Monday, 24 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 9: Night's Dark Masters, Tome of Salvation, Realm of the Ice Queen

This post brings me to the end of WFRP's Black Industries period. After this the line was taken over by Fantasy Flight Games.

Night's Dark Masters (April 2007)

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Did you ever look at Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and think: 'this is alright, but it would be much better if it was more like Vampire: The Masquerade?' If so, this is the book for you! It provides a history of the vampires of the Old World, an account of the different clans they belong to, rules for their vampire super-powers, and a description of how the nations of the Old World have been infiltrated by super-secret vampire conspiracies, requiring the humans to create counter-conspiracies of vampire hunters to fight them. Like I said, Vampire: the Masquerade. There are even rules here for playing vampire characters, if you really want to. And, yes, Geneviève Dieudonné gets name-checked, although I could have lived without the revelation that her heroic deeds are secretly tolerated and protected by one of the vampire conspiracies in order to trick people into believing that vampires aren't really as bad as all that.

Even though it came out in 2007, this book's 'vampires with everything!' approach to the Old World feels as though it has its roots firmly in the great vampire boom of the 1990s. (I'm guessing a lot of its lore is drawn from the 1999 Vampire Counts army book for WFB? I haven't read it.) Hunting down an individual vampire in some ruined castle or God-forsaken slum fits in with the tone and spirit of WFRP just fine, but I'm not sure about all these vast and secret vampire organisations. It feels to me as though you'd only be able to use most of this book if you were willing to make your campaign all about vampires, either by having the PCs actually be vampires, or by having them as a crew of dedicated vampire hunters. In a more traditional WFRP campaign, in which a vampire would be more likely to appear as a one-off antagonist, I struggle to see why you'd need a 143-page book about them.

(Klaus Gerken now has a perfect right to call me a hypocrite, because all the same objections could be raised to the skaven book. I guess I feel that the skaven need more specific information because they're a much more specific concept, whereas everyone already knows what the deal with vampires is, and this book offers very little in the way of new interpretations. Besides, the skaven lose most of their meaning and significance without their vast, mad Under-Empire, whereas vampires work just fine without all these clans and conspiracies and whatnot.)

Anyway. Turns out there are fighter vampires and wizard vampires and sexy vampires and ugly vampires and Dracula vampires. (Geneviève, naturally, is one of the sexy vampires.) There are loads of them and they're all  really powerful, but they're also so super-secret that everyone thinks the vampire hunters are crazy for making such a fuss about them. It all seemed a bit much to me, but then I know that some people felt that way about the skaven book, too, so maybe I'm just biased. What I really wanted from it was a Barony of the Damned style write-up of Sylvania, but the chapter on Sylvania is very brief, presumably to make room for all those multi-page clan descriptions. If you want to add fuckloads of vampires to your WFRP campaign, this is probably a great book. Otherwise I'd say it's skippable.

Tome of Salvation (September 2007)

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Probably my favourite 2nd edition cover. You can view the whole image on the artist's DeviantArt page here.
This is a big (255-page) book on religion in the Old World. It has a heavy focus on religion as an actual part of daily life: the folk customs of the poor, the calendar of holy days, the way religious beliefs differ from region to region, and so on. (I mentioned my preference for the 'big Empire' interpretation of the WFRP setting back in this post, and it's very much visible here, with an emphasis on the fact that the Empire is less a unified state than a vast patchwork of tiny communities loosely connected by their shared allegiance to the Elector Counts.) There's a lot here about temples, monasteries, pilgrimages, relics, the daily routines of the priesthood, and other nuts and bolts of religious practise. There's also a lot of discussion of religious fanaticism, and militant religious orders, and of the ways in which especially devout individuals will indicate their faith through self-flagellation, ritual tattoos, head cages, back banners, rune-covered skulls, purity seals, and so on. I know that a lot of this stuff has its roots in the more extreme edge of medieval and counter-Reformation Catholicism, but I can't help but suspect that its real purpose is to make Warhammer priests look as much like 40K characters as possible. It finishes with thirty-five pages of game rules for all the different kinds of magic available to the followers of each god, which look like they would be essential if you were planning to run a WFRP 2nd edition game which was heavy on divine magic.

So this is a good book, and one that shows how far the depiction of Old World religion has come since the days of the original WFRP core book, which essentially just threw down a generic D&D fantasy pantheon - Druidic nature god, god of death, goddess of healing, god of thieves, goddess of knowledge, goddess of war, god of the sea, god of elves, god of dwarves, goddess of halflings - and called it a day. (I still miss the gods of Law, though.) However, I feel that the Tome's main strength may also be its greatest weakness: few WFRP campaigns are really going to need this level of detail on religion, and in most games a more rough-and-ready approach might actually be more gameable than the more exhaustive treatment of the subject offered here. If you wanted to run a densely detailed 'simulationist' game set in the Old World then you could get a lot of use out of this, but most campaigns could probably have got by just as well with a book that was half the length.

Realm of the Ice Queen (November 2007)

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This book covers Kislev, the Old World's analogue for Russia. Like so much of the Warhammer setting, Kislev's status was beset by contradictory information from the wargame and the RPG. Something Rotten in Kislev (1988) drew upon a combination of medieval and nineteenth-century Russian history to portray it as a highly bureaucratic state ruled by Tsar Radii Bokha, in which an ethnically Norse aristocracy presided over a combined Ungol (= Mongol) and Gospodar (= Slav) population, and tried to cope with pressure from the Hobgoblin Hegemony to the east. The Empire Army Book (1993) confused all this by asserting that Kislev was in fact ruled by a Gospodar ice sorceress named Tzarina Katarin, who inherited her magical ice powers from the ancient Khan-Queens of the Gospodars, who had once been the terror of the Empire. It also introduced the idea that Kislev's military elite were 'Winged Lancers', modelled on the Winged Hussars of early modern Poland.

