Sunday, 14 October 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer Part 11: WFRP 2 in retrospect

Over the last ten and a half posts, I've surveyed the entire line of WFRP 2nd edition books produced by Black Industries and Fantasy Flight Games. Now, having reaches the end, I can turn back and say: so what was the point of all that, then?

If ever there was a game that proved that most RPG supplements are basically unnecessary, it was WFRP 1st edition. Between 1986 and 2004, over 400 books were published for D&D, compared to 26 for WFRP - and yet WFRP players never seem to have had any difficulty running successful games, despite only having one-sixteenth as many books to 'inspire' themselves with. Even this understates the case, because many of those 26 books were failures, dismissed as irrelevant by most WFRP players. When people wax lyrical about WFRP 1st edition, it's never because they want to heap praise on Castle Drachenfels or the Doomstones campaign. The true heart of WFRP has always been just four books: the 1986 corebook and the first three books of The Enemy Within. It's rather as if the majority of D&D players, circa 1983, had looked at the B/X rules and their copies of Keep on the Borderlands, The Lost City, and Horror on the Hill and concluded that they now had everything they needed in order to happily run D&D for the rest of their lives.

So along came WFRP 2nd edition, and it looked at a player base who had essentially been playing happily with the same four books ever since 1988, and it proceeded to throw twenty-eight more books at them in the space of just four years. Some were good and some were bad and most were somewhere in between, but none of them ever came close to dislodging the 1986 core, Shadows, Death, and Power as, essentially, the four gospels of WFRP.

The need to conform to the new wargame canon caused plenty of issues, of course, but I don't think that was the real problem. I think the real problems were the supplement treadmill, and what I'll call the anxiety of influence.

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The supplement treadmill, Warhammer style.

1: The Supplement Treadmill

The WFRP team circa 2005 may not have been as good at this whole 'RPG writing' business as the WFRP team circa 1986, but they weren't bad. Collectively, they had a lot of good ideas: and even if Jim Bambra and Phil Gallagher could clearly outgun David Chart and Robert J. Schwalb on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, the latter pair still produced a lot of very good work. But they were hamstrung by a business model which demanded an endless stream of content. The books were too long, and there were too many of them, and they were produced too quickly. Most books in the line would have benefitted from losing at least 25% of their page count: Ashes of Middenheim is twice the length of Shadows Over Bögenhafen, and the difference is essentially made up of sheer bloat. More extensive playtesting might have reduced the amount of padding and railroading in the modules. Pascal famously remarked that if he'd had more time, he'd have written a shorter letter. The same may well have been true here.

Imagine if all the best bits from Sigmar's Heirs, Shades of Empire, and The Tome of Salvation had been condensed into a single large sourcebook: say 100 pages on the Empire, 100 pages on its religions, and 50 pages of rules and spell lists and new careers stuffed away at the end. That could have been a book that was really worth putting alongside the best books from 1st edition. Or imagine if The Thousand Thrones had been boiled down to the same length as Death on the Reik, becoming a single long adventure about a failed crusade rather than an ungainly and railroad-heavy campaign-in-a-book. There was so much good material in The Thousand Thrones: so many memorable scenes, details, situations, NPCs. But its ambition was its own undoing, and what could have been a really good scenario became, instead, a rather disappointing campaign.

I daresay that nothing Chart and Schwalb could have come up with would have persuaded the really hardcore first edition purists. But if they hadn't been shackled to a business model that demanded large numbers of lavish coffee table books designed for reading and daydreaming instead of small numbers of densely-written pamphlets designed for actual play, then I'm sure they could have produced something that most 1st edition fans would have regarded, if not as a new WFRP gospel, then at least as worthy of inclusion among the apocrypha.

2: The Anxiety of Influence

This is a fancy term (which I've borrowed from Harold Bloom) for a simple concept. You look at something really good and you say: 'Wow! I want to do something just like that!' But it's already been done, and that puts you, the imitator, in an awkward position. You can't paint Michelangelo-style paintings better that Michelangelo, because Michelangelo is, by definition, better at being Michelangelo than anyone else is ever going to be. You have to find a way to put your own unique spin on it, or you'll never be anything more than a copyist.

