Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Echoes and Reverberations part 1: WFRP 3rd edition - the setting

My overview of WFRP 2nd edition may be finished, but the work goes on. So many different people made so many different requests during the last series of posts that I've decided to do a second series, albeit hopefully a shorter one, which covers what happened to WFRP and its spiritual successors after 2nd edition came to an end. Material I propose to cover includes WFRP 3rd edition, WFRP 2nd edition fan-content, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Zweihander, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Small But Vicious Dog. There's a lot to cover, though, so these will be much more 'zoomed out' than the previous series.

First up: WFRP 3rd edition.

As I discussed here, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the WFRP license in 2008, and promptly killed off WFRP 2nd edition in favour of their own WFRP 3rd edition in 2009. This edition represented a major departure from tradition. Instead of WFRP being sold as a book, it was now marketed as a boxed set, which contained multiple books, special dice, and lots and lots of fiddly little components. It looked like... well... this:

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In retrospect, I can understand FFG's decision to go with this kind of hybrid RPG / board game setup. The third edition of Dungeons and Dragons had demonstrated that it was possible to market RPG books in the same way that one might market board game expansion sets, with people buying books like Races of the Dragon simply in order to get the rules for that one prestige class they were itching to try out. D&D 4th edition, which came out in 2008, took this even further, with ultra-codified spells and powers that worked pretty much exactly like action cards used in many board games - spend this resource to inflict this much damage on this number of squares on the board, and so on. WOTC even brought out decks of power cards for players to use, and supplements which were little more than shopping lists of new powers for them to choose from. FFG were board game manufacturers before they were RPG publishers: they had the resources they needed to produce high-quality components, and they understood that you could charge a lot more money for a big box of shiny objects than for a single softcover book. Black Industries had given up on WFRP precisely because the old supplement treadmill business model for RPGs had proven to be insufficiently profitable - so why not abandon the old approach entirely, and replace it with boxed sets of cards and components that could be sold like board game expansions, instead?

The logic must have seemed compelling at the time, but it soon became apparent that FFG had badly misjudged their audience. The core player base for WFRP didn't want 'chrome': they were attached to grimy minimalism, to a game that could be played out of a single book, to character sheets scribbled on bits of paper and rules that you could still mostly remember even when drunk. They didn't want clever, fiddly mechanics, where you moved a token on a character dashboard to modify the type of dice you rolled when you played your next action card. They just wanted big books filled with long lists of crap jobs, horrible mutations, and hilariously violent critical hit tables. They treasured their memories of sitting around a big table with six of their mates, taking turns to narrate their attempts to brutalise some unfortunate clanrat in a sewer someplace, and they did not take kindly to discovering that the big, expensive core box for WFRP 3 only included enough components for one GM and three PCs.

As a result, WFRP 3rd edition seems to have been a commercial failure. A glance at the 'Strike to Stun' forum archives for 2009-13 demonstrates that the players there were much more interested in discussing WFRP 2 than WFRP 3 even during the years in which the latter was the official edition. The rate at which FFG released material for the game during 2010 implied that they hoped WFRP might become a product like their Game of Thrones LCG, with players buying boxed expansion sets every month or two; but the regular release of new boxed sets really only lasted two years, from November 2009 to November 2011. After that came two 2012 boxed sets, a dribble of print-on-demand card sets, and then nothing. FFG claimed that this was because they had 'delivered a complete game experience', but given how little of the Old World they'd actually covered in the course of their run, I don't think that anyone actually believed them.

I haven't played WFRP 3, but I have read the rulebooks, and it looks like a very cleverly-designed game. I like the way that the special dice cram lots of information into a single dice roll, for example, allowing you to tell at a glance not only whether you've succeeded or failed, but also whether you've exhausted yourself, whether there have been additional complications, and so on. But it looks like a very poor fit for what I - and, I suspect, many other people - want from WFRP. When I'm playing a scruffy grave robber engaged in a frantic back-alley knife fight with a chaos cultist, I don't want to be thinking about building dice pools and selecting action cards and moving stance tokens, as though I was playing some kind of martial arts master coolly contemplating which technique to use. I just want to roll some dice, and have the GM roll some more dice, and then listen while the GM tells me that I've just taken a knife in the face and that, furthermore, death from shock and blood loss are instantaneous.

It probably didn't help that the mechanics are often oddly disassociated. First aid, for example, can be used once per scene - but how long is a scene? Is a five day journey five scenes, or one? Can I keep starting new scenes by doing random things along the way, simply in order to give me more chances to use my first aid skill? Insanities have formal game effects, which is fair enough: I can understand why working with someone suffering from paranoia, for example, would be stressful for everyone involved, and having it add tension tokens is a perfectly reasonable way of representing that. But am I also expected to actually roleplay the insanity, by saying and doing paranoid things, or are the effects of my paranoia simply assumed to be abstractly modelled by the increasing number of tension tokens accumulated by the group? Locations have special rules, which are sometimes perfectly reasonable - taking physical actions in a crumbling building means a chance of injuring yourself - but at other times feel more like things I'd expect to see written on a square in a board game. ('Ballroom: whenever you regain stress, regain 1 extra stress.') The 'progress tracker' makes sense for some situations - whittling away at the morale of an attacking force until they give up and retreat, for example - but is simply bizarre for others, such as investigations. In the starter adventure, for example, the GM is told to 'direct the party towards an as-yet undiscovered overt clue' once they've moved five spaces along the progress tracker by uncovering five unrelated pieces of suspicious information. But why should noticing that someone is behaving suspiciously suddenly mean that I also notice the blasphemous books in the library? Once again, this feels more like a board game mechanism - 'trade in five minor clue tokens for a major clue card' - than an attempt to simulate a fictional world.

Setting-wise, WFRP 3 dialled the timeline back to just before the Storm of Chaos: but if you think that means a return to the low-fantasy setting of WFRP 1, then you'd be sorely mistaken, because WFRP 3 offered the most D&D-ified version of the Old World yet. Wood elves, dwarves, humans, and high elves - high elves! - are all given equal amounts of attention in the corebook as possible PC races, and there's a lot of emphasis on the fact that the characters are heroes, with the expected party composition clearly closer to the 'elf, dwarf, and wizard' mix of traditional D&D than the 'boatman, agitator, ratcatcher' mix of classic WFRP. The careers list is weighted towards traditional 'adventurer' careers like Witch Hunter rather than 'scum' careers like Bonepicker, and it is apparently possible to buy 'healing draughts' - basically D&D healing potions - in any Old World settlement. And as for the setting... well... I'll let the book speak for itself:

'The greatest realm of the Old World is the Empire, a land of courageous men ruled by a wise Emperor.'
'Those who serve the Empire strive to defend it against many enemies. The Imperial armies guard the borders against invaders. Witch hunters scour the land for witches, Chaos cults and mutants. Roadwardens and shipswords protect the Empire’s highways and riverways from bandits and beastmen. However, the Empire is a vast place, and the Emperor’s servants cannot be everywhere.'
'“On my first visit to Altdorf, I was surprised by the number of races rubbing shoulders with each other in the narrow streets: men of every nation, intractable dwarfs and portly halflings. I even met a few of my own kind, as well as a curious representative of those elves who remained in these parts after the exodus. What surprised me more was how they all seemed to get along... well, most of the time.” – Suriel Lianllach, High Elf envoy'
'Under the current Emperor, Karl Franz of Altdorf, elected in 2502, the Empire enjoys a renaissance of strength and prosperity. Karl Franz realised that the Empire could not stand alone against its many enemies. His ambassadors have secured alliances with the other nations of men, and rejuvenated the ancient friendship with the dwarf holds. Envoys sail between the Empire and Ulthuan, and high elf merchants are no longer an unusual sight in the markets of Altdorf or Nuln. The Emperor also strives to maintain the Empire’s unity. Relationships between provinces have always been fractious, but the Emperor rewards those Elector Counts who display loyalty. Those who do not receive a visit from his stern champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm. They never stray again.'
A great realm of courageous men ruled by a wise emperor, whose stern champion ensures the unity and loyalty of the nobility. Armies, roadwardens, and witch hunters all working in unison against threats from within and without. Formal alliances with the High Elves. Humans, elves, dwarves and halflings all getting along happily together in the streets of Altdorf. The Emperor rides a griffon, and, according to Omens of War, he also has a pet dragon. It's not quite the way I remember the setting from 1st edition.

FFG's business model of releasing boxed sets rather than books had a number of knock-on consequences. Most boxed sets consisted of a box of cards and tokens, plus a book that told you how to use them; whatever pages that the book had left over then contained either some setting information, or an adventure, or both. Even when the new cards obviously represented the main purpose of the set, something had to go into the book, and this resulted in a proliferation of weird filler material. So Omens of War, the boxed set containing the cards and tokens for advanced combat styles, also contained an oddly superfluous book about the armies and military history of the Empire, while Black Fire Pass, the boxed set containing cards for advanced dwarf careers, contained a whole book about, um, Black Fire Pass. (It's not very interesting.) Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the decision to bring out one boxed set for each chaos god, each including a book containing an adventure, some new rules - the disease rules, for example, were in the Nurgle box - and then a heap of filler to round out the page count. Get ready to be told that Khorne likes blood and skulls and also violence over and over and over and over again.

