What Do I Know About Reviews? Fables: Agents of the Empire Part 1, Setting Guide (5e OGL)
I realized looking back on my coverage of the Fables line that I’m not really doing a first impression of each individual adventure, so much as doing a running review of the entire adventure path as the individual installments were released. Because of this, I’m going to treat these just a little bit differently going forward. I’m just going to make this a multi-part review.
This works especially well for the current Fable, Agents of the Empire, as the first installment separates the Setting Guide from the adventure material, and it looks like the Setting Guide will be bundled with each installment of the adventure path. I think this is a positive change, especially with the line experimenting with more distinct settings and genres within a fantasy framework.
I’m not going to say that no one buys and runs just a single adventure in one of the Fables adventure path, but I do think that the primary intention of the line is to present a cohesive campaign across all of the adventures. That’s going to be the lens through which I’m viewing these, so I just wanted to make it clear from the start.
I did not receive a review copy of this material from Ghostfire Gaming, and have a subscription to the Fables line. I have not had the opportunity to play through this material, but I am very familiar with D&D 5e both as a player and as a DM.
This setting guide dives into some of the ongoing themes of the adventure path, and touches on some background material that may not be available to the players until later adventures. If you are planning on being a player in this campaign, you may not want to keep reading beyond this point.
Agents of the Empire Setting Guide
Written by: Chad M. Lensch, Joe Raso, Erin Roberts
Head of Fables: Joe Raso
Story Design: Joe Raso
Art Director: Marius Bota
Agents of the Empire Writing Team: Leon Barillaro, Chad M. Lensch, JVC Parry, Joe Raso, Erin Roberts, Carl Sibley, Jeff C. Stevens
Managing Editor: Joe Raso
Editors: Matt Click, Shawn Merwin, Christopher Walz
Graphic Design: Martin Hughes
Cover Design: Martin Hughes
Interior Illustrators: Isabeau Backhaus, Zoe Badini, Ivo Campelo da Silva, Brent Hollowell, Katariina Sofia Kemi, Diana Khomutina, John Derek Murphy, Laura Marie Neal, Mihai Radu
Cartographers: Kristian Agerkvist, Andrei Iacob, Damien Mammoloti
VTT Asset Design: Joshua Orchard
A Guide to the Guide
The PDF of the Agents of the Empire Setting Guide is 88 pages long, including a summary page for the six adventures in the adventure path, a table of contents, a credits page, an editor’s message, a two-page pronunciation guide, and a single page ad for Ghostfire Gaming products. The book itself has a two-page layout, and the borders and sidebars have an Art Deco feel to them.
In addition to character artwork, which feels more in line with current trends in fantasy RPG designs, there are also characters with more colonial-era designs, as well as fantastical versions of real-world transportation, such as War Zeppelins. There are also some specialized symbols developed for the different branches of service that PCs may belong to in the campaign.
The Setting Guide is divided into the following sections:
- The World of Tholus
- Character Creation
- Agent Advancement
- New Mechanics
- New Monsters
- Magitech Vehicles
- New Equipment and Magic Items
- Random Agent Equipment
- Pronunciation Guide
One of the interesting aspects of this guide is that the Karelagne Empire isn’t brand new for this adventure path, but was actually the primary antagonist at the end of the previous adventure path, as the PCs had to face down a Karelagne admiral attempting to seize a superweapon from the Aethereal Expanse.
As I mentioned above, the Karelagne Empire showed up in the Aethereal Expanse Fable, essentially the greater of two evils, as the more dangerous of two colonial powers that had once ruled over the region. This does bring to mind immediately, “how are PCs going to react to being agents of a power they may already have a negative disposition towards.” I can’t answer that right now, but I can explain how the setting is presented in this Fable.
The continent that houses the Karelagne empire was once dominated by a different power, and after that war ended, the continent was divided up between several warring city-states. The last three hundred years of history have seen wars on and off again, including a war to control the extraplanar Aethereal Expanse, and a fight against fiendish creatures that invaded the continent through a portal as part of another ongoing war.
The empire is composed of the following elements:
- Karel Province (the region that includes the capital)
- Talavi (an artistic region known for information brokers)
- Raal (previously the other power of the continent, known for its rail lines)
- Nelox (a mining province with devotees of the Deep Knowledge)
- Folly (the devastated region where Karel’s superweapon was set off)
The regions of the continent not under control of the Karelagne Empire include:
- The Edosians (fisherfolk who have a non-aggression pact with the Karelagne Empire)
- The Gravespray Islands (known for wild magic and monsters)
Several of these regions have their own local power groups that may have interests that are not in concert with the greater Empire or their neighbors.
During the Folly Disaster, when the portal opened and dislodged fiends into the world, some of those fiends managed to hide and enact a long-term plan. The Infernal Swarm of the Buucahb are essentially a hive mind of evil cockroaches, some of which can burrow into humanoids to control them. The current Sovereign-General of the Empire is infested, as is one of the important members of the Agency.
The Aethereal Expanse introduced us to some of the magical cannons and propulsion systems of the Karelagne Empire, but the guide goes into more information on the development of Magitech, technology that can be reproduced more easily than creating a magic item, but must be powered by the Aetherium obtained from the Aetherial Expanse. These items are also more volatile than traditional magic items. While they aren’t so common that regular people have access to them, this means that agents are likely to see motorcycles, cars, tanks, and zeppelins in their adventures, and there are firearms that use Aetherium instead of black powder.
This at least partially answers my questions about getting PCs to work for an imperialist power that has already been the villain of another campaign. There is a chance to make the Empire into a better place by ferreting out important people in power that have been possessed by the fiendish bugs.
