Empire In Ruins, But WFRP In Fine Shape

The emergence of hard copies of Empire In Ruins and the Empire In Ruins Companion sees Cubicle 7’s “Director’s Cut” version of The Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition come to a close. The Enemy Within project has been one of the most welcome aspects of the new edition; though the original first edition releases were justifiably well-regarded, they were also very much of their time, with some design decisions and refereeing tips which may have made sense back in the day but don’t reflect best practice now (and were potentially frustrating even when originally published).

In addition, the multi-part campaign infamously fell apart towards the end in its original release. The episodes up to and including Power Behind the Throne were always considered to be the strongest, but then instead of the intended followup, The Horned Rat, seeing the light of day, instead Something Rotten In Kislev by Ken Rolston was published as the next episode. This was, at best, incongruous – Ken hadn’t written it as an Enemy Within episode but intended it as a self-contained Kislev-based adventure set, and some of the liberties taken to get the PCs from Middenheim to Kislev were rather heavy-handed, and once they got there more or less nothing that happened was particularly relevant to the ongoing plot threads established in preceding episodes.

Things went from bad to worse with Empire In Flames, the original finale of the campaign. Despite being penned by Carl Sargent, who was more closely involved with the wider Enemy Within project than Rolston (Sargent was the author of Power Behind the Throne), it’s generally regarded as the worst episode of the lot – entirely tonally inconsistent with what came before, and on top of that extremely railroady, with the PCs spending a lot of time watching NPCs doing cool stuff but not doing very much themselves (with some notable exceptions).

Why this was the case, I am not sure, but it might have had something to do with Games Workshop cooling on RPGs in general. The early years of WFRP coincided with the zenith of Games Workshop’s involvement in the RPG industry, which saw them release not just the original WFRP itself but also handsomely-presented hardcover editions of Stormbringer, Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, and Paranoia. If one sets aside the fact that the glue on those items can be hit and miss (my copies are fine, but I know other people had trouble with the binding failing on theirs), then this represents a mighty slate not only in terms of quality but also production values when it came to their RPG line.

After this, however, they seem to have soured on the field. The late 1980s saw their support for RPGs other than WFRP dry up; in 1990, they shipped off WFRP to the Flame Productions subdivision, which would later be shut down entirely (leading to the line being picked up by Hogshead for the tail end of the 1st Edition era). Empire In Flames came out in 1989, and the perception that it was rushed out of the door in a hurry might have been deliberate: it is possible that a directive came down to get the series wrapped up and done before the changeover to Flame Productions happened, because the new division would be expected to avoid similarly onerous projects. (They did do the Doomstones series, but those were largely based on some recycled AD&D third-party modules they’d got the rights to, and have a patchy reputation to match that origin; such reskins would create the impression of putting out a new campaign sequence comparable to The Enemy Within, whilst involving only a fraction of the work.)

Or perhaps it was just burnout. WFRP 1st Edition came out in 1986, Empire In Flames emerged in 1989. That’s an absurdly condensed period of time to put out a sequence of campaign adventures of the level of complexity that Death On the Reik or Power Behind the Throne aspired to.

Over on Gideon’s Awesome Lies blog, Derrick Norton has written a series of posts about the early stages of developing Empire In Flames, and it certainly seems to be a project which had a bumpy ride coming into existence. One aspect that is teased out, both in Derrick’s posts and in the comments, is that Carl Sargent seems to have been (perhaps justifiably) grumpy about being given a brief to develop the campaign as a linear adventure to wrap up the campaign, rather than a more free-wheeling affair like Power Behind the Throne, and significant rewrites were needed; moreover, there’s signs in Derrick’s correspondence with other team members that the hammer was coming down in terms of the production schedule, giving more credence to the idea that the project simply wasn’t given the time it needed to hit the standards of earlier episodes in the series.

Either way, Empire In Flames went down in, well, flames. The general fan rejection of it, even in that pre-Internet age, was lost on nobody. Back when Hogshead was handling 1st Edition in the mid-1990s-to-early-2000s, and were putting out their reprints of The Enemy Within, James Wallis was willing to go ahead and put out Something Rotten In Kislev as part of The Enemy Within again, even though one could make good arguments against doing so; even then, he wasn’t willing to do the same for Empire In Flames. The product was a stinker, reprinting and reissuing it as-was simply wouldn’t wash, so a new version was needed and Wallis intended to write it himself.

Given the long delays to the Paranoia and Alas Vegas Kickstarters, both due to Wallis’s writing process being bogged down and facing setbacks it should come as no surprise that a certain amount of development hell delayed Empire In Chaos, the planned replacement for Empire In Flames, but again Gideon on the Awesome Lies blog has pulled through, compiling what we know about it. (I am amused to see that Wallis lost the entire draft in a computer mishap due to not having a backup anywhere other than his work laptop; those who suffered through the Alas Vegas debacle know that computer mishaps have a curious way of continuously happening to Wallis, even over a decade later when ample solutions exist to the issue.)

