Friday, August 3, 2012

Something Rotten in Kislev: Reading Warhammer's "The Enemy Within Campaign"

THE KISLEVI PARADOX
Something Rotten in Kislev (SRiK) is simultaneously two things:

*A really interesting, rich, and detailed Warhammer FRP module covering a remote area with a unique and intriguing culture.

*A terrible entry in The Enemy Within Campaign series.

Something Rotten is the fifth in that classic campaign for Warhammer Fantasy. Here’s the problem, SRiK doesn’t fit with the rest of the modules in the arc. Those previous have been about hunting down the subtle influences and conspiracies of chaos cults operating in the background and shadows of the Empire. They have liberally borrowed from Call of Cthulhu, peppering in a few bits of classic adventuring with investigation. The first four modules built a solid background players could interact with. As well there has been a slowly growing sense of unease- that the elements we’ve seen throughout the modules have been, in fact, building towards something.

Something Rotten throws that out the window. We move out of the Empire, add more high fantasy elements, and lose the thread of the conspiracy we’ve been following since the beginning. It’s an odd choice and it feels like they had the Kislev module done and decided to slot it into the Enemy Within series to increase interest. That may not have been the intent, but it feels like that. The module itself seems to recognize that strangeness. It has more material for handling the game apart from TEWC than it does in connection with it. The module presents a new set of pre-made characters. The previous set appeared first in The Enemy Within pack and have been the default assumption throughout the books, with text and illustrations supporting that. This book ditches that in favor of these new pre-gens; they’re referenced in the art and color text. I may be wrong about the slotting of SRiK into the Enemy Within, but material gives that impression.

THE LINEARITY QUANDRY
SRiK opens up another set of questions about how modules are designed. I’ve read some criticism of earlier modules in the series, in particular Death on the Reik, as too restricted and linear. I find that strange because DotR and many of the other adventures actually allow pretty open approaches on the players’ part. There are funnels- key points and incidents the stories move through. But I’d argue that’s the nature of a module. Otherwise you’re looking for something like a sourcebook or list of story hook ideas. I rarely run from modules these days- I believe that City of Lies was the last one I ran directly. I do think there’s a fair criticism to be made about modules which run the players on rails- ignoring or restricting their choices, especially with phrases like “The group will be unable to do X regardless of how hard they try.” But I think in assessing modules, scenarios, or adventures, you have to acknowledge that there’s likely a plot or story the group will be working through.

PRESENTATION
Something Rotten’s an impressive book- a 140+ page hardcover. Of that, 120 pages cover the text of the material with the rest given over to handouts and maps (most printed on a different paper stock at the end of the book). Again, GMs will have to make the tough choice between breaking the spine to scan the handouts or cutting them from the book. The text design follows the pattern of earlier volumes, except that there’s more use of three-column pages throughout. That makes the book dense and I found myself having to take breaks in my reading. The art’s excellent. Martin McKenna supplies the art for the first two-thirds of the book, and then other artists take over. The cover’s evocative and perhaps a little deceptive for the players (sometimes a good thing). Overall the book looks nice and the cultural illustrations for the Kislevi cultural groups are dynamite.

The biggest change, perhaps, from the rest of the series lies in the authorship. Something Rotten’s written by Ken Rolston- contributor to Paranoia, Mystara, Star Frontiers and others. Graeme Davis’ listed as supplying additional material, but it feels in tone and approach like Rolston’s book. I think its worth noting that Rolston’s a lead designer for Morrowind and Oblivion. GM’s may notice some shared DNA between those later materials and this one. (My wife has a theory about just how much Glorantha and Runequest shaped the world of Elder Scrolls…and Rolston wrote for them as well…). The text is easy, though at times it takes an adversarial approach to the players- describing with relish how to knock them back in line.

THE PRISONERS’ DILEMMA
Something Rotten in Kislev breaks into four major sections, plus the handouts at the end. After a quick outline of the book it spends several pages discussing how to bring players into the module. As I mentioned earlier, the first assumption presented is for players not coming in from Power Behind the Throne. It suggests a “Kislev” campaign opening with the players imprisoned and then ordered to join the Knights Panther and take on missions.

Wait…isn’t that how Morrowind and Oblivion begin?

The other option, coming from Power Behind the Throne, again has the players imprisoned and released to go carry out missions for the crown. There’s an option for “non-arrested” PCs, but that just involves cutting the lead scene off of the arrested version.

In my experience players don’t like to be arrested. They don’t like to be thrown in jail. They really don’t like then being made to do adventures as a condition of being released. There’s a huge burden of resentment, anger, and revenge you put on the story if you take this approach. Mind you, it isn’t essential to the story- and a GM can easily dismiss it. But doing so forces the GM to acknowledge and praise the skills and abilities of the PCs- something the book seems loathe to do. Some GM’s will find that squares well with their general approach. I’m probably a more forgiving and soft GM, so I’m less keen on punishing the players right out of the gate.

