WFRP Returns To Middenheim

The Enemy Within is a campaign which is legendary for being potentially daunting but quite rewarding to run, and was a cornerstone of the 1st edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay line. Cubicle 7 have been steadily working through the process of putting out a definitive “Director’s Cut” of the campaign for their new edition of the game; in terms of what’s released in hard copy, I’ve covered the first and second episode (and their associated Companion volumes) previously.

Now we get to the part where Cubicle 7 must handle Power Behind the Throne, legendary as being one of the more complex episodes of the campaign, in part because of the richness and depth of its setting – the city of Middenheim. Detailed for 1st edition WFRP not just in Power Behind the Throne but also a standalone city supplement – the first that WFRP received – Middenheim, in-character, sacred ground to the Cult of Ulric. Arguably, it’s also sacred ground to long-term WFRP fans, a city which many campaigns have extensively explored.

So, how does Cubicle 7’s treatment of the city stand up? Is it a place worthy of a revisit – or to visit for the first time, if you’ve not been before – or has the rock of the White Wolf been desecrated?

Middenheim: City of the White Wolf

Cubicle 7’s idea of matching their Enemy Within volumes with companion volumes full of side-adventures, setting material of more general use beyond the immediate scenario, and further bonuses arguably follows past precedent. Back when he originally designed Power Behind the Throne, Carl Sargent ended up cooking up so much setting material on Middenheim that Games Workshop balked at putting it all in the campaign. Instead, much of the setting material was separated out and put into a separate product, originally called Warhammer City before being given the current title in reprints.

Cubicle 7 might have gotten away with just making the Power Behind the Throne Companion a reprint of Middenheim, but they’ve gone the extra mile, keeping the Middenheim volume as its own thing and producing an entire separate Companion for Power Behind the Throne. This is probably a good call. Thanks to Middenheim having been the only major city supplement for a good long chunk of the game’s existence – it took 12 years before Marienburg: Sold Down the River offered a comparable city setting for the game – it’s become a well-established and well-loved part of the setting, and has doubtless been used for a bunch of campaigns which otherwise never touched the Enemy Within stuff. Making this the Power Behind the Throne Companion would not only likely mean losing most of the stuff which we do get in the Companion, but also risks a great standalone supplement for the game being overlooked.

That said, the new supplement doesn’t ignore The Enemy Within entirely. It explicitly presents the situation in Middenheim as it exists just before the start of Power Behind the Throne. If you don’t intend to run The Enemy Within, you can just take this situation and run with it; if you are planning on incorporating it (or just Power Behind the Throne) into your campaign, then useful pointers are provided to highlight which situations and NPCs need to stay in place before Power Behind the Throne kicks off, as well as some suggestions as to what might be going on in town after Power Behind the Throne wraps up.

Another appendix provides some expanded character gen rules; the core WFRP 4th Edition rules tend to assume Reiklander PCs, and whilst they’re broadly useful across the rest of the Empire, the rules here offer a way to make human characters who better reflect the local culture of Middenheim and its neighbouring Provinces of Middenland and Nordland. Between this and the setting material incorporated – featuring deep dives into each district of the city and the surrounding lands besides – you could run an entire Middenheim-focused campaign with just the WFRP core book and this, which is exactly what the original Warhammer City supplement delivered.

Power Behind the Throne

As for the other half of Carl Sargent’s WFRP magnum opus, this volume is – as with all the other Enemy Within reprints so far – a welcome tune-up. Power Behind the Throne has long had a reputation for being a challenging but rewarding adventure to run, in which success for the PCs relies on them navigating a large number of NPCs, most of whom have a fairly detailed itinerary during Middenheim’s annual carnival. Most of the edits, little tweaks to the order in which information is presented, and sometimes significant shifting-about of sections to this version serves the purpose of making the intended way of running it a bit more evident.

I think perhaps a somewhat longer introduction section, perhaps even diagramming out how the chapters relate to each other, might have been handy, but that would be the cherry on the top: the introduction does at least note that the adventure has a fairly unusual structure (especially for gamers used to adventure paths of linearly strung-together encounters), and does a good job of making sure that people reading this for the first time appreciate that they will probably need to look over the whole thing before running it to get a big-picture grasp of what’s going on here.

The original version already had some useful aids, and these have been improved here; modern standards of layout help make the master schedule of who’s attending what event when at the carnival substantially more legible and easy to use than the original, for instance, and there’s a brand-new (and decidedly handy) red string board-style presentation of the major NPCs and how they all relate to each other which can go a long way to helping a referee correct course if things have gone badly awry.