I think this was a major problem for WFRP 2nd edition. The further it went from The Enemy Within, the more it was pilloried for being unfaithful to the true spirit of the game. But the closer it came to The Enemy Within, the easier it was to dismiss it as simply an inferior copy of something that already existed. The way out of this crux is to find your own voice, and articulate clearly how what you're doing is 'the same but different', in much the same way that the best contemporary OSR material is clearly indebted to D&D circa 1980 without being simply an imitation of it. But I'm not sure WFRP 2nd edition ever got that far.

I can see glimpses of how it might have done. In books like Realm of the Ice Queen, Renegade Crowns, The Thousand Thrones, and even The Careers Compendium I see hints of a version of WFRP in which the PCs aren't just the same old early modern scum, but early modern scum on the make: ambitious, power-hungry, and internationally mobile. The expanded careers system provided rules for advancing into all kinds of exalted social roles - sea lord, abbot, knightly grandmaster - and the post-Storm of Chaos setting is one where the old order lies in ruins. Someone has to pick up the pieces, so why not the PCs?

If they'd really leaned into this, then I think they might have managed to produce a distinctively new version of WFRP. Doubtless many people would still have preferred the old one, but it would have been much harder to write off the new one as simply an inferior imitation. (Schwalb did a much better job of this in his next game, Shadow of the Demon Lord, which was essentially his own unofficial 3rd edition of WFRP.) As I mentioned in my last post, however, this is an area where the two halves of the line never seem to have matched up. The rulebooks and setting books suggest the possibility of a game of great geographical and social mobility, but the adventures continue to assume that the PCs are penniless desperadoes lurking around the back-alleys of the Empire.

Because WFRP 2nd edition never really managed to articulate its own distinctive vision of the game or the setting, its deviations from the path laid out by 1st edition usually looked like failures or mistakes rather than genuine new alternatives. Possibly it would have found its voice if it had been given a few more years to climb out of the first edition's shadow. But FFG's decision to abandon it in favour of their own version of WFRP ensured that it never got the chance.

In Conclusion

2005 was a long time ago, and the RPG industry has changed a lot in the interim. Back then, the accepted wisdom was that the best way to make an RPG profitable was to throw out as much material as possible, treating your audience as though they were subscribers to a magazine who would expect their regular monthly dose of content. The production of new copy was king, with direct usefulness at the table a distant second. These days, the old kings of the supplement treadmill have all gone out of business, and even Dungeons and Dragons only gets a few new books per year. In this sense, WFRP 2nd edition is like an artifact from the bad old days, a salutary warning of why bigger does not always mean better.

The question of whether it's still worth reading despite this boils down, like everything else related to 17th century Germany, to the division between Protestants and Catholics.

If you take a Protestant, or even Puritan, view on RPG books, where the gospels are everything and further additions are likely to do more harm than good, then the whole edition will probably strike you as unnecessary. It didn't articulate any big new ideas that weren't already to be found in 1st edition. Its adventures were mostly just remixes of 1st edition material. Its supplements were full of rules and settings that almost no-one ever actually used. The core WFRP experience was the same in 2009 as it had been in 1989, just with rules that ran a bit more smoothly. So you might as well just stick with the four gospels - 1986 corebook, Shadows, Death, and Power - and ignore the new stuff.

If you take a more Catholic view of the subject, however, then your assessment is likely to be more generous. The adventures aren't great, but several of them - Spires, Forges, Barony, Terror, Thrones - would be perfectly useable with a bit of work. The random tables in Renegade Crowns could come in handy for anyone running a domain-level game or stocking a hexcrawl. Knights of the Grail and Realm of the Ice Queen contain plenty of ideas worth stealing for games set in approximations of fantasy France or Russia. The skaven could bring a bit of demented colour to virtually any setting. Tome of Salvation is much better than most RPG books on religion. No one book here is likely to bowl you over, but the vast majority of them contain something which you could potentially use in a game. I've even added a version of 2nd edition Kislev to my current D&D campaign world-map, just in case my PCs reach Vornheim and decide to keep heading north.