With so many of the books in the line devoted to trivia like the military history of the Empire, the edition was only ever able to present a very superficial version of the WFRP setting, with a heavy focus on the Reikland province and very little on the wider world. The presentations of religion and magic essentially recapitulate the 2nd edition versions in a more condensed form, though I was pleased to see a greater emphasis on the way in which the invention of the printing press is shaking up the religious hierarchies of the Old World, and on colour magic as a deliberately crippled form of sorcery taught to the humans by Teclis to limit their magical potential. The colleges of magic described here are less restrictive institutions than their 2nd edition counterparts, doubtless to make it easier to play as an adventuring wizard; unfortunately, they've also become even more boring. (The 2001 Realms of Sorcery interpretation of the colleges remains my favourite version.) The chaos books, as I've already mentioned, are huge disappointments - much weaker than the 2nd edition Tome of Corruption, which was itself already much weaker than the 1st edition originals. They repeatedly stress that there is no good reason to join a chaos cult and you'd have to be totally crazy to do so, and then go on to blithely assert that all four gods have loads of cults packed with fanatical cultists ready to devote their lives to them for no damn reason at all. The 2nd edition presentation, where most chaos cultists didn't actually know that they were chaos cultists, made a lot more sense. 

The bestiary draws on the wargame, and it shows. Chaos marauders live only to fight and kill. Greenskins live only to fight and kill. Demons live only to fight and kill. Beastmen live only to fight and kill. Trolls and giants live only to fight and kill. Cultists are fanatics eager to kill and die for their dark masters. Undead tirelessly attack the living until hacked apart. It's little more than a parade of cannon fodder. Skaven are presented here as a race of sneaky, paranoid cowards, rather than as the apocalyptic threat they were described as in 2nd edition. Compared to previous editions, the published adventures make greater use of adversaries such as goblins, dark elves, trolls, and dragon ogres. Coupled with the much greater emphasis on non-human PCs - there are even rules for playing an ogre! - this further enhances the sense of WFRP 3 as the most 'high fantasy' version of the RPG to date.

In conclusion - if you're looking for setting or background material, then WFRP 3 offers very slim pickings. In quantity, it's inferior to WFRP 2; in quality, it's inferior to WFRP 1. The system looks clever, though I have my doubts about how well it would work in actual play, but seems a poor fit for the themes and setting of WFRP. For fans of WFRP 1 and 2, the most valuable thing about it is probably the adventures, some of which are rather good, and most of which could be very easily adapted to other editions of the game. I'll cover them in my next post. 

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

[Actual Play] The Deathfrost Mountain Adoption Agency: Team Tsathogga performs a hostile takeover

I'm sure a lot of people have played Death Frost Doom over the years. I'm sure many of them ended up killing the undead cultists, or getting killed by them. Team Tsathogga may be the first ones to end up adopting them instead.

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For readers familiar with the original scenario, I should say that the Devourer cultists of my own campaign are not identical to the Duvan'Ku of Death Frost Doom. The Duvan'Ku are figures of transcendent and cosmic evil; the Devourer cultists are just victims of history like everyone else. They did some awful things over the years, but ultimately they were still people, which is very much the way I prefer my fantasy cultists to be. I mention this because, without it, the narrative that follows is unlikely to make much sense.

Having cleared the way to the shrine within Deathfrost Mountain, the PCs disguised themselves. Over the years, Circe had pieced together a full set of Devourer cultist ritual regalia from her various victims, so she donned that and took the lead. Tiny went next as her demonic servant, his inhuman appearance for once serving as an asset rather than a disadvantage. Skadi was worried that she might be recognised from her previous visit to the mountain, so she put on full mourning dress, complete with a full-face veil, which she had purchased ages ago as part of some complicated scam or other back in Glasstown. Sovan borrowed Sophie's academical gown, and hid the golden lotus flowers growing out of his head beneath her mortarboard. Thus garbed as the Priestess, the Widow, the Master, and the Demon, figures of immense but unspecified symbolic importance, they descended beneath the earth. (Titus, Sophie, and Runt Ape brought up the rear as the rather less symbolically resonant figures of The Scruffy Old Man, The Powerlifter, and The Beast of Burden.)

The shrine was as spooky as ever, unnatural cold and all. They found the undead cultists waiting for them in the chapel, blades drawn, poised to leap upon them and attack the moment they entered - which they had no intention of doing, in case the disembodied spirits of the priests of Vorn still haunted the chamber, waiting to possess any mortal who set foot within. Calling out from the threshold, Circe announced that they were followers of the Devourer, members of a daughter cult founded by cultists who had survived the purge of the Deathfrost Mountain shrine. Henryk had found them, she claimed, and told them of the cult's plight, and they had travelled here to set them free, although Henryk himself had regrettably not survived the journey.

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We will remember him. Briefly.
By their standards, it was actually a pretty credible cover story. Circe certainly looked the part in her ritual regalia, and as far as the cultists knew, only followers of the Devourer had the ability to command vat-grown demons such as Tiny. The PCs knew that the undead cultists trapped in the woods outside had gone to seek aid from living followers of the Devourer - and who else would have any reason to open their shrine back up again? The wary poses of the undead relaxed a little, their fleshless jaws clacking in approval, and out of the darkness strode the imposing figure of their leader: the Dead King.

He had clearly been a big man in life, but his huge spiked armour made him seem much bigger and bulkier, and the familiar hilt of Kal'Thalax the Demon-Slayer protruded from a scabbard at his hip. He spoke in a voice like a trumpet, his words amplified by the bugle-like mouth sculpted into the full-face helmet he wore, shaped like the face of a snarling demon. A golden crown that was clearly never made to fit him had been hammered into the metal brow of his helm, and wherever he went he was surrounded by an honour guard of eight black-robed skeletons with masked faces, carrying drawn swords before them. As he began to declaim in their general direction, the PCs rapidly concluded that he was an arrogant, self-obsessed narcissist over-fond of the sound of his own voice, and probably a usurper to boot. Spending two years buried alive with him in a subterranean shrine could not have been much fun for the other cultists, especially as he seemed to be the only one who had retained the ability to speak.

Clearly assuming that the PCs simply represented a fresh supply of minions, the Dead King demanded to know where the rest of their cult was so that he could take command of it. When Circe replied that they were far away, he demanded to know how she had reached the shrine with a demon in tow without being spotted, and was told in response that they possessed mysterious powers of moving across the land unseen. He insisted that they would all have to join the mother-cult in the work of gathering sacrifices to resume the flow of liquid time to the Hissing Prophets, but Circe smoothly one-upped him by stating that she had been to see the Hissing Prophets in person, and that they were no longer in need of liquid time. (She neglected to mention that this was because the PCs had killed them all.) With the lapse of their sacrifices the Purple Islands had returned to the world, and a new dispensation was at hand.

This was big news for the cultists. For them, the Purple Islands were the holy stronghold of the Hissing Prophets, the legendary homeland their ancestors had left six centuries before, which had been suspended outside the timestream ever since. The Dead King was not pleased at being thus upstaged, especially when Circe added (truthfully) that during her visit to the islands she had communed directly with the Devourer herself. (It's the collective godmind of an ancient alien race that committed mass ritual suicide. The snake-men accidentally tuned into it while trying to make contact with the rest of their species using a psychic scanner made from a bunch of brains in jars. Of course Circe tried the head-set on.) He insisted that, as the ultimate leader of the cult, he should be taken to the islands to meet with the Hissing Prophets himself, there to be rewarded for his services and informed of the new dispensation. The PCs promised to use their mysterious powers of concealment to convey him and his honour guard unseen across the land and sea, so he turned around and ordered the rest of the cultists to remain hidden in the dark, there to await his inevitable glorious return. Then he and his honour guard followed the PCs up the ladder out of the shrine.

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It's a traaap...

It was, of course, a trap. As soon as the Dead King dragged himself through the trapdoor, Sovan slammed it shut and cast Hold Portal on it, trapping half his honour guard below the ground, while the rest of the party set upon him with weapons and spells. A furious and desperate melee ensued in which Runt Ape was killed outright, while Sophie, Circe, and Tiny were all terribly injured. Skadi had both her body and her mind torn open by the claws of the Dead King, and was left a bleeding, amnesiac wreck, cowering in the corner of the cabin. The Dead King seemed almost impervious to weapons, so Circe made a grab for the hilt of Kal'Thalax, which leaped from Dead King's scabbard into her hand, eager to be wielded once more against its ancient adversaries. Then she rammed it through a chink in his armour while Sophie blasted him to bits with Magic Missile spells. Titus wept briefly over the fallen body of Runt Ape, but soon consoled himself by resurrecting him as a zombie instead.

