Hacking Mothership with Quadra
Building better processes and workflows for publishing
Sean: Perfect. So hey Quadra! This is really exciting. I think I’ve been looking forward to WBR for over a year now. It’s maybe the first third-party product I ever just got so stoked for. In a lot of ways it sort of proved to me that this could work, that the game could attract incredibly talented people to it to make amazing stuff. I can’t say enough good things about it.
For those of you who don’t know, Quadra has had a sort of outsized impact on Mothership’s development for how little you’ve probably seen of them. Their blog Traaash is just incredible. I’m always looking forward to their play reports from their home game. Their Calm house rules for Mothership are widely used. Even their custom character sheet altered the direction we took ours. Even flipping through WBR right now I’m looking at the way you do page references and slapping myself going “I wish I thought of that.”
I’d love to hear about how you got into Mothership and what got you thinking about making Warped Beyond Recognition? What started you down this road?
Quadra: This is exciting – I've been looking forward to getting WBR out for ages too, but it's only this year that things have aligned enough for me that I've been able to take the plunge of actually getting it Kickstarted, printed, and in people's hands. It's pretty thrilling now that it's all in motion.
I'm glad this is a remote interview because after all those plaudits I'd be cowering under the table in embarrassment! I do tend to prefer being more behind-the-scenes and letting the work do the talking, so it's very gratifying to hear my contributions to the Mothership space have had such an influence. I remember being delighted seeing an early draft of the 1E character sheet and recognizing some of my own sheet's DNA had made its way in!
My experience with tabletop RPGs was honestly pretty limited before Mothership, having only played a small number of games and DMed even fewer. Mothership was, I think, only the third game I ever even attempted to DM, and that effort soon became the WARPED campaign, which has thus far run for over 50 sessions (I'm a bit behind on the session reports)! I wanted to set a particular tone for my game, and lean more into the corporate horror side of the genre than the eldritch stuff of Dead Planet (the only module out at the time), so I created my own starting scenario, which I gradually refined into Warped Beyond Recognition.
I don't recall exactly how I first heard about Mothership, but I do remember hearing about the character sheet early on and being intrigued. I was thinking about information design in RPGs at the time because a lot of books and character sheets I encountered seemed to do a pretty bad job of presenting information in an immediately usable way, especially to new players. It was so exciting to see someone doing it differently! It also helped that the game has a kind of Aliens-meets-Blade-Runner horror setting, which sounded like EXACTLY the kind of thing I wanted to run.
I think when I actually got my hands on a copy of the PSG, I was really impressed at how well laid out everything else was too. The way the rules sections were numbered — tied to page numbers — just seemed brilliant. The layout and clear, terse language gave me confidence I could look things up and figure them out quickly at the table without losing much steam.
What really hooked me, though, is that in the midst of all this considered design and tight presentation, you'd opted to include a full spread — right in the middle of the book — of d100 bizarre trinkets and patches for players to roll up as part of character creation. I had to laugh when I saw that, it felt kind of like I was touring an immaculate, modernist house and suddenly came upon a huge pile of trash on the dining room table surrounded by a family of carousing raccoons. Chaos! And it kind of snapped me back to the fact that, hey, this thing is a game for people to play, not a treatise on information design. Not saying that the rest of the book is bloodless — far from it — but it really stood out to me that you'd have this streamlined, flowcharted character creation experience and then say, "yeah, also roll up these two pieces of non-mechanical flavor." It just felt very fun.
(As it happens, rolling on those tables has done more to help my players figure out what kind of characters they’re playing than many much more involved character creation systems — turns out it's a nice succinct bit of design after all.)
I'm curious about the character sheet, the tables, and the overall approach to the design of the original book — I understand Fiona is largely responsible for the trinkets and patches, but you clearly recognized that they would add a lot to the game. This seems like the kind of thing that doesn't make a lot of sense on paper — the kind of thing that would be hard to justify extra page count for in the abstract, but which, at the table, winds up being the little detail that ties the whole thing together.
I've thought a lot about this kind of thing — a lot of my favorite things in games are the little details, thoughtful bits of flavor that may seem incidental, but which IMO are incredibly important to the overall feel of the experience. The kind of thing that makes a game feel well-considered, fully-realized, even soulful — is this something you think about? How do you think about the feel of a project you're creating? How do you balance deliberate, conscious design against intuition and happy accidents? And how has your approach changed from 0E to 1E?
Sean: That’s a really interesting observation. Fiona’s touch there with the Trinket/Patches table was really one of the things that I think elevated the game from just like some d100 space game into something that felt like it had its own identity.
