Sunday, January 31, 2021

Gradient Descent Review - A Horror Sci-Fi Megadungeon - Part 1

Sean McCoy was generous enough to provide me a reviewer’s copy of Gradient Descent, the new megadungeon for the sci-fi horror game Mothership. I’ll be reviewing it on this blog in two phases:

Part 1: Impressions of reading (Module as Art/Novel)

Part 2: Impressions of playing (Module as Manual)

This is part 1 of 2. 

This review is not spoiler heavy, but it does have spoilers. Read forward at your own risk.

What do we have here?

Clocking in at just 44 pages, the Mothership core book is one of my favorite (newish) games. Each rule is so simple, so tied to its core themes, and so inventive. It’s one of those games that make you think, “God, I wish I had thought of that.” 

For example, you can create a character just by following the steps embedded in the character sheet! Now that’s smart!

Plus it has this dope space butt.

Clocking in at 64 pages, Gradient Descent is also admirably terse. Pared down. Laser focused. 

At the same time, maybe it’s too much of a good thing? A few times reading through it, I wished these bones had a little more meat and a bit more advice. 

  • How does the author actually run this at the table? 

  • What common problems were encountered during playtesting? 

  • How do you overcome them? 

Is that good or bad? It’s definitely pretty clever. 

The premise

OK so here’s the deal. 

The Cloudbank Synthetic Production Facility was an orbital factory that produced androids. To coordinate its efforts and drive up shareholder prices, they utilized an AI called MONARCH. Through a campaign of subtle manipulation, MONARCH took over the factory and transformed it into a hellzone now called the Deep. 

MONARCH utilizes several parts of the Deep for its insane experiments.

  • There are android children endlessly pitted against each other in contests of mathematics, physical ability, logic, etc.
  • There are heavens and hells with castes of haves and have-nots. 
  • Crucially, MONARCH has the ability to brainscan humans and create android copies of them. 

> Sidebar: There was a Batman the Animated Series episode when I was growing up with the same premise. I could never finish it because it was too scary for me. I’d watch it until the second commercial break and change the channel.

The module explores what it means to be human through a mechanic called the Bends. As the players dive into the Deep, they accumulate a growing sense of suspicion that they might actually be an android duplicate. There’s no way to know for sure until they’re dead, and an autopsy is performed with a scanning device. 

The players are there to explore this megastructure, salvage what they can, serve as pawns for the various factions, and execute schemes of their own. The ultimate fate of the Deep and its myriad entities are left up to them. 

The art and layout

Art by Nick Tofani was a treat. He is a horror artist I follow on Twitter, and I didn’t even know he did RPG projects. This a pleasant surprise. His art is so very weird and evocative. 

(Also, I so like books with a single artist. Really provides a unifying vision throughout the module.)

I want very much to have versions of the images without spoiler text on them. The pictures are great, but I need to carefully crop them to be able to show them to players. 

One of my favorite things about Mothership was the usability in the layout. Something like Mork Borg looks cool. It’s visually very interesting. A great coffee table book, really. Mothership has just as much care and consideration in its layout but it’s all geared towards actually teaching the reader. 

All of that thoughtfulness is also present in Gradient Descent. 

Some of the visual information was easier for me to grok than others. For example, the page background (dark versus light) shows at a glance whether or not the room described is lit or not. I like that a lot, and it makes sense to me immediately. 

For example, you can tell that this section of the ship is lit and has artificial gravity, just by glancing at the page. 

Contrastingly, there’s also a series of icons to demarcate airlocks, office doors, lifts, ladders, etc. The maps look like circuits. That's cool, I reckon, but I found myself needing to frequently flip back to the map key to parse that info.

The content

Like every good megadungeon, there are interesting factions. Just to name a few: 

  • A blockade of ships and mercenaries ensure that nothing from the Deep leaves, and no players come in. The blockade can be bribed, allowing players to enter and exit, but it provides a constant outside threat in terms of Troubleshooters who make frequent raids into the Deep.

