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Minireview: Shades of Empire (Warhammer 2e)

One of the last books published for the Warhammer Fantasy 2nd edition line, Shades of Empire is a compendium of various organizations of the Old World, including some new careers (and plot lines) connected to these groups. It’s a nice set, covering all sort of groups and organizations, ranging from fairly open and well-known ones to secret societies and cults. I can see this one getting quite a bit of use in a Warhammer 2e game, since a ready-made organization can be a huge boon for GMs while prepping the next game.

Perhaps the best known groups detailed here are the Roadwardens and the Imperial Navy, while others (the Hedgefolk, the Knights of Magritta, the Quinsberry Lodge etc) prefer to keep to the shadows. Then there’s the Glorious Revolution of the People, which is pretty much what it sounds like, and a sure recipe for violent hilarity when it collides with the entrenched feudal system of the Old World.

Nice sourcebook, and of course the groups listed here aren’t limited to 2nd edition, they should be just as useful in a 1e or 3e game (with some stat conversion for NPCs, of course).

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Minireview: The Thousand Thrones (Warhammer 2e)

The Thousand Thrones is one of the last products released for the WHFRP 2e game line, and it’s a very ambitious offering: a grand campaign, taking PCs from beginning characters to (very) experienced, providing they survive. An obvious influence is the old “Enemy Within” campaign, as far as scope goes (the plot is quite different here). Unfortunately, while there’s a lot of good here, it’s a bit of a mess as a whole, and would need quite a bit of GM prep and reworking to actually run.

The core plot is quite interesting, both the parts which the players initially run into and the (much, much more complicated) background story. It seems that a young child has been identified with the sign of Sigmar, and is being hailed by the people as Sigmar reborn. The official church is a lot less thrilled, as as multiple other parties. The PC are sent (via various alternate initial hooks) to investigate, or perhaps even assassinate, this miracle child. What happens when they actually encounter the “Crusade of the Child” makes for a convoluted story, as does the “and what happened then” bit.

The main problem here is in the execution. Written by different authors, the nine scenarios which form the campaign have very different tones and writing styles, and do not easily form a coherent whole. There are odd bits of humor in places where it’s not too appropriate, and some events just don’t make any sense when compared to what has happened before (or even as stand-alone events). I found myself going “huh?” in some places, where the PCs are suddenly expected to do X… and I could not figure out why they would do that. In many other places, the PCs are expected to do one specific thing, and that only, with heavy railroading suggested if they do not comply.

Of course, keeping a big campaign “on track” is always difficult, and some amount of lightweight railroading is sometimes needed. However, I felt that this campaign would be especially hard to keep on track, since it’s such a convoluted affair and the PCs are expected to follow a very certain path – one they are almost certain to stray from, quite soon. There’s also the problem of the campaign hinging on one small child, if he gets killed then everything grinds to a halt. None of these issues are dealbreakers, but they do mean that this would probably be a very difficult campaign to run.

On a more positive note, there’s a lot to like here. As noted, the main plot is quite cool and there are lots of twists and turns. The PCs have plenty of dark secrets to uncover, and most things are not what they seem (and also, as a nice twist, many of the obvious first guesses by experienced players on “what’s actually going on?” would be wrong as well). A chaos cult is not behind every suspicious event. Some of the individual adventures are very well done, and all have at least some redeeming qualities. The artwork is nice, and the maps are especially nice. Lots of player handouts are provided.

One small extra niggle, though: the font used here is ridiculously small. This is a huge campaign, which has been crammed into a mid-size page could by squeezing things much too tightly. A new version, with more normal font (and bigger page count) would be nice. A new version with a couple of extra editing runs and a bunch of playtest-based tweaks would be even nicer.

Ultimately, it fails to be the milestone campaign it aims to be – but I can’t fault a book too much for having a bit too much ambition. There’s a great campaign here, provided the GM puts in quite a bit of extra work in customizing the thing and removing the “wait, what?” bits. There are also some lethality issues, I have a hard time visualizing any PC group surviving this from beginning to end.

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Minireview: Realm of the Ice Queen (Warhammer 2e)

Realm of the Ice Queen is the last regional sourcebook published for the 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy game line, and it details the realm of Kislev (the faux-Russia of Warhammer’s Old World). It’s generally a quality book, but is somewhat hampered by its small page count – all too many things are left with just a passing mention, if that. That material that does exist, however, is good.

