Sunday, October 21, 2018

Northern Sedition: A Through the Breach Product Review

            Northern Sedition is the second in a three-part series of Wyrd’s Penny Dreadful adventure modules. It chronicles the efforts of a group of Fated to help protect the northern town of Ridley, a stronghold for the M&SU, from the Guild’s attempts to coerce it, a group of Seditionists’ efforts to undermine it, and a mysterious enemy’s endeavors to destroy it. I’m going to do what I can to keep the review spoiler free outside of one section at the end detailing the plot, so most of this review article should be safe for players to read.

            Northern Sedition picks up a couple of weeks/months after the previous module, Northern Aggression, finished off with a wave of refugees from the northern mines fighting a pitched (or perhaps not so pitched, depending on the players’ actions) battle for entry into the town. Wyrd has done a solid job of setting the adventure up so that it isn’t necessary to have played through Northern Aggression to run this adventure, however. For context, my players hadn’t been through the original module and were simply assigned to Ridley at the start of the adventure, and other than having to spend a few minutes detailing current events in the city to catch them up on the situation, it ran fine. In fact, in some ways the mystery is almost enhanced by the Fated not having been through the previous conflict, as the arrival of the antagonists and their minions in town will be more “What the heck?” rather than “Here we go again.” Both work well, but have a very different flavor.

            Speaking of the mysterious opponent, this adventure continues with the established precedent of offering the same monster colored slightly to represent the opponent and their patron’s identity established in Northern Aggression, but takes it to the next level. As the Fated have likely advanced in Rank, so have the minions exposed to the Wrath Fetish magic that is twisting and warping them. One patron’s minions will typically be sprouting animalistic mutations like wings, claws, or horns while another may suddenly explode into a burst of tentacles and mouths. This theming carries all the way through the adventure and adds an element of individual flavor and replayability to the Northern campaign. While the individual events will remain for-the-most-part the same, the enemy’s motivations and, thus, their actions from scene to scene may change depending on who the Fatemaster chose to be the big foe at the beginning. Plus, Northern Sedition does a good job of responding to the choices the Fated make and their successes or failures in carrying out their plans, causing later scenes to perhaps be very different from one game to the next. All of this together ensures that, while many elements will be familiar from one replay to the other, the Northern Sedition can potentially be rerun with your same group of players multiple times and remain fresh throughout.

            Part of what helps to drive this is the Reputation system established with the module. As stated, Ridley is sitting at a crossroads (fitting, since it’s a railroad town) between Malifaux’s factions at the start of the adventure. Depending on how things went during Northern Aggression, the Union, the Guild, or the town itself may be at an advantage, but no one has established true control. The Fated are recruited into a town militia to help keep the peace as the city deals with the arrival of a large number of refugees from the northern foothills and the Guild tries to ship workers back to the mines to get them producing again. While they nominally are there representing the Town Council, Fated choose which faction their actions will aid (or hinder) during the course of the game. This has an effect on the plot of the adventure, but also grants the Fated positive or negative flips on their social interactions with Ridley’s citizens. This actually ends up getting fairly complicated as the adventure rolls along, as the writers effectively had to write the Penny Dreadful like a long decision tree. The last chapter is fairly indicative of this, as it involves the Fated trying to either distribute food they’ve gained lawfully to Ridley’s citizens, confiscate a bunch of food from Ridley’s citizens who are hoarding it and redistribute it to others, OR rob the people who are doing the confiscating! The writers certainly had their hands full trying to cover the increasing number of possible scenarios without this turning into a 400-page adventure, but they overcome this by having most of the diverging paths funnel back into common events. Case-in-point, all the above mentioned activities from the final chapter end with the Fated being led to the site of the final encounter with a potential disaster either about to start, already in progress, or possibly even having concluded. This keeps the size of the module down (and cuts down on the number of pages devoted to encounters you won’t end up running) while still providing enough agency to the Fated to show that their decisions have consequences in the game.  

