[WFRP] “In The Year 2525…” From the journals of Ariette von Carstein. Extract 2.

Lalla Ward, Vampire Circus, 1972

The night before, my dears, was a night and a half. Imagine, if you will, my delight at discovering Middenheim’s soul not yet fully crushed by the siege, and the poor souls thronging the streets; imagine my joy that the Red Moon’s doors were still open and the enchanting voice of its hostess still set the night ablaze. Eva is every bit as lovely as I’d been led to believe, and her companion, Magistrix Eberhauer, an utter charmer.

But needs must, on mission and revenge, and I made my way back to the Untergardners’ enclave in Grunpark. My companions on the road had been busy; I could tell from the lightness of their purses and the burdens in their arms that something was afoot. Woe and alas, they greeted me with more suspicion than I feel I deserved; they pressed me for the rhyme and reason behind my wanting to trace an expatriate dwarf with every reason to hate me and all my kin.

In the end I bartered with them; gave them a little titbit or two from the Red Moon’s tables. The grimoire their old witch had carried with them? Genuine. A magician of the Amber College had been in hiding in Untergard for I don’t even know how long, for reasons I’d like to know but simply lack the time to plumb. The scrip tucked in the back? Also genuine. Dark Magic – the other kind – and apparently likely obtained through the old Wyndward Haulage, a front for a cult even my Lord remembers. In return, they let me know Stormwarden is alive and living in Middenheim, and agreed to represent him on my behalf – purely to recover an heirloom of my house. They can’t know how important this is; I’m sure they think I’ve given away too much, but a book I can learn from and a scrap of paper that could kill me are mere trifles compared to… it.

While I was changing, I bore witness to a scuffle outside; some local toughs throwing their weight around, demanding to see and no doubt put the fear into Captain Schiller, who I gather has been reinstated to the Watch and not before time. Leni, the Mootlander, took a whack to the head, but the others saw the ruffians off quite nicely, and when done… changing… I set out in pursuit. Can’t hurt to keep an eye on the Untergardners, and besides, after three days I was feeling a little peckish. I hadn’t dined, after all, since the caravan was attacked.

My little gaggle of mortal friends, I heard later, were off to see Stormwarden. I wonder if he told them?

Those of us not limited to Ariette’s perspective would probably like to know that he did not. Far from it. The phrase he used was something along the lines of “tell her if she comes near me I’ll split her pretty face in two and see if it grows back.”

I had a lot of fun with this one. The Racketeers who showed up were another Random Encounter from Warhammer City (and a Beggar also showed up on the way back from Stormwarden’s place, while the players were discussing what to do about Ariette, her ‘heirloom’, and their promise to Stormwarden that they’d keep the one very very far away from the other), but all the random encounters so far have led to some fun emergent subplotting with the Margraf, his specific choice of hostelry, his obviously-former-thief-bodyguard, and the Man who Comes Around and more or less runs the district they’ve ended up in. If this vampire deal runs dry, we have a run of other threads leading to the Man and the criminal underclass behind him, the Purple Hand, and now the Graf of Middenheim since the players are determined to out Ariette to him. Which will be interesting. So I have some statting to do for the next session, because it’s about time some of this stuff became concrete.

[WFRP] “In The Year 2525…” Kommission for Public Order Digest – Aubentag 2 Sigmarzeit. Extract.

Item: that at two hours before noon a Caravan of Refugees on the Southern Road caused numerous Delays to Traffic while a Halfling among their number strongly disputed the validity of the Graf’s one-shilling-per-leg toll policy.

Item: that enquiries were made to the Elven and Halfling secretaries of the Kommission for Elf, Dwarf and Halfling Interests regarding the person of Kallad Stormwarden, signatory of the KEHDI Articles of Incorporation, donor to the city coffers and living ancestor to the Middenheim dwarf community.

Item: that the personage enquiring at the office of the Halfling Secretary bears passing resemblance to a known Public Nuisance and Exile from the Mootland Electorate.

Item: that similar enquiries are reported to have been made within the Wynd District’s dwarf quarter.

Item: that at around noon a Disturbance was seen in and about Grunpark when operatives of the Citizens’ Vigilance Committee were turned away from an Refugee Camp on the Park’s south-eastern corner, while within the Park proper a drunk did accost a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode and accuse the City’s water supply of “turning honest women into lovely trees.”

Item: that at one hour past noon a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode entered the Merchant’s Guild of the City and demanded directions to a repository of Cake whilst befouling numerous expensive fixtures and causing no small distress to the good burghers within.

