Gradient Descent Dive 07: Anatomy of Bad Session

July 8, 2020 horror mothership scifi rpgs session_report playtesting gradient_descent

We had session 07 of our Gradient Descent Playtest a couple weeks ago and it didn’t go so great. Let’s get into it.

Joining us tonight:

Overworld Map for editing purposesOverworld Map for editing purposes

Last session we ended back on The Bell safe and sound, and since Alan and Sinister weren’t able to make it this session, we started out with a whole new crew.

Part of the idea of this playtest was to try out some new content specifically designed for The Bell by Dan D as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter. I rolled up a new location, LASER Harry’s, and a new NPC, Ghost-Eater,1, and got us started. I asked each of the players what they thought they were doing at Harry’s, which wasn’t a great start I’ll be honest, but my players are nice and they went with it. Lula wanted to peruse the patches, and ended up buying one that said BENDS DON’T BREAK. Uriel really liked one that said Genuine 100% HUMAN and got a chuckle out of it. Ambrose tatted another hashmark onto his arm. 73, one for every day he’d spent on The Bell.

We don’t have a lot of time in these sessions so we got right down to it and Ghost-Eater said if they wanted work, Drogo was looking for a crew down in the Privacy Room. Big job.

I enjoyed playing Drogo who stuttered and twitched and offered the crew 1mcr to come back from The Deep with proof that Monarch had created an army Infiltrator Androids who had taken over as doppelgängers of people in positions of great power. 10kcr advance, but another crew was working on the job, they’d need to be fast.

Here’s where things went south, and largely what today’s post is about.

My players hired a guide. In the module as written you can hire rookie Divers or veteran Divers. With their advance, the players decided to hire a veteran Diver. They had 10kcr in credits and bought some cool weapons, grabbed their guide and decided to head out!

Instead of doing a play by play, I’m just going to skip to the good part: why this sucked.

1. To much info to track

I, as the Warden, had to know an extreme amount of information in order to play the guide effectively. My players had a lot of questions: which was is the shortest route, which way is the safest. I made some calls based on the information I knew, which turned out to be way wrong when we got there.

Basically, I looked at the map, picked the shortest route and told my players that was the best way to go. When we actually got there, however, the key chokepoint room that made the whole place quicker” was actually keyed to be an ENORMOUS chamber requiring multiple hours of crawling through AND a save-or-die style trap for moving quickly. This is very well telegraphed within the key itself, however, that’s hard to tell from a glance at the overworld map (even considering that the overworld map designates some rooms as big”). This was bad and dumb and the guide was like huh, whoops,” when we got there.

2. Loss of mystery and discovery

My players wanted to find a cool way into The Deep, and I wanted to playtest some locations we hadn’t been to before. So they asked the Diver to take them a different way. We went in through a secret hangar on the Sixth Floor. Very advanced, should be a cool moment. It kinda is bleh if the players don’t discover it. This was definitely my fault as there are a lot of different entrances to go through, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a guide/sage type character selling that info. But again, this turned this session into a rollercoaster (as opposed to a railroad). My players were just sort of along for the ride.

3. Loss of agency

My players regularly looked to the guide for advice about their situation. For instance, after entering the secret hangar they had their first experience with MONARCH. This should be a big moment. Generally the players have to DO something that pisses Monarch off to get its attention. This time they just did what the guide said let’s go in through here.” And now the big bad is showing up. It was a little bit of a cool moment, but what did my players do? They took their reaction from the guide who ran as soon as Monarch started talking. So my players ran too, why wouldn’t you?

In retrospect my players though that if there hadn’t been a guide there, they might have tried talking to Monarch, or doing something else. But instead, they just followed along. Bad. Bad Sean. Bad Wardening.

The Feedback

Loss of agency, loss of discovery, and too much info is a perfect trifecta for session death. My players had fun because they’re fun people, but when we dissected the session afterwards everyone agreed that it was pretty boring overall. That it didn’t feel like they were really playing the game. Just hitting the play” button a lot like some sort of quicktime event or cutscene.

Changes to the Module

For me, this was actually super helpful and a great reminder of why you do playtesting at all. We instantly knew where the problems were, though I’m sad that it took us seven sessions to get here. The changes we’ve made are:

We resolved to reboot the campaign and playtest a new intro and a new Bell and see how that affected the atmosphere and feel of the Deep. We actually played that session last night and I’m pretty happy to say that all the changes were a huge success. I’ll get that written up asap.

Until then, if you hadn’t heard, we just got approval by DriveThruRPG for Mothership to be added as an official system. So now it’s super easy to find everything Mothership related, both the official and third party stuff. Check it out if you haven’t, I’m super proud of all the third party content that’s showed up!

  1. I don’t know why I think this, but Mothership writers seem to be into Pac Man.↩︎

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