Sunday, 17 February 2019

[Actual Play] 'We should have started using this zombie bird trick ages ago': Team Tsathogga's sojourn in the Stonemoors

More actual play. You can read the previous installment here.

So the PCs were deep in the Cold Marshes, half-starved and far from home, when they heard the booming of drums through the mist and realised that the ghost drummers had caught up with them. They didn't know what the ghost drummers were, but after everything that had happened they were pretty sure they were bad news, and scrambled off to find a defensible bit of relatively dry land as quickly as possible. There they drew up their skeleton followers in a formation that Tiny dubbed 'the Death Hedgehog', gathered in a tight circle with spears pointing outwards in every direction. The mist around them was full of drumbeats that seemed to come from everywhere at once, louder and louder, until the sound seemed to be almost on top of them. Then, quite unexpectedly, a child-sized figure came skipping out of the mist towards them. As it came closer, they could see it was a tiny animated effigy, apparently made from twigs and scraps of cloth, topped with a lump of wood with a crudely carved face on it. It carried a piece of bark in its little wooden claws.

Everyone loves dolls, right?

Warily, the PCs allowed it to approach as it hopped over to Circe and proffered the piece of bark to her. The bark was covered in unfamiliar symbols, but after casting Comprehend Languages Hash was able to translate it as a crudely scrawled demand that they hand over all their magic in exchange for their lives. The little effigy stood stock-still before them, its head tilted to one side, while the PCs discussed whether they might be able to somehow scam their way out of the situation. Then, evidently feeling that it had given them ample time to surrender, it leapt straight upwards and lunged for Circe's face. She grabbed it just before its tiny wooden claws made contact with her skin, and promptly smashed it against the nearest rock.

Instantly the unseen drums boomed out in unison - and, in response, the marsh all around them erupted with flailing limbs. Dozens of leathery bog mummies burst from the mud and charged their mound from all sides, hurling themselves fearlessly onto the spears of the Death Hedgehog and dragging their impaled bodies down the shafts, their slimy fingers clawing in the air. Titus' zombie giant smashed one to the earth, breaking every bone in its body: but it just carried on moving, writhing bonelessly across the floor like leathery snake, trailing its shattered limbs behind it. As the melee intensified, two things swiftly became clear. The first was that they were outnumbered and likely to be overwhelmed. The second was that the bog-corpses all writhed and struck and slithered in time to the beat of the unseen drums.

Reasoning that the drums were somehow being used to control the corpses, Sovan cast Silence 15' radius on Ron - and, sure enough, every bog mummy within 15' of the bat-man instantly stopped moving. Sovan then made frantic circling gestures, and Ron - ever quick on the uptake - flapped into the air and began flying in circles around the battlefield. Wherever he passed, the bog corpses stopped moving, blunting the impact of their advance and granting the skeletons some much-needed respite. As he passed overhead, Hash took advantage of the momentary lull to cast Invisibility on himself and slip out through the skeleton lines, determined to locate the source of the drum-beat. His keen elven ears soon distinguished that it was coming from several points at once - so, approaching the nearest one, he saw through the fog a huge, six-legged, crocodilian marsh beast, atop whose back sat a wild-looking man beating rapidly at a crude skin drum. Hash promptly drew his bow and shot the drummer in the back, before fleeing into the mist as his monstrous mount began to sniff the air.

Image result for crocodile in mist
Run, Hash! Before it smells your fear!

Back on the mound, things weren't going so well. The bog corpses just wouldn't stop coming: Zombie Runt ape was pulled down and torn apart by sheer weight of numbers, and even Tiny was getting worn down. However, as one of the drums fell silent (thanks to Hash), the PCs noticed a small but noticeable decrease in the momentum of the bog mummy attack. Concluding that silencing the drums was clearly the only way to win this, they waited for Ron to fly overhead and then burst through the skeleton lines and out into the marshes, determined to take out the drummers as quickly as possible. Spreading out, they hit three more of the drummers almost simultaneously with a volley of spells and missiles, halving the momentum of the attack. Two of their mounts were scared away with mind affecting magic: the third one jumped on Skadi and started eating her alive, but Sovan and Circe poured so much healing into her that her body just grew back as fast as the beast could shred it, and it ended up wandering away looking rather nonplussed. As one drum after another fell silent, the remaining drummers began beating a retreat, and the bog corpses slithered back off the spears of the skeletons and poured away into the marshes to follow them. The skeletons skewered some of them to the ground to prevent them from getting away, but as the drumbeats moved out of earshot they slumped down into the marsh, clearly inanimate corpses once again.

The losses had been heavy: Tiny was covered in wounds, as usual, while Zombie Runt Ape and seven more skeletons had been destroyed in the fighting. On the plus side, they had scooped up the drums of the four fallen drummers, and had even thoughtfully captured one of them alive so that he could teach them how to use them. Once they had slapped him awake, this captured drummer - whose name turned out to be Ket - told them a miserable tale of how his people lived in service to a fell witch of the swamps, who made their drums and bred the great marsh-beasts that they rode upon, and who was regarded with fear by all the inhabitants of the Cold Marshes. The drums, he explained, had the power to command the corpses of the drowned, but learning to use them was a demanding process that took years of practise to master. Undaunted by this news, the PCs told him that if he wanted to live, he was going to have to serve as their new percussion teacher. Then they dragged him off with them and headed on westwards, eager to get out of these horrible swamps as soon as possible.