The noise of the battle was easily heard amidst the otherwise deathly stillness of the mountaintop, and within moments of the last skeleton falling the PCs heard voices from outside, calling them to emerge and identify themselves. Circe swiftly ripped off her Devourer cultist regalia and stepped outside with Sovan and Sophie, only to see the soldiers from the watchtower regarding them warily from horseback, accompanied by a man in furred robes who appeared to be a priest of Vorn. Sophie, Sovan, and Circe claimed to be secret agents of the Grand Duke of Vornheim, and gave their names as Medusa, Attila, and Alecto, respectively. (Circe's player is a classics student.) Taking advantage of his foreign appearance and academical garb, 'Attila' claimed to be an expert occultist from far Qelong, and began lecturing the men on how the evil spirits from beneath had almost escaped on their watch, while 'Medusa' surreptitiously cast Charm Person spells on the corporal and priest. Both men were soon convinced that 'Medusa' really was the secret operative that she claimed to be, especially when the PCs started waving the heads of the recently-vanquished Devourer honour guard at them, and on her authority they obeyed the instructions of 'Attila' to promptly begin carving all kinds of ritual markers in a mile-wide circle around the site. Their absence gave the PCs a chance to heap more rocks on top of the trap-door to the shrine before sneaking Tiny, zombie Runt Ape, and the totally non-functional Skadi away to their concealed camp in the woods nearby.

A round of healing and Dispel Magic spells the next morning managed to get Skadi back to something resembling her old self, although enormous gaps remained in her memory, as though the tapestry of her mind had been shredded by terrible claws. Tiny tried to persuade Kal'Thalax that demons weren't inherently evil, but the intelligent sword was having none of it, and kept trying to spin around and stab him until the PCs trapped it under a rock. Discussing their options, the PCs decided that with the Devourer cult now leaderless, they had an ideal opportunity to seize control of it for themselves. After all, they could hardly be less appealing leaders than the Dead King seemed to have been...

Sneaking back into the cabin, they descended into the shrine and found the remaining undead cultists once again waiting for them in the shrine, lurking in anxious defensive postures behind improvised barricades. Assuring them that they meant them no harm, the PCs explained that the Dead King had been a false and unworthy leader, who would have left them all entombed in the cold darkness while he alone sought the rewards and glory that were rightfully due to them all. The PCs would do more for them, much more: they would use their mysterious magic to hide them from the sight of men. (Here Circe cast Invisibility to Undead, which to the undead really did make it look as though she had simply vanished.) They would lead them out of this now-redundant shrine, and across the land and sea to the Purple Islands of their ancestors, there to meet with Ambie, last and greatest of the Hissing Prophets.

(Ambie is an adopted snake-man baby whom allies of the PCs have raised from an egg. He's currently about 18 months old. Explaining why the last and greatest of the Hissing Prophets is a toddler is a bridge that the PCs will cross when they come to it.)

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BEHOLD YOUR NEW GOD!
There was a lot of jaw-clacking and a lot of obvious dissent, especially from the four surviving honour guards. But the rest of the cultists had had a pretty demoralising two years: first awakened prematurely from their holy sleep to find themselves inhabiting their own mute embalmed corpses, then stumbling out into an unfamiliar world that had moved on without them, and finally being driven back beneath the earth and sealed away in the dark by the Grand Duke's soldiers, with only a grandiloquent megalomaniac over-fond of his own monologues for company. The PCs at least held out the offer of something more than darkness and imprisonment. Slowly at first, and then with increasing momentum, the robed undead swept out of the shrine to stand beside the PCs. Sophie - sorry, 'Medusa' - slipped out to send the watchmen off to do some more pointless busywork, and while they were thus distracted the other PCs led their new followers out into the woods, where they started work on teaching them basic sign language.

And so Team Tsathogga found themselves the leaders of forty-six confused undead murder-cultists, thirteen of whom were children, and all of whom had awakened at random from sleeps of between one and six centuries in duration. They found themselves committed to somehow leading this ragged warband to the Purple Islands, a distance of nearly one thousand miles as the crow flies, and much, much further as the skeleton stumbles. But they'll make it work somehow. Probably. Maybe.

What combination of low face and high tragedy - but probably mostly low farce, to be honest - awaits this mismatched band in the outside world?

Only Tsathogga knows all! 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

[Actual Play] Mistakes were made: Team Tsathogga return to Deathfrost Mountain

After a gap of six months, I finally got the Team Tsathogga group into the same room at the same time again. This is what happened.

I should start off by saying that although this was the last session I wrote up, it's not the last session that the group played before the break. It was followed by multiple sessions set in the underworld, which were mostly devoted to complicated inter-species politics and guerrilla warfare. The consequences of the party's often-chaotic and frequently catastrophic intervention into the lands below the earth included the following:
  • Liberation of the Toad Folk from the rulership of the Science Fungoids.
  • Near-extermination of the Toad Folk in ensuing war with the Science Fungoids.
  • Death of the Toad Folk hero and ex-PC Kroak in battle with the Science Fungoids.
  • Loss of Kroak's prized laser sword in pool of space acid, damn it all, that thing was irreplaceable.
  • Discovery of the location of the secret Science Fungoid 'Demonspore' project. Projected assault on demonspore called off on grounds of looking too bloody dangerous. 
  • Obliteration of Science Fungoid agricultural base through detonation of stolen magical WMD.
  • Discovery of multiple strange new underworld races: shriekmen, adherers, fishmen.
  • Innovative use of adherers to foil Science Fungoid gas warfare, because your enemy can't deploy their gas weapons if all their firing slits have been glued shut with lumps of super-sticky underworld humanoids first.
  • Discovery that any number of zombies can be defeated by having a very large woman squish them one at a time with a very heavy iron door.
  • Deployment of a giant maggot-vomiting zombie vampire toad based bioweapon in war with Science Fungoids, with mixed results.
  • Contact established with the fishmen of the Nightmare Sea, great new source of information on the sleeping gods imprisoned beneath the world by the ancient empire of the snake-men, PCs plan to totally get around to freeing some of them one day.
  • Loss of the Sister of Seraptis, utterly traumatised after near-death experience inside the stomach of a Science Fungoid warbeast, really just wants to go back to her creepy temple and chill for a few decades if it's all the same to you.
  • Heard rumours about some kind of unholy underground empire called the Realm of the Fallen Queen, probably nothing to worry about. 
  • Titus the necromancer hears the call of the Sleepers beneath the Nightmare Sea, and has to be bribed into returning to the surface with promises of unimaginable necromantic awfulness hidden beneath Deathfrost Mountain. 
  • Establishment of trade relations between the surface world and the Navigator Houses of the Nightmare Sea. (These guys, pretty much.)
  • Sale of loyal goblin tribes into debt slavery to Navigator Houses of the Nightmare Sea, huge potential for future profits, everyone wins except the poor old goblins.
  • And, last but not least, the acquisition of a noble albino simian named 'Runt Ape' as a mount and bearer.
So after all that the PCs came stumbling back up to the surface, blinking in the moonlight, and headed for the nearby village of Bright Meadows. As they approached it, however, three figures on horseback emerged from the shadows of the village and moved to meet them. Hastily disguising their more bizarre companions - Runt-Ape, Tiny the demon, and Titus's zombie servants - with illusion magic, the PCs watched as the riders approached, their weirdly-similar faces revealing them to be 'angels' (roving agents) of the church of the Bright Lady. Their travel-worn clothes implied that they had come a long way, and they regarded the PCs with wary distrust, clearly poised ready to fight or flee at a moment's notice.

(Exactly why the angels of the church all look so similar has long been a topic of speculation among the PCs. Hash suspects cloning. Circe suspects incest.)

Hailing the PCs, the angels declared that they had ridden from Ingria in pursuit of a fugitive wanted for violating graves, animating corpses, and breaking into the house of a terrified young wizard to force her to teach him spells at knifepoint. (General nodding and muttering of 'So that's how Titus learned the Light spell...') Shuffling their necromatic buddy to the back of the group, the PCs unconvincingly claimed to know nothing about it. The angels didn't seem persuaded, but weren't about to pick a fight with a heavily-armed band with three times their own numbers, so they withdrew back towards the village. The PCs recovered their horses, slept for a few hours in the hovel of Circe's elderly friend Edith, and then rode north in the morning, certain that they were being followed at a cautious distance.

Their plan was to return to Deathfrost Mountain: partly as a bribe to Titus, partly in the hope of reclaiming their lost sword Kalthalax the Demon-Slayer, and partly just to find out what happened there after they fled the region pursued by well over a hundred skeletons. Using their superior knowledge of the countryside - Skadi and Circe had both grown up in Bright Meadows - they evaded the angels in the hills, sending Titus's zombies off on a sacrificial mission to lay a fake trail while they rode up a riverbed in the opposite dircetion. Titus complained about the loss of his servants, but was persuaded to try riding on Runt Ape's shoulders instead, and soon became quite fond of his new steed. Joining the trade road to Vornheim, they disguised themselves with illusions and fell in with a band of traders, carrying a cargo of furs north. Glad to have more companions to scare off the goblins in the woods, the traders told them about the disruptions to the fur trade caused by the flooding in the northern provinces, and the new fashion for fur trousers among high-status men. (The PCs realised at once that this fashion had been started by their old friend Jack the Fighter, who had turned fur trousers into his signature fashion accessory after looting them from the corpse of a dead climber on Deathfrost Mountain, although naturally no-one else could pull off the look as well as he could.) Tactful enquiries about plagues of undead in the Vornheim region prompted one of the traders to explain that there had been a terrible series of attacks on villages by undead monsters the previous year, but that as far as he knew these had been successfully suppressed by the combined efforts of the Grand Duke of Vornheim and the Church of Vorn.

