Deeper Into the Empire

OK; maybe in my previous look at 1st edition WFRP adventures I was a little harsh, though when you’re setting material like the Doomstones nonsense against the excellence of Shadows Over Bögenhafen it can be easy to lose perspective. Having given a second look to some of the material from the period, I think there’s actually more gems from back then than I gave it credit for.

Death On the Reik, though billed as an episode of The Enemy Within, actually can be an impressively standalone affair. As the title implies, this sprawling investigation takes place up and down the course of the Reik river, the major waterway of the Empire. To facilitate this the PCs get their very own barge early in the river, and the appendix detailing a trading system and river encounters combined with the sprawling map allows the book to support sandbox play near-indefinitely. The book even provides pointers on how to run it as a standalone adventure, how to account for different results of Shadows Over Bögenhafen, and contains a mininal amount of railroading.

The really nice thing about the book is that it develops the Reik region to an extent that the PCs can keep adventuring there as much as you like, or return there later on as their wish. I think this illustrates the paradigm shift between WFRP adventures and those for the 40K RPGs; the latter take place in a massive universe where odds are your party is never going to revisit a particular planet over the course of the campaign, so the development of locations and worlds tends to be done with an eye to a one-and-done visit without much consideration for the possibility of continued activity there. (The Soul Reaver is a major exception to this, which is probably why it’s the sole “keeper” in the crop as far as I’m concerned.)

Conversely, Death On the Reik manages to combine a really gripping plot with an adventure framework and setting with infinite possibilities, which is a major strength of the supplement and more than justifies his legendary status.

The next leg of the Enemy Within campaign is another city adventure, this time designed by Carl Sargent. Perhaps Sargent was inspired by the earlier parts to go even further above and beyond when it came to providing a rich bedrock of setting material to base the adventure on – something the Enemy Within campaign had made a virtue of so far – because when he turned in his manuscript the details he’d provided on Middenheim, the setting of the adventure, fattened up the text to an uncomfortable extent.

Rather than ditch so much excellent, rich material, the design team instead hacked out most of it, left behind paraphrases in the core text of the adventure, added a bit more sprucing-up here and there and put out the setting material as a standalone supplement – Warhammer City (later bundled with the adventure material again as Warhammer: City of Chaos and later still reprinted as a standalone book again by Hogshead as Middenheim: City of Chaos) in 1987.

This meant it preceded the adventure itself, The Power Behind the Throne, which came out in 1988, but on balance I think publishing the setting material separately was a smart move, and publishing it first an even smarter one. For one thing, the sourcebook is quite excellent as an in-depth, standalone look at a major city of the Old World – the centre of the Cult of Ulric, the White Wolf (Games Workshop perhaps tipping their hat a bit to the Moorcockian inspirations of the Warhammer setting) and a hub of political power within the Empire that perhaps is only rivalled by Altdorf, the Imperial capital itself.

As well as all that sweet, delicious setting flavour, though, Middenheim is also an excellent place to base an adventuring party out of – it’s surrounded by settlements which it exerts a varying level of authority over, it’s riddled with underground tunnels which are only partially patrolled, and it’s filled to the brim with political conflict. On top of that, it has a mass of temples (Ulric is evidently one of those gregarious gods who regard the presence of significant temples to others at his major cult-city as enhancing rather than diminishing his importance) for clerical PCs, various demihuman communities for elf, dwarf, and halfling PCs to interact with, and a somewhat more liberal attitude towards wizards than the rest of the Empire – thus making it a place that PCs can truly feel is a welcoming home to them.

Putting out the sourcebook ahead of the adventure meant anyone playing along at home at the time could potentially have their PCs come to Middenheim and have a heap of adventures before beginning The Power Behind the Throne – thus creating important roots in the town and therefore having even more of a stake in the adventure than they already do.

