Monday, 1 October 2018

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

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

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

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

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Thousand Thrones (April 2008)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thankfully WFRP has no 'symbologist' career.

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

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

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

Shades of Empire (January 2009)

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

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

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

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

The Career Compendium (February 2009)


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

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

8 comments:

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

    DAMN STRAIGHT IT DOES. MAN O' WAR LIVES!

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  2. I might be a bit more positive, but I think your review of the Thousand Thrones is fair (and a good one). One aspect you don't seem to have mentioned is that there are half a dozen people who might be the PC's patron/boss: my group was working for the Witch Hunter. This gave me a chance to tie things together a little more: (i) the Witch Hunter (and by implication the PCs) are tasked to investigate the crusade; (ii) one of the PCs was a well known agitator, another a notorious thief, forced to serve the Witch Hunter, and recognised by the Blaublut in chapter 2. I toned down the difficulty of Villa Hahn (but agree with it being memorable, especially when they found the corpse of their boss). I used Chapter 8 as an outline, as things had gone rather differently in the crusade. The letdown for me was the last chapter: I stripped it back to the horror, rather than combat, encounters, and made the climax of the campaign a roleplay as the PCs tried to convince the boy. Two of them departed into the wilderness with the lad, hoping to avoid contact for the rest of their lives.

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    1. Yeah, I probably should have mentioned the multiple hooks, which can put a different spin on the whole campaign: if the PCs discover they've been secretly working for the vampires all along, for example. I really liked the optional dead boss encounter in chapter 5 - I thought it sent a strong signal that the situation had gone completely off the rails, and just completing your mission and getting paid was no longer even an option.

      I'm impressed that you managed to get through the whole thing, and the bittersweet ending sounds very appropriate. (It reminds me a bit of the 'Mountains of Madness' campaign for Call of Cthulhu, where the surviving PCs ultimately realise that there is no true victory, only damage limitation.) How did you handle the more railroady bits, like chapter 4? And did you and the players enjoy the campaign overall?

      Condensing chapter 9 into a horrorshow instead of a dungeon crawl, and replacing the final battle with a purely social encounter, sound like very good decisions. I don't really know why they kept writing giant dungeon crawls for WFRP2 - this one, Karak Azgal, Lure of the Lichmaster. It's really not the game's forte...

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    2. As best as I can remember without consulting my notes: I tried to throw out absurdities like documents falling out of jackets in Chapter 4; I made a list of things that needed to happen, and tried to introduce them whenever the PCs did something related. This wasn't a total success. There was fun when the group tried to infiltrate a hospital, got rebuffed at the front entrance, and then sneaked round the back; they stole uniforms, then rushed in with one of them on a stretcher, the others pretend medics. What followed was a mixture of "Do you concur doctor" (Catch Me If You Can) and scenes like those in Sleeper.
      For chapter 7, I dumped the pretend kidnapping, and had the mystic direct them to the other boy, with some fairly blatant hints that this would uncover what the vampires were scheming.
      The PCs kept failing saves whenever they met the boy; even at the very end, most ended up charmed.
      I agree with your view that it is a good toolkit for a "Crusade that goes badly", or a hexcrawl, rather than an adventure to run as is. The chapters away from the crusade may well be the stronger material.
      I am in complete agreement concerning dungeon crawls: WFRP groups can't take the continual punishment D+D groups can, yet "12 black orcs in a cave" keep popping up. I think you'd be better off converting low level D+D modules like B10 Night's Dark Terror for 2nd (or better) career characters.

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    3. Ah, I love PC plans. Especially when they involve bluffing and disguises, which is, like, 95% of the time.

      On reflection, I think that the major problem with 'The Thousand Thrones' was the insistence on making it into a campaign, rather than the collection of stand-alone scenarios it could so easily have been. The Crusade proper could have been a single 'Death on the Reik' sized adventure, consisting of elements drawn from chapters 1, 6, 8, and 9, which would have massively cut down on the amount of railroading required. Chapters 2, 3, 5, and 7 could all easily have been turned into independent adventures with a bit of work. And without the need to somehow transition from chapter 3 to chapter 5, you could shed the awful chapter 4 entirely!

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  3. Supplemental: there is some extra Thousand Thrones material on the Liber Fanatica website which can be adapted to give the PCs extra information as needed/enhance the campaign.

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  4. I never picked up Thousand Thrones since each time I flipped through it I felt like I found something to dislike. I did (and do) like Shades of Empire, particularly the Dockers, the Glorious Revolution (Reformed), the Lodge, and the Roadwardens - pretty much all of the "low" organizations, since they're the ones my PCs were most likely to interact with.

    The Career Compendium I found mildly useful simply because it kept track of the additional careers that a core book career could enter from or exit to.

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