Death On the Reik – The Return Voyage

Cubicle 7’s revised rerelease of the classic Enemy Within campaign for WFRP continues apace, with the emergence of the second wave of physical products for it. The first phase, Enemy In Shadows and the Enemy In Shadows Companion, provided a thorough 4th Edition update to (most of) the material that was originally issued back in 1st edition days as the first two episodes of the campaign, and collected together under one cover in various reprints (the most easily found these days being the Hogshead release of Shadows Over Bögenhafen). Now the same treatment has been given to Death On the Reik, with a hardcover of the same title giving the adventure itself and the Death On the Reik Companion providing supplementary material, “deleted scenes”, and some material of more general use even if you don’t plan to run the campaign itself.

It took me a while to warm to the original Death On the Reik, and in retrospect I think that’s because it looks like a very sandboxy scenario, with the PCs free to travel the waterways of the Empire as they wish, it actually has a very involved plot, but the original presentation of the materials on a strictly location-by-location basis made the expected itinerary of the PCs somewhat obscured even as the River Life of the Empire section provided a toolkit for a much more free-roving affair.

For this new edition, Cubicle 7 have made the interesting – and, I think, probably justified – decision to change up the presentation of information just a little. The actual adventure portion of the old material is given in the main Death On the Reik book, and any particular location in the scenario will get its full writeup in the logical part of that book, but the arrangement of information in the book gives a better idea of the “expected” flow of the campaign (as well as ample advice on what to do if the timeline diverges).

Meanwhile, the information and systems in River Life of the Empire have been placed in the Death On the Reik Companion, in which context they can be greatly expanded on and polished without worrying about page count in the main book. This, to me, seems extremely sensible, since I suspect in actual play of the original version the River Life section either got extremely heavy use (if your group got really, really into the whole “Renaissance canal boat Traveller“) or was almost entirely ignored (if your group just wanted to concentrate on the plot).

This arrangement of information, in particular, means that groups who just want to blaze through the Enemy Within plot with a minimum of sandbox roving or B-plot are absolutely free to do so – all they need to do is play through the Death On the Reik hardback and leave the Companion be. On the other hand, if you want to play through the campaign with much more freedom of direction and more secondary plots not related to the core thing, fold in the Companion – or if you want to run a game based around the river routes of the Empire but don’t give a fig for the Death On the Reik plot, grab the Companion and ignore the adventure book. There’s a combination that works for everyone.

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An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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Resurgent Wrath & Renewed Glory, Or Reheated Ruin?

The physical copies of Cubicle 7’s new Wrath & Glory rulebook have now emerged. For those who aren’t up on the backstory here, a quick summary: after Fantasy Flight Games and Games Workshop’s licensing arrangement died a death, the RPG rights to the various Warhammer settings were up for grabs. Cubicle 7 took the fantasy-based ones, and as well as Soulbound, their new Age of Sigmar RPG, they have brought out a delightfully flavourful 4th Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Ulisses Spiele, however, took the Warhammer 40,000 RPG licence, and rather than keeping the lights on for the mass of different 40K-themed RPGs that Fantasy Flight had supported – Dark HeresyRogue TraderDeathwatchBlack Crusade, and Only War – they decided to put out an all-new game, Wrath & Glory, with a system intended to cover as many aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 universe as possible rather than going for a series of more focused games as Fantasy Flight had done.

With the design and development process handled by Ulisses North America, the first version of Wrath & Glory offered a promising start. The basic concept of tiered archetypes corresponding to different iconic Warhammer 40,000 character concepts, with the different tiers spanning power levels from low-grade chumps to top-tier superheroes, was basically sensible; furthermore, the designers made the sensible decision to not continue with the WFRP-derived system of the previous Warhammer 40,000 RPGs, which had always struggled a little to handle more powerful characters (WFRP having very much catered to the low-power end of the scale).

The perspective on the cover of the new core book never quite looked right to me.

That said, the Ulisses Spiele release of the game had its issues. The production values – particularly compared to both Fantasy Flight’s previous offerings and Cubicle 7’s WFRP material – felt a little lacklustre, a couple of ribbon bookmarks not quite hiding the slightly thin paper quality. Some of the art looked a little off; some of the game mechanics seemed either poorly explained, poorly tested, or outright poorly understood by the designers. (Dark Tides, the sole adventure pack released for the game, seemed to assume that characters would be advancing in Tier at a much faster pace than suggested in the core book.) A number of card decks were issued alongside the core book, which seemed to strongly hope you would make extensive use of them, despite some of them being a little half-baked.