Some of the oddest elements of Realm of the Ice Queen clearly have their roots in this contradictory source material. The idea that it was the Gospodars who rode out of the steppes and subjugated the Ungols, and not the other way around, reads like some kind of bizarre revisionist fantasy of Russian history, but I'm sure it arose simply out of an attempt to reconcile the WFRP account (in which the Gospodars are stand-ins for the Slavs) with the WFB account (in which they're stand-ins for the Mongols). Kislev being ruled by a literal ice queen who lives in a giant castle made of magical ice right in the middle of the capital city sits rather oddly with WFRPs general low-fantasy vibe, but does accord with its WFB presentation. The obviously-Polish Winged Lancers seem strange in a setting which is obviously Russian in every other respect, but they're the single most iconic Kislevite unit from the wargame, so what were they going to do? As with the Bretonnia book, the authors had to work with the material they were given, and I think they did a pretty good job.

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Winged lancers from WFB.

Slavic settings are weirdly under-represented in fantasy media and RPGs, and when they do appear, they usually just use the same handful of cliches over and over again: snow, bears, Baba Yaga, vodka, cossacks, and Russia's greatest love machine, Rasputin. There's definitely some of this in Realm of the Ice Queen, but, for the most part, they actually wrote a pretty decent fantasy Russia setting instead. There are a lot of bears and snow, here, and I rolled my eyes at the state religion being rewritten into the Cult of the Great Russian Bear God; but there are also streltsy, and firebirds, and steppe nomads, and other things which suggest some level of actual familiarity with the subject matter. It's a bit first-year-undergraduate-Slavic-studies-ish in places - did the coffee shop attended by radical intellectuals really have to be called Raskolnikov's? - but a genuine effort has clearly been made, and this version of Kislev is a setting which I'd happily run a game in.

Anyway. Realm of the Ice Queen depicts Kislev as a kind of combination of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century Russia. It's seventeenth-century insofar as Tzarina Katarin is depicted as being a Peter the Great style moderniser, employing the authoritarian methods of absolutist monarchy to drag her nation into the modern era. It's nineteenth-century insofar as it's also full of opera houses, intellectuals hanging around in cafes, and Tsarist secret policemen, which implies that quite a lot of modernisation has already taken place. (The secret police are an odd bunch. They're called 'Chekists', which obviously evokes the Bolshevik Cheka, but their description combines elements of Alexander III's Okhrana with the Oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible. Anyway, you can play one, which will probably come as a boon to anyone who's ever looked at the Witch Hunter career and said: 'Sure, this looks fairly morally murky. But is it morally murky enough?')

There's no mention of the Hobgoblin Hegemony, which seems to have been retconned out of existence, but there's lots of other good stuff: there are monsters inspired by Slavic folklore, gods based on Slavic paganism, and a good write-up of the chaos-blighted city of Praag, complete with bleeding cobblestones and specialist watchmen who roam the streets at night armed with metal hammers, looking out for restless corpses to whack on the head and throw into furnaces. In the provinces the frozen ground gets too cold to dig graves, so corpses are left out in the wilderness with their eyes removed, to ensure that if they rise again they won't be able to find their way home... which means that horrible blind undead roam the wild, looking for living victims so that they can steal their eyes. The Gospodar ice sorceresses are a bit boring, but the Ungol witches are much better than the Baba Yaga knock-offs they could so easily have been, guarding their homes by deliberately inducing hauntings in the surrounding woodlands, and raising mutant children in secret communities deep in the taiga for use as sacrificial fodder in their secret war against chaos. (Also they have a spell which turns them into eight-foot hags with iron claws and rusted metal teeth, which is way better than yet another minor variation on the theme of 'I use my ice magic to make things really cold'.) It's a bit long, but anyone interested in running a fantasy Russia game will find something worth stealing in here somewhere, and it makes me rather regret the fact that Black Industries never had a chance to take a crack at Estalia, or Araby, or any of the other neglected regions of the Warhammer World.

And for really, really old-school fans, there's a mention of the legend that a girl in a glass coffin lies hidden, sleeping, somewhere beneath the streets of Praag...

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Monday, 17 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 8: Companion, Renegade Crowns, Lure of the Liche Lord

Onwards to glory!

WFRP Companion (November 2006)

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Bog Octopuuuuus!

