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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TOTALLY WAKING UP SOON, YOU GUYS. JUST A COUPLE MORE EDITIONS AT MOST!

22 comments:

  1. Tome of Salvation it's one of the best rpg books about religion that I have readed. It's a bit extreme and exagerated sometimes (as you would expect in Warhammer) but the religion depicted in that book feels... religious.

    I'm pretty bored of the D&D-ification of gods in fantasy rpg's. I mean, I hate that only the clerics care about the god(s) they praise and everyone that's not a cleric (or a paladin, druid, etc) ignores religion at all. Maybe it's only a problem in my table, but in most fantasy rpg's we have played this happens again and again...

    But not with Warhammer. I think it's because details in all the books (deeply explained in Tome of Salvation) but I fear that it's because swearing saying 'Taal's teeth!', 'Valaya's helm!' or 'Heldenhammer damn you!' it's plain cool.

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    1. I know what you mean about D&D religion. I think WFRP may partially avoid it because its themes and setting actually help to encourage something closer to a historical religious mindset: you really are a small and insignificant figure in a grand cosmic battleground, forces of spiritual corruption really do lie in wait to devour the unwary, and you need all the divine help that you can get. Part of the brilliance of 'Chaos' as a concept is that it communicates to modern secular gamers something of the horror that 'sin' held for their more religious forebears.

      I find this particularly impressive given that WFRP religion clearly started out *as* D&D religion: Taal is the god of druids, Myrmidia is the goddess of fighters, Ranald is the god of thieves, Shallya is the goddess of healer-clerics, and so on. They're gods designed to meet the spiritual needs of a D&D party, not a real community. But it's since developed into something more, and I agree that 'Tome of Salvation' is an important part of that development.

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    2. All this reminds me I need to actually write the blog article about religion in fantasy settings I was planning - I'm a religious person and find the approaches to it in RPGs and fiction largely ridiculous/boring as all get out. Joseph, I have recently namechecked ATWC as about the best RPG approach to religion I've seen (...which may surprise you!).

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    3. Thanks, Owen - that's very flattering. I've studied religious history quite a lot over the years, and I try to take it seriously in the material that I write - especially because, as you note, the treatment of religion in RPGs is often very disappointing. Do send me a link if you write that blog post!

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    4. I'm late but I'm very interested in that article!

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    5. https://haughtyfantasy.blogspot.com/2018/11/fantasy-in-fantasy-rpg-settings.html a first, imperfect, but hopefully interesting version.

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  2. Spells that turn you into gigantic hags with terrible metallic pointy bits evokes Baba Yaga in the best of ways. As someone with Russian heritage I am also not sure how you do fantasy Russia without a Baba Yaga knock off, it'd be like a fantasy western without Buffalo Bill inspired cowboys.

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  3. Loved this column - looking forward to what you make of The Thousand Thrones.

    I think though you missed out the GM's Pack that dropped at the same time as the Core book - https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/63139/Warhammer-Fantasy-Roleplay-2nd-Edition-Game-Masters-Pack

    It came with an introductory scenario called Pretty Things by Alfred Nunez. Far superior to Through the Drakwald and for me it's 2e's intro scenario.

    They also released a proper screen a few years later.

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    1. Ack - missed that one. I'll have to cover it in the name of completeness, now...

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  4. How are you able, or perhaps I should ask why are you willing, to read through so many hundreds (thousands?) of pages of gibberish? I make judgement after reading a few pages of rpg material, and while this disqualifies me from writing reviews in conscience, I could present a list of titles I strongly suspect of utter rot - those on reading I hear my self groan after several seconds, 'Oh Christ, not again ...'

    Also how have you made the reading of hundreds-paged pdfs comfortable?

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    1. I'm an academic specialising in the study of literary history. Skimming hundreds of pages of often-boring material, looking for the handful of signals in an ocean of noise, is second nature to me. It's the reason I don't mind rewriting all those Pathfinder adventure paths. Turning hundreds of pages of tedious raw material into a few pages of usable notes is a big part of what I do in my day job.

      My method is probably not that different to yours. Glancing at a couple of sentences will usually reveal whether or not a paragraph is worth reading properly; glancing at a couple of paragraphs will reveal whether a page is worth reading properly, and so on. The only difference is that, rather than abandoning the book entirely, I keep skimming forwards in search of the next bit that's worth a closer reading. Sometimes there isn't one, like with that awful equipment book. But I usually find something worth commenting on.

