Wednesday 29 August 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer, part 4: Spires of Altdorf, Karak Azgal, Realms of Sorcery

My WHFRP 2nd edition read-through continues. (For an explanation of what this is all about, see here.)

Spires of Altdorf (September 2005)

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Paths of the Damned, part 2. The first part describes the city of Altdorf, using a format in which each location is first given a general description, followed by sub-sections on 'Fights' (things that might happen if you get in a fight there), 'Social Situations' (things that might happen during social interactions there), and 'Stealth' (things that might happen if you're sneaking around there). It's not an inherently bad idea, but the implementation leaves much to be desired. First it's applied to generic locations - streets, markets, tenements - with the result that most of the content is things you could have thought of yourself. (Did we really need to be told, under the 'Social Situations' subheading of 'A Walled Estate', that 'Elegant drawing rooms with carpets and chairs upholstered in the owner's colours are a fine location for a meeting'?) Then it's applied to various centres of magical or political power, which leads to entry after entry explaining: 'Fights: you can't have a fight here or the wizards will kill you. Social: no-one here will talk to you. Stealth: you can't sneak around here', and so on. Seldom have form and content been so obviously ill-adapted to one another.

All this is followed by an adventure, which picks up where 'Ashes of Middenheim' left off. This adventure clearly wants to be Power Behind the Throne when it grows up, as it involves the PCs running around a city investigating dark deeds, initially unaware that the wizard who seems to be their ally is secretly their greatest enemy. It starts badly, with yet another rigged fight in which the PCs seem doomed until a powerful NPC wizard swoops in and saves them - as if they won't have had enough of that in part 1! - although, in this case, the inevitable resentment that will create among the players will ultimately pay off when they finally discover he was evil all along and get to murder him.

The adventure opens out once it gets to Altdorf, with a large number of NPCs whom the PCs can interact with in any order while being harassed by the minions of a psychotic chaos cultist with a grudge. It still has awful railroady moments like 'if the PCs try to attack the NPCs, an infinite number of watchmen and bodyguards arrive to stop them', or 'if the PCs are losing their fight with the wizard, he suddenly devolves into a chaos spawn', and at 55 pages it's far too long, but it is trying. A strong edit could probably turn this into quite a good social adventure. I might even have a go at writing a condensation of it at some point.

Finally, I rather liked the addition of the 'Lamplighter' and 'Newssheet Vendor' careers. Those are exactly the kind of careers that WHFRP characters should have.

Karak Azgal (October 2005)

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This is a WHFRP mega-dungeon. Giant ruined dwarf hold with shanty town on the surface for PCs to rest and restock, and huge underground area divided between skaven, undead, orcs, goblins, and finally chaos demons right at the very bottom. Not fully mapped: key areas are detailed, but it's up to the GM to decide exactly how they join up, and to generate the dungeon zones between them. It's not bad, and the three-bodied autophagous mutant at the very end should at least make for a memorably horrible encounter, but the whole set-up hardly seems to play to WHFRP's strengths. (What's are a Burgher and a Newssheet Vendor supposed to do in a Mines of Moria knock-off?) If you like this sort of thing then I'd suggest just running it in D&D instead.

Realms of Sorcery (November 2005)

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The second edition magic book. Explaining its contents will require a brief discussion of the history of magic in Warhammer.

In WHFRP 1st edition, the magic system was obviously based on D&D. It featured the usual D&D suspects - wizards, clerics, druids, and illusionists - to which it added alchemists, necromancers, elementalists, and demonologists, all of whom had probably also appeared in D&D in one form or another by 1985. Spellcasters learned spells from a suspiciously D&D-like spell list and cast them by spending magic points. There were a few distinctive spells - 'Protection From Rain' is iconic - but aside from the tendency of evil wizards to gradually pick up deformities from using their magic, very little about the system really resonated with WHFRP's supposed theme of dark early modern fantasy-horror.

In 1992, Games Workshop released an expansion set for the Warhammer wargame called 'Battle Magic'. For the first time (I think), this introduced the idea that the Warhammer World had eight colour-coded 'winds of magic' - probably a reference to Pratchett's The Colour of Magic (1983), in which there was an eighth colour that only wizards could see - and that each individual human wizard would be attuned to one of them, allowing them to use the corresponding form of magic. The wizards who could perceive each colour all tended to be the same sort of people - so people keyed into Bright magic would be rash and passionate, people keyed into Amethyst magic would be grim and spooky, and so on - and they clubbed together in groups, giving rise to eight 'colleges of magic', each of which supplied the Empire with colour-coded 'battle wizards'. As you'd expect from a wargame, the spells that these battle wizards could cast tended to be big and spectacular: lightning bolts, meteor strikes, balls of purple energy that turned everyone they touched into amethyst statues, that sort of thing. It also introduced eight other kinds of magic used by various nonhuman races, but it's the colour magic system which is important right now.

