What Do I Know About Reviews? Fables: Agents of the Empire Part 6, My Enemy’s Enemy (5e SRD)
Back at the beginning of the year, I decided that I was going to rework how I was doing my Fables first impressions/reviews, by just framing the whole thing as a multi-part review, looking at each adventure as it came out. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m only going to get to use this approach exactly one time, because the Fables line from Ghostfire Gaming is coming to an end.
Before I look at this month’s adventure, I wanted to talk about how ambitious this line really is. For two out of four Fables, they have created a new setting, created individual adventures, and produced encounter maps and tokens, as well as original artwork, all on a monthly timetable. The only other publisher that I can think of that has attempted this has been Paizo, and Paizo had the benefit of starting their monthly subscription line on the heels of publishing monthly magazines, and they have still slipped their publishing schedules several times in the past.
This was a major endeavor, and Ghostfire did an amazing job of keeping to that schedule, and providing ancillary material that made the adventures more immediately useful. For the sheer ambition and scope of the project, I am sad to see it go, and totally understand why it would be hard to continue.
So, with all of that said, let’s look at Agents of the Empire, Episode 5: My Enemy’s Enemy.
I have not had the opportunity to play or run this adventure, but I am very well acquainted with D&D 5e both as a player and as a DM. I was not provided a review copy for this adventure, and have my own subscription to the Fables line.
Episode 5: My Enemy’s Enemy
Written by: Chad M. Lensch
Head of Fables: Joe Raso
Story Design: Joe Raso
Art Director: Ona Kristensen
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: Zoe Badini, Ioana Elena Barbu, Daniel Correia, Ignacio Corva, Rafael Dantanna, Ivo Campelo da Silva,Giuseppe De Iure, Will Hallett, Brent Hollowell, Andrei Iacob, Katariina Sofia Kemi, Ona Kristensen, Vita Naumavičienė, Laura Marie Neal, Elizabeth Peiró, Felipe Pérez, Andreia Ugrai, Alexandra Rebeca Ungurean, Aleksandra Wojtas
Cartographers: Andrei Iacob
Comic: Brian Patterson
VTT Asset Design: Joshua Orchard
Layout and Formatting
This episode of Fables is 124 pages long. This includes a campaign summary of all adventures, a table of contents, a credits page, an editor’s message, 14 pages of creature stat blocks (some of which are reprinted from the setting guide), four pages of magic items and magitech items, six pages of magitech vehicles, 18 pages for the pre-generated characters (now at 7th level), a four-page pronunciation guide, a full page OGL statement, and two pages of ads for Ghostfire Gaming products.
Like all of the other volumes of this adventure, the text is laid out in two-column format and uses the standard conventions of 5e SRD-derived presentation, like stat blocks, tables, headers, and NPC traits. There is high-quality full-color artwork throughout the volume.
I brought up the “word cloud” background graphic in a previous review, and Martin Hughes from Ghostfire Gaming reached out to me over this issue. The “word cloud” would be read as text by my text reader and interrupt the flow of information on the page when using read-aloud functions. Ghostfire’s accessibility team is working from the baseline of making PDFs accessible in Adobe, since it’s the most widely available PDF reader. Because I tend to use Foxit Reader or EZPDF when writing reviews, those accessibility functions may not fully translate. Martin made a change to the way that word cloud is formatted, and it currently no longer is read as text in the PDF readers that I use, for read-aloud functions. I wanted to make sure to point out how responsive the team was to my comment in my previous review. I really appreciate that.
The Mission Files
The adventure is organized into the following sections:
- Editor’s Message
- Welcome to Fables!
- Fabled Follies
- This Fable’s Story
- Chapter 1: Tick, Tock!
- Chapter 2: Crawl Confrontation
- Chapter 3: Unlikely Allies
- Chapter 4: On the Threshold of Discovery
- Appendix A: New Monsters
- Appendix B: New Equipment and Magic Items
- Appendix C: Magitech Vehicles
- Appendix D: Player Characters Level 7
- Appendix E: Pronunciation Guide and NPC Details
Last time around, I said that the campaign was moving from the James Bond-style “fight dangerous organizations” kind of spy stories to the Jason Bourne “on the run” style stories, and I think that was a slight misattribution on my part. Considering the PCs still have some resources that will work with them even though they are burned, and they aren’t quite as the “burn it all down” phase of the campaign, this is more like the traditional Mission Impossible movie dynamic of being “sort of” on the run while still doing your day job.
