Friday, July 20, 2012

Power Behind the Throne: Reading Warhammer's "The Enemy Within Campaign"

So here’s where everything goes pear shaped. Not for the modules themselves- though by my general reckoning, Death on the Reik’s the high-water mark for the Enemy Within Campaign series. The rest have some excellent moments, but don’t quite reach the same heights. Some require very distinct set ups and party types. This, though, is where my experience of the modules falls apart.

First let me say that I’m a much stronger GM these days than I was twenty-five years ago. Back then I had some decent chops, and combined a wide vision of the story with giving players room for their own choices. But when I had a track I could get stuck on it- meaning that I didn’t roll with the blows well. I remember reading on Reddit several months back a GM freaking out because one of his players was about to advance a level and learn "Remove Curse." He’d built his campaign around the group questing to find the ingredients and knowledge necessary to remove a powerful curse from an NPC. But, to this GM, it wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t allow the PC's spell to fix the curse at the crux of his story. That was in the rules and there weren’t mechanics for more powerful curses. Not allowing it wouldn’t be fair, so he was stuck.

I’m pretty sure that in the time you read that you’ve gone “s’wa?” and come up with at least a half-dozen ways to get around that. That's assuming you’re even willing to accept that as a problem. I point that out because my own story has me shaking my head in retrospect.

As I’ve mentioned before in my reviews of the series, I didn’t use TEWC “as is.” Instead I run it in a more high magic setting, but with Fantasy GURPS, meaning that it still had the normal level and lethality of WHFRP. My players had come off of Death on the Reik with major success and were feeling pretty good. I’d bought Power Behind the Throne and really loved it. I hadn’t really considered if the plot fit with the group I had- I knew I could make it work. I studied the module, cut out the handouts, prepared the table of events, and crafted additional NPC image cards so players would have visual cues. I spent time and effort preparing the adventure. Then they arrived in Rykel (as the city of Middenheim was named in my campaign)…

In the end, I undercut myself. One of the players had wanted to play a shapeshifter. A small race of those existed in the setting, but servants of the "Big Bad." This player asked to run a rogue shapeshifter and I let him- but with a number of significant disadvantages to make up for it. Thus far that character had managed to skate out of real consequences from those flaws. So when they reached Middenheim, per the adventure, I had the magical check at the gate reveal his race. That resulted in some argument- I wanted to give the player a hassle, but still let him in, otherwise the adventure wouldn’t work. The group as a whole entered a negotiation. Based on some of their reputation and connections, the shapechanger was allowed in, with the rest of the group vouching for her and offering their guarantee of good behavior.

The adventure started out well- the PCs keyed into the main plot quickly. They investigated and spoke with NPCs, with some memorable interactions. But some of the players got bored- this wasn’t their cup of tea. In particular, the player running the shapechanger still bristled at being called on his social disadvantages. So he snuck out to raise some hell- which he did, resulting in his character getting attacked by ruffians.

At which point it all blew up. A series of terrible rolls led to the player being injured, rolling critical transformation failures, and finally shifting into a minotaur and going berserk. He gored his attackers and at least one innocent bystander. This multiple shape-shifting performance occurred in front of town guard. He ended up having to flee- and the rest of the party had to escape Middenheim as well ASAP.

The corner of my copy of Power Behind the Throne’s still dented from where it landed as I flung the book over my shoulder.

Today I’d have handled that differently. At the time, PBtT was one of the most ambitious adventure supplements I’d read. I couldn’t see how to fix that unraveling. Even today it has a weird mix of absolute player freedom nailed down with strange moments of GM/Plot fiat. There’s a distinct split between this module and the first half of the TEW campaign. The two of the authors of the earlier modules appear as editors and developers, but the design credit goes to Carl Sargent, who also wrote for D&D, Shadowrun, and Earthdawn. He contributed to a number of other WHFRP supplements including Lichemaster, The Restless Dead, and part six of the TEW series, Empire in Flames. If the earlier portions of the TEW campaign feel like pulp Call of Cthulhu transported to fantasy, this volume feels more like a purist CoC investigation. Combat and high-gear Chaos take a back seat to politics, diplomacy, and detective work.

