Sunday, October 7, 2018

Above the Law: Through the Breach Sourcebook Review

Knock-knock.


            Above the Law is Wyrd’s newest Through the Breach faction resource book. The previous (Into the Steam, Under Quarantine, and Into the Bayou) have been fantastic resources to expand the world of Malifaux and offer new character options for Through the Breach players. Above the Law continues this strong tradition, providing new information about everyone’s favorite tyrannical oligarchy, The Guild.

Contents


            The book weighs in at a respectable 205 pages. It features the softcover format that has been the standard for all but the Core Rulebook. Almost a third of those pages are dedicated to background information on the faction. Another ~90 pages of character options comes next, followed by about a 40 page bestiary. Art, as always, is a highlight, consisting of a mix of stunning new work like the two-page spread on the cover and the splash-pages from the beginning of each chapter, and some recycled art from the miniatures game. I’m always a little disappointed that the bestiary art style is the sketchbook drawings with no color, but that is consistent with the other faction books. The editing is improved from previous Wyrd sourcebooks, and the handful of proofreading mistakes are much less noticeable this time around.   



Background




            I’m always most excited for the background sections of these books, as they fill in a lot of the history questions that have been unknown since the game’s inception. Most of the new information in this book details the time between the ending of the first-breach era and the opening of the second. I had always been under the assumption that the Guild grew out of the Council of wizards who managed the city in the 1700s. It turns out, however, that the Guild were a reaction to them and their control of magic and resources, a power grab that resulted in a global hegemony and a world war. One of the biggest departures of the Malifaux timeline to Earth’s actual history are the Black Powder Wars, a kind of early version of World War I that ended with the Guild’s growth from arms manufacturing cabal to worldwide superpower, mostly at the expense of the newly-formed Three Kingdoms and Abyssinia. As a fan of WWI history and the Victorian era in general, it’s a curious mental exercise to imagine this kind of event causing a breakdown of the Imperial/Colonial system almost a century too early, only to replace it with an even more controlling government that rules most of the world. Wyrd’s done a good job of taking this and still leaving the world in position for the Great War to break out (in the form of The Other Side). Additionally, Above the Law provides an explanation for why women and minorities are so well-represented in Malifaux’s timeline where they would historically have still been second-class citizens in the early 1900s (namely, that the Guild doesn’t care about your sex, race, or creed as long as you can follow orders and earn them money.) The book's timeline cuts off in 1907, with the Guild’s control starting to crumble. One small inconsistency comes from the statement that the Three Kingdoms are about to reclaim their independence, while Broken Promises seemed to indicate that this has already happened. This is pretty minor, however, and this history stuff, while possibly not having a huge impact on games, certainly makes my Malifaux nerd heart happy. It will be interesting to see how the Guild’s story continues from here.

            The Malifaux side of the background info contains less new information. Most of the Guild’s history in Malifaux is also the history of the city itself, so consequently much of it has been covered in the fluff since book one of first edition. The organizational details for the Guild are interesting, though. I’m not sure whether the leaders of the Guild, the Minerva Council, had been mentioned before. There still aren’t many details on them, though the fact that they’re not exactly on the friendliest terms with the new Governor-General is interesting. Each of the Special Divisions gets some fleshing out, which is cool, detailing how one becomes a member of the Witch Hunters, Death Marshals, and Monster Hunters. The Public Relations department introduces a new division head in Leonardo Benneton, as it turns out Nellie Cochrane is only the Editor in Chief of one of the Guild’s two papers. We don’t know much about Benneton, but it’ll be interesting to see if he ever shows up in the miniatures game. All in all, there isn’t as much juicy new stuff in the background section of this book, but that’s mostly a result of much of the Guild’s history already being known. There is still plenty in Above the Law for a fluff-nut like me to sink their teeth into.

 Character Options




            Like the other Faction Books, Above the Law introduces a new Tarot for character generation to represent Guild employees. Each of these contains an additional card that details something specific about Fated characters to give them some flavor (and mechanical differentiation) to mark them as members of the faction. Above the Law’s version of this is the Vice Card, a wildcard that you can use to substitute for one of the others you put out during character generation. This lets you replace an option you aren’t happy with and also gives your character a character flaw to roleplay, be it Greed, Addiction, or the simply being on the wrong end of a Blackmail scheme. Characters built with the Ram’s Head tarot also will have destinies with more of a Guild flavor.



