A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.


I’ve started running another Mothership campaign to hopefully play through all of Another Bug Hunt. I’ve made a new mini-site over here to catalog what’s happened so far, and share play reports and my thoguhts on running the module.

Review: Another Bug Hunt

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on April 29, 2024

Tagged: mothership osr

Another Bug Hunt Cover

My copy of the Mothership Starter set arrived on the weekend. I love it. The box is dense, packed with all sorts of good stuff. What I was excited about was the new adventure, Another Bug Hunt. This will be the first adventure people new to Mothership will encounter. It’s quite possible this will be the first adventure someone new to gaming may run, period. The Mothership Kickstarter was wildly successful: I have to believe there are a non-trivial number of people for whom Mothership will be their first RPG. I assume the brainiacs at Mothership HQ realized how important this module would be, because there is a lot of talent tied up in its creation. It’s amazing to read such a fully realized introductory adventure.

Another Bug Hunt is split into four scenarios, the first a classic of the genre: players find themselves exploring an “abandoned” base, trying to piece together what happened to its MIA staff. The base is a small complex, a 10 room “dungeon”. There are two entrances to the base, the one around back leading straight to the big-bad monster. I love that you could start the adventure stumbling upon the encounter that feels like the end. This is the OSR nonsense I am here for.

Advice for running this adventure, and running games in general, is scattered throughout Another Bug Hunt. The adventure pairs well with the (wonderful) Warden’s Guide. A short prologue to the scenarios has the players make a fear save. The adventure explains the purpose of the save, when to make them, and how you might give players bonuses on the roll based on what they say their character is doing to cope with what is going on. This is an important part of Mothership, so it makes sense to have it be the players first interaction with the game. The fist scenario contains the most advice, and feels the most introductory. A lot of effort has gone it trying to highlight the invisibile assumptions of OSR play. (Of course, being seeped in this stuff, perhaps i’m not the best person to comment on whether they’ve succeeded or not.)

The next scenario in Another Bug Hunt involves working with three factions, each with their own plan for how to best deal with what is happening on the planet. One group wants to get the fuck out here—why wouldn’t you? The next wants to retrieve all the research they have done on the weird alien monsters they’ve encountered. The last wants to save their friends and make sure they have power to weather an incoming dangerous storm. There are three missions to tackle, but a twist after the first one will make the subsequent missions far trickier to deal with. Each also provides important information or benefits, so it will all play out differently depending on the choices players make. It’s a nice dynamic set up.

The third scenario in Another Bug Hunt is when the characters in the movie say the name of the movie. The players explore an alien mothership, in search of more of the missing crew and a better understanding of what’s happening on this world. This is a very deadly dungeon. Or could be, if players are incautious or overly bold. The third scenario reminded me of Gradient Descent, with complex rooms that are more alien. It provides a nice contrast to the first dungeon.

The adventure ends with players trying to get off the planet. Players earlier choices will factor into how easy or hard escape will be. This is another scenario that feels it’s a classic of this genre: escaping hordes of aliens. This scenario is very open ended. There is a timeline, some rough rules for how things will play out, but what the players do could be all over the place.

Another Bug Hunt looks to be another fantastic adventure from the Mothership crew. I am hoping I will be able to run it soon. I am very curious to see how it plays. Each adventure has advice for running it as a one shot, though they seem best suited to be run as a single campaign. Running through this zine will probably take several sessions. That feels like a good way to kick off your new career as a Mothership Warden.

Players try and escape the planet as aliens rush their ship!


Review: Mothership Wardens Guide

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on November 28, 2022

Tagged: osr mothership

I have been reading the Mothership Warden’s Manual over the last week, the “DMG” for Mothership. I find a lot of dungeon master’s guides fall short. People manage to run D&D in spite of its rulebooks, not because of them. Mothership’s Warden Guide is superlative because it breaks down how to get the game you just bought to the table: it understands why these game master books should exist in the first place. There are very few books that pull this off well.

Mothership Prepare Your First Session

Mothership’s Warden’s Manual’s very first spread is a step by step breakdown of what you’ll need to do to run your first session. There isn’t any faffing about: you’ve bought this game and you want to play it, here’s what you should do to make that happen. There’s even pictures of an example notebook so you can see what sample prep (and how little you probably need to have fun) looks like. Mothership is a horror game, and so one of the first things the game master is going to have to figure out is what makes a horror game different than your typical game of D&D. Here Sean breaks things down in a very approachable way, with what he calls the TOMBS cycle. You can use Mothership to run all sorts of games, no doubt, but the Warden’s Manual helps frame the sorts of games that likely make the most sense, by walking you through prepping such games in its opening section. The advice on prepping a game also serves as an introduction to the game and genre itself.

