Sunday, 20 January 2019

Echoes and Reverberations part 3: Shadow of the Demon Lord

Happy new year, everyone! The last of the Christmas brandy has now been drunk, so I guess it's time I got back into the habit of blogging...

This is the third in a series of posts about what happened to WFRP after the demise of 2nd edition. The first two covered the official third edition. The next few will deal with the various other systems which, directly or indirectly, tried to carry on the WFRP legacy.

In the case of Shadow of the Demon Lord, the connection was a pretty direct one. Robert Schwalb had been the developer for WFRP 2nd edition, and was one of its lead writers, but seems to have had nothing to do with 3rd edition. (Possibly there was some bitterness between him and FFG over their decision to kill off 'his' edition of the game.) He spent the 3rd edition years (2009-13) writing D&D books for WOTC: but in early 2014, perhaps as a response to the final decline of WFRP 3rd edition, he began work on a game of his own, called Shadow of the Demon Lord, which went on to be successfully funded via Kickstarter in 2015. Schwalb has always been pretty open about the fact that Shadow was, effectively, his own personal 'WFRP 2.5', and the game has never made much effort to conceal its Warhammer influences. But by stepping away from the actual Games Workshop brand, Schwalb gained the freedom to develop the same core concept in some rather interesting ways.

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In many ways, I think that Shadow is WFRP 3 done right. Like WFRP 3, it aimed to marry together the old-school low-fantasy grimness of WFRP with both storygame-inspired mechanics and D&D-style fantasy heroics: but, unlike WFRP 3, the resulting mix actually worked. Let me explain:
  • From WFRP, Shadow took its early modern setting, its fantasy-horror themes and aesthetics, its focus upon cults, demons, and beast-men as the default antagonists, and its preoccupation with physical, mental, and magical corruption. 
  • From D&D - more specifically D&D 3rd edition - Shadow took its class-and-level based system and its emphasis on PCs whose rapidly increasing power was modelled via a la carte multiclassing.
  • From storygames, Shadow took the idea of the campaign as a scripted arc lasting a determinate number of sessions.
That third one looks small, but it's a real game-changer. For those of you unfamiliar with Shadow, this is how it works: a Shadow campaign lasts exactly 11 sessions. At the start of session 1, you pick an 'ancestry' (i.e. a race) and pick or roll for one or two 'professions' (i.e. a job): the professions are pretty WFRP-esque, so you might find yourself playing a human agitator, or an orc prostitute, or a goblin constable, or whatever. The titular Shadow of the Demon Lord is just starting to fall across the land, so you find yourself caught up in some kind of horrific one-session adventure, and hopefully survive. At the start of session 2, you advance to level 1 and pick a 'novice path' (i.e. a basic character class): there are four of these, and the choice of Magician, Priest, Rogue or Warrior should be familiar to anyone who has ever played any version of D&D. You're a bit tougher, now, a bit more of a D&D character and a bit less of a WFRP character - but the shadow is growing darker and the world is becoming more threatening, so your next one-session adventure will be more dangerous than the last one, and the one after that will be even worse.

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Survive three one-session adventures and you can pick an 'expert path' like Ranger or Assassin. Survive seven and you can pick a 'master path' like Beastmaster or Inquisitor. All the ancestries, professions, and paths stack with one another, so that by level 7 you might be a Dwarf Charlatan Priest Scout Engineer, or a Changeling Murderer Warrior Witch Technomancer, or whatever. (The D&D 3rd edition influence is very clear, here.) One session = one adventure, surviving one adventure earns you one level, and gaining one level earns you exactly one new ability, so the power and complexity of the characters increases in a very straightforward and predictable way, and you only have one new thing to remember in each session. As the characters grow in power, however, so does the Shadow of the Demon Lord, so that in session 1 they are ordinary people in a world where some spooky things are starting to happen, but by session 10 they are full-blown fantasy heroes in a world rapidly collapsing into a full-scale apocalypse. At the start of session 11 the PCs unlock their final and most powerful abilities, the Shadow of the Demon Lord reaches its fullest extent, and the stage is set for one final, epic showdown with the forces of darkness. Then you turn the clock back to session 1 and do it all over again.

This is a very clever bit of design, for a number of reasons. It acknowledges that while gamers love daydreaming about epic, years-long campaigns, they seldom manage to actually play them, and so condensing your entire arc into 11 sessions means that you have a much better chance of creating a campaign which functions as one massive crescendo and goes out with a bang, rather than one that just kind of wanders around for a while and then peters out. It means that the adventures have to be punchy, tightly-designed affairs, a few pages long at most, because every adventure has to be something that can be played through in a single session. (This protects Shadow adventures from the bloat that plagued WFRP 2 and 3.) It means that you can invoke apocalyptic threats and actually follow through, trashing your whole campaign setting every eleven sessions and allowing the PCs to play roles of world-historical importance - unlike in, say, WFRP 2, where the big threat has already been and gone, and all the really important stuff was done offstage by NPCs. And it means that you can have the 'shopping list' mentality of a crunch-heavy game like D&D3, where players can spend hours thinking about how this ability from this class could be combined with that ability from that race to do something spectacular... except, unlike D&D3, you can actually put your ideas into practise. Getting the combination of abilities you want will only ever take a few sessions at most, and you get to try out a different 'build' every eleven weeks, rather than being stuck with the same one for years on end. 

As with most storygame-inspired design, however, its specificity is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. There's no room here for the kind of picaresque meandering that formed such an important part of both WFRP 1 and old-school D&D, for stories about mercenary adventurers exploring the wilderness in search of treasure, or about semi-criminal vagabonds roaming around the Empire on a barge. There isn't even room for big adventures like B4 The Lost City or Power Behind the Throne, neither of which could possibly be run in a single session. The hardwired zero-to-hero character progression means that campaigns will move swiftly from grimy low fantasy to something far more heroic and high-powered, which is great if you like both of those equally, but might be a turn-off if you'd prefer to linger at one end of the scale rather than having the system force-march you through it and out the other side. Players looking for a more traditional fantasy RPG experience, with longer campaigns, slower level progression, and large, sprawling adventures rather than a staccato rattle of one-shots, would probably be better off house-ruling advancement to one level every 3-4 sessions and slowing the spread of the Shadow to match.

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The setting is a combination of WFRP and modern D&D fantasy. The main setting is a grimy early modern empire full of crime and corruption, very much in the vein of WFRP, with beastmen lurking in the woods and cults gathering in the shadows - but magic is commonplace, and orcs and goblins and changelings and clockwork robots are all playable races. There's less leftover Tolkien material than in Warhammer: Shadow uses creepy fae changelings instead of Tolkien-style elves, while its goblins are a disgusting race of fallen faeries rather than comedy cannon-fodder, and its orcs are a race of magically-created slave-soldiers who have just rebelled and deposed the emperor. (This last bit is a good example of the way that Shadow places the PCs right at the moment of crisis, rather than before it, as in WFRP 3, or after it, as in WFRP 2.) The titular Demon Lord is a bit of a let-down, being little more than a cosmic force of destruction who wrecks everything for no real reason. It's obviously Shadow's stand-in for WFRP's Chaos, but it feels rather flat and impersonal compared to the florid weirdness of the chaos gods.

The setting is very lightly sketched in, and large chunks of the map are given over to an evil desert full of undead, a frozen wasteland full of frost giants, an archipelago full of pirates, and other cliched CRPG-style adventure zones. In a nice OSR-style touch, however, Shadow communicates a lot of information about the tone of its setting via random tables in character generation. The fact that the dice can inform you that your changeling's current legal identity is that of someone they have murdered and replaced, for example, or that the soul animating your clockwork robot came from hell, or that your dwarf pounds nails into his own skull, or that your goblin has 'all the warts' and saves their bodily secretions in small bottles to give to people as gifts, tells you a lot about the the kind of world in which the game is set.