Hitting the Ground Running
Several of the previous adventures have involved the PCs gathering information and investigating before going to a location to thwart a plot. Because they know there is a missing bomb left over from the end of the last adventure, this scenario starts with the PCs going after that bomb after being pointed in the right direction by their boss, who is still secretly aiding them. It’s a nice changeup from the established pattern.
The PCs have to sneak into one of the Empire’s military facilities, which is working on a new state-of-the-art war zeppelin, the INS Osprey. An anti-Imperial group has decided to make a statement by blowing it to hell, and not only will that destroy the new toy of the Empire, but it will also kill all of the people working in the manufacturing facility. The PCs have to worry about sneaking in, dealing with enemy agents still onboard the zeppelin, and trying to disarm the bomb. They reach a decision point where they have to either find a method for disarming the bomb, or deciding to evacuate the facility. There is a mechanism for the PCs to determine how many different methods they can think of to disarm the bomb, each of which uses a different ability/skill, so the higher they roll on either Arcana or Investigation, the more choices they have to make.
I like that there is a fallback in case the PCs really screw up their infiltration (the head of the facility is on good terms with their boss, and will give them a second chance if they get caught), and I like that either outcome, disarming the bomb or evacuating the facility, is seen as a general positive when their boss contacts them after the mission. The Osprey’s fate can affect the adventure later, but I’ll get to that.
On the Rails
The PCs are sent after a veteran agent that is in a bit of a grey area from the Agency’s perspective. The PCs are meant to find her on the Karelagne Crawl, a train that travels through the blasted wasteland that was the result of the end of the war that allowed the Empire to take control of all of its current regions. The wasteland itself is filled with necrotic energy clouds and monsters, so once the PCs get on the train, being outside the train for most of the journey is going to be inadvisable.
The rogue agent the PCs are meant to contact is also being tracked down by an assassin working for the Agency, and having been specifically tasked to kill the rogue agent by the Sovereign General, the chief executive of the Empire. The PCs boss, unknown to the PCs, has reached out to the Sovereign General to help clear their names, and in the process has pretty much let the Sovereign General know that the PCs may soon realize that they are not working in the best interest of the Empire.
If the PCs save their contact from the assassin, or at least manage to talk to her before she dies, they find out that one of the many anti-government organizations that appear in the campaign recruited her to blow up a submarine, but instead, she wanted to use it to investigate a secret research facility where her daughter has been working.
Getting There is Half the Fun
The next section of the adventure has the PCs interacting with one of the anti-government organizations to convince them to let them ride along with them as they take the stolen submarine close enough to the research facility they learned about in the previous mission to investigate. The interaction portion of this chapter is relatively short, with the majority being a chase scene where the submarine must make it from one edge of the map to the other with some other force chasing them and attempting to sink them.
If the PCs saved the Osprey in chapter one, the Osprey is hunting them from the air. If the Osprey is still out of commission, a giant mind-controlled shark with a laser on its head will be attempting to take them down.
I’m not a fan of saving the Osprey and being rewarded with having it hunt the PCs down. The Osprey was being targeted because it’s advanced sensors could have detected the research facility while it was on patrol. I would be a bigger fan of the Osprey being held in reserve as the means of pulling the PCs out of trouble if the shark proves too much for them to handle, serving as a reward for their previous actions.
This chapter is where I think the aesthetic of the story gets a little lost, for me at least. I’m not a purist that doesn’t want any sci-fi in my fantasy stories, or that doesn’t want to mix traditionally non-fantasy genres into fantasy. However, up to this point, most of the aesthetic of the campaign has been similar to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There are some anachronistic pieces of technology, but they are all framed through the lens of looking more 1900s turn of the century in appearance. In this adventure, flying vehicles are zeppelins, magitech cars look like model Ts, and magical firearms look like turn-of-the-century pistols and rifles. But the shark just literally has a laser on its head, to reference a joke from Austin Powers. That would have been fine, but this kind of breaking of the aesthetic continues into the resolution.
