I got a chance to playtest Gradient Descent tonight on the Mothership Discord with three of our playtesters:
I’ve been running my games at just two hours recently so that it doesn’t take too much time away from my family, and it’s a nice time slot for a dive into a megadungeon.
We started with a quick opening text crawl:
You’ve heard rumors about the long abandoned CLOUDBANK Synthetic Production Facility — that the factory is a treasure trove of abandoned AI created artifacts. And beings more human than human.
You paid what little you had left to a kontrabandist to get you past the blockade that surrounds CLOUDBANK, and they drop you off at a small fusion of ships, an ersatz space-station known to its ragged inhabitants as The Bell, a safe-haven for Divers, a group whose numbers you now join as a neophyte amongst veterans. Return from The Deep once and count yourself anointed among them.
Character Creation:Standard level 0’s. Just be aware that circumstances have driven you to this insane task, to go where most fear in order to put together some small payday to get you back on your feet.
The crew rolled up their character during the week and we jumped in immediately once the game started.
We bypassed the blockade which surrounds the CLOUDBANK Synthetic Production Facility, known as THE DEEP, and started out directly on The Bell, the ragtag space station slash fence for “divers”, anyone who is foolhardy enough to go into the Deep and come out alive (or unchanged).
This was a test for me of the Gradient Descent document itself as much as anything. I’m doing layout for the book right now, so I want to see if the book is easy to navigate, if it answers my questions. I did very, very little prep. So as soon as the session started, I:
The players met with Arkady, the leader of the Divers on the Bell, who assigned them the mission for a hefty 500kcr payday. They questioned him for a bit about the safest way to get where they were going and he said the safest way would be the first floor to the second to the third, and then crawl through the massive third floor complex from 3.1 Maintenance Zone to 3.6 Dis/Assembly. But to be aware that the second floor was… weird.
Their other option was to enter through the bottom, through Engineer & Support on the Sixth floor and then take the cargo elevator to 3.7 and then backtrack 3.6. They eventually settled on starting at the top and working their way down.
Markus hired a grunt named Tamm as extra muscle, though it cost most of the funds the crew had left. With that, they took a shuttle down to the docking bay on the first floor and set off.
The first thing they noticed was a huge claw coming out of the facility to grab the ship — standard docking procedure — but then they remembered that there’s no humans running this place. Only the powerful AI known as “MONARCH”. This means that even now, there’s no way they’re getting in unnoticed. After all, MONARCH had to “lower the drawbridge” for them to even enter. A few of them gain Stress from the fear.
The docking arm is covered in Diver graffiti: “I dreamed I was a butterfly.” As it happens, they share the ship with a few experienced Divers as well, though the pair take off as soon as the shuttle lands and aren’t heard from again.
The crew passes standard office fare, though now dingy and battle torn. A burnt out reception lobby, beige corridors streaked with soot and blood, riddled with bullet holes. In a storage room they find a strange retina scanner patched into the wall, and Everett-7 scans his eyes investigating it.
In what once was the employee rec room, however, they come across their first signs of life: trapped in a locker, unconscious, is a woman named Roskamm. She says that her partner, another Diver named Engström, left her for dead and trapped her in the locker. All this after they had found a powerful artifact on the sixth floor, in a place called the Algae Farms.
The crew strikes an agreement: Roskamm will them down to the sixth floor, there’s an elevator straight there from floor 1, and she’ll show them the way to the cargo elevator to 3.7. Then they’ll backtrack and take her to the docks on six and she’ll leave safely. Von Richter grumbles that she should be paying them for the service. The rest of the crew seems to think it’s a boon.
Another unsettling site: when the lift arrives on their floor, screeching for minutes as it works its way up, the doors shutter open to reveal a spray painted smiley face with “welcome to HEL” written around it. Stress ticks up.
The lift takes awhile going down and halfway to six it enters the zero-G part of the facility 1. The sixth floor welcomes them and they change plans. They decide to first go to the Algae farms where Roskamm has stashed the artifact, they want to get it before Engsröm returns. It’s heavy, she says, it’ll take two of them to carry it. That’s fine, it’s an hour and a half to the Algae Farms. They’ll get the artifact, stash it somewhere safe, and then they’ll all go install the sniffers on 3.6 & 3.7 together, then they’ll split the reward and the money from the sale of the artifact, if its still there.
But then, they hear something. Markus leads the group to eavesdrop on an approaching group. It’s a well-armed group of divers, two men, and a woman. None of them look familiar to their guide.
There’s some talk about how to handle it, but they decide to just play it cool in a nearby meeting room. They’re divers, so are the intruders. It’s nobody’s turf, right?
Wrong. These new divers look like veterans, and they’re not interested in being double crossed by some synethetics who claim to be “new divers” that they’ve never seen before.
The crew sizes the group up, but no one is open carrying, so its hard to gauge their strength. One thing’s for sure, they’re fresh. Right off the shuttle. And they’ve been here before. Meanwhile their guide basically has a concussion.
The new Divers tell them the deal:they’ll give the crew a “pinger” a locator device that the Divers can track. The Divers will head on their way and they want the crew to stay put for an hour. After an hour the Divers will “ping” the device to let the crew know their free to move on their own. If they see the crew moving, then they’ll circle around and ambush them. If the crew can survive and get the pinger back to the Divers on the Bell, well then, drinks will be on the house and they’ll apologize for the misunderstanding.
The crew decides to take the deal, then leaves the pinger hidden in the meeting room, inside Tamm’s helmet with the comms switched on. They’ll hear when the device is pinged, and they’ll circle back around for it later and pick it up on their way out.
They leave the meeting room and head through a gigantic comms facility. Everett-7 is able to hack into the comm network to hear some unsettling things:
They continue on and make good time floating their way deeper into the six floor, however, right before they arrive at the Algae Farms, they see something their guide swears wasn’t there before: a corridor laid out in a cross, with all the walls, floor, and ceiling covered in foot long spikes, all pointed directly towards the center of the room.
To go around will take another hour and a half. There’s clearly blood on the spikes. The crew decides to go for it.
What they thought would happen happens. The walls close in, the spikes catch all but Von Richter, who barely makes it across to the door, beyond which he knows is the Algae Farm, and hopefully, riches. However, he turns back to fire his rigging gun as a safety line for the other players. Everyone grabs hold, though for Everett-7, its perhaps too late. He takes a critical hit from the spikes and has his spine shredded, removing his legs completely. He survives, because of his android nature, but he’ll need to be carried the rest of the mission to be effective.
With that, they enter the airlock leading to the Algae Farm — a huge chamber, the lungs of the station, here racks and racks of algae stand like a massive server farm, all of it working to produce oxygen that is certainly no longer needed.
And that’s where we left it for the night. Everyone survived, got 10xp, and leveled up to level 1.
I am still not great at describing events in zero-G or remembering that we are even in zero-G half the time. It’s something I need to work on.↩
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