You don't need this stuff. But if you're looking for a general dark fantasy miscellany to loot for spare parts and raw materials, then you'll find plenty to work with in WFRP 2nd edition. And every lover of OSR-style horror-comedy should take a look at Barony of the Damned.

Coming next: my own private WFRP!

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer bonus issue: The GM's Pack

As Stuart Kerrigan pointed out, I missed this one the first time around. So this is me catching up. Once I've finished with this post, I really will have surveyed the entire WFRP 2nd edition line.

Games Master's Pack (April 2005)

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This book came packaged with the WFRP 2nd edition GM's screen. I never use a GM's screen myself - almost all my dice are rolled out in the open, and for the very occasional secret roll I just shield the dice with my hand - so I'm always forgetting about them. It's a 31-page book which consists of 8 pages of generic maps and floorplans, 7 pages of charts and reference material, and a 15-page introductory adventure called 'Pretty Things'. 

'Pretty Things' has a surprisingly complicated plot for such a short adventure. A baron has his daughter secretly raised by peasants, in ignorance of her true heritage, in order to keep her safe. The peasants get murdered by bandits, who steal the girl. The bandits get murdered by goblins, who steal the girl again. (Apparently as a gift for an orc chief who collects 'pretty things' - do orcs find human children pretty?), The PCs have to save the girl from the goblins before the orcs get her. Then a man tries to steal her from them, mistakenly believing she's actually his long-lost daughter. Then they deliver her to the baron, except the baron has just been murdered, so all they can do is hand her over to his steward in exchange for a reward. The end.

Mostly, this is an adventure about helplessness, which I suspect was designed to teach new players the difference between the Old World and more traditional fantasy settings. Everyone is miserable and desperate - even the goblins only do what they do because they're terrified of being eaten by the orcs - and there's no justice and no happy ending. There aren't very many genuine choices for the players to make, and the plot is a bit contrived in places: the PCs discover the dying peasants just in time to learn the girl's true identity, they only encounter the goblins after the bandits have softened them up, and so on. But the tone is right, and that makes up for a lot. Desperate outlaws limp along the road, disguised as wounded pilgrims. A cynical bounty hunter tries to pass a random farmer off as a wanted criminal so that he can collect a bounty from the roadwardens. A paranoid boatman, unhinged by grief, roams the world looking for his dead daughter. Benighted travellers camp in the burned-out ruins of a tollkeeper's house, listening to the wolves howl in the woods outside. As an introduction to low fantasy gaming, I think you could do far worse. I certainly prefer it to the painfully linear intro adventure in the corebook.

Now a random aside, to bulk out what would otherwise be a very short post. By my count, nineteen adventures were published for WFRP 2nd edition.  Of those nineteen, the primary antagonists break down as follows:

  • Chaos: 10
  • Undead: 3
  • Man's inhumanity to man: 3
  • Skaven: 2
  • Greenskins: 1

If you just look at the eight big book-length adventures, the pattern is even more striking:

  • Chaos: 5
  • Undead: 2
  • Skaven: 1

I call attention to this because, if you came to WFRP from the wargame, you could be forgiven for expecting all the different 'bad guy' factions - dark elves, chaos dwarves, greenskins, vampire counts, tomb kings, beastmen, chaos warriors, skaven, etc - to get roughly equal billing in the RPG, too. The 2005 Bestiary certainly presents them all as equally valid potential antagonists. In practise, though, WFRP adventures are always about chaos cultists, necromancers, beastmen, and skaven, with very occasional guest appearances from goblins. 

How about settings? Over the course of its second edition, WFRP detailed the Empire, Bretonnia, Kislev, the Border Princes, Norsca, parts of Tilea, the Skaven Under-Empire, the Chaos Wastes, the Chaos Dwarf empire, and the Eastern Steppe. So how do the settings of its published adventures break down?

