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.


  1. I own all of these books and played a little bit of the Ashes of Middenheim. On the Armoury, that was a key part of the 2000s massive RPG line strategy - every game had one and they primarily consisted of powerups, magic items and things to make players feel special because they were the only person to use a Bohemian Ear Spoon...

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  3. Though I saw that stuff on torrents, things like that..... I never downloaded it and read it !

    My foreboding was right. Sigmar, forgive them, they know not what they do....

  4. i really loved barony of the damned. can't wait for you to savage it :D

    1. I don't think I will savage it, actually. I mean, the adventure parts of it have the same problems as the rest of the 2nd edition adventures, but I rather liked the setting stuff, even if it does rather veer into self-parody at times...

    2. i think that self-parody was one of wfrp's great strengths

    3. I think that's why the Bretonnian stuff overall felt a bit more like old WFRP to me. It was taking the Arthurian Grail Cycle and having it be both a potential aspiration for players and also a cheap, grubby way of making money off relics. I'm not sure if the actual writing was any better, but the universe it portrayed had a bit more bite than a lot of the writing about the Empire, which often felt overly generic.

    4. The way that WHFRP 2nd edition handled the rewriting of Bretonnia was one of the things I most liked about it, actually. I still struggle to believe in 2nd edition Bretonnia as a nation that exists right next to the Empire, but considered in isolation I think it's a pretty good setting in it's own right.

  5. adventure iteself has spawned one of my longest running and dearest wfrp campaigns. it was quite linear but somehow some magic happened and we run with it.

    1. The 'Ashes' adventure, you mean? Yeah, I can well believe it. The content is perfectly decent, and I'm sure it could be a lot of fun with a good GM!

  6. I am surprised that no one bothered to tell you the third image is busted.

    And I have no idea who Fimir is/was.

    1. Bloody Fimir. Always slipping away into the mist.

      I'll try to fix it.

    2. The image is visible now, but I still have no idea who or what that is.

    3. The fimir were one-eyed swamp-dwelling lizard-men with mace-like tails, who served witch-queens and raided human settlements under the cover of mist. Fomori by way of early Slaine comics, basically. They were controversial because they abducted human women for reproductive purposes, having no females of their own except the witch-queens, who were infertile. They disappeared from the second and third editions of WHFRP, but I hear they've finally reappeared in 4th...

  7. Graeme Davis wrote Edge of Night and (co-wrote) The Enemy Within for WFRP 3e. The former is a bit of a mess, but contains some decent material, especially a grand ball at which nobles are vying for prestige. The Enemy Within gets off to a slightly shaky start but is generally strong. In both the patter of furry feet and squeaking can be heard as your favourites appear.

  8. One of the things I really liked aboout the Bestiary was the various comments on the subject from various people (a skaven assassin, who inevitably just detailed how to poison it, a scholar, a peasant, etc.)

    1. Oh, yeah, the assassin's notes were very funny. Not especially *useful*, but very funny none-the-less.