Now in its tenth year, Free RPG Day offers up a variety of different titles for different games, typically introductory rule sets, also known as quickstarts, or scenarios. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they released. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is one such release, as is Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires.
Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is a one shot scenario and taster for Through the Breach, a roleplaying game set in the Victorian-era city of Malifaux and published by Wyrd Miniatures, LLC. Malifaux is a Gothic city of steam power, magic, monsters, Victorian horror, and the wild west which can be accessed from our Earth. In Through the Breach, the players take the roles of the Fated, those men and women whose destinies are tied to series of vague and cryptic clues, yet who can choose to embrace or reject their destinies. In Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires, the player characters are new recruits of the Ten Thunders, an Asian crime syndicate which operates in the lawless Little Kingdom slum as both oppressor and benefactor. Currently, they are students at the Sango Temple, training to serve the Ten Thunders. Five pre-generated player characters are given. They include a boisterous Japanese acrobat who makes himself the centre of attention; an American wastrel with the luck of the draw; a Vietnamese scrapper with anger issues; an imposing Japanese guard; and a Chinese dabbler in magic who is ashamed of her poisonous spells.
Through the Breach uses cards instead of dice to resolve conflicts. These are divided into four suits—Crows (Spades), Masks (Diamonds), Rams (Hearts), and Tomes (Clubs)—and two types of decks. One is the Fate Deck, which is the communal deck, and is the same size as a standard deck of cards. The other is the Twist Deck. Each player has one of these, which consists of just thirteen cards. To undertake an action with a risk of failure, a character engages in a Challenge Duel. The Fatemaster—as the Game Master is known in Through the Breach—sets a Target Number for the Challenge Duel, whilst the player flips one card from the Fate Deck and totals its value with his character’s relevant Aspect and Skill in order to beat the Target Number.
The two Jokers in the Fate Deck indicate great success or great failure, the Red Joker the former, the Black Joker the latter. If drawn, the Black Joker must be played. Further, Fate Modifiers—positive and negative—indicate whether a Challenge Duel is is easier is harder to overcome. They cancel each other out, but any remaining modifiers increase the number of extra cards a player draws from the Fate Deck, up to a maximum of three. If the remaining Fate Modifiers are negative, the player must use the card with the lowest value, but if positive, the player is free to choose which card he uses.
A player will also have a hand of three or more cards drawn from his Twist Deck. A player can use a card in his hand drawn from his Twist Deck to enable his character to Cheat Fate by replacing the card flipped from the Fate Deck. Some characters possess Triggers, extra effects or actions that come into play when a Challenge Duel is resolved and a card of the Trigger’s Suit—Crows, Masks, Rams, or Tomes—is used to overcome the Challenge Duel. For example, in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires, the pre-generated character, Mai Pham, has the Vengeful Crane Kick which has a Jump Kick Trigger. It triggers if Mai Pham succeeds in a martial attack and the Rams Suite is used in the attack and enables her to make a second Martial Arts attack on the same target.
Combat in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires uses the same mechanics, but the number by which the attacker beats the defender determines the Damage Flip Modifier. This is the equivalent of Fate Modifiers, but specifically for damage. This determines the number of cards to be drawn from the Fate Deck and the value of the one selected by the player will determine if the character will inflict Weak, Moderate, or Severe damage. If a member of the Fated suffers damage enough to reduce his wounds to zero, then further damage suffered will have Critical effects.
The rules presented in Combat in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires are not too complex, although the Fatemaster and players alike will need to make some adjustment if they are used to playing roleplaying games with dice rather than cards. They will also need to make careful reading of the pre-generated characters and their abilities to get the most effective use out of them.
The adventure in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is of course, ‘Unearthly Desires’. It is a short, three-act affair which begins with Sango Temple where the player character Fated are studying, coming under attack and their master being all but killed. This reveals Master Lo’s true purpose—keeping a demon bound in place. Whether or not they succeed in saving his life, Master Lo instructs the Fated to save the perpetrators and stop the demon from wreaking its havoc on the city.
Physically, Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is nicely presented as a full colour, sturdy booklet. The illustrations are excellent, though the booklet will require a read to grasp how it played. Probably two, which means that the preparation time for the adventure is quite high given how long the adventure actually is. In addition, each player as well as the Fatemaster will need his own deck of cards. The players to create their individual Twist Decks and the Fatemaster the Fate Deck.
There is certainly a good two hour adventure to be had in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires though it is one that focuses more on combat than on investigation or roleplaying. That said, it does a nice job of introducing the mechanics to Through the Breach and at least a little of the setting. The only real downside is the preparation time and the time needed to find and set up the number of required card decks. More challenging—at least mechanically—than most entries for Free RPG Day 2017, Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is decent introduction to Through the Breach that definitely serves up the action.