Karth Taught me to Love Mothership
This article is a review of the Mothership RPG, a review of Desert Moon of Karth, and a report on our 8-hour bachelor party adventure. Buckle up, space cowboy!
Mothership Didn’t Click with Me
The Mothership RPG has been an indie darling for a while now. It’s a rules-light horror game that grew popular because of the incredibly well-presented adventures that pack 200 pages of content into a 30pg zine. Seriously, check them out. They are DENSE with quality content.
I avoided Mothership at first because I don’t like horror; neither do most of my players. A lot of horror games just don’t seem…fun? If the game fails to be scary (which it will if I GM it), then there’s nothing else there for players to latch on to. “Your character dies in some horrific way. Congrats?”
I played Mothership a few years back with a group of friends. We enjoyed the character creation and the start of the adventure, but the game fell apart very quickly. My players often failed their rolls, they didn’t get very far into the adventure, death was swift, and I didn’t understand how to run the game. We gave up after an hour. Since then I’ve enjoyed reading their adventure, stealing some layout ideas, and seeing the vibrant community that’s risen around the game.
But it definitely wasn’t for me.
Fast forward to a few months ago. I saw the Mothership Kickstarter make big waves and blast through stretch goal after stretch goal. I also heard they were finally publishing a GM guide and my interest was piqued.
“What had I done wrong last time? What key info was I missing? SO many people enjoy this, there must be a secret.”
I backed the Kickstarter and resolved to run a game ASAP. Around the same time my friend asked me to run an 8-hour RPG session for his bachelor party, and I decided to try out Mothership and crack the code.
However I still don’t particularly enjoy horror, and the bachelor requested a more action-oriented gaming session. I already owned copies of Pound of Flesh and Dead Planet. But I needed a Mothership adventure that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Enter Desert Moon of Karth.
Karth is Beautiful
I grabbed Desert Moon of Karth because I needed one more product to qualify for free shipping from Exalted Funeral and the cover art sold me. It reminded me of my own game, Clink, and I’m a sucker for westerns.
As it turns out, Karth not only provides a fresh and exciting sci-fi romp, it was also the secret ingredient I needed to unlock Mothership. First, some details about Karth:
- 52 pages
- 10 Locations
- 20+ Random Encounters
- A dozen NPCs
- 3 Dungeons
- TONS of flavorful tables and tidbits
As a bulleted list you might think, “Hmmm, not bad. Not bad at all.” But you wouldn’t really understand the true value of this book.
Karth oozes charm. Every location has depth. Every NPC is nuanced or weird. Random encounters draw you deeper into the factions and encourage you to visit other locations. Every page has a dozen ideas to fuel your GM inspiration.
I’ll repeat myself again: There is a sweet spot for how much information the GM needs to run a game. Too much info and the GM has to cut out the cruft and take a bunch of notes. Too little info and the GM is making it up anyway, so why buy the adventure?
Karth really nails that sweet spot with a mixture of familiar cliches to keep everyone on the same page sprinkled in with unexpected weirdness.
For example, the image above lists 10 different buildings in the city. But notice how each building contains a kind of depth that draws you in
- The Medical Clinic is run by an unsettling android doctor. He’s also the only one who can refine valuable materials, so players will end up visiting him either way. At night he sneaks out to operate on owner of the inn, who hates androids but needs medical attention all the same.
- The Desperado Karoke Bar is the perfect place to learn some rumors, but it’s hardly relaxing. Music, dancing, and drinking set it apart from the cliched dusty saloon.
- The General Store Emporium is run by a friendly woman who smells of lilac and keeps a shutgun under the counter. A bunch of her wares are non-functional, but she doesn’t know that and will be quick to offer a refund and apologize.
And that’s just from ONE of the locations in the book. Everything has this unique blend of familiar tropes and fresh, unexpected ideas that make it easy to run on the fly.
And on top of all that, it’s funny. I mean, it’s REALLY funny. Humor can be difficult in RPGs, but what makes Karth so special is that the rules act as the straight man while the adventure is making funny faces in the background. It’s often dark humor, of course, and with the proper tone a lot of these jokes will just come off as creepy.
For example: At an isolated farmhouse there is a woman who will rent the players some mounts. Her husband is frozen in a cryo chamber, but she talks to him like he’s still conscious. Secretly, she hopes he never wakes up.
- Funny: “Gerald! Please speak up, we have guests. I swear that man couldn’t make himself heard if he were dying!”
- Creepy: “Oh dear, I don’t think Gerald likes you very much. If you upset him, I’ll have to get my knives…”
It’s rare to see something so flexible in an RPG product. Of course, for the bachelor party, everything was very goofy and light-hearted.
