Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Malifaux Musings Halloween Special: Top 6 Horror Themed Penny Dreadful One-Shots

One of my favorite all-time RPG memories is inviting my friends to the house to run I6: Castle Ravenloft, inviting the players to the titular evil lair to face the vampire Strahd as he stalked them through his home. There's something special about running a horror game on Halloween. Everyone is already in the mood for a fright, and as a game master it's our solemn duty to provide them with one. Malifaux gives us a number of options to do just that. So, with that in mind, here are the top 6 Penny Dreadful one-shots to run for a night of spooky fun. 

#6 Til Death Do Us Part

            The Fated are contacted by a woman to investigate a murder. Pretty standard adventure set-up, right? Well, there’s a little twist: the woman wants them to investigate HER murder. Poor Sarah’s woken up as a zombie with no idea how she got that way. Worse (well, ok, maybe not worse), her fiancĂ© is about to get married to somebody else! The Fated have about 30 hours to figure out what happened to her and obtain the information necessary to confront her killer. I love the set-up for this Penny Dreadful. The only thing that knocks it down this particular list is the lack of horror elements past the initial hook. If I was going to run it for a Halloween game, I might have to dress up some of the enemies down the line to include a bit more horror. But still, Til Death Do Us Part is a solid mystery with an excellent hook.

#5 The Ferryman

            Something is stalking the shores of Malifaux’s waterfronts. Mariners and dock workers are going missing, and rumor has it a creature in the river is to blame. When a bounty is offered for bringing the thing in, a cadre of hunters (including the Fated) take to the waters to try and end the nightmare forever. Playing on the horror of an aquatic unknown menace, the adventure is reminiscent of the movie Jaws (right down to a Quint-like character). Not classically horror-filled, with the right application of a John Williams score and appropriate measures to build tension, this adventure is more than capable of keeping the Fated on the edge of their seats. One thing is for sure: if the Fated go after the Ferryman, they’re going to need a bigger boat.

#4 Ghost House

            The classic haunted house story with a Malifaux twist, this story is a fantastic one-off for some spooky horror classics. Every game master at some point or another tries a version of this, and if you’re worth your salt you pick up simple tricks here and there to help things out. The house in question for this story isn’t exactly “The Haunting of Hill House,” however, as it is VERY blatantly haunted and the first thing the Fated will likely see is the phantom owners of the home gliding by. Still, put on some appropriately spooky ambient music. Make some halls longer than they should be. Knock under the table at a tense moment, and you can make for a memorable evening.

#3 Night of the Carver

            I mean, come on. He had to be in here somewhere, right? Malifaux’s Halloween Boogeyman has been a part of the world since nearly the beginning, and there’s a reason the Carver endures in the stories. A killer who manifests on the most haunted night of the year and stalks the city’s citizens (and a city full of people who still go out and celebrate Halloween anyways), the Carver combines the  dark fairytale fear of childhood with the unstoppable killing power of a modern-day slasher like Jason Vorhees. In this particular story, the Fated have to protect a mark that they’re trying to deliver for a bounty after he angers some Neverborn, leading the Malifaux natives to sick the Carver on him. It’s quick, which is ideal for a holiday party atmosphere where it can be tougher to keep the group’s attention. If you’re looking for a game to run on Halloween Night, you can’t find one that fits better than this.

#2 Bad Moon Rising

            Not all Quarantine Zones are created equally, as your Fated will find when they join a pack of Neverborn hunters to try and drive them out of the western QZ named Beggartree. Here, the local Knotwood forests have grown over the walls, congesting the city with gnarly plant growth, tangling roots, and one very, very angry Waldgeist. If they can survive that challenge, they’ll have to deal with infiltration of the hunters by Dopplegangers, try and restore an abandoned Guild relic left on an earlier hunt, and try to disrupt a sinister ritual to awaken one of the Neverborn’s most dangerous enforcers before they can turn him loose on the city. A more combat focused adventure than usual, this locked-in-with-the-monsters adventure has the claustrophobic feeling of movies like Alien. It’s a lot of fun, particularly with pre-generated Fated who you can casually dispatch in a horrific spray of gore.

