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Co-op Mothership - Part 1 - Implications of Players With Dual Roles
Player Facing Rolls and Opt-in Stress
Welcome to part 1 of a series of essays that I will be writing about playing Mothership as a two-player cooperative experience. These series are not written in any specific order to make any specific argument. I’m hoping that by the end of using these writings to process my thinking that I will be able to create a pamphlet or zine for cooperative Mothership.
The largest concept to reconcile when attempting to play any ttrpg cooperative is the fact that the genre has baked in roles of player and warden (DM, GM, etc.). It is expected that one person does nothing but create and run the experience for the other players. This ignores the fact that the warden is also a player of the game and that for certain players, game design and warden theory are what make the genre fun. Mothership has a lot baked into the system to allow for warden’s to be as much a part of the improvisational problem-solving as players. However, the wall still remains between player and warden.
My partner and I are both the type of people who are gonna read the whole player’s guide and warden’s manual before we even set foot at a table. We’ve both spent many years with no one to play ttrpgs, so it has been a hobby of ours to read rules and manuals for every system we can possibly learn about.
When we started thinking about a two-player game, we had two ideas. One person creating/choosing content and then running the other player through it, and then alternating who runs the game. This is more traditional, but we didn’t like the divide that it put between us. The other route was for us to both be player-wardens and to run the game entirely cooperatively. It’s the harder choice, but we choose to run with the idea of dual roles: both players being player and warden.
The warden role is traditionally associated with keeping secrets: encounter tables, maps, NPCs, creature stats, etc. They create a veil to simulate what the characters would know about the world without revealing more. If we are both playing as wardens, this veil no longer exists. All rolls, tables, and creatures become player facing. There are fictional and mechanical implications for this.
We both agreed that we couldn’t be all knowing without some sort of fiction based in our world about why we would have this information. This led us to adopting debt rules at the core of our game. If we are working for someone to pay off debt, they will provide detailed dossiers for us for each of jobs (module we choose next). It’s still a give and take about what our characters would know and what would be in the dossier. Even if we know the ultimate solution, we have to fill in the blanks about how we would logically get the information. These fictional implications also led us to carefully choosing what NPCs we have on our ship. We pick up the two androids from the Alexis on purpose and rolled them into PCs. This way we were able to give the skills in archaeology and exobiology, explaining how we are able to know more about the history of a location and the details about creatures. There are also mechanical reasons for choosing these two androids, and that will be saved for another post in this series.
A major aspect of not having warden secrets is the fact that we can prepare our characters better than if we were coming in blind. We can do this because we know what possible random encounters could pop up, and we know the general shape of the world and our plan for each module. This could lead to problem-solving being less interesting, but in our experience, it makes our criteria for problem-solving more specific, which actually leads us to create more chaotic solutions. Quite often, having a rough structure leads to more creativity than starting with a blank slate, writers know this (poetry forms, three act structure, five paragraph essay, five section dissertations/journal articles, etc.).
With our rough structure for problem-solving in place (having maps, knowing major npcs, knowing creatures and their stats) allows us to play a very improvisational game that seeks to create chaos and leave physical and emotional carnage in our wake.
Since we don’t want to just play railroaded encounters, we do not pre-roll any encounters or pickups. We know what possible random encounters could show up, but we don’t know which encounter (if any) will emerge. At a normal table, this could bog things down, yet for our game it adds the texture to the game because we think of warden activities explicitly as gameplay. This means that even if we think we have a plan that we’ve generated for the module, things can go off the rails and never end up the way that we planned. I personally improvise best when I have a detailed plan that I then throw away based on the situation: I am a teacher, and this is always what works best for me there too.
Player Facing Rolls
Deciding what rolls to make becomes a collaborative process this way. Whoever is taking a turn for a player or NPC pitches an idea and whether it requires roll, and if it does, what type of check. This can include advantage or disadvantage. We debate these until we decide on something that seems reasonable to the both of us. This can be a very difficult style of gameplay if you do not yet know how to have creative conflict with your fellow player-wardens. I’m playing with my girlfriend who I ran a streaming show with for over a year, so we already know how to have and resolve conflict in a productive manner.
Finally, this leads to the fact that we now have to operate using the suggested house rule of opt-in stress where players determine if gaining stress or rolling for panic are warranted. There are a few mechanical situations where this is automatic: gain stress on a failed roll, panic the first time seeing a creature, panic on critical failures, the effects of drugs, etc. Panic in other situations follows the same process as developing rolls, it’s someone calling out that something deserves a gain of stress or a panic check and then cooperatively deciding if it seems reasonable.
In conclusion, this leads to a different style of gameplay than is normally suggested for Mothership. We do end up calling rolls as players, but not in the way that you would in a dnd game. In a dnd game, the reasoning behind rolls is deductive: I am going to use this pre-existing idea on the world and the outcome is determined by a dice roll. Instead, we think of actions using our character sheets as a guide/structure for problem-solving, and then we use inductive reasoning to decide on the rolls. We might have some ideas when we develop our action, but the exact structure and reasoning of rolls gets argued cooperatively. Sometimes this can be easy agreement, and sometimes this can lead to five minutes of discussion about whether an underwater airlock is automated or requires turning a large valve with a strength check.
This structure of inductive debate is what gives our cooperative game its heart and unpredictability even though it seems like we should be extremely railroaded if we already know all the secrets. What comes out on the table is the synthesis of both of our ideas, and this creative urge is why we consider gameplay a form of performance art even when it involves no acting out of characters or npcs.