Interview: Sean McCoy Talks Mothership, Dead Planet, Game Design, and More!



Recently I had the great pleasure of finally getting around to reviewing Mothership and Dead Planet, two books either by Sean McCoy or including Sean McCoy's work. I read those first as PDFs and later again as zine-format softcovers when I picked those up in January. If you've read those two reviews, it should be clear that I came away quite awestruck by such a newcomer to the scene just blasting the doors off the conventional level of layout I was used to seeing. Frankly, if you've followed this blog at all, you probably know very well that I consider layout and information delivery to be the most valuable, underappreciated aspect of RPGs and the place where most products have a lot of room to grow. Sean really achieved a terrific level of success with his two projects on that front, and I have had a lot of questions burning about them ever since I first went through them. I was extremely excited, therefore, that he was willing to deal with a particularly long questionnaire!




As is tradition, I like to ask all my interview victims what their entrance to the world of RPGs was like. How did you get into RPGs?

The first RPG I ever played with a homebrew game called Legendary Heroes by Bryan Pope. You may know Bryan as the designer of the tactical card game, Mage Wars, as well as the owner of Arcane Wonders. I grew up with his kids and when I was younger he was working on this custom d100 fantasy game called Legendary Heroes. I loved it. He had books printed up for the races, classes, skills, magic systems, martial arts. There was a splatbook for everything. I remember pouring over those pages constantly as a kid.

When I got into high school we tried out D&D 3e and had a blast. We actually got to it through Diablo 2, which released a sort of D&D style board game, which then led us to buying the books. My cousin GMed for us a lot, in what I now know as an old school style (insanely high stakes, high lethality, heavy lean on problem solving). We were getting into Warhammer 40k at the time, Deadlands, Risk, whatever we could get our hands on, we ate it up.

In college I met some new RPG friends, Mischa Krilov for one, who introduced me to indie/storygames. We played the hell out of Mountain Witch and Dogs in the Vineyard, but also got to try some Cyberpunk 2020 too. This crew was older than us and had been playing RPGs for decades, so it was great to learn about the huge spectrum of games that was out there.

After that I got out of gaming for awhile, but when I got back into it, it was with Bryan Pope again, this time working on his game Mage Wars. Through him I met Alan Gerding, my partner at Tuesday Knight Games, and through him I met Donn Stroud, who introduced me to DCC and the OSR. Since then, RPGs are pretty much all I think about.


You've made a pretty huge splash in the DIY world recently with Mothership. What drove you to leap in and make this game?

Tuesday Knight Games started out as a social/party game company, which I really enjoyed. As we grew and started branching out and I started learning more about the OSR, I just had this feeling like I wanted to be a part of this community that kept putting out such amazing work. I judged the ENnies to get a good feel for what was out there. I think a lot of people have imposter syndrome when it comes to design, and I’m no different. I started with a tiny pocketmod of Mothership, and when I found out it worked, that helped give me the encouragement to flesh things out and make a whole book. This went hand in hand with my development as a publisher and graphic designer, as I finally felt like I could do the whole thing without hiring anyone, which freed me up to do things the way I wanted.


Mothership has incredible information density and visual information presentation. How did you achieve this? Do you have a background in something adjacent that enabled you to achieve this?

I pirated Photoshop in high school to designer posters for school plays. Since then I’ve worked on and off as a freelance graphic designer, and my time at Arcane Wonders honed that into an actual marketable skill. I did all the graphic design and illustration for our first game, Two Rooms and a Boom, which helped a lot. In boardgaming you have to think about design a lot, because it immediately impacts every part of the play experience, from the person reading the rulebook, to the person listening to the reader, to every turn when you make decisions. Good boardgames have good graphic design. Even when it’s ugly. I paid a lot of attention to the advice and opinions of people in the OSR about what was needed at the table, and the more I dove into it the more I started trusting my instincts about what I needed at the table.


What inspirations did you have in mind when you did the design and layout of Mothership? What did you take lessons from - good or bad?

The work Reynaldo Madriñan and Grey Whiz are doing on BREAK!! is a constant inspiration. Everything Jez Gordon touches pretty much. The biggest thing I thought about was designing in spreads, making the book easy to read and quick to parse. Reducing page flipping as much as possible. Reducing searching as much as possible. The biggest things I’ve learned from Mothership so far haven’t been “general” pieces of advice, but specific bugs I want to fix about Mothership. I want to get combat quicker. I want to make ship design and combat cleaner. I want to write faster and get the Warden’s Operations Manual, and Aliens & Other Horrors done so that people have the “complete” set of rulebooks we initially envisioned. We brought 50 copies of Mothership to Origins ’18 when it was released, and we sold out. Which we weren’t expecting from a game that we just kind of put out for fun. No marketing really. We had to get Dead Planet out in six weeks by Gen Con or we were afraid the game would fall by the wayside like so many rules-lite one-hit genre-specific systems. And we’ve been kind of running ever since.