I have the lovely hardcover GW version of Power Behind the Throne. It feels a little thin to be an hc (only 112 pages), but the companion book, Warhammer City, is even shorter. Hogshead produced their own version of PBtT later- with some differences I’ll return to. The book looks and feels great. The layout’s smartly done- tight and dense, switching between two and three column layout as the text demands. You get an enormous amount of material jammed in here. The cover’s one of my favorites- a simple and evocative image in contrast to the baroque nightmares of the other volumes. The actual text of the book covers 96 pages, with the remaining 16 devoted to handouts, GM reference pullouts, and a game survey. These perforated pages can be easily removed if you’re an idiot and want to ruin the book…as I did. Or you could simply photocopy these and keep things intact.

Several artists contribute to this book, with Martin McKenna’s works being especially good. A couple of the artists aren’t as solid, but they also have fewer images present. One nice change is crediting each artist individually for their contributions so you can tell who did what. The previous volumes skipped that (or had a single artist). The writing's equally strong and equally with a few off-notes. More than the before, Sargent indulges in some puns and in jokes- many particularly bad. The name 'Gotthard Goebbels,' the play A Midsummer Knight’s Dream, and most especially the “1812 Over-Cure” (when the starving besieged locals celebrated on badly smoked rat meat).


In 1998, Hogshead Publishing reprinted PBtT with an additional adventure, designed to fill in the gap between Death on the Reik and this module. The scenario served a singular purpose: to burn the players’ boat. Some people took umbrage at this (“How James Wallis Ruined My Character's Life”) and the author responded (“Yes I Sank Your Barge”). Wallis does have a point- that the presence of the barge as a player resource does potentially drive the campaign in a different direction. The rest of the series assumes the players leave the river behind and don’t look back. In my case, the players fled the city and left the barge. They returned later to find it sunk and a number of their friends and NPCs left there killed. So, yeah, kind of a dick move.

And now to the spoilers.

The players arrive in Middenheim, on the trail of a chaos cultist left over from the previous module (DotR). The authors set up the pursuit of last of the evil von Wittgenstiens there, so it doesn’t come out of the blue. However PBtT states up front that the players will fail at that- or at least will have to put that pursuit on hold for a long time. That feels a little problematic, especially when the adventure hook/push in this module is abstract, and not the concrete figure of a madman. Middenheim is the location for nearly all of the adventure, with the city as a well-developed backdrop. The complementary volume, Warhammer City, expands that; it isn’t required but it could be helpful for the GM (especially the poster map).

Upon arrival, the players discover that several factions of the city are up in arms about new taxes on Dwarves, Wizards, and Priests. The module assumes that in the course of looking for the bad guy (who they won’t find) they’ll become interested in the tax problem. From there they’ll try to figure out who is behind the taxes, study and become proficient with the power structures and key people of the city, and then convince the Graf to repeal those taxes. In doing so they’ll, at the end, reveal a conspiracy which threatens the heart of this city and Electorate. All of this done against the backdrop of a massive carnival which serves as the ticking clock for the plot.

So as a GM- you have to ask yourself: is this the kind of game my group will buy into? The earlier portions of the campaign had plenty of investigation, but combined that with action and combat for those players not so attuned to that- or more importantly, for characters not built for social interaction. PBtT puts a speed bump before the GM. If they can handle the ride, they’ll find a compelling and rich story. If they can’t, they risk alienating and boring some players.

The book breaks into three basic sections: set-up, NPCs, events and plots. The first thirty pages lay things out quickly. I opens with a summary of the spine of the adventure, accompanied by discussion of how to handle problems. To be fair, the author recognizes the difficulty the structure may pose to some groups. He suggests some options for handling things- and especially that the GM needs to signal success to the players. The GM has to make clear they can solve this mystery. The problem is one faced by many adventure modules, especially ambitious ones like this- allowing players open choices while keeping them on track. PBtT offers several “hammers” to knock the players back onto the right path. That’s fine. But it also strangely has several heavily scripted moments, especially at the end, which seem out of place with the earlier freedom. Moments of “…regardless of the PC’s actions, the Bad Guy escapes.” A good GM will fix these, but they brought me up a little short when I hit them.

