Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Grave Trespass - Gradient Descent



Is Luke Gearing too powerful? Certainly. Luke’s latest work for Tuesday Knight Games is Gradient Descent, a megadungeon written for the sci-fi horror game Mothership. The braintrust at Mothership HQ asks the question, “can you fit a megadungeon in a small zine?” Yes, apparently you can.

I may have been the first person to run the module who didn’t help play test. It has a compelling premise: a giant space station, an evil AI, Bladerunner nonsense, etc: all the good stuff. I read it and was enthralled. Brendan and Evan played a game I ran online, starting in media res, trying to flee the space station with an artifact they found “off camera”. It was a fun game. Months later I picked the module up again and started a longer campaign, which has been running for several months now. As it winds down I have lots of thoughts about this adventure.

Gradient Descent is a 64 page full colour zine: it’s a very dense 64 pages. Like all good OSR books it opens suggesting how you might use this adventure, from the basis of a campaign to something to simply hoover up ideas from. Luke explains some basic procedures of play and how the module works and then we jump right into things. There is an AI, Monarch, that controls a massive space station called The Deep. This is a huge factory complex, abandoned by its corporate overlords. Next we learn about what orbits the Deep. My Mothership campaign had the players begin in The Bell, a small retrofitted thruster that serves as a safe haven for people exploring the station. There they met a small coterie of NPCs who can help kick things off. As part of a larger campaign I would have had them try and cross a blockade to reach the station, and perhaps make friends with Commander Kilroy, another NPC with goals they might help achieve. Along with some “monsters”, these are the things outlined first. Then we move onto the “dungeon” itself, which makes up the bulk of the adventure. The Deep is huge. There are several floors, many sections, and a web of interconnections. It’s a complex and interesting dungeon. In a twisted way you can almost picture what the factory would have been like in the past. Finally the book concludes with a table of random artifacts, some super science. The back cover of the module is an "I search the body" table.

The art by Nick Tofani is wonderfully moody, often creepy. A perfect fit for this module. I would share it with my players often. Jarret Crader, the man behind all your favorite RPG books, did development editing. With a module such as this, I suspect no easy feat. Finally, Sean McCoy did the layout, and it’s a real chef kiss emoji.

The book continues a long tradition of really strong graphic and information design that feels like the most standout feature of the Mothership line. I see a lot of the design cues from one page dungeons at play here. The adventure is laid out with the two page spreads of the zine in mind. You can likely run each section of the dungeon with minimal page flipping. When I was running the adventure, from a PDF, I would normally only need to jump to the sections about the androids, ghosts in the machine, or monarch. If I had the zine in my hands I’d put some post it notes there and that would be that. (I am weirdly cheap about shipping, so my copy of this zine had been sitting with my brother in NYC for the last year and change. Of course, it arrived in Toronto just as I wrapped up running things.) There is so much information this book is trying to get across, and it does a remarkable job at doing just that.

The descriptions in this dungeon are terse. On the whole I think this is a positive, and is what allowed me to run my games straight out of the book. It takes you seconds to read what’s going on in any room the players have walked into. For example:

The square in the title indicates this is a large industrial scale space: you should imagine a large factory or warehouse. In my head when I read this I pictured something akin to rows of corn. To avoid being licked would take some dexterity or creativity. The scene is both horrific and cold: there heads on stakes, but everything is artificial.

What now? Again this is a huge room, but I found it harder to imagine what its deal might be, where the loop of glass was going, and what it might be for. I know you might use sand for cleaning or scouring in a factory, perhaps for making glass, but I couldn’t quite picture what Luke wanted me to take away from this scene. I do like the phrase, "a whisper magnified to a roar," though. In a space where you maybe expect to hear the clanking and crashing of a factory, this suggests a different sort of noisy space.

Most of the time there is enough for you to improvise on top of, especially for you pro-star GMs. I'm not sure i'm quite there, so I found myself describing rooms as “large industrial spaces” a lot, or falling back on analogies of Toyota factories. I should have watched some old films and made some dungeon dressing tables. I think if there was more space that would be a nice addition to the book: examples of what these alien industrial spaces might look like. A small table of ideas might be all it takes to help cement a space in your head. I would not want to see the descriptions of the rooms themselves expanded: improvising poorly is better than discovering well into play you forgot something important buried deep in some multi paragraph description of a space. I suppose the module is really trying to get straight to the point with everything it presents. We don't have pages and pages of backstory about The Deep. If you read the module you'll have a good sense of what's up, with enough space for you to inject what you want. The module is flavourful: it paints a real picture of this strange alien space, certainly at the macro level.

Gradient Descent declares itself a sprawling sci-fi megadungeon. “But Ram, what does that even mean?” I would have shrugged my shoulders, but thankfully many years ago Gus wrote a blog post musing about what makes a megadungeon both mega and good. I regret not re-reading this blog post before running my games because I think it would have informed my GMing and improved the campaign.