This would certainly be a smoother transition than Carrion Up the Reik, the special bonus adventure by James Wallis tucked into the beginning of the Hogshead reprint of Power Behind the Throne. This constitutes a rare slice of all-original Hogshead content for WFRP; most of their output consisted of reprints. Apocrypha Now and Apocrypha 2: Chart of Darkness were new compilations of mostly old material, and Corrupting Influence was a compilation of Warpstone articles. The much-praised Marienburg supplement (which I will deal with later in this article) is largely a revision and expansion of material originally put out in White Dwarf articles in pre-Hogshead days. The only true Hogshead originals would seem to be the Marienburg-based campaign The Dying of the Light (which I suspect was supposed to be a companion volume to the city supplememt, like Warhammer City and Power Behind the Throne), a new ending for the Doomstones campaign (a poorly-received series in general, due to being transparently based on an old third party D&D adventure with the names swapped out), the massively delayed Realms of Sorcery, a dwarf supplement… and this.

Carrion Up the Reik is, frankly, unimpressive. It is largely a massive railroad designed to ham-fistedly force the PCs from Death On the Reik to go to Middenheim so they can play through Power Behind the Throne, by amongst other things burning down their barge. I appreciate that unless the PCs grabbed one particular letter towards the end of Death On the Reik they might not have a clear motive to go to Middenheim, but as I said on my previous Enemy Within article I don’t think it’s a great idea to run Death On the Reik and feel that you must progress to Power Behind the Throne. If it is important to you that you run Power Behind the Throne, run Power Behind the Throne; otherwise, if it comes up naturally go ahead with it, and if it doesn’t there’s no need to force it.

There’s especially no need to force it by hamfistedly destroying something the PCs have probably invested in (and in doing so cutting yourself off from the opportunity to run later river-based excursions and sidequests at a later date). The events of Power Behind the Throne involves, among other things, new taxes being levied on certain classes of citizen in Middenheim. Death On the Reik incorporates numerous opportunities to befriend members of those social groups, and any of them could get word on what’s going down and prevail on the PCs to look into just what the hell the Middenheim authorities think they are doing.

Alternately, if the players have bought into that whole “Renaissance Elite” thing which James Wallis was so puzzlingly against, just offer them a big fat commission to deliver something to Middenheim – only for the tax situation there to diddle them out of a chunk of their profits (either because one or more of them falls into one of the taxed classes and they get a big chunk of the payoff taken, or because the customer who made the order got taxed to the bone and can’t afford to pay them any more). That should surely annoy them enough to generate the intended offence at the tax situation that the campaign is predicated on – plus with all the fun of the fair in town they also have an immediate reason to kick back and console themselves by enjoying the carnival. (Indeed, the book itself suggests that you could just tell the players about the carnival and they might go.)

As for Power Behind the Throne itself, it’s another city-based investigation, but with a much more political focus than Shadows Over Bögenhafen. As such, the PCs must engage with the various important NPCs in the city, and perhaps the most impressive thing about the adventure is its presentation of these characters – both in their extended descriptions in the book and the handy reference cards giving a breakdown of their movements during the Carnival. Perhaps another reason I find most of the 40K adventure supplements to be much less interesting is that they don’t really try to do anything genuinely clever with the format like the geographical river-based sandbox of Death On the Reik or the social web of Power Behind the Throne, which gives a massive amount of freedom when it comes to how the PCs conduct their investigations and lobbying.

Another interesting thing about Power Behind the Throne is that PC success at it constitutes a massive derailing of the plans of the Purple Hand, the cult whose plots have been woven throughout the Enemy Within series – potentially for decades. Conversely, failure would constitute a blow against the Empire that is even more hideously dangerous than the big threats in the previous episodes. This being the case, I kind of wonder whether this was originally supposed to be the climax of the series, with the Purple Hand plot coming to a head at last.