  • The Chosen are androids whose every need are provided for. They worship MONARCH. 

  • The Fallen are androids who previously enjoyed the Chosen’s status. They are now exiled into the sewers. They bitterly hate their replacements. 

  • The Minotaur is a monstrous AI offspring of MONARCH. The Minotaur is benevolent and kind. It can serve as a quasi-religious experience for those who meet it. 

  • The Mind Thief is an android child who hates MONARCH. It has constructed a virtual hell in which to trap the MONARCH, if only the PCs can help it.

  • Silus is a sub-routine who controls the pseudoflesh farm sections of the Deep. It is chatty and manipulative.

Outside of the Deep is a safepoint and home base—a retrofitted thruster-cum-satellite called the Bell. The Bell is crewed by weird individuals that hint at some of the dangers inside. These NPCs crucially provide information that lets the players make informed choices during their delvings. Since informed choices are the fun part of RPGs, this is great.

The factory levels are inimical to human life. Each factory-floor-sized room is a terrible mix of things that will grind you, chomp you, pull you apart, render you, freeze you, electrocute you, radiate you, or cover you in burning aluminum foam. 

The OSR ethos reigns supreme in this module. These dangers are obviously telegraphed, but if you get near these things, they will kill you dead. 

These all grow somewhat tedious or monotonous to read. Each room is a different flavor of instant death. This is where, I think, random encounters are needed. If each room is just a simple assortment of the buzzsaws and lasers that demolish player characters, what is there to do in the room? The answer is that the players negotiate encounters with NPCs, friendly and unfriendly, in these deadly contexts. 

A big question I have is this: Are there enough random encounters to keep things interesting? I think this will be the big revelation of play for Part 2 of this review.

As characters explore this terrifying environment, they also uncover all sorts of unlikely horrors: 

  • Furnaces painted with greasy images of human suffering

  • Relatives of the PCs suspended in cryosleep, with pictures of the PC’s childhood clutched in their hands

  • Laughing disembodied android heads

As PCs are exposed to these spooks, they slowly accumulate Stress and the Bends. This makes exploration firecrackers of Fear saves and Panic checks. I believe these will create chain reactions between the PCs that will inject further drama into each cavernous factory room. This is something else I’m keeping my eye on for Part 2.

As we’ve established, there’re a lot of sticks. The carrot of this orbital megadungeon are Artifacts. These are the OSR magic items of drawbacks and dubious use: indestructible marbles, cables that point towards hidden rooms, transplanted enhanced human eyes. Some of the Artifacts are more interesting or evocative than others, but the basic premise seems sound.


I buy modules for ideas I couldn’t have myself. In this, Gradient Descent absolutely delivers. 

Luke Gearing et al are tapped into the sci fi horror tropes. All of these little spine-tingling discoveries that players stumble over are fresh and evocative. Fun moments. It’s where the writing really shines.

On the other hand, reading through the book I found myself asking, “OK, but how am I going to actually use this at the table?” In this sense, I could have used additional supports from the book. 

I am excited and energized to run this module, so the book succeeds for me as “Module as Art.” 

I will see you again in about a month for Part 2!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Things Death Wants by Gygaxian Democracy

The following is a result of Gygaxian Democracy threads on both Reddit and Twitter. Many thanks to all the contributions. Y'all have the big brains. 


Pick up whatever rulebook you use. Flip to the spell section. Go to the entry for "Resurrection" (if one exists). Take a Sharpie. Mark through the spell description like an FBI censor returning a FOIA request about the aliens' role in the Kennedy assassination. 

Jot this down instead:

"The first time you cry over a dead body at a shrine, a church, or holy site, Death appears and offers you a bargain for the soul of the dead. 

Roll on the table below. Accept or reject Death's bargain. 

Anybody can call upon Death once. Afterwards, they will not answer your call again.