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Why do actions have to have consequences? It's so unfair!

Parting from their new friends in Vornheim, the PCs took up residence at an inn - and here a problem presented itself. Runt Ape and Tiny were too large to pass as humans, so they had to be magically disguised as horses - but Sophie could only keep up the illusion on them if she was with them, which hadn't been a problem on the road, but became one once the PCs went to their rented room and the 'horses' went to the stables. Thinking quickly, the party explained that Sophie was their indentured servant, and was thus unworthy of a bed and had to sleep in the stables with the animals. Stuck in the stable all day while the snow fell endlessly outside, Tiny passed the time by constructing extremely clumsy ice sculptures when no-one else was around - but as he was disguised as a horse, these were universally attributed to Sophie, who was becoming quite ill in her freezing and draughty accommodation. The pathetic combination of her chattering teeth and her pathos-inducingly-awful ice sculptures moved the pity of the innkeeper, who roundly berated the party for treating their servant so horribly, and the PCs grudgingly hired a private house for her and the 'horses' to stay in while they waited for the winter to pass.

Meanwhile the rest of the party were making enquiries in Vornheim. Everyone seemed to know about the revelation of the Devourer cult in the city thirty years ago, and the destruction of their horrible temple up in the mountains: the priests of Vorn were particularly proud of the fact that five of the holiest men of their order had sacrificed themselves to seal their evil away forever. (At this point, the PCs guiltily remembered the five frozen skulls that they had gleefully looted teeth from during their last visit to Deathfrost Mountain.) Evidently the seal had not been perfect, however, for last year the villages around the accursed mountain had been attacked by mobs of undead. The Grand Duke's cavalry had ridden out, crushed the undead, and buried their evil temple beneath heaps of rocks, but rumours of the living dead continued to filter out of the forests to the west.

Research in the city's cathedral library suggested that the same mountains were holy to Vorn, god of iron, time, and rain; and while the official line of the clergy was that Vorn spiritually inhabited the mountain range as a whole, the writings of his oldest prophets described him specifically as buried beneath it. Putting two and two together, the PCs concluded that Vorn must originally have been another of the alien hyperintelligences imprisoned beneath the surface of their world by the snake-men, which explained why the snake-men of the Purple Islands had sent the original Devourer cultists to establish their temple in that specific place: Vorn, they realised, must be buried inside Deathfrost Mountain, with the cultists somehow using him to distil the liquid time that their snake-man masters had used to isolate the Purple Islands from the timestream. Unimpressed by the gloomy monks of Vorn, they sought information instead from the city's criminal element, who mostly hung around a low tavern called the Fearful Sapper. By posing as a strung-out addict desperate for a fix, Circe was able to get in touch with the ageing drug dealer who, many years before, had supplied the cult with its purple lotus powder. Then spy-rat followed him home and Skadi broke in and stole his stash. After experimenting with smoking, swallowing, and sniffing it, they concluded that the chief qualities of the drug were to induce hazy euphoria and fortify the mind against magic, and brought it along to use in their raid on the temple of the Devourer.

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The correct method of taking the drug was fortuitously discovered just as Hash was starting to pull his trousers down.
By this point the worst of the winter cold was over, and Hash was becoming fixated on a talented young actress he'd seen performing in an epic tragedy. (The rest of the PCs, phillistines that they were, had only gone along for the sake of the bawdy farce performed afterwards.) The decision was taken to leave town and head back to Deathfrost Mountain: so, equipping themselves for a journey through the snow, they told everyone that they were leaving to search for their missing cousin among the Tear-Eater tribes of the north, before promptly turning west as soon as they were out of sight of the city walls. In the foothills they found villages whose traumatised residents spoke vividly of the horrors of the year before, describing how they had been attacked first by roving mobs of undead that seemed confused and moved seemingly at random, and then by extremely purposeful robed skeletons who abducted people in the night and carried them off into the forests, never to be seen again. (The PCs guessed these corresponded to the victim skeletons from the mass grave and the cultist skeletons from the temple vaults, respectively.) The villagers insisted that the undead still stalked the woods, so the PCs took to roaming through the forests with Detect Evil spells active, looking for anything other than Circe that registered as supernaturally evil. The first such skeleton they detected was hiding at the top of a tree, and Tiny's thrown rock brought it down rather too effectively, crashing to earth in a heap of broken bones; but a few days later they found a second one hiding in some bushes, flushed it from cover, lassoed it, and tied it to a tree trunk. They noted that it wore the remnants of its burial robes, although these had been worn to rags, and concluded that it was one of the reanimated Devourer cultists they had accidentally unleashed on their last visit.

The skeleton was initially uncooperative: but Bless spells caused it pain, and the threat of their repetition was enough to get it to 'speak'. It couldn't talk, but carefully untying one hand allowed it to scratch its answers to their questions on tree bark. A long interrogation followed, in which it revealed that its name was Henryk, and that the risen Devourer cultists were completely nonplussed at being awakened so early, long before the arrival of their god. Their leader, the Dead King, had told them to resume their sacrifices in order to restore the supply of liquid time to the Hissing Prophets - but that had only succeeded in bringing the Grand Duke's men down on them, and now most of the risen cultists were trapped inside their own temple. Of those caught outside when the temple was blocked off, some had gone to Ingria to seek aid from Llegh, the Devourer cultist who had created the Fleshdregs after infiltrating the Order of the Divine Surgeon and penning the Grimoire of the New Flesh, in the hope that his experiments with liquid time might have allowed himself to prolong his own lifespan. None, however, had yet returned, and the rest were reduced to cowering in in the woods in bushes, bemoaning their separation from their fellows and the loss of their enchanted rest.

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Turns out life as a skeleton cultist isn't all fun and sacrifices...

By this point, the PCs were feeling a bit sorry for Henryk, even if he was an undead murder-cultist. They questioned him on the nature of the blob-creature they had encountered in the shrine, and learned that it was 'the divine parasite', somehow fused with the captive god below in order to distil liquid time from its breath: its song had kept the dead cultists in peace and their dead victims in torment, which explained the crazed state of the mass-grave skeletons which had attacked the region. They tried to persuade him that they were secretly allies of the cult, but he wasn't buying it. They tried to persuade him that the Hissing Prophets were dead and they had killed them, but of this he would not be convinced, no matter how much looted snake-man wargear they waved in front of him. They rather cruelly cast all their spells on him, one after the other, to see which ones worked on ensoulled skeletons and which ones did not. Then they took a quick vote on whether or not to kill him, picked 'death' by four votes to two, and Tiny pulled his skull off.

Discussing what they had learned, the PCs reached a conclusion: the Dead King had to go. Once he was out of the way they might be able to take control of the remaining undead cultists: failing that, they'd just have to kill them all, but one way or another they were determined to get back into the temple and learn what it had to teach them, captive god, liquid time, divine parasite, and all. Ascending the mountain, they saw that a watchtower had been built to keep guard on the site of the shrine, with shivering soldiers sitting huddled around a brazier at the top; so they circled around and approached the site under the cover of an Obscuring Mist spell, which brought them back to the strange petrified cabin that concealed the shrine's entrance. The duke's soldiers had heaped felled tree trunks on top of the cabin, evidently hoping that the strange wood-petrifying powers of the place would eventually turn their heap of wood into a hill of stone; but the trees were still wooden enough to part under the power of a Warp Wood spell, and the PCs slipped unnoticed into the cabin. Inside they found that everything had been smashed to pieces in the fighting, and rocks piled up on top of the trapdoor. Putting his ear to the ground, Hash could hear a pathetic scraping sound coming from below - presumably the sound of a skeleton attempting to dig upwards through the stone, a task that would obviously take many years to accomplish. Tiny and Runt Ape set to work lifting the rocks away, and after a few hours of exhausting work the trapdoor down was revealed. The scraping sound had long since stopped. Presumably the skeleton digger had run off to tell the Dead King that someone was approaching from above.

As the cold air of the shrine blasted upwards from the trapdoor, the PCs steeled themselves to descend, once more, into the darkness within Deathfrost Mountain...

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer, part 12: my own private WFRP

This is a rather self-indulgent post, which serves as a kind of addendum to the last twelve, and won't necessarily be of much interest to anyone except myself. I'm just going to use it to sketch out how, if I were to run a WFRP campaign again, I might draw upon the collective resources of the game's first and second editions to do so.

My own personal vision of the WFRP world would be built around nine basic concepts:

1: From above, life in the Old World looks good.