            The bestiary at the back of the module is a highlight for the adventure as well, as it includes a number of interesting adversaries for the Fated to battle. Many of these are presented in four possible forms, to reflect how they’re changed by the patron opposing their efforts. Excitingly, this section also includes a number of named characters from the Malifaux world, namely one henchman from the miniatures game associated with each of the patrons. Additionally, stat blocks for three of the four patrons themselves are included in the appendices at the back (the fourth one’s stat block was published in a Wyrd Chronicles adventure, if you want her to make an appearance.) While master-level opponents are never to be thrown into a game lightly (unless you’re TRYING to kill your Fated off), they’re presented as an optional encounter to use against combat-savvy characters and/or as a way to end the module with a real bang and let the players know just how far into the deep end they are. And the nice thing is, even if you don’t end up running this adventure, this makes the Penny Dreadful possibly worth picking up just to have the statistics for these named Fatemaster Characters, along with a bunch of themed minions to use with them. I know I’ll be borrowing a bunch of the tentacle-y fellows to use in my adaptation of Dragon Heist.

            Overall, I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that Northern Sedition is a real achievement by the authors. There is a massive amount of work in here just to cover the majority of the contingencies to the Fated’s actions. If I had a criticism, it would be that the final encounter has the potential to be a bit of a dud if the Fated have been especially proactive in shutting down the enemy’s plans (though the Fatemaster can always still throw in the optional encounter with the patron to help offset this.) Still, this is by-far my favorite of the Penny Dreadfuls that Wyrd has released so far, and I would call it a must-buy for Fatemasters.

Plot Synopsis

            The Fated are recruited into the Ridley militia after the town has been thrown into chaos from the arrival of a number of refugees from the Northern Hills. They spend some time keeping the peace before it is discovered that corrupt Guild officials are press-ganging regular members of Ridley’s citizenry on trumped up charges and shipping them north to the mines, which is all the spark necessary for a Seditionist movement in the city to start protests.

            These protests are all the cover that George Blank, a wrongly-convicted murderer whose mind was erased by the Guild, needs to unleash the plans he’s been enacting since Northern Aggression. You see, the madness that had spread through the northern hills was not a result of disease, but rather a magical affliction created by Blank’s patron to further their own aims. The patrons:***DOUBLE SPOILER ALERT***SERIOUSLY THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING*** Marcus, Pandora, Sonnia Criid, or Jack Daw, are using the north and Ridley specifically as an experimental testing ground for Wrath Fetishes, magical creations that infuse the people carrying them with a bit of the patron’s magic, giving them enhanced abilities but also turning them into frothing berserkers. The Fated spend the next Act of the story trying to deal with a number of people “blessed” with these Wrath Fetishes who show up at protests in Ridley and try to track them back to their source.

Though they may discover Blank’s identity and even make their way back to his home (which is, of course, individually decorated to reflect the particular brand of their patron), they’re sidetracked by riots breaking out around the city. The Fated have to choose whether to go protect the Guild’s Outpost in the city or the M&SU hall. The one they don’t protect will likely end up destroyed, effectively crippling that faction for the duration of the module.

At the start of Act III the city faces its greatest threat so far: famine. With an outbreak of mine madness apparently afflicting the town, the city has been quarantined. Like most industrial centers, without a constant flow of food into the town, the people will start to starve within a matter of days. After dealing with a riot (and attempted theft) at a Farmers Union warehouse, the Fated embark on a semi-legal (ok, pretty much illegal) mission to save the town by seizing a train of food that’s parked outside the quarantine zone. When they get there the curtain is really pulled back on the Patron’s plan, as the train is really an ambush with the patron’s 2nd in command (Myranda, Candy, Sammael Hopkins, or Montresor) and a sufficiently powerful enforcer (a Slateridge Mauler, Teddy(!), Witchling Thrall, or a Hanged) waiting to get the Fated out of the way. This becomes a moment where your game could end up diverging a bit from the established continuity, as there’s a very real chance the named henchman could end up dead in this fight. Case-in-point, my group of Fated defeated Sammael Hopkins and, when he tried to bargain for his life, executed him (to be fair, one of the Fated was an Executioner, so she was really just doing her job.) As such, my Fated are now enemies of the Witch Hunters forever and their elite division is currently -1 second-in-command. This is likely going to be awkward going forward, as another one of the Fated is a Witch Hunter themselves. I could pretend like I don’t think that’s hilarious, but I’m not gonna.

