Tuesday, December 23, 2014

We Don't Need No Social Actions In Middenheim... Nor Monster Stats In Chaos

On Sunday, my RPG group completed The Enemy Within, a lengthy campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition. Now finally free to talk about the plotline without ruining things for my players, I started a lengthy blog post about the things I liked and disliked, and the things that needed reworking in The Enemy Within. Yesterday I posted about 3000 words on things I'd do differently if I ran it again, and today I'll blather on for about that long again.

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


 As a reminder for those who missed yesterday's post, The Enemy Within is divided into Four Books, each of which takes place in a different geographic region. Book One is in Averheim, Book Two is Middenheim, Book Three is Altdorf, and Book Four takes place in the Chaos Wastes (essentially hell itself).

We Don't Need No Social Actions In Middenheim

Book Two is kind of a problem, and definitely the weakest chapter of the scenario. It's not nearly as sandbox or detailed as Book One. It's not nearly as tight and structured as Book Three. It's just underdeveloped. The players come to Middenhiem with three quests, but they can safely ignore all but the most annoying of them.

I've discussed previously how the NPCs in Book Two are under-developed and have no stats. I provided home-brewed stat-cards for them here. That was months ago, so now I'd like to talk about other elements of Book Two that drove me up the wall.

The main quest (of the three quests in Book Two) has to do with the Corrupted Bell Clapper. This is vital to the plot, and must be accomplished... but it's also a big deceptive hose job. As written there's 100% chance the players will actually fail in their mission, and a 95% chance they'll think they succeeded. At the time, it probably seems to the players as an innocuous side-plot and a nice change of pace. It's only much later in the campaign that the players will realize it was a terrible bit of railroading. That they were being manipulated by the Devil himself (Tzeentch) is epic and very true to the setting, but it's also kinda awful the way this situation has zero chance of success. PC actions can alter all sorts of little details along the way and make the tasks and consequences more or less arduous, but no matter what they do the players are actually going to lose here, and they won't know it. While that's great drama, it sort loses sight of the fact that RPGs are not Movies/Plays/TV.

The quest also takes several days to complete, and more-or-less runs on frustration and stonewalling, with several unsympathetic NPC gatekeepers. This is another section of the module that probably runs better as a biting satire or over-the-top farce than as grimdark realism. That works in Paranoia, with all it's commie-mutant-traitor nonsense to have you laughing at the fubar bureaucratic nightmare, but the mutant-traitors in Warhammer don't wear fuzzy red ushankas. As I said yesterday, if only the tonal advice on page 147 had been on page 5 (or even page 87) you'd get a more consistent and rewarding experience for the players. The PCs should feel frustrated, but you really don't want the _Players_ to experience that particular emotional state too deeply.

The one part of the quest that's really cool is the ritual itself. I really admire the way it's broken up in to turns with an interesting action and die roll for each PC during each step. It's frustrating that even if every single PC succeeds at every single die roll the ritual just doesn't work, but again, it'd be an awesome plot for a TV series where the audience can see how they're being manipulated as it's happening. For the interactive collaborative storytelling of an RPG it's kind of a let down, since you generally want PCs (and players) to have some impact in whether they win or fail. It reads fine on the page, but in actual play it felt cheap and hollow to me. I think the players enjoyed it, but they don't know how badly they were being shafted.

There's two other quests running concurrently with that one, both of which involve the crazed Witch-hunter who is secretly a Slaanesh cultist. Both of these quests have a lot more agency for the players in that they can more directly influence how things play out and have much better odds of success. Unfortunately, many play groups are likely to feel they get a satisfactory resolution of those quests from a single scene. I mean, you don't really want to spend any more time than you have to around the Witch-hunter, and the person she's put on trial is a stranger to the PCs and business rival to their employer. You could sit back and avoid the plot, and everything would end up mostly okay.

The saving grace is that there's a whole other subplot about cultists that's only tangentially linked to main plots. If the players seem bored, or are willing to let the witchhunter do her thing off camera while the clock advances on the bell clapper plotline, the GM has a number of hooks for introducing some excitement (and chaos) to the adventure. If handled correctly, it can lead to an actual victory against the forces of darkness. My PCs wiped out every mutant or cultist in Middenheim, so that makes up a bit for being shafted by the main plot.

All of main quests could have been structured to make heavy use of social encounter rules, but for inexplicable reasons they were specifically written to avoid those mechanics. This is just a Shame (pun/mechanical-reference intended). Instead of solid social encounters with progress trackers and NPCs who can "fight" back in the conversational arena, we're given a series of single die-roll scenes that the GM can't afford to let the PCs fail.