In general, a lot of small things seemed to be a bit off, which added up bit by bit to give the impression of a product rush-released in a hurry. In addition, the core rules felt rather bland and thinly stretched-out, with not much meat in terms of setting material – an annoyance to many fans, since the plan had apparently been for the game to be a significant way to showcase what’s going on in the Dark Imperium (the chunk of the Imperium now cut off from the Astronomican’s light) but a bunch of the material developed by the Black Library’s authors for the book didn’t make the cut.

A mixed reception was followed by an abrupt disappearance – after the initial slate of products was released, there was a dearth of announcements of new material, previously-announced supplements didn’t seem to materialise, and everything got ominously quiet at Ulisses’ end. Fans noted that references to the game seemed to be disappearing from Ulisses’ website, and Ulisses didn’t show up with the rest of the Games Workshop licensees at 2019’s Warhammer Fest.

Finally, the hammer dropped: all material for Wrath & Glory and other Warhammer 40,000 RPGs abruptly disappeared from the DriveThruRPG storefront. A day or so later, carefully co-ordinated press releases were made by Ulisses North America and Cubicle 7; Ulisses North America was stepping away from Warhammer 40,000, Ulisses Spiele (their parent company) was going to content themselves with handling German language translations of the game, and design and development of the product line would now be lead by Cubicle 7, who’d also be publishing the English-language books.

I suspected at the time that Ulisses North America had overextended itself, taking on a product it wasn’t ready to do justice to, and had decided to prune things back. This may be correct, though I note that since then UNA are planning to put out a new edition of Fading Suns, and I wonder whether there might be an issue there. Whatever the behind-the-scenes story is behind UNA, Cubicle 7, and Games Workshop agreeing to rearrange things like this – as the IP owners there is simply no way this switcheroo happened without Games Workshop’s approval at the very least, and it’s very possible they initiated the process in the first place – the fact of the matter is that Cubicle 7 has how consolidated all the Warhammer RPG licences into their hands, and with the release of the printed version of their revised core book, the game is effectively getting a second edition.

Note how the update gives them the chance to bring in the new Warhammer 40,000 logo.

The new book is not just a spruced-up reprint of the original; the game has had a root-and-branch rewrite and reorganisation. The system is broadly the same – you can take any of the (extremely limited) amount of support material that Ulisses produced and use it with this edition of the game no problem – but a lot of the criticism of the original release has been accounted for, and further rounds of feedback from the initial PDF of this revision was taken into account in the print run. Some terminology has been changed to better reflect the underlying intention, some sections have been expanded and clarified, other bits have been yanked outright.

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WFRP: Stepping Past the Starter Set

As well as putting out the initial releases in their Enemy Within reissue, Cubicle 7 have also put out a couple of fresh new products for 4th edition WFRP lately: here’s an overview.

Ubersreik Adventures

Around the release of 4th edition WFRP, Cubicle 7 put out a bunch of PDF-only adventures on DriveThruRPG set around Ubersreik, the city that the Starter Set is based in. This seemed like a good deal for everyone; from Cubicle 7’s perspective, it’s another chance to sell old timers on the Starter Set for the sake of the Guide To Ubersreik booklet in there, for beginners who’ve played the Starter Set it’s a neat source of additional support, and for old hands it’s some fresh WFRP material that ties in nicely with the new Ubersreik-based plot and isn’t just a revision of stuff they already own. Everyone wins.

Cubicle 7 hadn’t been planning to do hard copies of the material, but there was enough demand to issue this compilation of the five adventures (plus a new sixth one). The artwork in the book tends towards simple black and white pieces in comparison to the more lush artwork of, say, Empire In Flames or the core book, but this is largely down to the status of this book as an unplanned compilation.

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Shadows Refreshed, an Enemy Renewed

The first two parts of the Enemy WithinThe Enemy Within and Shadows Over Bögenhafen, are shorter than the other parts and closely connected; the adventure in Enemy Within is basically an extended bit of setup for Shadows. It’s no surprise, then, that the two were compiled together in most reprints – first as Warhammer Campaign, then (along with Death On the Reik) as Warhammer Adventure, then in 1995 under Hogshead’s auspices as, slightly confusingly, Shadows Over Bögenhafen.

Enemy In Shadows is Cubicle 7’s new update of the campaign for 4th edition WFRP, which has laid fallow over the whole run of the 2nd and 3rd editions. (3rd edition had a campaign released for it called The Enemy Within, but it’s a completely different scenario which happens to touch on the same themes.) It’s part of a “Director’s Cut” reissue of the entire campaign, overseen by original designer Graeme Davis, with each of the five volumes of the campaign having “DVD extras” in a separate book, such as the Enemy In Shadows Companion for this one.