Schwalb Entertainment has adopted an interesting hybrid strategy in relation to supplements for Shadow of the Demon Lord. The game has seven traditional supplements which are available as physical books, as follows:
  • The Demon Lord's Companion: introduces new races, monsters, items, paths, etc.
  • Tombs of the Desolation: details the setting's 'undead desert' region. Includes rules for undead PCs, if you like that sort of thing.
  • Terrible Beauty: describes the setting's horrible, amoral faeries. Includes rules for fae PCs other than changelings. 
  • Exquisite Agony: details the setting's version of hell. (The twist here is that hell may be evil, but it's just as committed to fighting the Demon Lord as everyone else, because the Demon Lord brings not wickedness but annihilation.) 
  • Uncertain Faith: describes the setting's religions. Contains some good, weird cults and sects that could easily be adapted for use in other dark fantasy games. 
  • A Glorious Death: details the setting's 'ice waste of the frost giant vikings' region. 
  • Hunger in the Void: describes the cults and beastmen that serve the demon lord, although my favourite bit in this book was actually the discussion of the various mostly-but-not-quite-annihilated worlds which have continued to drift around in the Void after being eaten by the Demon Lord, and the weird things that inhabit them. 
Each book introduces new player options, which became increasingly eccentric as the line went on, allowing player character fauns, pixies, jotuns, vampires, and so on - not exactly traditional WFRP fare, although pretty tame by the standards of late 3rd edition D&D. They're all pretty short - 40-60 pages each, apart from Hunger, which was 80 - and a lot of the page-count of each book is given over to new monsters, races, adventures, etc, which means that they mostly cover their topics in a fairly cursory fashion. Their take on faeries, hell, cults, beastmen, and religion are all solidly horrible dark fantasy fare, but there's nothing here which is likely to especially surprise or impress anyone who's already familiar with WFRP and its ilk.

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Shadow also has three 'campaign books':
  • Tales of the Demon Lord: A book containing 11 short adventures, intended for use as a complete 11-session SotDL campaign. 
  • Queen of Gold: Another 11-adventure book. 
  • Tales of the Desolation: Only 4 adventures in this one. You'll have to get the other seven from somewhere else.
In addition to these ten physical books, however, Schwalb Entertainment has released no less than ninety-two short pdf-only supplements for the game, most of which are just a few pages long and sell for a dollar or two on Drivethrurpg. Each of these mini-supplements provides one short adventure, or one new playable race, or new rules on one topic, or information on one more area of the setting. A decade ago these would probably have been bundled up and released as another nine or ten physical books, which is exactly the kind of bloat that helped to kill off WFRP 2: keeping them all as pdf-only releases seems a much more sensible option. I've only read the core book, the seven supplements, and the first campaign book, but in terms of sheer word-count, the total amount of material released for Shadow must now rival that of WFRP 2.

Taken on its own terms, I think Shadow is a fine and functional dark fantasy RPG. The system looks much better-designed than that of either WFRP 2 or D&D 3, and I'm sure I'd enjoy running or playing it. For me, however, it never quite managed to have the same bite as WFRP: it all just felt a bit too placeholderish, a bit too generic. It's not that it's sanitised, exactly: indeed, coming loose from the Warhammer franchise has allowed Schwalb to fill his game with all the sex and shit and horribleness that Games Workshop would never want to have associated with their IP. It's more that it feels... sort of... assembled by checklist, I guess? It felt to me as though it featured torture-demons and amoral faeries and murder-cultists because those are the sorts of things that you're supposed to have in a dark fantasy RPG, rather than because the authors had any especially compelling ideas about how to make their demons and faeries and cultists different from everyone else's. It's the opposite of the early GW approach, where they mostly seem to have started from art and ideas - 'Evil Assyrian dwarves with blunderbusses!' - and worked backwards from there. I read nine books worth of material for Shadow, looking for stuff worth borrowing for my own games, and at the end of the day all I'd come away with was one monster, a couple of ideas for cults, and a few set-pieces from the adventures in Tales of the Demon Lord. The rest is all just one big sub-WFRP blur.

If you're looking for something midway between modern D&D and WFRP (but more logically designed than either of them), or if you like the sound of its 'eleven sessions and done' campaign structure, then Shadow is probably the game for you. If neither of those applies, though, you might be better off just getting Tales of the Demon Lord and adapting the adventures for use in WFRP 1/2 instead.

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Thursday, 20 December 2018

Adventures in miniature painting

It's time I came clean about something. All the Warhammer stuff I've been reading over the last few months has obviously affected me on a much deeper level than I wanted to admit. It's made me do something I thought I'd never do again.

For the first time in twenty years, I've started painting miniatures.

Initially, I felt as though I barely remembered which end of the brush to hold. I bought a sprue of Moria goblins off ebay, for no reason except that they were cheap, and used them for painting practise. The results, unsurprisingly, were pretty rough.




Still, I'd found painting them to be extremely relaxing, and it had given me a taste for painting goblins. So I pulled all the teeny-tiny goblin figures from my 1st edition Battlelore box and painted them, as well.






And then the goblin models from Arena of the Planeswalkers, for good measure.


By this point, my confidence, if not my skill, was increasing. So I decided to take on a bigger project: painting all the miniatures from the old D&D boardgame I bought earlier this year.










The next step, obviously, was to move onto the other board game I acquired at the same time, Legend of Drizzt, and its sister game, Castle Ravenloft. These came with a lot of miniatures, so getting them all painted up is clearly going to be a long-term project.

  








In between board game miniatures, I also painted a few other orcs and goblins from here and there.


And some cultists and adventurers from Frostgrave:



So, four months in, here's what I have painted up so far.

The humanoid horde:


The lich and his minions:


Dungeon dwellers:


The Company of the Foaming Tankard:

WILL FIGHT FOR BEER.

I'm still not very good, and I'm focusing on speed and efficiency rather than fine detail, but I think I'm getting better. I've recently picked up some new paints and brushes, so I'm looking forward to seeing what I can do with them in the new year!

Sunday, 16 December 2018

[Actual Play] Holy Heat-Rays, Batman! Team Tsathogga ascends the Plateau of Yeth

In my last actual play write-up, I described how Team Tsathogga adopted what remained of the Devourer cult, promising to lead them through the thousand miles of unmapped wilderness that lay between them and the sea. Before they went, though, they decided to give their shrine a really thorough looting: and so, while Tiny drilled the undead cultists in the arts of sign language and phalanx warfare, the rest of the PCs descended once again into the Deathfrost Mountain shrine.

Now, Death Frost Doom has a bit of a reputation as a party killer - but it was written as a module for low-level characters, and it was simply never designed to survive the attentions of a cautious, systematic, and well-equipped party of 7th level PCs. Even the true Dead King turned out not to be much of a threat to a party able to throw 30-odd HP worth of unavoidable Magic Missile damage at him every single round. Slowly, carefully, at a rate of a few rooms per day, Team Tsathogga explored and ransacked the entire place, toasting most of the undead along the way. They even added insult to injury by reconsecrating the main shrine in the name of the Frog God. The only inhabitants they spared were the two obese ghouls, who freaked them out so much that they just walled them up inside their own crypt and left them alone, and the Red Architect, whom they freed from her crypt/prison and allowed to tag along with them on the condition that she swore on the Testifier never to directly (or indirectly) cause (or allow) them (or their allies) to come to harm (as they themselves would define it). Through extensive questioning they learned all about her complicated backstory, the interlinked histories of the Devourer cult and the faith of the Shining One, how the shrine came to be built, what powered all the weird magical stuff inside it, and so on. Then they locked her inside a room and went off to discuss how best to destroy her life's work.