This book describes itself as 'A Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Miscellany', and that's pretty accurate. Probably the easiest way to summarise its contents is by listing its chapters:
  1. Freaks, Thieves and Travelling Folk: eight pages on travelling carnivals in the Old World.
  2. Life and Death on the Reik: Nine pages on the River Reik. Introduces the new careers 'Stevedore', 'Foreman', 'Wrecker', and 'Riverwarden'.
  3. Advanced Trade and Commerce: sixteen pages on trade, trade law, and merchant's guilds, and rules for PCs who want to try making money through trade.
  4. Star Signs and their Meanings: Seven pages on the star signs of the Old World.
  5. Medicine in the Empire: Eight pages on medicine in the Old World, mostly based on real-world medical history.
  6. Social Conflict and Advanced Criminal Trials: Ten pages of rules for 'social conflict', which look as though they would mostly reduce social interactions to a dice-rolling exercise.
  7. Sartosa, City of Pirates: Seven pages on a generic pirate city. You've seen Pirates of the Caribbean, right? It's like that.
  8. Tobaro, City of Sirens: Eight pages on a Tilean city-state, which I think is the most detail Tilea ever received in WFRP 2nd edition. Lots of good, playable details make this my favourite part of the book. Includes the Deepwatcher career, for characters who patrol the caves and tunnels beneath the city. (Of course Tobaro has a vast unmapped underworld. All WFRP cities have vast unmapped underworlds.)
  9. The Cult of Illumination: Five pages on a chaos cult who are basically evil Freemasons.
  10. Pub Crawling: Six pages of pubs and the people who run them. 
  11. Bring Up the Guns: Seven pages on the Nuln Artillery school. Includes the Artillerist career. 
  12. Gugnir's Blackpowder Shop: Four pages on a gun shop and the dwarf who runs it.
  13. Perilous Beasts: Seventeen pages introducing sixteen monsters. Features the welcome return of the Amoeba, Bloodsedge, Bog Octopus, Chameleoleech, and Doppelganger from first edition, and addition of naiads, mermaids (who are actually more like classical sirens), giant eels, giant fish, giant crabs, and giant whales to harrass PCs during nautical adventures.
Overall, the book feels like it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Tobaro and a few of the new monsters are the only things that stuck with me.

Renegade Crowns (December 2006)

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When I first looked through this book, I thought it was nothing special. Instructions on designing a small sandbox setting in the Border Princes. Lots of tables to roll on to help populate your sandbox. Discussion of how ambitious PCs might rise from common sell-swords to take over their own micro-state, and of how to run 'domain-level' games involving the management of petty kingdoms, and handling relations with their equally petty neighbours. Nothing I hadn't seen before on dozens of OSR blogs, right?

But then I stopped myself, and thought: this was published in 2006. How many people were playing like that back in 2006, in the waning days of the D&D 3.5 era, with D&D 4th edition just around the corner? Well, if this book is anything to go by, apparently David Chart was. Renegade Crowns prefigures a huge amount of what would, over the next decade, go on to become OSR orthodoxy: sandbox settings populated via random tables, a grubby and inglorious world of petty kingdoms and robber barons, a tone of relentless grimness made palatable by ample use of black comedy, and an assumption that the PCs will be amoral freebooters trying to murder their way up the rungs of the feudal system rather than gallant champions of all that is right and good. If you're reading this blog, then this book probably has little or nothing to teach you, because you'll have learned it all years ago from other OSR bloggers. But even though David, as far as I can tell, has no connections with the modern OSR movement, I rather feel that he deserves some kind of honourary OSR status for writing it, back in the days when almost everyone else was busy arguing about exactly which combination of feats would allow their Illumian Swordsage Bloodstorm Blade to generate the maximum average damage output per round.

Lure of the Liche Lord (February 2007)

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Despite the name, this adventure has nothing to do with the first edition Terror of the Lichemaster adventure. Instead it describes an area of the Border Princes, and the giant inverted pyramid full of undead buried beneath it. Like Karak Azgal, it's basically a giant dungeon plus some information about the situation on the surface. Unlike Karak Azgal, the situation on the surface is actually very dynamic, with a whole bunch of feuding factions, and the dungeon beneath is fully mapped and described over the course of sixty-three pages. The whole set-up is very open, which is refreshing after the clumsy railroading of some of the earlier adventures: but fundamentally it is what it is, and what it is is a seven-level Egyptian-themed dungeon full of traps and undead. If you happen to be in the market for one of those then by all means try this one, though as with Karak Azgal I rather feel that all this dungeon-crawling doesn't really play to WFRP's strengths.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer, part 7: Terror in Talabheim, Tome of Corruption

More than halfway through, now!

Terror in Talabheim (July 2006)

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The fifth book in the 'location plus adventure' series that started with Ashes of Middenheim. This one is about Talabheim, which I don't remember ever being described in any detail for first edition. Fantasy cities often take just one theme and run with it: so Altdorf is The Great Capital City, Middenheim is The Rugged City on the Rock, Nuln is The Rich And Filthy City of Industry, and so on. Talabheim is interesting in that is has three different themes going on: it's a city in a forest (and thus full of druids and woodsmen), and a city of laws (and thus full of lawyers and prisons), and a city built inside a giant crater (and thus full of paupers living in cavern-homes dug into the rock and smugglers carrying goods through hidden tunnels). Its the kind of combination of traits that is often found in real and historical cities, but is much rarer in their fictional counterparts, which tend to be much more one-note. At 29 pages the city write-up is needlessly lengthy, and many parts of it are very similar to the equivalent sections from the books on Middenheim, Altdorf, and Nuln: apparently all Imperial cities have a filthy and lawless slum district, a temple district with one temple per god, giant fortifications with cannons on them, unmapped mazes of tunnels beneath the city streets, etc. It's still a pretty colourful location, though, and one I can easily imagine using in a game.

The adventure that follows is weird. The best way I can describe it is that it's written like a movie: this is the bit where the PCs escort some refugees, this is the bit where they're stuck inside a quarantined town during a plague, this is the bit where they're conscripted into the city watch, this is the bit where they try and fail to prevent a skaven invasion of the city, this is the bit where they organise a resistance movement against the skaven occupation, etc. They're often given a fair bit of freedom about what they do within each of those situations, but the module is very heavy-handed about forcing them from one to another, even though the prescribed path involves all three of the things that PCs usually hate most: being forced to stay in a location which they can't leave, being forced to join an organisation and obey NPCs, and being forced to participate in a battle they can't win. It keeps passive-aggressively insisting that technically the PCs can try to do something else, but if they do then everyone hates them and totally forces them back on track on pain of death.