In the interim, the player of the dead character can play a henchman or roll a new character, as per usual." 

Roll 1d100

Death wants...

  1. Their hairy toe back.

  2. To tell a specific person that they are sorry.

  3. Everything listed in The Twelve Days of Christmas.

  4. An end to poverty.

  5. For you to complete the grieving process and know that it’s okay to cry.

  6. A decent pair of brogans.

  7. A day off. Here's your hit list (approved by deity so it won't affect your karma). Complete it within 24 hours and you get your favor. No special abilities, just go do what you do best. You can take your team with you.

  8. A replacement soul. The accounting daemon is exacting and quotas must be filled. You have to deliver a suitable replacement, someone who deserves to die for their crimes, and deliver it as a substitute. You can't just go murder them, you have to follow protocol: get a judgment angel to issue a death certificate for specific name and hour and day; reveal yourself secretly to the target three times in the 24 hours before so they know their time is up and can make peace with god or whatever; and then capture the soul at the appointed time using an official "ethereal death sickle." If you fail to fulfill the terms, the deal is off.

  9. An excuse they’ve never heard before. And they’ve pretty much heard them all.

  10. To create life, just once.

  11. Go down to Georgia and win a fiddling contest with some guy named Johnny, who has a lot of hubris.

  12. To harvest an innocent life that nobody wants to take. All the deaths drew lots and they got the short straw, but they just don’t have the heart to do it. Death has a cold cold heart, so you know this is going to be a gut-wrenching task.

  13. To experience death without waiting for a strange aeon. Of course when you kill death then nothing can die. 

  • Don't worry they’ll re-spawn in 24 hours, but it's gonna get crazy in the meantime. With some cleverness you might even use this to your advantage.

  1. A challenge. They’ll transform himself into a killer named Jack o’ Knives with knives for fingers, close their eyes, and count to 10, and you better run. They will hunt you in your dreams. If you can evade them for five days, your friend will be returned. Good luck!

  2. You have to win a riddle game.

  3. Listen to Death’s musical, and if you survive, give it your honest review.  They can take the criticism!

  4. Death animates your fallen comrade as a skeleton and opens the door to the positive energy plane. “Your friend must eat from that tree before they discorporate... forever”

  5. The head of a ghoul that hasn't eaten since it was reborn into undeath.

  6. Rubbings from the headstones of the oldest and newest graves in the burying ground of an abandoned village.

  7. Find and bury the body of a hero fallen and lost on the field of a forgotten battle.

  8. A dagger that has claimed only one life and still has blood on it. 

  9. Mundane herb, unrecognizably from its allegorical name in a dead language.

  10. 18 royals, 12 children, 6 peasants, 3 knights, 2 maidens, 1 PC.

  11. The requisite analogues for a full chess set.

  12. To be shown what 'fun' is.

  13. To know love.

  14. A perfect red rose from a famous garden.

  15. A date with a particular Medusa.

  16. A new handle for their scythe made from Entwood.

  17. About $1.50

  18. The extinction of a cultivar of bananas the Death really enjoys because they don’t want to share with mortals. (Death can only really enjoy things that are extinct. They really like dinosaurs.) 

  19. The perfect pet to go psychopomping with.

  20. The swaddling blanket of a newborn child.

  21. Go back in time and tell the mortal-who-has-become-Death to refuse the quest and profess their feelings to their one true love instead. (Yes, this means going back in time. Yes, this means there have been many Deaths. Yes, this means one of the party must accept the quest and risk becoming Death.)