Kislev is very much defined by two cultures: the original Ungol, and the later invading Gospodars. While united as a realm, under the “Ice Queen” Tzarina Katarin, the two cultures have very different backgrounds which is a huge source of internal tension. Even the Tzarina, who would love to impose her (Gospodar) law on the whole realm, must make allowances for the more “tribal” Ungol laws. Gospodars, being largely “townsfolk”, have a set of laws which largely resemble the ones in Empire – though tweaked to give the Tzarina absolute say about the form and the practice of law. Ungol culture, on the other hand, has very different concepts of right and wrong, which centers on communal responsibility for crimes. If someone commits a crime, all members of his/her family and all relatives are considered equally guilty. So it’s quite acceptable to sentence an innocent relative to death for a serious crime committed by another family member. This, naturally enough, makes for fascinating social structures, and is also ripe for conflict with the more “civilized” Gospodar laws. Put the PCs in the middle of this mess, have them commit a “minor” crime (in their view), and watch the fireworks.

The book is structured in a fairly traditional way: we get a section on history, another on laws, another on religion, and so forth. There’s also a section on the Ice Witches and their form of magic, quite unlike the Bretonnia sourcebook which frustratingly left the Grail Damsels and their magic (if any) totally unspecified. The three major cities are described, though with not that much detail. The whole thing wraps up with an adventure, which is quite decent but is a bit of a missed opportunity: it takes place mostly in the wilderness and skips most of the cool social shenanigans possible in Kislev.

Since this is the most official detail we have of Kislev to date, it’s definitely better than nothing. The writing is quite engaging and there are lots of amusing and interesting details to be had here. The main negative is the small page count; Kislev would have provided opportunity for much more material.

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Minireview: Tome of Salvation (Warhammer 2e)

Before this book, the information available on the gods of the Warhammer world (excepting the Chaos gods) has been pretty sparse. The core book had some basic details. but nowhere enough to give interesting detail to players wanting to play priests. Like the earlier “Tome of Sorcery” (which expanded the magic orders) and “Tome of Corruption” (which expanded the Chaos cults and gods), Tome of Salvation aims to fill in the missing bits for the “normal” gods of the Old World. Also like those earlier tomes, it succeeds wonderfully; this is a near-essential resource for Warhammer priestly types.

The book gives you pretty much everything you’d expect or need. You get detailed descriptions of the internals of the various cults (i.e. churches of the various gods), and there are also long sections on things like normal daily life as a priest, why extremist cults form and how they work, the religious holiday calendar, the life of a holy warrior or an inquisitor… in short, a ton of stuff. Since religion and daily life is so intertwined in the Old World, much of this is also nice background color for non-priest characters (who also typically believe in some god) and for the GM in making his/her world come alive. Things like religious holidays are wonderful things to throw into the mix on a regular basis, especially since they are far from standardized. The PCs might walk into a small village busy with yet another religious festival… and only slowly come to realize that it’s no religion they are familiar with. Together with the fact that a god might be worshiped in very different ways depending on where you are, this makes for great plot material and general “world color”.

Like the previous “Tome” books, this is one of the important books in the game line. Great work from the authors.

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Minireview: Night's Dark Masters (Warhammer 2e)

Night’s Dark Masters has the subtitle “A Guide to Vampires”… and that’s exactly what the book is. It contains the detailed history of vampires (and related creatures) in the Warhammer world, and has stats for all the various flavors of fiends. I like the approach Warhammer has taken to vampirism; they have a quite specific origin story, though one which is largely unknown to non-vampires and which is shrouded in the mists of time. Instead of one predictable type of vampires, they are separated into different clans (shades of Vampire: the Masquerade here) which are very different from each other. This means that the GM can use vampires as antagonists while keeping the players (and the PCs) guessing about what exactly it is that they are facing. Some are vulnerable to the “traditional” things (sunlight, garlic, crossing water, etc), many are not.

The origin story is interesting, and the clans themselves are also interestingly varied, covering all the bases from the classic “Dracula” type down to a much more bestial Nosferatu-wannabe. As such, vampires make great major antagonists – they are powerful (but have major weaknesses), they are very intelligent, they generally love to manipulate events from the shadows. Great “evil mastermind” material. The book also discusses having vampires as PCs and provides some guidelines for doing it, starting with “it’s not a very good idea”. Unless you are running an all-vampire game, integrating a vampire with a more normal group will be difficult.