The Secret to Mothership
Here are three things I was doing wrong when I played Mothership the first time, as well as how I improved my game:
Find the right adventure. This can seem obvious, but when the creators of Mothership release an adventure module, I assumed that THIS was the intended experience. I applaud Mothership and other indie games for embracing the third-party community and expanding what a gaming experience can be.
Panic Often. Despite my fears, the d20 Panic Check was really fun. There’s a funny dynamic where players obviously don’t like having to make a panic check…but at the same time they lean forward and hold their breath while I look up the result. It was a really healthy tension that can drive home more consequences than just “you take damage”. When the game gets slow or tension wanes, introduce something new to the game and call for a panic check. See the 4-armed duelist for a good example further down.
- Keep Combat Simple. When I first played Mothership I ran combat like other games; enemies take turns and deal damage, players take turns and deal damage, etc. But that is not only dull, it will kill your players VERY quickly. Instead simply describe what will happen if the players do nothing. Then give each player a turn to try and prevent that outcome. I’ll give an example for this one:
GM: “The sandsquid charges towards you. It will eat Bieffe and rip your speeder in half. What do you do?”
Then the players can each take a turn in any order to try and prevent that. “I shoot it in the eyes as someone else swings the skiff to the side.” This keeps combat from just being damage back and forth, encouraging players to find solutions rather than just die rolls. It also means that
if when they fail the consequences can be severe. You hardly need damage rolls, just describe what happens.
The Legend of Bieffe
To drive the point home, here’s a summary of our play session. Everyone had a good time, and we hope we can meet up again to continue our tale. I had a really big d20 for Panic Checks, and we used the poker chips to track stress.
Karth inclues a TON of maps and handouts that really helped bring the whole experience to another level. We had 4 players, one of whom had never played an RPG before.
- Bieffe. A teamster with a strange accent who liked shiny things and industrial equipment.
- Monte. An android who served as the personal calculator to a big corp. He fudged the numbers and is on the run.
- Aleos. A marine who left the govt and is looking for new life as a merc.
- Egon. A scientist who specialized in botony, specifically spores, molds, and fungus. (As an aside, I think playing a known character is a GREAT way to start roleplaying. I welcomed this!)
All four characters want to get away from the Imperium, so they hire Captain Kelly to transport them “anywhere far from here and potentially profitable.” Kelly agrees and thinks Karth will be the perfect destination. “There’s a bit of a gold rush happening there”, Kelly explains, “And I bet together we can all make a little money.”
The players are put into cryo sleep and the ship leaves for its 6 month journey. 5 years later, the characters awaken from cryo and make their first Panic Check.
This was when I realized that Panic Checks are more fun than I expected and a good way to draw players into the moment.
After they leave their chambers they are met with a battered Captain Kelly. He’s been through hell and is missing an arm. “That’s not all”, Kelly explains, “We crashed on this miserable rock and a sandsquid ate my special medallion! Without that medallion we’ll never be able to leave the planet.”
He walks the players outside to show them the wreck and the surrounding desert. He picks up an old gas tank and lights the bottom. The tank launches into the air. When it reaches 600’ in the air a laser beam comes out of nowhere and blows it up.
“If we don’t get that medallion back, we’ll be here forever. Hopefully y’all are more successful than my last batch of assistants.” Kelly gestures towards the cargo hold of half-empty cryo pods. “Here’s a few credits. Go into town and get supplies. When you return, we’ll hunt that old squid down and get off this rock.”
Monte and Aleos search through the ship and discover some unused speeder bikes lying in the corner. They can’t ride them for fear of attracting sandsquid, but they dismantle the bikes for parts and hope to sell them. Egon and Bieffe are eager to get started, and they begin their trek through the mountains towards town.
On the slopes of the shallow mountain range they discover the wreck of an old shipwreck.
- Bieffe opens a container to discover some kind of strange tracking device.
- Egon uncovers a tub of toxic waste.
- Aleos finds an unpowered mech suit too heavy to carry.
- Monte discovers and activates a strange-looking drone which immediately begins firing on the group.
After a Panic Check when the drone goes invisible, the group comes up with a plan. Egon will throw the toxic waste on the drone to expose its circuits, Monte will hack the drone to disable it, while Aleos and Bieffe prepare to shoot it if all else fails.
- Egon succeeds, exposing some wiring in the drone.
- Monte fails to hack the drone AND fails his second Panic Check. He’s terrified and attempts to flee the battle.
- Aleos charges the drone with his flamethrower, opens fire…and fails. The tank on his back begins to overheat and Aleos decides to throw the tank at the drone and deonates a huge explosion.
- Bieffe WAS trying to figure out the tracker and contribute…but now the fight is over.
As an aside, this little skirmish is the PERFECT example of how Mothership spirals out of control in a fun way. The drone was a minor threat, but because of Panic Checks and a few bad rolls we got this dramatic and dangerous scenario where the combatants are on fire, running in terror, or simply confused. All without any complex turns or damage rolls.
