Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.
I have backed a lot of Mothership modules on Kickstarter. The system is neat, easy to learn and to play, and attracts a lot of talent. I wish I played more Mothership, and I’m excited to see a lot of the various expansions to it into campaign play. Lone Archivist wrote What We Give To Alien Gods, a 72 page module, with additional art by Chris Cold and Vil, which I have to say I was attracted to by it’s strong cosmic horror vibes, something somewhat unique among takes on Mothership horror.
Main negative out of the way out the gate: the information design leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn’t open with a summary or where to start, but rather opens with a safety, loot, special rules and xenolinguistics, a lot of which might be best in an appendix. On the first page of the adventure itself, it centres a derelict ship, which is plot-central but whose story is located in an appendix. I found it hard to intuit what would be where, I found myself expending energy on unimportant information before important information, and in a 72 page document this all could have been a lot more usable and digestible for me.
The “How to use this module” section is, I think, a bit excessive, but the safety section is fantastic, as is the section entitled lore as loot. Then we have another section on rules regarding relating to gods and xenolinguistics, which provides two frameworks for interesting, unique puzzles. For me, I prefer modules having a bit more of a kick off the bat, and I don’t love spending fifteen pages before it’s clear what the module is about. The “At A Glance” section should have been up front for me.
Act 1 is an unnecessary and incomplete two page hex crawl; this references the derelict ship that is featured throughout the module, but has no page reference and whose information is all the way on page 52 (there’s a page reference in Act 2 though).
Act 2 through 4 are the temple itself, an encounter with a trapped god, and the escape from the aftermath. Major character Dr Grahm is introduced through a random location generator with no page reference. The keyed locations are unmapped. The doors are mainly teleportation portals, but the lack of maps becomes a usability problem for me when hallways appear between rooms, or they start floating in relation to each other but it isn’t marked out in the text. The use of codes for me is a solution to a usability problem that isn’t there: I’d forget them during play and I wouldn’t were it spelled out. The entries are quite long, consistently longer than I’d prefer – two thirds of an A5 page for the most part. I can’t say having an extra sentence or two would effect the amount of text on the page by much. The final twenty or so pages of the module are what I’ll call appendixes – major NPCs, items, randomisers and some lore handouts.
Most of the content here though, is eerie, weird, puzzling and eventually very unsettling or outright horrifying, as you progress through the four “levels” available (sequence breaking is possible, particularly if the players solve the linguistics puzzles quickly). The linguistic puzzles and the gradual and directed exposition makes for a very slow and deliberate kind of play which is very unique. Good horror content here, and successful at a kind of cosmic horror that Mothership doesn’t usually excel at. Really, really good stuff, and I’d love to run this adventure.
Ok, there was a lot of criticism there, and I need to be up front, What We Give To Alien Gods is in an unenviable position: It’s much better designed than a lot of published modules, especially much better than most anything by the bigger publishers. But it’s also a Mothership module, and Mothership and it’s core modules have set very high standards for information design and usability. Some lessons here on information design could have been learnt from some of the better Mothership modules, in my opinion, but the content is exceptional if you’re looking for what’s on the box: Cosmic horror.
My main design takeaways from all the criticism is that a module needs to display information in the order it is read and used at the table, excepting only when it’s clearly referenced. You need to leverage your random tables so that they do double or triple duty of reducing the size of your keys. And most importantly here, the inclusion of a lot of very interesting puzzle content served to stodge the text up. Perhaps the puzzles could have been relegated to an appendix altogether, making them more optional (they’re a huge part of this adventure if you’re not good at or interested in linguistics) and also pulling them out of the main text.
An excellent, unique adventure, marred by poor information design and excessive keying. If you’re happy to put a bit of work into preparing it, I’d recommend it if you want slow-paced cosmic horror in your Mothership game.
29th March, 2023