Particular expansion has been provided to the process of getting to Middenheim in the first place; a long-standing issue with the original version of the campaign is that it more or less starts cold right as the PCs arrive at Middenheim, without accounting for they get from the end of Death On the Reik to that stage. James Wallis’ infamous Carrion Up the Reik adventure was added to the start of the Hogshead reprint of Power Behind the Throne; some aspects of this adventure were extracted, improved on, and used in Cubicle 7’s version of Death On the Reik, but a significant encounter late in Carrion has been removed – one suspects because it doesn’t quite fit into the plan for the remainder of the series. Likewise, Carl Sargent’s adventure Grapes of Wrath, which ran in White Dwarf and later got reprinted in The Restless Dead, attempted to address this but in practice ended up being a bit of a side diversion.

Thus, for this version of the campaign a new pass has been done at the journey, looking to the previous efforts for inspiration but dropping that specific encounter from Carrion Up the Reik and avoiding the side quest in Grapes of Wrath (though putting in the scope to plug that adventure in, if one wishes to run the revised version of it which appears in the Power Behind the Throne Companion).

As with the previous updates of the old campaign episodes, the book is littered with “Grognard boxes” to present ways to change up the surprises and discoveries in the campaign, so that players who played the old version can still be surprised. Frankly, I don’t think the Grognard boxes are all that useful for their stated intended purpose for the simple reason that even though the resolution of particular mysteries can be changed up extensively, the overall broad course of the campaign can’t really be changed that much, so I’d still personally consider it sort of inappropriate to play an Enemy Within campaign if I’d played or read the relevant adventures before. This is particularly the case with Powerr Behind the Throne, which takes the investigative aspects which had been significant features of the campaign from the start right to the fore.

However, the Grognard boxes remain useful simply because they offer a way to tailor the campaign to your own and your players’ tastes – if you think a particular outcome in a situation offered in a Grogrnard box is more interesting than the “canon” version of the campaign, or would play better with your particular group of players, it’s nice to have the option right there.

Of course, they’re going to be less of a deal going forwards, because from here on out we are in new territory. The adventures The Enemy Within, Shadows Over Bögenhafen, Death On the Reik and Power Behind the Throne were all planned from the beginning as part of The Enemy Within campaign, and have all now been rereleased by Cubicle 7. (The first two adventures which were combined in Enemy In Shadows in the Cubicle 7 version of the campaign.)

However, though Something Rotten In Kislev was presented as the next episode of the campaign in its original release (and Hogshead reprint), it was never intended that way – Ken Rolston wrote it as a standalone thing, then it was hastily kludged into being an Enemy Within episode despite not really fitting into the plan for the sake of punting product out the door. And Empire In Flames, the original finale to the campaign, is near-universally regarded as a botch – a heavy-handed railroad which fails to properly involve the characters in its events save as witnesses.

Under Hogshead, James Wallis’ republication of The Empire Within ground to a halt as Wallis tried to tackle the problem of cooking up an end to the saga which would be better-received; when Hogshead never got around to doing their own ending, fans have been forced to either fill in the gap themselves or seek out rare copies of Empire In Flames to see if they can salvage anything.

Cubicle 7, for their Director’s Cut of the campaign, have realised that whilst Empire In Flames clearly needs amputating, the gangrene begins earlier, with the clumsy attempt to graft Something Rotten In Kislev onto the structure of the campaign leaving things in a hopeless muddle. Therefore, for their next episode, they’re not doing Kislev. (Who knows? They might do a new revision of it, presenting it as a standalone affair – perhaps alongside an update of the 2nd Edition supplement Realm of the Ice Queen.)

Instead, the fourth episode of the Director’s Cut is The Horned Rat, finally implementing the concept which was originally devised when the campaign was being planned out only to be abandoned. Then the fifth and final episode is going to be Empire In Ruins, a brand-new conclusion which aims to finally give The Enemy Within an official climax of a standard commensurate with the rest of the campaign. Unlike with Hogshead, there’s little question of these books not coming out – as of the time of writing, The Horned Rat is already out in PDF, and Empire In Ruins is due for release in PDF imminently.

Will they be up to the task? We’ll have to see. It will be certainly be interesting to see what they do in place of the Grognard boxes for these episodes, since these newly-published adventures should in principle be Grog-proof – but at the same time, having the additional options the boxes suggest is a nice touch, and it would be good if the last two episodes of this definitive release of the campaign are similarly flexible.

Power Behind the Throne Companion

The various Companion volumes to the Enemy Within volumes have set a particular pattern now, which the Power Behind the Throne Companion continues. For one thing, you get some useful setting stuff, ripe for use even if you don’t intend to run Power Behind the Throne at all – in this case, this includes a rundown on the campaign’s major Slaanesh cult (including an expansion on Slaanesh-themed Chaos magic), some more lore on the Cult of Ulric, and a gazetteer of the local region for anyone still doing the Death On the Reik trading game.

