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.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Above the Law: Through the Breach Sourcebook Review


            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.


            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.   


            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.


            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.