One especially nice thing is that as well as planning Empire In Ruins – a brand new ending to the campaign to replace Empire In Flames, which by and large nobody is especially satisfied with, they’re also doing The Horned Rat as a replacement for Something Rotten In Kislev, which had previously slotted into The Enemy Within between The Power Behind the Thone and Empire In Flames but which is generally agreed to be not really anything to do with the main Enemy Within plot and better treated as a standalone Kislev campaign.

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A Retro Idea of Retro

I’ve previously discussed insights we can get from Arcane magazine’s Top 50 RPGs feature, but there’s one other feature from the magazine which I think has aged particularly interestingly. Rather than being presented in a single article, though, it unfolded over the span of the magazine’s existence.

This was the monthly Retro feature, each instalment of which offered a one-page retrospective of an old game, by and large (with a very few exceptions) one which was well out of print by the time. This is interesting to look back on now because when Arcane was being published the hobby was some 21-23 years old; this year it’s 46. In other words, more time has now passed since Arcane magazine ended than passed between the emergence of D&D and the appearance of Arcane. It’s interesting, then, to look back and see what games were considered to be old-timey classics from that perspective, and how things have developed since.

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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A Grim, Dark Route Into the Old World

RPG starter sets are in vogue again. There was a time when they more or less went extinct, except for extremely desultory efforts by TSR or Wizards of the Coast, partly because they can be tricky things to produce and partly because publishers of games other than Dungeons & Dragons assumed that nobody would pick up their products who wasn’t already fully aware of what sort of game these RPG things were and who weren’t already specifically looking for the full-fat version of the game in question.

To be fair, that seemed to be reflected by the market realities; for the most part, companies other than TSR/Wizards didn’t manage to get their products distributed outside of specialist gaming shops, and many such shops were of such a nature where you were deeply unlikely to spend much time browsing there unless you were very much interested in their contents. Where a game did manage to obtain a sudden following of people who hadn’t previously been RPG customers, as Vampire: the Masquerade did, it was typically seen as the result of a catching-lightning-in-a-bottle moment which it was pointless to try and capitalise on by building a smoother, easier onramp. (It’s bizarre that Masquerade never had a starter set, when you think about it.)

The craze for actual play podcasts and YouTube series – spearheaded by Critical Role but with a healthy penumbra of other shows around it, several of which step into games beyond D&D from time to time (Critical Role itself did a one-off Call of Cthulhu episode lately) – seems to have exposed a bunch of people to tabletop RPGs lately, and whilst a good many of them will likely never extend their involvement beyond watching the shows in question, at least a subset of them are likely to look deeper.

This being the case, there’s now a plausible route for people who are not currently active RPG players and referees to discover a whole range of games which would have escaped their notice in previous eras – and that being the case, it’s suddenly substantially more worth it to at least consider doing a starter set for your game, especially if its core rules are sufficiently complex to merit providing an easier onramp, and especially if, say, your game happens to be connected to a venerable and widely-recognised fantasy IP like Warhammer.

Thus, starter sets seem to be back on the menu. Chaosium’s one for Call of Cthulhu seems to be the gold standard at the moment, and for good reason – it’s a pretty decent collection of adventures, offering multiple full sessions of play (in stark contrast to the desultory offerings of the worse TSR/Wizards starter sets), effectively teaching players the underpinnings of the game, and more than adequately setting them up to move on to the rest of the game’s offerings, and the adventures therein are sufficiently interesting that the set offers reasonable value even to experienced gamers. WFRP has a long and hallowed history of following Call of Cthulhu‘s lead: does Cubicle 7’s Starter Set for 4th Edition WFRP manage to pull off the same trick?

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The Roots of Dredd – and WFRP?

Attempts at adapting Judge Dredd to an RPG setting have been intermittent but persistent over the years. Mongoose Publishing landed the licence and gave it a D20 treatment back in their OGL shovelware days, before producing an adaptation of the setting to Traveller which I’ve reviewed previously. More recently, ENWorld’s publishing arm has attempted it with their What’s Old Is New system, a generic system which seems to have made almost no waves and gained no attention outside of ENWorld itself (though arguably, it’s a big enough forum that they don’t need to).

The original stab at it, however, was a 1985 effort from Games Workshop. Boxed sets of this edition (complete with maps for the scenarios and cardboard figures) circulate for a fair bit of money; if you just want the rulebooks, however, you can get them separately at a cheaper rate if you look. Divided into a Judge’s Manual and a Game Master’s Book, coming to a total of 200 pages together, this provides a system very much focused on playing Judges (which I think is the only sensible way to approach a Dredd RPG) and a setting guide to the world Dredd inhabits which is dripping with flavour. (There was also a hardcover release which compiled the two books into a single volume, though this is quite rare these days.)

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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.

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