Further evidence in support of the idea comes from the fact that the later entries in the series don’t really fit. Something Rotten In Kislev has the PCs arbitrarily and heavy-handedly shunted off to Kislev to undertake a bunch of essentially unrelated investigations of high lethality over there. (Ken Rolston was apparently in Paranoia mode when writing it, right down to the wry sense of humour and occasional lapse into a GM-vs-players adversarial mode of play.) Two of the three scenarios are extremely fun and flavourful, mind; the middle one is a bit of a pointless railroad that solely serves to provide information setting up the third, which is especially pointless considering that, since each adventure is designed to work as a standalone piece, the third adventure provides an alternate way to get the same information anyway. Still, the Kislev flavour and details are very evocative, and between the dwarf dungeons and the “you start out in jail” option for kicking things off it’s like a prequel to Rolston’s work on The Elder Scrolls. Nonetheless, it works far better as a standalone Kislev-based campaign than as an Enemy Within episode.

The much-derided Empire In Flames is held to be an obnoxious railroad that too often degenerates into the PCs watching NPCs solve everything, despite being written by Carl Sargent – whose work on Power is by and large excellent – and I kind of wonder whether it was just thrown together in a hurry for the sake of ending the series because they’d gotten into a rut. (Plus by having the Empire descend into a Chaos-inspired civil war kind of wipes away all the PCs’ achievements in previous episodes.)

No, for the purposes of playing The Enemy Within as a sequential series then, unless and until Cubicle 7 finds an elegant solution to the issues in the late campaign, I would say that Power Behind the Throne is the best and most natural stopping point – Empire In Flames can be happily tossed into said flames, whilst Something Rotten In Kislev would do much better if it were spun out into its own adventure, perhaps with a supplement providing extra Warhammer City-esque levels of detail on Kislev during the time period in question.

Pretty much all the adventure supplements that Games Workshop themselves put out for WFRP, aside from the odds and sods collection The Restless Dead, are Enemy Within releases. Once they delegated WFRP duties to their Flame Publications imprint, Flame would take a different tack. Much of their early adventure releases were Doomstones episodes, and not that well-regarded, but once they got away from that rut they offered a couple of new Carl Sargent designs.

I said in the previous article that I didn’t dig Death’s Dark Shadow, but I’ve actually warmed a lot to it since then. It’s nice to have a well-detailed village supplement and a set of adventures where the stakes are a bit more local and personal than the grand conspiracies of The Enemy Within (even if there is a certain Frankenstein redundancy in the main adventure if you’ve also run Death On the Reik). The supplement is well-regarded by the fandom and got a Hogshead reprint that I now agree was well-deserved.

The last Flame Publications adventure release for WFRP was Castle Drachenfels, again by Carl Sargent. This was very much a dungeon crawl, though a much more WFRP-flavoured one than the D&D reskins of the Doomstones books. Inspired by the Jack Yeovil novel Drachenfels, which might be the best Warhammer Fantasy novel ever published, the titular castle is an intrinsically malevolent place, with some seriously nasty challenges and tricks in there. The overall tone is not unreminscent of some of the more grand guignol Fighting Fantasy books, which does make some sense given the origins of both settings and the overlapping tone.

Neatly, Sargent gives a very location-focused rundown of the structure of the castle and what’s there but, for the purpose of that description, is agnostic about the PCs’ particular purpose for visiting. Then in subsequent chapters various potential adventure concepts are laid out, with notes on how to implement them; the location descriptions also include occasional notes on how things may change depending on what adventure you are running. This allows for a certain amount of repeatability of the adventure – parties might end up doing multiple expeditions, depending on what their agenda there is.

As such, whilst it isn’t in the classic social interaction-heavy mode of the most popular WFRP adventures, it’d be unfair to overlook this to the same extent that people overlook Doomstones. Yes, it’s a horrible meat-grinder full of hauntingly vile horrors – the best of which are genuinely horrific without being needlessly cheap. But that’s true of the better Lamentations of the Flame Princess material – and isn’t that hot right now? In some respects, Castle Drachenfels can be said to offer the whole “Nega-Dungeon” experience a full two decades before Lamentations popularised the concept. That’s a heap of fun in its own right.