Item: that at one and one half hour past noon a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode passed along Morrsweg behaving in a manner most intimidating to residents and refugees alike, before becoming involved in an Fracas with an employee of the Margraf von Totenbar which did lead to the breaking of the Margraf’s Nose and much Anarchic Mirth among the Occupants of the Prospect hostelry.

Item: that at two hours past noon a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode was seen at the kitchen door of the Harvest Goose hostelry engaging the proprietor in spirited conversation regarding Cake, Mushrooms, and the Gräfin Katarina.

Joakim Ericsson

We continue to prosper. More funny voices and less rolling in this one, as I start to get my mojo back and remember how to improvise. It is coarse acting, to say the least, but the frightened members of the Merchants’ Guild (reminiscent of that “cake and fine wine” bit from Withnail & I) and the absowutewy wudicwous Mawgwaf got a few laughs and that’s what counts.

The Cake, in case you’re wondering, is a classic example of players escalating things. They’re going to see a living ancestor. They should bring him a present. Wait, he used to be a king? They should all bring him a present. Wait, he’s big into interspecies cooperation? They should bring him a present from their own people! And that’s why Siluvain spent her first afternoon in Middenheim trying to find a decent bakery that hadn’t been flattened in the siege… Because for some reason, fancy elven pastry came to mind.

The mushrooms are just a side quest.

It’s the first time I’ve run a campaign where all the characters have been what in a more rigid class-defined RPG would be called “Rogues”, and that’s unusual for me. I’m learning/making up some thieves’ cant for this in preparation for their inevitable encounter with “The Man” or the clientele of the Prospect.

Ariette von Carstein, incidentally, remains at large.

[WFRP] “In The Year 2525”. From the journals of Ariette von Carstein. Extract 1.

In my few years among the Aristocracy of the Night I have endured more than my due share of rude awakenings, it’s true, but this one took the proverbial cake, not to mention the proverbial biscuit – in fact, it made off with the whole proverbial bakery. For this, dear readers, is the day I awoke with an arrow in my gut, another in my knee, shielded from the noonday sun by a pile of corpses until a timorous priest raised up his hand to bless me and all but fainted dead away when he realised I was neither away, nor dead. I suppose I should count my blessings; a moment later and he might have completed his prayer and inadvertently finished me off. To find myself deceased by accident a mere day from journey’s end would be such a humiliating way to go.

The priest’s companions were made of sterner stuff. Apparently they were a refugee caravan from the freistadt of Untergard, somewhere down the river Delb; like so many others they were making their way to Middenheim, the Storm of Chaos having broken upon their homes before dashing itself against the Fauschlag. The witch among them, an old lady named Moeschler, must surely have had me at her mercy – warm hands on cold skin and a wound that cuts without bleeding are such telltale signs – but distracted by her own grief she turned her eyes from me and toward, apparently, a terrible revenge.

I heard all this second hand, of course, having spent a day among the walking wounded (loaded on a wagon with the children of Untergard chirruping in my ears). Much of it was solved for me by the halfling in their company – an unsubtle and salacious sort named Leni, not an unpleasant fellow in a nudge-nudge wink-wink sort of way. Apparently he is an exile of sorts from the Mootland, by choice and inclination – a small man with a large past. He had his suspicions, and at the close of the day I saw fit to confirm them – but ah, I run ahead of myself again.

The other players in this drama – Siluvain of Laurelorn Forest, a self-confessed thief, and Okri of Karak Hirn, a practical fellow who I’m sure is on the make somehow – raced off just after sundown, in pursuit of the runaway Moeschler. It seems the old baggage was more than she seemed – more even than the witch-sight might have told me, since she traded her life for that of the Graf von Sternhaus. I realised the moment the daemon of her vengeance shrieked over our camp (and set that twittering priest on his rump in a faint – hilarious!) that the game was up, and when it descended in fire and fury on Sternhause hill I was sure my journey would be wasted.

It was not to be so. When Siluvain and Okri returned from their pursuit, they had the body of the unfortunate gammer – burned out as her vengeance consumed her at the last – and crucially, not only her journeyman’s grimoire but the very text of the rite she had wrought! The fourth and last of their little party – a surly, surely somehow damaged peasant girl named Jarla who reminded me a little too much of my own humble origins – was all for burning the lot, witch and book and scroll all together. Cooler heads prevailed, and the prospect of investigating how she came by the rite edged out simply destroying it for safety’s sake.