This is an aspect of the setting which was present in the original corebook, but has been mostly neglected ever since. There's a Renaissance in progress! The cities are growing. The economy is booming. The tax receipts are up. Did you see the size of the cannon they wheeled out of the Artillery School the other week? Did you hear how much gold that Tilean treasure fleet carried back from Lustria the other year? (The natives? Who cares about the natives? Just a bunch of stupid lizard-men too dim to realise the value of their own treasure...) The colonies in the New World are multiplying. The land is just there for the taking. We're richer than our forefathers. We're less ignorant. We have printing presses and magnetic compasses and much, much bigger guns. The world is our oyster.

The social elite of the Old World is complacent, not because they're stupid, but because from their perspective everything is going great. They have no interest in hearing the complaints of some ignorant peasant about how bad things are. The ledgers of their bankers tell a very different story.

2: From below, life in the Old World looks terrifying.

Everything's changing. The old certainties are being questioned. The old order is falling apart. People are swarming together into filthy cities where they die in their thousands of waterbourne diseases. There are things lurking in the forests. One of the sewer workers swears he's seen rats down there that walk like men. Lustria is a green hell where the frog-men will shoot you full of poison darts and leave you to bleed out through your own eyeballs while your boss sails off with all the treasure. The New World is a brutal wilderness where half the settlers end up perishing of starvation. When the ships went out last year they found that one of the colonies had just flat-out vanished. The only sign of where everyone had gone was the word NAGGAROTH carved into the side of a tree.

The progress celebrated by the elites is real, but it has been purchased at a terrifying price in social dislocation and human suffering. The poor, unlike the rich, do not have the luxury of ignoring this fact.

3: The threat of chaos is systematically underestimated

The official narrative is that the forces of chaos were vanquished two hundred years ago by Magnus the Pious, and ever since then there's been nothing to worry about. Maybe the occasional cabal of delusional madmen still worships the old chaos gods, but the idea that chaos could still pose a serious threat to civilisation is ludicrous.

The fact is that chaos has seeped into all the cracks in the Old World's increasingly unstable social fabric. Deep in the woods, in the vast untravelled spaces between the new trade roads, the beastmen have been secretly multiplying for generations, their numbers supplemented by regular influxes of mutants driven out of human communities. In the boudoirs of the very rich, the jaded inheritors of wealth and luxury gather to enact the fashionable blasphemies of Slaanesh. Down in the slums, the truly desperate know that only Fat Father Nurgle can save you once the fevers start. The traumatised veterans of petty wars dream red dreams of a red god on a throne made of human skulls. They gather in psychopathic mercenary companies. They will work for anyone who gives them someone to kill.

'Chaos', in other words, serves as a metaphor for the costs of social change. The authorities ignore it because it suits them to ignore it, but the threat it poses is much greater than anyone recognises.

4: The social order is teetering on the edge of collapse

The Old World is a powderkeg. Think of France on the cusp of the Wars of Religion, or Germany just before the Thirty Years War. The whole society is a mass of barely contained contradictions - rich vs. poor, old vs. new, Ulrican vs. Sigmarite - and it won't take much of a spark to ignite a general conflagration. The feudal order of the Empire, Elector Counts and all, is hopelessly unequal to the task of actually governing the dynamic, rapidly-changing place that the Empire has become. They cling to their outmoded aristocratic trappings as though they still believed that all the world's problems can be solved by a man on a horse with a lance.

A game in this version of WFRP wouldn't have to involve an actual Empire civil war, Empire in Flames style. But the obvious fragility of the social order, and the ease with which acts of sabotage or provocation by the forces of chaos could lead to catastrophe, would be a major theme.

5: The PCs are the people on the margins who can see the world as it is

Rat catchers. Lamp lighters. Sewer jacks. Pamphlet sellers. Grave robbers. Bonepickers. Roadwardens. Bawds. Beggars. Agitators. Gamblers. Outlaws. These people are the protagonists, because they are the only ones in a position to see the truth.

The upper classes can't see it. They've insulated themselves from the world's unpleasant realities.

The lower classes can't see it. They keep to their shops, or their farms, or their workshops. They close the shutters after dark and make a virtue of incuriosity. Bad things happen to people who step out of line.

It's the marginal, semi-criminal classes, right on the edges of society, who are most likely to get glimpses of the truth. The skaven in the sewers. The beastmen in the woods. The ghouls burrowing under the old cemetery. The oddly-proportioned figures who squirm back into the darkness when the lamps are lit. The furtive men and women who gather at the old monolith whenever the moon is dark.

No-one ever wants to hear about what people like the PCs have discovered.

No-one ever wants to hear about what they had to do about it.

And yet, despised and disbelieved as they are, they are often all that stands between human society and the forces that would devour it from within.

6: Adventures take place in the shadows

Hooks are often a weakness in WFRP scenarios, with writers having to come up with all kinds of contrived reasons for why a boatman, a footpad, and a printer's apprentice would ever be picked as the people to deal with the current emergency. In this version, I envision the default adventure as being a bit like Shadowrun meets Call of Cthulhu, with PCs serving as deniable, disposable assets for people dealing with things that they cannot afford to either acknowledge or ignore. When a community leader is confronted with a string of disappearances that the authorities have no interest in solving, or when a cleric needs the disturbing irregularities of one of his colleagues investigated off the books, or when the roadwardens need to know what's eating all these travellers but can't possibly spare any manpower to go riding around in the woods... they reach out to the scum. People with broad minds, strong arms, and empty purses. People who won't scoff at stories of monsters in the sewers, and who won't flinch at risking their lives for a bag of gold and a bottle of rotgut whisky. People like the PCs.

The default PC party would be a friendship group: probably a gang of socially-marginal people who regularly meet up to drink at the same low tavern. They would have a local reputation, not as heroes, but as the sort of people who can get things done for the right price. That should suffice to get them entangled in all kinds of awfulness.

7: Superstition is sometimes right and sometimes wrong

The people used to have a densely-woven fabric of folk beliefs that helped them to survive in the world, but now that fabric lies in tatters, riven by religious reformation and social change. No-one is quite sure what to believe any more. The nobles and scholars may mock them for it, but the people, especially in rural areas, still cling to their beliefs about witches and mutants and the Evil Eye. The clergy bemoan the willingness of the peasantry to indulge the antics of the self-appointed witch hunters who plague the countryside. If only their ridiculous superstitions could be swept away once and for all!

Given the premises this version of WFRP is built around, I think it's really important that sometimes the crazy-looking guy ranting about witches is absolutely right, and sometimes he's just a delusional sadist itching to have the girl next door burned at the stake. The folk beliefs of the people are simultaneously a repository of ancient wisdom unjustly scorned by a complacent elite, and the product of countless generations of shocking ignorance and pointless cruelty, and from the perspective of the PCs it should never be too obvious which is which. The relative tolerance of the authorities towards mutants, for example, should be able to serve both be a metaphor for their increasingly enlightened attitudes towards the kind of people who had previously been the objects of unjust persecution, and for their contemptuous dismissal of the totally valid concerns of the poor. (After all, from the perspective of people like the PCs, why should it be easy to tell the two apart?) The game loses a lot of its bite if 'Burn the witch! Burn the mutant!' is either always right or always wrong.

8: The PCs may be scum, but they are socially mobile scum

This is where the careers system comes in. The world is changing. The old social hierarchies aren't as rigid as they used to be. Just because you're a rat-catcher today doesn't mean you'll be a rat-catcher forever. You just have to keep an eye out for opportunities and make sure you know when to jump ship.

I'd be inclined to couple regular career changes with campaigns that covered long stretches of game time, with months or years between adventures. I'd want the PCs to end up as the kind of people who could say: 'Well, as a kid I worked as a servant, but then in my early twenties I got really angry and became an agitator, except that after a few years things got too hot for me so I ran off into the woods and became an outlaw, but robbing people never really sat right with me so by the time I was thirty I was really more of a vagabond, and life on the road changed my perspective, so when I was thirty-two I took my vows as a friar...' I'd want a real sense that the characters were out there living a life, y'know?

9: The setting is low-fantasy and low-magic

Most people go their whole lives without seeing a non-human. Dark elves are a whispered horror story among New World colonists. High elves are a sailor's tale about an unreachable magical island with a tall white tower. Wood elves are a legend about fae enchanters in the forests. Goblins are a folk tale about the spiteful little creatures who live in caves beneath the hollow hills. Dwarves are proud and distant isolationists, utterly preoccupied with their own long and tragic history that no-one else knows or cares about. Chaos dwarves are a weird lost world civilisation somewhere over the mountains. Magic-using priests and magicians are rare and rather scary figures. (PC magic-users would be fine, but they'd be very much of the 'magical academy student drop-out' type rather than official magi.) Vampires are a horrible rumour in the eastern provinces, rather than the open rulers of Sylvania. Skaven officially don't exist. And so on.