If you intend to use vampires in your Warhammer game (as a GM), you’ll want to read this book. It’s well-written and contains a ton of information and story ideas about the subject.

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Minireview: Lure of the Liche Lord (Warhammer 2e)

Lure of the Liche Lord is loosely connected to the earlier Renegade Crowns book, which presented a toolkit for populating the Border Princes region. Here, we get an example campaign setting (in the Border Princes), focused on the ambitions of a certain long-dead (but restless) ancient ruler. A number of other (living) NPCs and kingdoms are also detailed, along with their political motivations, relations with each other, and such. It’s a complete region overview, which can be used to run a general freeform Warhammer campaign if desired. One thing I especially enjoyed here is the main “antagonist” NPC, who both is and isn’t an “undead horror”. Yes, he is undead and yes, he is a threat and arguably a horror; however, he is not portrayed as your typical “arrrrr, I hate all living things!” creature. He has fairly detailed backstory, and his motivations are a lot more complex than what is typical for this type of “undead villain” in most adventures. So, points for that.

The main focus and star of the show is, however, the tomb of the titular Liche Lord, which gets about two-thirds of the page count. In a nutshell, this is Warhammer’s version of the D&D “Tomb of Horrors”. Now, before you run away screaming, I have to say that this one makes a lot more sense, and the traps aren’t quite as ridiculous. There is a reason why this tomb is built like it is. It’s a huge affair and very nicely detailed, tomb raiding this one should be a lot of fun. But…

…the GM needs to be aware that this thing is deadly. Seriously deadly. Especially when you consider Warhammer’s ruleset, which is a lot more “gritty” than D&D and provides less provisions for the PCs to bounce back from “just a little case of death”. If I were to run this, I would tone down the number of traps a bit, I just don’t see any PC party surviving this. Depends on the party, of course… having an academic along with actual knowledge of old Khemri customs and beliefs will increase survival odds significantly. In any case, this is a death trap dungeon. It’s a pretty good one, and has a reason to exist, but it’s still full of death traps. A total party kill is easy, here.

I quite enjoyed this book. Even though most of the page count it dedicated to the tomb itself, the background on the region is quite enough to get a campaign going and the NPCs presented here are a nicely varied bunch; it seems like an interesting sandbox to dump some PCs into. The tomb itself is quite awesome, but needs some care and possible tweaking if actually used in the game.

The tomb itself could also be used for a one-shot game, with a pre-generated party suitable for raiding it, for some “Tomb Raider” fun in the spirit of the famous old “Tomb of Horrors” (where quite often the name of the game was seeing how far you get before you all die).

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Minireview: Renegade Crowns (Warhammer 2e)

Renegade Crowns is a somewhat different take on the “regional sourcebook” theme. Normally, in something like this we’d get a gazetteer of a region, and various articles about the natives, customs and what have you, along with some plot hook. However, this book is about the “Border Princes” region, intended by the designers to be a “sandbox” area for whatever tiny kingdoms and factions the GM wants to install there. How do you describe a sandbox?

The approach taken here is: don’t describe it, instead create a toolkit for creating that sandbox. So instead of descriptions, most of the book consists of a system for semi-randomly generating the geography for a region, and then for populating that region with factions and their rulers (along with motivations etc for the rulers). Lots of tables are involved, but that’s not a negative; it seems like a nice and quite straightforward system for generating custom-made “border princedoms” for your game. The book also contains a detailed example, with the final product (along with map) as an appendix. So yes, you can buy this book and just use the pre-generated area as-is, it’s pretty decent and contains some fun plot hooks. However, the “meat” here is the mini-kingdom generation system. It’s “semi” random since the book explicitly tells you to use random rolls as inspiration, not as a strict tool; you’re supposed to ignore/reroll stuff that doesn’t make sense. Sane people will do that anyway, of course, but it’s nice to see that explicitly spelled out. The example also contains bits where nonsensical results are rolled, and then substituted with something that works better.

I really liked this book, it’s a clever toolkit and conforms to the original “keep this area of the game world officially undefined” idea, while at the same time allowing you to populate it without too much hassle. Sure, you could just come up with random stuff without this book, but I think most GMs would find this a nice tool, if nothing else it’s a nice source of additional ideas.