You get some expansions on bits from the campaign adventure itself (or bits which didn’t fit into the new version): in this case, there’s a brace of further NPCs who can be used to help guide the PCs back in the right direction if they get hopelessly lost, some guidelines on dropping in cameos from NPCs who appeared in earlier episodes of The Enemy Within, and a whole chapter on the Graf’s garden party. As the book notes, the garden party was in the original version of Power Behind the Throne, but it was in a rather rushed and underdeveloped form, and was removed from the Director’s Cut; this take on it expands on it greatly, making it a potentially very useful major encounter – but equally, since it is optional and the PCs could viably not go and still have plenty to do and discover, it makes sense that it wasn’t included in the main campaign book in this form.

There’s also new little adventures – both small little encounter concepts and more developed pieces – which you can slip into the action of Power Behind the Throne or not to your taste. This includes a full update of Grapes of Wrath, reverting to its first draft title of Flying Death Skulls, with some major changes and tweaks to allow it to fit into the “Gravelord” plotline that’s run through the Companion volumes. Newer adventures include a little spontaneous dungeon crawl which might provide a night action-focused evening or two if your players fancy a break from the social interactions which Power Behind the Throne focuses on, and a range of shorter encounters.

One of these latter concerns a plot to poison some wine with “Estolian mosca” – which, if you know which Warhammer Old World nations map onto real world places and have a bit of linguistic lateral thinking, is of course “Spanish fly”. For those of you who don’t know, “Spanish fly” is an old-fashioned term for an aphrodisiac; there was an actual preparation of the name which is essentially a dangerous, old-fashioned version of viagra, but the term was also colloquially used to refer to date rape drugs in general before the term “date rape drug” was devised.

Now, to be fair to the encounter in question, this is presented explicitly as a horrible thing to do in principle, and prone to fatal side-effects in practice, so at least it isn’t playing the concept for light-hearted laughs. Still, this is probably something where you will want to think carefully about your players’ preferences and maybe not go there if they might have an issue with such content.

On the whole, I think I find the Power Behind the Throne Companion slightly less useful than the other Companion volumes so far, though the Slaanesh stuff will undoubtedly be useful and I do like the garden party. Then again, tastes will vary, and one thing the Companion volumes for The Enemy Within are very good at is helping you fine-tune the campaign to your own taste and to the preferences of your group; in that respect, it does the job just fine, and I’d certainly want to have it to hand when running the campaign in case some component of it is called for. I slightly think Cubicle 7 have missed a trick by not using it to reprint the “taxes in the Empire” stuff from the original campaign material that hasn’t been reprinted so far – it’s thematically appropriate, after all – but then again tax stuff is probably sufficiently peripheral to most campaigns that they may think it’s no great loss, and I would struggle to disagree with.

Recycling Middenheim

Taking these three books together and setting them against the original versions of Middenheim: City of the White Wolf and Power Behind the Throne, is there much of anything left behind in the 1st edition books which is not recycled or revised in the 4th edition presentation? In the case of Middenheim, the book has been fairly comprehensively revised. In some parts this has led to useful and welcome expansions of information, but some may find things like the floor plans and generic NPCs and other details in the 1st edition version useful to refer to; I’m inclined to keep my copy, whereas I’ve not found much need to keep my old copies of Shadows Over Bögenhafen and Death On the Reik.

As far as Power Behind the Throne itself goes, however, the new version is a sufficient improvement over the old that, particularly with the Companion to hand to include those scraps which didn’t make it into the remaster of the main campaign, I think the old version has largely become redundant next to this fine, careful revision of it.

5 thoughts on “WFRP Returns To Middenheim

  1. matt712013

    Thank you for a very thoughtful and thorough review!

    Surprised you are willing to give up your old copies of the earlier parts of the campaign, though — I find the maps from both Shadows over Bögenhafen and Death on the Reik immensely more usable than the new ones from the books. As well as most handouts.

    There is a format issue where the new books look nice and compact, but perhaps do not serve up all the accoutrements of the previous editions as well.

  2. theoaxner

    Thanks for the review. I’m a bit less impressed by the new editions, considering how many of the well-known bugs and problems with the adventures they _don’t_ adress or fix. They could have been so much better.

    James Wallis’ infamous Carrion Up the Reik adventure was added to the start of the Hogshead reprint of Power Behind the Throne; some aspects of this adventure were extracted, improved on, and used in Cubicle 7’s version of Death On the Reik, but a significant encounter late in Carrion has been removed – one suspects because it doesn’t quite fit into the plan for the remainder of the series.

    As it turns out, a heavily rewritten and re-contextualised version of this encounter happens in Empire in Ruins instead. They might have said so in PBtT – but then again, another of my major gripes with the new TEW is the near-complete intransparency of it. The GM is giving as little information as possible about what’s coming in the following adventures, making it hard to plan the campaign until all of it is out.

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