The antagonists for almost all adventures would be criminals, cultists, magicians, religious fanatics, mutants, beastmen, skaven, and the undead. You could probably run a whole lengthy campaign without ever having to decide whether, say, ogres actually existed as anything more than a legend.

Other Miscellaneous bits and pieces

The setting as a whole would be pegged to the mid-seventeenth century, though with plenty of flexibility in either direction. In particular:
  • The Empire would be primarily based on Germany just before the Thirty Years War. 
  • Sylvania would be based on Transylvania during the unsettled years around 1600.
  • Marienburg would be based on the Netherlands during its golden age in the mid-seventeenth century. 
  • Bretonnia would be based on France just before the beginning of the Fronde. 
  • Norsca would be based on Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus. 
  • Kislev would be based on Russia under Peter the Great. 
  • Albion would be based on Britain under James I. 
  • Estalia would be based on Spain in the early 16th century, in the age of Cort√©s and Pizarro.
  • Tilea would be based on Italy in the early 16th century, in the age of the Medici popes.
I'd use an unholy mash-up of the first and second edition rules, guided only by caprice and whim. In particular, I'd use all the starting careers from both editions, and put them onto a huge random table for starting PCs to roll on.

I'd use the first edition version of the colleges of magic, with 'colour magic' being a specialised form of magic used by Imperial battle wizards rather than the only form of magic permitted in the Empire. (I'd stick with the second-edition idea of colour magic inducing physical changes in its practitioners, though, which would ensure that the populace at large saw college magicians as little more than state-sanctioned chaos cultists.) 

I'd use the religions as detailed in the second edition Tome of Salvation, though with greater emphasis on the Sigmar / Ulric rivalry as the setting's equivalent of the split between Catholics and Protestants. I'd revert the four main chaos gods to their first edition status as 'four examples among many', rather than having them as the great powers of chaos. Malal would be back in. So would the gods of Law. 

I'd primarily use the first edition version of Bretonnia, though a shrunken version of second-edition Bretonnia could be included as the setting's equivalent of Brittany. I'd use the second edition versions of Mousillon and Kislev. I'd use the second edition skaven, but I don't think I'd bother with the second edition vampire clans. 

I'd keep 'dwarf trollslayer' as a default character type, but would dial back the presence of non-trollslayer dwarves in the setting. I might still have the sea elves hanging around in Marienburg for old time's sake, though. I find the idea of a bunch of elves lolling about in fantasy Amsterdam weirdly appealing. 

It would rain all the time. 'Protection from rain' would be the most prized spell in the game. 

All PCs would begin play as the owners of small but vicious dogs.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer Part 11: WFRP 2 in retrospect

Over the last ten and a half posts, I've surveyed the entire line of WFRP 2nd edition books produced by Black Industries and Fantasy Flight Games. Now, having reaches the end, I can turn back and say: so what was the point of all that, then?

If ever there was a game that proved that most RPG supplements are basically unnecessary, it was WFRP 1st edition. Between 1986 and 2004, over 400 books were published for D&D, compared to 26 for WFRP - and yet WFRP players never seem to have had any difficulty running successful games, despite only having one-sixteenth as many books to 'inspire' themselves with. Even this understates the case, because many of those 26 books were failures, dismissed as irrelevant by most WFRP players. When people wax lyrical about WFRP 1st edition, it's never because they want to heap praise on Castle Drachenfels or the Doomstones campaign. The true heart of WFRP has always been just four books: the 1986 corebook and the first three books of The Enemy Within. It's rather as if the majority of D&D players, circa 1983, had looked at the B/X rules and their copies of Keep on the Borderlands, The Lost City, and Horror on the Hill and concluded that they now had everything they needed in order to happily run D&D for the rest of their lives.

So along came WFRP 2nd edition, and it looked at a player base who had essentially been playing happily with the same four books ever since 1988, and it proceeded to throw twenty-eight more books at them in the space of just four years. Some were good and some were bad and most were somewhere in between, but none of them ever came close to dislodging the 1986 core, Shadows, Death, and Power as, essentially, the four gospels of WFRP.

The need to conform to the new wargame canon caused plenty of issues, of course, but I don't think that was the real problem. I think the real problems were the supplement treadmill, and what I'll call the anxiety of influence.

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The supplement treadmill, Warhammer style.

1: The Supplement Treadmill

The WFRP team circa 2005 may not have been as good at this whole 'RPG writing' business as the WFRP team circa 1986, but they weren't bad. Collectively, they had a lot of good ideas: and even if Jim Bambra and Phil Gallagher could clearly outgun David Chart and Robert J. Schwalb on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, the latter pair still produced a lot of very good work. But they were hamstrung by a business model which demanded an endless stream of content. The books were too long, and there were too many of them, and they were produced too quickly. Most books in the line would have benefitted from losing at least 25% of their page count: Ashes of Middenheim is twice the length of Shadows Over B√∂genhafen, and the difference is essentially made up of sheer bloat. More extensive playtesting might have reduced the amount of padding and railroading in the modules. Pascal famously remarked that if he'd had more time, he'd have written a shorter letter. The same may well have been true here.

Imagine if all the best bits from Sigmar's Heirs, Shades of Empire, and The Tome of Salvation had been condensed into a single large sourcebook: say 100 pages on the Empire, 100 pages on its religions, and 50 pages of rules and spell lists and new careers stuffed away at the end. That could have been a book that was really worth putting alongside the best books from 1st edition. Or imagine if The Thousand Thrones had been boiled down to the same length as Death on the Reik, becoming a single long adventure about a failed crusade rather than an ungainly and railroad-heavy campaign-in-a-book. There was so much good material in The Thousand Thrones: so many memorable scenes, details, situations, NPCs. But its ambition was its own undoing, and what could have been a really good scenario became, instead, a rather disappointing campaign.

I daresay that nothing Chart and Schwalb could have come up with would have persuaded the really hardcore first edition purists. But if they hadn't been shackled to a business model that demanded large numbers of lavish coffee table books designed for reading and daydreaming instead of small numbers of densely-written pamphlets designed for actual play, then I'm sure they could have produced something that most 1st edition fans would have regarded, if not as a new WFRP gospel, then at least as worthy of inclusion among the apocrypha.

2: The Anxiety of Influence

This is a fancy term (which I've borrowed from Harold Bloom) for a simple concept. You look at something really good and you say: 'Wow! I want to do something just like that!' But it's already been done, and that puts you, the imitator, in an awkward position. You can't paint Michelangelo-style paintings better that Michelangelo, because Michelangelo is, by definition, better at being Michelangelo than anyone else is ever going to be. You have to find a way to put your own unique spin on it, or you'll never be anything more than a copyist.

I think this was a major problem for WFRP 2nd edition. The further it went from The Enemy Within, the more it was pilloried for being unfaithful to the true spirit of the game. But the closer it came to The Enemy Within, the easier it was to dismiss it as simply an inferior copy of something that already existed. The way out of this crux is to find your own voice, and articulate clearly how what you're doing is 'the same but different', in much the same way that the best contemporary OSR material is clearly indebted to D&D circa 1980 without being simply an imitation of it. But I'm not sure WFRP 2nd edition ever got that far.

I can see glimpses of how it might have done. In books like Realm of the Ice Queen, Renegade Crowns, The Thousand Thrones, and even The Careers Compendium I see hints of a version of WFRP in which the PCs aren't just the same old early modern scum, but early modern scum on the make: ambitious, power-hungry, and internationally mobile. The expanded careers system provided rules for advancing into all kinds of exalted social roles - sea lord, abbot, knightly grandmaster - and the post-Storm of Chaos setting is one where the old order lies in ruins. Someone has to pick up the pieces, so why not the PCs?

If they'd really leaned into this, then I think they might have managed to produce a distinctively new version of WFRP. Doubtless many people would still have preferred the old one, but it would have been much harder to write off the new one as simply an inferior imitation. (Schwalb did a much better job of this in his next game, Shadow of the Demon Lord, which was essentially his own unofficial 3rd edition of WFRP.) As I mentioned in my last post, however, this is an area where the two halves of the line never seem to have matched up. The rulebooks and setting books suggest the possibility of a game of great geographical and social mobility, but the adventures continue to assume that the PCs are penniless desperadoes lurking around the back-alleys of the Empire.

Because WFRP 2nd edition never really managed to articulate its own distinctive vision of the game or the setting, its deviations from the path laid out by 1st edition usually looked like failures or mistakes rather than genuine new alternatives. Possibly it would have found its voice if it had been given a few more years to climb out of the first edition's shadow. But FFG's decision to abandon it in favour of their own version of WFRP ensured that it never got the chance.

In Conclusion

2005 was a long time ago, and the RPG industry has changed a lot in the interim. Back then, the accepted wisdom was that the best way to make an RPG profitable was to throw out as much material as possible, treating your audience as though they were subscribers to a magazine who would expect their regular monthly dose of content. The production of new copy was king, with direct usefulness at the table a distant second. These days, the old kings of the supplement treadmill have all gone out of business, and even Dungeons and Dragons only gets a few new books per year. In this sense, WFRP 2nd edition is like an artifact from the bad old days, a salutary warning of why bigger does not always mean better.