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Pick on somebody your own level for once!
When the last room had been searched and looted, the PCs paused to take stock. By questioning the cultists, they had learned that the thousands of glass globes within the amorphous body of the Divine Parasite each contained a human soul, suspended in liquid time. They knew that roughly half of these were the souls of the cultists who had served at the shrine over the centuries, who experienced the song of the Parasite as a blissful rest, and that the other half were the souls of their sacrificial victims, who experienced it as continual torment. They knew from bitter experience that when a globe was broken, the soul within it immediately fled back to its corpse and reanimated it - at least until the corpse itself was destroyed, at which point it passed on to whatever afterlife awaited it. And they knew that the embalmed corpses of a thousand-odd cultists still remained in the shrine's burial vaults, awaiting the final arrival of the Devourer so that they could march forth and destroy the world in its name. They didn't much like the idea of leaving this sleeping corpse-army intact, and they really didn't like the idea of leaving the souls of a thousand-odd innocent people stranded in eternal suffering. But how was the situation to be resolved without unleashing an evil undead army upon the world?

In the end, they hit upon a sort-of solution. The cultist corpses were embalmed, so they reasoned that they would burn readily. The Divine Parasite clearly didn't like heat or fire, so a firestorm big enough to consume a thousand bodies would almost certainly be sufficient to burn it to death, thus freeing all the souls within it. Relocating that many corpses from their burial niches to the corridor right next to the parasite was a big job, but Titus was able to raise twenty-seven of them as a zombie work gang, capable of labouring day and night to drag the rest into position. The PCs made sure that the corpses were suitably arranged, with plenty of air-space to allow the fire to spread, and pockets of oil-soaked kindling distributed throughout the hecatomb. They armed their zombies with burning torches and gave them orders to advance in waves and light the fire, with each pair stepping forwards to rekindle the blaze whenever it seemed in danger of burning out, and the last four standing as guardians to whack any half-burned undead cultists who managed to fight their way free of the inferno. Then they piled lots of rocks on top of the entrance to the shrine and ran away.

Their plan was for the fire to destroy the vast majority of the cultist's corpses before it reached the Parasite and burned it to death, with the result that only a small number of them would be able to reanimate, and that those that did would mostly find themselves trapped under a heap of burning skeletons in the middle of a firestorm and burn to death before they were able to escape. The remainder would hopefully be finished off by the zombies. As for the souls of their victims, they would be free... to reanimate their corpses in the mass grave on the mountainside. This was, they acknowledged, a potential problem, as prior experience had shown that such souls tended to be hopelessly crazed by their experiences within the Parasite, and prone to random acts of violence. But the resulting zombie army would be disorganised, and would presumably emerge from their graves in waves, given the varying lengths of time that it would take to dig themselves free of the frozen soil. Forces from Vornheim were probably already on their way, as the Grand Duke must by now have received word of their (fictional) 'secret mission' and realised that something on Deathfrost Mountain had gone badly wrong. And even if the area around the shrine did get reduced to an uninhabitable skeleton-infested wasteland, was that really worse than allowing the suffering of the souls within the Parasite to continue forever?

So they took the Red Architect, and they took their own undead cultists, and they ran away. From the safety of the next valley, they watched the mountain shake and tremble, and they knew the Divine Parasite was dead: Vorn, the God Beneath the Mountain, was stirring in his sleep, probably obliterating what was left of the shrine in the process. (They knew from questioning the Architect that the shrine of the Devourer had literally been built directly over his face.) They reassured the anxious cultists that this was an auspicious sign, a good omen for their journey, symbolising that the old dispensation was over and that it was time for them to return to the Hissing Prophets of the Purple Islands. Then they turned their backs on Deathfrost Mountain and marched west, while up in the jumbled, frozen soil of the mass grave, hundreds of skeletal hands began to claw their way up towards the surface...

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It'll be fiiine...

Still, that was now someone else's problem. Team Tsathogga led their followers over the mountains: an arduous journey made possible only by Resist Cold and Resist Energy spells, and by the fact that the undead were impervious to bad weather. Descending the far side of the range, they saw broken lands stretching out before them: the beginning of the great Northern Wilderness, to which no kingdom laid claim. Knowing that they were now well and truly off the map, they began using Sovan as a spotter: each morning, while they had breakfast, he would sit cross-legged and slowly levitate straight up to a height of 3000 feet, look around, and then slowly levitate back down again. In this way they were able to get a sense of the surrounding terrain, and plotted their journey further west, across the hills and up the looming slopes of a high plateau. Sovan had glimpsed something up there glinting like glass in the far distance, and they wanted to know what it was.

The PCs hadn't progressed very far across the plateau when they encountered its inhabitants: a race of minotaurs, primitive pastoralists who lived by herding sheep across its meagre pastures. (The similarities between the minotaurs and his own horned, thick-skinned, vat-grown warrior race were not lost on Tiny, who suspected that either his people had been modelled on them, or vice versa.) The minotaurs were initially suspicious of the intrusion into their lands, proclaiming that they were the guardians of the Vitreous Citadels, and would permit no-one to approach them: but the PCs insisted that they were just passing through, leading a procession of 'pilgrims' (i.e. the undead cultists) whose exacting ritual purity requirements meant that they had to stay covered up and avoid contact with unbelievers at all times. They promised to perform great feats of healing and woodwork for the minotaurs in exchange for safe passage; and the bull-men, evidently curious, brought them back to their village, where the PCs were promptly set to work healing the sick (with Cure Disease spells) and creating various kinds of decorative woodwork (with Warp Wood spells). Impressed by their evident magical prowess, and not especially eager to pick a fight with a large group of magically-powerful travellers, the minotaurs agreed to let them pass through their lands on the condition that they stayed as far away from the citadels as possible. These citadels, they explained, were the homes of a bat-winged race called the Yeth, whom the minotaurs regarded with reverence and superstitious dread.

While staying in the minotaur village, the PCs befriended two of its other residents. One of these was a wandering vulture-man: his name was an untranslatable sequence of calls that sounded a bit like 'Keuuah-kehhueak', so the players decided to call him Kerouac for short. Kerouac told them that his people, the vulture-men, had once ruled over a carrion kingdom in this region, until a coalition of other races led by the Yeth had torn them down: ever since then, those of them that remained had lived as travelling funerary-priests, wandering from one community to the next in order to carry out divinations, funerals, and exorcisms. The PCs deduced that the black magic practised by their late enemy, Hagen, must have been learned from the vulture-men, but when questioned on this, Kerouac insisted that their sacred dances were only ever to be taught to other vulture-men. He was very distressed at the idea of them being practised by a 'cave dwarf' like Hagen, and was relieved when the party explained that he was now dead. He also made clear that his people took a very dim view of undead, and was getting very suspicious of the 'pilgrims' until Sophie zapped him with a Charm Person spell and told him not to worry about it.

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My vulture-men are basically the ones from Elfmaids, although the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal were also an influence.
The second new acquaintance that the PCs made was an adolescent minotaur, sick of being stuck in his village and eager to see the world beyond. He told them that although his people regarded it as their sacred duty to protect the vitreous citadels of the Yeth, no-one had actually seen one of the Yeth within living memory. He strongly suspected that they were actually all dead, and pure cultural inertia was keeping his people stuck on the plateau when they should have been rampaging through the world outside.