All of this leads to the huge, sprawling fourth act of the module. If the Fated have the train of food with them, they can focus on getting back on Blank’s trail and track him to the town morgue, where they discover he’s been collaborating with a local Resurrectionist (morgues have really gotta find a screening process to keep those guys out) to reactivate the magic of the Wrath Fetishes in dead people. If the Fated don’t have the train, they have to focus on gathering food through various methods to stave off the pending famine, but they’ll stumble on the Resurrectionist in the process of doing so. It all finishes up in a grand showdown in the town’s main railyard where food is being distributed to a large crowd and Blank unleashes his undead minions to drive them into a frenzy. This gives him the cover he needs to try and activate several Rail Golems and imbue them with Wrath Fetish magic. If he’s successful, they’ll devastate the city before the Guild can arrive with a platoon of Peacekeepers to put them down. If the Fated stop him (or potentially even if they don’t) Blank overdoses on Wrath Fetish magic and ascends into an avatar of their particular flavor of magic (chimaeric beast, blazing pyre, etc.). This is potentially a very dangerous opponent for the Fated (the version of him that works for Sonnia has a trigger where the Fated is incinerated, killing them instantly. This should give you an idea of Ascended Blank’s relative power level) and they’ll really be in a lot of trouble if they don’t move fast enough to stop him.

All of the Patrons are fun, and you can flavor the game to fit them as you’re moving along. Pandora and her followers are just as insane and evil as you would imagine. Using Marcus as the patron helps to show that he’s really not a “good-guy” by any measure of the word, as he’s doing all of this mostly as an experiment in survival of the fittest. Daw has an interesting theme of misplaced guilt (since he’s attracted to Blank due to his wrongful punishment,) but I think Sonnia’s story is the most interesting overall. It is also, however, the most complex to run. The reason, of course, is that the Guild isn’t trying to destroy Ridley, they want to take it over. Sonnia’s idea for how to accomplish this is to cause devastation and strife and blame it on the Union’s mismanagement of the town. This means that, while the Guild are legitimate allies of the Fated against the other three Patrons, against Sonnia they play lip-service at best and actively hinder them at worst. This is particularly amusing if you have a group of Fated who are actually working for the Guild (as was the case in my game, as we were testing Above the Law at the time.) As the Fated build up the Guild’s reputation in Ridley, they are actually helping her endgame at the same time. My Fated did a great job of saving the town, but in the process delivered Ridley into the Guild’s hands. Fortunately, they became such local heroes in the process that Sonnia can’t just kill them, though she wants to do it desperately (they killed her friend Sam, after all.) This led to one of the sweetest final sessions ever (for me at least.) When the Fated finished saving the day and the Guild came rolling in with their platoon of Peacekeepers, Sonnia and a member of the Fated had to smile through gritted teeth, shake hands, and take pictures for the newspapers. It goes without saying, I’m looking forward to seeing how this situation resolves itself in Northern Destruction. I encourage you to go pick this module up, give it a run, and let me know how your story turns out.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Plagiarism: An Underappreciated Skill for Tabletop RPG Design

           There are a number of important tools in the toolbox of Fatemasters. Building dynamic, interesting encounters is critical to creating the most memorable games. A solid foundational knowledge of the rules is vital (though I strive to point out that you don’t need that knowledge to be Encyclopedic.) The skill of describing things to your players in a vibrant, detailed, but also fast-paced manner is something that every FM spends their career perfecting. But there’s one other skill that is, in my opinion, just as important and doesn’t get nearly the amount of exposure. That skill is called plagiarism.