Over and over again, the module casts the PCs as passive observers rather than active agents. While they're escorting the refugees, some of them are murdered in the night, and what the PCs do about it is up to them... but the idea that the PCs might have been keeping watch over their charges during the night, and actively intervened to prevent the murders, doesn't seem to have occured to the authors. At one point a mob of refugees try to force their way into Talabheim, and get blown to bits by cannons, and any PCs who see this have a chance of gaining an insanity point... but what if the PCs intervene, and persuade the mob not to attack the city? What if they come up with a different plan? What if they decide to lead the mob - does that mean they all get blown up, too? There's an appealing gutsiness to how thoroughly the adventure trashes its setting, but the way in which it forces the PCs from set-piece to set-piece is very clumsy, and its attempts to turn the clock back at the end - 'everything gets rebuilt and everyone forgets!' - are just embarrassing.

Now for some speculation. When I first read the Pathfinder adventure path Curse of the Crimson Throne, my first thought was: 'this is a rewrite of someone's WFRP adventure'. (The temple full of Nurgle Urgathoa cultists with a leader that turns into a chaos spawn Daughter of Urgathoa was the real giveaway.) Now that I've read this adventure, which features many of the same elements - a city stricken by an artificial plague, plague cultists, a crazy necromancer unleashing undead in the middle of a disease outbreak, ratmen in the sewers, the PCs organising a resistance movement against a brutal occupation - I suspect that Curse of the Crimson Throne was at least partly inspired by Terror in Talabheim, which had been published just two years earlier. I think Curse handles the material more successfully, though. My condensed version of it is available here.

Tome of Corruption (October 2006)

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This is the 2nd edition chaos book, and thus the successor to the 1st edition Realm of Chaos sourcebooks. The Realm of Chaos books are classics of Games Workshop's golden age, but from a WFRP perspective they're rather odd beasts, as they were produced during the years when the company was turning away from RPGs and towards the more profitable tabletop wargaming market. As such their primary focus is on providing rules for playing chaos warbands in WFB and 40K, with only occasional concessions to the role-playing game.

The original Realm of Chaos books are classics because they're crazy. The creative energy is off the charts. Windmills grind cargoes of corpses. Deformed human faces grow from trees. A cowled figure blocks the way to the Inevitable City. A flying castle drifts through the air, scattering tattered scraps of flags across the land below. Nightmare horsemen made from heaving masses of worms burst from the graves of plague victims. In doomed villages, the demons of Nurgle dance, singing, through the streets. ('The flies! The flies! His eyes! His eyes! Before the Burgomaster dies!') Every page just throws so much stuff at you, as though the writers and artists had so many ideas that they were struggling to fit them all into the space available. The Tome of Corruption can't match that, and for the most part it doesn't even try.

The main thing that struck me about the version of chaos presented here is how much less, well, chaotic it was than the old one. The nature of chaos is much more clearly defined here, as is its relationship with magic, the gods, and human belief. The four major chaos gods are now the chaos gods, rather than just four examples with the suggestion for you to design your own if you feel like it, and even they have lost some of their old complexity: there's no suggestion here that Nurgle, for example, embodies both 'the hidden fear of disease and decay' and 'the power of life which that fear generates', which is how he was described in his much more nuanced and sympathetic write-up in The Lost and the Damned. Mutants are now doomed to just carry on mutating until they ultimately devolve into chaos spawn, which greatly reduces the moral complexity of the setting by confirming that the Empire's continual anti-mutant pogrom is actually more-or-less justified. (1st edition more closely followed its 2000 AD inspirations in showing that at least some mutants were weird but harmless, and certainly not deserving of being burned alive.) [EDIT: An anonymous commentator points out below that the book is far from consistent about this. The description implies inevitable degeneration, but the rules imply that most mutants will actually stabilise harmlessly at the 2-3 mutations mark.] The Chaos Wastes described here don't come close to the baroque insanity of their first edition counterparts. (The lack of Ian Miller's illustrations is keenly felt.) In 1st edition, the chaos armour worn by champions of Khorne was forged in red furnaces beneath the throne of the Blood God, where captive seers laboured eternally to create enchanted armaments in fires fuelled by burning souls. In 2nd edition, they just buy it off the chaos dwarves. Something of their unholy majesty appears to have been lost along the way.

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Now that's the Realm of Chaos!