In the absence of an official revised ending, fans had to fend for themselves – even going to the extent of some fans pulling together Empire At War, a homebrew conclusion to the campaign – but now, after offering us Enemy In Shadows, Death On the Reik, Power Behind the Throne, The Horned Rat and their associated Companion volumes, Cubicle 7 have given us Empire In Ruins, which I am sure they hope will be the final word on the matter. They very much seem to have paid close attention to the feedback Empire In Flames had and the experiences of those who’ve tried to tackle the problems with it before; for instance, Empire In Ruins includes in its credits thanks to Alfred Nuñez, who was in fact one of the co-authors of Empire At War, so it’s likely that they reached out to pick Alfred’s brains about how that group tackled the idea.

Empire In Ruins is very, very different from Empire In Flames and Empire In Chaos when examined in detail, but is broadly the same shape when looked at from a distance. In particular, whilst they haven’t used many of James Wallis’s ideas when it comes to the specifics of how to fix Empire In Flames, they do seem to have agreed with him about what you need to do to fix it: in Wallis’s words, his plan was to “retain bits of the structure of Empire in Flames but essentially none of its text“, and that’s more or less what Cubicle 7 have done, though obviously their choices about which structure to retain, what to put in place of what isn’t retained, and how you execute all that are going to differ from what Wallis was going to produce.

Empire In Flames basically had two problems: it was a miserable slog of a railroad, there were too many incidents where the PCs were basically observers with nothing to do and no way to interact with the wider situation, and it totally dropped the ball on addressing a great many of the major plot threads running through the entire campaign (including, most egregiously, the very case of mistaken identity which kicks the action of the campaign off in the first place). The failure to resolve some plot threads issue is arguably the easiest thing to solve – that’s just a matter of going back, reviewing what has happened before, deciding what needs resolving, and making sure it gets resolved. Boom, job done.

Solving the other issues is a more fundamental question, because whichever way you jump has a major structural implication for the adventure. You can solve both issues by just going for a full-blown sandbox approach – just say “Here’s the Empire in crisis as of the end of The Horned Rat, here’s some fleshed-out locations and encounters, have at it” – and that would solve both the railroading and the interactivity issue. It would, however, also be an incongruous way to end the series; the whole structure of the campaign to this point more or less cries out for the whole thing to be brought to a climax, and for that to work you have to lead the players to that climax, not give them complete sandboxy freedom.

Bear in mind that many published campaigns are railroads to an extent, and that’s fine – provided you have player buy-in for the railroad. If you’ve played the campaign to this point, you probably have buy-in for “let’s keep going to the climax”. What you probably don’t have buy-in for is “let’s make sure our decisions don’t matter and big NPCs do most of the important stuff” – which means that having a linear structure for this stage of the campaign is probably not an issue (previous parts of the campaign have also had linear structures, after all), you just need to make sure that what the players do along the way matters. Your party will be following the same railroad as everyone else, but how they go about following that route is what makes the difference.

This works on a multi-tiered fashion: on the level of individual chapters of Empire In Ruins, on an Empire In Ruins-wide level, and on a level which spans the entire Enemy Within campaign. In the former case, even when aspects of the structure of Empire In Flames have been retained here, the entire way they land and the way which the PCs relate to them has been altered in order to allow for more PC choice in the moment. There’s one respect in which the PCs, if they make a particular choice, can make a major change to the remainder of the story; there’s details on what the main puppetmaster’s fallback plan is should they do this, so the planned ending can still take place if this alternative comes off, but the PCs also have a fair shake of preventing that too. In this instance, having the Empire In Ruins Companion is particularly recommended, because its “Alternative Empires” chapter provides useful details to help work through how an exciting conclusion to the campaign might be arrived at even if the players have derailed the main plot comprehensively. (This is very much in keeping with the approach of the Director’s Cut, where the main campaign books have been pitched to groups who are happy to just follow the route straight down the line more or less, whilst the Companions have provided more fodder for a more sandbox-ish approach to the campaign.)

More generally, each major segment of Empire In Ruins has clearly been written from the ground up from a perspective of “what are the PCs doing here, and what they can accomplish which would be useful to them?” first, and any other matters second. The influence of Graeme Davis (who is credited with the overall shepherding of the Enemy Within Director’s Cut project) can be noticed in several chapters, which provide a time breakdown much like that used in adventures of his like A Rough Night At the Three Feathers, in order to convey a situation where there’s lots of stuff going on and NPCs to talk to and opportunities for PCs to gain advantage or gather information if they’re lucky and think on their feet. There’s even a Council of Electors scene where what would be a very dry scene of a bunch of NPCs talking to each other is saved by the fact that there’s an audience of the non-council members watching the proceedings, and a lot of side action going on in that audience.

Moving from the individual sub-sections to Empire In Ruins as a whole, once again a novel way is found of tracking what the characters have done and how that has its knock-on effects in subsequent situations. Whereas The Horned Rat had aspects which would be easier or more difficult depending on how good a job the characters did of proving the existence of the Skaven conspiracy to the world, the big theme of Empire In Ruins is about the Empire being on the verge of descending into factionalism, and so factional alignment becomes the major question; being seen as firmly in one camp, or firmly in the other, or neutral in terms of the tension between the followers of Sigmar and Ulric will have its positive and negative effects. In this instance, there’s no one “right” place to be – it’s going to come down to a roleplaying choice, and one which shapes the challenges the PCs face accordingly.