The research facility is on a volcanic island. I’m fine with this. Embrace all of the tropes. The research facility has been attempting to create a magitech portal to the home plane of the infernal bugs that currently possess the Sovereign General’s body. The Sovereign General wants to open a portal back home, and Brimstone, the organization that The Spider has cultivated, is actually working against the Sovereign General, not to save the Empire, but to make sure that the fiendish bug possessing The Spider can seize control.
Because the researchers were beginning to get suspicious of why they were working on this banned technology, the construct that was the facilities overseer used other constructs in the base to hunt them down and kill them. The researchers managed to pull out the memory cubes in the construct’s head, but all of them except the rogue agent’s daughter have been hunted down and killed by the maintenance constructs.
As the PCs find the memory cubes and add them to the construct, it will remember different directives. The PCs can find out more about the facility, but the more cubes they install, the more the construct remembers that it was resentful of the researchers and was also directed to kill them if they became a threat, and it starts to seal off the facility.
While all of this is happening, the volcano grows closer to erupting. They have to find out where the surviving researcher went (a setup for the final adventure) and escape the facility before it is destroyed, most likely while dealing with creatures swarming in from the portal and fighting off the fully restored facility construct and its drones.
Conceptually, I love the climax being fighting in a base about to be consumed by lava while dealing with extradimensional threats streaming out of a portal. There are some points of execution that don’t fully work for me. For one, the construct that the PCs are dealing with acts much more like HAL from 2001 than a super spy villain, and all of the constructs look way more like science fiction robots than clockwork mechanisms. This is also potentially the second time in the adventure where the PCs are expected to do a thing (revive the construct) that will reward them with a punishment (fighting the construct).
I am a big fan of not trying to track the literal progress of time, but using certain story milestones to determine how close an event is to happening. That said, in this chapter, the trigger for the volcano becoming more and more active is each time the PCs find a memory cube. I’d rather it were something a little more related to the time they take, even if it isn’t an exact measurement, like advancing the eruption for every X number of rooms they explore.
The other thing that doesn’t quite work for me, beyond the magitech aesthetic shooting straight into science fiction from a more clockpunk vibe, is that very early in this campaign, one of the civil rights issues the PCs run into is hostility towards self-aware constructs. This kind of “oh no, it became self-aware and it wants to kill humans” story element feels off for the same setting in which you already have self-aware constructs who are being targeted for abuse.
I really like the opening two missions in this adventure. They have strong espionage elements, and also play with some fun fantasy elements, like the blasted wasteland filled with monsters that happens to have a train running through it. I really enjoyed the twist of the rogue agent’s daughter being a researcher at the site, and using her as the link to the final adventure.
I do think that as the campaign nears its end, the desire to “go big” may have gotten a little bit away from the previously established parts of the setting and the campaign. I can’t tell you exactly where my line is, and I can’t presume to know anyone else’s line, but this pushed just a wee bit past what I was enjoying as the baseline feel of the setting in the previous adventures.
I noted that the last adventure was the first one where the PCs couldn’t just randomly find one of the infernal bugs lying around in a scene, foreshadowing the real villains. In this adventure, the PCs can now roll a skill check to determine that they are unnatural and fiendish. If they couldn’t do that in previous adventures, I would have rather they actually discovered something that allows for that change of status quo. Granted, once they see them coming out of the portal in the finale, it’s a reasonable assumption, but that doesn’t happen until the end of the adventure.
I think this adventure would almost work better if the bugs weren’t fiends, but were actually aberrations, and the tech at the facility all comes from their home dimension, explaining why we suddenly see things that look more solidly sci-fi and less clockpunk. In fact, magitech could be their means of introducing the mortal minds of this reality to their technology in a manner they can understand.
The description for the final adventure mentions that the PCs will have the opportunity to reinforce the status quo or to remake a better Empire, and that feels like a tall order. I hope it follows through, especially after several adventures that don’t so much to examine why the Empire has so many organizations willing to work against it, from the player’s perspective. I feel like where the campaign has explained some of the regional strife and Imperialist actions taken by the Empire, it’s been mainly DM-facing in the text, and not as easily communicated to the PCs.
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