Monday, December 22, 2014

All of our wars have now been thoroughly hammered

Late last night, my play group completed the last session of our Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd Edition) campaign. It was an epic session, of nearly double our normal length, but the thrills and reveals were so engaging none of us realized how late it had gotten until we were already 3 hours past our usual quitting time.

Of the four PCs in the campaign, one died and another contracted Nurgle's Rot, two became mutants, and two gained permanent insanities. No one escaped completely unscathed, but the party Wizard avoided all the worst of the consequences that befell her comrades. At great personal cost the group accomplished all their goals, however, saving the Empire from existential calamity (and preserving the personal fortune and family name of the PC whose father was secretly the big bad).

I was running The Enemy Within for 3rd Edition, expanded a little with some content from the 2nd Edition books for certain cities, and further enriched by some great sub-plot material the players brought to the game with their engaging character backgrounds. We played this campaign for over 50 sessions, lasting nearly two years (minus a few short breaks here and there for vacations and/or medical reasons).

I would now like to share a few thoughts, observations, and GM-ing advice specific to this campaign. I've had a love-hate relationship with this game and this campaign for a while now. There's tons of stuff I admire and enjoy in both, but some rough edges and pot holes that have been driving me crazy for months now.

***SPOILER WARNING: the following contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Enemy Within (for 3rd Edition WFRP)***    

 If you are playing in The Enemy Within currently, or think there's any reasonable chance you'll be a player in it in the future, you should turn back now. The SPOILERS that follow will ruin major plot points and mysteries.

Playing for Laughs

The adventure is split into four "books" that each deal with a separate region, and all the many plots and mysteries that the players get tangled up in while on a mission in that region. You start in Averheim, then travel to Middenheim and Altdorf, and then, if you use the optional fourth book, the plot takes you to the Chaos Wastes and back again. It's a 200 page book, the last 1/4 of it is an optional epilogue, and it's all very compartmentalized and broken up geographically. So I imagine quite a few GMs start prepping for the campaign by thoroughly reading the first book, while only giving the last three books a light skim for major plot points.

Here's the most important thing that you might miss if, as GM, you focus mostly on that first book initially:  this adventure is a comedy.

In book three, that comedic nature becomes very obvious. The book has a subsection called "A Farce In The Fog", which offers GMing advice on how to catch the correct tone. Specifically, a light-hearted, satirical, comedy of errors.

At a casual read, it's easy to assume this advice, buried so deep in the book, is meant only for that one day of the character's lives, a few frantic scenes of comic relief right before the big climax of the non-optional storylines.

In hindsight, that really should be the tone of the campaign overall. The advice should not come on page 147, it should be on page 5. There are numerous points in the campaign where the plot hinges on some NPC making a poor decision. Nobles being impractical, out-of-touch, ambitious and callous. City watch being ineffective or outright corrupt. Great scholars failing to note fatal flaws in their application of metaphysical theory. Witch-hunters running kangaroo courts to satisfy their own personal passions. GMs might assume they are meant to play this straight-faced, grim and gritty. Doing so will seem satisfying at first, but result in a weird disconnect where a veneer of cynical realism sits atop a core of gross incompetence. From the start of the campaign, the only people making smart decisions are the big-bad and maybe the PCs. Regardless of their actual success rate, the players will eventually feel that they and the Black Cowl (the villain) are the only competent characters in the entire setting. PCs as "big damn hero" empowered protagonists is refreshingly better than some GM's-Pet-NPC-Ex-Machina, it will at times strain ones disbelief and make the players feel contempt for everyone (except perhaps the villain). That's less than ideal for a serious work of gritty realism, but perfect for a Shakespearean Comedy or a black satire.

If I had to do it all over again, I would note all the little moments of ridiculous incompetence or jaded cynicism in the plotline, and dial them up to 11. If you hit those hard (and early on) I think you can improve the experience for the players.

Let's look at book one. When Clothilda Von Alptraum hatches a ridiculous scheme to needlessly imperil herself and her diamonds for the outside chance that the PCs will capture a highwayman, that should feel like a punchline, not a plot hole.

A few pages later the PCs are hired as security for a big celebration that is almost certainly going to be marred by at least one murder and a theft even if the PCs do everything perfectly. Yet the later plot hinges on the person who hired them as security deciding to employ them again on a vital long-distance mission with zero supervision. That works in a comedy of errors, but not so much in a realistic drama. Any sensible employer in the real world would fire them and recruit some other band of mercenaries. Killers, thugs, and messengers are a dime a dozen in the Old World.

For the most part, my GMing instincts kicked in in the heat of the moment to save scenes that would have otherwise imploded. Mostly, I played up the right bits for humor once I noticed that my players were starting to get contemptuous or incredulous at the NPCs and situations in any given scene. Then having patched over the immediate problem with a good joke or bit of exaggerated characterization, I would generally return to trying to portray the setting as grim, serious and realistic. If only that tonal advice on page 147 were earlier and more prominent, I would have had a more consistently-flavored campaign.