The next day's travel finally brought them to the coast, or what passed for it: a vast region of saltwater marshland in which the land faded imperceptibly into the sea. To their delight the area was teeming with birds, which their skeletons proceeded to net, spear, and shoot in great numbers, finally bringing their weeks of near-famine to an end in one enormous all-you-can-eat open-air bird roast. Their ship lay hundreds of miles to the south, but now that they had reached the sea they knew that all they had to do was send Captain Matthew a message and then stay put, and he would eventually be able to reach them by simply following the shoreline. To these ends they had Titus reanimate the corpse of a particularly sturdy-looking bird, hooked a skull on its talons (so that they could keep track of its progress via Skull Sight spells), shoved a message in its beak (giving orders for Captain Matthew to come and find them at the northern edge of the cold Marshes), and sent it off south with instructions to follow the coast until it reached Kingsport and then land on the only ship in the harbour that had distinctive purple-stained timbers. They then ascended into the hills to the north and waited for rescue.

It was a long wait. The zombie bird was maddeningly literal-minded, following every contour of the coastline, thus multiplying the length of its journey: so Tiny instructed the skeletons and the zombie marsh giant to built a fort on the hilltop, both to keep them safe and to make them harder for the ship to miss. As Fort Tiny rose around them, the other the PCs demanded that Ket give them ghost drumming lessons, although only Sovan showed any aptitude for it. The rest of them decided to wander off into the Stonemoors instead, and passing over the hills they soon found themselves in a windswept country of rocks and moors and streams, dotted with old grazing trails but with hardly a sheep to be seen. The hunger-bitten people in the first little fishing village they came to revealed the reason: just as the cave dwarves had warned them, the Stonemoors had been ravaged by war.

Image result for yorkshire moors mist

Clan feuds and sheep rustling had always been common among them, as had slaving raids by the ships of the Black Isle, but this was something new: the year before, the eastern clans had risen in a great confederacy and marched west, led by huge red-skinned men who seemed invincible in battle. Their chiefs declared that the rivers of meltwater which ran through their lands from the Holy Mountain had run dry, and the consequent drought had reduced them to famine - so, rather than sit at home and starve, they had come instead to seize all the flocks of the western clans and drive them away into the east. Every clan that had attempted to meet them in battle had been routed, and the rest had no choice but to yield up all their sheep and supplies to the invaders, who left them with barely enough to survive the winter. Some of them had even become so desperate that they had started making hunting trips into the Cold Marshes, although what with the ghost drummers and the marsh giants not all of them returned. Their greatest fear now was that the red men might return again in the autumn, and seize what little they had left.

Skadi, who remembered all too well what it was like to be a starving peasant herself, was indignant at their plight. She set Sovan and Circe to work helping out with Cure Disease and Purify Food and Drink spells, and organised the skeletons into hunting parties to start gathering food in the swamps. Circe used Water Breathing and Speak to Animals spells to strike bargains with some large local fish, promising them food in exchange for driving shoals of smaller fish into the nets of the fishermen. As they travelled up the coast, feeding the hungry and curing the sick, they heard rumours of a haunted valley a day's travel inland: a place whose woods had, for the last couple of years, apparently been thick with terrifying apparitions. Working out that this haunting had apparently started at roughly the same time as the drought in the eastern Stonemoors, and that the location of this valley furthermore correlated with Tiny's instinctive sense that a fairly powerful source of arcanowave radiation lay somewhere to the east, they decided to pay the place a visit.

Scouting came first, of course, so they rigged up another zombie-bird-and-seeing-skull combo and sent it down to the lake at the bottom of the valley, where the radiation appeared to be coming from. Looking through the eyes of the skull, they saw a longhouse built on an island in the lake, with a longship tied up on the shore - clearly a seagoing vessel, and one that could never have sailed down the narrow stream leading into the valley. Sending the bird back with instructions to look in through the house's windows, they saw a band of men inside smoking fish, their muscular arms and backs bespeaking lives spent on the rowing-bench, while a tall woman with long dark hair worked on some kind of intricate woodcarving by the fire. The woman then looked up, saw a zombie bird carrying a skull outside her window, and threw a knife at it - and while the bird flew onwards on its preprogrammed route, someone came up behind it and smashed it to bits. Their curiosity piqued by what this odd band - raiders from the Black Isle, by the looks of them - could be doing in the middle of a 'haunted' valley, the PCs decided to go down and take a closer look for themselves.

Descending the thickly-wooded slopes the valley, the PCs found themselves assailed by strange visions: burning vulture-men, icy ghouls, and glimpses of the frost-slicked streets of some frozen city, where metallic clanking sounds filled the air and a huge tower loomed in the distance. Although these were clearly illusions, they were much more 'real' than any they had previously encountered - audio-visual, semi-solid, and cold enough to leave the party genuinely shivering - and they even used Dispel Magic spells to nope out of a couple of particularly nasty ones. Finally they reached the shores of the lake, and the illusions vanished - or so they thought. But then Hash, ever eagle-eyed, pointed out that although it was still the middle of the day, the pole star could be seen distinctly shining in the sky above their heads...