The middle section of the book is what I think of as more typical when it comes to DMGs: what are the mechanics and logistics of actually running a game? (Here Sean also tackles what must likely be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for people coming to Mothership: when should you roll the dice?) Into the Odd has great advice on running the game and I think this section from Sean is of a similar pedigree. Sean also talks more about the sorts of scenarios that are likely to come up in a Mothership game: investigations and social encounters. Again, what he’s chosen to focus on in this book helps frame what the game is about.

Mothership How The Game Works

Finally the book concludes with how to start and run a campaign. Like the opening of the book, this section is concrete advice to get you going. Sean’s goal is to have you running a campaign quickly, not fall into the trap of prepping instead of playing.

Reading this book made me want to play Mothership again. I could do it better now! This book is likely so good because it’s written as if it was going to be someone’s first RPG. This is probably a ridiculous assumption, but the book is all the more accessible because of it. I’m a very experienced RPG player at this point in my life, but the sort of guidance Sean’s put down in this book is useful for everyone. For experienced players who are bringing their own baggage to the game, a book like this helps clear up assumptions and gets you playing all the more quickly.

As I said at the start, I think there are very few DMGs that are actually any good. LotFP’s Grindhouse Referee book was my previous high watermark for these sorts of books. Raggi wants you to play his game and its infectious. For all the edginess of the line, the Referee and Tutorial books are so weirdly welcoming. Raggi’s online persona has some real wrestling heel energy, but his books for new GMs are written from a place that feels really friendly and inclusive. He really included everything you’d need to understand what a Weird Historical Horror RPG was about. (There is even a section on how to recruit players for your game—weirdly dated in this age of online game.) Brindlewood Bay is another game that is written with such care for the player that will run the game. It goes into great detail about how to start playing the game as quickly as possible. What your first session should look like, exactly. That these are all horror games is interesting. A coincidence? Something for someone else to discuss.

If you didn’t back this Kickstarter what were you thinking? Be sure to grab this game when you can—like now.

Mothership Find The Horror


Sean has shared some interesting thoughts on player safety tools in RPGs, something that’s been on his mind as he writes the dungeon master’s guide for his game Mothership: Thinking about Safety Tools in RPGs. Here Sean frames safety tools as a form of hospitality.

Review: Gradient Descent

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 31, 2021

Tagged: mothership osr lukegearing

Gradient Descent

Is Luke Gearing too powerful? Certainly. Luke’s latest work for Tuesday Knight Games is Gradient Descent, a megadungeon written for the sci-fi horror game Mothership. The braintrust at Mothership HQ asks the question, “can you fit a megadungeon in a small zine?” Yes, apparently you can.

I may have been the first person to run the module who didn’t help play test. It has a compelling premise: a giant space station, an evil AI, Bladerunner nonsense, etc: all the good stuff. I read it and was enthralled. Brendan and Evan played a game I ran online, starting in media res, trying to flee the space station with an artifact they found “off camera”. It was a fun game. Months later I picked the module up again and started a longer campaign, which has been running for several months now. As it winds down I have lots of thoughts about this adventure.

Gradient Descent is a 64 page full colour zine: it’s a very dense 64 pages. Like all good OSR books it opens suggesting how you might use this adventure, from the basis of a campaign to something to simply hoover up ideas from. Luke explains some basic procedures of play and how the module works and then we jump right into things. There is an AI, Monarch, that controls a massive space station called The Deep. This is a huge factory complex, abandoned by its corporate overlords. Next we learn about what orbits the Deep. My Mothership campaign had the players begin in The Bell, a small retrofitted thruster that serves as a safe haven for people exploring the station. There they met a small coterie of NPCs who can help kick things off. As part of a larger campaign I would have had them try and cross a blockade to reach the station, and perhaps make friends with Commander Kilroy, another NPC with goals they might help achieve. Along with some “monsters”, these are the things outlined first. Then we move onto the “dungeon” itself, which makes up the bulk of the adventure. The Deep is huge. There are several floors, many sections, and a web of interconnections. It’s a complex and interesting dungeon. In a twisted way you can almost picture what the factory would have been like in the past. Finally the book concludes with a table of random artifacts, some super science. The back cover of the module is an “I search the body” table.

The art by Nick Tofani is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module. I would share it with my players often. Jarret Crader, the man behind all your favorite RPG books, did development editing. With a module such as this, I suspect no easy feat. Finally, Sean McCoy did the layout, and it’s a real chef kiss emoji.

