Terror in Talabheim (July 2006)
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
Tome of Corruption (October 2006)
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.
|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.