I think you’ve nailed it with the word details. This is something we talk a lot about in the devgru. My background is in filmmaking and with a film every little thing you put on the screen matters. Outside of the performances and where you put the camera, there’s all these questions about detail: what is everyone wearing, what sound are you going to use, what about production design and the art department. I’ve been on a set where we were ready to shoot and the art department fought to get new wallpaper put up in a room – and goddamnit if they weren’t right when we were watching it play out in dailies.
That’s my lens and that tends to be how I think about game books. We think about color, font choice, layout, art, placement, the names of things. There’s all these details. I think a lot of designers shoot themselves in the foot by charging the referee for the generic stuff. The stuff you can improvise on the fly. You’re being paid for the details. That’s why I like to work with people who have an insatiable curiosity, they’re detail-magnets. Any call I have with Fiona that goes on long enough (all of them) ends up with me learning about like… trade embargoes or kidnap and ransom insurance or some other weird topic when I called to ask about her opinion on whether we should hire this or that freelancer.
A metaphor I use is that let’s say you’re on stage in a play. The set feels real, the costumes are authentic, but if you use any of the doors on the stage, you’re now backstage – in the real world. The fictional reality gets lost with all the crew and the fly system and backdrop and all that. With game books we’re trying to make it so that there’s always something back there. There’s something behind every door. This is why we stress so much in our books that you can ignore content. We believe that the content just being there, unopened, has an effect on the table. Players really do get the sense that there’s no borders around their play.
I think the balance between conscious design and happy accidents plays out very naturally just due to how long we spend on a project. I do most of my writing on my phone in my notes app. It becomes this long hodge podge of disposable ideas, scratchwork mostly. But these projects take years to come to fruition. That’s why we’re always working on so many at once, just tending to them because we’re not sure which is going to bloom first. There’s a saying that goes something like the muse shows up if it knows where to find you. That means discipline, that means putting something on the page even when it doesn’t look like much. And then just waiting around to get lucky like a barfly at closing time.
The biggest thing from 0e to 1e is that we have something to react against. We know what 0e is. The big challenge of doing 0e was just doing it. Was just putting this vehicle out in the world and seeing what kind of wrecks it got into. Mothership has an identity, it has a fanbase. That’s the tricky part. Balancing making your current fans happy while improving the game for new people. You sort of have to believe that there will be more fans in your future than in your past. This helps keep you from tying yourself too down to the past and being too afraid to change things. We basically say “will this make it easier for someone new to play?” and if the answer is yes, we do it.
The kinds of problems I want to solve have changed too over time. I’m more interested in figuring out how long campaigns keep players invested. In teaching people how to build satisfying narratives that aren’t railroads or just completely open sandboxes. How to build useful lore for your table. I’m very focused on stuff that makes prepping your game easier, not just from a “no prep adventure” perspective, but also from a “how can I spend my limited time usefully” sort of way.
I’ve got two kids under 5 right now, so it’s like the busiest time of my life. I’m trying to get the boxed set finished, look forward to the next project, keep the house clean, keep the kids fed, make time for me and my wife, it’s a lot! I can’t spend 5 hours a week on prep. I think it needs to be something closer to like 1 hour for every session.
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Speaking of easy prep: WBR was one of the first modules that I really felt got what we were going for with Mothership. Easily a masterclass in module design in my opinion. Not everyone can be a one person show, but you’ve done the design, writing, illustration and layout for the book, which is no easy feat. When you were going about this did you think about it in a linear progression like okay I’ll design the encounters, then write the book, then drop it in layout, then I’ll add pictures. Or did you loop back and forth like, okay I’ve got this doodle that could be cool, maybe that could be one of the NPCs, oh and on this page I have some open space maybe we should put a table there… What’s your process like for building a scenario like this?
Quadra: The very first version of WBR was just me overpreparing for my first time running Mothership! I'd come up with a few other horror scenarios before and run them in other systems, and what I'd eventually landed on as a key to developing a scenario was to start with a theme: for horror, that would be a fear. One of my most successful horror scenarios was about being stuck on a stopped subway car with a bunch of strangers, and something horrible starts happening to them ... that was built around the fear of strangers and contact with the unknown, but also very specifically the feeling of seeing someone do something awful and/or inexplicable on public transit, where you are a captive audience.
So I took the same approach to prepping that first session: the thing that excited me about Mothership was its connection to horror and cyberpunk's common theme of powerlessness. I wanted to get my players really quickly into the space of being under the thumb of a Weyland-Yutani or Tyrell-esque megacorporation and basically having to do awful things to get by — awful not just as in scary and dangerous, but also as in reprehensible. (This is also when I made my d10 Reasons You're in the Corporation's Pocket table, which I had my players secretly roll on to give their characters a little extra motivation to carry out the mission.)
