RPG Lab Report: Through The Breach

RPG LAB REPORT: THROUGH THE BREACH

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I’ve been a big fan of the Malifaux setting since the earlier days of the miniature game. Malifaux somehow takes a number of the most over-used genres and tropes and, with Frankenstein ingenuity, stitches them into a fresh and vigorous monstrosity. Victorian-steampunk-pulp-cowboy-gothic-horror-with-zombies-and-katanas-for-days would normally not make it to my plate, but exploring the world of Malifaux through the lens of the interesting and original role-playing game that is Through the Breech is absolutely worth a dabble from any serious lover of RPGs.

THE SETTING

The world of Nythera (often called Malifaux after the setting’s primary city) is a truly evocative and complete experience. From the time the characters are warped through the Breach (the magical gate between worlds) into the iron gothic beast city of Malifaux to the inevitable showdown with a half-demon nightmare-made-flesh in some tumbleweed town, the setting drips theme and a passionately honed aesthetic.

To say the story of Through the Breech is rich is an understatement. Standing on the shoulders of Wyrd’s miniature games’ setting, we get to explore that same material in ultra-granular detail. We get to walk around the oppressive courtrooms and gallows that are the mark of the tyrannical Guild. Characters explore the gremlin-infested Bayou’s haunted by primordial Neverborn boogeymen. Rifling through the viscera of undead constructs we can take on the role of necromancer-scholars resident at the University of Transmortis.

The massive mishmash of genres is actually a strength of the setting. It gives the game an infusion of possibility that plays to the strengths of whichever Fatemaster (TtB’s word for the GM) it needs. My strength is horror and non-steampunk Victoriana so I tried to cleave to those components when preparing my short arc for RPG LAB.

I thought the Malifaux setting was very well depicted in the game. I feel it added an extra layer of excitement and appreciation to an encounter, when through the Fatemaster’s descriptions, you recognize something within the game that you know and love. That’s not just a 9 ft tall bare-chested motionless man with grotesque mechanical enhancements, that’s a Guild Executioner! I felt that it rewarded those familiar with the Malifaux lore and miniatures game, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’d be interested to know how the two players who weren’t as familiar with the setting felt when three miniatures game players started geeking out once it donned on us what we were up against.”

“I feel like the background presented in Through the Breach makes for an excellent history text for the world of Malifaux and a wonderful supplement to the stories and fluff presented in the Malifaux tabletop miniatures game books and the Wyrd Chronicles. If this was the only material I had ever read about Malifaux as a setting, I’m not sure how excited I would be by it. It reminds me a bit of The Sixth World Almanac for Shadowrun 4. Kinda clinical, dry, encyclopedic reading but full of neat information if you’re already invested or want to know exactly when Goblinization started (or the Powder Wars began) or what the state of the Italian Confederation is in 2073 (or which of the many slums contains Little Kingdom or Red Chapel).”

“The setting is certainly rich in detail. It is very dark and oppressive, though, which can be a turn-off for some folks. Your characters begin the game at a point lower than most starting characters in other games, with barely enough cash to get anything beyond what their pursuit gives them.”

CHARACTER GENERATION

Character creation is one of the two systems in Through the Breech that are of award-winning quality. The player characters of TtB are called Fated and are defined by a cryptic occult prophecy that is defined at character generation and revealed through each session of play. Character generation is inspired by a pack of playing cards (the task resolution device used in TtB instead of dice – identical to the deck used in the miniatures game) and plays out in the fashion of a Tarot-told story. Each step creates an aspect of the character including the eldritch lines of his Fate. This system is not overly static and allows narrative driven tweaks to escape the binding conventions of classes yet still provides enough customization that niche protection can be maintained.

The other use of the character’s fate poem/song/scripture is that it is the device around which the Fatemaster builds his campaign. Each session of play, one of each player’s five lines of prophecy is resolved through the story. This allows a strangely organic game skeleton which by its very nature is forced to reinforce core player character themes and story background.

“The way cards are used in a Tarot-like form for character generation makes it an interesting process. While it adds a random element, it still allows for enough customization that I didn’t t feel like I was playing a cookie-cutter character. The organization was a bit tricky, as I felt like I had to shift back and forth between the pages containing the steps and the section detailing each step’s options. Some things, like Magic, require you to read through the last chapter very closely to understand what each choice entails.”

