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.
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 email@example.com
I hope you enjoy it!