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Gradient Descent (2020)

So, if Dead Planet is an adventure and A Pound of Flesh a campaign hub, then Gradient Descent is a stab at a Mothership Megadungeon. That is as horrible and punishing as you think!

Like, regular D&D megadungeons are awful places, you know Mothership is going to make it even more so. The idea here is that there is a massive, abandoned android factory at the edge of known space. The facility is under blockade — the corporations don’t want anyone going in. But people do — Divers — looking for valuable salvage (of which there is plenty). Plenty of danger, too, in the form of blockade enforcement teams that regularly kill everything they encounter, a rogue artificial intelligence with diabolical plans and the Bends, a psychosis in which humans begin to think they are androids. Diving into the the Deep is going to almost always result in death, madness and maybe, on occasion, a tidy profit.

It’s absolutely every bit as punishing and disturbing as you likely expect. A lot of this is artist Nick Tofani’s fault. I hate (by which I mean, love) his horrible drawings. They have a squishy sense of corruption that reminds me a lot of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark illustrator Stephen Gammell.

I will say that Gradient Descent is a bit punishing to read as well. The text is small, the layout…aggressive. Gradient Descent probably represents the saturation point for how much information you can cram into a 64-page zine. I wouldn’t mind getting this reissued in a roomier version, even if the claustrophobia of the layout lends something to the atmosphere of the adventure.

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