            Now stay with me. I’m not talking about literal plagiarism, here. For good reason, using other people’s ideas as your own gets a bad rap. Probably the academic dishonesty thing, I suppose. But here’s the deal: there are a lot of good reasons to dip a pen into somebody else’s ink when you’re putting together a TTRPG game session. First of all, there have been a lot of good RPG stories told over the years. I’m not Matthew Mercer. You’re not Ed Greenwood. Well, maybe you are (Hi Ed, if you’re reading,) but you get the idea. Unless you’re very, very lucky, writing RPGs for people is not your job. But we’re not talking about showing up to your table to run your party through your brand-new adventure titled The Tomb of Horrors that you totally wrote yourself over the course of the last week. We’re talking about not feeling obligated to create everything in your game whole-cloth every time. People who do this all day every day have come up with a lot of cool RPG material over the years, and they’ve released them FOR YOU TO USE. Moreover, there’s a world of entertainment between television, movies, and the internet with things for you to riff on in your game. And yet, somehow, this idea persists that people who’ve built everything from scratch every time are somehow Gamemastering the "right" way. I think this is wrong, and I think it keeps people from taking a turn in the GMs chair for themselves.

Which leads to the second point: using a shared context is a shortcut to connect your story to the players. If the thing you're describing is familiar to your players, it will help them grasp it faster. That game involving the Dungeons and the Dragons has an edge in this regard, as the opponents and settings involved are iconic. People know them. Through the Breach has a similar advantage with those who know the Malifaux miniatures game world. Additionally, the genres involved are popular with a large number of people and a number of important historical events were occurring at the same time. If you throw in a splash of them from time to time, it saves you a few minutes of description and helps to avoid some of the risk of a player not following understanding what you’re describing. People know what a home with Gothic spires looks like. If a lady of the night has been killed and mutilated in a Victorian setting, people’s memories of Jack the Ripper will do half the work of setting the scene for you.

So, what level of idea-use is acceptable to you? Some will lift a theme or an image and build the game from there (and, arguably, 90% of game inspiration comes from this). Running a published module as-written is probably the other end of this, particularly if you’re providing the characters pre-generated to your players. Believe it or not, most of my games tend towards the latter rather than the former. My dirty secret is that I’m not super-creative, particularly when it comes to drawing maps. I love a good story, but I get lost in the nuts-and-bolts of RPG session design at times. Also, I have a family of 6 and a job that keeps me pretty busy, so sometimes finding time to be a “good” gamemaster can be tricky. I appreciate having some of the work done for me. However, after I find a module I like, the first thing I do is start hacking the module up with a machete to make it tell the story I want rather than the one that was probably intended.

Allow me to demonstrate.

I run a semi-regular TTB game on Sundays. The usual purpose is to playtest upcoming products, but testing has slowed a bit recently as a large bunch of material was recently released and (I have a feeling) Mason is occupied making M3E. As such, I elected to carry on for the time being with my own campaign. By coincidence, Wizards of the Coast happened to have released a new module, Dragon Heist, at the same time for D&D. This adventure is set in the Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep and features an urban setting with a rapid, episodic plot wherein characters scramble against a number of factions to try and bring home a haul of gold. Honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me from the start to adapt it for Through the Breach.

That said, there are things that I have to fix.

From this point on, I’m discussing spoilers, so if you’re in my game you’ll want to quit reading *looks at Joe and Jon*.

The original plot of Dragon Heist revolves around a cache of embezzled gold coins (called Dragons in Waterdeep, thus the module's name.) An important figure in Waterdeep’s past was responsible for the embezzlement, and his son is now an NPC who helps the players with the mystery. That timeline doesn’t really work for Malifaux, as the second breach has only been open for about a decade. As such, I rewrote things a bit to make the NPC Emit Van Ember (who represents Dagault Neverember from Dragon Heist) the grandson of a member of the Council from the time of the first breach who ruined their family name when it was revealed that he had embezzled a sum of soulstones roughly equivalent to half a million guild scrip in current-day value. Emit now works as a private investigator who contracts with the Guild from time to time, but mostly tries to help common people with the kind of troubles they run into on a day-to-day basis. His family’s ancestral home is on the side of the Quarantine Zone section known as Strangers Keep near the Little Kingdom, and as such he has a “good” working relationship with members of the Ten Thunders. As the Fated are drawn into this web of intrigue, Van Ember and his information will be a key to getting to the cache of soulstone first.