  • The Empire: 15
  • Kislev: 1
  • The Empire and Kislev: 1
  • Bretonnia: 1
  • The Border Princes: 1

WFB needs lots of different kingdoms and races so that Games Workshop can sell lots of different miniatures. But how important are they to WFRP? I ran it for years without the PCs ever leaving the Empire, or ever facing adversaries other than criminals, cultists, mutants, demons, skaven, and that one bunch of goblins from Death on the Reik. This seems to me to be an area where 'WFRP in theory' (an RPG set in the same world as the wargame) and 'WFRP in practise' (Call of Cthulhu in early modern fantasy Germany) are clearly at odds. 

Did anyone ever run a WFRP game which didn't use chaos and/or skaven as the main antagonists, or one which was primarily set outside the Empire? Did any of that RPG information about dark elves and Bretonnian provinces and whatnot actually get used, or was it yet another case of fiction masquerading as game materials? If anyone has any information on this, I'm genuinely curious...

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!

Monday, 24 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 9: Night's Dark Masters, Tome of Salvation, Realm of the Ice Queen

This post brings me to the end of WFRP's Black Industries period. After this the line was taken over by Fantasy Flight Games.

Night's Dark Masters (April 2007)

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Did you ever look at Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and think: 'this is alright, but it would be much better if it was more like Vampire: The Masquerade?' If so, this is the book for you! It provides a history of the vampires of the Old World, an account of the different clans they belong to, rules for their vampire super-powers, and a description of how the nations of the Old World have been infiltrated by super-secret vampire conspiracies, requiring the humans to create counter-conspiracies of vampire hunters to fight them. Like I said, Vampire: the Masquerade. There are even rules here for playing vampire characters, if you really want to. And, yes, Geneviève Dieudonné gets name-checked, although I could have lived without the revelation that her heroic deeds are secretly tolerated and protected by one of the vampire conspiracies in order to trick people into believing that vampires aren't really as bad as all that.

Even though it came out in 2007, this book's 'vampires with everything!' approach to the Old World feels as though it has its roots firmly in the great vampire boom of the 1990s. (I'm guessing a lot of its lore is drawn from the 1999 Vampire Counts army book for WFB? I haven't read it.) Hunting down an individual vampire in some ruined castle or God-forsaken slum fits in with the tone and spirit of WFRP just fine, but I'm not sure about all these vast and secret vampire organisations. It feels to me as though you'd only be able to use most of this book if you were willing to make your campaign all about vampires, either by having the PCs actually be vampires, or by having them as a crew of dedicated vampire hunters. In a more traditional WFRP campaign, in which a vampire would be more likely to appear as a one-off antagonist, I struggle to see why you'd need a 143-page book about them.

(Klaus Gerken now has a perfect right to call me a hypocrite, because all the same objections could be raised to the skaven book. I guess I feel that the skaven need more specific information because they're a much more specific concept, whereas everyone already knows what the deal with vampires is, and this book offers very little in the way of new interpretations. Besides, the skaven lose most of their meaning and significance without their vast, mad Under-Empire, whereas vampires work just fine without all these clans and conspiracies and whatnot.)

Anyway. Turns out there are fighter vampires and wizard vampires and sexy vampires and ugly vampires and Dracula vampires. (Geneviève, naturally, is one of the sexy vampires.) There are loads of them and they're all  really powerful, but they're also so super-secret that everyone thinks the vampire hunters are crazy for making such a fuss about them. It all seemed a bit much to me, but then I know that some people felt that way about the skaven book, too, so maybe I'm just biased. What I really wanted from it was a Barony of the Damned style write-up of Sylvania, but the chapter on Sylvania is very brief, presumably to make room for all those multi-page clan descriptions. If you want to add fuckloads of vampires to your WFRP campaign, this is probably a great book. Otherwise I'd say it's skippable.