The city background provided is rich and useful- having a separate citybook available means that the supplement provides just enough history to be useful for the story itself (i.e. the Church relations, the family history, the role of the Dwarves). The same applies to the breakdown of the neighborhoods of the city. You get what you need to run this adventure here. If you want more detail, go to the Warhammer City volume. This book gives briefings on the city sections, a rundown of rumors, and many pages devoted to the events and attractions of the Carnival. That’s a great device and one worth lifting for other games. There’s also a nice rundown of the classic methods and sources for investigations (the streets, taverns, churches, commissions, guilds).

The middle section of the book (32-70, plus supplemental materials) goes over the key NPCs of the setting. The handout section includes a timetable reference card for each of these- showing where they will be at any time during Carnival Week. There’s also a Master Attractions Chart to make it easy to check who might be present where the PCs are. This section opens with advice for handling that and generally how to run NPCs when players approach them. The buzzword is tolerance- players should fall back on role-playing rather than Fellowship tests. The GM’s encouraged to be tolerant…otherwise the players can alienate NPCs and effectively put themselves out of the running. The advice on running social encounters is interesting, and provides a sense of the complexities the group will face. Can they figure out the desires of the NPCs? Can they get through lackeys? Can they keep themselves from goring a particularly unpleasant character?

Each major NPC (or group of NPCs) gets at least two full pages of discussion, as well as an excellent illustration. The sections provide the basics: personality, stats, likely locations, and general reaction modifiers. It also offers an idea of what the NPC knows, misconceptions they hold, goals, and their attitude to each other NPC (in detail). Most also include a discussion of their role, connection, or victimization by the conspiracy. A number of the NPCs offer red herrings for paranoid players. It can get quite tangled. The actual plot has several layers. Even if the PCs figure out one part, there’s another level that’s nearly impossible for them to suss beforehand. Instead, it is left for a GM reveal the twist at the finish. Done well, that could be awesome- done badly it could feel like the GM’s pulling the party’s success away from them.

I should also note that the NPCs themselves are great. Carl Sargent has crafted great personalities and backgrounds. Some follow stereotypes, but enough don’t to make players cautious about making assumptions. There’s a real sense of a living, breathing social network at work here. Players who like NPC interactions will have a great time with this.

The last section of the book provides a number of trigger events-putting NPCs in the players path. It also includes a number of those “hammer” events I mentioned earlier. These can pound the group back in line or pry them loose from a stuck path. They’re a mixed bag- some are clever, while others feel a little too rigged. The book ends with several pages of discussion of the climax of the adventure- which the PCs shouldn’t get to until the last evening of the Carnival (a trick in itself). The GM will have to juggle this carefully. The finale offers a complex fight and chase, if not perhaps a satisfying one. In the end, hopefully the players will have uncovered the conspiracy and saved the city.

At which point they’re thrown in prison.

Because that’s the set up for the next module. They “know too much” about state secrets, so they’re imprisoned, regardless of their work and the allies they’ve made. I’ve done the prison gambit- IMHO that sucks. Some players will shake it off, but most will harbor a serious resentment against the Graf, the City, the Empire, and even the GM for having done that to them. And what PCs are going to go quietly? If you’re going to run this, you really need to think about that ending carefully before imposing it.

I probably sound more negative about this than I mean to be. The bottom line is that Power Behind the Throne is an awesome adventure, but it offers serious challenges. I think opinions may vary as to whether it follows naturally from the previous entry. PBtT is complex, social-based, low-combat, rigged in some places, player-driven, and a kick in the teeth at the end. GMs will need to read through it carefully, and make appropriate modifications. If I wanted to run this again, I would begin by taking a GUMSHOE approach to the mystery. I’d consider what Core Clues NPCs ought to offer- links which connect scenes and characters. Then I’d map the additional clues available from each. I think doing that would give me a better map to work from, without laying down a definite path for the group. It is worth appreciating how rich, open, complex a scenario this is- published in 1988 and anticipating the more sandboxy adventure settings and modules of the future.