(WBR SPOILERS NEXT 2 PARAGRAPHS)
This theme gets reflected back to the players as they uncover what happened aboard the RSV Fidanza, in particular to the test subjects: the “monsters” in the module are cast-offs like the PCs, powerless and manipulated, reduced to varying degrees of animalistic madness. They're incredibly dangerous, but there's a good chance players will see more common ground with them than with the corporation that created this whole situation and then sent them there to clean it up. Mine certainly did!
From there, I wanted to have a limited cast of just a few very distinct and interesting characters, and have it all set on a fairly small spaceship, largely just to keep the variables to a minimum! Running a new system was daunting enough, I didn't need my players running all over a planet or something too.
(END WBR SPOILERS)
I think at that point I just sketched out a layout and some stat blocks in a notebook and ran what I had, and was encouraged when my players really took to the scenario! I took lots of notes and updated things, thinking about what I would change if I were to run it again. And that kind of thinking eventually led me down the path of creating a module.
Initially, I thought I should write everything up before going to layout, but it wasn't long before I realized that was just not the right workflow for me. As the person doing the design, writing, art, and layout, it was actually harder to try and separate everything out. Getting into InDesign and roughly laying out the spreads with my notes really helped me figure out how it would all come together.
It's really interesting that you have a background in film — I'm always curious about what designers did before they got into games and how that informs what they do. What you said about Fiona definitely tracks — my most fruitful collaborations are always with people who are omnivorous in their interests and make fascinating, novel connections between things I'd have never thought of. Cultivating and maintaining curiosity feels like the most essential skill for anyone doing creative work (or being a decent person, honestly — I think most kindness stems from simple curiosity).
Before I got into game design, I was deep into comics, which absolutely informs my designs. For example, Chris Ware uses precise layout, scale, negative space, and typography to carefully guide your eye across his intricate pages, and you'll find a lot of the information and story is actually in his layouts. I found that I only really had all the tools I wanted to communicate the setting once I had not just text, but imagery and the ability to arrange it all on the page. So it was a very iterative process in the end, getting text and sketches in, rearranging, re-drawing, re-writing, on and on.
It's great that you're more interested now in long campaigns. In Mothership's early days, I felt like I was the only one using it to run a campaign — I only really ever heard about people running one-shots. As a Warden I found that there were places where the game felt optimized for quick pick-up-and-play one-shots to the detriment of longer-term play. That's what led me to design my own character sheet: your original, a design marvel btw, used a lot of space to step players through character creation, which, after 30+ sessions, my players definitely didn't need any more. Similar things led to the Calm system and more long-lasting Panic roll effects, No-Initiative Action, Challenge HP, etc. — all of this stuff (everything I post on TRAAASH, actually) — comes from play. I have a very sporadic posting schedule there because I only post stuff I actually use, and it takes time to design solutions to problems, test them, iterate, etc. before I'm ready to share them. That translates to a low frequency of posts, but hopefully a high bar for quality. Having looked through the 1E rules and having played it only a few times, I have to say it feels like a lot of the directions I was moving in have made it into the game — whether I’ve had a hand in that or it’s just a kind of convergent evolution, it's very cool to see. I'm excited about what Mothership is becoming.
I'm curious about your process too! I look at your bigger, more complex modules like A Pound of Flesh (which I've gotten over a year of sessions out of!) or a massive one like Gradient Descent and I wonder how you organize and keep track of it all as you're going. Are you a mind-mapper? Do you just have notebook upon notebook where you're accreting ideas and making connections and then you copy that into layout software and shuffle it around? Also, what's your approach to playtesting and acting on feedback? And when is a module “done?”
Sean: It’s a messy process and we’re in a strange growing period where to keep the line improving, I need to delegate more, which means defining a process from the top level that we can rinse and repeat. But until now, the process has been very messy. Here’s an overview:
Dead Planet: For this one, we did the whole thing in six weeks. Fiona, Donn, Jarrett, and I had a massive google doc open that we all just typed into whenever. I broadly assigned sections of the book and then would just start laying things out, getting maps, art done myself while other people wrote. I’d fill in the gaps. Fiona would hop in and edit people’s writing, Jarrett kept a steady hand on everything. So we basically were doing all parts of the process at the same time. This had some benefits because things could be interconnected, we could play off each other, and there was some chaos – everything wasn’t one note. But it’s hard to capture that lightning in a bottle twice and not a great way to build a company.
A Pound of Flesh: After DP shipped I assigned like three modules right away, A Pound of Flesh, Gradient Descent, and Psycho Tropics. Each to three different teams of authors. I wanted to go wide and just see like whoever finished first, that’s what we’d do next. The original author for APOF had to drop out so I jumped in and worked through the rest with Donn and Luke Gearing. A lot of this module is captured in a physical notebook (https://www.jetpens.com/Maruman-Spiral-Note-Basic-Notebook-B5-Graph-80-Sheets/pd/20908) one of my favorite notebooks actually. I’d usually lay down a flowchart map first and then some sketches of possible illustrations or maps and a few bullet points about what I wanted an area to be. But the rest of the work was done straight in InDesign. There were just so many tables to fill out. A big thing of mine is that I really write best in my graphic design program. That’s the canvas to me. So I don’t think about just the text in a traditional manuscript format, I really need to visualize what’s going on the page.