Kislev itself echoes various Eastern European cultures. I’m not an expert, but offhand I’d say I see elements borrowed from Polish, Hungarian and Russian history. As a rural and rough area, it contrasts with the relatively civilized Empire the players will likely have been campaigning through. With the material on pages 7-16 (plus the maps), a GM could easily set up a campaign for a significant arc. I’d say this is where Something Rotten really shines. The gazetteer and cultural material presented are clear, playable, and different. The adventures presented build on these ideas, making this a module which will likely require many sessions to get through.

THE VOLTSARA ENIGMA
The first of the three adventures, "The Beast Child," takes up about thirty pages of the book. The premise is a simple one- with the PCs sent to see about potential Beastmen attacks on the Kislevi village of Voltsara. Once they arrive there, they must follow a trail to figure out the nature and location of their opposition. The adversaries are tough- wickedly nasty in WHFRP terms, and the adventure can extend past that conflict into the exploration of dangerous ruins. The adventure is interesting, focusing in part on dealing with the local spirits of the Kislevi. Players will have to tread carefully with these powers- lest they manage to offend them and suffer dire consequences. The end of the adventure provides a nice dungeon-crawl with room for the GM to modify the events.

That being said, the spine of the adventure is pretty set. The group will find themselves following a path pretty clearly from A to B. The process and details of negotiating with the deeply described spirits does open up the path somewhat. Different groups may take vastly different approaches. However, the book undercuts that a little with risks and consequences. Several times, where the players could screw something up (often easily screw it up) the book says the that plot moves forward anyway, with only a minor penalty. Where the story offers real choice and openness it works best (like planning the final attack), but it also includes several ‘led by the nose’ sequences.

THE CHERNOZAVTRA AFFAIR
The second adventure, "Death Takes a Holiday," is a little shorter (about 25 pages), but more difficult in many ways. The group is sent to the remote city of Chernozavtra to deliver a message. There they find an encampment of Goblins cutting off a group of Dolgan Horsemen. More importantly, Chernozavtra turns out to be filled with undead under the command of a potent necromancer- the person they have to deliver the message to. This means some diplomacy on the group’s part in dealing with both the Goblins and Kislevi to get to the city. In both cases, the players can easily screw the pooch and set the conflict ablaze. Going through the goblins the PCs will have to suffer abuse and keep their cool which may not work for all groups.

The story presented seems to have many options, but actually they all funnel down to one result. I think a creative GM could make something really interesting out of this set up. As presented in the story, the players are effectively screwed. They’re going to get captured and dragged before the Necromancer- and there’s a moral dilemma at that point that some players will be (quite reasonably) pissed about, where the group needs to accept that the Necromancer here isn’t so bad after all. He gives them a massive info-dump (part of that in the form of a handout), gives them magic items, and then sends them on their way. GMs will right away see just how directed Death Takes a Holiday is; they’ll need to conceal that from the players or take a modified approach. I like a lot of the details here, but I’d have to make some seriously changes to run this.

THE BOLGASGRAD GAMBIT
The last adventure, "The Champions of Death," is the longest. It ties into information gained in the previous adventure. It also has some weird parallel choices and details (undead in the streets, players having to buddy up with evil). This adventure feels most like the earlier portions of The Enemy Within: investigations, conspiracies, chaos cults. But I don’t think it comes together as well as those do. One thing it does do is to provide a nice Kislevi backdrop of a remote city/town- which GMs could easily borrow for other sites. It also has some truly nasty adversaries; like others presented in the book these are enemies who will kill the party easily if riled. That device wears out its welcome pretty quickly. The ending also puts the players in a really bad position- with some potential consequences and curses which the book spends several pages detailing. There’s an interesting story here, but again I think one GMs will have to work hard to polish up.

THE EAGER SUMMARY
Something Rotten in Kislev doesn’t work as a part of The Enemy Within- that bears repeating. So how well does it work just as a module? I think the adventures themselves have really interesting plots and details, but they need development and modification by GMs to make them work. Of them, "The Beast Child" requires the least tinkering. For my part, I think that work is worth it. I really like the Kislevi background as presented here- and I’ve adapted Kislev as a region within my own fantasy campaign. I like the atmosphere, the Eastern European mish-mash, and the cultural dynamics set up. If you’re a GM with an interest in that area, this might be worth picking up. If you’re a WHFRP GM who wants to see unique parts of the world brought to the table, this is also a useful purchase.

Also- small irritation...if your module is steeped in Eastern European trappings, myths, and allusions, why have the title of the module be a reference to a play about Denmark?

THE ENEMY WITHIN CAMPAIGN