While I had to vouch for my true nature – confronted with a direct question by the halfling Leni, who is not so much a fool as he acts – they have seen fit to trust me nonetheless, even so far as to grant me custody of the grimoire. They overestimate my abilities somewhat, but only somewhat, and I have learned from my master that one takes one’s lore where one finds it. I’m sure a delicate touch with the Fifth Wind will serve me well in some capacity, some day.

For the time being, with my journey curtailed, I elected to join the refugees and return with them to the City of the White Wolf. I confess myself curious about this ritual and its origins, not to mention Middenheim, a city I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing from the outside (and then only from a distance, with half the armies of the Conqueror between me and the gates). Provided the yokels of Untergard don’t see fit to bury me with a stake of hawthorn through my heart or some such rubbish, that is. We are two days out from Middenheim, and provided that the girl Jarla can keep her mouth shut around the priest, all should be well.

credit: Kugel Schreiber @ Malleus Maleficarum

And now, an explanation of sorts. In an attempt to blow the dust off my dormant “actually running games” skills and recover some of the joy that has dribbled out of my ears in recent months, I sat down with some friends and colleagues from le Twitch community (and Hark) and played through the Warhammer Fantasy Role Play second edition starter adventure, Through the Drakwald.

Now, Through The Drakwald sucks. It’s a collection of plot hooks thrown together without any hint of payoff – teasers that go nowhere, arbitrary scripted NPC deaths, and a heavy dependence on “roll to do anything” gamesmastery and “the party is together because the party is together” playstyle to actually have anything happen at all. The Oldenhaller Contract it is not. But I ran it anyway, because I could see how something good might be made of it with the little towns that all hate each other and the post-Storm-of-Chaos setting if it was made into something that just talked to itself a little better.

Also, everything is better with vampires, and Ariette von Carstein is one of the better NPCs from Night’s Dark Masters, so I swapped a badly injured Ariette (claiming to have been stabbed up by the Beastmen who replaced the arbitrary they-don’t-even-show-up-what-is-this-dead-end-shit Goblins) for the arbitrarily dead Father Dietrich and started grooming Dietrich as an antagonist. There were other changes – better foreshadowing around the gathering of the Beastman’s horn for the ritual, facilitated by putting a proper Beastman into the mutant attack at the start, and a general anti authoritarian streak derived from first edition WFRP, a party with three criminals in it, and the free town nature of Untergard itself. Perhaps having Granny Moeschler actually own a journeyman’s book of Amber magic was a bit much, but I wanted to get some decent loot in there to replace the icon of Sigmar, and it did prove to be a talking point at the end of the (long, too long) session.

It seemed to go well. Three out of four players will be back next time; the fourth enjoyed the roleplaying but found WFRP a counter-intuitive headache, which it is, and graciously permitted me to turn their character into a semi-sympathetic antagonist, which will make a fine B-plot once we arrive in Middenheim and I can settle into my preferred “intrigue and investigation in an urban sandbox” mode. I always like having a GMPC in WFRP – for some reason the concept seems to suit the mode – and Ariette might as well be tailor made for me. And since the players decided that Obviously the Bad Graf who did Granny wrong a century ago was another vampire and that made the timescale of the stupid adventure make sense, and the First Law at my table is “if the players come up with something better just fucking roll with it”, we have a burned-out daemon-haunted vampire lair to explore if the players get bored of being in town and decide to head back into the woods at some point.

So yeah, I’m running a WFRP campaign again. It’s good to be back.

This isn’t the only thing I’m doing, but there’ll be more on that later.

[WFRP] Actual Play Review: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play Third Edition (Fantasy Flight)

WFRP is definitely one of those games. The first edition was the first RPG I ever ran, and the first from which I gutted four-fifths of the rules like the Disintegrator GM I am – or would one day come to be. At the time I simply couldn’t be bothered spending whole minutes of  my lunchtime flicking back and forth through the several hundred page rulebook – and hold on to that thought, ’cause we’ll be coming back to it before this review is out.

The point is that it’s my old-school game. I have a very strong attachment to its first edition, it’s integral to my concept of The Hobby, and I’ve been dubious of any attempt to change it. Change is bad. We fear change. Change is what Chaos does to us. But we like Chaos! I’m so confused.

