The Wives of March
Publisher: Hebanon Games
Cost: Pay What You Want
Page Count: 47
Release Date: 10/6/2013
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com
The Wives of March is the sixth and final release from the No Security Kickstarter that Hebanon games held back in June of 2012. I’ve reviewed all five so far and given three extremely positive reviews (Bryson Springs, The Red Tower, and The Fall Without End) and two recommendations but with slight caveats (Lover in the Ice and Revelations). While The Wives of March is going into that second category, I still do need to point out that all six adventures have been excellent and I have more than gotten my money’s worth as a Kickstarter backer from this project. The fact Hebanon Games has put out six quality adventures in a year and a half, and for free to boot, is a feat that I don’t think any other publisher has pulled off in a very long time, and that includes the big guys like Paizo and Wizards.
The Wives of March is all but impossible to review without outright spoiling some of the twists and turns in the storyline, so if you don’t want the plot ruined, let me just say that by all means, stop reading the review now, download this sucker (maybe throw some money at Hebanon’s way while you are at it) and know the adventure is well done but that there are one or two plot points that your gamers might nitpick to death during the adventure or, more likely, after the fact. I know both my play testing teams harped on the same point without any nudging from me and that it was the same plot hole I had an issue with when I read the thing, but it’s a minor one that shouldn’t get in the way of running or playing the adventure. With that out of the way – SPOILERS AHOY MATES!
The Wives of March, at least on the surface, is a pretty standard murder mystery. It’s set in the south during the early 1930s (The Dust Bowl is a wonderful time to set any horror adventure really) and the players are hired by one of four potential sources to solve the murder. One Dashell March, pastor of the Unifying Word Revival Church has died on account of his midsection being removed by a point blank shotgun blast. The culprit is believed to be a black man who is now in hiding (and is also suspected of corrupting a young white girl to boot!) and it’s up to the PCs to figure out what exactly happened. Now this being the Deep South in the 1930s, those hiring the players may be more concerned with the strangeness of March’s will rather than whether or not one of them “Negro folk” actually killed a respected and beloved member of the community or not. Remember this is an era and region where African Americans were still considered highly disposable and little better than animals by a large portion of the Caucasian population. Racism is not just a part of life, but definitely something you’d see in a small rural sharecropping town hit exceptionally hard by the Great Depression. Thankfully this facet is not shied away from by the adventure, but is instead embraced and becomes a critical part of figuring out (perhaps even surviving) the adventure. The adventure does give a disclaimer to make sure players and the GM aren’t mistaken for being racist pricks themselves and that maybe the group shouldn’t use certain offensive descriptors towards African Americans while playing The Wives of March. I think that was a smart decision to put that in but honestly, in both play sessions, we let a lot of words come out that we would never use ourselves, because it fit the time period and mindset of the NPCs (although certainly not the players) and the racist characters/NPCs were pretty much hate filled towards everything, not just those of African descent. Some characters need to be racist to make the game believable (and actually flow) but making said characters a little over the top also made it clear we were playing a game and not actually espousing that horrible believes ourselves (while making subtle or not so subtle fun of those that had such outdated, primitive beliefs).
So back to the plot. As players continue their research, eventually they will discover that things are not all as they seem in the backwoods burg of Barefoot Crossing. There is an abnormally large population of hideously deformed people – and none of them are circus employees. There are a lot of people in town that looks ridiculously similar to each other. The March family has way too much money for a simply upstart church. So on and so forth. Eventually what we learn is that Dashell March himself is both far more and far less than human and in death he is perhaps more dangerous than alive.
The big twist on the adventure is that Dashell and his wife are two immortal beings cursed not only to be reborn for all eternity due to a pact they made with creatures from beyond our realm of understanding at the dawn of human existence, but there is a crazy sex problem they both have. If they mate together, they create a horrible form that houses one of the many creatures they bargained with, allowing them to exist (somewhat) on our plane of reality. So the obvious fix to that is not to have sex, right? Well if they don’t they die and are reborn, spawned by the monstrosity they already brought into being long long ago. As babes, they have all their memories from their previous existences but tiny little baby bodies. So a breadth of knowledge that surpasses everything contained in a library is trapped in an itty bitty body that can’t hold its head up and is exceptionally fragile. At the same time if they mate with anyone else, they bring another of their kind into this world. If the male has sex with a woman, the baby is always female and a basic clone of his original female partner, complete with all of her memories. The reverse is true if the female gives birth. Her children are always essentially exact male counterparts of his original mate, just babies. While there is room for each clone to be slightly different than their fellow (by saying purposely overeating to get fat or getting a lot of tattoos), the end result is that you essentially two immortal beings that occupy multiple bodies (no telepathic hive mind though).
As you can imagine, discovering that you are dealing with a veritable clan of just two people is not only creepy but hard for the mind to wrap around. You can kill the entire “race” (for lack of a better term), but even if you do manage to get every single one, at least one male and one female will be reborn through the cosmic monstrosity they are essentially leashed to. Plus now they’ll remember who killed them and how and have learned from that. Even worse, these two beings have probably died in every way imaginable and have learned every trick in the book, so how do you outsmart something like that? The end result is that The Wives of March is not an adventure you win, but one you survive, in which your best bet is to either convince the March “family” that you are either not worth their time and energy to expunge, or that even if you are especially efficient at ruining their plans, they have all eternity while the players have maybe twenty or thirty good years left in them, giving the Marchs plenty of time to come up with new plans or the chance to strike the PCs down (and those they love best) when they are old and infirm. Truly a horrific situation. I mean how do you stop an entity that has literally done and seen it all, with the knowledge of millennium behind them and no fear of death. One person I know summed this adventure up as “His and Her Ra’s Ah Ghul” from Batman comics. While that underestimates the cosmic horror behind the March’s it’s not too off the mark if you excise Ghul’s eco-crusader aspect. Honestly. The March’s are built in recurring antagonists if the players get on the wrong side of them. This means if you are playing a campaign, the threat of a March always showing up or being there in the background is never ending and players will be quite paranoid as to where a member of the family is at any given moment.