As well as cultists, mutants, demons, and beastmen, The Tome of Corruption also details other followers of chaos who have never previously appeared in WFRP: the Norscans, the Chaos Dwarves, the Kurgan, and the Hung. For the poor old Norscans this is quite a demotion, as in 1st edition they were described as allies of the empire and enemies of chaos. Given the setting's 17th-century flavour I imagined them as stalwart Gustavus Aldophus types, grimly holding the line in the far north: but The Tome of Corruption describes them instead as straightforward chaos vikings, complete with a culture straight out of the Dark Ages. [Edit: Nirkhuz points out that this was wishful thinking on my part, and that they've always been medieval Vikings. I'd still note that they've gone from being enemies to chaos to servants of it.] The Chaos Dwarves are fine, though they're dealt with very briefly. The Kurgan are bloodthirsty chaos-worshiping Proud Warrior Race guys based on the peoples of the Eurasian steppe (and, let's be honest, on the villain from Highlander), which kinda travesties the actual cultures they're inspired by, but is probably pretty close to the way they were regarded in Europe: the Mongols weren't called the Devil's Horsemen for nothing. But the Hung... good grief, the Hung. They're a race of humans based on the steppe nomads (the Huns, most obviously), who are described as being sly, greedy, treacherous, ugly, cruel, filthy, demon-worshipping cannibal rapists. They are apparently so utterly awful as to be unsuitable as PCs even in games where all the PCs are chaos cultists, because 'their essential character is one of betrayal and treachery'. (Not because of any kind of supernatural curse, you understand: simply because they're just that horrible.) I found this much more objectionable than the one-dimensional depiction of the Kurgan or the national stereotyping of the Norse as Vikings, especially as the ways in which the Hung are described overlap so heavily with the ways in which the steppe nomads have historically been dehumanised by surrounding sedentary populations in order to justify their exploitation and/or extermination. I mean, I'm sure they were just going for a generic 'degenerate tribe' set-up, but still...

The book does have some strengths. The discussion of cults makes clear that most chaos cultists don't actually know they're chaos cultists, which is a definite advance on the near-mindless drones of evil that such cultists tend to be portrayed as in many WFRP adventures. The section on beastmen features a description of what I've come to think of as the 'big Empire' interpretation of the WFRP setting, in which the Imperial government only actually controls a fraction of the land within its borders, as between the pockets of arable land and the roads that connect them lie vast unmapped forests full of weird monsters and isolated settlements cut off from the world outside: a very different version of the Empire to the 'small Empire' interpretation in Heirs of Sigmar, and one that I find much more imaginatively compelling. The new version of the famous d1000 mutation table has even more stuff on it than the original, allowing you to introduce your players to heaping helpings of body horror with just a few rolls of the dice. Overall, though, I strongly prefer the version of chaos (and the version of Norsca) presented in the original edition.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 6: Children of the Horned Rat

I warned you I'd be writing a lot about skaven.

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Children of the Horned Rat is the skaven book for WFRP 2nd edition, and for me it was the standout book of the line, probably partly because I'm an old skaven player myself. As I mentioned in my first post on WFRP, the skaven are one of the very few parts of the Warhammer World which weren't derived fairly directly from somewhere else. The chaos gods came from Michael Moorcock; the orcs and elves and dwarves all came from Tolkien via D&D; the dark elves started out as a combination of Gygax's drow and Moorcock's Melniboneans, and so on. In every case Warhammer ultimately did something different with them, to the point where they sometimes barely resembled their originals: there's quite a gap between Tolkien orcs and Warhammer orcs, for example. But the only things they made up pretty much out of whole cloth were the chaos dwarves and the skaven: and much as I love the idea of evil Assyrian dwarves with blunderbusses (and I love it a lot), the skaven have gone on to be much more important to the Warhammer world as a whole.

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Proto-skaven: the ratmen from Temple of Terror.

The basic idea of humanoid rat monsters had been done before. Leiber had rat-people. D&D had wererats. Rat-men turn up in the Fighting Fantasy book Temple of Terror, which was published in 1985, narrowly predating the first appearance of the skaven in warhammer. A lot of people don't like rats, so they're easy to sell as a bad-guy race; and given their historical role in spreading diseases, its logical to link them with poisons and plagues. (Check out Dracula's army of plague rats in the 1979 Nosferatu, for example.) Most fantasy settings would have settled for 'subterranean race of rat-man plague cultists' and left it at that, but Warhammer made two crucial additions which transformed the skaven into something much more interesting.

The first addition was to make the skaven into lab rats, in both senses of the term: creatures who were both carried out scientific experiments and who were, themselves, scientifically experimented upon. (The key influence here was probably The Rats of NIMH, in which experiments performed upon lab rats transform them into intelligent creatures with a technologically-advanced society of their own: the book was from 1971, but the 1982 film adaptation was still recent when WFRP was being written.) But because Warhammer started out as a wargame, its designers had to answer the question of how these science-rats operated on the battlefield - and it's here that the second addition came into play, by making them not just lab rats but trench rats. (It's obvious in retrospect: the similarities between themselves and the rats with whom they shared their trenches was not lost upon WW1 infantrymen.) The combination of lab rat with trench rat helped to establish the skaven not just as scientists but as mad scientists, complete with crazy experimental weaponry and a love of human wave tactics and tunnel fighting. By the time Games Workshop started making miniatures of skaven equipped with gas masks, flamethrowers, poison gas, and Ratling guns, all the key elements of the subsequent skaven mythology were in place.

I don't know why they also became ninjas. Ninjas were everywhere in the 1980s.

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During the mid-80s the skaven lore was still in the process of being developed, and they play a pretty low-profile role in WFRP 1st edition. (There are legends that the Enemy Within campaign was supposed to end with an epic battle against skaven on the moon, but in 1989 Games Workshop ordered the whole saga to be wrapped up as quickly as possible, and the adventure was never written.) The first Warhammer product to really give them a starring role was Advanced Heroquest (1989), and by then WFRP had already begun its slide into oblivion. In the 1990s, however, they became one of the most distinctive parts of the broader Warhammer mythology, especially after their 1993 army book depicted them as the masters of a secret world-spanning underground empire. Every 1990s fantasy setting had haughty elves and doughty dwarves and brutal orcs in it, but only Warhammer also featured a hidden subterranean civilisation of evil World War One science ratmen.