What do the illusions mean? Who are the red men? Do the PCs even really care, or will they just leave the Stonemoors and never come back as soon as their ship arrives at Fort Tiny? Will these writeups ever catch back up with the actual game? Some, none, or more of these questions may be answered in the next installment of The Adventures of Team Tsathogga! 

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 5: Small But Vicious Dog

Back in 2011, Chris Hogan - author of the OSR blog Vaults of Nagoh - wrote a hilarious 36-page free RPG called Small But Vicious Dog, with the aim of combining 1st edition WFRP with B/X D&D. Like many 1st edition WFRP fans, Hogan was openly contemptuous of WFRP 3rd edition, and SBVD plunged defiantly back in the opposite direction to WFRP 3's more new-school, high-fantasy take on the setting. In Hogan's own words:
Welcome to a fantasy world where the men are Baldrick, the dwarves are punk, and the dogs are small but vicious. Welcome to a world of bawds, grave robbers, excisemen and witch hunters; a place where “Blather”, “Flee!” and “Mime” are legitimate skill choices; and where all material on the insidious threat of Chaos is officially interchangeable between settings.
Hogan's blog hasn't been updated since 2013, but Small But Vicious Dog lives on. You can download it here for free.

SBVD is, essentially, a collection of rules hacks for making B/X D&D look more like WFRP. Some parts of it are just B/X in WFRP drag: so Constitution is called 'Toughness', melee attack bonus is renamed 'Weapon Skill', hit points become 'wounds', and so on. The four base classes are Academics (who get magic), Rangers (who can shoot people), Warriors (who can hit people), and Thieves (who can sneak attack people). Each character also gets a Career, which in turn grants them some Trappings and a Career Skill. The combat-oriented career skills, like Dodge Blow, have specific rules effects. The rest just give you a thing that you can do by rolling equal to or less than your relevant ability score.

PCs start with 6 'wounds' (i.e. hit points) plus their initial hit dice, and they also get 'fate points' which act as 'get out of death free' cards, just like in WFRP. They also get one more fate point and the ability to increase one ability score by one point each time they level up, to mimic the way that the stats of WFRP characters rise as they progress through their careers. Hogan writes a lot about how doomed and miserable the PCs should be in SBVD, claiming at one point that 'Nothing better evokes the spirit of the source material that inspired SBVD than making the PCs suffer', but between their fate points and their increasing ability scores and their extra HP (sorry, 'wounds'), SBVD PCs are actually much tougher than their B/X D&D counterparts.

Other parts of the game have also been modified to make them a bit more WFRP-y. Falling to 0 HP - sorry, 'wounds' - means a roll on the critical hit table rather than automatic death. There are some rather clever rules to differentiate weapons from one another, making them more like their WFRP equivalents: so two-handed weapons make you attack last but let you roll damage twice and keep the better option, daggers can be drawn as a free action, firearms ignore armour at close range but may misfire, and so on. There are rules for the various psychology effects from Warhammer, like Frenzy, Stupidity, Fear, Terror, etc. The biggest change is the magic system, which ditches spells per day in favour of a WFRP 2 style system where you can cast as many spells as you like, but each casting carries a risk of (possibly catastrophic) side effects. Further rules cover social status, drugs, disease, medicine, insanity, and hirelings, which gives a clear sense of the kind of material that the game is intended to focus on. The rules only cover characters of levels 1-3, but it would be easy to extend them into higher levels.

This is all well and good: but at the end of the day, SBVD is very much D&D rather than WFRP. The careers system is a superficial varnish over the class system, rather than being integral to the game as it is in WFRP, and nonhuman PCs don't even get to have careers (or classes). Advancement is still mostly a matter of getting more hit points (as in B/X D&D) rather than improving across the board (as in WFRP). XP also comes from finding treasure rather than completing scenarios, which is a big change from WFRP, and likely to motivate very different player behaviour. 

The best thing about SBVD is its gleefully demented take on the Warhammer setting. At the very moment when FFG were trying to convince people to take WFRP seriously as High Fantasy Drama, Hogan was writing things like this:
All dwarves are beer-soaked beards on legs who stop mining only to fight, drink heavily and/or sing about mining. They consider everything they say and do to be SRS BZNZ and nurse a grudge like a Bretonnian nurtures a fine vintage wine. All perceived similarities between Dwarves and Yorkshiremen are coincidental. 

There’s a 10% chance that any dwarf character created is a Troll Slayer, a kamikaze no-pants dwarf with a big orange mohawk, prison tats, a two-handed axe and a burning desire to ragequit life as violently as possible. 

All elves are metrosexual minstrels and archers who fly into fey rages when provoked. The elven ability to lose it in spectacularly violent fashion has been clocked at “Nought to Feanor in 4.2 seconds”. Most PC elves are filthy tree-hugging pseudo-Celtic Wood Elves, although the Sea Elves who hang out in coastal cities seem to be a kind of Elven gap year backpacker.  