Above the Law introduces six new basic pursuits: the Bureaucrat, Commander, Gunner, Magewright, Marksman, and Propagandist. Bureaucrat and Propagandist are both social classes. Gunners use heavy weapons while Marksmen are snipers, giving you some different options for ranged support. The Commander is a version of the support combat class that brings in soldiers and issues them commands with a definite Guild flavor, best epitomized by the fact that they draw cards when their soldiers get killed. Magewrights are different than previous spellcasters, as they focus more on enchanting items and weapons with magical power and less on using Grimoires to cast powerful evocations. Additionally, the Executioner, Guild Lawyer, Mage Killer, Soulstone Aficionado, and Witchling Handler are introduced as Advanced Pursuits. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in these. I’ve made no secret of my love of Court Procedure doctrine, so you know I’m excited by the Lawyer. And, uh, yeah, Executioners are horrific melee combatants. I’ve FM’d for one, so I know what I’m talking about. Be ready for your bad guys to get wrecked in a hurry if you come up against one of them.
Seriously. These guys are bad news.

Additionally, Above the Law introduces 30 new general talents, ranging from my favorite, Idiot, which lets you not fail social skill challenges, to Guild Training that helps Fated interact with other Guild characters, as well as giving them some individually flavored bonuses based on which division your Fated have joined. The Eternal Dance is introduced as a Magical Theory used by the Domadores. It kind of feels kind-of tacked-on, but paired with some of the necromantic stuff from Under Quarantine could allow you to play one of these very unique character archetypes.  15 new Magia and 4 new immuto are offered in the book, many with some significant Guild flavor (ie: lots of things that banish/cage/control the enemy). Also, the book introduces several unique Grimoires, including the Forgotten Marshall’s Forgotten Box (complete with random summoning.) Finally, the character option section wraps up with a spattering of melee weapons to oppress the downtrodden up-close and personal and ranged weapons including a relatively high proportion of Heavy Guns (not a huge surprise, given that one of the basic pursuits is built around using them.) Ever wanted to be Jesse Ventura from the Predator? Now’s your chance.

The Bestiary section begins with our once again rejoining Ms. Emeline Bellerose, an undead agent of the Elite Division who has been our guide through the menagerie of opponents introduced in the other faction books. I’ve really loved this style of presenting background info for the monsters ever since the first time I saw it used in White Wolf Publishing’s Ravenloft sourcebooks. Obviously, various Guild troopers and constructs are the brunt of the options here, including the Warden, Domador, and Thalarian Queller. Some of the non-Guild options include Saboteurs, a spattering of weaker Resurrectionist minions for the Domador to bring (as well as stats for a horde of Mindless Zombies, which I’ll probably make a lot of use of in my games), an Essence of Power (which can be summoned with a Magia from earlier in the book,) and Wokou Raiders (for some reason.) New monsters (IE something that isn’t currently in the minis game) include a construct called a Clipper that can fire a pneumatic spike to pin you to the ground while flying closer to finish you off, a kind of arcane archer called a Hex Bow, and a Living Portrait first presented in this summer’s worldwide event that would look lovely hanging in Secretary Mattheson’s parlor. The big named Fatemaster character presented is Francisco Ortega. If anything, Franc is even scarier in the RPG than he is on the tabletop, as he adds Rams to his duel totals for each character with whom he is engaged (so he can Critical Strike like a mother) and his El Mayor grants a + flip on defense to any friendly character within his 2 yard engagement range. Fated are definitely going to want to have him on their side if he shows up on the battlefield.
 
I mean, he's in every Guild crew. He should probably be in the RPG too.

Conclusion


            Above the Law continues Through the Breach’s tradition of strong sourcebooks. While it doesn’t offer quite as much in terms of new, interesting fluff as some of its predecessors (they can’t all be Under Quarantine, I suppose,) it does fill in some important historical gaps and clarifies some ambiguities about the faction’s structure. It offers some solid character options that expands on the Guild’s ranged combat superiority and aristocratic manipulations. Additionally, the bestiary is full of good stuff sprinkle into your game. All-in-all, if you are a fan of Through the Breach (or even just a fan of The Guild in general), Above the Law is worth picking up.