The book continues a long tradition of really strong graphic and information design that feels like the most standout feature of the Mothership line. I see a lot of the design cues from one page dungeons at play here. The adventure is laid out with the two page spreads of the zine in mind. You can likely run each section of the dungeon with minimal page flipping. When I was running the adventure, from a PDF, I would normally only need to jump to the sections about the androids, ghosts in the machine, or monarch. If I had the zine in my hands I’d put some post it notes there and that would be that.1 There is so much information this book is trying to get across, and it does a remarkable job at doing just that.

The descriptions in this dungeon are terse. On the whole I think this is a positive, and is what allowed me to run my games straight out of the book. It takes you seconds to read what’s going on in any room the players have walked into. For example:

Gradient Descent Room 1

The square in the title indicates this is a large industrial scale space: you should imagine a large factory or warehouse. In my head when I read this I pictured something akin to rows of corn. To avoid being licked would take some dexterity or creativity. The scene is both horrific and cold: there heads on stakes, but everything is artificial.

Gradient Descent Room 2

What now? Again this is a huge room, but I found it harder to imagine what its deal might be, where the loop of glass was going, and what it might be for. I know you might use sand for cleaning or scouring in a factory, perhaps for making glass, but I couldn’t quite picture what Luke wanted me to take away from this scene. I do like the phrase, “a whisper magnified to a roar,” though. In a space where you maybe expect to hear the clanking and crashing of a factory, this suggests a different sort of noisy space.

Most of the time there is enough for you to improvise on top of, especially for you pro-star GMs. I’m not sure i’m quite there, so I found myself describing rooms as “large industrial spaces” a lot, or falling back on analogies of Toyota factories. I should have watched some old films and made some dungeon dressing tables. I think if there was more space that would be a nice addition to the book: examples of what these alien industrial spaces might look like. A small table of ideas might be all it takes to help cement a space in your head. I would not want to see the descriptions of the rooms themselves expanded: improvising poorly is better than discovering well into play you forgot something important buried deep in some multi paragraph description of a space. I suppose the module is really trying to get straight to the point with everything it presents. We don’t have pages and pages of backstory about The Deep. If you read the module you’ll have a good sense of what’s up, with enough space for you to inject what you want. The module is flavourful: it paints a real picture of this strange alien space, certainly at the macro level.

Gradient Descent declares itself a sprawling sci-fi megadungeon. “But Ram, what does that even mean?” I would have shrugged my shoulders, but thankfully many years ago Gus wrote a blog post musing about what makes a megadungeon both mega and good. I regret not re-reading this blog post before running my games because I think it would have informed my GMing and improved the campaign.

The Deep is split up into 11 discrete interconnected sections. This doesn’t feel like a dungeon where the intention is to fight your way through it, so level 6 isn’t more ‘difficult’ than level 1, just different. The levels vary in size, but playing online most of the meatier ones took a few sessions each to explore. I initially tried to runs the game like a traditional dungeon crawl. I was going to think about rations and light and all that nonsense. I drafted up some houserules for overloading encounter rolls to track more aspects of play, but in the end I dropped it all.  I found it awkward. I am not sure that you can simply map that D&D style of play straight onto Mothership. Stress seems to be the resource you want to worry about in the game. Occasionally room descriptions in Gradient Descent will suggest players gain stress or make stress saves, but I think something more systematic that encompasses the whole module would have been a good addition. Dungeon exploration rules that tie into the stress mechanics of Mothership would be excellent. This is certainly something I will think much more about the next time I run the game.

The Bell is presented as an obvious home base. When I ran my Carcosa campaign the players generally ended each session back in the safety of a town. This way we could rotate new players in if needed week to week, which is generally what happened. The tone of this Gradient Descent campaign would have felt different if I also required the players end each session retreating back to safety—to the Bell or some particular sections of the Deep. This feels more in line with the ethos of a megadungeon campaign, as Gus outlines. You push into the space as far as you can until you must finally fall back. You are hunting for short cuts, trying to understand the geography, making friends with factions to find new safe havens, etc. With the short online sessions I was running I didn’t think this would work. The lack of a clear resource management side to the game also has some impact here: there isn’t a need to return if you don’t really need to resupply. The sessions we played ended up primarily being about exploring the weird space. We would pick up where we left off each session. And that’s perfectly fine, to be honest. There is enough there for it to be a fun experience, but you can do that and much more!

If I could go back I would have certainly prepped more! I am out of practice running games. This module is so well put together it fools you into thinking you can pick it up and just play. (And to be clear, you can, as I have just noted. Ha!) I just think I could have run a more compelling campaign if I had put in a bit more effort. I can picture something stronger! Mind you, no one is or was complaining: the players seemed to enjoy themselves and I certainly did. But maybe there are some lessons for you to do better than me:

This sort of advice would have been good to include in the procedures of play that open the book. I think a much longer section on how to use the book most effectively would be great for new DMs, and honestly old ones like me. I’m not sure running a megadungeon is quite the same as running a normal dungeon, and so a few words discussing how you might approach things differently would have been great.