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The task of reconciling these two very different conceptions of Warhammer magic fell to Ken and Jo Walton, the authors of the first edition Realms of Sorcery book. This book had a famously complicated development history, being announced as 'forthcoming' in 1986 and then not actually appearing until 2001, by which point magic in the Warhammer world had been repeatedly rewritten. (Like many WHFRP fans, I spent the second half of the 1990s patiently waiting for it to appear before finally giving up on it.) Realms managed these contradictions by asserting that colour-based battle magic was a relatively new innovation, having been taught to humans by the High Elves just two hundred years before to help them fight the forces of chaos, and that it coexisted with the older, less martial forms of magic described in the 1st edition core book.

This was fine as far as it went, but it led to something of an over-proliferation of magic types. The eight new ones were layered on top of the eight old ones even though they had massive thematic overlaps, and then yet another form of magic, hedge wizardry, was added for good measure. The distinction between a Jade Battle Mage and a druid, or a Celestial Battle Mage and an air elementalist, or between a Gold Battle Mage and an alchemist, mainly seemed to be that the battle magi were better at blowing things up. The fact that you had to already be a powerful wizard before you could even start learning colour magic also created difficulties for both the lore and the mechanics. Who knew the Emperor had this many high-level wizards to call upon? And how many WHFRP campaigns last long enough for anyone to advance through five levels of battle magic?

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The second edition Realms of Sorcery book - which, let us recall, appeared just four years after the first one - tried to cut down on this over-duplication, but it did so by prioritising colour magic over all the other kinds. No longer could you be a 'generic' wizard: you had to pick one colour and stick to it. No more alchemists, only Gold Battle Wizards. Elementalists got merged with hedge wizards. Illusionists got merged with Grey Battle Wizards, who were forced to stop being Gandalf and start being 'shadowmancers' instead. These changes had the advantage of emphasising the more distinctive and, well, colourful aspects of WHFRP magic over its more generic elements, but it also meant locking all wizard PCs into an extremely restrictive system of wizard colleges, wizard licenses, vows of loyalty to the Emperor, and so on, with imperial witch hunters apparently having carte blanche to execute any wizard who steps out of line. Reading the first and second edition versions of Realms of Sorcery side by side, it's striking how much more lassiez-faire the first version is about wizards just wandering off to do normal PC stuff, rather than having to be continuously answerable to the Imperial authorities. Maybe people who didn't want to engage with that sort of thing were supposed to play hedge wizards, instead? (Not a great idea in the 2nd edition setting, with the witch hunters now an officially-sanctioned government organisation with authority to burn non-collegiate magic-users on sight...)

The book is 248 pages long, and it suffers from the standard 2nd edition issues of word bloat and vagueness. The 1st edition book, for all its issues, knew how to keep things sharp and vivid. In first edition, the Amber College is a doorless, windowless tower, marked with mystic runes which inform those sensitive to amber magic of the hidden caves in the wilderness where the true masters of the order can be found... but that's gone in 2nd edition. In 1st edition, amethyst mages never speak, and are taught their magic in a silent, secret language; that language is then used to teach amethyst adepts a second secret language in which their higher secrets are communicated, and the second language is used to teach the order's masters a third secret language, in which their highest arcana are recorded... but that's gone in 2nd edition, too. The gold college abducting the beggars attracted by their wealth and sacrificing them in rituals to turn lead into gold... gone. Colour magic being a deliberately crippled form of magic taught by the elves to the humans in order to ensure they never became too much of a threat... gone. It's all simultaneously more high-fantasy - complete with invisible colleges hidden behind magical barriers - and less... hardcore, maybe? It's also much less complete than the first edition version, with other types of magic - clerical magic, chaos sorcery, ice magic, skaven magic, etc - all reserved for future supplements.

