Out there somewhere in rim-space is an abandoned android factory, formerly known as the Cloudbank Synthetics Production Facility. It is better known these days as The Deep. It is the central focal point of Gradient Descent, a sprawling Sci-Fi megadungeon for Mothership Roleplaying Game. Initially funded through Kickstarter in December 2019, it began delivering to backers in December 2020. This scenario is the first “mega” dungeon for Mothership, and Mothership fans appear to have high hopes for Gradient Descent; let’s peel back the layers and see if it meets or exceeds expectations.
Readers will find our review of Mothership here: Uncomfortable Silence in Space — A Review of “Mothership Sci-fi RPG: Player’s Survival Guide.”
For Transparency, Tuesday Knight Games provided Rolling Boxcars with a physical copy of Gradient Descent for this review.
Gradient Descent takes place on an abandoned android factory, nicknamed The Deep, that has been taken over by an artificial Omniscience, known as Monarch. As a “God” computer, Monarch has grand plans that it has been implementing for some time. In the run-up to executing its plans, it continued improving and developing android technology. Monarch’s major android breakthrough has been the “infiltrator android.” These droids are indistinguishable from humans except upon their death and only with a Cybernetic Diagnostic Scanner. With their lifelike realism, they have been planted in high-level positions within major corporations and even governments to act as Monarch’s eyes and ears. Outside of The Deep is a ragtag fleet of contracted vessels whose aim is to prevent all movement into and away from The Deep. Corporations now fund the ongoing blockade as they have a vested interest. Onboard the ships are “Troubleshooters,” squads of soldiers similar to Marines, who enforce the corporations’ will.
It is assumed that players will be artifact hunters, better known as “Divers,” who have ventured out to rim-space looking for a score. The star’s the limit when it comes to why they want access to The Deep. The module provides several options depending on the type of game being run (integrating into an existing campaign, new campaign, one-shots, etc.). My favorite and not one specifically suggested is to have them secretly contacted by Commander Kilroy, a Troubleshooter leader with her own agenda. Whatever brings them out to The Deep, They still need to find a way past the blockade. Once inside, they are in for the ride of their lives.
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT THE DEEP
Inside The Deep, Player Characters are in for a potentially rough go. Real talk time… this megadungeon, regardless of the how or why Player Characters have come here, is no walk in the park. Forays into the facility are likely to incur high body counts. Not only is the environment harsh, so too are the droids roaming the facility, the Troubleshooter squads that conduct frequent raids, and unknown dangers lurking in the dark. Then there is Monarch.
The facility consists of two types of areas—industrial–scale production areas and human-scale spaces like offices and storage areas. The majority of the facility is not made for humans. In fact, much of The Deep is vast, dark, and without artificial gravity—making moving through the facility a challenge. For perspective, moving through a human scale location takes 10 minutes, while moving through an industrial scale location requires 30 minutes.
Some areas of the facility are illuminated, many are not. The book makes use of black and white page backgrounds to represent these areas. Black pages signify unlit regions, whereas white pages indicate regions containing a light source—more on the facility’s map and layout below.
The Bends (A New Stat)
The Bends is an affliction that causes humans to believe they are androids with implanted memories. The Bends is a slow process exacerbated by prolonged exposure to The Deep and its denizens. It can manifest in various ways. The Bends is a new statistic specific to Gradient Descent; tracking begins when first entering The Deep. It can increase and decrease over time through particular actions. When Bends Checks are required, Players roll a d100 and consult the Bends Table. Effects range from gaining Stress to the full-blown realization that a Player Character believes they are an android. There is some advice on when to require Bends Checks, but this is generally left up to the Warden. Player Characters are not the only humans to enter The Deep; they may encounter others that have fully succumbed to the Bends and or perhaps they are infiltrator androids.
Teams of 10 highly skilled Troubleshooters make regular and routine raids into The Deep. These raids serve several purposes but are primarily aimed at eliminating infiltrator androids, preventing them from escaping. Player Characters can get caught in their crosshairs quite easily. This is an off-limits facility, after all, and they’ll be seen as blockade runners.
Monarch is the name given to the omniscience artificial intelligence at the core of The Deep. Although it is preoccupied with running The Deep and seeing to its plans, intruders are paid little attention until its attention is warranted. There are a number of ways in which Player Characters will come to Monarch’s attention. For example, hacking attempts, discharging firearms, etc. As these various events occur, Monarch will accrue “Stress.” When specific events happen, such as a successful Hacking Check, like Player Characters, Monarch must make a Panic Check; the Warden consults the “Monarch Panic Table” for Monarch’s reaction to the situation.