Rumour has it that the Elven homelands are contested in an endless war between two mighty and ancient factions: the louche-and-arty vs. the darker-and-edgier. The origin of their interminable strife is unknown, although it probably began as a spat over the relative aesthetic merits of art nouveau and gothic revival styles. 
If you only know Warhammer from its later, more serious incarnations, then this will read like parodic caricature. But here are some extracts from the actual (real, official, canonical) description of the Lothern Sea Guard from 1985:
The job of Captain of the Guard of Lothern is not a popular one. Few jobs are popular in the Elf Kingdoms, as Elves despise all forms of work. Perhaps it is because of this that important or responsible positions tend to fall to eccentrics. D'roi Haisplinn, Captain of the Guard of Lothern, is a case in point; a neurotic, homicidal maniac. At dusk he can be seen pacing the battlements of the great lighthouse of Lothern, cackling madly and, perhaps, torturing an underling.

The battlecry of this regiment is based up the age old tradition of challenging strangers during the hours of darkness. In Elvish the cry is 'Elo Cailor Gotda Liet', which is popularly supposed to translate as 'Hello, Hello. What's going on here then?'

Amongst Haisplinn's many deeds of infamy the destruction of the 'Halfling House' Inn and rest home, must be one of the basest. Many Halflings were slain, or suffered horrible and embarrassing torture at the hands of the Guards. Haisplinn's only motivation seems to have been that Halflings are short, ugly and have very poor dress sense.
Hogan's interpretation of WFRP as absurdist black comedy, concerned exclusively with the miserable lives of the poor, mad, and desperate and their comically doomed attempts to get rich quick, very much emphasises one aspect of the Warhammer world over others - after all, high fantasy elements have also been present in the setting from the very start. It does, however, neatly summarise what many people find most distinctive and appealing about WFRP, and acts as a welcome reminder of just how crazy the setting used to be, back before everyone started trying to take it so damn seriously.

The bestiary for SBVD is a bit of a treasure trove, featuring all kinds of mostly-forgotten weirdness from the early days of WFRP, and rejoicing in the now deliberately-forgotten fact that the Warhammer world was once overrun by killer puffins, 'carnivorous laser slugs', and other nonsense. The write-ups of these creatures are often accompanied by jokes about how poorly they've fared in subsequent editions of the game:
The Bog Devils are monocular amphibian humanoids of evil aspect. These ancient terrors of the wetlands have been driven to the verge of extinction by divisions among their creator gods, and by the inexorable expansion of Ratmen and Dark Elves into their conceptual niche territory

[Zoats] have a long and convoluted history. They originated as druidic defenders of the forest, and then went into space as the shock troops and diplomats of an alien hive race before disappearing entirely. They appear to have vanished into a combined time travel/ret-con portal, returning as fearsome lightning-powered Dragon Ogres. Suffice it to say these guys are weird, a bit confused and not to all tastes. 
There's a lot to like, here, but at the end of the day I'm not sure how useful SBVD actually is. As Hogan himself repeatedly points out, B/X D&D and WFRP 1st edition are already pretty similar, which makes it easy to adapt material for one game for use in the other even without a halfway house ruleset such as this one. Rather than an actual game to be played as-written, it's probably best viewed as a collection of suggested house rules and monster write-ups, which people who want to make their D&D games a bit more WFRP-esque can borrow from as best suits the needs of their individual campaigns.

I'll end by quoting Hogan's own list of things to remember about SBVD, which serve as a useful manifesto for the kind of black comedy WFRP spirit that the game embodies:

1. The world is not fair. 
2. The gods hate you, and your suffering amuses them. 
3. 90% of people are corrupt, greedy scum. The remainder are vicious fanatics. 
4. Everyone has an agenda, sometimes several. 
5. It can always get worse, and generally should. 
6. If in doubt, Chaos did it! 
7. If it appears that Chaos didn’t do it, check harder. 
8. Glowing green rocks = bad. 
9. There are no such things as Skaven. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Zak Smith and associated awfulness

Probably everyone who reads this blog has already heard about Mandy Morbid's revelations that her ex-boyfriend, Zak Smith, abused her (and other women) for more than a decade. On the off-chance that you haven't, you can read her account of event here, which she has asked to be shared as widely as possible:

(13/2/19 edit: Vivka Grey has now also posted an account of Zak's abuse of her, too, confirming and extending Mandy's narrative. You can read it here.)

I'm in the relatively fortunate position of being someone who's never worked with Zak, never gamed with him, never publicly defended him, and honestly never much liked him. (There's a reason I never added his blog to my blogroll.) But I did buy and read his books, and I did recognise his importance to the 'artpunk' wing of OSR D&D. I shall certainly not be purchasing any of his work hereafter.

Disturbingly, James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Zak's chief publisher - has maintained a deafening silence since the story broke. Raggi has published some of my favourite RPG books in recent years, and I have recommended Lamentations and its supplements to people many times, in many contexts. But as long as he continues to promote and publish Zak's work, I can no longer do so in good conscience. I appreciate that it sucks for a small publisher to invest heavily in an author, only to discover that he's actually a serial abuser of women. But he that toucheth pitch shall be defiled.

