Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Enemy Within: Reading TEWC

ON MODULES
Our group ended up talking about modules the other night. Our hobby has some classics which define many people’s experiences Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits, I6: Ravenloft, B2: The Keep on the Borderlands- just to draw from D&D. Nearly all of the gamers in my circles never played those. They’re of the age where they could/should have, and they know the names. But like me, they skipped them in favor of homemade stories or bought them and stole a few interesting bits from them. Even today I have a hard time with modules; I rarely buy them, preferring setting and idea books to ransack. I can’t think of the last module I ran straight; it might be Horror on the Orient Express back in 1991. Before that it might have been the various James Bond modules; I found creating espionage adventures difficult at that age.

In my experience modules run from generic to specific. Generic module present an adventures easily ported over to any setting or game. They’re little work. That can be useful, but more often than not, they lack flavor and have little compelling material. They present new monsters, perhaps an abstract puzzle or two. On the other hand, the specific module has rich backgrounds. The story relies heavily on the setting, and the plot requires knowledge of the world. GM’s face a difficult task extracting the story from that setting. That removal can waste so much that it isn’t worth it or require immense work from the GM. But some modules transcend this. They offer interesting situations, plots and ideas which have a connection to the background, but can be reworked. For example, I ran Masks of Nyarlethotep as an arc in a fantasy campaign. The themes fit and the structure worked, even if the specifics of the Cthulhu Mythos weren’t necessary.

I did the same thing with a series of fantasy adventures- which already borrowed from Lovecraft.

The Enemy Within Campaign.

WHFRP’S TEWC: TEW
My sister bought Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay when it came out in '86- she’d been to England and met a number of British rp’ers. While she followed miniatures less, she loved the idea of the grittiness and career paths of this new system. By this time I was already invested in GURPS, so while I liked the game's concepts it didn’t grab me as much. A year or so later, however, I started buying more fantasy modules and sourcebooks to help me assemble my patchwork fantasy world. I picked up The Enemy Within and Shadows Over Bogenhafen at the same time. Reading through, I realized this wasn’t exactly the world I’d pictured it from the WHFRP book. I liked it more; it had a historical resonance to it and felt like some of the old Call of Cthulhu campaigns my sister had run. I’d learn later The Enemy Within’s success set the course for WHFRP.

I expect many reading this know The Enemy Within Campaign. For those who don’t, it was the first linked set of adventures published for WHFRP, a tabletop spin off of Warhammer Fantasy Skirmish. The adventure focused on overwhelmed adventurers trailing the forces of chaos in the dark underbelly of the empire. In many ways it was fantasy Call of Cthulhu- with grunge, corruption, gritty and darkness around every corner. The themes established here became inextricably linked with WHFRP (for better or worse). Imagine if TSR published Expedition to the Barrier Peaks first and it became an iconic hit. Then D&D becomes known only as that game where fantasy characters explore lost spaceship and high-tech ruins. Or if Ravenloft had been first and D&D became known as that game where you fight famous gothic movie monsters.

PRESENTATION
The Enemy Within exists in a couple of different formats. There’s the original folio version; a couple of consolidated versions from GW; and another from Hogshead which combines it even more tightly with Shadows. I have the original and the Warhammer Adventure version. TEW originally came as an A4 size 56-page campaign booklet plus a number of supplemental pieces. That includes a large heavy-stock full-color poster map of the Western Empire, with a blank hex-map on the reverse. The folio cover has tighter two-panel green & white map of the Reikland adventure area. It also includes eight pages of handouts featuring lovely player map and calendar of the Empire. Everything looks awesome- GW broke away from conventional RPG design elements with their work in this era.

Much of that comes from the art and graphic elements. The cover’s distinct and unlike anything coming out of American companies at the time. It looks like a mix of Durer and Bosch, so it much be John Blanche. That sets the tone for the module, weird but echoing the historical. Most of the interior illustrations really set the stage- especially the uniform and character illos. A few aren’t as great, but that’s made up for by Tony Ackland, Euan Smith, and Martin McKenna. The text design’s quite good- it uses three columns without looking busy, decent white space, and lots of spot illustrations and headings. The writing’s good- with a light tone. It speaks directly to the GM, offering direction and insight, rather than keeping a distance. There’s the sense that the authors have played this out and recognize the problems and pitfalls of the set up. Authors Jim Bambra, Phil Gallagher and Graeme Davis bring this world to life.

ON THE EMPIRE
The booklet of The Enemy Within has two major sections plus pullouts. The first part, running up through page 35 provides background on the Empire and guidance for the GM on campaigns. It offers solid advice- suggesting that GMs inject humor despite the darkness of the world. For novices starting out rpgs, the guidance is appreciated and just enough. It offers some rules specific advice (regarding advancement and careers), but otherwise focuses on broad guidance. The details of travel also come in handy, since the players will be doing a lot of traveling throughout the campaign.