Tome of Salvation (September 2007)

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Probably my favourite 2nd edition cover. You can view the whole image on the artist's DeviantArt page here.
This is a big (255-page) book on religion in the Old World. It has a heavy focus on religion as an actual part of daily life: the folk customs of the poor, the calendar of holy days, the way religious beliefs differ from region to region, and so on. (I mentioned my preference for the 'big Empire' interpretation of the WFRP setting back in this post, and it's very much visible here, with an emphasis on the fact that the Empire is less a unified state than a vast patchwork of tiny communities loosely connected by their shared allegiance to the Elector Counts.) There's a lot here about temples, monasteries, pilgrimages, relics, the daily routines of the priesthood, and other nuts and bolts of religious practise. There's also a lot of discussion of religious fanaticism, and militant religious orders, and of the ways in which especially devout individuals will indicate their faith through self-flagellation, ritual tattoos, head cages, back banners, rune-covered skulls, purity seals, and so on. I know that a lot of this stuff has its roots in the more extreme edge of medieval and counter-Reformation Catholicism, but I can't help but suspect that its real purpose is to make Warhammer priests look as much like 40K characters as possible. It finishes with thirty-five pages of game rules for all the different kinds of magic available to the followers of each god, which look like they would be essential if you were planning to run a WFRP 2nd edition game which was heavy on divine magic.

So this is a good book, and one that shows how far the depiction of Old World religion has come since the days of the original WFRP core book, which essentially just threw down a generic D&D fantasy pantheon - Druidic nature god, god of death, goddess of healing, god of thieves, goddess of knowledge, goddess of war, god of the sea, god of elves, god of dwarves, goddess of halflings - and called it a day. (I still miss the gods of Law, though.) However, I feel that the Tome's main strength may also be its greatest weakness: few WFRP campaigns are really going to need this level of detail on religion, and in most games a more rough-and-ready approach might actually be more gameable than the more exhaustive treatment of the subject offered here. If you wanted to run a densely detailed 'simulationist' game set in the Old World then you could get a lot of use out of this, but most campaigns could probably have got by just as well with a book that was half the length.

Realm of the Ice Queen (November 2007)

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This book covers Kislev, the Old World's analogue for Russia. Like so much of the Warhammer setting, Kislev's status was beset by contradictory information from the wargame and the RPG. Something Rotten in Kislev (1988) drew upon a combination of medieval and nineteenth-century Russian history to portray it as a highly bureaucratic state ruled by Tsar Radii Bokha, in which an ethnically Norse aristocracy presided over a combined Ungol (= Mongol) and Gospodar (= Slav) population, and tried to cope with pressure from the Hobgoblin Hegemony to the east. The Empire Army Book (1993) confused all this by asserting that Kislev was in fact ruled by a Gospodar ice sorceress named Tzarina Katarin, who inherited her magical ice powers from the ancient Khan-Queens of the Gospodars, who had once been the terror of the Empire. It also introduced the idea that Kislev's military elite were 'Winged Lancers', modelled on the Winged Hussars of early modern Poland.

Some of the oddest elements of Realm of the Ice Queen clearly have their roots in this contradictory source material. The idea that it was the Gospodars who rode out of the steppes and subjugated the Ungols, and not the other way around, reads like some kind of bizarre revisionist fantasy of Russian history, but I'm sure it arose simply out of an attempt to reconcile the WFRP account (in which the Gospodars are stand-ins for the Slavs) with the WFB account (in which they're stand-ins for the Mongols). Kislev being ruled by a literal ice queen who lives in a giant castle made of magical ice right in the middle of the capital city sits rather oddly with WFRPs general low-fantasy vibe, but does accord with its WFB presentation. The obviously-Polish Winged Lancers seem strange in a setting which is obviously Russian in every other respect, but they're the single most iconic Kislevite unit from the wargame, so what were they going to do? As with the Bretonnia book, the authors had to work with the material they were given, and I think they did a pretty good job.

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Winged lancers from WFB.

