Even though Mothership is still technically in beta, it already has a polish and strength that surpass many completely released games. Much of this comes from an open-armed policy of third-party zine support combined with a OSR-inspired focus on maximum support on minimal word count. The adventures that I’ve seen for the game remind me of the monster from Alien: sleek, dangerous looking in small glimpses and deadly to everyone. When Tuesday Knight games announced a Kickstarter for a Mothership mega dungeon called Gradient Descent in 2019, I was intrigued. Could the tension keep up in a massive structure rather than a small, cramped ship? What could be scarier than some unknowable alien? After reading my backer’s PDF, I found those questions and more answered to my complete satisfaction.
Gradient Descent is a location based sourcebook centering on the CLOUDBANK Synthetics Production Facility also known as "The Deep" which used to produce androids. It’s run by an AI called MONARCH which may or may not be fully aware and full off the deep end. The Deep is surrounded by a ring of ships made up of mercenaries that might be there to plunder the resources within or might be there to keep whatever MONARCH has brewing on the station. The main access point to the station is a bit of wreckage called The Bell run by a former scavenger turned caretaker of the place.
That’s a lot to fit into a 64-page sourcebook but that doesn't even get into the scary stuff in the book. Of course there are murderous androids aplenty. Some of them are carrying out MONARCH’s mysterious schemes, some have gone feral because it’s been so long since their last systems update. There are also digital lifeforms scattered throughout the building that may just be replaying their last moments of life or trying to find a way to hitch a ride on one of the player’s bodies. And, then, of course, there are rumors of something alien hidden deep in the R&D lab that slumbers. Gradient Descent does what the movies that inspired Mothership did wonderfully’ take classic horror tropes like zombies and ghosts and update them to a sci-fi setting. A giant abandoned android factory brings together haunted house elements like creepy dolls and dilapidated rooms for plenty of things to get your players riled up.
And when they do get scared, Gradient Descent turns the screws. This setting adapts Mothership’s panic rules into The Bends. While your players are on the station, their loss of sanity and stability manifests in an unusual way; they start to question whether or not they have come home and they’ve been a secret android the entire time. It’s up to the player and the GM to decide if this manifestation is true or just a psychotic break but it gives the scenario a fantastic unique flavor to the usual loss of mental hit points most horror scenarios like this require.
The art direction also brings some great inspiration to the book. Every book in the line looks stellar, from the Mothership Player’s Guide and its worn 70’s glamour to the lurid pulp colors of Dead Planet and A Pound of Flesh. Gradient Descent looks like a long-lost electrical document, mapping out the facility with a flowchart efficient that’s easy to understand. It was nice being able to get a general sense of the facility without having to always flip back to a map somewhere. Fans of creepy robots should also take note; the art of Nick Tofani is very worthy of showing players and delighting in their horrified faces when they see it.
Even though the book is tightly packed with spooky details, it does something that I wish more horror scenarios did. At the top, it highlights some elements that might push some players' buttons too hard and suggests how to leave out or modify those elements to make sure that any frights at the table aren’t going to make players feel uncomfortable and leave the table with a bad taste in their mouth. Horror can be a tricky thing to negotiate and I’m glad that author Luke Gearing takes the time to make sure everyone is on the same page before sending the cart into the haunted house.
Gradient Descent is a great module that shows off the strengths of Mothership but it’s also one that should be considered for fans of any horror system. The percentile system makes it a very easy conversion to Call of Cthulhu and the subject matter would fit right at home for Alien RPG GMs looking for horror minus xenomorphs as a cinematic one shot or as a stop in a larger cinematic campaign. Gradient Descent is a masterful blend of cinematic sci-fi horror and transhuman “what is humanity” themes that flow into each other like an astronaut tumbling through the dark.
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