I did like some of the new material. The overall magic system is much more thoroughly worked-out than before: high magic is all eight colours carefully harmonised, colour magic is one colour distilled from the rest to avoid dangerous impurities (which is why it's the only form of magic that can be safely practised by people who aren't capable of high magic), dark magic is all eight colours haphazardly mixed together (which is why hedge magic is dangerous), and true dark magic is high magic backwards, with all eight colours forced together through the unholy exercise of will. The idea that monoliths and henges channel the winds of magic, and evil magicians sometimes deliberately cut the flows so that henges just become pools of stagnant magical awfulness, is the kind of setting detail which allows players to figure out the villain's evil plans (and their own possible counter-measures) both in-character and out-of-character simultaneously, which is always a good thing. The idea that each wind of magic gradually leaves its marks on the wizards who channel it is a good and logical extension of the physically warping effects of dark magic in 1st edition. (Who wouldn't want their gold wizard to have a lead tongue, golden skin, and quicksilver tears?) I liked the rules for building your own freakish familiar, and there are some good and imaginative potions and magic items. The Boots of Bovva make a welcome return.

The book finishes with a 28-page adventure, about some thieves trying to sell a batch of cursed wine as a weapon. It wants to be an investigation, but in practise the PCs just wander around for a while until an NPC invites them for a drink and tells them what's really going on and what they should do about it. (Tellingly, the author never even seems to have considered the question 'what if the PCs decline the invitation?' or 'what if the PCs don't want to go along with the NPC's plan?') It could also have been easily condensed down to seven pages or so.

Overall: some good material. Obviously necessary if you want to use the 2nd edition colour magic system, but imaginatively weaker than the first edition version, which was itself one of the weaker books in the first edition line. Cutting it down to half the length would have made it a better book.

Next time: Forges of Nuln, Knights of the Grail, and Barony of the Damned.

Monday 20 August 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 3: Adventures, Bestiary, Armoury, Guide to the Empire

My chronological trawl-through of WHFRP 2nd edition continues! This is going to be another fairly downbeat post. I'll get to the good stuff eventually.

Plundered Vaults (March 2005)

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This is a collection of six adventures: three reprints from the 1980s accompanied by three newly-written scenarios. The old ones - 'The Haunting Horror', 'The Grapes of Wrath', and the superb 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers' - were written by people who knew how to write adventures, and the new ones were written by people who didn't. The old ones throw down a situation and then leave the decisions about what do about it in the hands of the players. The new ones just force-march the PCs through a series of pre-scripted scenes towards a predetermined conclusion, and are full of terrible advice about how to rig each situation in order to keep the plot on track.

The most frustrating adventure here is one of the new ones, 'Carrion Call', because it is so close to being a good adventure. It has a classic set-up - visit an isolated house in the woods, stay for dinner, get increasingly spooked by the escalating freakiness, try to leave, discover that getting out is much harder than getting in - but spoils it through the use of extremely heavy-handed railroading. Try to find your own way out? No chance: the house is apparently so big and so confusing that it's impossible to find anything without help from one of the residents. Try to escape through the surrounding woods? Nope: you get attacked by infinite numbers of undead wolves until you get the message and turn back. Some minor rewrites could turn this into a rather nice 'dinner at the necromancer's house' scenario, though.

Old World Bestiary (April 2005)

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Includes most, though not quite all, of the monsters from the wargame, many of whom had never previously appeared in WHFRP. It's a good bestiary, although the fact that the stats are often based on the ones from the wargame leads to some odd results. (Dark Elf corsairs, for example, are only slightly more dangerous than regular human soldiers, so it's unclear to me how they manage to prey upon the Old World with such impunity.) It is, however, not a bestiary which is very well adapted to the kind of 'early modern Call of Cthulhu' style investigations and horror stories that WHFRP was famous for.

If you're an old Warhammer player, then you'll know all these monsters already and have no reason to read this. If you're not, though, then it's well worth a look, because a lot of these monsters are classics. (Skaven! Beastmen! Squigs!) However, the vast majority of them are always going to attack on sight: and most of them, true to their wargame origins, are best defeated by simply stabbing them lots of times. This is fine in D&D, but it's less helpful in WHFRP, or at least in the kind of game that WHFRP had traditionally tended to be. It's not clear how to actually use most of them in any way other than: 'Suddenly, monsters attack!'

Still no fimir. The 2000AD influence grows weak.

Come baaack...

