Saturday, June 30, 2012

Shadows over Bogenhafen: Reading Warhammer's "The Enemy Within" Campaign

Shall I begin with spoilers?

I’m going to.

I don’t recall much from the sessions I ran Shadows over Bogenhafen; that would have been ’88 or ’89. The GURPS Fantasy campaign I ran ended up more than a little schizophrenic- with the players fighting bandits and wolves one week and then exploring vast and hugely magical ruins the next. The campaign somehow managed to sustain high magic with the relatively “normal” scale of GURPS. You could die easily, or at least be taken out badly if you didn’t play carefully. Running a WHFRP module with the system made sense- in both that death could be cheap and players were often out of their depth.

In a fit of strangeness, the party had just returned from an expedition to Ylaruam, where they’d gone out into the deep desert and found a massive Nithian ruin relatively intact. The fought through it- encountering magical torture devices, humiliating traps, rare artifacts, fonts of pure mana, and finally battling a Nithian astride a manticore. They triumphed, escaping with vast loot and no memory of what had transpired. A curse on the Nithians wiped all memory of it from their minds. So all they knew was that they’d walked out into the dunes, gotten banged up by something, and found vast supplies of cash and magic items. From there they traveled to Bogenhafen.

...Where the GM (me) somehow roped them into taking on a horribly mundane mission- steering them into the scenario. So they effectively went from the Battle at the Bridge in Moria to Ratcatcher’s Assistant.

OK- so a terrible tonal shift, but this was over twenty years ago.
As I said, I don’t remember much about running it except for this incident. The party had done the task, uncovered something and returned to their patron, more than a little shaken. Their employer began to question them when Izan (the friendliest of barbarians) raised both his hands signaling silence.

…there’s a demon in your sewers.”
The patron started to speak.
“No…dude.” Izan repeated himself. “There’s a demon in your sewers.”

Shadows Over Bogenhafen’s the second part of The Enemy Within campaign for WHFRP. Where the first book, The Enemy Within, offers more of a campaign sourcebook, SoB presents a fully developed adventure. Several versions of this module exist. I have bits and pieces of the original GW folio edition (booklet and cover) plus the consolidated edition presented in Warhammer Adventure. The later lacks some of the frills, but does put everything together in one place. One incredibly tightly bound place. Seriously, the spine on Warhammer Adventure scares me- like if I try to pull it open too far it will either snap back and take a finger or simply shatter and split the book in twain. Hogshead also published a hardcover version of this, combining it with TEW, which makes sense.

The original GW version comes with a 56-page A4 booklet; the folio cover including an interior map inside; a large fold-out full color map for the city; eight pages of handouts, and a card tile for the final fight area. Everything looks good and is well done- the booklet does a nice job of shifting between two and three column design, depending on the information being delivered. Little details like the headers and font choices make this hold together. More importantly you have Will Rees’ artwork throughout. These super-creepy images sell the atmosphere- a horrible and corrupted version of Albrecht Dürer that still freaks me out when I look at them. The cover image does this especially well- though it gives away a little more of the plot than I’d like. There’s a feel to GW art from this period- illustrations you can look at and immediately know where they come from. Once again the writing’s excellent- clear across the board and quietly funny in some spots.

My favorite part of the booklet may be at the end where they have a page offering special miniatures for the module. These aren’t great looking figures- early GW models could be hit or miss, but they certainly looked like nothing else coming out. I like that there’s a set for the sample PCs given for the campaign. I have to wonder how many times those characters have had to live through this? You could order the eighteen figures of the set for 12 pounds- plus post, by sending them a cheque or telephone ordering. At the time, though I wanted the figures, such luxuries were a little out of reach.

The actual premise of the adventure is pretty simple. The PCs stumble onto an evil ceremony. They have to figure out how to stop it. I think that’s part of what makes Shadows Over Bogenhafen, and the best of the TEW pieces work. The adventure in the first volume felt slightly more complicated than necessary- the players could walk away confused about what had happened. SoB’s simplicity allows them to introduce a couple of significant red herrings and, more importantly, spend time building the atmosphere and the set up. Bogenhafen becomes an awesome backdrop GMs can linger in during this adventure or return to again later (assuming the players don’t allow it to be sucked into the void of Chaos).