Second edition WFRP was greeted with cautious anticipation; it was smaller (which, by that time, I’d decided was a Good Thing), and glossier (which I still don’t automatically see as a virtue, I’m afraid) and definitely more conscious of the modern Warhammer brand, with its eight colours of magic and its siting squarely after the Storm of Chaos worldwide event. That said, I… didn’t hate it. It obviously had a sense of humour, it still felt like the same game (in much the same way that its contemporary sixth edition WFB still felt like the same game as the fifth edition with which I came in, only with a different aesthetic and a streamlined style of play) and most of my first edition resources were more-or-less cross-compatible.

Third? Oh, fuck third. Third’s a glorified board game from those Yankee board game  merchants. Look at it! Where’s the rulebook? Who needs all this clutter? Are those proprietary dice, for crying out loud? What’s wrong with a handful of d10s? In other words, it was new and different and American and I hated it. It took me a long time to mellow out, grow up, get over my irrational anti-Americanism and… okay, I’ve never liked Fantasy Flight’s convoluted ass-about-face way of presenting rules for board games that take a small eternity to play. The point is that I’ve given WFRP.3 a try, not long after Fantasy Flight announced that it was now a dead line and would receive no further updates. Good, precious. We like the dead ones. Nobody will take the dead ones from us…

I’m sorry. I’ll try to rein it in a bit. Anyway, WFRP.3. It’s actually a lot better than I expected, once your expectations are adjusted and you have your head wrapped around why it is the way it is.

In my old-school WFRP days, we imagined where everything was; miniatures came late to roleplaying, for me, when I started playing with people who’d argue about who was where and who could see what, or demanded that ranges be more rigorously observed. We had two or three or four page character sheets, and a plethora of abilities and spells which all had a write-up in the book… somewhere. We spent a lot of time looking things up, or in my case throwing rulebooks across the room and resolving everything by ‘roll a d100, beat this number or roll below that stat, and from there, we fiat, and I might bung a few more dice around…’

WFRP.3 is designed specifically to eliminate that looking-things-up time. Everything you need to know about your character is on some sort of card; one for your career, which covers some core abilities and shows you things on which it’s economical to spend your XP; a couple for your skills and tactics, abilities which you can use to influence the outcomes of various die rolls, and quite a few for your actions; your basic melee and ranged attacks, your blocks and dodges and parries, and the rather neat ‘Pull A Stunt’, which integrates “I want to do something that’s not in the rules” into the turn sequence and provides a set of probabilities rather than demanding a ruling from the GM on the fly. There are also special actions, again purchased during character creation; these are many in number and include things like shield bashes, dramatic flourishes, two-pistol gunslinging (with flintlocks, but mine’s not to reason why…). Character creation allows you to load up on quite a few special actions and talents, so while there’s a certain hint of “you can’t do that, you’ve not got the rules for it”, it’s far more likely that you’ll have had a riff through the action deck and picked half a dozen that you like the look of and are likely to use.

All of your character’s various statuses – significant bits of equipment, wounds, the two different forms of fatigue, and the number of turns left before you can use a particular action again – are tracked with counters or cards. I grew to really like this in the one session we’ve played so far; rather than endlessly rubbing out and pencilling in and wearing holes through or putting smudges all over our character sheets, we were putting down counters on various cards and sheets and handing them back, taking and returning wound counters. The character sheet records our character in peak condition; their base-line stats and specialities, their weapons and their experience. Rather than demanding that you remember everything and make notes of everything, WFRP.3 puts its gameplay into the form of actual physical artefacts that are passed around the table.

I’ve come to appreciate that sort of thing – as I a) grow older and b) play more Warcraft I’ve become accustomed to a system that keeps track of my character’s various statuses and advantages and disadvantages for me, and displays the results in terms of an actual thingummybob that I can look at and recognise and go “ah, that’s that one, that means I can do this or I have to do that”. It’s… tactile. Tactile’s the word for which I’m groping. I like the business of actually handling paper rulebooks and physically being in the same room and having a plain old pencil in my hand when I roleplay, and WFRP.3 draws on that feeling of tactility and harnesses it for ease of play.

And it is easy, once you’ve overcome the initial oddities. Much like Vampire: the Requiem, another revamp of which I’ve come to think more kindly in the last few years, WFRP.3 is a single-roll system where modifiers are expressed by changing the number of dice you roll – and, in WFRP.3, the type. If you’re just an untrained schlub, you roll a handful of blue d8s. If you’re being aggressive/defensive, you swap some of them for red/green d10s, and you know how many you swap because you have an aggression tracker right there in front of you, with a counter showing how many dice you swap in and out. If you have a skill, you add a yellow d6 or two. Black and white d6s represent good or bad luck. There’s a purple d8 which, as far as I can tell, is the “your GM hates you” die.