Slavic settings are weirdly under-represented in fantasy media and RPGs, and when they do appear, they usually just use the same handful of cliches over and over again: snow, bears, Baba Yaga, vodka, cossacks, and Russia's greatest love machine, Rasputin. There's definitely some of this in Realm of the Ice Queen, but, for the most part, they actually wrote a pretty decent fantasy Russia setting instead. There are a lot of bears and snow, here, and I rolled my eyes at the state religion being rewritten into the Cult of the Great Russian Bear God; but there are also streltsy, and firebirds, and steppe nomads, and other things which suggest some level of actual familiarity with the subject matter. It's a bit first-year-undergraduate-Slavic-studies-ish in places - did the coffee shop attended by radical intellectuals really have to be called Raskolnikov's? - but a genuine effort has clearly been made, and this version of Kislev is a setting which I'd happily run a game in.

Anyway. Realm of the Ice Queen depicts Kislev as a kind of combination of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century Russia. It's seventeenth-century insofar as Tzarina Katarin is depicted as being a Peter the Great style moderniser, employing the authoritarian methods of absolutist monarchy to drag her nation into the modern era. It's nineteenth-century insofar as it's also full of opera houses, intellectuals hanging around in cafes, and Tsarist secret policemen, which implies that quite a lot of modernisation has already taken place. (The secret police are an odd bunch. They're called 'Chekists', which obviously evokes the Bolshevik Cheka, but their description combines elements of Alexander III's Okhrana with the Oprichnina of Ivan the Terrible. Anyway, you can play one, which will probably come as a boon to anyone who's ever looked at the Witch Hunter career and said: 'Sure, this looks fairly morally murky. But is it morally murky enough?')

There's no mention of the Hobgoblin Hegemony, which seems to have been retconned out of existence, but there's lots of other good stuff: there are monsters inspired by Slavic folklore, gods based on Slavic paganism, and a good write-up of the chaos-blighted city of Praag, complete with bleeding cobblestones and specialist watchmen who roam the streets at night armed with metal hammers, looking out for restless corpses to whack on the head and throw into furnaces. In the provinces the frozen ground gets too cold to dig graves, so corpses are left out in the wilderness with their eyes removed, to ensure that if they rise again they won't be able to find their way home... which means that horrible blind undead roam the wild, looking for living victims so that they can steal their eyes. The Gospodar ice sorceresses are a bit boring, but the Ungol witches are much better than the Baba Yaga knock-offs they could so easily have been, guarding their homes by deliberately inducing hauntings in the surrounding woodlands, and raising mutant children in secret communities deep in the taiga for use as sacrificial fodder in their secret war against chaos. (Also they have a spell which turns them into eight-foot hags with iron claws and rusted metal teeth, which is way better than yet another minor variation on the theme of 'I use my ice magic to make things really cold'.) It's a bit long, but anyone interested in running a fantasy Russia game will find something worth stealing in here somewhere, and it makes me rather regret the fact that Black Industries never had a chance to take a crack at Estalia, or Araby, or any of the other neglected regions of the Warhammer World.

And for really, really old-school fans, there's a mention of the legend that a girl in a glass coffin lies hidden, sleeping, somewhere beneath the streets of Praag...

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Monday, 17 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 8: Companion, Renegade Crowns, Lure of the Liche Lord

Onwards to glory!

WFRP Companion (November 2006)

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Bog Octopuuuuus!