Paths of the Damned Part 1: Ashes of Middenheim (May 2005)

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'Paths of the Damned' was a series of three books, the first part of each of which consisted of a city guide, and the second part of each was an adventure set in that city. I think it was supposed to be second edition's equivalent of 'The Enemy Within'. This is a pretty depressing thought.

First we get a description of Middenheim, which apparently got damaged pretty seriously by the Storm of Chaos. The chaos warriors tried to seize it by sending mutated humans called 'Flayerkin' to climb the walls: they had hooks instead of hands, for easier climbing, and 'heavy iron chains' fused to their spines, to allow the rest of the army to climb up after them. Presumably this gambit failed because every time a bunch of chaos warriors in full chaos armour tried to climb a chain, they ended up pulling the flayerkin's spine out through its back. Anyway, dozens of these rather poorly thought-out creatures still apparently dangle from the walls of Middenheim by their hooks. I mention them because they're the only part of the city's description that stuck in my mind after reading it, as the rest is made up of such paragons of vagueness as this:
The army of Middenheim is currently away from the city, hunting down the rag-tag remnants of Archaeon's chaos forces. Like all the armies of the Empire, it is a diverse and versatile force, with a wide range of infantry, cavalry, and artillery units at its disposal.
That's the entire description of 'The Standing Army'. What was the point of even writing that down?

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I quite liked this image of the siege of Middenheim, though.
So the 28-page city description is pretty much a write-off, and could easily have been cut to just the two-page map plus two or three pages of keyed locations. (There's a nice bit about the crater from a hellcannon shot now sprouting flowers with human faces, but unfortunately it's a transparent imitation of the description of Praag from WHFRP 1st edition.) The adventure that follows feels like it was written as a kind of compilation of WHFRP's greatest hits: cultists, mutants, witch hunters, corrupt authority figures, beastmen, skaven, sinister conspiracies, etc. Unfortunately it's totally railroaded, heavily reliant on cultists doing generic cultist stuff for no real reason, and features such gems as 'the PCs get arrested and stripped of all their gear, with no chance to avoid it', 'an arbitrary number of beastmen attack, beat the PCs up for a few rounds, and then three super-cool NPCs turn up and save everybody by killing them all', and my personal favourite, 'have the players make a perception test to hear the noise and wake up, but if they all fail then just have an NPC knock over a chair and wake them all up anyway'. (Why? 'In the interests of good storytelling', of course!) The basic material isn't bad, and I quite like the mini-dungeon in the woods, with the flayed ghosts and the fountain of blood, but its author seems to have struggled to string them together into a proper adventure.

Now, here's the kicker: the author is Graeme Davis. (A man who, as Gideon helpfully reminded me, is not the same person as Graeme Morris.) One of the original designers of WHFRP. One of the authors of Shadows Over Bรถgenhafen and Death on the Reik. The guy who wrote 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers'. There is no question that this is someone who, at least at one time, knew exactly how to write a good RPG scenario. So what happened? Was it a rush job? Was he labouring under restrictions from the line editors? Did his talents wither without Jim and Phil to bounce ideas off? Did he just forget how to write an adventure at some point in the intervening twenty years? I know that he's been actively writing RPG stuff since the 1980s, but I haven't read anything he wrote between 1989 and 2005, so I've got no idea whether this is a one-off aberration or symptomatic of a long-term change in his approach. If anyone reading this is familiar with his other work, I'd be interested in hearing your views...

Old World Armoury (July 2005)

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115 pages of information on coins, armour, weapons, guns, equipment, transportation, and hirelings. I have no idea who the target audience is for a book like this. Clearly I am not part of it.

Sigmar's Heirs: A Guide to the Empire (August 2005)

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This book is at least 95% filler. Did you know that many inhabitants of the empire's heavily-wooded provinces make their living from hunting and forestry? Could you ever have guessed that people from rich provinces regard people from poor provinces as ignorant bumpkins, while people from poor provinces regard people from rich provinces as effete weaklings? Would it ever have occurred to you that people who lived right next door to the vampire-dominated province of Sylvania might be unusually nervous about undead? Page after page of stating the obvious. Extremely low conceptual density. Should have been a five-page section in the core book, not a 128-page stand-alone volume. I liked the provincial sayings, though. Unlike the main text, they communicate a lot in a very small number of words.

(Also, the population numbers given are absurdly low. No-one ever seems to notice that, according to the map, the empire is roughly the size of modern Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine put together!)

Next time: Spires of Altdorf, Karak Azgul, and Realms of Sorcery.