Given its position in the line, Children of the Horned Rat could easily have been a hack job: a simple matter of paraphrasing the lore from the army books, slapping on WFRP rules and statistics, and calling it a day. It's to the credit of its authors that they didn't do this, and instead reconceptualised the skaven as something even scarier than they already were. For me, the horror of the skaven it depicted rested on its treatment of four traits: their power, their cruelty, their secrecy, and their psychology.

Firstly: power. The book firmly established the skaven Under-Empire as the setting's largest and most advanced civilisation, to the extent that the histories of the Old World's human nations were reduced to mere side-effects of skaven history. The skaven have bigger cities than the humans. (In fact, the book states that under every human city is a skaven undercity, and the undercity is usually the larger of the two.) They have better guns. They have more advanced technology. They're building an intercontinental railway network, for fuck's sake. The skaven aren't just another enemy faction: they're closer to being what Iain M. Banks called an 'outside context problem'. In this retelling, Bretonnia and the Empire resemble two squabbling tribes on an isolated island somewhere, composing self-congratulatory legends about their mighty victories over the Great Boat People - not realising that what they thought were world-historical battles were just skirmishes with a couple of lost privateers, and that as soon as the nations across the sea stop fighting each other and get an organised program of colonial expansion underway they're going to get squashed like bugs.

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The future is a rat chewing on a human face, forever...
Secondly: cruelty. The skaven had usually been described as a compound of negative traits - cruel, fanatical, cowardly, power-hungry, bloodthirsty, and so on. Everything they do is awful: they engineer plagues, they practise slavery, they eat people alive. But I don't think their evil and cruelty had ever been described so vividly as in this book, which makes effective use of both out-of-character information, short fiction snippets, and in-character quotations to communicate just how horrible the skaven really are. Rather than presenting them as figures of slightly cartoonish evil, the book depicts them as presiding over a secret world-wide empire of abduction, enslavement, and involuntary medical experimentation, and doesn't shy away from describing what that might look like. It's pretty nasty stuff.

Thirdly: secrecy. The depiction of skaven in Warhammer lore has always been massively contradictory on the topic of how well-known they are: for every book that describes them as a hidden threat in the shadows which most people don't even believe in, there's another one which writes about how their armies openly roam the world blasting people with warpfire throwers. This book mostly embraces the former option, even though it has to make some very odd assertions in order to square it with other parts of the lore. (If everyone in Tilea unanimously agrees that there really is an empire of evil rat-men hiding in their northern marshes, why does no-one in the Empire believe them? If the exploits of every other figure in Imperial history are taken literally, why are only those of Manfred Skaven-Slayer regarded as mere legends?) Despite these oddities, however, I feel this is a much more interesting approach to the skaven. I complained in this post that, by accepting the Storm of Chaos as canonical, WFRP 2nd edition was forced to move away from the idea of chaos as a hidden 'enemy within': but, as Stephen noted in the comments, that role was then taken over by skaven, instead. Skaven in 2nd edition are pretty much what chaos was in 1st, before the chaos warriors marched south: a threat which no-one really understands or takes sufficiently seriously, hidden in the shadows, preying upon the vulnerable. I feel that makes them much creepier, even if it's totally at odds with the way in which they're depicted in most actual 2nd edition adventures. The fiction snippet about the boy who is abducted by skaven, forced to eat diseased food, released back into his community sick and blind to spread the plague among them, and then stumbles around trying to find his mother only to be thrown in prison because no-one will believe his story, is chilling.

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Fourthly, and for me most interestingly: psychology. As I've mentioned, the skaven were usually described as being generically evil for no very good reason; but this book tries to give an account of how their minds work, with pretty disturbing results. According to this book, despite being locked into instinctive pack dominance hierarchies, each individual skaven spends their whole life convinced that their own personal victory is always and obviously just at hand, and totally deserved, and totally inevitable, and if millions before them have tried and failed, then that just proves how much all those other guys sucked. They don't care about their own history. Their past is irrelevant. Their companions are expendable. Anything that goes wrong is obviously someone else's fault. Everybody other than themselves is just meat and slaves. The result is that the very qualities which make the skaven so awful are also the ones which make them so successful, as their empire is able to bounce back from the most appalling catastrophes without missing a beat. I find it horribly credible that a fast-breeding intelligent species with this kind of psychology might rapidly exterminate humanity while barely noticing that it was doing so - and would then probably not bother to record the fact that it had happened. At least for me, that seems much worse than just being consumed by the abstract entropic forces of chaos.

All this sets the skaven up as brilliant villains, although you'd probably want to modify or conceal the full scale of their advantages from your players to avoid it all getting too depressing. (The book gestures towards the idea of humans and skaven will ultimately be locked in a struggle for survival, but gives little indication of how this might be a struggle that humans could actually win.) The book also gives full information on skaven player characters - complete with careers like 'gutter runner' and 'warlock engineer' - and suggestions on running an all-skaven campaign, though I struggle to imagine such a game functioning as anything other than Paranoia-esque black comedy. There's also some information on the vast underworlds of the Warhammer setting, and some of the freakish creatures that inhabit them. Finally there's a short adventure: a pleasingly open-ended affair about a village caught between some escaped skaven slaves and their hunters, which leaves all the important decisions genuinely in the hands of the PCs. Even the length - nine pages - is, for once, not excessive given the content.