Page eight begins a lengthy coverage of the history and people of The Empire. It gives detailed timelines, political structures, religion, geography and so on. There’s some interesting and useful material- in particular the discussion of the law, of the guilds, how regions communicate, typical dress and so on. Those provide rich details the GM can easily bring to the table- “playable moments.” The issues presented can conceivably touch the lives of the PCs. The dress and discussion of the soldiers of the Empire give a nice visual sense. The Empire borrows heavily from the German City States, though I'll admit my knowledge of that isn't complete. A great deal of the material here covers high-level issues: legendary history, structure of the electors and electorate, religious factionalism. In most cases I would dismiss this as GM background which won’t come into play as often. In other books it would be filler to set the stage which could be reduced to offer more useful material. Except I’ve read the rest of the series. TEW sets the groundwork for the GM and they may not even realize it. Those issues, so apparently above the pay-grade of the PCs will return and become central to the story.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY
The actual adventure runs from page 36 through 52. The last pages of the book discuss mutants in the Empire, a player handout on the Empire, and an Imperial Calendar.

Spoilers follow.

“Mistaken Identity” is old-school, but perhaps no more than in how directed and linear it can be. It relies on a few specific coincidences, and a number of incidents where the GM will have to cut off or block the players to prevent them from interfering with the course of the adventure. Players also have a couple of places where skill failure will likely force the GM to have to rearrange things to get the clues into their hands. The adventure is not, however, complete- instead it “lay pipe” for the rest of the campaign. It leads directly into Shadows over Bogenhafen, and sets up details which come into play in the later Death on the Reik.

“Mistaken identity” is a classic travel adventure- with the only specific plot being the players heading to get from point A to B. The road trip is interrupted by a series of incidents. In this case, the players are assume to be heading off to sign up for an expedition leaving from Altdorf (which they’ll find is already full). The players have to head by foot and boat to reach their destination. The story opens with some nice scenes at an Inn with lots of ideas and interesting NPCs. On the road, the party suffers an ambush by mutants. More importantly they find the bodies of a previously ambushed group after the fight. One of those is an identical twin to the PCs, carrying a letter indicating an inheritance. Push, prod, push (psst…head to Bogenhafen…).

Of course it isn’t as simple as that. The double is in fact a dead chaos cultist- which means trouble. The identical twin thing can and should be played a little bit for laughs, but it does serve as a crux for the adventure. The GM really needs to choose a player who will enjoy the role, as it does put additional pressure on them. As you can imagine, the travel continues with the PC being mistaken by cultists and a trailing bounty hunter as the villainous Herr Lieberung. Murders along the way propel the PCs forward to avoid being caught up in things…onwards to Bogenhafen, as it happens. Eventually the players will have a showdown with the bounty hunter. They may or may not figure out that the inheritance offered is a ruse designed to flush the cultist out. And then…well, then the adventure ends because you need to buy Shadows over Bogenhafen.

AUDIENCE
The Enemy Within has obvious appeal to WHFRP fans, but what does it offer other gamers? It sets the stage for some truly awesome adventures, but the brief story here isn’t itself dynamite. It has some fun details, but requires the GM keep the players on a fairly narrow track. The early material is interesting world building, but I suspect more solid and detailed versions of this can be found in other books from later editions.

That being said, TEW completely changed my campaign. In high school I tried to run a fantasy GURPS campaign, borrowing a little from Sandman. The players had no character sheets- instead they woke up and tried to figure out who they were and what was happening. For prep I made up characters which I kept to myself. I also drew a two-page continental map which I quickly labeled and filled in. I figured it would be a throwaway prop. The amnesia game ran only a handful of sessions, but I did a lot of interesting world-building on the fly. When I began to consider my next long-term GURPS Fantasy campaign, I decided to return to that world and expand the ideas.

Of course, now I had a massive open map, with no real sense of what went where. I locked a few of the gazetteers into place (Karameikos, Glantri, Ylaruam). For other places I sketched out a few quick notes, often adapted concepts from other setting books (like MERP). At some point I skimmed through TEW and the rest of the series which spuured me to change things. I would use the Empire as the basis for my Kingdom of Miremal, the various electorates would become allied or neighboring regions. I worked on the cities, the faiths, genealogies of the various rulers and tied those into the history I’d already established. It would be a loose fit, but added a great color to the world. More importantly, using the Warhammer concepts gave shape to the threats facing the world. In the earlier game, I’d established a Big Bad called The Thonak, but hadn’t established anything about him. Now he would become an avatar of Chaos, bringing the forces of that to this world. While he warred and drove armies against his neighbors ala Sauron, agents of the four chaos gods would be working in the shadows to convert and undermine resistance.

The campaign world ended up a patchwork, but a magnificent one. The players knew Chaos from 40K, so they bought in rapidly. The Germanic-style city states perhaps didn’t exactly fit into my high-fantasy setting, but it worked. Years, many years, later I would excise that Chaos from the setting, but many of the concepts would remain.

OVERALL
For all my looking back and grumbling, this stuff provided the baseboard for many, many hours of awesome play at the table- YCMV. The Enemy Within kicks off a truly excellent campaign series; certainly one of the best I know. I ran great portions of it using GURPS Fantasy; the basic line of the adventure can be easily adapted and keep its flavor. Take a look at the session reports created by Chris Flood aka MULRAH which begin here. He’s using HeroQuest 2e to get the job done. I think that demonstrates the resilience and depth of these modules.