bay doors shut).

....And that is it. The module is very simple and straight-forward, and you can modify it easily to season to taste. I, for example, made the following modifications:

Mixed Tapes; changed tape locations (as the players failed to follow up on certain angles of exploration). I also described them as "recordable media in EMP-hardened cases" rather than, essentially, space versions of 8-tracks because I am just not in to the idea of fetishizing the 70's style SF as often happens in Alien-inspired media (Alien: Isolation cough); the SF of the 70's had CRT monitors and green screen computers because it was the 70's and they had budgets and limited ability to predict near future changes. I have no such limits.

The Goo Origins: elaborated on the yellow goo, which is a macguffin designed to hint that water is a weakness of the substances and maybe the creature (not really); this worked in that when they found the wellspring of yellow good they obliterated it with a high pressure water pump cobbled from their ship. I used the yellow goo in more detail, since it was unclear to me how vacc-suited miners were getting it on themselves in the first place, suggesting instead sloppiness and the creature tracking the stuff around was the source of contamination.

Exploding and De-exploding the Alien: After the group blew up* the creature in session 2 I revealed its remains had gone missing; the yellow goo, it turns out, began regenerating the creature (as intended) but could do so even if it were chunked; the creature got one final hurrah that way, before they tricked it in to docking bay 2 and welded the doors shut. That means that as of the third session when they grabbed the human survivors (Sonya, Prince the cat, and Morgan who was covered in yellow goo and stuck in cryostasis) that they left the station with Dr. Gillespie and the creature still in the Heracles....

The Goo and Water: The yellow goo causes contaminated humans to react badly to water, but the module explains nothing further. I decided it's actually chemically converting water molecules in the human body, thus causing some of the breakdown. This lead to an avenue of exploration for the scientists and androids in the party. I riffed quite a bit on what the goo was, on analysis, because I love that sort of SF stuff, but someone running the module straight up could probably work with what info is at hand easily enough. 

Expanding on Mike: Mike was the first miner to disappear. I added another guy into the mix as well as a ruse: Jenkins, in case some of my players were secretly familiar with the module. I further decided that Mike didn't die; he became aware of the creature's use of its pod to heal, and then unsuited and entered the pod himself (deciding also that the properties of the yellow goo kept him alive in a vacuum). So when they investigated the pod, Mike appeared, which was a great scene as I described his yellow-goo covered body, the madness in his eyes as he lashes out, only to exploded in a cloud of vaporized goo when struck by the laser cutter, covering all of their vacc suits in yellow goo from his converted body. Good stuff!

In Space You Don't Have Gravity: the module identifies where in the mines you are in vacuum. It doesn't talk about gravity at all, so I assume when entering the mines everyone passed out of the artificial gravity well created by the station generator. How does it work? Dunno, but this led to a tense combat in the mines when everyone realized that projectiles can send you flying backward, and exploding stuff doesn't stop or slow down. 

The Mysteries of the Alien: The module suggests little about the alien and the pod it comes from, other than that the yellow goo heals it and does horrible things to things alien to it like humans. I toyed with the idea of how much to riff on this, and settled for a few sequences in play that built tension and mystery: the group discovered the yellow goo on analysis was biomechanical, a nanite slush, and that when they tried to see if it could be "communicated" with it did something horrible to the computers which crashed. They later discovered the alien in their own ship, attempting to override their mainframe to take control and broadcast a message. The implication: this is an alien stranded here, its pod either exiled to the asteroid or crashed. They never established what the deal was, and the module lets me figure that out. I can sense a Part 2: Return to Ypsilon-14 module in the future....

So all in all, a fun time was had by everyone. The module really does work best with a more relaxed crowd who is in to the genre; my friend playing the marine did a fantastic job of emulating the genre elements cemented so well in panicking marines from Aliens, and my other buddy played the unnerved scientist to a tee. My rules lawyer was a bit of a rough spot as Mothership is not as worried about nitty gritty details, such as a moment when I realized that there's really not a surprise mechanic in the system (just roll speed to see who goes before or after the monster). Both of my players who played androids really played it to the hilt....apparently Ash and David are exemplary of your average androids when it comes to top of the line models!

If you run the module, I have a couple of suggestions: advise the groups they can roll all teamsters, or maybe all teamsters and one scientist or android (or both). Marines with their basic loadout do make the creature less of a threat. As with the original movie Alien, a lot of the tension was due to the crew being average space truckers with no meaningful defensive gear.

My other suggestion is: as I did, change a few things a bit. I am reasonably sure at least one of the players had snagged the module ahead of time because their gear loadout looked suspiciously prescient, with items that the module assumes they won't start with access to. Throw that player off a bit in whatever way you think works best with some surprises.

We'll be doing Dead Planet next, and I have to say I can't wait. I have all the modules I can find so far between Tuesday Knight games, Exalted Funeral and DrivethruRPG and I plan on eventually running just about all of them!

FINALLY! The irony is not lost on me that this review is probably twice as long as the actual module.

*The marine in the group threw a grenade and rolled a spectacular critical on the hit as the creature rolled a fumble on its Combat armor check. The rules in Mothership seem to not provide guidance on what a crit success does to damage, if anything, but I ruled that you get maximum damage when criting on an attack. In Mothership parlance a frag grenade rolls 1D10 for damage, and in Mothership the line under the roll means "multiply by 10," so he did 100 damage on a crit! Frag grenades are deadly in space.

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