      This ties in with the pdf thing. Pdfs are horrible for close reading but great for rapid skimming, and that's exactly what I use them for with books like this.

      Besides, I read most of these books months ago. I don't read them all in the time between my posts!

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    2. You have a skill, but I would have thought it was of more service to civil servants scanning acres of dullage on behalf of illiterate politicians.

      == literary history. Skimming hundreds of pages of often-boring material, looking for the handful of signals in an ocean of noise

      I know you mean secondary material but why academics are funded to scrutinize anything other than primary (very difficult) material I don't know.

      I was trained in mathematics which is a dense medium which doesn't become compromised with bloating so much as clouded by immediate irrelevance.

      I try to read pdfs on a big screen tv and it is fine for a while but I need paper to become consumed. I will spend far more on impressive physical books than electronic gadgets - old git. Some people I know prefer to read pdfs on their phone to the kindle. Paper for me, and paper requires a commitment, and solid reviews, and knowledge, and taste. And perhaps the electronic media which excludes professional editors and aesthetes, invites a populism of morons from which it would take James Joyce a hundred years to emerge from rather than being desperately sought after while he was illegal.

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    3. I have to skim a lot of primary material, too. Old-style formalist criticism - which I'm guessing you're a fan of - lets you get away with just reading the great works, but if you want to understand, say, Wordsworth within the context of his time, you'd better be ready to read a *lot* of not very interesting eighteenth-century nature poetry. Otherwise how will you be able to draw out what was distinctive about his works?

      I agree that electronic media changes both the way people read and the way in which they write. As McLuhan said, the medium is the message. Hearteningly, however, predictions of the death of print media seem to have been premature: book sales are up, at least in the UK, while ebook sales are plateauing. It seems as though you're far from alone in your preference for print!

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    4. ==Wordsworth within the context of his time, you'd better be ready to read a *lot* of not very interesting eighteenth-century nature poetry. Otherwise how will you be able to draw out what was distinctive about his works?

      I don't think there is any value in distinguishing Wordsworth from lesser poets of his time, what I mean is expending effort trying to explain the distinction. I have found that experienced readers from all walks of life recognise profundity when they encounter it, if they do this in isolation they frantically share their discovery until they are reassured that such a writer is a known occupant of the canon. We know it when we see it and worrying about the justification of literary degree is as pointless as comparing beauty and ordinariness in the human form.

      This is not at all to say that brilliance from the past won't be uncovered where before it was unnoticed. In music Schubert's piano sonatas were in a sense rediscovered by Artur Schnabel in the early 20th century, as were Bach's cello suites by Pablo Casals. Great painters are sometimes surprisingly neglected in their lifetime (which makes their dedication all the more remarkable). Who would dare say that more opaque medium of writing does not shroud even more hidden treasures. But academics should focus on unearthing brilliance. Historical context is something everyone can do at their own pace, that takes ages, and when it comes to literary context my suggestion is not to spend any effort on the mediocre. As soon as it is recognised shun it like a plague rat.

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  5. Just to bang on that Riders of the Dead drum a little more, the habit of blinding corpses comes up, but in a great bit of low-fantasy worldbuilding you're never conclusively shown whether it's a literal thing or a superstition.

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  6. as far as kislev goes have you read a private war? by tim eccles?

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    1. No, I haven't. It's an unofficial 1st edition supplement, yes? Would you recommend it?

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  7. In your opinion, how much of the details and ideas in Tome of Salvation might be portable to a non-Warhammer campaign setting? My Pathfinder campaign shares a vaguely 16th-century milieu with the Old World and it sounds like there might be some good mineable material there. (At least one player is using the religious establishment as a vehicle for social climbing so the more living detail I can give it the better).

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    1. I'm sure you could find stuff worth stealing, but if the main similarity is the shared connection to early modern Europe, why not just draw upon real-world religious history? Christopher Hill's 'The World Turned Upside Down' and Diarmaid McCulloch's 'Reformation' are good starting points, while Norman Cohn's 'The Pursuit of the Millennium' is a great source of religious crazies of all stripes.

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    2. (The daddy of them all, though, and the one I should really have suggested first, is Keith Thomas's epochal study of early modern folk beliefs, 'Religion and the Decline of Magic'.)

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    3. Thanks for the pointers! RN I'm working through Duffy's Stripping of the Altars (I think that one's pretty famous? I remember getting parts of it as an undergrad) and The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Calendar Year 1400-1700 by Ronald Hutton, to try and get a feel for religion's day-to-day workings among average people esp. how it intersected with folk customs/beliefs.

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