The question of whether it's still worth reading despite this boils down, like everything else related to 17th century Germany, to the division between Protestants and Catholics.

If you take a Protestant, or even Puritan, view on RPG books, where the gospels are everything and further additions are likely to do more harm than good, then the whole edition will probably strike you as unnecessary. It didn't articulate any big new ideas that weren't already to be found in 1st edition. Its adventures were mostly just remixes of 1st edition material. Its supplements were full of rules and settings that almost no-one ever actually used. The core WFRP experience was the same in 2009 as it had been in 1989, just with rules that ran a bit more smoothly. So you might as well just stick with the four gospels - 1986 corebook, Shadows, Death, and Power - and ignore the new stuff.

If you take a more Catholic view of the subject, however, then your assessment is likely to be more generous. The adventures aren't great, but several of them - Spires, Forges, Barony, Terror, Thrones - would be perfectly useable with a bit of work. The random tables in Renegade Crowns could come in handy for anyone running a domain-level game or stocking a hexcrawl. Knights of the Grail and Realm of the Ice Queen contain plenty of ideas worth stealing for games set in approximations of fantasy France or Russia. The skaven could bring a bit of demented colour to virtually any setting. Tome of Salvation is much better than most RPG books on religion. No one book here is likely to bowl you over, but the vast majority of them contain something which you could potentially use in a game. I've even added a version of 2nd edition Kislev to my current D&D campaign world-map, just in case my PCs reach Vornheim and decide to keep heading north.

You don't need this stuff. But if you're looking for a general dark fantasy miscellany to loot for spare parts and raw materials, then you'll find plenty to work with in WFRP 2nd edition. And every lover of OSR-style horror-comedy should take a look at Barony of the Damned.

Coming next: my own private WFRP!

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer bonus issue: The GM's Pack

As Stuart Kerrigan pointed out, I missed this one the first time around. So this is me catching up. Once I've finished with this post, I really will have surveyed the entire WFRP 2nd edition line.

Games Master's Pack (April 2005)

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This book came packaged with the WFRP 2nd edition GM's screen. I never use a GM's screen myself - almost all my dice are rolled out in the open, and for the very occasional secret roll I just shield the dice with my hand - so I'm always forgetting about them. It's a 31-page book which consists of 8 pages of generic maps and floorplans, 7 pages of charts and reference material, and a 15-page introductory adventure called 'Pretty Things'. 

'Pretty Things' has a surprisingly complicated plot for such a short adventure. A baron has his daughter secretly raised by peasants, in ignorance of her true heritage, in order to keep her safe. The peasants get murdered by bandits, who steal the girl. The bandits get murdered by goblins, who steal the girl again. (Apparently as a gift for an orc chief who collects 'pretty things' - do orcs find human children pretty?), The PCs have to save the girl from the goblins before the orcs get her. Then a man tries to steal her from them, mistakenly believing she's actually his long-lost daughter. Then they deliver her to the baron, except the baron has just been murdered, so all they can do is hand her over to his steward in exchange for a reward. The end.

Mostly, this is an adventure about helplessness, which I suspect was designed to teach new players the difference between the Old World and more traditional fantasy settings. Everyone is miserable and desperate - even the goblins only do what they do because they're terrified of being eaten by the orcs - and there's no justice and no happy ending. There aren't very many genuine choices for the players to make, and the plot is a bit contrived in places: the PCs discover the dying peasants just in time to learn the girl's true identity, they only encounter the goblins after the bandits have softened them up, and so on. But the tone is right, and that makes up for a lot. Desperate outlaws limp along the road, disguised as wounded pilgrims. A cynical bounty hunter tries to pass a random farmer off as a wanted criminal so that he can collect a bounty from the roadwardens. A paranoid boatman, unhinged by grief, roams the world looking for his dead daughter. Benighted travellers camp in the burned-out ruins of a tollkeeper's house, listening to the wolves howl in the woods outside. As an introduction to low fantasy gaming, I think you could do far worse. I certainly prefer it to the painfully linear intro adventure in the corebook.

Now a random aside, to bulk out what would otherwise be a very short post. By my count, nineteen adventures were published for WFRP 2nd edition.  Of those nineteen, the primary antagonists break down as follows:


  • Chaos: 10
  • Undead: 3
  • Man's inhumanity to man: 3
  • Skaven: 2
  • Greenskins: 1

If you just look at the eight big book-length adventures, the pattern is even more striking:

  • Chaos: 5
  • Undead: 2
  • Skaven: 1

I call attention to this because, if you came to WFRP from the wargame, you could be forgiven for expecting all the different 'bad guy' factions - dark elves, chaos dwarves, greenskins, vampire counts, tomb kings, beastmen, chaos warriors, skaven, etc - to get roughly equal billing in the RPG, too. The 2005 Bestiary certainly presents them all as equally valid potential antagonists. In practise, though, WFRP adventures are always about chaos cultists, necromancers, beastmen, and skaven, with very occasional guest appearances from goblins. 

How about settings? Over the course of its second edition, WFRP detailed the Empire, Bretonnia, Kislev, the Border Princes, Norsca, parts of Tilea, the Skaven Under-Empire, the Chaos Wastes, the Chaos Dwarf empire, and the Eastern Steppe. So how do the settings of its published adventures break down?

  • The Empire: 15
  • Kislev: 1
  • The Empire and Kislev: 1
  • Bretonnia: 1
  • The Border Princes: 1


WFB needs lots of different kingdoms and races so that Games Workshop can sell lots of different miniatures. But how important are they to WFRP? I ran it for years without the PCs ever leaving the Empire, or ever facing adversaries other than criminals, cultists, mutants, demons, skaven, and that one bunch of goblins from Death on the Reik. This seems to me to be an area where 'WFRP in theory' (an RPG set in the same world as the wargame) and 'WFRP in practise' (Call of Cthulhu in early modern fantasy Germany) are clearly at odds. 

Did anyone ever run a WFRP game which didn't use chaos and/or skaven as the main antagonists, or one which was primarily set outside the Empire? Did any of that RPG information about dark elves and Bretonnian provinces and whatnot actually get used, or was it yet another case of fiction masquerading as game materials? If anyone has any information on this, I'm genuinely curious...

Monday, 1 October 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 10: Thousand Thrones, Shades of Empire, Career Compendium

I'm back! It's been a busy time at work, so sorry to all the people who've left comments that I haven't replied to. I'll try to catch up soon.

This post brings me to the end of the WFRP 2nd edition line. In 2008, Games Workshop decided, just as they had in 1990, that publishing RPG books really wasn't worth the effort involved when they could get better return on investment by reassigning resources to their more profitable wargame and fiction lines. Black Industries shut down, and the WFRP license was passed on to Fantasy Flight Games, who were also producing Warhammer-themed board and card games at the time. FFG claimed that they were going to continue the WFRP 2nd edition line, but in practise all they did was publish the already-written campaign book The Thousand Thrones, produce a single book of new miscellaneous material (Shades of Empire), and then bring out The Career Compendium, which mostly consisted of material reprinted from earlier WFRP 2nd edition titles. Then they shut the whole line down so they could bring out their own hugely divisive WFRP 3rd edition game. I gather that a lot of WFRP fans are still pretty bitter about it today.

Back in 2008-9, when all this went down, I don't remember caring much one way or the other. I still had my 1st edition books: what did it matter who was printing what for some superfluous new edition? Having now read the whole 2nd edition line, though, I can understand why people were annoyed. By 2007 WFRP 2nd edition had covered all the basics - the obligatory Empire book, the obligatory magic book, and so on - and was starting to move out into parts of the Warhammer setting that had never really been explored before. WFRP 3rd edition reset all that progress to zero.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Thousand Thrones (April 2008)


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This huge (255-page) book details a nine-part campaign, which revolves around a nine-year-old boy with instinctive mind control powers and the popular crusade that gathers around him, convinced that he is Sigmar reborn. It's a good premise for an adventure: these sorts of spontaneous mass movements were a real feature of the early modern period, and there's plenty of dramatic potential in the clash between the idealism which often inspired such movements, and the violence and tragedy which they usually left in their wake. It's a less good premise for a campaign, though, because the campaign relies on the whole crusade staying on-track, so that everything can happen when and where it's supposed to. If there's one thing PCs are good at, it's derailing everything they touch.

The nine adventures which comprise this campaign are very episodic, and have different authors who write in very different styles, so I'll rattle through them one at a time:

1: The Call of Chaos. The PCs get hired to investigate the child, raid a cult temple in a swamp, and then raid another cult temple in a sewer. Supposedly an investigation, but actually very linear, with minimal freedom of movement or action. Some nice incidental colour along the way, though.

2: An Unquiet Peace. This adventure has the worst hook that I have ever seen: a bunch of NPCs jump out of the bushes and literally force the PCs at gunpoint to go to the adventure location, where they aren't allowed to leave until they investigate a stolen chicken. Cute cameos from expies of Johannes Kepler and (genderflipped) Voltaire can't make up for very coercive plotting, in which PCs are repeatedly punished if they step out of line.