Intrigued by all this, Hash and Sovan set off the next day to spy on the citadels under the cover of invisibility. Up close, it became obvious that the citadels had been shaped using some kind of immense heat, which seemed to have been able to melt rock into glass: this tallied with the stories told to them by Kerouac, which described the Yeth having possessed some kind of powerful fire-magic that had allowed them to burn the vulture-men out of the sky. The doors of the citadel had been melted shut, and the lowest windows were 15' off the ground: but Sovan was able to teleport up to them with a Dimension Door spell, and peered into the darkness within. Inside he saw a vast, vaulted hall, its walls covered in dusty bas-relief images depicting heroic-looking bat-men battling against humans, minotaurs, and vulture-men, and its floors covered in broken debris and rotted trash. His appearance on the windowsill triggered some kind of alarm, however, and as he scrambled down to hide in the trees outside he heard sounds of motion from within the citadel, followed by the appearance of a scrawny-looking bat-man in the window, who waved some kind of metal device around and yelled out words in an unfamiliar chirping tongue. Filtered through Comprehend Languages, they turned out to be: 'Who dares approach the citadels of Yeth? Flee, interlopers, lest we burn you where you stand! Yeth is magnificent! Yeth is invincible!'

Returning to the rest of the PCs, Hash and Sovan shared their conclusions: that while the Yeth still existed, they were clearly only a shadow of their former glory. The citadels had obviously been built for a population of thousands, but the time it had taken for even a single creature to respond to the alarm suggested that perhaps only a handful of inhabitants now remained within each of them. Curious, the PCs fobbed the minotaurs off with an excuse about needing to carry out some kind of purification ritual and headed off to the nearest citadel under the cover of illusion magic. Hiding in the bushes, they sent a minotaur-shaped Purple Simulacrum off to knock at the door, which triggered the alarm again: the same bat-man soon came to the window and began threatening it with his metal machine, while the PCs used illusions - shaped so that they appeared to emanate from the simulacrum - to indicate that they were interested in offering tribute, specifically tribute in the form of the Comprehend Languages spell so that they would actually be able to talk to each other. Another bat-creature from within started yelling out that it wanted to take them up on this, but the one in the window just shrieked that the Yeth needed nothing and that the 'minotaur' had to leave or die. When the simulacrum didn't comply, the bat-man finally zapped it with a searing blast of heat from his machine, evaporating it on the spot.

Somewhat irritated by this, Circe got Sovan to cast Resist Energy on her and stepped forwards to address the Yeth directly. Seeing a human so close to the citadel made the bat-man in the window freak out completely, and it promptly blasted her with its heat-ray: but Sovan's magic held strong, and the blast simply rippled harmlessly around her. A few more displays of magical might soon convinced the Yeth that the PCs were a force to be reckoned with, and after a chittering debate among themselves they agreed to accept their 'tribute' if it would make them go away. One of their number - a younger-looking bat-creature, the same one who had tried to accept the tribute when it was initially offered - volunteered to fly out to meet them that night at the minotaur village, while the rest of them shrieked dire threats about what would happen if they attempted any kind of trickery. Then the PCs sneaked back to the village under the cover of more illusions.

That evening, to the amazement of their minotaur hosts, the bat-man they had spoken to came flapping down out of the sky. The villagers all prostrated themselves before him, but he addressed them in their own language, assuring them that it had merely come to learn about the curious travellers in their midst. The PCs explained to him that he'd have to learn their language before he could learn their spells, but he turned out to be an eager, intelligent, and obviously highly-motivated student, and made rapid progress. Clearly somewhat envious, Kerouac insisted on being allowed to join the class too, although the vulture-man obviously had nothing like his classmate's aptitude for languages. For their part, the minotaurs now regarded the PCs with little short of reverence. Over the weeks that followed, the PCs gradually wandered west across the plateau, moving from village to village. Wherever they went, the minotaurs bowed down before the bat-man while the PCs performed miracles of healing and woodwork, with the result that the minotaurs swiftly came to view them as a band of magicians in the service of the Yeth.

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Our star pupil!
The name of their student was a series of high-pitched shrieks no human throat could possibly imitate. He explained that, in his own language, it meant 'Distiller of August Compounds, Son of the Distinguished Astronomer', so the PCs decided to call him 'Ron' for short. Ron told them that the Yeth had come to the plateau centuries ago, after abandoning the bloody religion of their ancestors and leaving their homeland in the underworld. On their long journey they had encountered a race of engineers in a 'machine-city' beneath the earth, who had taught them the ways of science and given them the heat-rays that had allowed them to build their citadels, tame the minotaurs, and break the power of the vulture-man empire: but their glory days were long gone, now, their numbers dwindled almost to nothing, and less of them were born into each generation. Ron told them that he had long dreamed of seeking out the lost homeland of his people and returning with a breeding population of bat-folk with which to renew their race, but the tunnels beneath the citadels led only to the machine city, and those who descended that way now did not return. He was eager to hear of their magic and their travels, and made them promise to reveal to him the entrance to the underworld which they had discovered beneath Bright Meadows, clearly convinced that if only he could reach it then the Yeth might still be saved.

One morning the PCs woke and found Kerouac gone: presumably Sophie's spell had worn off, and he had fled from them like the mind-controlling fiends they clearly were. (Under other circumstances he might have roused the minotaurs against them, but that was clearly not an option with Ron around.) With Ron and the minotaurs to protect them, however, the PCs feared nothing: and after completing their leisurely tour of the plateau, they descended off its western edge and into the forested hills beyond. They did, however, panic a bit when Ron identified the hunched mountain in front of them as Vulture Crag, one-time seat of the Empire of Carrion, and decided to give the whole region an extremely wide berth. Even so, their journey took them through various half-melted vulture-man ruins, some of them with ancient vulture-man bones still fused with the stone that they had been melted into by the heat rays of the Yeth. Surveying these, Ron reflected mournfully that the bas reliefs in his citadel had made the war between his people and the Empire look a lot more heroic and a lot less sad.

Descending into a heavily forested valley, the party suffered another loss when the Red Architect vanished into the night. Cursed to be unable to move in light, she had clearly taken advantage of the valley's darkness to escape; and while a thorough search suggested that she had headed south, her head start and the nature of the terrain made her recapture extremely unlikely. Her disappearance threw Titus into a deep depression, as he'd become friends with her over the course of the journey, and had been rejoicing in finally finding a woman - even an undead one - who shared his interest in necromancy and unholy magic. Her desertion clearly made his still-raw memories of the breakdown of his marriage come flooding back, and he climbed into the improvised howdah he had built on Zombie Runt Ape's back and drew the curtains, refusing to come out or to speak to anyone. Shortly afterwards he had one of his zombies kill a bird for him so that he could reanimate it, tie a skull to its leg, and send it flying off again over the forest, obviously using Skull Sight to scry on the surrounding area in the hopes of spotting where the Architect had gone.

