Grim, Dark, Hot NPC-On-NPC Action

Rough Nights & Hard Days is an adventure supplement for 4th Edition WFRP. It offers as a side dish some appendices detailing Gnomes for 4th Edition – an expanded version of the 1st Edition Gnome material from Apocrypha Now! – and a number of pub games popular in the taverns of the Empire and suggestions on resolving them at the gaming table, but the main course consists of five adventures by old hand Graeme Davis.

These aren’t just any five adventures, however – they’re five adventures riffing on the same adventure format, as pioneered by Davis in the 1st edition adventure A Rough Night At the Three Feathers – originally emerging in White Dwarf, later reprinted in The Restless Dead and Apocrypha Now during the 1st Edition days, updated for the 2nd edition adventure reprint collection Plundered Vaults and now offered in an expanded director’s cut as the first adventure here.

 

The format of the adventures is as follows: Davis sets the adventure in a distinctive location, which is the main focus of the adventure – if the action strays further afield, you’ll need to improvise. This location is detailed to a sufficient extent that even if you never run the adventure, you can recycle the maps if you need a typical example of the locale in question. (The adventure locations here are a riverside inn, a courthouse, an opera house, a rural noble’s castle, and a swanky city noble’s mansion.)

As well as detailing the location, Davis also provides details on the NPCs who’ll be found there over the course of the adventure. Then, the last part of the formula is a timeline, detailing what all of those NPCs get up to. A few of these interactions will be directed at the player characters, but the majority of those interactions are with other NPCs. The timeline doesn’t quite break things down minute-by-minute, but it does typically split things into 15-minute chunks.

The idea is that the adventure is a fast-paced affair which can be completed in a session, and within which there’s slightly too much stuff going on for the PCs to keep a constant eye on everything; the players have to choose which particular crises and opportunities their characters will concentrate on. The timeline makes it clear what will happen if the PCs don’t bother to intervene in a particular situation, but what happens should the PCs take action which comprehensively throws the timeline off is left down to the referee to improvise based on the NPC agendas in play.

This latter part is crucial, and if I had one major complaint about this supplement it’d be that, even though it mentions this, it could trumpet it even louder than it already does. Without a willingness to diverge from the timeline as a result of PC intervention, the adventures risk turning what we in my LARP circles refer to as “hot NPC-on-NPC action” – plots which just involve NPCs interacting with each other without needing the PCs to be involved at all. This is usually regarded as a bad thing when overused; a certain, limited amount of it can be useful to establish a sense that there’s a living breathing world that doesn’t vanish entirely when the PCs aren’t present, but even then it’s usually better if it’s at least possible for PCs to shoehorn their way into a situation if they take an interest.

In a tabletop context, in which the number of PCs is greatly outnumbered by the NPCs present in a situation and so you can’t expect the PCs to get involved in everything, having Davis’ timelines to resolve the issues which the PCs don’t pick up on is handy. In a LARP, where the number of people physically present sets your hard limit on how many characters can be active at any one time, you can get your sense of a wider world from the PC group themselves because they’re likely large enough and have enough personal issues going on between them to keep everyone busy. In a tabletop, however, NPCs with active agendas they pursue are essential to getting the illusion of an active, busy society across, and these adventures by and large accomplish that.

The adventures can be run as one-shots or as part of an episodic campaign perfectly happily, and one of the nice things about the design is that the adventures can play out very differently depending on who the PCs are, who they’re working for, and how they get involved in the first place. The book is also nicely integrated with the rest of the 4th edition line; the final adventure ties in with matters in Ubersreik, the setting of the Starter Set. On the whole, it’s a decent little addition to the game line, a pleasant appetiser before Cubicle 7 tackle their ambitious plan to revisit The Enemy Within.

Having Davis onboard shows Cubicle 7’s commitment to being true to the feel of 1st edition WFRP whilst giving the material a much-needed new lick of paint and a tune-up in the light of 30 years of game design progress since then; fans of older Warhammer material will find their hearts warmed by a cameo from Detlef Sierck, one of the protagonists of Drachenfels, in a subplot which ends up drawing in equal parts from the classic Warhammer novel and from Vincent Price’s Theatre of Blood, continuing the 1st edition tradition of having absolutely no shame or fear about throwing in a parody or homage to some bit of pop culture or celebrity figure if it’s thematically appropriate and wouldn’t be disruptive. (Bruno, the champion fighter from Rough Night at the Three Feathers, is transparently a take on Frank Bruno, for instance.) When it comes to capturing the spirit of classic WFRP, and the British RPG scene that spawned the game, Cubicle 7 are really nailing it.

One thought on “Grim, Dark, Hot NPC-On-NPC Action

  1. Pingback: Age of Slasher – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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