3: The Crusade of the Child. The first part of this adventure has a nice Night of the Living Dead set-up, with the PCs, a wood elf, an inquisitor and his retinue, and a bunch of starving mutants all trapped in an abandoned inn under siege from beastmen. Then there's an awkward transition in which more elves turn up, save everyone, and lead them to the crusade, which then gets attacked by undead. No matter what the PCs do, they end up being dragged in front of the child and probably mind-controlled into his service. I cannot imagine this going down well with most players.

4: Written in Blood. This has to be a contender for the worst RPG adventure I have ever read. It opens with the worst 'investigation' ever: the PCs spend a couple of days asking fruitless questions, and then by pure chance they overhear the guilty party incriminating himself as he walks past them. Seriously, this stuff has to be seen to be believed:
Have any PCs who are amongst the crowd make a Very Easy (+30) Perception Test, but cheat. There’s no way they can miss this one. They overhear someone say, “Tobias.” When they look around, they see Butcher Groff speaking to one of Jan Vanderpeer’s guards in the gap between two closely set tents. Groff says, “Tell Tobias the soup is ready. The Death has become the Plague. When should I make the meal?
Anyway, after that the PCs have a chance to torture Nurgle cultists into deliberately infecting them with a horrible disease that has the side effect of immunising them against the child's mind control, which is refreshingly hardcore. Then there's an awful railroaded scene in which the child gets kidnapped by a cultist no matter what the PCs do, even if they're right there at the time. (What if they just shoot the cultist in the face? Is the GM supposed to cheat again, like with the Perception test?) Then there's another awful 'investigation' full of rigged situations to keep the plot on track, which ends with them finding a book. Then the book gets stolen (no matter what they do) and given to a vampire who turns up and monologues at them, and if they try to kill her or get the book back then an infinite number of minions 'appear from the shadows' and stop them. Then she drives off and the adventure ends.

5: Metamorphosis of Villa Hahn. A straight-up dungeon crawl through a Nurgle-blighted manor house, within which the boy is being held. It's pretty well-handled, with lots of memorably grotesque imagery and body-horror awfulness. (Did James Raggi read this? Parts of it read like a less extreme version of Death Love Doom, which came out three years later.) At the end there's a three-way fight between the PCs, vampire thralls, and Nurgle cultists over who gets the boy, and the adventure actually lets the actions of the PCs determine who ends up with him. Probably the only chapter of the book I'd consider running pretty much as written.

6: Heralds of the New Dawn. So from this point things get weird. The adventure proceeds on the assumption that the PCs rescued the boy and returned him to the crusade... but at the same time it acknowledges that maybe by this point he's dead, or a prisoner of the vampires, in which case the whole situation will be completely different. Then it just kind of shrugs helplessly and says 'make something up, I guess', which really highlights the inability of this kind of pre-scripted campaign to handle genuinely branching paths.

The adventure itself isn't bad. The crusade has gone to hell in the boy's absence, and is now camped out in a ruined city full of cripples and beggars, and the chapter does a good job of evoking the grimness of its setting. Against this dark backdrop the PCs must investigate a murder plot - a real investigation, this time, not a hamfisted railroad - ultimately learning that there's a plan to kill the boy during a play, and then being asked to act in the play so that they're present to prevent the murder, only to discover that some of the other actors have been replaced by assassins. It looks as though it could be a good, colourful scenario, although the creaking of the plot once again becomes obvious at the end when the author concedes that maybe the PCs will fail to save the boy, and maybe they'll even kill him themselves, but the campaign is just going to assume he's still alive, so if he's not then you're on your own from this point forwards.

I can't help wondering how many attempts to actually run this campaign must have already gone off the rails by this point. Did all twelve playtesters really stick meekly to their assigned scripts?

7: Death Do Us Part. This is mostly a send-up of The Da Vinci Code, with religious fanatics, conspiracies, symbols hidden in paintings, etc. It's also a massive side-trek from the main campaign, with the PCs tricked into believing that the boy has been kidnapped yet again when actually he's just taking a break at a farmhouse somewhere, and going all the way to Sylvania to save what turns out to be another kid entirely. Still, it's alright for what it is, with some vivid set-pieces and NPCs. It would probably work well as a stand-alone adventure.

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Thankfully WFRP has no 'symbologist' career.

8: The Black Witch. By this point, most PCs will probably be sick to death of trailing around after this kid. His supernatural control over them will have long since faded; their original mission will have been completed several chapters ago, they keep risking their lives for him, and they never, ever get paid. Still, this chapter assumes that the PCs will be so interested in the boy that they'll follow his trail all the way from Sylvania to Kislev. Considered on its own merits, however, the scenario that unfolds there is quite good: a classic 'powderkeg' adventure that features vampires, wood elves, witch hunters, chaos monsters, Winged Lancers, and the doomed remnants of the crusade all converging on a miserable little Kislevite village that had plenty of problems of its own even before all these lunatics showed up. It's a bit heavy-handed about what's supposed to happen when, and rather nihilistic in its insistence on an EVERYONE DIES downer ending, but a small amount of rewriting could turn this into a memorably awful adventure.

9: Womb of the Black Witch. The PCs, the wood elves, the vampires, and a chaos sorcerer all descend into a final 76-room dungeon in pursuit of the boy. If the campaign has stayed on track, then by this point the PCs will have history with all of these guys, so this series of final confrontations should be immensely satisfying. Everything down here kills you or mutates you or drives you crazy, and there are plenty of rooms of the '12 Black Orcs attack and fight to the death' variety, so unless the GM has been giving out a whole lot of fate points I suspect PCs are going to die like flies; and the final confrontation with the Black Witch is likely to be a TPK unless the GM is prepared to drop some heavy hints about the 'right' way to deal with her. It's all very grim and icky and epic, but it feels much more like an adventure for high-level D&D characters than for WFRP PCs.

Overall: lots of individual 'good bits' let down by an overly restrictive linking plot. Its component pieces could probably be used to populate a pretty good WFRP-style hexcrawl, though.

Shades of Empire (January 2009)

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This is a very miscellaneous book describing nine organisations in the Old World: a docker's guild, a revolutionary movement, a secret society, a Halfling mafia, the Roadwardens, etc. It feels as though it's been pieced together from scraps, and like the earlier Companion it never coheres into more than the sum of its parts. I also felt at times that the target audience was people who enjoy reading information about imaginary worlds as a form of fiction, rather than people who were actually running games set in them. So there's a chapter on the Imperial Navy, for example... but what's it for? How is all this information about the history and structure of the Imperial fleet supposed to help me run a game of WFRP?

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And does this mean that Man O'War is still canon? Even the chaos ships with giant rotating blades instead of sails?

The chapters I liked most were the ones on the revolutionaries, the Dreamwalkers, the hedge wizards, and the roadwardens. Imperial authorities struggling to cope with seditious ideas disseminated via cheap pamphlets and scurrilous news sheets is the kind of early modern detail which I always feel the Old World could do with more of: anything which makes it feel as though the whole feudal system really might be on the brink of coming crashing down. The Dreamwalkers are followers of Morr whose leaders believe that their god sends them warnings of the undead in their dreams, and I think they're a great addition to the setting: trying to work out whether the band of dangerous religious zealots who've just rolled into town raving about vampires and necromancers are genuinely on a mission from God or just following the nightmares of some guy with an overactive imagination is exactly the sort of thing which good WFRP adventures are built on. The chapter on hedge wizards also saw the welcome re-introduction of non-collegiate magic to the setting, even if the idea of a formal Empire-wide organisation of village hedge wizards seems rather out of place.

Finally, the roadwardens chapter gives the clearest account yet of the 'big Empire' interpretation of the setting I've been commenting on in the last few posts: the Empire is enormous, only the areas around major cities are really under the control of the government, and the roads that connect them run through vast forests where the outlaws and mutants lurk. The city folk, who don't really believe all these stories about monsters in the woods, resent the roadwardens as little more than licensed bandits (which they frequently are); but the roadwardens understand that if they don't keep the roads open, the Empire will simply fall apart. This chapter singlehandedly convinced me that an all-roadwarden WFRP game would be a totally viable campaign concept. You have a fortified base, a stable of horses, a string of isolated roadside settlements which both rely upon you and resent you, a steady stream of grumbling travellers to protect and/or extort money from, and responsibility for keeping a hundred miles of road open despite the thousands of square miles of monster-haunted woodlands that lie on either side. Have fun with that.

The Career Compendium (February 2009)


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This book just reprinted all the 'non-monstrous' careers from previous WFRP 2nd edition books, accompanied by a bit more information about each of them to allow one whole page to be devoted to each career. If your players enjoyed 'shopping' for new careers then I guess it would be handy to have them all in one place, and there's some nice 'day in the life' vignettes that hammer home the grinding misery of life in the Old World, but mostly this book feels pretty superfluous. A low note for the game-line to end on.

Coming next: that GM's pack thing from April 2005 I forgot to cover the first time around!