All those dice have symbols on them. You bung the dice down, look at the symbols, and then look at the card for the action that you’re trying to use. Most cards have an aggressive and a defensive option – and again, you know if you’re being aggressive or defensive because you physically flipped the card over to show the red or green side.  The card tells you what all the symbols do – if you have this many little hammers, that happens – but if you also have that many little skulls, this happens and that’s bad – and if you got a comet on one of your yellow dice, you did something totally awesome. There’s a little bit of maths involved for damage, but it’s of the “add this to your weapon damage and take away their toughness” variety, which the GM can do almost reflexively when handing out or putting down the wound tokens or fatigue/stress counters.

You have a lot of dice and a lot of counters and I piss and moan until the sky falls in when this sort of thing pops up in wargames, so why am I okay with it here? Because of the way WFRP.3 uses table space. There’s no giant map in the middle and, unlike some modern RPGs, there’s no sense that you’re obliged to use miniatures and precisely delineate ranges and spaces. Encounters involve a few sturdy cardboard figures clipped to plastic bases, a couple of cards defining aspects of the terrain – “road” or “forest” or “coach” and how they modify your die pools – and a set of range bands, essentially long-medium-short-engaged. That’s it. Everything’s expressed in those terms. It’s a nice compromise, about as complex and detailed as the maps I naturally tend to draw for combats and not prompting or asking you to keep track of every last rock, bush and crate on the landscape in case some bugger’s trying something complicated. Trying something complicated is just Pulling A Stunt and the player can describe whatever the hell they like.

That’s all very well and good, I hear you ask, but is it fun? Well, this Wednesday, a batch of the Corehammer lads sat down, built characters and played through a sample combat encounter in about three hours. Once Rob-the-GM confirmed that Ogres were an option I became possessed by the idea of playing one, which is… unusual, for me. I’m basically playing the Squirrel character – get stuck in, smash things, doze off until someone tells me what to kill.

Tofu Bean – I don’t know why either, it’s something to do with Stevie’s Halfling being called Bunce and something to do with mocking Robb-the-Irish-vegan – is basically the party’s tank. I found myself thinking about World of Warcraft a lot in character generation; the range of various actions with, basically, a cooldown (number of recharge counters) feel very much like a WoW action bar, and I became fixated on the idea of having more interesting things to do than just make a basic melee attack or block every turn, so I loaded up on four extra combat actions and gave myself a little rotation: a fearsome Ogre roar to skew some die rolls in my favour, a shield bash to knock things down and set up my next attack, a duellist’s strike to do loads of extra damage, and a sword-and-board option for a bit of aggressive defence. I also picked a tactic that gave me extra dice if my opponents were using active defences (weaving around trying not to be hit) and another that would let me discard two skulls from one roll per combat, taking the edge off bad luck. The other thing I had my eye on was cards with lots of symbols on them; as an Ogre I could roll a lot of dice for Tofu’s melee attacks and I wanted to get the most out of doing so.

It sort of works (Rob-the-GM wasn’t really using active defences for his NPCs, so that might turn out to be a bit of a waster, and I chose not to use the discard-two-skulls option during the first short session) and it definitely results in an interesting melee combatant – not a phrase I generally have cause to use. Bean and Bunce make quite a good team, too, with Stevie bouncing around and backstabbing things that are tied up fighting the giant smelly brute who’s whacking them with a shield. I’m trying to persuade him to advance into Ratcatcher so we can have a Small But Vicious Dog and name it Boggis.

So. WFRP.3. It’s not bad. It’s essentially the usual RPG fare, i.e. perhaps a little more granular and over-designed than I’d like it to be, but it’s rendered a lot simpler by shifting the emphasis from “did you remember to write this down” and “what page is that on in the book” to “here, look at the card, and I have that many counters and that’s my die roll”, and that makes it more fluid to play, with fewer stoppages to find exactly the right page and find the right words in amongst the flavour text and – you get the idea. It does demanda well-organised GM (Rob-the-GM has little toolboxes to keep all the counters and things organised, and baggies for everyone’s character’s stuff between sessions) and I can see why the box set only covers three players (but that’s a good-sized group for me, so I ain’t whingin’). The game may be dead but there seems to be a healthy market in second-hand or back-shelf copies on Amazon and whatnot; I may buy one.

Bottom line? I was wrong about the board-game stuff. It’s a feature, not a bug.