This has been a bit of a final straw moment for me, and the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I've removed the word 'OSR' from my blog's title. I still believe in the value of OSR playstyles, and I still prize the creativity to which OSR D&D has given rise. I still think that people like Scrap Princess, and Patrick Stuart, and David McGrogan, and Luka Rejec, and Zedeck Siew, are doing fantastic work that deserves to be widely read and richly supported. But so many leading figures in the OSR 'movement' have turned out to be awful people that I just don't really want to associate myself with it any more.

I applaud Mandy for her strength and courage in going public with this, and I hope that her life gets much easier and happier from this point onwards.

I'll have a post on Small But Vicious Dog up soon.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

[Actual Play] 'Shut up and eat your marsh giant': The Terrible Travels of Team Tsathogga

I'm a few sessions behind on my Team Tsathogga write-ups, so I'd better start trying to catch up. This one is mostly about food.

To recap: the PCs were midway through an epic journey to lead a band of skeleton murder-cultists across the Great Northern Wilderness to the sea, with the ultimate aim of shipping them off to the Purple Islands to meet their two-year-old snake-baby prophet. They had used Charm Person spells to win the assistance of some local cave dwarves, who had told them that to reach the coast they would need to pass either south-west through the Cold Marshes, home of the marsh giants, or north-west through the Stonemoors, whose inhabitants were currently embroiled in some kind of clan war.

The party took a quick vote, and decided to opt for the marshes - and after noticing that the bushes around them were increasingly full of suspicious rustling sounds, as though a large force of small, stealthy creatures were gathering in ambuscade, they furthermore decided that it would be best if they allowed the enchanted cave dwarves to return to their homes before their clansmen decided to try reclaiming them by force. Bidding farewell to their hairy, leather-footed guides, they ascended the mountain range that lay before them, before descending into a swampy lowland region on their windward side. Sovan used Levitate to ascend high into the air, and could see a distant fire burning, far to the south: but the PCs were wary of encountering the locals, and decided to head westwards towards the sea, instead.

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Travelling through the marshes was utterly miserable. The land was covered in cold mist, reducing visibility to almost nothing. Their dog sleds proved worse than useless in the muddy terrain, so they abandoned the sledges and brought the dogs along as a whimpering pack at their side. Frequent bogs and streams blocked their path, forcing them to zig-zag across the land, and making their westward progress painfully slow. Their skeleton followers had standing orders to spear every fish or marsh bird they encountered, but the cold swamps were desolate, and the party found their food supplies dwindling. Hash and Sophie soon started suffering from trench foot, which Sovan treated with Cure Disease spells. They were thus in a pretty wretched condition when, on the ninth day, they finally encountered the marsh giants.

They came booming out of the mist just as the PCs were attempting to ford a shallow stream: eleven huge figures, twelve feet tall, encrusted with mud and slime. Their skin was marked with irregular patches of green scales; weird fronds and fins protruded from their bodies, and gill-slits flared red along their necks. Their only clothes were crude loin-cloths made from the hides of animals, and they carried uprooted marsh-trees as clubs. Their leader, a huge individual with facial tendrils like a catfish, demanded tribute in exchange for safe passage through the swamps, and the price he had in mind was steep: all their metal goods, all their 'shiny things', and, in particular, every metal blade they owned that was large enough for a giant to use. The PCs tried to haggle, but he seemed obstinate, so Sophie stealthily cast Enervate on him in the hope of getting someone more reasonable to deal with. Suddenly feeling very tired, he went to sit down for a bit, while negotiations were resumed by his second-in-command, a female marsh giant almost as large as he was.

Image result for marsh giant

The PCs offered to perform various magical services for the marsh giants, but to little effect: the giants clearly felt that they were negotiating from a position of strength, and regarded the PCs as a windfall to be exploited as thoroughly as possible. Tiring of their demands, Circe took from her pack the six flasks of horribly cursed water that she had collected from the unholy fonts of Deathfrost Mountain, telling the giant's leader that these were priceless potions that would enhance the strength of anyone who drank them, and offering them to her as their price of passage. Wary of a trick, the giant demanded that she drink one first - so she deftly pretended to drink one (while actually spilling it down her front), while Sophie stealthily used illusion magic to make it look as though the 'potion' was making Circe's muscles swell. Eagerly, the giant snatched the other five from her, tore their lids off, and poured them down her throat. A few seconds later her head exploded in bloody ruin as hundreds of new eyes began growing and bursting inside her eye-sockets, while thousands of new teeth erupted from her jaws, tearing her head right in half.

