Failure Tolerated.

Game design, publishing, and making something from nothing.

Tag: horror

Survive, Solve, or Save: Pick Two

Last night, I was reviewing Mothership with some close friends while complaining about Alien:Covenant and my friend Nick said something that’s stuck with me while I think of how best to write scenarios for horror RPGs.

He said that horror games should put to you a choice in any given situation, which is that you can either survive the terror, solve the mystery, or save the day.

But you should only be able to do 1 to 1.5 of those things (I said pick two because its catchier, but he’s right, 1.5 is much much better).

The idea is that you can absolutely survive a given scenario, if that’s all you focus on doing. But if survival is your number one priority, you won’t be able to solve the whole mystery, or save the day. In fact, you’ll only be able to figure out some of the mystery, or save some of the victims. Why? Because you put survival above everything else, and that’s okay. That’s your choice.

Or maybe you wanted to save the day, you wanted to save the ship, or stop the cultists, or defeat the monster. Awesome, no problem. If you put all your resources towards that, you can do that. But you’ll do so at a cost, maybe you barely make it out alive and you never learn why you were attacked in the first place.

Or if you want the golden ending, you want to save the day and you want to learn the deep dark mysteries of whatever? Well, that’ll cost you your life.

And that brings me to what I think is so great about this survive, solve, or save mindset: it focuses on dilemma.

In some old screenwriting book I have lying around somewhere it says that good movies are about dilemma, not choice. A dilemma is a question of the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils. A choice between good and evil isn’t an interesting choice for most audiences most of the time. What really gets audiences invested in a character is when they have to choose between two things that no one should have to choose between.

I would argue that in most D&D games this is a choice between the greater of two goods. From a meta game perspective, the PCs are choosing between a variety of adventure hooks that they find awesome. Should we go to that sunken ship where the Grasscutter sword is supposed to be or should we go to that castle, kill the vampire and take his stuff? They know that there’s danger involved, but they are motivated by which of the potential rewards will be greater (you could probably frame this again into all choices made by PCs are a greater of two goods because they are choosing what they think is going to be most fun, but that’s not what I’m interested in).

If you’re a good DM you’re probably varying up your dilemmas and throwing things at your PCs like “oh a dragon is going to burn down the town on the left and orcs are going to raid the town on the right, which do you want to save?” And that’s awesome. You should be doing that.

But in a horror game they should always be choices like that. They should always be choices between losing your loved one or losing the orphanage to the ghost. Between saving the ship or saving yourself. Between destroying the keepers of Bamophet’s sabbath or touching that tiny glimpse of immortality. Between your mind or what your mind hungers to learn. The greatest rewards should always come at a the greatest costs.

Now, what I’m not suggesting is that if your PCs have solved the mystery and saved the day you amp up the difficulty and kill them because that fits into the genre tropes. I’m saying that you design your scenarios where that shouldn’t even be possible. If there’s any genre where it’s appropriate to go hard the whole time, it’s this one.

Oh, you want to know what that cultist was doing with that book? Well, you’ll need to read that book. And that book’s in some obscure protolanguage, which you’ll need to learn. Meanwhile the ritual murders continue, unabated. But you had to keep reading that book. And congrats, you read it, and now you’re teleported into the dreams of a comatose serial killer whose psychic energy has infected all of his cultist servants. As you make your way through the dream, you find a way to kill the beasts that are terrifying, even to this despicable specimen of humanity, but in doing so, you find out that there’s no way out of the dream. You’re trapped inside the nightmares of a dying murder god. But hey, the cultists will stop murdering, so that’s good. Do you feel better now that you know why they were doing it?

This leads me back to Zak S’s wonderful Hunter/Hunted model, which was the first thing I ever read about Horror RPG structure that got me thinking about this. And they fold really well into each other, because in H/H, if you’re not making progress on the solving aspect, then the surviving and saving aspects start to come knocking.

When I was growing up the joke about Call of Cthulhu was always “Why would I want to play a game I can’t win?” And its taken me until now to realize: You can only not win Call of Cthulhu if you define winning as getting all three: solving, saving, and surviving. You can win CoC, it just might cost you your life.

Mothership: A Sci-Fi Horror RPG (Beta)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Saving Throws in RPGs. Essentially, they are the opposite mechanic from a lot of things we’re used to as PCs. Most mechanics in non-storygame RPGs detail things the player can do. This is list of spells you can cast. This is how good you are at hitting stuff. This is how much damage you do. The character sheet is a litany of the player’s abilities, powers, skills, and other useful things.

Except for saving throws.

Saving throws are a mechanic that details how good the PCs are at having things not happen to them. Now, this is easy to re-frame into an active ability. From 3E: The Reflex Save is a measure of how good a character is at dodging, for instance. The Fortitude Save is a measure of how good a character’s body is at withstanding certain effects (poison, disease, what have you). So in a sense these are still ability’s of the PC’s. Obviously.

The big difference is that the player doesn’t have control over deciding to roll these saves. They are not things they choose to do. They are rolled as a result of something the PC already chose to do, and now a thing has happened that is bad,
and we want to see if by luck, instinct, or grace of God, the PC can withstand it.

Now, I’m not saying the player didn’t have agency here. I’m personally of the school that thinks the DM should give the PC a heads up when a saving throw might be incoming (“It looks trapped, if there’s poison, you’ll have to save against it. Do you want to touch it still?”), but whether you run your game that way or you just want to surprise your players with saves, the save is still a roll to avoid something bad happening, not a roll to make something good happen. It is a reactive roll, not a proactive one.

Proactive abilities are about a PC’s control over the world around them. Reactive abilities are about reminding the PCs of their lack of control.

Which brings me to Mothership.

No thanks bro I’m fine here

I’ve been wanting to play an RPG that takes the good parts of, say, Alien, Space Hulk, Gormenghast, Brian Evenson’s The Dust, and Event Horizon, and combines those with the good parts of Traveller, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Call of Cthulhu. Essentially, I wanted to create a toolkit for a few kinds of experiences:

  • A one-shot horror short: You can play one session, TPK or not, have fun for a night and move on.
  • A spacecrawl scare-kit: You can travel the galaxy and run into different weird things along the way.
  • A megaship crawl: You find the titular mothership and the game becomes about survival, exploration, and finding a way to exist in the strange new world.

Right now, all I’ve got is enough for a one-shot. In fact, that’s what I’ve made. A little pocketmod RPG that has just enough bones on it to start playtesting. You can fit this RPG and mini-adventure into your pocket and play it whenever you want. As I develop this, hopefully, I’ll be able to get more out of the spacecrawl and megaship aspects, but for now, I just want to see whether the base mechanics work.


The base mechanics in Mothership have a lot to do with saving throws. You play a Marine, a Teamster, a Scientist, or an Android. And primarily you’re differentiated by how resistant you are to damage, emotional affects (like fear, or loneliness), health effects (like hunger, or infection), and insanity (you know what this is). You have some basic stats, but fewer than in most games. And you have a bare-bones skill system. There’s a percentile system that may be trying to do too much heavy lifting at once, but we’ll see.

You can download the beta rules here: Mothership-Pocketmod

Shoot me any thoughts you have at

I hope you enjoy it!


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