 #1 Heart of Darkness

            The first time I read through this adventure, I was legitimately creeped out. The story hook is ultimately fairly benign: a new type of gemstone has been found at a mine in the Badlands, and the Fated are sent to investigate who’s been smuggling them out to sell in the city. When they arrive, however, they learn that workers have been going missing, and those who remain are literally jumping at each other’s shadows. When it is ultimately revealed that the camp is being stalked by a Bandersnatch, and the stones from the mine are egg sacks from the very same creatures, the Fated are left to deal with this horror of the Malifaux world. This is easier said than done, however, as by the time they know what is going on, one of the Fated is likely to have a spider-monster of their own hiding in their shadow. Done right, the slow build of paranoia in the camp combined with the bizarre phenomena of the creatures can build an atmosphere like John Carpenter’s The Thing. This adventure is still one of my favorites of all time.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Playing Through the Breach on Roll20

Welcome! We're wrapping up the fourth post this month for Through the Breach, the Malifaux roleplaying game. Previously, I reviewed Above the Law and Northern Sedition, two products that were released (or will be) recently. The third discussed adapting adventure modules from other games for use in TTB. This month, the topic is how to host what I feel is the best online version of TTB you can do.


I live a long way from the people with whom I play roleplaying games. This has been the case ever since I started playing Through the Breach. As such, it's been necessary to learn to play the game online, particularly given that my friends and I help with playtesting Through the Breach material. Our first efforts for this used the TTB module from Vassal. This method has some advantages, as it has Malifaux token sets already loaded into the mapping software and creates a subset of card decks for the individual players to use for their Twist decks. There are other parts of the module that don't work as well for what I want, however, so I've since moved on to finding other ways to play the game online. Ultimately, the best tool I've found for this is Roll20.

I know that they're currently on the internet outrage poop list, so maybe it's not cool of me to promote them, but A) I truly believe they've managed to assemble the best combination of complexity, flexibility, and usability of any online tabletop program and B) I don't care about internet outrage. For those who are unfamiliar, Roll20 serves as a virtual tabletop on which your players can conduct their RPG from anywhere with an internet connection. Signing up for an account is free, but there are monthly memberships you can sign up for to enhance your experience and add more tools to the toolbox. I would recommend having a Fatemaster sign up for a subscription and leave the players on free accounts, but I'm not you. If you want to support the company with your money, I support that choice.

My default tabletop for playing Through the Breach at the moment. All of the graphics were uploaded by me.

Not surprisingly, Roll20 is built mostly for dice-based games and mostly-mostly for Dungeons and Dragons. However, their system is set up with decks of cards as well, presumably for games where they're used for initiative or other resources like Deadlands or Savage Worlds. This deck requires a little bit of work to convert the default deck to a Fate Deck (mostly, replacing the graphics of the standard cards with something to show the Malifaux suits and numbers.) You can use the normal playing cards if you want and you're able to do the suit conversion in your head (Rams are Hearts, because everyone loves the Guild. Crows are Spades because Rezzers need shovels. Tomes are Clubs because the Union is like a social club. And Masks are Diamonds because the Neverborn want you to quit stealing their soulstones.) but where's the fun in that? Of course, making all those cards is kinda time-consuming and not a lot of fun. Luckily, your local friendly neighborhood Malifaux bloggist has done all the work for you. Here's a dropbox with all the graphics files. You're very welcome. Now all you have to do is drag and drop them on the appropriate cards. You'll also want to flip the settings on the main deck to look like this:

It's important to uncheck the "Cards in Deck are Infinite" box, because you need to know when the deck runs out, since that's when players draw new cards from their twist decks.

What's that? Twist decks you say? Oh yeah, I guess we should make those too.

