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.

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