Image result for zombie bird
Fly, zombie bird! Bring my true love back again!
Weirdly enough, Titus's slump ended up setting off a bit of an emotional chain reaction in the rest of the party. What were they doing out there, in a wood, up a hill, in the middle of nowhere, leading a parade of evil skeletons on a thousand-mile journey to meet a snake-man toddler? They were in their late twenties, now - by the standards of their own peasant community, that was almost middle-age. What were they doing with their lives? Sophie tried to console herself by using illusions to live out her fantasy of being a successful academic instead of a homeless college drop-out turned roaming con-woman, but once they saw her doing it, all the PCs wanted one. Skadi had a fantasy of being a crime lord, lolling around on a giant pile of gold while relays of exploited orphans brought her stolen treasure. Hash had a fantasy of being a famous actor, treading the boards alongside Desdemona, the actress for whom he had been nursing an unrequited crush ever since he'd seen her perform back in Vornheim. Circe dreamed of owning all the sheep in the world. (She'd originally become an adventurer after being cheated out of a sheep someone owed her, and had clearly never got over it.) Sovan still longed for life as a successful drover out in the hills of Qelong. Even Ron got into the spirit of things, creating an illusion of himself single-handedly persuading a cave full of attractive young bat-ladies to abandon their horrible religion and take up the ways of Science instead, with such success that they all immediately agreed to become his wives and start bearing him litters of hideous bat-babies. In the end Sovan and Circe's dream-illusions got mixed up, with him fantasising about selling her sheep at an unbelievable mark-up, and the whole thing broke down. By then, of course, the Red Architect was far, far away.

After this bout of emotional self-indulgence, the PCs headed on west, into cave dwarf territory. Hash soon spotted that they were being watched at a distance by some wary cave dwarf scouts, so he promptly Charmed three out of four of them and called them down to join him: this they eagerly did, while the fourth of them ran off in horror, presumably to report that all his comrades had gone mad. They were sturdy but filthy-looking creatures, all hides and hair, and armed with stone hammers and axes; but despite their primitivism, their knowledge of the terrain was unparalleled. They explained that if the party wanted to reach the sea, they would have to pass either south, through the Cold Marshes, or north, through the Stonemoors: but the former was the home of the Marsh Giants, and the latter was currently wracked by some kind of tribal war. Surveying the way ahead, it seemed as though the hardest part of their journey was still be ahead of them...

Monday, 10 December 2018

Echoes and Reverberations part 2: the WFRP 3rd edition adventures

So, um, yeah. A huge pile-up of work wiped out all my evenings for a couple of weeks and meant that this took a lot longer than anticipated. But it's finished now. Many thanks to the anonymous benefactor who provided me with copies of all of these for review purposes.

Following on from my last post, I'm going to briefly discuss the various adventures that FFG released for WFRP 3, with a focus on which of them might be worth borrowing for use in games run using the WFRP 1 or WFRP 2 settings and rules. They're all full of nonsense about progress trackers and whatnot, but their 'clever' mechanics can almost always be stripped out with no real loss, which highlights how superfluous most of the mechanical innovations of WFRP 3 really were. Run them as traditional adventure scenarios and you should be fine.

Tl;dr version: The best ones here are 'An Eye For An Eye', The Witch's Song, and The Art of Waaagh!, although I'd run the third one in D&D rather than WFRP. The rest can be skipped.

Image result for the enemy within wfrp 3

A Day Late and a Shilling Short (demo adventure): This isn't really an adventure at all, just a demonstration of the game mechanics. The PCs fight some beastmen in order to learn the combat rules, persuade a merchant to give them a package in order to learn the social rules, and then that's the end. Skip.

An Eye For An Eye (from the core set): This is a rather good investigation scenario, set in a hunting lodge whose staff have been infiltrated by chaos cultists. I'm not fond of 'suddenly, beastmen attack!' as the opening to a WFRP adventure, but aside from that this looks like it could be a good, creepy adventure to play through, with plenty of scope for the PCs to unravel the lodge's mysteries in different ways. It's a bit 'WFRP by numbers', but I think that's forgivable in an introductory scenario. The climactic scene, in which beastmen storm the lodge from all sides while the cultists try to summon a demon in the basement, looks like it could make for an especially memorable episode. Worth a look.

The Gathering Storm: I'd describe this adventure as (1) basic, (2) solid, and (3) probably better-suited to D&D than WFRP. It's set in a little town with big problems: there are beastmen in the marshes, goblins in the hills, a wizard looking for the fragments of a magic item from a nearby ruin, and a local necromancer who isn't nearly as dead as the townsfolk think he is. Each problem comes with a twist that makes it more than just a straightforward stab-fest: the beastman shaman is actually trying to restrain his herd out of sympathy for his human mother, the necromancer's spirit is not entirely in control of the corpse he's hijacked, the goblins have a captive troll which is itching for a chance to break out and eat them, and so on. There's nothing bad here, either in terms of content or scenario design, and it would probably be fun to play. But there's also nothing very conceptually interesting, and I suspect that any GM who has internalised the relevant design philosophies could probably come up with something just as good on their own if given a few hours of planning time.

Winds of Change (from Liber Mutatis): This is a very lazily-written scenario. An apprentice at one of the colleges of magic has gone missing during a visit to a run-down area of Altdorf - so, naturally, rather than looking for him themselves or calling in the authorities, the college hires the PCs to find him, the only clue being the square he was in when he went missing. Fortunately, he's been kidnapped by the world's laziest chaos cultists, who have sold his wizardly regalia to a pawn shop in the very same square they abducted him in, thus allowing their whole diabolical plan to be unravelled in an afternoon. He turns out to be only one of eight apprentices, one from each college, whom they've abducted for sacrifice in a ritual that can only be performed once per year, the dreadful result of which will be to... um... turn eight mutants into eight slightly more powerful mutants. Honestly, it all hardly seems worth the effort, and no explanation is ever provided as to why the PCs have to handle the whole situation themselves even after it turns out that eight apprentice wizards are being held captive by chaos cultists just down the road from the Colleges of Magic. That's not worth the Colleges sending a single wizard out for? Not even worth involving the city watch?

There's some good local colour here, and the square and its inhabitants are worthy of a better adventure, but this scenario feels too slight to be worth bothering with. Either skip it, or write your own mystery and use the location and NPCs as a ready-made supporting cast.

Journey to Black Fire Pass: This is another introductory adventure, designed for a party of dwarf PCs. The PCs are sent to find a ceremonial shield and bring it to a dwarf king. It's much more of an actual adventure than 'A Day Late and a Shilling Short', featuring battles with greenskins, negotiations with other dwarves, and a rather nice bit in which the PCs have a chance to work out that the town they're staying in is built over an old dwarven ruin, and descend into the vaults to protect it from being looted by humans. (Normally the PCs would be the looters!) So as an introductory adventure it's a fairly good one, although it's obviously not a very representative example of what most WFRP adventures tend to be like...

The Edge of Night: I have very mixed feelings about this adventure. The key scene it's built around, in which a bunch of feuding nobles make fools of themselves at a masquerade ball while skaven infiltrators make increasingly unsubtle attempts to spike the food and drink with warpstone dust, is great. The trouble is that virtually everything else is hugely bloated and, frankly, a bit rubbish. (Everything before the masquerade could easily have been cut by 75% without meaningful losses.) The write-up of the ball itself has a detailed timetable for what's supposed to happen when, clearly inspired by the one in 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers', but the number of NPCs involved looks overwhelming: I'm a pretty experienced GM, and I'm not at all sure I could run a complex scene involving twenty-seven different named NPCs all bouncing off the PCs and each other in the middle of a crisis situation. The final battle also expects the PCs to be able to take on eight skaven, a grey seer, and a rat ogre in a straight fight, which seems a bit heavy for WFRP. (Presumably WFRP 3 PCs are tougher than those in earlier editions?) The basic 'skaven at a masquerade' set-up might be worth stealing, though.

Horror of Hugeldal (from Liber Infectus): This is a decent investigation set in a small, plague-ridden village: the kind of miserable, isolated settings that WFRP tends to shine in. It's very slight, though: the investigation leads to some travelling Nurgle cultists whose entire plan amounts to 'drop a disease bomb down the village well and run away', which feels more like an entry on a WFRP-themed random encounter table than the climax of an entire adventure. Skippable.