This of course leads us to the two problems with the adventure. The first is that neither March is evil or antagonistic in the way players need them to be to actually view them as “the black hats” in this scenario. They’ve simply lived for possibly millions of years and have the weight of eternity on their shoulders. Imagine dying millions of times and being able to remember each death regularly. Imagine having seen empires rise and fall, having experienced pretty much everything. It would dull anyone’s sense and leave them not necessarily psychotic, but razor focused and unable to relate to these fleshy things that look similar to them but have nowhere near the level of knowledge, experience or pure unadulterated horror hanging over them. The Marchs are cursed by trying to keep their love alive forever, and have the constant specter of “we are the gateway to hideous beasties” sitting right there on their shoulders. So the more the PCs learn about these two, the more they are horrified by what they are, but the more pity they (and their players) seem to feel for them. As such, in both playthroughs, instead of trying exterminate the March’s or foil their plan for the eventual destruction of existence so they can finally die, the PCs tried to find a way to help them with their ordeal rather than view them as mustache twirling baddies. In each playthrough the Marchs ended up being viewed as amoral beings that were victims rather than evildoers that needed to be defeated. This of course makes the adventure hard to play as written, but a good GM can get through it in one of two ways (Have the Marchs actually be pitiable or have them just use the PCs bleeding hearts to further their own goals).
The second problem comes down to the sheer lifetime the Marchs have lived and the fact the adventure literally says, “the rules set supports magic, Companions know pretty much all of it, but they resist using it in most instances for fear of making themselves more noticeable.” which as you can probably figure out, is a huge plot hole. After all, if they know pretty much all of it, then the combination of life experience and insane amounts of magical knowledge means at some point they should have found a way to break the deal with the things they bargained with during the precursor to history. Whether it’s a way to send their “child” back to the abyss, a way to simply nullify the deal, or a way to cease to exist, the Marchs should have found a plausible way to get out of the circumstances they put themselves in, even if it is to say, bargain with a different entity. “Give us permadeath and you can have this thing we made while bumping uglies long, long ago.” I have to admit, this issue with the adventure came into my head almost instantly while reading the text and it came up repeatedly in game or after the fact when we talked back story or let people read the PDF. It seemed that the sheer scope of knowledge the Marchs possessed and yet their inability to find a way out of their bargain was too much for everyone’s suspension of disbelief. For some that gave their character impetus to try and help the Marchs find rest or respite and for others, they let it ruin the experience for them and wouldn’t shut up about the implausibility of it all. To which I said “technically everything in a roleplaying game, especially a horror or fantasy one, is implausible. ” Is essence it was akin to the whole, “Can God make a rock so heavy, even he can’t pick it up?” conjecture.
My own interpretation of the text balanced against the life span of the March was that there in fact MAY be a way for the March’s to break free of their bargain without sacrificing reality and existence to do so, but the countless years of death and rebirth, tragedy and torment have broken their minds and spirits into a level of depression trillions of times worse than anything we can possible imagine or put into words. Thus, if there is a way out, they are too bogged down by the despair of their existence, even if no longer on a conscious level, that they don’t even think to look for a way out other than the course they are pursuing. They are simply incapable of hope or thinking of another way out, no doubt because they have tried so many ways to be free and all have ended horribly for them. If there is a solution, they are too close to the situation to realize it and only a group of enterprising and well meaning Investigators willing to risk their mental and physical well beings may be able to….thus setting off a potential campaign or way to link published adventures together. So try that if you get players feeling sorry for the Marchs or outright trying/wanting to help them out of their predicament.
Basically neither problem is a true issue that keeps the adventure from being fun or memorable, but when every single person I played it with (two different groups, without any contact between them) came to the same conclusions about the Marchs and viewed the adventure as having some definite plot holes (the size of which varied by gamer), it’s worth mentioning as a caveat that you may run into this stumbling block with playing the adventure as designed as well. Now no one thought it was a bad adventure in the slightly – they all enjoyed it. There was, however, bones of contention post play and discussions of, “Why didn’t they just do XYZ to end their eternal agony?” Because of this, I do feel The Wives of March is the weakest offering from Hebanon Games so far, but it is far from being a bad read or gaming experience. If anything, it’s worth playing through just for the eventual metaphysical discussion your group will have after the fact and the realization that immortality is probably this horrific (if not the most horrific thing the human mind can go through) an experience. Rather it is the weakest because it’s the only release from Hebanon Games because the others more or less prevented players from going really off the rails or from throwing a plot curveball that the adventure, as written, simply couldn’t handle. This can happen to any adventure that isn’t more or less a linear affair and trust me when The Wives of March is about as dynamic and fluid as a horror adventure gets. It’s the double edged sword of being flexible instead of a dungeon crawl type affair.
Again, The Wives of Marchis a fun and very creepy affair, and it’s definitely worth downloading even if you never play it. It’s free and an entertaining read after all. However it does remain the weakest of the No Security adventures and the fact the cosmic horror is human in nature, origin and form, makes the adventure more tragic and melancholic than frightening or horrific.