Depending on how the Warden is running their game, Monarch may also try to buy off the Player Characters, using them to further its plans. This can make for a rather exciting turn of events and change the tone of the campaign.
Dangers Lurking in the Dark
What would a Mothership game be without some element of horror? In addition to copious amounts of androids throughout the facility, some of The Deep’s denizens are not androids; these can potentially be very dangerous as well. In addition to these are the real elements of horror that Mothership is known for—here, they manifest as ghosts. Ghosts are a self-perpetuating construct present on the visual spectrum, having no mass, and are doomed to walk The Deep forever. Essentially, they are the half-deleted brain scans that have broken off from Monarch and have fused with holographic light-phenomena—Ghosts in the Machine, if you will. Don’t let their incorporeal makeup put you at ease; every aspect of the Ghosts forces Sanity Saves. Stats and particulars for all threats are contained within the book in easily recognizable boxes. In addition to Ghosts, other Threats within The Deep are horrific in their own right.
THE LAYOUT – THE GOOD & BAD
Gradient Descent physically measures 8.5″x5.5″ and is saddle stitched—giving it the appearance of a classic zine. Inside, it is chock full from cover to cover, making use of all available space. Despite its physical size and page count, there is a generous helping of artwork in addition to map segments of The Deep. I feel it necessary to highlight that the font size used appears to be slightly smaller than normal—there is a lot of information to pack into these 64 pages. As a result, it required me to use reading glasses. Some readers may find the font size may cause eye strain, leading to headaches.
The Map of The Deep
Spanning the inside cover and what is traditionally the title page is a map and side-view layout of the facility. Throughout the book, the map of The Deep is presented into small segments that are surprisingly easy to read and understand. Each represents a specific area of the facility (i.e., Floor 3.5 Dis/Assembly) and is similar in appearance to a wiring diagram. Individual room locations are rectangles with either a thick or thin border—thick representing industrial–scale areas, thin representing human scale areas. Several types of lines (solid, dashed, etc.) representing lifts, ducts, and ladders, connect non-adjacent rooms. The other symbols employed represent important structural details such as airlocks, doors, hidden doors, exits to space, to name a few. Some rooms are depicted in “faded teal’ indicating that their room description is located on a different page.
Entries consist of a room number, the room’s name, an industrial scale indicator if it’s Zero-G (0G) or not, and a bulleted list of concisely written details. A room’s details are arranged in order of how obvious they are when entering. Nested sub-bullets indicate additional information can be gleaned through examination. A location’s key details are presented in bold, whereas threats are in deep crimson and may or may not be bold.
The use of crimson was not a well-thought-out visual element. I have two concerns that may make Gradient Descent a no-go for some readers. First, it glaringly stands out on the black pages. Not only is it an intense color, but it’s also hard to read and is especially true when bold and non-bolded text is present together. My reading glasses helped to soften this effect, but it’s still problematic nonetheless. On the white pages, it’s far easier on the eyes and more easily read. My second concern is for readers with some degree of red-green color blindness (deuteranopia or protanopia). Depending on the severity, they may be unable to read any of the crimson text on the black pages. A regular Rolling Boxcars reader with moderate red-green color blindness has confirmed these results.
Putting aside the layout concerns I noted above; the layout is otherwise nicely done. Sean McCoy, the layout artist, takes advantage of nearly all usable space within the book, without it feeling too overly crowded—dense in some areas, but not overcrowded. McCoy takes advantage of the page footers; these include the page numbers, floor names and numbers, and tips for the Warden to enhance gameplay in that particular area. The book’s contents extend onto the back cover with a “Random Search” table. Tables and call-out boxes are nicely integrated into the surrounding copy and easily identifiable. Allowing Wardens to scan, skim and distill the information quickly.
Gradient Descent is a well-conceived megadungeon and is very well written and edited. Unfortunately, some of the layout’s visual aspects may limit its appeal and usability to some readers, particularly for those with red-green color blindness. For those that can work around those visual concerns, Gradient Descent has a lot to offer.
One expectation I encountered was the hope that Gradient Descent would also provide new tools and rules for Wardens to supplement the core book and existing supplements, like A Pound of Flesh and Dead Planet. Wardens could easily use some of the tables and some other bits elsewhere, but this is not those other products.
Gradient Descent is a fine new addition to the Mothership roleplaying game product line. Whether Wardens are weaving it into an existing campaign, starting a new campaign with Gradient Descent at its core, or just running one-shots, there is enough packed into these 64 pages to entertain players for days, weeks, and even months. Monarch, The Deep, and their backstories are well developed, interestingly unique, and plausible, making it easy to subtly immerse players into Gradient Descent’s unfolding drama and horror. As Mothership plays up the vastness, desperation, and horror of space, so too does Gradient Descent!
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