The Witch's Song: I liked this adventure a lot, and I felt that it really played to WFRP's strengths. It's set in an isolated run-down fishing village in the swamp, where the locals hunt bog octopi for food and whisper stories about the one-eyed demons in the marshes. The central conflict revolves around a witch hiding in the swamps and a witch hunter determined to track him down, but the real situation is much more complicated than it first appears. (I especially appreciated the fact that neither the witch nor the witch hunter is straightforwardly 'good' or 'evil' - they're just two damaged individuals who happen to be set on a collision course.) Everyone in the village has secrets, and for once the secret isn't just 'we're all chaos cultists': instead they stem from much more human motivations of remorse, resentment, and grief. It's all very vivid and atmospheric, and the PCs are permitted a lot of freedom in who they side with and how they deal with the situations that arise. The later sections of the adventure are a bit heavy-handed in their attempts to force the PCs to arrive just in time for various climactic events, but it would be easy to ignore them and run the whole thing as a genuine sandbox / powderkeg instead.

My one concern is with the finale, in which all this dense, character-driven tragedy suddenly gives way to a climactic action sequence in which the PCs have to blow up a tunnel in order to stop a Dark Elf fleet sailing through it. I found the sudden shift of tone and scale a bit jarring, especially as it only works if the GM rigs events to ensure that the PCs arrive at just the right time. Scaling it down a bit - replacing the looming invasion fleet with a single Dark Elf slaving vessel that's been moving back and forth through the tunnel, for example - might help to mitigate this.

Crimson Rain (from Liber Carnagia): I thought this adventure was interesting, if not entirely successful. It revolves around the PCs pursuing a band of chaos-worshipping Norscans, who have stolen a spear which has a demon of Khorne bound within it: the twist is that the demon is now reaching out and seeking a new host, and the more blood the PCs shed while in pursuit of it, the more likely they are to be targeted for possession. This kind of material is under-explored territory in WFRP, which usually assumes that the lure of chaos is something that happens to other people rather than the PCs; but the way in which it's handled here is rather clumsy, with the PCs racking up arbitrary bloodthirstiness points for the kind of random violence that would otherwise be ordinary PC behaviour. Still, there's probably enough here to form a salvageable adventure if one was willing to put in a bit of work.

Harrower of Thrones (from Black Fire Pass): A wilderness- and dungeon-based scenario in which the PCs must return a sacred dwarf hammer to its proper resting place in a ruined dwarf hold, which is currently being occupied by a band of goblins and has an ancient Dragon Ogre sleeping at the bottom of it. There are some nice touches, here - the guides who turn out to be bandits, for example, or the giant monster that emerges after the main objective is fulfilled to block the way out - but I always feel that this sort of straightforward 'dwarves and goblins in dungeons' set-up is the sort of thing that D&D does much better than any edition of WFRP.

Mirror of Desire (from Liber Ecstatica): Like Edge of Night, this scenario is built around a promising set-up, in which a mirror containing a demon of Slaanesh makes its owner so desirable that her four aristocratic suitors start behaving in crazier and crazier ways in order to win her affections. The gradual ramp-up of weirdness looks as though it could be a lot of fun: so the athletic suitor starts off just showing off his muscles and ends up grabbing and bench pressing passing PCs right in front of her, the rich suitor starts off buying her jewellery and ends up buying random houses so he can tie giant bows around them and present them to her as gifts, and so on. The rest of the scenario, however, is very contrived: it's all supposed to end up with the PCs getting trapped inside the mirror and having to find their way out, but it looks to me as though even moderately proactive players would find this very easy to derail. I'd suggest just borrowing the whole 'girl with demon-mirror and four enchanted suitors' set-up as a comedy B-plot for use with some other scenario.

The Art of Waaagh! (from Hero's Call): I love this adventure. An orc army is marching down the valley, and a dilapidated castle is all that stands in its way. They're much more tactically acute than orcs normally are, though, because they're being secretly guided by a vampire trapped under the castle, who wants them to tear it down so that they can free him from his tomb. (He's also got a minion on the castle staff, whose manipulations have ensured that the current commanders are totally unequal to the task of holding off the orcs.) So first the PCs have to sort out the castle itself; then they have to roam around the valley, recruiting the assorted misfits who live there - knights, dwarves, ogres, killer schoolgirls - into a force capable of holding the castle against the greenskins; and then they have to endure the siege itself, fighting off various orc stratagems (rock lobbers, goblin infiltrators, etc) while trying to work out what the deal is with these unusually-clever orcs, hopefully ultimately discovering and destroying the vampire before the castle falls. It's written as an adventure for very powerful characters, but I don't think it needs to be: what the PCs really need to succeed here is intelligence and charisma, not the ability to personally sally forth and bash the heads off black orcs. It's also a rare example of an adventure where the 'progress tracker' is actually doing something useful, because given the set-up of course you need a way to measure how close the orcs are to the castle, and then of course you need a way to measure how close the castle is to falling. It's all rather more heroic and cinematic than the default WFRP norm, but I'd happily run it as written in D&D.

The Enemy Within: This is much the biggest of the WFRP3 adventures, though it's still tiny compared to such behemoths as The Thousand Thrones or the original Enemy Within campaign. Its gimmick is that the main villain, the Black Cowl, could be any one of three different NPCs. The GM can either play fair and pick who it is right from the start, or go all Quantum Ogre and leave it undefined until much later, thus ensuring that the true villain is whomever the PCs least (or most) expect. Not that it makes much difference, honestly. Power Behind the Throne this is not.

Anyway. The Black Cowl has learned about a recently-discovered warpstone idol, and has come up with a simple plan. Step one: help the skaven to steal it, in exchange for them making half of it into a cursed bell clapper like the ones they use in screaming bells. (Why the skaven don't just run off with it, I've no idea. I guess they view the Black Cowl as a valued customer.) Step two: swap the cursed clapper with the one in the bell of the Temple of Sigmar at Altdorf just before a state service, thus hopefully taking out the Emperor and a large chunk of the Imperial elite. Unfortunately, he's also come down with a bad case of Evil Mastermind syndrome, so he's massively over-complicated it with all kinds of nonsense about elf-murder, gunpowder smuggling, fake purification rituals, exploding theatres, and manipulating cultists into manipulating beastmen into attacking the Empire, thus providing plenty of opportunities for the PCs to discover and thwart his unnecessarily convoluted plans.