The giants watched for a moment in utter shock - and then they roared and charged. Tiny yelled for the skeleton cultists to volley them with javelins as they crossed the river; Hash fired arrows, Sophie threw Magic Missiles, and Skadi lobbed one of her two remaining snake-man gas grenades, sending two of the giants crashing down, choking, in the mire. Circe slammed down the trigger of her snake-man pain wand and waved it at the giants frantically, but it only took down one of them before its battery burned out and horrible black smoke started coming out of its machinery. Their leader was sufficiently slowed by Sophie's earlier spell for a combination of magic and archery to take him down as he waded through the stream: but as the rest crashed forwards, the party heroically scattered and left their skeleton phalanx to receive the charge. (Tiny proved the exception, boldly standing his ground and getting beaten half to death with a tree-branch for his trouble.) As the giants started smashing up the skeletons, Skadi hurled her very last gas grenade right into the middle of the melee, relying on the fact that the giants needed to breathe and the skeletons didn't. Two more giants succumbed to its choking fumes, and began to be swarmed by the skeletons; so, seeing the battle turning against them, the four giants still on their feet each grabbed one of their poisoned comrades and began beating a fighting retreat back across the stream. The giant stricken by Circe's pain-wand was overrun by stabbing skeletons and killed where he lay, but the rest escaped into the mist, leaving three of their number lying dead in the marsh.

The skeletons were shaken by this encounter: five of their own had been destroyed by the giants, and would thus never see the 'promised land' of the Purple Islands. Tiny reassured them as best he could, while the rest of the party resolved to find somewhere to hide and rest for the night, not fancying their chances if another giant warband happened to emerge from the mist. When they returned to the site of the battle the next morning they found the corpses of the slain giants gone, with drag marks leading off into the west. Their bat-man ally/apprentice, Ron, volunteered to don their invisibility glove and fly off to see what had happened to them: a few hours later he reported back that a band of marsh giants, some of them obviously adolescents, were retreating back through the marshes to the west, dragging the bodies of their slain kin behind them. Heartened by this news, the PCs concluded that the force they had defeated the previous day probably represented the main strength of the local giants, and began scheming how best to get their hands on the marsh giant corpses so that their necromancer buddy Titus could re-animate them as really massive zombies. After all, if they had zombie giants to ride around on, they wouldn't have to carry on wading through the fucking swamp...

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Travelling in style!

So the giants went west, and the PCs followed at a cautious distance, using Ron as an advance scout. Soon the giants reached their village - a crude circle of half-submerged dug-out houses, surrounded by a huge earthwork - and, after a brief ceremony, deposited the bodies of their dead in a deep pool just outside their earthen rampart. Four of their number remained on watch: one more, apparently the fastest runner among them, was dispatched off into the marshes to 'fetch the ghost drummers', while the rest retreated back into their homes. Gathering in the mist outside, the PCs hit upon a plan to retrieve the corpses. They would wait until nightfall: then, under the cover of a Darkness spell, Circe and Titus would advance to the edge of the pool. Meanwhile Ron, wearing the invisibility glove and bolstered by multiple Strength spells, would carry Sophie high into the air above the village. At a prearranged signal, Ron would drop from the sky and Sophie would strafe the village with Magic Missile spells, thus distracting the watchmen while Circe cast Water Breathing on Titus and pushed him into the pool. Then all that Ron and Sophie had to do was keep the giants occupied while Titus swam to the bottom, found and reanimated one corpse, ordered it to drag out a second corpse, and escaped into the night.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Sophie's Magic Missiles distracted the marsh giants, alright, but they responded with a volley of thrown rocks that caved in her ribs and skull and left her clinging to life by a thread. Ron panicked and flew off to Circe as fast as his wings could carry him - which, due to him being invisible at the time, looked to the giants as though Sophie's mangled, unconscious body was flying away under its own power. Meanwhile Titus disappeared into the pool - only to burst up screaming a couple of minutes later, clutched in the arms of a headless zombie marsh giant, with half a dozen carnivorous fish clinging onto his face and body. As Titus ripped these away in blind panic, tearing off whole lumps of his own face in the process, his giant zombie 'steed' went crashing away into the swamps, cradling its master in its arms. The marsh giants cried out in horror at this new apparition, and were on the verge of giving chase - when Hash, thinking quickly, conjured an illusion of Sophie's mangled body flying back out of the sky, hands extended as though to spray yet more Magic Missiles down upon them. Terrified by the reappearance of a magical, flying foe who was apparently unhindered by being obviously dead, the giants fled for cover, allowing Circe to heal the real Sophie and Sovan to heal Titus while the party retreated into the night.

The PCs thus found themselves in possession of a single headless zombie marsh giant. A Preserve Corpse spell protected it against further decay, and the decision was taken to hollow out its chest cavity, allowing Titus to sit inside its thorax with his head sticking out of its neck-hole and steer it around the marsh like a slimy zombie mech suit. As their food situation had, by this point, become quite desperate, they furthermore decided that to waste not was to want not, and that the resulting heap of disgusting, putrifying marsh giant offal would be that evening's dinner. Purify Food made it technically edible, but the resulting meal was so awful that Skadi, cannibal gourmet that she was, chose to chew on the ancient flayed-off human faces she had salvaged from the Deathfrost Mountain shrine instead. (She claimed that they counted as jerky.) Titus rode inside the giant; Hash and Sophie rode on its shoulders; Ron rode inside the now-vacated howdah on Zombie Runt Ape's back. Everyone else just had to carry on wading.