Overall my gripes are far outweighed by the creativity on display. In these Covid-times I had lost my energy when it came to playing RPGs, but reading this adventure really grabbed me and got my excited about gaming again. Most importantly it did what it said on the box: I ran this giant dungeon crawl for several months with the most half-assed of prep. This is the stuff dreams are made of: truly wondrous.

[ed. This review originally appeared in my friends’ review blog Bones of Contention.]

  1. I am weirdly cheap about shipping, so my copy of this zine had been sitting with my brother in NYC for the last year and change. Of course, it arrived in Toronto just as I wrapped up running things. 


The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming 2021

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 05, 2021

Tagged: osr dnd awards mothership bastionland uvg

The Ennies are in September? I need to remember to not set my clock to the Teen Choice Awards of the RPG scene. Fear not, the awards you care about are beholden to no gaming convention, large or small. 2021 zooms by and was honestly kind of a garbage year as well. These are still dark times, but perhaps a little brighter, thanks to the power of science at the very least. And certainly in terms of RPG books 2021 is shaping up to be another good year. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Awards for Excellence in Gaming are here to make sure we stop and take notice of those books that were published so long ago you might ask yourself, “Why is Ramanan talking about them now?” Each year I create my short list of contenders, the books I think stood out over the entirety of the previous calendar year. Then I argue with the selection committee for months about which 3 books are those most notable in a field where there are many notable books. There aren’t many rules for these awards, but if there is one, it’s that there can only be 3 books.

Best Game: Electric Bastionland by Chris McDowall and Alec Sorenson.

Awards 2021 Electric Bastionland

“Players don’t need to read the rules if they don’t want to. They are simple enough to be learned during play.” Chris McDowall gets right to the heart of it with his followup to Into the Odd. Electric Bastionland is minimalist and terse. D&D stripped to the bone. The game is described in a handful of pages. The rest of the book is setting by way of backgrounds. They are funny and flavourful. The book concludes with advice for running the game: equally well done. The sort of gaming advice you can pick up and take with you elsewhere. Direct and to the point. Pragmatic. It’s quite impressive. The book like the game is beautiful. Alec Sorenson has done an incredible job bringing the setting to life.

Best Setting Book: Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City by Luka Rejec.

Awards 2021 UVG

I was a member of Luka’s Patreon at its inception. He would post his art on G+ and I liked looking at all his drawings so it seemed like a natural thing to do. He would mail out updates to his setting, which I might skim, but would mostly file away to read later. Except that later never came until the book arrived at my door. What a wonderful and imaginative setting. I feel like you can flip to any random page and be presented with some amazing science-fantasy. Like all good OSR visionaries, Luka did all the writing, art and design for the book. Incredible, right?

The Ramanan Sivaranjan Excellence in Gaming Best God Damn Books of 2020: Gradient Descent by Luke Gearing, Nick Tofanni, Jarrett Crader, and Sean McCoy.

Awards 2021 UVG

I am in the middle of writing a review of this adventure. I ran it the moment it came out, and again as part of a longer campaign. In a year when I was so demotivated when it came to tabletop gaming, Gradient Descent got me out of my rut, excited to play, and then facilitated my playing by making an adventure that was so simple to run. The braintrust at Mothership HQ asks the question, “Can you fit a megadungeon in a small zine?” Yes, apparently you can. Luke Gearing has delivered the goods. Sean McCoy has done a fantastic job of presenting such a complex space in a way that you can run straight from the zine. Really strong graphic and information design continues to be the most standout feature of the Mothership line. Jarrett Crader did the editing on the book, I assume no small feat given how dense the book is. Finally Nick Tofani’s art is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module, I would share it with my players often. Gradient Descent is the good stuff.

Honourable Mentions

Lots of love to Prison of the Hated Pretender by Gus L; Pound of Flesh by Sean McCoy, Donn Stroud, and Luke Gearing; Ordure Fantasy by Michael Raston; Acid Death Fantasy also by Luke Gearing (WTF); Stygian Library Remastered by Emmy Allen; Sunken by Mike Martens; and Lorn Song of the Bachelor by Zedeck Siew. Prison of the Hated Pretender is the best introductory adventure to OSR play, and I was happy to see it revised and updated. Gus has been releasing modules at a real tear in 2021, and I’m excited to see what he puts out next.