Let's look at the main bell-clapper plot. Each day you meet a priest, and you get a single roll to influence him. Then he sends you away and tells you to return tomorrow. If you succeeded, when you return he passes you to the next priest up the line. Do that twice and you meet the head priest. If you influence him too, you gain access to the ritual and the holy flame. Each failed die roll adds at least a day of delay, but other than that there's no real challenge on those daily rolls. It's the entire Party ganging up on one NPC, plus a huge laundry list of positive and negative dice modifiers. As long as at least one PC has Fellowship 4+ and Charm or Guile trained, success is eventually guaranteed. If none of the PCs have those stats, the entire campaign will stall out until the GM decides to just hand-waive them through the last obstacles to save the campaign. So even if your party does have a smooth-talking character who ought to thrive in the spotlight of a social scene, they don't really get anything out of it. It's still 3 days, and 3 rolls, and any XP they spent on Social Actions are completely beside the point.

The Witch-hunter's trial is even less engaging and more of a stonewall. It doesn't matter how amazing the PCs oratory and social or legal skills, they can't convince her of the victim's innocence. This could have been an awesome full-on Social Encounter with progress trackers for her madness and the evidence or oratory.  Something more like this:

Yep, that would have done the job.

Instead, as written, the PCs will probably just flail about until the actual badguys screw up and provide a lead. Again, it's like we're watching a TV series. I love good TV shows, and this would be a great one, but when playing an RPG I'd rather empower the players a good bit more than this.

If the PCs do keep poking at witch-hunter, as written they'll eventually they'll activate one of her murder-triggers and she'll try a bone-headed assassination attempt to get rid of them. I say bone-headed because she lacks the necessary action cards (or stats) to have a chance of taking on three or more PCs, and her plan is basically just "wait outside their hotel room until I can shoot them". It's stupid, especially given her position and the resources at her disposal. She could have used her legal powers to condemn the PCs. She could have used her cult connections to curse or corrupt them. Instead, she chooses suicide-by-PC.

So I raided my old first and second edition books (and the seedier corners of my own imagination) to come up with a solid Slaaneshi plot for her to embroil the PCs in. She racked up a bunch of corruption, unleashed some perverted demons at the PCs expense, and escaped with her life and reputation intact. It was pretty twisted, and a little racy, so I'm not gonna go into details here. It's not the sort of thing you'd want to just spring on your play group unless you had a really good idea of where people's boundaries were.

Returning to my previous theme, if I'd realized then that the adventure is meant to be a dark comedy, then in that context it would have been fine for her to make an inept suicidal attack. I would have just brainstormed something slapstick to have punch up the goofiness in the middle of the fight, and a ridiculous monologue to hang a lampshade on it.

A Thousand Dwarves Cried Out, and Were Suddenly Silenced

One last minor gripe about Book Two: the Middenhiem description and map is really vague and minimal. So I broke out Ashes of Middenheim from 2nd Ed. It's set roughly 6 months to a year AFTER the timeline of 3rd Ed's The Enemy Within. It is shocking how much 3rd Ed left out. My favorite example is about Dwarves. In 2nd Ed, Middenhiem has a thriving Dwarven community that's been there for generations and has several prominent institutions and guilds that interact with the humans. In 3rd Ed, there's "almost no permanent dwarf presence in Middenhiem".  I corrected that bizarre oversight, worked in a subplot about Dwarven Hospitality, and added several other bits of flavor from Ashes of Middenhiem to help fill out the Book Two slump.

With that, let's meander over towards Book Four

Expressionist Chaos

The four Books that comprise The Enemy Within for 3rd Ed are all over the map in terms of plot and tone.

Book One is wonderful mystery opener, and does an amazing job of establishing a sense of place and community. The fun scenes happen on a timeline that's about realism, not traditional narrative tropes. It can be a little disorienting, and have a minor hiccup or two, but it's great. You can't solve the mystery here, but it'll set up the groundwork to revive the cold case in a later book.

Book Two is rather a mess, as mentioned previously. There's some interesting religion vs chaos themes being explored, but it suffers from the fault of not giving player agency and decisions much weight.

Book Three is tight and taut. The plot barrels along, and there's rarely time to think. It's not only cinematic, but also honestly hilarious. There's some great comedic material there, followed by a gripping, all-or-nothing, climactic battle.

Book Four is another beast entirely. The plot is very linear, but simultaneously incomprehensible. That's actually fitting, as the entire plot takes place in Warhammer's equivalent of Hell. It's an optional epilogue, where the PCs know exactly what they want to accomplish, but not how to do it or what to expect when they get there.