  22. The killing hand of a murderous child, red with the blood of one it’s slain.

  23. A "Goddam minute of peace and quiet". 

  24. A day off as a human, you'll need to find a replacement Death.

  25. Kittens.

  26. The calm before a storm.

  27. The silence between lighting and thunder.

  28. A shooting star that hasn’t landed.

  29. A pen pal.

  30. A whetstone formed from a meteorite (for his scythe). 

  31. A magical dowsing rod that can locate lost spirits. 

  32. An assortment of eyes to try out. 

  33. Extra pockets. 

  34. An earring that fits. 

  35. Death wants one perfect souffle, as prepared by someone currently imprisoned by a cruel dark lord.

  36. Exactly 37 teeth from different creatures. 

  37. A really big frog (you must make your case for why your subjective standard of rally big should match theirs). 

  38. An antique tea set cursed, then blessed, then cursed again. 

  39. A very fine chess set. 

  40. One of your memories, either:

    1. Your favorite smell 

    2. Your happiest time

    3. The names of your parents

  41. An oath to take no life for a year and a day.

  42. A vestige of your form: burn an ability score off your sheet. (It no longer exists for your character.)

  43. Flowers from the grave of the recently passed queen.

  44. The true name of a newborn child at a specific address in the beggar's corner.

  45. A soul of one who has committed lethal defenestration.

  46. Shoes for Death's horse, Binky. The only iron that will last must be forged in the heat of the deep earth by the Ur-Dwarves.

  47. Advice on a gift that Death wants to get for a potential romantic interest.

  48. There is a child recently born to a destitute family in a nearby city. He will die in twelve days. Death has taken a liking for this child and doesn't want him to die, but cannot affect the fate of humans directly. Death will not touch you as long as the boy lives.

  49. Lich marrow for his pipe.

  50. The tears of a long-dead saint.

  51. A vampire's reflection.

  52. An ode to the sunset, written by a blind man, sung by a deaf man.

  53. A woman with a foot in two different oceans.

  54. An engagement ring from a broken betrothal.

  55. Death is sick of chess, but their preferred game went out of fashion three centuries ago. You're going to make it the hot new thing and spread it far and wide, aren't you?

  56. One of your kidneys (gotta find a doctor or some means to remove it).

  57. Flowers from the grave of the recently deceased queen.

  58. A single drop of blood from the crown prince.

  59. The collar of a black dog that was buried under the cornerstone of a church.

  60. Their favorite comfort food from a tiny store in the middle of nowhere.

  61. Tears of a creature that doesn’t have tear ducts.

  62. A really good cup of coffee.

  63. A sunflower.

  64. A letter written from an ill pregnant woman to the child she shall never meet.

  65. The ax of an executioner who used their own blade to kill themselves.

  66. A shroud used to swaddle a stillbirth. 

  67. The incorruptible heart of a saint.

  68. A rigged game of chance (marked cards, weighted dice, etc)

  69. Death wants the souls of those who refused to go. It can be:

    1. The soul of a powerful lich

    2. A clever wizard

    3. The souls of twenty undead minions

    4. The soul of a dragon or other immortal beasts

    5. The End of a Love Most Cherished

    6. The Birth of a Tyrant's Aspiration

    7. The Dream of an Innocent, Smothered but Alive

    8. The Reversal of Fortunes between Man & Beast

    9. The Awakening of a Long Dormant Wail

    10. The Revelation of the Obsessed and their Quarry

  70. To take another deity’s domain 

  71. A pearl from the deepest sea.

  72. To kill their nephew, a demigod.

  73. Death snaps their fingers and another 1d6 parties appear, each with their own dead companion in tow. The lot of you must plead your case as to which of your companions should be saved.

  74. The PC's favorite magic item.

  75. A hole.

  76. Mother's milk

  77. A really good bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with real mayo--not that Miracle Whip crap.

  78. To make the royal executioner laugh.

  79. Arrange a pardon for a guilty man and a death sentence for an innocent one. 

  80. Obtain a type of meat that Cerberus has never tasted. 

  81. Help them convince a mad titan they’re just not into him.

  82. A translation of a poem written in an extinct language.

  83. Moss upon which a dying man slept.

  84. The year’s first born goat.

  85. A widowers wedding ring.

  86. Fancy cloak and skull polish.

  87. Don't worry about it this time, someone else already paid your way back...