The campaign has four parts:
  • In part one, the PCs have to investigate a bunch of disappearances and other bizarre events in Averheim, as the skaven carry out the thefts and murders needed to create the clapper. This is well-handled, with plenty of colourful NPCs, and lots of apparently disconnected events that should effectively communicate to the PCs the sense that they are brushing against the edges of something large and complicated and dangerous. (It also has a much more credible take on 'skaven denialism' than most WFRP books.) 
  • In part two, they have to take the clapper to Middenheim to be purged in a ritual. This section is much weaker than the first one, with little for the PCs to do except follow the trail of breadcrumbs through the plot and occasionally butcher some very stupid chaos cultists. (If you were a Witch Hunter / Slaanesh cultist double agent, would you leave your chaos cult books and robes in the room you just hired at the local inn? And then wander off and leave them there unattended?) 
  • Things look up again in part three, a 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers' style tangle in which a whole bunch of events, each individually trivial, are made much more compelling by all happening at the same time. This section looks like it could be challenging to run, but potentially rewarding if you could get it right. Nothing the PCs do actually matters, though, because at the end the clapper gets stolen, the bell gets rung, and the PCs have to help save the Emperor from demons while the Black Cowl jumps through a portal to the Realm of Chaos. I'll take genuine player agency over a 'cinematic climax' any day.
  • In part four, the PCs have to pursue the Black Cowl by jumping through the portal. This is new territory for WFRP, which has never used the Realm of Chaos as an actual adventure location before, but it gets handled in a very tokenistic fashion here: fight some Khornites, get tempted by some daemonettes, chat with a Great Unclean One, navigate a Tzeenchian castle full of traps, and then have a big battle with a Changer of Ways. The clever bit comes afterwards, when the PCs think they've returned home to Altdorf, only to discover that they're actually in a Tzeenchian illusion... and then a Slaaneshi illusion... and then a Nurgle illusion... and then, just at the point when they think they've got this all figured out, they find themselves back in the real Altdorf being attacked by real demons of Khorne, who they'll probably assume are yet more illusions until halfway through the fight. Then they kill all the demons and get rewarded, except for any of them who picked up mutations in the Realm of Chaos, who get handed over for execution instead. Sucks to be them! 
Overall, it's not that great, especially compared to the original Enemy Within campaign. I'd suggest using a slightly-expanded version of part 1 as a stand-alone scenario, and stealing the twist at the end of part 4 for use in another adventure.

Coming next: Shadow of the Demon Lord!

Thursday, 29 November 2018

A brief word on some recent online controversies

I don't use social media, so I get to live most of my life in blissful ignorance of what people are currently yelling at each other about. Years back Dave McGrogan suggested to me that I should start uploading my posts to G+, but I very seldom use it for any other purpose, so all the debates that take place on it are invisible to me. It's only when controversies filter down to the level of actual blogs that I usually become aware of them.

I have become aware of this one.

I'm generally pretty sceptical of internet politics. Social media is very good for grandstanding and blacklisting and rumour-mongering and getting people to hate each other, but it's much less effective for actually getting anyone to change their minds about anything. That said, I have come to care about this weird monster-baby of a creative community that we call the OSR, and it saddens me to hear that a growing number of people are apparently coming to associate it with intolerance, far-right politics, and other forms of ideological awfulness.

If you endorse or encourage racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic views, then you are an awful person and you should stop doing that.

If you think that you're just tragically misunderstood and all these people are being so unreasonable and complaining about nothing, then please consider the possibility that actually being [black / female / gay / trans] may have given them a better insight into what constitutes [racism / sexism / homophobia / transphobia] than is easily accessible to others.

If you believe that a shadow army of evil totalitarian SJW snowflakes are trying to destroy gaming, and that it is your right, nay, your duty to be as offensive as possible in order to defend our freedom, then get a fucking grip. Your actual ideological opponents don't give a fuck about your fantasy game. All you're doing is harming random bystanders and alienating people who might otherwise have been your friends and/or customers.

If you are Venger Satanis, then you appear to be in the middle of a highly public meltdown. (You 'took issue with both sides of the Charlottesville political protest'? Seriously?) Get help, dude. Get help.

The OSR movement has benefitted enormously from the contributions of trans gamers and creators such as Scrap Princess, Evlyn M, Gennifer Bone, Bardaree Bryant, and FM Geist. Anything which makes them feel less welcome among us can only leave us all much poorer as a result.

Be kind to one another. For fuck's sake. It's not that hard. Just be kind.

I'll try to post about the WFRP 3 adventures soon.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Echoes and Reverberations part 1: WFRP 3rd edition - the setting

My overview of WFRP 2nd edition may be finished, but the work goes on. So many different people made so many different requests during the last series of posts that I've decided to do a second series, albeit hopefully a shorter one, which covers what happened to WFRP and its spiritual successors after 2nd edition came to an end. Material I propose to cover includes WFRP 3rd edition, WFRP 2nd edition fan-content, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Zweihander, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Small But Vicious Dog. There's a lot to cover, though, so these will be much more 'zoomed out' than the previous series.

First up: WFRP 3rd edition.

As I discussed here, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the WFRP license in 2008, and promptly killed off WFRP 2nd edition in favour of their own WFRP 3rd edition in 2009. This edition represented a major departure from tradition. Instead of WFRP being sold as a book, it was now marketed as a boxed set, which contained multiple books, special dice, and lots and lots of fiddly little components. It looked like... well... this:

Image result for warhammer fantasy roleplay 3rd edition

In retrospect, I can understand FFG's decision to go with this kind of hybrid RPG / board game setup. The third edition of Dungeons and Dragons had demonstrated that it was possible to market RPG books in the same way that one might market board game expansion sets, with people buying books like Races of the Dragon simply in order to get the rules for that one prestige class they were itching to try out. D&D 4th edition, which came out in 2008, took this even further, with ultra-codified spells and powers that worked pretty much exactly like action cards used in many board games - spend this resource to inflict this much damage on this number of squares on the board, and so on. WOTC even brought out decks of power cards for players to use, and supplements which were little more than shopping lists of new powers for them to choose from. FFG were board game manufacturers before they were RPG publishers: they had the resources they needed to produce high-quality components, and they understood that you could charge a lot more money for a big box of shiny objects than for a single softcover book. Black Industries had given up on WFRP precisely because the old supplement treadmill business model for RPGs had proven to be insufficiently profitable - so why not abandon the old approach entirely, and replace it with boxed sets of cards and components that could be sold like board game expansions, instead?

The logic must have seemed compelling at the time, but it soon became apparent that FFG had badly misjudged their audience. The core player base for WFRP didn't want 'chrome': they were attached to grimy minimalism, to a game that could be played out of a single book, to character sheets scribbled on bits of paper and rules that you could still mostly remember even when drunk. They didn't want clever, fiddly mechanics, where you moved a token on a character dashboard to modify the type of dice you rolled when you played your next action card. They just wanted big books filled with long lists of crap jobs, horrible mutations, and hilariously violent critical hit tables. They treasured their memories of sitting around a big table with six of their mates, taking turns to narrate their attempts to brutalise some unfortunate clanrat in a sewer someplace, and they did not take kindly to discovering that the big, expensive core box for WFRP 3 only included enough components for one GM and three PCs.

As a result, WFRP 3rd edition seems to have been a commercial failure. A glance at the 'Strike to Stun' forum archives for 2009-13 demonstrates that the players there were much more interested in discussing WFRP 2 than WFRP 3 even during the years in which the latter was the official edition. The rate at which FFG released material for the game during 2010 implied that they hoped WFRP might become a product like their Game of Thrones LCG, with players buying boxed expansion sets every month or two; but the regular release of new boxed sets really only lasted two years, from November 2009 to November 2011. After that came two 2012 boxed sets, a dribble of print-on-demand card sets, and then nothing. FFG claimed that this was because they had 'delivered a complete game experience', but given how little of the Old World they'd actually covered in the course of their run, I don't think that anyone actually believed them.

I haven't played WFRP 3, but I have read the rulebooks, and it looks like a very cleverly-designed game. I like the way that the special dice cram lots of information into a single dice roll, for example, allowing you to tell at a glance not only whether you've succeeded or failed, but also whether you've exhausted yourself, whether there have been additional complications, and so on. But it looks like a very poor fit for what I - and, I suspect, many other people - want from WFRP. When I'm playing a scruffy grave robber engaged in a frantic back-alley knife fight with a chaos cultist, I don't want to be thinking about building dice pools and selecting action cards and moving stance tokens, as though I was playing some kind of martial arts master coolly contemplating which technique to use. I just want to roll some dice, and have the GM roll some more dice, and then listen while the GM tells me that I've just taken a knife in the face and that, furthermore, death from shock and blood loss are instantaneous.