The booklet splits into eight major sections, plus a pullout in the middle. This has a nice GM’s map of the city, keyed locations and the stats/details for the major NPCs and the Watch. The first eight pages of the booklet discuss how GM’s can bring players into the adventure. Obviously threads tie back to the first part, TEW, but those are loose enough that new groups can easily be brought in. The booklet lays out the spine of the plot for the GMs in clear language- always a must for this kind of scenario. Three pages offer some political background on the city- the power players, guilds, and priests. This approach is characteristic of TEW- laying out the factions and movers & shakers. The players will likely interact with these groups- usually as subordinates or petitioners. Knowing how they relate (and can be pitted against one another) can be key to certain approaches solving the problem.

The set up (pages 9-16) offers a series of number of events and scenes illustrating life in Bogenhafen. I really like this part- hugely useful for any kind of city adventure. There’s a town fair, the Schaffenfest happening, which includes markets, freakshows, and performances. The adventure remains open-ended at this point- giving the GM bits and pieces they can drop into the story to set up what comes later. That ‘later’ takes the form of an escaped mutant goblin from the freakshow; the party’s hired to go into the sewers to catch it. A little railroad-y, but a fun exercise and one which the players will likely buy into. Once again SoB does a great job of keeping this open and flexible. We get info on the structure of the sewers, lists of interesting encounters and events, and finally the important locations which lead to the revelation of the main ceremony actually happening. Including the discovery of a demon. (“There’s a demon in your sewers.”)

From there the players have a number of options the book outlines. PCs could conceivably move “off the reservation” at this point, but SoB’s structured pretty well. Player options feel constrained, but but not restricted. The PCs choosing to become investigators provides the main story drive- for money, for morality, or for sense of adventure. This leads them into the web of local politics, and figuring out exactly what the demon (and the ceremonial room it seemed to be guarding) is for. SoB offers a loose timetable of events- what happens once the demon’s been spotted, the actions of characters within the conspiracy, and the outline of the now rescheduled ritual. The GM will have to suggest the ticking of a clock in the background, and keep actions more tightly scheduled from the moment the PCs emerge from the sewers.

Shadows over Bogenhafen does a great job of providing options the GM can present: places to check out, people to talk to, new suspicious evidence to uncover. It sets these out very well- there’s redundancy, nice clear core clues, and plenty of additional information for the players to bring the story together. There’s so much good stuff here, that I’m unsure what to make of the Magirius incident. This happens after the players have done some investigating. Magirius, a member of the conspiracy, comes to the PCs and offers some specific and detailed info on what’s happening. A good GM will makes sure this gets played out as a result of player actions, rather than a deus ex machina moment. Of course, Magirius heads off and is promptly murdered. The PCs head to his house based on a false message and are immediately framed for the crime. It sticks a little in my craw, especially since the TEW adventure also forced the PCs along by suggesting that the authorities suspect them of involvement in a murder. It does trip the clock and set the stakes high, and when I ran it, I made the issue more that the murder of Magirius suggested that the ritual was nigh.

The fight to stop the ritual could be nasty depending on the group. They have to get through thugs and then face a couple of serious magic casters. However, the ritual itself is relatively easily disrupted- several details are necessary to carry it out and the removal of any one of them can cause things to go awry…the most likely outcome of the fight. At which point a demonic force appears and swallows the main bad guys. Awesome if done well, but perhaps unsatisfying for PCs who would like to have bashed in heads. There’s also a discussion of what happens if the PCs fail. It isn’t pretty. 

That simplicity I mentioned earlier makes Shadows over Bogenhafen easily adaptable to other game systems and even to other settings. It works best with low to moderate magic campaigns; high magic systems could short circuit some of the plotlines established here. More so that TEW, SoB shows its Call of Cthulhu roots. Players stumble into supernatural conspiracy concocted by powers far above their pay grade. The enemy connects with an eldritch and corrupting horror. The evil comes original from the fallibility and humanity of a single greedy and foolish individual who tampered with Forces Beyond His Control. It offers a solid and fun adventure, one the players can walk away from with a feeling of success and accomplishment. I recommend it highly for a fun diversion, and as a prologue to the greatest part of the TEW campaign, Death on the Reik.

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