For several days they trudged westwards, relying on the food their skeletons were able to scavenge, going hungry as often as not, and ultimately even butchering and eating some of their loyal dogs. The monotony of the marshes seemed endless, broken only by Ron's constant whining about his regression to skinny nerd status after all the Strength spells wore off, and his endless attempts to come up with contrived reasons why Sovan should waste all his spell slots on making him buff again. But they knew that the sea could not be far, now. Perhaps the ghost drummers, whatever they were, would not catch up with them. Perhaps their journey was almost at an end.

And then, one day, as the cold mist hung white and heavy around them, they heard from a distance the unmistakable booming of drums...

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Monday, 28 January 2019

Echoes and Reverberations 4: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

If Shadow of the Demon Lord positions itself halfway between WFRP 2 and D&D 3rd edition, then Lamentations of the Flame Princess stands between WFRP 1 and B/X D&D. Its kinship with WFRP is obvious from its seventeenth-century Northern European setting, its fantasy-horror themes, and its focus on PCs as doomed, crazy low-lives rather than epic heroes of legend. WFRP and Lamentations share a common language of evil cults, body horror, and black humour, and many Lamentations adventures could easily be repurposed as WFRP scenarios, or vice versa.

There are, however, important tonal differences between the two games, as Lamentations is much more nihilistic than WFRP ever was. The Warhammer chaos gods are sometimes described as a form of 'cosmic horror', but a comparison with Lamentations shows just how humanistic they really are: they're all rooted in richly human feelings of lust and rage and disgust and ambition, whereas Lamentations mostly deals with completely impersonal cosmic forces that inflict death and suffering either by accident or just because. Chaos is all about the dark side of humanity, and confronting it is about confronting our own willingness to see other people as things to be sacrificed in the service of our own bloodlust (Khorne), pleasure (Slaanesh), survival (Nurgle), or lust for power (Tzeench). The antagonists in Lamentations, by contrast, tend to see people as just so much interchangeable meat. The chaos gods love us: Khorne loves killing us, Tzeench loves fucking with us, Slaanesh loves actually fucking us, and so on. But the beings in Lamentations just really don't care. (Do U?)

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This tonal difference has some important knock-on consequences. The default Lamentations adventure pitch is 'get rich or die trying' rather than 'save the innocent from evil'. WFRP characters are plugged into the society around them by their careers: Lamentations characters are mostly assumed to be rootless wandering killers, with few if any connections to other people. WFRP scenarios tend to be human-scale, all about protecting individuals or communities, whereas Lamentations scenarios often include situations that can casually destroy the world, or at least depopulate large parts of it, in order to emphasise just how small and insignificant human lives are compared to the forces they depict. WFRP adventures are often very social affairs, all about understanding the relationships at work within settlements and organisations, whereas Lamentations adventures are usually much lonelier, set in desolated spaces where virtually everyone is already dead or worse. WFRP cultists tend to be driven by warped ambition, whereas Lamentations cultists usually just hate everyone and want us all to die, which makes their scenarios much more chilly and alienated than most WFRP adventures. Whether you view this tonal shift as an improvement or a weakness is going to come down to personal preference, but it means that several Lamentations adventures which seem on the surface as though they would be ideal WFRP fodder - No Salvation for Witches, for example, with its seventeenth-century setting and its demon-summoning coven - actually turn out, on closer examination, to be driven by very different themes.

Lamentations has been around for a decade, now, which is a long time in RPG terms, and its most WFRP-esque material was mostly released during its earlier years. Since 2016 it has increasingly focused on more experimental material, rather than on the early modern fantasy-horror that characterised its earlier output - and much as I love books like Veins of the Earth or Broodmother Skyfortress, I think you'd struggle to find a place for them in most WFRP campaigns. So what follows is a few notes on some LOTFP adventures that could be easily adapted for use as WFRP adventures, instead, insofar as they are fantasy-horror scenarios that should still work if the PCs are WFRP-style vagabonds rather than D&D-style 'adventurers'.

(I should note before I begin that I'm a year behind with LOTFP, and have yet to read any of their 2018 books, which are thus not included in this survey.)

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Death Frost Doom (2009, revised 2014): This is one of the all-time great 'evil temple' adventures, and perfectly suited to games about bands of adventurous misfits getting in way over their heads. The antagonists here exemplify my point about the tonal differences between Lamentations and WFRP: they revere death and pain in an abstract, almost clinical fashion, far removed from the red-blooded messiness of the chaos gods. It could still probably be used in a WFRP game with some minor rewrites: you could swap the ice for bloodstains and use it as a Khornate temple, or else rewrite it as the base of a necromantic cult who revere Nagash as a god. Probably best to leave out the mountain-sized giant underneath it, though.

No Dignity in Death (2009): This odd little adventure from the early days of Lamentations is a pretty minor work. It is, however, very WFRP-esque in tone, being set in an isolated little town full of self-righteous nobodies, brutal authority figures, weird customs, and dark secrets. Could be used almost as written as a refreshingly non-chaos-based interlude in an ongoing WFRP campaign.