Mothership isn't exactly OSR - it's not quite a purely TSR-derived product mechanically - but it borrows many elements from these games. Why is that? What did you see in the old school games that you wanted to incorporate?

So being in the OSR to me is largely reflective of what I like in games: high stakes, emphasis on problem solving, de-emphasis of system mastery, organic development of story, flexibility, and hackability. I wanted Mothership to be like the OSR games and adventures I loved, but obviously not be a retroclone. I didn’t personally think the OSR style needed to be tied down to a set of rules, or games. It could be an aesthetic, or a style of play, or a set of limitations like Dogma95. But largely it was because I just like those kinds of games, so when I design, I think about them a lot.


Combat in Mothership is (rightfully) brutal and unforgiving. However, hacks are already appearing for making it a little less dice intensive at the table. What do you think of that, and does this change anything for you going forward?

Any call you make at your table to make the game more fun is the right call. There is no canonical Mothership other than the one happening at your table right now. Early on we used to say “Mothership is still in development” to basically head criticism off at the pass, but now I think we’ll just own it. It’s a first edition and there’s some clunky stuff. In my home game, I don’t use opposed rolls for combat. I have the players roll under their combat stat and if they succeed, they roll damage. Conversely, all monsters auto hit and players just roll Armor saves. Some monsters are weak and players get advantage, some are strong and players get disadvantage. Some monsters do damage even when you save. I think in the second edition we’ll move away from Armor saves and move towards damage reduction. We’re still playtesting that. I’m super happy people are hacking it though, because a big big big part of making the game a zine, making it black and white, making it paper you can write on, and making the rules so modular, is that I want people to be able to hack the game without worrying about if it’s gonna screw up the designers intent. The devgru’s intent is for you to kill your friends in outer space, do what you have to to the dumb book to make it so.


Space horror hasn't been done well by many. A couple things have tried, but Mothership is one of the few to do it exceptionally well - maybe the only one in recent memory. What did you have in mind that let you really build around that horror sci-fi theme? How did you develop the mechanics to support that?

Aliens was the big thing. Asking myself -- would this work in Aliens. Or the Thing. There aren’t that many mechanics for the horror, just making it deadly and the panic / stress system which isn’t that different from Call of Cthulhu. I think it helps that it’s not just whether people go insane. But rather that they have moments of freaking out. I think, personally, that the system doesn’t matter as much as the library content. Like people focus a lot of interesting conflict resolution mechanics, but that’s not where the meat of the game is. In D&D you roll the d20 without thinking, the mechanic doesn’t “do” much for you. Rather its good modules, good monsters, good encounters, that make the game, and that’s what we focus on when we’re writing new modules. There’s an internal style guide about what we are trying to do, and it includes things like: Don’t write lore. Every Monster is a Boss Monster. Keep them thinking about the Monster. What scares you? Stuff like that.


What advice can you give for running a truly great sci-fi horror game? What approach, do you think, makes for a very tense game in keeping with the system and its myriad influences?

So obviously its your table, what’s most important it that people have fun. Getting people scared is incredibly difficult to do, and my table is almost never scared, more bummed out. Steal from anything that scares you or keeps you up at night. It’s okay to deal with mundane stuff like docking. Slam your hands on the table to jump scare players. Keep them hungry. Evidence of the monster is scarier than the monster. Treat every encounter like its going to be a TPK if the players aren’t smart. Listen to your players and ask them what’s fun about the game. If it veers away from horror, that’s fine, just have fun.


The Mothership rulebook is targeted at players. One of the things commonly cited as "missing" from the rulebook is monster stat creation rules, but it follows that these would not be in a player-aimed book. Why didn't these make the cut for what has been, as far as we can see, the only rulebook out there? Relatedly, is a revised edition including this material, or a strict GM's guide, coming soon?

It was really about making the best use of space and not trying to be too redundant. We had something similar in the mercenaries rules (which can just be used as a stand-in for human level bad guy). Other than developing the other modules that are coming out, my number one priority is writing the Warden’s Operations Manual (which is tough) and getting the Aliens & Other Horrors book written. Basically, I always saw this as a three book set in a box like Original D&D, and that’s still my hope (fingers crossed for 2020). I didn’t expect the response the game has gotten, essentially. But I knew that the stuff that was in the PSG was stuff you had to have to run the game, the other stuff was just library content. Even the mercenary section was put in there as a sort of way to be like “Hey you could make monsters like this.”


