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. 

18 comments:

  1. barony of the damned is, when i think of it, one of my favorite rpg adventures in noughts. what about terror in talabheim?

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    1. ...huh. I've just checked the list and realised that's the only WFRP 2nd edition book I haven't read. It must have slipped through somehow.

      I guess you'll find out in the next post!

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      Delete
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  2. So I have weird insight into the Empire/Bretonnia comparison. I'm big into Renaissance warfare, and helped design the fan-made 9th Edition of WHFB. I find Bretonnia as a military power a little more plausible than you. Plate-armoured lancers were effective into the early 17th century, and longbows were superior infantry weapons to muskets into at least the late 17th century. Their phasing out wasn't because they were ineffectual weapons systems, but because training time and, for lancers, cost were prohibitive factors, especially with the increased bloodshed of the wars of the 16th century. For lancers, combine that with the increasingly commercial concerns of the aristocracy and you have a serious mampower problem. Hence pistoliers and musketeers become far more appealing.

    No defence of the trebuchet, though. The bombard had comfortably replaced it.

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    1. The elves don't want the Bretonnians getting too powerful so they purposely hamstring artillery development. Any radicals with a favorable view of gunpowder never find the grail.

      That's how I would justify it.

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    2. I'm of the same mind as James. My headcanon is that anyone in Bretonnia who delves into anything the Lady doesn't like ends up getting an unfriendly visit from the elves or their tame enchantresses.

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    3. Owen: really good points on weapon systems. I think my issue is less with the simple existence of lancers and bowmen on early modern battlefields - after all, heavy armoured cavalry were being fielded as late as the English Civil War, and my own ATWC setting has horse archers and musketeers existing side-by-side in a sort-of 17th-century Central Asian context. It's more that Bretonnia is written from the top down as a medieval state - politically, economically, socially, etc - even though Estalia, Tilea, Marienberg, the Empire, and even Kislev are all clearly early modern.

      (Norsca being stuck in the 10th century is even worse, but I'll come to that later...)

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    4. James, Stephen - Bretonnia being artificially maintained in a state of enforced primitivism while the rest of the world hurtles past it is very appealing (and at least semi-canonical). It's just a bit hard to reconcile with it still being a major power in the world rather than a sad little backwater somewhere, locked into a kind of national Stockholm Syndrome in relation to its Wood Elf abusers...

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  3. If nothing else, the switch to codified army books ushered in a high water mark for game book illustration and graphic design.

    Also interesting, a lot of wargame fans point to Bretonnia's tax rate as an example of how comically, unbelievably grim the setting is, which I've always found very strange. I guess most fantasy settings don't highlight the working conditions of medieval serfs.

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    1. I still prefer the Slaves to Darkness era stuff, myself. But I agree that they were very pretty books. I was always especially fond of the maps.

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    2. The older books are amazing explosions of creativity, but I think there's a cohesion and usability in the 5th-7th edition wargame books that's really impressive, with illustrations leading the eye around the page and little touches like the Empire book referencing an early printed broadsheet or illuminated capitals in the Bretonnia book. I also like how they had the option of full color printing but chose to use it sparingly.

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  4. I am not defending 'Knights of the Grail' because I think everything beyond what we agreed on in your first WHFRP post is junk randomly dipping in to the writing of these pdfs which is the quickest way to dismiss something.

    Poor writing == moronic regardless of 'ideas'. Art is mercenary and irrelevant. I value writing and I don't see it ... anywhere.

    I will point out, not to be a dick, but because it is true, that Florence and Venice in the 13th century were in a fair measure 100-150 years in advance of France, and more than that in advance of Germany and England so it was certainly possible for these historical incongruities to exist side by side.

    Reflect for a moment on your Dante.

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    1. Were the 1st edition WHFRP books really 'good writing', though? They were clear and evocative and knew when to shut up, which puts them head and shoulders above most of the 2nd edition line, but they're hardly triumphs of prose style. I suspect that it's the ideas (and the art) which made them stick, rather than the fact that their authors really knew their way around a sentence.

      And, yeah, I'm probably being too harsh on the historical anachronisms in 2nd edition. I think I'm being unduly influenced by my knowledge that the whole 'high medieval France' version of Bretonnia was retconned in - in my view unnecessarily - to replace the original and much less incongruous 'Bourbon France' version in 1996.

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  5. ==but they're hardly triumphs of prose style

    Heh heh. No but we live in hope. Let us say that that the words did not despoil the atmosphere, and propose that typically words in an rpg undermine the illustrations.

    No one pays attention to me but I have been saying for a while that the perfect rpg book would have no pictures, just like a novel. I do not rule out a tastefully designed cover.

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    1. I got into RPGs by looking at the illustrations in the AD&D Monster Manual, and it's very unlikely that Warhammer would've been successful without the art.

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  6. Interesting series of posts. Amongst WFRP 2e adventures, Barony of the Damned, Terror in Talabheim and The Thousand Thrones were my favourites (although the finale of the last was a disappointment).

    Are you going to comment on fan/magazine adventures? For WFRP 1e, much of the best short stuff seemed to be in the pages of White Dwarf. (Night of Blood, Rough Night at the Three Feathers, Grapes of Wrath, With a Little Help From My Friends.) The fan contests of WFRP 2e produced many excellent short adventures: the Nine Virtues of Magnus the Pious would have been a better starter for the core book, and Hoodies was a much better Bretonnian adventure.

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