This is easily done by creating new decks under the appropriate section of the toolbox, on top of the Gamemaster's toolbox area. You'll have to make a new card and then drag the appropriate card image into the spot, but otherwise it's pretty simple to do. This lets you build all 13 cards for the twist deck. For the twist decks, I usually activate the "Cards in Deck are Infinite" option, with the "Draw through deck, shuffle, repeat" box clicked. This'll save you a bit of work as Fatemaster (players can't reshuffle their own decks, unless there's a setting somewhere I haven't found to allow that.) I like to use my player's character portraits for the image on the back of their deck, but you could literally do anything as long as you don't use the same image as your Fate Deck. Then, you simply have to click "Show" to let the players see them, and they're ready to go.

For twist cards, players can draw them into their hands on their own or you can have the deck deal them out. Theoretically you can click on the fate deck and it'll flip over a card on top whenever you need to flip a card, but that is a little bit hinkey for + and - flips, as it does them one at a time and covers off anything previously flipped. Instead, I generally have everyone hover their mouse pointer over the top of the deck, which will cause an animation of a card to float up. You can then click and drag that card into play on the tabletop. This lets you track all of the cards from the current Challenge flips at once. It's helpful to make the Fate Deck cards and the Twist deck cards different sizes so you can tell them apart. Once the challenge is resolved, you can simply delete the cards to send them into their respective discard piles. Card flips are probably the funkiest part of playing TTB on Roll20, but ultimately it's not a big deal once you get used to it.

There's a caption to help you remember. Also, this is what the cards look like in play. 
There are a number of resources online to help you run your games on Roll20, including their own wiki, so I won't go completely into all the details here. It's kind of useful to learn it organically anyways. But there are a number of useful tools. You can draw maps yourselves or upload graphical files for the maps as well as individual tokens to represent characters, opponents, or furnishings. These can be placed on a map layer that players can see but not manipulate, the objects and tokens layer where things can be clicked on and moved (you have to grant players permissions to move their own tokens, which is tough at the moment for reasons I'll get to later.) Additionally, there is a GM layer where you can place things that you can see but they can't. That's a useful trick to learn to manipulate. The purple glowing fellow in the middle of the map image above is on the GM layer, so I can see him but the players can't. That makes life a little easier and saves having to hunt through tokens to get them into play.

If you like atmosphere, there is a built in jukebox to play music and/or sound effects for the game. There's tables, handouts...basically there's a lot of good stuff in roll20. You can do a deepdive into it or just use it as a shared tabletop on which you can play your games. The level of commitment is up to you. We only just started using battle maps recently, for context, and really just because they were included in the Dragon Heist module I bought. Otherwise we're happy to play in theatre of the mind most of the time, but your group's mileage will vary.

The other big perk to playing on Roll20 is having all of your character sheets together in one place in the game. Or, at least it is for other games. Through the Breach doesn't have a character sheet yet on Roll20. As it stands now, to allow players to move their tokens around on a battle mat you'll have to make them a "character sheet" they can control and assign a token to it, which is silly since the sheet itself will just be blank (or, more likely, it'll default to a D&D sheet.)

But we're working on it.

Doug Broman, a henchman from Des Moines who has html experience, is helping to encode a Through the Breach sheet in Roll20. So far, it looks pretty sharp. We're working out a few hiccups (figuring out how to allow people to add triggers ad hoc has been a bit of a stumbling block) and basically Doug's doing a lot of grunt work to get the coding set up, but I'm super excited for this. He's been a real hero, and if you see him and plan on using this at some point in the future, you should show him a little love yourself. When it's ready, we'll let you know and deploy it to the world at large so anyone who plays Through the Breach on Roll20 can use it.


So, that wraps up our October of Through the Breach posts. Or does it? Maybe there's a Halloween surprise in store? Keep an eye on your RSS feeds/twitter/facebook groups.

Later, Wyrdos.

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.