Mothership has proven very popular since its release, and has become something of a darling of the DIY world. Physically, it is sort of an unassuming sort of thing; it is basically a zine in terms of the softcover version. Any plans for a hardcover or special edition, anything like that?

Absolutely. I don’t want to tie us down with too many expectations since you never know what could happen. But we have four or five modules being written at this very moment, and work is being done on both the Warden’s Operations Manual (DMG) and Aliens & Other Horrors (MM). After that, if the player base and demand is there, we’ll make the jump to hardcover. Mothership Advanced.


Dead Planet, a module for Mothership that you worked on with authors Donn Stroud and Fiona Maeve Geist, is another example of absolutely incredible presentation. What impact did you have on that?

I did the layout and some of the illustrations. We all worked hard on it, but I acted often as a producer, to help assign tasks and drive conversation. It was clear Mothership wasn’t gonna get off the ground if we didn’t follow up quickly with a module to show what we thought the system was capable of. Donn came up with the base ideas at Origins and was the tone police, making sure we all pointed back to horror. Fiona has this amazing gift at displaying a world through lists of found objects, and she’s also an incredible level designer. That experience was a special thing that would be difficult to replicate in a lab. We all wrote over all of each other’s stuff. We all brainstormed together. And it came out exactly like I’d hoped. I’m incredibly proud of the team and the work we’d done on that book.


You and Donn Stroud are working on a new module for Mothership. What can you share about that project?

It’s called A Pound of Flesh and it’s up on kickstarter for another couple of days. APOF is like our version of a city module. A lot of city adventures and a place for you to rest your head between adventures. We’re starting to try and populate people’s home galaxies and give them tools to do that themselves as well. It’s got cybernetics in there and a fully fleshed out space station, Prospero’s Dream, which I love. It’s sort of like this place where you can buy anything. We’re having a lot of fun with it.


What do you see as the future of the game? Is it basically maintenance over the ruleset and a series of modules (given the reception to the lovely Dead Planet)? Or so you plan to do more with the system or something?

Right now it’s focusing on getting out a couple modules per year, get out a boxed set next year with the entire first edition core books in it. And then we’ve got some big projects, megadungeon hardcover style projects (it’s called Mothership for a reason, and I’m itching to get to some actual motherships). More community oriented events. A few setting books we have in mind. Once Mothership feels more established I think we’ll also start working on getting some of our other games out there as well.


How many more Mothership projects can we expect in 2019 after this amazingly successful Kickstarter is completed?

In 2019 alone I think we’ll have at least one more module kickstarted, if we’re insane, then two. I’m expecting a baby in a few weeks, so probably just one. We haven’t officially announced it yet, but we’re working with some amazing people. Fiona Geist, Luke Gearing, Christian Kessler, Tyler Kimball, and always Jarrett Crader. I’m excited for the future of the game.


Another tradition of these interviews is to plug projects at the end. You've got free reign to boost any books out there you published, worked on, have coming out soon, or just want to support. What do you want to get word out about?

If this is up by then, please take a look at A Pound of Flesh and see if it’s something you could use for your game. We keep system stuff very light, so it should plug in well to Traveller, Eclipse Phase, Stars Without Number, Thousand Suns, or Star Wars.



Tons of cool stuff from Sean here, and with that goes my heartfelt thanks for his time. I was so hype to finally get to ask a lot of these questions in an in-depth sort of way, and I was not disappointed by what I got out of it! Very cool to also bring soft-launch sort of announcements that Sean is working on modules and other products with that wretched batch of villainous evildoers cast of colorful characters - Fiona, Luke, Christian, Tyler, and Jarrett will undoubtedly produce (or, continue to produce, as the case may be) exceptional books for Mothership. A Fever Swamp in Space is just about my favorite possibility!

Thanks again to Sean for gracing this silly blog with so much of his time and experience. I hope to speak with him again after I get A Pound of Flesh in my hands later this year, to revisit what lessons have been learned after another successful project or two.

As a reminder, you have, like, 60 hours or something by the time this goes live to get your pledges in on A Pound of Flesh. They're doing a Mothership/Dead Planet/APOF combo deal and the physical backers are getting what I think(?) is a Kickstarter-exclusive iron-on patch, which should take you right back to the glory days of 80s sci-fi. Get on it!


As always, hit me up on Twitter (where I am @dungeonspossums) or down below with all of your ongoing ennui/misdirected anger at Sean for your many dead Mothership character sheets. In fact, please, specifically, tell me about every character you've lost in the cold vacuum of space because of Sean's merciless sci-fi hellscape game. I would love that.
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