Tower of the Stargazer (2010): This adventure is very D&D-ish in its assumption that 'the wizard's tower might have treasure in it, let's go and loot it' will be a sufficient hook to set the PCs into motion. It's a good wizard's tower, though: it could easily serve as the home of some batshit insane Celestial wizard in the depths of the Empire, and the emphasis on exploration and investigation rather than monster-hacking means that it would be much easier to translate into WFRP than most traditional D&D dungeons. Just put something the PCs need inside it and point them at the door...

The God That Crawls (2012): An anonymous commentator suggested this one in the comments thread. I felt that all the ultra-weird and world-destroying artifacts in the catacombs weren't a very good fit for WFRP, and that if you took them out then all you'd be left with was a blob in a labyrinth, but Anonymous points out that the basic set-up of a Sigmarite cult guarding a maze full of relics they'd rather keep hidden would be a perfectly viable basis for a WFRP adventure, even if none of those relics actually have the power to destroy the world. And I have to admit that getting chased around a maze by a giant slime-monster is a very WFRP-y concept for an adventure!

Death Love Doom (2012): Fair warning: the body horror in this adventure is more extreme than in any other Lamentations book, which is really saying something. It's much, much more horrible than anything that's ever appeared in a published WFRP adventure, and not at all recommended if you or your group are likely to be disturbed by scenes of appalling physical suffering inflicted upon innocent victims, including children. That said, the structure of this adventure is pure WFRP, with the house of a wealthy merchant declining into horror under the influence of a cursed artifact. Most of it could easily be adapted for use by any WFRP group with sufficiently strong stomachs.

Better Than Any Man (2013): This adventure is very WFRP-esque insofar as it's about cults and witches in the middle of the Thirty Years War, but as with Death Frost Doom the specifics are actually quite different: the anti-human omnivorousness of the insect cultists here is quite unlike that of any WFRP chaos god, and one important part of the storyline revolves around an ancient empire of evil halflings, who have no obvious WFRP equivalent. Still, a bit of work could probably turn this into an adventure about a witch re-establishing an ancient cult devoted to the worship of a bound demon prince of Nurgle who happens to be really, really fond of flies and maggots, against the backdrop of a civil war between two Imperial provinces. I'd probably remove the time travel elements if I was running it in WFRP - I'm fine with my level 1 magic-users getting bounced into the last ice age, but I prefer my artisan's apprentices to stay a bit more grounded in reality - but YMMV.

Scenic Dunnsmouth (2014): This isn't a traditional adventure: instead, it's a mechanism for using a deck of playing cards to randomly generate an awful little village in the swamps, complete with a lurking monster and an evil cult. The tone of wretched rural deprivation is very WFRP-esque, and whether you actually follow the instructions in the book or just go through picking out all the bits you like best you're pretty much guaranteed to end up with the kind of blighted, squalid little community that would fit perfectly into any backwater region of the Empire. Once again the cultists are death-worshippers rather than chaos-worshippers, but this would be an easy change to make.

Forgive Us (2014): I suspect this actually was a WFRP adventure, or at least an adventure by someone who had played an awful lot of WFRP. Thieves in an early modern city accidentally steal the wrong treasure, which ends up unleashing a magical disease that causes horrible mutations. Just add the word 'Nurgle' in a couple of places and you should be good to go.

The Idea From Space (2014): This adventure deals with an aristocrat whose ship is stranded on a remote island, where the passengers and crew swiftly fall under the sway of the feuding supernatural forces that reside there. I think this could be run in WFRP as easily as in D&D, and would resist the temptation to replace one or both of the supernatural beings on the island with chaos gods: they can just be weird things in a weird place. The New World is an under-utilised region in WFRP, and this adventure is the sort of thing that could easily fit into it.

A Single, Small Cut (2014): Theo suggested this one in the comments thread - I somehow hadn't read it before. A crazy wizard and his hired bandits murder a priest and his congregation in order to steal a demon-summoning artifact from the crypt, only to discover that they have no way of controlling the resulting beast. The PCs arrive just as the carnage starts. It's more of an encounter than an adventure, but would be very easy indeed to translate to WFRP.

England Upturn'd (2016): Stephen and Jon suggested this one in the comments thread. It's set in a seventeenth-century marshland region, complete with witch-hunters and swamp-monsters, which could very easily be used as the backdrop to a WFRP adventure. I initially left it off the list because the main story is a bit big - flipping a whole chunk of the world upside down, creating a massive tidal wave in the process, in order to unleash the evil elves of the Hollow Earth just isn't the sort of thing that happens in WFRP. But a scaled-down version, built around (say) flipping over a single hill in order to release some medium-sized threat from the underworld, could probably work pretty well.

The Cursed Chateau (2016): Stuart suggested this one in the comments thread. This adventure depicts a haunted mansion, complete with undead servants and hidden sacrificial chambers in the caves below, all of which could easily be adapted for use in WFRP. The only way out, however, is to sufficiently entertain the ghost of the sadistic aristocrat who once lived there, which seems to me to cut directly against WFRP's themes of class struggle. Add some way for the PCs to turn the tables and send the fucker straight to hell and you should be fine.

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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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