It probably didn't help that the mechanics are often oddly disassociated. First aid, for example, can be used once per scene - but how long is a scene? Is a five day journey five scenes, or one? Can I keep starting new scenes by doing random things along the way, simply in order to give me more chances to use my first aid skill? Insanities have formal game effects, which is fair enough: I can understand why working with someone suffering from paranoia, for example, would be stressful for everyone involved, and having it add tension tokens is a perfectly reasonable way of representing that. But am I also expected to actually roleplay the insanity, by saying and doing paranoid things, or are the effects of my paranoia simply assumed to be abstractly modelled by the increasing number of tension tokens accumulated by the group? Locations have special rules, which are sometimes perfectly reasonable - taking physical actions in a crumbling building means a chance of injuring yourself - but at other times feel more like things I'd expect to see written on a square in a board game. ('Ballroom: whenever you regain stress, regain 1 extra stress.') The 'progress tracker' makes sense for some situations - whittling away at the morale of an attacking force until they give up and retreat, for example - but is simply bizarre for others, such as investigations. In the starter adventure, for example, the GM is told to 'direct the party towards an as-yet undiscovered overt clue' once they've moved five spaces along the progress tracker by uncovering five unrelated pieces of suspicious information. But why should noticing that someone is behaving suspiciously suddenly mean that I also notice the blasphemous books in the library? Once again, this feels more like a board game mechanism - 'trade in five minor clue tokens for a major clue card' - than an attempt to simulate a fictional world.

Setting-wise, WFRP 3 dialled the timeline back to just before the Storm of Chaos: but if you think that means a return to the low-fantasy setting of WFRP 1, then you'd be sorely mistaken, because WFRP 3 offered the most D&D-ified version of the Old World yet. Wood elves, dwarves, humans, and high elves - high elves! - are all given equal amounts of attention in the corebook as possible PC races, and there's a lot of emphasis on the fact that the characters are heroes, with the expected party composition clearly closer to the 'elf, dwarf, and wizard' mix of traditional D&D than the 'boatman, agitator, ratcatcher' mix of classic WFRP. The careers list is weighted towards traditional 'adventurer' careers like Witch Hunter rather than 'scum' careers like Bonepicker, and it is apparently possible to buy 'healing draughts' - basically D&D healing potions - in any Old World settlement. And as for the setting... well... I'll let the book speak for itself:

'The greatest realm of the Old World is the Empire, a land of courageous men ruled by a wise Emperor.'
'Those who serve the Empire strive to defend it against many enemies. The Imperial armies guard the borders against invaders. Witch hunters scour the land for witches, Chaos cults and mutants. Roadwardens and shipswords protect the Empire’s highways and riverways from bandits and beastmen. However, the Empire is a vast place, and the Emperor’s servants cannot be everywhere.'
'“On my first visit to Altdorf, I was surprised by the number of races rubbing shoulders with each other in the narrow streets: men of every nation, intractable dwarfs and portly halflings. I even met a few of my own kind, as well as a curious representative of those elves who remained in these parts after the exodus. What surprised me more was how they all seemed to get along... well, most of the time.” – Suriel Lianllach, High Elf envoy'
'Under the current Emperor, Karl Franz of Altdorf, elected in 2502, the Empire enjoys a renaissance of strength and prosperity. Karl Franz realised that the Empire could not stand alone against its many enemies. His ambassadors have secured alliances with the other nations of men, and rejuvenated the ancient friendship with the dwarf holds. Envoys sail between the Empire and Ulthuan, and high elf merchants are no longer an unusual sight in the markets of Altdorf or Nuln. The Emperor also strives to maintain the Empire’s unity. Relationships between provinces have always been fractious, but the Emperor rewards those Elector Counts who display loyalty. Those who do not receive a visit from his stern champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm. They never stray again.'
A great realm of courageous men ruled by a wise emperor, whose stern champion ensures the unity and loyalty of the nobility. Armies, roadwardens, and witch hunters all working in unison against threats from within and without. Formal alliances with the High Elves. Humans, elves, dwarves and halflings all getting along happily together in the streets of Altdorf. The Emperor rides a griffon, and, according to Omens of War, he also has a pet dragon. It's not quite the way I remember the setting from 1st edition.

FFG's business model of releasing boxed sets rather than books had a number of knock-on consequences. Most boxed sets consisted of a box of cards and tokens, plus a book that told you how to use them; whatever pages that the book had left over then contained either some setting information, or an adventure, or both. Even when the new cards obviously represented the main purpose of the set, something had to go into the book, and this resulted in a proliferation of weird filler material. So Omens of War, the boxed set containing the cards and tokens for advanced combat styles, also contained an oddly superfluous book about the armies and military history of the Empire, while Black Fire Pass, the boxed set containing cards for advanced dwarf careers, contained a whole book about, um, Black Fire Pass. (It's not very interesting.) Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the decision to bring out one boxed set for each chaos god, each including a book containing an adventure, some new rules - the disease rules, for example, were in the Nurgle box - and then a heap of filler to round out the page count. Get ready to be told that Khorne likes blood and skulls and also violence over and over and over and over again.

With so many of the books in the line devoted to trivia like the military history of the Empire, the edition was only ever able to present a very superficial version of the WFRP setting, with a heavy focus on the Reikland province and very little on the wider world. The presentations of religion and magic essentially recapitulate the 2nd edition versions in a more condensed form, though I was pleased to see a greater emphasis on the way in which the invention of the printing press is shaking up the religious hierarchies of the Old World, and on colour magic as a deliberately crippled form of sorcery taught to the humans by Teclis to limit their magical potential. The colleges of magic described here are less restrictive institutions than their 2nd edition counterparts, doubtless to make it easier to play as an adventuring wizard; unfortunately, they've also become even more boring. (The 2001 Realms of Sorcery interpretation of the colleges remains my favourite version.) The chaos books, as I've already mentioned, are huge disappointments - much weaker than the 2nd edition Tome of Corruption, which was itself already much weaker than the 1st edition originals. They repeatedly stress that there is no good reason to join a chaos cult and you'd have to be totally crazy to do so, and then go on to blithely assert that all four gods have loads of cults packed with fanatical cultists ready to devote their lives to them for no damn reason at all. The 2nd edition presentation, where most chaos cultists didn't actually know that they were chaos cultists, made a lot more sense. 

The bestiary draws on the wargame, and it shows. Chaos marauders live only to fight and kill. Greenskins live only to fight and kill. Demons live only to fight and kill. Beastmen live only to fight and kill. Trolls and giants live only to fight and kill. Cultists are fanatics eager to kill and die for their dark masters. Undead tirelessly attack the living until hacked apart. It's little more than a parade of cannon fodder. Skaven are presented here as a race of sneaky, paranoid cowards, rather than as the apocalyptic threat they were described as in 2nd edition. Compared to previous editions, the published adventures make greater use of adversaries such as goblins, dark elves, trolls, and dragon ogres. Coupled with the much greater emphasis on non-human PCs - there are even rules for playing an ogre! - this further enhances the sense of WFRP 3 as the most 'high fantasy' version of the RPG to date.

In conclusion - if you're looking for setting or background material, then WFRP 3 offers very slim pickings. In quantity, it's inferior to WFRP 2; in quality, it's inferior to WFRP 1. The system looks clever, though I have my doubts about how well it would work in actual play, but seems a poor fit for the themes and setting of WFRP. For fans of WFRP 1 and 2, the most valuable thing about it is probably the adventures, some of which are rather good, and most of which could be very easily adapted to other editions of the game. I'll cover them in my next post.