“It’s very different from other RPG systems I have run/played in. I’m still unconvinced that the Destiny system built into it works all that well, at least as more than a kind of “milestone” system that could just as easily be arbitrary to the GM. The tarot layout, how it generated abilities/skills and the large table of stations (backgrounds) to give you a kind of “kickoff” to thinking about your character are all enjoyable and well done I think.

“I went into the process with the intention of allowing the character creation process to tell me what my character will be, as that seemed to be the intent. I was pleased that it didn’t actually limit my options terribly much. The end result wasn’t anything I’d have ever predicted, but was also a character I enjoyed playing immensely.

The only real gripe I have with it is some of the compatibility issues with the pursuits, which we experienced when the tinkerer needed to have a pneumatic limb that it was impossible to afford on starting currency alone. It’s something that’s easily solved by the GM, though I think this character generation system could drive rules lawyer types crazy (net positive maybe? 😉 I don’t really feel much needs changing in the process, and I would probably only do so if I wanted to alter the tone of the game from the start. Things that spring to mind are starting with Fated who are already a bit more established in Malifaux with additional funds or equipment access, possibly an additional general talent as I felt that was fairly limited (though partly due to time constraint), or making manifested powers and additional grimoires readily available to start of sprinting on something epic. That’s all normal RPG game running type stuff when you decide the kind of game you want to run though so hardly specific to this setting and ruleset.”

THE SYSTEM

Through the Breech is powered by a deck of cards. It uses an attribute + skill pairing that is modified by the drawing of a standard playing card. Suits have different effects for different characters and situations and jokers, depending on color, can cause both beneficial and detrimental mayhem. Special powers also have suit specific powers that can be triggered to spectacular effect.

In all cases, the task resolution deck (called a Fate Deck) is used by the players at the Fatemaster’s behest. When a card is needed, a player is directed to draw a card. The player has a hand of cards for any given session that they can use to cheat certain outcomes if needed. This hand refreshes at various points during play but is generally limited to a given session or short story arc.

As a game master, I have a preference for hidden information when it comes to the game’s probability. It allows me to fudge and ignore die outcomes when they’d make the story less interesting. That being said, Through the Breech’s method seemed a bit easier to steer than other games that use this transparency and level of player narrative control.

“I found the TtB system mechanics to be a straight derivative of the miniatures game. You get two Action Points (AP), you get a Free action (or 0 action), these are fundamentals of the miniatures game. The types of actions are also directly related to the miniatures game, use an AP to Focus your strike, get a positive twist to attack and damage. It would not feel unfamiliar to transition from one game to the other. “

“The mechanics are immediately familiar to anyone who has played the miniatures game. That’s both a positive and a negative though. On the one hand, the similarity is nice and an experienced Malifaux player will already know the value of AP, the general actions like focus and defensive and will have a good idea during character creation the kinds of things that will be important later on. On the other hand, it’s just different enough that an experienced Malifaux player may glance and skim past vital differences like how the communal fate deck works (the GM never flips, so opposed duels are actually fairly different in a way), how initiative works, the value in the additional actions presented by trick and impose or what skills will really be useful.

In general, I think that Through the Breach does an excellent job of capturing the Malifaux experience in an RPG format that is immediately recognizable to anyone with any tabletop RPG experience and Malifaux players in particular will already feel quite comfortable with the card mechanics involved. A comparison of the two wouldn’t be complete without mentioning just how different Malifaux the miniatures game and Through the Breach the RPG are. In Malifaux, your crew consists of *extremely* powerful and unique individuals and there is often quite a strong relationship between the gamer and a specific master (and often faction). Crazy abilities and varied personalities are the norm and there’s a definite sense of empowerment from executing the complex inner-workings of each crew successfully.

Through the Breach doesn’t have this, but also has more. The player can still generate a very strong relationship to their character, but with an RPG it becomes more about growth. I believe the system provides the tools, for a Fated to become *quite* powerful eventually but they also get to enjoy a more day-to-day existence Breachside… something that the miniatures game will never really do (and shouldn’t).”

IN CONCLUSION

At first, I found the rules of Through the Breech quite daunting. Luckily, the enthusiasm of RPG LAB participants and my love of the setting pushed me through the initial bumps and resulted in a great payoff. The game has an atmosphere like few others and core mechanics that only reinforce this.

I would recommend this game to anyone who likes any of the contributing genre elements as well as those folks who like truly stylish RPGs with astounding art direction.

GEORGE HOLLAND is the assistant manager here at Games & Stuff. He takes enormous pleasure in the grotesque and wondrous.

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