Gradient Descent: For Gradient Descent I worked with the incomparable Luke Gearing, who I just set into the wild and came back with a manuscript six months later. During that time I worked on getting the format of how we would present dungeoncrawls down. The page numbers working as room numbers, the bullet points, just what the vocabulary of that book would be. Then I started working with Nick Tofani, the artist, and he worked with me to make every illustration fit the specific page. It was incredibly rewarding and I think the book is better for that kind of close collaboration.
All of this was held together by Jarrett Crader, our editor. He’s had to develop a new style of editing that isn’t just dealing with the page in google docs or whatever, he’s learned to edit inside of indesign. That’s the big thing that I think sets us apart from a lot of other companies is that everyone is sort of working on the raw page more or less at the same time. It’s faster and better for productivity to segment each slice from the others. Art, writing, design, development, editing, graphic design. Every person just works on their piece in serial one after the other. But I think for the kind of stuff we’re interested in it’s better to have this back and forth where the graphic designer can say “hey this section is too long if you want this all to fit on one spread,” that kind of thing. Which is sort of mimicking the way it would work if just one person was doing the book, which is what I love.
It’s hard to know when a book is done but usually there’s some last minute large scale change that someone thinks of and it turns the book on its ear. We’ve done all the work and someone goes “you know what this REALLY needs is X.” And you can’t really see that until the book is like 80-90% done. And then you groan and go like “no we can’t add that, we’re almost done.” And then you think about it and what’s holding you back is just fear. So you make the big change, it goes faster than you think it will and the book is 2, 3, 10 times better for it. That’s about when we know we’re done. Once we’ve had that magic feeling. Is it great for deadlines? No. Our kickstarter backers can tell you that. But once the book is out, it’s out forever, and you can’t go door to door and explain to all your future customers “well we were under a tight deadline, so we cut some corners.” As we grow and expand we get more and more of the product done ahead of time, but there’s a balance to it.
So that being said, do you have a plan for what’s next? Are you sticking around in the Motherverse for awhile or are you just taking each project as it comes? I’d love to see if you have anything cooking since this module takes place pretty early in your campaign and you’ve played a lot longer since then!
Quadra: I love the approach to collaborative work as a back-and-forth in the layout tool. That is totally what it feels like to make a book on your own, and I think there's something really valuable about that process — it means that everyone involved has the whole project in view, nobody is siloed off in some corner thinking the book is going to be something entirely different. I think that's one of the most valuable things about making something from end-to-end: when you're responsible for the whole thing, you have to look at it holistically, and see how every part contributes to the whole. It sounds lovely to have a whole team that can do that together.
I have plenty of ideas for more adventures, some smaller and some (way) bigger than WBR. Some are connected to my ongoing campaign, but most are not. Some projects will be solo as before but there are some artists and writers I would love to work with too — I've had to lean more on collaboration for the Kickstarter campaign, and it's been very rewarding to work with KEMC, Galen, Fiona, and Glass Embroidery to make the video, patches, shirts, music, etc.
(For example, one of the stretch goals we blew past has me and Galen making a dynamic audio mixer app for the module — it was kind of a lark at first but we have experience in video game development so we're pretty confident about it, and we already have a working prototype that's very fun to use! We've gotten a lot of interest in that and just decided on a new stretch goal which would have us making a version of the mixer that Wardens/DMs/Referees could import their own audio and maps into to create dynamic soundscapes for any scenario at their table. I'm really excited about that, and it's something neither I nor Galen would ever have done on our own.)
I'll definitely keep making things for the Motherverse — knowing me I'll be posting house rules for 1E before too long — but I'm also looking to expand TRAAA.SH and my other projects beyond just Mothership. Your #dungeon23 project is helping, since it has me making weird fantasy rooms every day, so thanks for that! I'm looking at more Mothership modules, plus some system-neutral, more fantastical stuff. It'll all show up on TRAAA.SH and socials, so keep a look out!
Sean: That sounds amazing, I can’t wait.
Well, I think that’s a great place to wrap up for this week. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Warped Beyond Recognition on kickstarter. The campaign ends in about 10 days and its got all of its stretch goals unlocked. I’ll be back soon as well with more Dungeon23 news.
Quadra: Thanks for the enlightening chat, Sean! Mothership, and the design ethos behind it, has been hugely inspiring to me, and it's a real treat to get to pick your brain about it. The "outsized impact" you mentioned at the start runs both ways.