After gathering themselves and some of their scavenged treasures, the players continue into town.
Larstown is a dusty hub of commerce and a vague reminder of civilization. In fact, as the players walk down main street they find themselves in the middle of a drunken duel.
The duelist closest to them turns and offers an extra pistol. “There’s money in it if you help me!”
Aleos moves to accept the pistol, but the duelest is killed and the pistol falls into the dirt. “If you pick up that pistol you’ll be dust!” threatens a large scarred man.
No one to be intimidated, the players immediately begin spreading out and looking for an opening. Just as they’re about to overwhelm the scarred man, he lets his cloak fall to the ground and reveals a second set of arms with a pistol in each hand!
After a Panic Check, the players manage to disarm the scarred man and take his pistols. The scarred man has nothing else to offer in exchange for his life…except that the mayor owes him a favor.
Now the mayor owes the players a favor, and the four-armed man limps away. The players split up for the night.
- Monte visits the android doctor to get treated for his stress.
- Aleos and Egon head to the karoke bar.
- Bieffe grabs a room at the inn and passes out.
After drinking and healing, Monte, Aleos, and Egon wander the streets for a while. They see a shifty-looking man dragging a wet bag to the edge of town. The players follow the man, and watch as he throws the wet bag over the side of the wall.
When confronted, the man claims he’s simply taking out some trash. Suspicious, the players walk around the wall to see what was in the bag. Bones, cybernetic implants, and the occasional organ fills the bag.
After a Panic Check the players decide to show this bag to the mayor. However, when they re-enter the town the man bars their way. He has 2 large mercs with guns pointed at them. “Want to help me feed the hagfish?” he asks threateningly.
As the mercs escort the players to the fish tanks, the shifty-looking man explains how hagfish need a variety of nutrients to stay healthy. Many of these nutrients can be found in the human body, and would they mind sacrificing their lives for the good of the town?
As they pass the hospital, Monte screams for help into the night, hoping the android doctor will hear them. After a Panic Check, the situation devolves into a scramble of shots and pain.
Moments later Marshall Clark, head of the local marines, arrives with some troops and disarms the situation. The hagfish man is taken to jail, and the players are told to visit Marshall in the morning.
As the sun rises Bieffe emerges from the inn feeling refreshed and rested. The rest of the party isn’t so lucky. They visit Marshall and learn that the hagfish man “is an important part of the town’s economy” and won’t be pressing charges against the players.
Marshall offers the players an old laser cannon to help them take down a squid. “The less sand-suckers around here, the better” he says while chomping on a damp cigar. “But I can’t give it away for free, just a steep discount.”
The group heads to the general store to sell their treasures and try to get enough money for the cannon. Tami, the store owner, is delighted to see them and buy their speeder parts, weird tracking device, and extra guns.
After a few failed attempts at flirting, Tami introduces Bieffe to her shotgun. Bieffe passes his Panic Check, and the group manages to leave the store before things escalate.
A great example of how Panic Checks can just be a fun way to up the tension; they don’t necessarily need to happen during life and death moments.
The players buy the cannon and a medium-sized speeder to mount it. They head back to Kelly’s crashed ship.
Of course, the speeder attracts all kind of attention, including a few sandsquid, but our session was coming to a close. So the players made 3 consecutive Panic Checks to represent their hectic journey.
They return to find Kelly drunk out of his mind, mumbling about “preparation” and cleaning his harpoon gun. They throw Kelly into the speeder and set out to kill the sandsquid.
Things get pretty hectic once the beast arrives, but here’s an overview:
- Captain Kelly misses his harpoon shot, and slumps to the floor of the speeder, unconscious.
- Aleos and Egon fire the laser cannon and maneuver the speeder.
- Monte, now free of cowardice, overcompensates and drives a bike directly into the mouth of the sandsquid. The bike explodes and Monte is launched deep into the heart of the monster. He is still alive, shockingly.
- Bieffe grabs the harpoon gun from Kelly and fires off a shot; anchoring the squid to their speeder. Shortly after, the sandsquid grabs Bieffe and swallows him whole.
The party continues to attack the squid (from within and without). Eventually the Squid dies and empties itself upon the sand. Bieffe, Monte, and Kelly’s special medallion are expelled from the disgusting corpse.
Aleos and Egon pick them up and return to Kelly’s ship. They take off from the desert and fly into the sunset; free men at last.
For future adventures, the players now have a ship and a special medallion that lets them enter and leave Karth freely. Certainly our boys could turn this into a profitable opportunity!
Mothership is good. Get it here.
Karth is good. Get it here.
Bachelor parties are fun. May Bieffe and is real-life wife enjoy many happy years together!