In conclusion: this is a good book, and one of the few WFRP 2nd edition book that I'd really recommend to fans of 1st edition. (The others are Barony of the Damned and, with some qualifications, Realm of the Ice Queen.) You could easily build a whole campaign around the skaven, starting with creepy encounters in the slums and sewers, moving onto investigations of the threat from below, then to increasingly desperate attempts to persuade the authorities of the rat-man menace, and finally to a pitched battle against the warriors of an entire skaven clan - with perhaps an ultimate Deep Carbon Observatory-style revelation that the terrifying army of monsters you've just vanquished is merely one of the innumerable constituent tribes of an underground empire so vast and evil as to almost defy comprehension. I'd also recommend it more widely to anyone interested in horror-fantasy gaming, as the skaven are so easy to drop into other campaign settings. And what fantasy world wouldn't be improved by the addition of a secret subterranean empire of evil magitech plague rat ninjas?

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Saturday, 1 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 5: Forges of Nuln, Knights of the Grail, Barony of the Damned

OK, now we start getting to the good stuff.

Forges of Nuln (February 2006)

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Ah, Nuln. Nuln was the city I chose as the setting for my very first WHFRP adventures, way back in the 1990s. In retrospect the adventures I set there may sometimes have been little more than exercises in gratuitous misery - I was a teenager, after all - but Nuln itself will always hold a special place in my memory.

Anyway. This is Paths of the Damned part 3, and like parts 1 and 2 it consists of a city description followed by an adventure. Unlike parts 1 and 2, it's honestly pretty good. Nuln, I'm pleased to say, has retained more of its edge and grime than Altdorf or Middenheim: it's still a city of corruption and decadence, furnaces and coffee houses, poverty and crime. It's loud and cruel and filthy, which is exactly the way a WHFRP city should be. It even has a secret community of mutants living in the sewers.

This is also the first book in the WHFRP 2nd edition line to remember that the setting is in the middle of a renaissance: times are changing, new technologies are spreading, and the old feudal system is starting to fray around the edges. The Empire loses a lot of its unique character if the emperor and the electors and the knightly orders are treated as something permanent and eternal, just like they would be in most fantasy settings, rather than as something which might be on the very edge of falling apart. I also applaud the addition of the Chimneysweep and Dung Collector careers.

The adventure that follows has the same problems that beset most WHFRP 2nd edition adventures - railroading, word bloat, terrible advice about cheating to make sure that the right things happen in the right order - but to a much less extreme degree than, say, Ashes of Middenheim. The adventure also leans much further into horror fantasy than either of the previous two parts of Paths of the Damned, and features lots of memorably grotesque characters and imagery. (Its author, Robert Schwalb, would go on to use his flair for vividly-imaged awfulness to good effect in his next game, Shadow of the Demon Lord, which was basically WHFRP 2.5) There are mutants, and cannibals, and lunatics, and serial killers, and bloated corpses, and mutilated corpses, and disembowelled corpses, and animated corpses, and suicidal veterans drinking themselves to death in filthy taverns, and forgotten prisoners dying by inches in lightless cells. It's grim, and if you like that sort of thing then you'll probably love it. There's also a chance to revisit the site of the original WHFRP adventure, 'The Oldenhaller Contract'. All in all I'd say that of the three 'Paths of the Damned' modules, this is the one which comes the closest to recapturing the magic of the original 'Enemy Within' series, right down to countenancing the possibility of the PCs actually losing. There are a fuckload of NPCs, though, and it looks as though it would be very challenging to run without significant preparation beforehand.

One minor complaint: almost every single female NPC in this book is described as being unusually attractive. Almost none of the men are. Being a heterosexual woman in Nuln must be a pretty depressing experience.

Knights of the Grail (March 2006)

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This is the Bretonnia book. As with Realms of Sorcery, a brief discussion of Warhammer history is needed to explain its significance.

In WHFRP 1st edition, Bretonnia played the role of Bourbon France to the Empire's Hapsburg Germany: a place of aristocratic privilege, splendid chateaus, and cruel social inequality. When the wargame abandoned the freeform approach of the 1983-1991 era in favour of a series of strictly-defined 'army books', each tied to a specific line of miniatures, Bretonnia was left without a distinctive identity to distinguish it from the Empire, as the armies of both consisted of semi-historical early modern humans. In 1996, Bretonnia was thus subjected to a massive rewrite which transformed it into an amalgam of Carolingian France and Arthurian Britain, complete with Grail Knights and enchantresses. Why Bretonnia was stuck in the fantasy Middle Ages while the rest of the Old World was advancing into the seventeenth century was never adequately explained.

Like Realms of Sorcery, Knights of the Grail thus had to reconcile two very different visions of their subject matter, one inherited from WHFRP 1st edition and the other drawn from the wargame. Given that the usage of the new Bretonnia was obligatory, what this meant in practise was taking this shiny chivalric monarchy and dirtying it up until it fit with the WHFRP theme, and my view is that it did a pretty good job of it.

There's a lot here about how awful and oppressive the Bretonnian aristocracy is, and how miserable the lives of the serfs are, and how villages try desperately to resolve all their problems internally because going to the local lord for 'justice' is usually the worst possible option, even though the provision of 'order and justice' is supposedly what they're paying all these back-breaking taxes for in the first place. There are Robin Hood-style peasant rebels and vigilante outlaws in the forests. The throw-away idea that 'Bretonnian elves steal magically-gifted children and raise them to be fae enchantresses' is treated here with heartbreaking seriousness, with children given dolls when they are born in the hope that the elves might steal the doll rather than the child by mistake, and grieving parents making desperate pilgrimages to the forest where the elves abandon stolen children on the rare occasions when they make a mistake, hoping against hope that their vanished child will be among them. (It also provides cover for infanticide among starving peasants, for whom 'the elves took my children' acts as a convenient excuse for why the size of your family has just shrunk to match the size of your food supply.) So while the book does follow the wargame in insisting that the Bretonnian Grail Knights really are super-awesome warriors devoted to battling against evil, it also makes clear that the society which produces and supports them is built on lies, misery, and exploitation, and I view that as being very much a mark in its favour.