One of the unique parts of Dragon Heist is the fact that it features four important figures from the history of the Forgotten Realms who, depending on the DM’s choice, can serve as the primary antagonist for the campaign. The others may aid or hinder the players depending on circumstance and/or the players’ choices. I like this a lot, and Malifaux has no shortage of powerful characters to fill these roles. What I like less is the arbitrary choice from the beginning. My players can tell you that morality is pretty gray in my games. As such, I’ve intentionally not placed any of them into a role of open hostility with the Fated from the beginning. It’s unlikely that they’ll avoid conflict with all of them (especially since they’re responsible for the deaths of the grandchildren of one of the faction leaders) but, ultimately, the choices will be in their hands. As such, the substitutions are as follows:

The Xanathar -> The Widow Weaver

My Fated ran the Heart of Darkness One Shot in the past, wherein they learned to their horror how much fun a Bandersnatch can be. I’m not sure that those spiders are related to the Widow Weaver, a nightmare from people’s imaginations, but I also don’t know that they aren’t. Good enough for me! Moreover,  when I realized that the Widow Weaver is pretty much the Other-Mother from Coraline, I knew I had to work her into a game somewhere. And her semi-sane insanity works well with the Xanathar’s kookiness.

Manshoon -> Yan Lo

Manshoon and his Zhentarim faction are going through some internal strife during the events of Dragon Heist, because some of the Zents want to take steps towards going legit and getting away from being the default bad guys in the Realms, while Manshoon’s sub-faction are busy trying to grab the gold to buy enough influence to basically take over the city for him. I was stuck on how exactly to approach this in-game. My solution is to represent the Thunders as being somewhat in turmoil at the moment. Misaki has only just seized power via the death of her father, the former Oyabun. This rubs Yan Lo (who is her ancestor) the wrong way, wich pushes him to take steps to protect himself and their organization by seizing power. He’ll use his servant Manos the Risen (in place of the Manshoon simulacrum from the module) when direct intervention is necessary, as this will help to maintain plausible deniability. It’s a work in progress, but I like it for now.

Cassalanters -> Lucius Mattheson

Aristocrats with dark allies? Yeah, this one didn’t require an excess of brain power to set up. The interesting part of this one is that these characters grew from the end of the Above the Law playtesting process, and as such are Guild employees. Their missions thus far have all been undercover work for the Guild Guard that has earned Secretary Mattheson’s attention. He’s recruiting them for the Elite Division (their current handler is Ms. Bellerose from the faction books). And when he finds out about the horde of Soulstones, he will want very much to retrieve it for the Guild (by which he means, himself.) The next session, the group is going to be presented with a debt that they’re owed to the Thunders for some previous interactions and told that they’ll be forgiven if they retrieve the soulstones for them (as well as paid 10% for their trouble.) I very much look forward to the potential tension of trying to continue searching for it while keeping it a secret from the Fated’s employers.

Jarlaxle -> Collette Dubois? Angelica?

This is mostly growing out of the showmanship aspect of Jarlaxle more than anything else. I had thought about using Lynch for this spot, but that would be two members of the Ten Thunders. I can definitely see the Arcanists coming into this as another player trying to steal the horde of Soulstones. I basically envision it as: The Star is putting together a traveling company that’s going to go by riverboat to some of the outlying communities, but is currently docked on the river in downtown Malifaux City and doing nightly performances/hosting gambling events. The ladies of the Star are a good fit for this character, but I’m not necessarily sure how I would work it in for my campaign. We’ll see how things play out down the line and whether inspiration strikes. This is another good lesson for your burgeoning Fatemasters out there: no matter what Damon Lindelof says, they had no idea what the smoke monster was at the beginning of Lost. You don’t have to have it all figured out from the beginning, and you should absolutely be ok with shifting your plans when new ideas come up.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got so far. Other parts of the story are waiting to be adapted later on, and I have some ideas for them as well, but more on that as we come to it. For now, I just wanted to give an idea of how I’m planning on going forward and to give an idea of how a module or an idea can be adapted across settings and even game systems. The only limit is your creativity.