While it’s geared for the Warhammer world, this should be useable with some tweaking for lots of other fantasy rpgs, too. For example, Exalted has the “Thousand Kingdoms” area which is identical in design concept to “Border Princes” (explicitly undefined GM sandbox). Using this book to populate a part of it would probably work pretty well, swapping Warhammer details (like Ork tribes) for suitable Exalted replacements).

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Minireview: The WFRP Companion (Warhammer 2e)

The WFRP Companion is a bit of an odd duck. That’s not to say it’s a bad book (it’s actually pretty nice), just that it’s quite hard to categorize. Maybe the closest description is “collection of random stuff left out of the original core book”. We get descriptions of the waterways of the Empire, along with some occupations related to them. There is a section of trade and commerce. We get extended information about medicine, surgery and such. There are some new monsters and beasts, and a new major cult.

None of this is really necessary to a game, but lots of the info here could be used to spice up certain types of campaigns and to lend some extra color and realism to the Empire. I view it an an optional extension of the core book – get it if you would like some extra random tidbits about the Empire and life there, ignore it if you’re fine with what you already have.

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Minireview: Tome of Corruption (Warhammer 2e)

Tome of Corruption is an in-depth look at Chaos in the Warhammer fantasy world, much like Realms of Sorcery was for magic. There’s a lot here, and it’s mostly very good – it’s close to a “must-have” if you intend to seriously use Chaos in your game (at least in any nuanced form). It’s a big book: even though 256 pages doesn’t sound like much, the smallish font and full layout used in this game line means it’s quite a hefty tome, information-wise.

The book explores Chaos from many directions. We’re given descriptions about the various types of typical Chaos worshipers and how they differ from each other, and also on how their cults differ in their aims and behavior. There’s a huge list of expanded mutations, for extra fun in inflicting your PCs with new… features. We get a pile of new Chaos equipment, most of it in the “unique artifact” category. In general, the first part of the book concentrates on general description of Chaos workings within the Empire, including the old “why would anyone want to serve Chaos in the first place?”.

The second part takes a look at various Chaos-related beasts, monsters and peoples, including information on how to play one as a PC. Also included is some info on Witch Hunters and other enemies of Chaos. The third part moves the viewpoint North, to examine the faux-Viking Norsca and the northern Chaos Wastes. Lots of adventure potential here, it’s a nasty and lethal place, filled with nasty and lethal people and monsters.

The book winds down with an examination of the major Ruinous Powers and their (very different) goals, along with Chaos Sorcery and the armies of Chaos.

It’s a great book, and does for Chaos much what Realms of Sorcery did for magic: expands and enhances it for game use. Without the background here, it’s all too easy to portray Chaos as mindless destruction and corruption for the sake of corruption. While it can be that, there are also lots of other options, some quite subtle.

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Minireview: Terror in Talabheim (Warhammer 2e)

Terror in Talabheim is an adventure (close to a “mini-campaign”) for Warhammer, focusing on the walled city of Talabheim and also focusing on the Skaven. Reading the Children of the Horned Rat sourcebook in conjunction with this is probably a very good idea for a GM intending to run this, since the furry horrors feature front and center (eventually) in this.

The first third or so of the book is a sourcebook on Talabheim. The page count involved isn’t huge, but it’s enough to give a basic overview of the place and focuses on some important spots. Of course, the GM will need to improvise most smaller detail, but the info given here should be enough to get started. After that we get the adventure itself and… it’s pretty damn good, and a lot more large-scale and cinematic than I was expecting. Skaven plots are usually hidden in the background and involve assassination and subtle blackmail, but here… well, I don’t want to give specific spoilers but it’s fair to say that the shit well and truly hits the fan (and the PCs) in this one.

The story begins with the PCs (who are assumed to have at least some ties to Talabheim) stuck outside Talabheim where a plague is raging. Presumably the cure can be found inside the city, but that way is closed. Well, officially at least. Eventually the PCs do manage to gain access, and that’s when the real fun begins. It’s quite a ride. There are some things to be aware of here: first off, the GM needs to provide decent motivation for the PCs to want to enter Talabheim. A plague is given here, but some PC groups may just try to take the “run far away” option, which needs to be made into a very (obviously) bad idea. Secondly, the action near the end involves a lot of large-scale set pieces, so the GM needs to do quite a bit of prepwork here and fill in some detail where needed. That said, it’s a very nice adventure and switches gears and themes quite a few times. The beginning is social skullduggery and some covert sneaking around, while the end part is pure mayhem.

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