Friday, July 27, 2012

Warhammer City: Reading Warhammer's "The Enemy Within Campaign"

I really like city adventures- some of that comes from the set and recurring locations, some from the flavor of these places, but most of it comes from providing material I can reuse and sustain. Traveling adventures mean creating new things constantly; given the number of games I run, I’m all about minimizing effort. I’ve mentioned before a few of my favorite fantasy city sourcebooks- Ryoko Owari, the Citybook series, The Kaiin Players Guide. And about my plans to use Microscope to put together acollaboratively built city campaign. I like my city materials with flavor and distinction.

Warhammer City, on the other hand, lives up to its name. It isn’t a bad sourcebook, but neither is it great. It falls somewhere in the middle.

Part of that comes from the setting and part from how the book came about. I’m reviewing this as part of my reading of Warhammer FRP’s The EnemyWithin Campaign. Technically, it isn’t in that series- but it is an obvious and useful companion book to #4, Power Behind the Throne. As stated in the introduction to this book, when Carl Sargent turned in the draft to PBtT, he had much more material on the city itself- too much for the adventure. So they cut out a significant chunk of it, reworked and expanded that and published it as Warhammer City. So it’s useful in conjunction with PBtT- aside from some minor repetition and overlap between the two books.

There’s a logic to titling this Warhammer City. In some ways, despite trappings and details (like being built on a mountain), Middenheim’s the archetypal Warhammer human city, especially within the Empire. The material and structure given here can be adapted to any major city. In the TEW campaign, we tour a few other cities (Bogenhafen and Kemperbad), but they’re very loosely presented. Middenheim embraces the late medieval/early modern Germanic city-states tone and model. Compare this to something like Marienburg: Sold Down the River, which has a more distinct and unique flavor- rather than feeling like an adaptation of 'history lite' to a fantasy setting.

Warhammer City’s an attractive package- the original version’s a 96 page hardcover. It does seem perhaps a little thin for a hc, but it looks so nice, I can’t really argue with it. GW also bundled this together with Power Behind the Throne for Warhammer City of Chaos. Hogshead also reprinted this as a softcover under the more accurate name- Middenheim, City of Chaos. The layout’s well done- even cleaner and more open than some of the other GW products of the era. It draws from the same group of artists as PBtT with most of those being quite excellent. I especially like the little signposts and inset maps in the text. The book includes a full color poster map of the city- one that is both lovely and useful. The only problem with it, at least in the original GW version is that it is glued into the book, requiring the owner to slice it out if they want to work with it apart from the rest of the text.

Warhammer City provides rich detail on the city of Middenheim, organized pretty well. It’s definitely a GM’s supplement. The material’s general enough that GM’s should be able to adapt it to another system pretty easily. The book paints a picture of a classic high medieval city- with names and ideas which can be useful. What is does offer is quantity for the aspiring and practiced GM (like recent works Eureka and Masks). It has hundreds of little ideas, a shotgun approach to city presentation. The question is whether that quantity rises to become quality. On that point I’m unsure- the book is good, but feels like it needed to go a few steps to provide something more unified and connected.

The book has fourteen major multi-page sections, plus a handful of minor single or double-page topics. It breaks roughly into three parts. The first of those parts paints the larger picture of Middenheim- beginning with an overview of the city and how it fits within the Empire. There’s a timeline and history- interesting, but less useful for running the city. The material here also indulges in some of the bad punning that hit Power Behind the Throne. Next comes a discussion of the churches and priesthood, expanding nicely on the ideas given in PBtT. The section on city politics comes closest to repeating earlier material, but gets around it with some rich details (including a family tree, something I’m a sucker for). The military overview gives ideas on how those roles could be tied to PC careers. Given that you’re dealing with player characters, there’s the necessary section on law and punishment- including rules for trials and possible penalties. The first part wraps up with a discussion of hostelries and accommodations.

The middle portion of the book is the largest single section, running from page 27 through 57. This presents a detailed gazetteer. The material here is tied to numbered and lettered keys on the poster map, plus additional inset maps for reference. After a couple of pages of generalities, the book covers each district in its own section. These describe the general tone of the district- night and day- as well levels of watch patrols. Key locations within the district get their own small entries- more an overview and description rather than a plot hook. In several places building maps complement these. There’s an encounter chart for each district, often with footnotes. The section as a whole wraps up with several pages of generic NPC write ups corresponding to those encounters. These again offer stats & skills rather than hooks.

The last third of the book is a grab bag- providing more of what I think of as playable material. Most significantly it covers Chaos cults in Middenheim. Players coming into PBtT would be following a particular chaos cultist, which that adventure suggests they will be unable to locate and bring down. WC gives more details on that- enough to offer PCs a rich adventure tying up this last thread. The five page section also provides several other plot hooks which could be easily expanded. Having this here solves one of the significant problems plaguing that earlier adventure.

Strangely more page space is devoted to the tunnels and undercaverns of the city. Given the detail here, I have to wonder if these perhaps figured more into the original adventure but were cut to keep things streamlined. The details here are good- including several maps, multiple adventure seeds, and a longer scenario write-up. The book then switches back to the normal life of the city- giving guidelines for how to present things at the level of the players. That begins with a discussion of goods and services (with prices), then expands that with building plans for typical locations in the city. Four pages of general story seeds for the city come next, a total of five. That section could have easily been expanded- its brevity feels very strange. The following section with key NPCs (repeated from the PBtB book) is longer than the adventure resources. The book ends with a mish-mash: snotball, drug use, rumors, and stats for militia and watch.

I like Warhammer City, but at the same time I wish it did more. There’s some interesting material, but a good deal that feels like filler to me. It doesn’t manage to convey character as well as other WHFRP supplements. Instead it wants to be generally useful, which I believe makes it generic. As a part of the Enemy With Campaign, it offers a helpful but non-essential companion volume to Power Behind the Throne. As a WHFRP supplement it works and will be useful for GMs in that setting. The map and gazetteer section in particular are well done. For GMs running other settings or systems, I’d say there are more useful and compelling city supplements available.