Lastly, on the Enemy Within-wide level, the big climactic encounter at the very end – assuming the PCs don’t avert it, which it’s possible to do) – has a level of difficulty which is influenced by a whole lot of factors, and the outcome of previous sections of The Enemy Within have a major impact there; if the campaign has been a farcical litany of disaster for the PCs so far, they will likely have a much harder time than if they’ve effectively countered the agents of Chaos at every turn along the way.

As well as the adventure itself, Empire In Ruins also helpfully provides some notes on how the events of Enemy Within are later on remembered in-character as “the Turmoil”, which generally assume various changes to the setting as a result of the abortive civil war which (though I have not checked) I suspect are meant to reflect tweaks made to the canon by Games Workshop after the earlier episodes of The Enemy Within were published, but to be honest it makes sense to have this sort of content here as an assumed “canonical” state of the Empire for adventure material set after The Enemy Within (which may, of course, need to be changed if you’re in an ongoing campaign which has gone through Empire In Ruins anyway to account for the events of the campaign).

As for the Companion, it’s the usual bundle of more useful articles, deeper insights into specific aspects of the campaign, and optional side adventures (including the culmination of the Gravelord subplot that has run through the Companion volumes so far). It’s a shame we don’t have another designer diary with Davis and others regaling us with their reminiscences; it’d be good to get the inside story on what the hell happened with Empire In Flames, and despite my issues with James Wallis over his Paranoia and Alas Vegas debacles I’d still be somewhat interested to hear what he had planned for Hogshead’s replacement for the conclusion. Then again, we didn’t get much of a retrospective for The Horned Rat either, and I suspect Games Workshop might prefer such sections when they are focused on happy memories of beloved products, not airing dirty laundry about a product everyone hated.

Where does this leave Cubicle 7? The Enemy Within is now complete. As Gideon over on Awesome Lies has documented, there seems to have been some changed plans along the way, causing some minor snags here and there in the Director’s Cut volumes (which may well be corrected in future printings); these seem to have arisen as a result of Andy Law, original line producer for 4th Edition WFRP, parting ways with Cubicle 7. Gideon’s ideas for tweaking these issues prove to be minor enough that to my mind these perceived flaws may well come down to a matter of taste in some cases; admittedly, he’s behind the Enemy Within Companion for the first edition version of the campaign, so putting an awful lot of thought into the campaign has been his schtick and so it’s understandable he’d have very developed opinions on how things should be handled.

For my part, I think that whilst the new Enemy Within isn’t necessarily 100% perfect, it’s much better than the first edition version, and is probably one of the best-quality long-form RPG campaigns out there on the market. It demands a fair amount of the referee, but thanks to Cubicle 7’s editorial decisions in what information to present, how to present it, and what offer in the Companion volumes, the referee likely has the deepest bench of support yet. Quibbling over whether Andy Law’s version would have been superior to what we got or not is an exercise in hypotheticals, but I am inclined to suspect that if there were a difference between two, it would come down to personal preference.

At the same time, it feels like getting past The Enemy Within might be the best thing that’s happened to the WFRP line for a while. It’s been a major undertaking which has occupied a lot of Cubicle 7’s attention; indeed, a fair chunk of the other support material they have put out seems to have been selected for prioritisation in part because of the potential support they offer for The Enemy Within. For instance, the Starter Set and first and second Ubersreik Adventures volumes all take place against the backdrop of the Ubersreik crisis which feeds into the Imperial tensions in Empire In Ruins, some of the NPCs from the Rough Nights and Hard Days collection can show up here, and of course major parts of Empire In Ruins unfold in Altdorf, which has an entire associated city supplement. (The little bits of care given to the Ubersreik situation in Empire In Ruins is a particularly nice touch – it’s a bit of love for any group who’s worked their way to the conclusion of The Enemy Within after beginning with the Starter Set.)

Now it’s over – and that means Cubicle 7 are freed up to accelerate the pace at which they provide additional supplements and non-Enemy Within adventures. There’s several new rules supplements and setting books both set within the Empire and beyond it already out on PDF and incoming in hard copy. Giving The Enemy Within a solid conclusion has been the white whale of WFRP publishers since the 1980s: Games Workshop botched it, Hogshead weren’t up to the task, Black Industries/Green Ronin never even tried during the 2nd Edition days, and Fantasy Flight Games cheated during 3rd Edition by just putting out an entirely unrelated adventure under the same title. Now Cubicle 7 have done it – and it’s reassuring that there seems to be exciting plans for what to do with the line next, now that this major endeavour is complete.

One thought on “Empire In Ruins, But WFRP In Fine Shape

  1. PB

    Cubicle 7 have also injected a lot of life into online tabletop via their collaboration with Mooman and the excellent modules for Foundry VTT.

    The basic system for WFRP is well covered and the access for the GM into the various campaigns makes it’s a joy to use.

    During Covid this meant we could keep playing and even now we still use it for both record keeping and mechanics leaving more space for story telling and role playing.

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