This book describes itself as 'A Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Miscellany', and that's pretty accurate. Probably the easiest way to summarise its contents is by listing its chapters:
  1. Freaks, Thieves and Travelling Folk: eight pages on travelling carnivals in the Old World.
  2. Life and Death on the Reik: Nine pages on the River Reik. Introduces the new careers 'Stevedore', 'Foreman', 'Wrecker', and 'Riverwarden'.
  3. Advanced Trade and Commerce: sixteen pages on trade, trade law, and merchant's guilds, and rules for PCs who want to try making money through trade.
  4. Star Signs and their Meanings: Seven pages on the star signs of the Old World.
  5. Medicine in the Empire: Eight pages on medicine in the Old World, mostly based on real-world medical history.
  6. Social Conflict and Advanced Criminal Trials: Ten pages of rules for 'social conflict', which look as though they would mostly reduce social interactions to a dice-rolling exercise.
  7. Sartosa, City of Pirates: Seven pages on a generic pirate city. You've seen Pirates of the Caribbean, right? It's like that.
  8. Tobaro, City of Sirens: Eight pages on a Tilean city-state, which I think is the most detail Tilea ever received in WFRP 2nd edition. Lots of good, playable details make this my favourite part of the book. Includes the Deepwatcher career, for characters who patrol the caves and tunnels beneath the city. (Of course Tobaro has a vast unmapped underworld. All WFRP cities have vast unmapped underworlds.)
  9. The Cult of Illumination: Five pages on a chaos cult who are basically evil Freemasons.
  10. Pub Crawling: Six pages of pubs and the people who run them. 
  11. Bring Up the Guns: Seven pages on the Nuln Artillery school. Includes the Artillerist career. 
  12. Gugnir's Blackpowder Shop: Four pages on a gun shop and the dwarf who runs it.
  13. Perilous Beasts: Seventeen pages introducing sixteen monsters. Features the welcome return of the Amoeba, Bloodsedge, Bog Octopus, Chameleoleech, and Doppelganger from first edition, and addition of naiads, mermaids (who are actually more like classical sirens), giant eels, giant fish, giant crabs, and giant whales to harrass PCs during nautical adventures.
Overall, the book feels like it adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Tobaro and a few of the new monsters are the only things that stuck with me.

Renegade Crowns (December 2006)

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When I first looked through this book, I thought it was nothing special. Instructions on designing a small sandbox setting in the Border Princes. Lots of tables to roll on to help populate your sandbox. Discussion of how ambitious PCs might rise from common sell-swords to take over their own micro-state, and of how to run 'domain-level' games involving the management of petty kingdoms, and handling relations with their equally petty neighbours. Nothing I hadn't seen before on dozens of OSR blogs, right?

But then I stopped myself, and thought: this was published in 2006. How many people were playing like that back in 2006, in the waning days of the D&D 3.5 era, with D&D 4th edition just around the corner? Well, if this book is anything to go by, apparently David Chart was. Renegade Crowns prefigures a huge amount of what would, over the next decade, go on to become OSR orthodoxy: sandbox settings populated via random tables, a grubby and inglorious world of petty kingdoms and robber barons, a tone of relentless grimness made palatable by ample use of black comedy, and an assumption that the PCs will be amoral freebooters trying to murder their way up the rungs of the feudal system rather than gallant champions of all that is right and good. If you're reading this blog, then this book probably has little or nothing to teach you, because you'll have learned it all years ago from other OSR bloggers. But even though David, as far as I can tell, has no connections with the modern OSR movement, I rather feel that he deserves some kind of honourary OSR status for writing it, back in the days when almost everyone else was busy arguing about exactly which combination of feats would allow their Illumian Swordsage Bloodstorm Blade to generate the maximum average damage output per round.

Lure of the Liche Lord (February 2007)

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Despite the name, this adventure has nothing to do with the first edition Terror of the Lichemaster adventure. Instead it describes an area of the Border Princes, and the giant inverted pyramid full of undead buried beneath it. Like Karak Azgal, it's basically a giant dungeon plus some information about the situation on the surface. Unlike Karak Azgal, the situation on the surface is actually very dynamic, with a whole bunch of feuding factions, and the dungeon beneath is fully mapped and described over the course of sixty-three pages. The whole set-up is very open, which is refreshing after the clumsy railroading of some of the earlier adventures: but fundamentally it is what it is, and what it is is a seven-level Egyptian-themed dungeon full of traps and undead. If you happen to be in the market for one of those then by all means try this one, though as with Karak Azgal I rather feel that all this dungeon-crawling doesn't really play to WFRP's strengths.