Don't get me wrong, Book One (and the campaign as a whole) is for the most part brilliant. There's some really clever plot developments, and memorable scenes and situations. It just could have been better if there'd been more overt advice up front about playing things up for satirical yucks. Like I said, page 5 (and in bold) not page 147.

The campaign (like the main boxed set and core-rules) assumes your party is three characters with random starting careers and thus unlikely to be very proficient in combat. It's not impossible that your party could consist of a dockhand, a courtier and a rat-catcher.

Instead, my group had a trollslayer, a fire mage, a knight, and a priest of the God of Thieves. Three of the characters were die-hard bad-asses, and the two very mathematically-inclined players had a bit of a rivalry about how much damage they could dish out.

So every time a fight scene came up, I upgraded the bad guys to give my players a meaningful challenge and keep the setting dark and perilous. It seemed necessary, as my players had probably 250% of the firepower the module assumed. I don't regret that decision, despite the time and effort it took (both in pre-game prep-time and in longer battles at the table). Them being so potent is largely my fault. I let them choose their starting careers (instead of using the recommended random draw) and I knew that I was inviting the sort of players to the game that would quickly master the system and figure out how to get the most out of their XP. My friends are really smart, and they like to win. That's cool.

I had another option, though, and the thing is, I didn't even realize it. Because it is a comedy of errors, there was no need for the fights to be challenging. They could have been speed-bumps and slapstick cakewalks. Heck, thanks to the ridiculousness of the chaos-star lines on some terrain cards, there were occasional slapstick moments in battle. One PC fell into the river like three times. In another fight much later, the knight fell off his horse in two consecutive turns. If I'd embraced the craziness of those mechanics and played the campaign as a comedy, those moments would been hilarious. Instead, because most of the game was so serious, that those failures felt jarringly awkward. I made house-rules and decisions to prevent them from recurring, but in the process I really toned down the mechanics that make 3rd Ed's funky dice so interesting.

If I'd embraced the comedic nature of the game and not dialed up the fights, I bet the campaign would have been done in 20 sessions, not 50. We spent a lot of time resolving combats, and the PCs felt so imperiled that they frequently slowed down their investigation to proceed with caution. While that's perfectly fitting for Warhammer, it's not necessarily what the authors of The Enemy Within had in mind.

Man, that's a lot of words for a single complaint that's not really a complaint. Like I said, I don't regret the campaign, I just wish I'd realized earlier that there was another option. Had I internalized page 147 a year earlier than I did, the campaign would have felt a lot more cohesive and even, and I would have saved myself a lot of work. It might have been a much better game, or maybe just different as opposed to better. I don't know.

Background Cards

The Enemy Within introduced a new mechanic called Background Cards that is probably one of the main reasons why GMs read the first chapter and fall in love with the campaign.

Each player gets one of these 6 cards, which provides you with plot-hooks for your new character. There's a series of questions on the cards that the player gets to answer. These will color and inform the setting, and connect that PC to various NPCs and subplots in Book One. As a reward for answering those questions, the PC gets a small stat boost, and a very potent once-per-session special power derived to which of the 6 broad character concepts they chose.  I rewrote parts of the adventure based on the player's answers, even changing the main mystery so that the Big Bad was now the abusive father from one of the PC's background.

These Background Cards are so cool! I will almost certainly steal the concept for use in other games and campaigns in the future. The cards united the PCs right out of the gates, and established setting and characterization details before we'd played a single session. Amazing.

That said, I later realized these cards don't go far enough. They're a great start, but there's a couple places where they fall short.

For starters, they only tie you in to Book One. Every PC starts out well-connected in Averhiem, having answered multiple questions about local NPCs. But then later the plot of Book Two takes you to Middenheim. Just 1 of the 6 Background cards includes a direct link to an NPC in Middenheim. Just one. And none of the Backgrounds tie in to characters introduced in Book Three at all (though to be fair, 4 of the NPCs from Book One do show up again in Book Three). So you've done all this cool world-building that anchors your characters to Averhiem, and then you abandon all that collaborative world-building for 1/3 to 1/2 of the adventure.

Even in Book One, there's a missed opportunity with the NPCs Curd Weiss and Graf Von Kaufman. Von Kaufman is the guy who wants to hire the PCs for security at the party, and to escort Clothilda and her diamonds, and to run another big errand that is the majority of the plot of Book Two. It's vital that the PCs end up working for this guy. Per the scenario notes eventually Von Kaufman sends his agent Curd Weiss to find the PCs and offer them a job. Several of the Background Cards have subtle links to Von Kaufman, via his business the Red Arrow Coaching Inn, or the academic group The Sun Society which meets at one of his Inns. So once these NPCs contact the PCs, it's likely that's enough of a background connection for the PCs to accept the job offer (especially since there's a cash reward). The problem is there's only the most tenuous implication in the cards or the scenario notes for how and why these NPCs ever hear about the PCs. Not a problem if the PCs are high-profile doing heroic things around town... but that's not guaranteed.