The bulk of the book is given over to a province-by-province overview of Bretonnia, much like the one Heirs of Sigmar provided for the Empire: but the signal-to-noise ratio is much higher, and it contains far more of the kind of vivid details that the earlier book mostly lacked. Here are some of the ones which jumped out at me:
  • Clans of militarised shepherds patrol Bretonnia's mountainous border regions, watching out for the mountain orcs who ride shaggy, intelligent, man-eating horses into battle.
  • Grail knights are followed around by packs of sycophantic, self-appointed 'battle pilgrims', who grab every trivial item their knight drops and treasure them as holy relics. 
  • The Bretonnians worship 'the Lady', who is basically a combination of the Virgin Mary and the Lady of the Lake: she's the one who allows knights who have proven themselves worthy to achieve the grail. However, she is strongly implied to actually be an ancient elf sorceress who essentially engineered the whole of Bretonnian history in order to provide the Forest of Loren with a buffer zone of human protection, very much at the expense of the Bretonnians themselves.
  • Every grail knight is required to erect a chapel on the site where they attain the grail, which means the whole landscape is dotted with ruined and abandoned chapels. 
  • Giant chaos-tainted boars lurk in the forests. Pincer-handed amphibian-men hide in the rivers. Horrible frog-monsters clamber from chasms in the earth. (It's a book about fantasy France for a British game. There had to be at least one frog joke.) 
There's a lot to like, here - enough for me to be willing to forgive the more high-fantasy elements, like the fact that there is apparently a whole order of Bretonnian knights who ride around on pegasi. (I'm guessing they came from the wargame?) It's still rather padded out, but to a less extreme extent than many other 2nd edition books. I still don't really believe in this version of Bretonnia as a place that could exist right next to the Empire, despite being four centuries behind it in social and technological development, but as a dark fantasy take on Arthurian medievalism I think it works pretty well in its own right. Considering I opened the book expecting to hate it for ruining everything I liked about 1st edition Bretonnia, I feel that's quite an achievement.

Barony of the Damned (April 2006)

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This book advertises itself as an 'adventure', but it's actually closer to the guidebook-plus-adventure format used in Paths of the Damned. The barony of the title is Mousillon, a swampland region of Bretonnia so blighted by necromancy and disease that the king has simply disowned it, with a ring of forts around it tasked with making sure that no-one ever leaves to infect the rest of the kingdom. As such, it gives the authors an excuse to turn the awfulness of life in the Old World right the way up to eleven, as they describe a region full of ignorant, inbred, diseased, deformed, starving, superstitious peasants straight out of Blackadder or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, terrorised by a psychopathic aristocracy of petty tyrants who impale people alive for poaching frogs. These are people so miserable that the highest ambition of their shit-smeared lives is competing to have a fatter village pig than the one in the village down the road. The whole region is infested with ghouls, zombies, beastmen, and mutants, while the skaven use the place as a testing-ground for trying out new diseases. It's all a bit much for a serious game - how is anyone still alive in there? - but if your version of WHFRP leans further towards black comedy and self-parody then this stuff should be gold, and if it doesn't then you could just tone it down a bit and still have a very usable dark fantasy setting.

The book is full of grotesque horror-fantasy material: a cannibal lord, beastmen fattening up human children for slaughter in pens beneath sacred trees, a court of ghouls meeting beneath the streets of a ruined city, an Erzsébet Báthory knock-off who has carried on her reign of evil despite being walled up alive inside her castle, and plenty more. There's also an ex-knight named Mallobaude, who discovered the truth about the Grail and the Lady (i.e. that the whole religion is just an enormous scam to provide the elves with expendable human warriors and magically-talented children, though this isn't explicitly spelled out in the book), and decided to raise an army in Mousillon with which to overthrow the whole system. He's a good combination of sympathetic and unsympathetic elements, and I can well imagine PCs finding his objectives appealing even while being less keen on the whole 'tear down the throne with a legion of madmen and monsters' part of his plan.

The adventure deals with the PCs being sent into Mousillon to find a runaway criminal. 'Track down this guy' adventures always risk becoming railroads, as they have to keep the PCs moving from clue to clue along the trail, but this one does a good job of mitigating this tendency by making each section as open as possible. There's a village feud, a visit to a vampire count, and a chance to get mixed up with various criminals, revolutionaries, and serial killers in Mousillon city before finally tracing their quarry down into the hidden kingdom of ghouls beneath the city's streets. At the adventure's climax, the leader of the ghouls, the Cannibal Knight, gives them a choice of three truly awful things to do in exchange for the man they're looking for... and the adventure then genuinely leaves it up to the PCs which one to attempt, and how to attempt it, and whether they really go through with it or just try to trick the Cannibal Knight into thinking they have, or whether they just decide that there are some moral lines they're simply not prepared to cross and walk away from the whole situation. This sort of thing is far too rare in published adventures, and I applaud its inclusion here.

In summary - this is a good book, easily one of the best in the whole WHFRP 2nd edition line. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in dark fantasy and comedy peasants.