One of the major original releases of the Hogshead era of WFRP was Marienburg: Sold Down the River. Penned by Anthony Ragan, this actually largely consists of pre-Hogshead material; specifically, it compiles and comprehensively revises and expands on the Marienburg material that Ragan had co-written with various collaborators and which had originally emerged as a series of White Dwarf articles from 1989 to 1991. The book only came out in 1999, though it had been in the pipeline long before then – it’s plugged in 1995’s The Dying of the Light, which I will cover in a bit.

Marienburg is a fascinating city to cover, mind, since it is a former Imperial provincial capital which successfully managed to exert its independence, and through with its alliance with the Sea Elves enjoys links to Ulthuan. It is surrounded by a wasteland blighted by ancient wars between the Skaven and the Fimir, and is located at the mouth of the Reik; culturally the flavour is quasi-Dutch, with perhaps a little sniff of the wider Hanseatic League too.

This makes it absolutely absurdly good for WFRP adventuring purposes. Plugged into the Reik river network as it is, transport to wherever you want to send the PCs in the Empire is greatly facilitated – if you’re running Death On the Reik a trip to Marienburg could be a fascinating side plot. Surrounded as it is by a Chaos-scarred waste, there’s ample opportunity for ill-advised dungeoneering. And if you want the PCs to visit somewhere further afield, there’s few better jumping-off points.

The supplement makes the best use of this by stuffing the city to the gills with flavour; in particular, there’s an expansive district-by-district overview of the town with major institutions and prominent NPCs offered up by the bucketful. In this case the extra time was clearly worth it, because this is a real treasury of adventure-worthy material. I am less keen on the prewritten adventure, since it relies too much on the PCs not taking an especially obvious course of action (and one which in my opinion has just as much scope for adventure as the scripted events offered), but to be honest if you’re given a sandbox like this and can’t find stuff to do in it you are genuinely not trying.

That puts the supplement well ahead of its associated adventure book, The Dying of the Light, which I found rather uninspiring. It’s basically a big railroad which barely uses Middenheim, with most of its incidents taking place on a long trek into the Wasteland to collect a McGuffin and then bring it back.

The major issue with the book is that each of its ten chapters is written by a different author. Overseen by Andrew Rilstone, the text reads like Rilstone wrote a plot synopsis, distributed it with chapter allocations to the various collaborators, gathered the chapters together and smoothed over any inconsistencies between them; each chapter is written very much from the perspective of hitting a prescribed set of plot points and doesn’t really pretend to be anything other than a rather uninspiring railroad.

As a result of being written by a wide variety of different authors, apparently working largely separately from each other beyond co-ordination via Rilstone, there’s little scope for the book to have much in the way of a really distinctive, characterful atmosphere – everyone seems to be aiming for a slightly “generic WFRP ” approach. Moreover, the approach means there’s little scope for any sort of really interesting experiments in scenario structure, as in Death On the Reik or Power Behind the Throne; nor can any of the individual episodes have any particular depth to them, unlike Shadows Over Bögenhafen.

Given how astonishingly useful Marienburg: Sold Down the River is at describing Marienburg itself, and how uninspiring the Wasteland adventures here are, this is a rather inessential WFRP release; of the two major Hogshead-issued Marienburg books, Marienburg itself is by far the superior one. The Dying of the Light has at best a mixed reputation among WFRP fans, and even Rilstone himself has acknowledged that it has issues arising as a result of design by committee.

2 thoughts on “Deeper Into the Empire

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: Alas, Wallis – A Story of Bad Memories, Bad Luck & Bad Blood (Part 3) – Refereeing and Reflection

  2. Pingback: Grim, Dark, Hot NPC-On-NPC Action – Refereeing and Reflection

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