The plot needs Curd Weiss to seek out the PCs on the third day of the campaign. If the PCs spent the first two days quietly gathering clues or attending to personal subplots (as my players did) then there's no explicit reason for Weiss or Von Kaufman to even know they exist. So when Curd Weiss shows up with a job proposal, it comes across as very arbitrary and a little suspicious. This could have been solved easily by mentioning Weiss by name on a couple of the Background Cards and asking the PC what sort of unusual problem-solving they'd done for him previously.

The last place where the Background Cards fail is in the event of needing replacement characters later in the campaign. All 6 cards tie you in to Book One, but what if a PC dies and needs replacing in Middenheim or Altdorf? I realize there's printer costs and page count limits on what was already a large and expensive campaign, but it sure would have been smart for the module to include a couple of mid-campaign replacement Background cards that linked the new PC to the group but gave some inkling of why this old friend was so far from Averhiem. Sure, you could use one of the existing cards at this point, but the questions would no longer be as relevant and you'd be limited in how you could answer them now that the setting's been known and explored for several sessions.

As it turned out, our only PC death was late enough in our campaign that it didn't matter. We were two sessions from completion when he went down and basically journeying through Hell, so the "dead" character could just stand back up and help his friends escape the underworld. He himself was doomed to keel over again when they left, but he was only out of the action for a short time. He got three death scenes in total, and still played to the very end.

Intuition Checks and The Black Cowl

This is a small quibble about the scenario, but it's a critical one.

The adventure has the PCs trying to figure out the identity of The Black Cowl, an Averhiem-based criminal mastermind who later in the story tries to take over (or destroy) the Empire.  To keep the big mystery from being spoiled on the internet, the adventure provides three best options for who The Black Cowl is, and lets the GM choose between them, or even provides a few paragraphs on adapting the adventure to making just about any other NPC be the secret Big Bad. It's pretty cool.

It's a largely cerebral mystery adventure, with a lot of interviews/talking and a bit of investigative legwork.

Many of the "scheduled" conversations with NPCs in the campaign include bullet points or boxed dialog coaching the GM on what those NPCs should say. Many of these sample dialog responses include statements to use if the PCs ask any given NPC about The Black Cowl.  So far, so good.

The weird thing is that quite a few of the NPCs have officially never heard of the Black Cowl prior to the PCs asking about him. This includes most of the likely candidates for the Black Cowl's secret identity.

This wouldn't be a problem except that the game has built-in lie-detector mechanics. The "Intuition" skill can be used, per the rules, to suss out whether or not someone is lying. So if the PCs ask their suspects "what do you know about The Black Cowl?" and the answer they get is "I've never heard of him" they can make a simple die roll to see if that's BS.  Nearly every NPC in the adventure will answer that way, the few who don't are really clearly not suspects (as they're usually his victims). These are opposed checks vs the stats of the NPC being interviewed. The innocent NPCs have no reason to lie, and as written know nothing about the villain. They also typically have low enough Fellowship scores to set the difficulty at around 80% success if even one PC has a strong Intelligence rating and asks that simple question.

The villain himself won't fall to this, as he can avoid lying by sharing things about his own reputation, and he or she gets a big upgrade to their own mental stats. So you won't pinpoint in-character who the villain is this way. But you will handily eliminate the vast majority of suspects, and know that only one major NPC had ever even heard of the bad guy. That's not really "admissible in court" but when has that ever stopped Player Characters?

Even worse, they'll know out-of-character that the difficulty for lie detecting nearly everyone was 1 to 2 purple dice and maybe 1 to 2 black dice. Except the one guy that did know a little about The Black Cowl. When we tried an Intuition check on him (on some statement that seemed mildly suspicious, but isn't as conclusive as "I know nothing about the criminal or his crimes"), the difficulty shot up to 4 or 5 purple and 2 to 3 black dice (or more if they spend A/C/E). The best player in the world would have a hard time not being influenced by the information in those dice pools.

Easiest solution here is to override the boxed text. Decide that all the major suspects have heard at least rumors about The Black Cowl, and/or pick one to be a minor accomplice or a blackmail victim who has something to hide. Then you can have multiple characters be evasive when questioned, and spend A/C/E on those rolls to cloak the dice disparity.

Alternately, you could secretly roll the difficulty dice, apply hidden modifiers, or engage in other mechanical shenanigans to obfuscate the player's ability to know their characters success rates. I discussed a related topic in depth a year ago, in Brainstorming About Observation Checks.  Given how many resources established PCs have to modify their own rolls (Fortune Points, Human once-per-session boost, rerolls from blessings/spells/runes/gambler-ability/etc, bonuses from Assist Another, etc) it strikes me as a little unfair to hide difficulty unless it's really necessary (which it kind of is at one point in Book Four, but we'll get to that). If the player knew the actual difficulty, they'd throw more dice at it. That's some murky grey area, though, and I'd avoid it whenever possible.

Same Hammer-Time, Same Hammer-Channel

This post is getting a little long, and I'm only about half way done with my rant. I'm going to stop here for today, and tomorrow blog a few thousand more words about other parts of The Enemy Within that I feel could use some polishing or revision.

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