There is one aspect of the setting that feels a little bit handwaved. It mentions that the Empire is very cosmopolitan, so most elves, dwarves, etc. see themselves as members of their region rather than having a separate cultural identity. I understand this to a point, but given the fact that it’s only been 300 years or so since the earliest events in the timeline, it seems like older civilizations should still be in the memory of species that live longer than 300 years. I understand that for a setting guide that is only going to be used for this campaign may not want to invest much in past civilizations, but I also remember how little lore it took Bael Turath to have detailed to make it feel like a part of ancient history in 4e when presenting a fallen nation of Tieflings.
I’m going to give vehicles their own section in this part of the review, because I spent a decent amount of time being critical of the previous Fable for creating brand-new vehicle rules that didn’t work like other aspects of D&D 5e, and weren’t necessary for 90% of the campaign. I’m not saying they were bad, I’m saying it felt strange to have such radically different mechanics for one aspect of the game.
This time around, we don’t revisit those vehicle rules. Instead, we get vehicle stat blocks that are very similar to the expanded ship statistics in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, or the vehicle rules we see in Descent into Avernus. Basically, you have a different armor class, damage threshold, and hit points for different parts of the vehicle.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t more rules than the D&D rules provide. There are additional rules for how many squares a vehicle needs to make a turn, crash complications, and optional rules for magitech vehicle mishaps whenever they take damage, due to the instability of the Aetherium power cells.
The chase rules exist for both foot chases and vehicle chases, but I’m going to mention them in this section, in part because of some of the optional rules included. The chase rules include three ways to adjudicate chases:
- Group Skill Check
- Gap Tracking
- Full Combat Chase
The group skill check is a slightly modified version of the group skill check mechanics presented in the Player’s Handbook, but if results are tied between success and failure, one character can make a “tiebreaker” check. Full Combat Chase is essentially the rules introduced in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for chases. Gap Tracking is the chase mechanic introduced in the previous Fable for ship chases, and it was actually one aspect of those rules I really liked.
Gap Tracking involves setting a number of tokens that represent the average speed of a character’s movement rate in the chase between the person running and the people chasing them. Characters make a check at the end of a turn to see if they have narrowed the gap, with bonuses if they are faster than the speed represented by the token, or penalties if they are slower. Characters that can use magic to move or take the dash action might remove an additional token.
All of the PCs in this campaign are assumed to be members of The Agency. The Agency has four divisions and six ranks. In addition to getting these benefits, they also gain a point of Fortune, which functions a lot like the Luck points from the Luck feat, except you only get one when you join The Agency, and whenever you go up in rank. Additionally, characters gain a bonus to certain skills, from +1 to +1d12, depending on the division they are in and the talents they take from that division’s list.
The Agent rules are essentially a much more granular version of the faction rules that D&D 5e tried to introduce, but only really used in Adventurers League or Dragon Heist. In this case, characters get much more concrete additional abilities for achieving different ranks in their division. Advancing in rank is handled via Milestones, so like a lot of adventures with XP, you gain a rank in your Division when something happens in the story, rather than gaining X number of points until you hit a threshold.
Individual divisions allow a character to reroll an ability check that uses a particular skill when they roll a one, taking the new roll. For each Agent rank, characters pick a new talent, which functions for a specific skill under a specific circumstance, allowing them to roll their Agent Bonus.
Agents of different ranks can also requisition magic items at the beginning of a mission, but they have to return those magic items when the mission is over. Generally speaking, if they find any “good stuff” during the mission, the home office is going to want to acquire that as well.
I’m not normally a fan of inflating the skill curve in 5e’s bounded accuracy, but I like both of the ways they are boosting competency. Rerolling a 1 doesn’t blow the lids off of potential results, and getting a bonus die, instead of doubling proficiency, still means that the net result is within a range, rather than raising the minimum roll by more than 1.
Most of the Magitech gear we see is flavored to bring in the feeling of spy gadgets. You have flasks you can throw to avoid being pursued, escape boots that let you fly short distances, blasting sticks that let you do strategic detonations, and grapple guns that let you zip off to the rooftops.
Most of the “monsters” presented are stat blocks that I assume will be repeated a lot across multiple adventures. Many of them are NPCs that would be unique to the setting, along with different iterations of the infernal cockroaches that seem to be the primary antagonists of the campaign.
- Aetherium Researcher (CR ¼)
- Agent, Novice (CR ½)
- Agent, Veteran (CR 3)
- Agent, Master (CR 5)
- Buuchahb, Individual (CR 0)
- Buuchahb, Lesser Swarm (CR ½)
- Buuchahb, Swarm of (CR 2)
- Buuchahb, Greater Swarm of (CR 5)
- Buuchahb, Harrier (CR 1)
- Buuchahb, Drone (CR 3)
- Buuchahb, Infestation (Swarm Form)(CR 11)
- Buuchahb, Infestation (Corporeal Form (CR 11)
This does make me wonder how NPC stat block heavy the campaign will be. That would make sense for an espionage-based campaign, but I do still like to see some hulking monsters once in a while in my fantasy stories.
The View (To a Kill) So Far
I think this may be a hard sell for some players that really don’t want to play agents of an imperialist power, unless you clue them in that you may be dealing with corruption from within and making changes to the system. I’m curious to see how evident this theme is early in the campaign. That said, I also want to see how easy it is to get that feeling of chasing someone down on a proto-motorcycle, and doing that opening scene of a Bond movie where you do some incredibly over-the-top stunt.
We’ll wait to see how the adventures unfold, but the stew of a campaign setting I’ve got in my head right now is somewhere between 2011 Three Musketeers, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the animated Gotham by Gaslight.
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