The Deep is split up into 11 discrete interconnected sections. This doesn’t feel like a dungeon where the intention is to fight your way through it, so level 6 isn’t more ‘difficult’ than level 1, just different. The levels vary in size, but playing online most of the meatier ones took a few sessions each to explore. I initially tried to runs the game like a traditional dungeon crawl. I was going to think about rations and light and all that nonsense. I drafted up some houserules for overloading encounter rolls to track more aspects of play, but in the end I dropped it all. I found it awkward. I am not sure that you can simply map that D&D style of play straight onto Mothership. Stress seems to be the resource you want to worry about in the game. Occasionally room descriptions in Gradient Descent will suggest players gain stress or make stress saves, but I think something more systematic that encompasses the whole module would have been a good addition. Dungeon exploration rules that tie into the stress mechanics of Mothership would be excellent. This is certainly something I will think much more about the next time I run the game.

The Bell is presented as an obvious home base. When I ran my Carcosa campaign the players generally ended each session back in the safety of a town. This way we could rotate new players in if needed week to week, which is generally what happened. The tone of this Gradient Descent campaign would have felt different if I also required the players end each session retreating back to safety—to the Bell or some particular sections of the Deep. This feels more in line with the ethos of a megadungeon campaign, as Gus outlines. You push into the space as far as you can until you must finally fall back. You are hunting for short cuts, trying to understand the geography, making friends with factions to find new safe havens, etc. With the short online sessions I was running I didn’t think this would work. The lack of a clear resource management side to the game also has some impact here: there isn't a need to return if you don't really need to resupply. The sessions we played ended up primarily being about exploring the weird space. We would pick up where we left off each session. And that’s perfectly fine, to be honest. There is enough there for it to be a fun experience, but you can do that and much more! 

If I could go back I would have certainly prepped more! I am out of practice running games. This module is so well put together it fools you into thinking you can pick it up and just play. (And to be clear, you can, as I have just noted. Ha!) I just think I could have run a more compelling campaign if I had put in a bit more effort. I can picture something stronger! Mind you, no one is or was complaining: the players seemed to enjoy themselves and I certainly did. But maybe there are some lessons for you to do better than me:

  • I kept the antagonist AI Monarch in the background for much of the campaign. I figured a creature such as it would see the players as ants, and largely ignore them. Which is all well and good if it was behaving like a god. But I didn’t really do much there, so they didn’t face much conflict from the game’s primary antagonist. I could have made its presence more known, indirectly in keeping with my original vision. Ominous messages, security androids giving the players cut-eye, and all that.

  • There is a whole element of “am I a human or am I a robot” that I didn’t lean into. If you are running the game I would have some coterie of regular rival NPCs who are also exploring The Deep, and who may or may not be the mysterious infiltrator androids. I had NPCs I had drafted—and then didn’t really use! But why?

  • There is a lot you can layer on top of the dungeon and its contents. NPC parties and factions are a big part of megadungeon play, and to get the most out of this module, I really recommend you think about these things up front, and as the players encounter the various factions of the dungeon. Luke has several factions called out explicitly who are adversarial with one another, like the Android groups on the second floor. There are a few other big groups that aren’t called out as factions, but could be treated as ones. (Off the top of my head the Androids hidden away in the Dis/Assembly floor.)

This sort of advice would have been good to include in the procedures of play that open the book. I think a much longer section on how to use the book most effectively would be great for new DMs, and honestly old ones like me. I’m not sure running a megadungeon is quite the same as running a normal dungeon, and so a few words discussing how you might approach things differently would have been great.

Overall my gripes are far outweighed by the creativity on display. In these Covid-times I had lost my energy when it came to playing RPGs, but reading this adventure really grabbed me and got my excited about gaming again. Most importantly it did what it said on the box: I ran this giant dungeon crawl for several months with the most half-assed of prep. This is the stuff dreams are made of: truly wondrous.

6 comments:

  1. I'm midway through reading Gradient Descent and it's nowhere near as intimidating as I thought it might be, which I think is down to good organisation/layout and the terse room descriptions.

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    1. I have a real preference for this style of key. It’s easier to quickly see what’s around a particular area as well, which I thinks helps with helping you understand the larger space. But, a few people I have spoke to bounced off the module because it’s too terse! A double edged sword, perhaps.

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  2. Great review! It reminds me of "Blame!" by Nihei Tutsomu. A great 10 tomes manga about someone wandering in an infinite sci-fi dungeon. Almost no dialog, minimalist plotline and awesome art.

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    1. Funny you mention it: one of the players, Brendan, also brought it up as we were getting to the tail end of playing. He suggested it as a source of inspiration when thinking about the game. I need to check it out!

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    2. I just saw a comment from Sean McCoy saying that Blame was "a big influence" (in Ben Milton review).

      Some warnings:
      - Blame is Tutsomu's first serious work and he is exploring his style and story in the beginning. He tries different things and settle at some point. The first few pages contains some exposition quickly forgotten by the author. Only the general theme and vibe are important.
      - the author studied architecture. The environment is his main focus.
      - the story is very dry. The main character is not interesting. He is a bit like an unstoppable witness.

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    3. Blame is so fucking good, I absolutely love early period Nihei.

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