The plot focuses on rarely seen places and themes of the setting. Lesser-known aspects of the Ruinous Powers come to the forefront.
  • Tzeentch is best known as the God of Trickery and Witchcraft... but the adventure also explores his role as the God of Ambition and Schemes.
  • Slaanesh is best known as the God of Debauchery and Perversion... but the adventure also explores his role as the God of Dance and Physical Perfection... and God of Gluttony.
  • Nurgle is best known the God of Disease and Filth... but the adventure also explores his role as the God of Despair and Sloth.
  • Only the depiction of Khorne remains true to his simplest and most famous attributes. Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull Throne! Rage for the sake of bloody-minded rage.
Giving "screen time" to these lesser-known aspects of the Chaos Gods is pretty darned cool. Unfortunately, that screen time for both Slaanesh and Nurgle risks getting lost in the wash if the PCs are wary or in a hurry. Tzeentch as Ambition-Dealer is covered repeatedly in the adventure, and works well. Slaanesh as Lord of Dance gets a quick spotlight that most likely devolves into combat instead of exploring the theme more thoroughly. Slaanesh as Gluttony didn't even happen with my group, because the players were in such a hurry to escape they never got near the banquet. I was able to cram in Nurgle as Despair though, despite the PCs being in a hurry, and I was pleased with that. Plus, we had a memorable discussion with a Great Unclean One about just how generous and charitable Nurgle was. Nurgle gives, my friends. He gives and he gives, from the bottom of his gut.

Impressionist Chaos

Book Four is either a triumph of dreamy world-building, or a garbled mess as incomplete as Book Two, depending on how you look at it. The laws of physics change around the players, and nothing is what it seems. It's a fun place for the GM to improvise. Think of it as a big tone-poem, or a dream sequence with consequences. There is a small problem with Form following Function following Form eating it's own tail. Like Book Two, parts of Book Four are a little underdeveloped, though given the setting of Book Four you can almost forgive it.

To some extent this is understandable, as well, for monetary reasons. It's the optional Epic-level Epilogue at the end of a very long campaign. While the first three Books have crazy tonal variations, that at least all take place on the same planet. Raids into Hell and back may "not feel like WFRP" to some groups, and you need very powerful characters to have a chance of survival. So only a very small number of players will ever face this chapter. As a result, FFG seems to have tried to save a little money here by cutting corners.

The adventure doesn't come with nearly enough stand-ups for the numerous daemons of every variety, and it only has four Location cards for the whole chapter. To put that in context, I could easily make a case for needing no less than 13 Location cards for Book Four, with 6 of them being inside the huge constantly changing Castle of Tzeentch. There are individual fights with 20+ non-henchmen demons of the same type, and it's hard to represent that on tabletop when a complete set of everything they've ever printed only includes 2 tokens of nearly every daemon type.

The encounters have clearly had little to no playtesting for balance. So while I was constantly upgrading the quality and number of opponents that my large and combat-focused party faced in the first 3/4 of the campaign, once I got to Chaos I repeatedly cut down on the numbers of the monsters. I still killed one PC and got close a few times on the others. If I'd been inclined to end the whole thing in anticlimactic failure just inside the gates of hell, it would have been trivially easy to do so.

The trick is that there's a war of attrition going on, and if the players aren't cautious they'll find themselves nibbled to death. Healing methods in the game are usually limited to once per target per day, but the otherworldly skies in Book Four have no sun at all and the adventures don't have time to dawdle. You'll get one first aid check after each fight, but other than that you run out of healing options very quickly. My group stocked up on Healing Draughts and Medicines before entering the rift, but after the first fight with Khorne's hounds,  all the remaining bottles were just excess weight with no purpose. Since First Aid is limited by your Toughness, any would past the 4th or 5th taken in a battle cannot be repaired. There's potentially as many as 14 battles in this book, if the PCs don't actively try to avoid fights. Some of those conflicts are against foes of immense power, or huge hordes of lesser demons. The math of it all will wear down the toughest PCs.

Just as the PCs are almost certainly unprepared for the scope of what they'll be facing, the GM is under-equipped for running it all. I don't just mean stand-up tokens and location cards. I'm talking monster stats that are missing entirely. Some examples of incomplete combat stats that you don't want to discover at the table:
  • This is almost a direct quote for the stats on the ghostly librarian: "If you have access to the creature vault, use the stats from monster A, but with the following bonuses. If you _don't_ have the creature guide, use the stats from monster B from the core-set instead, but with a different set of stat bonuses and this extra power that, by the way, is also from the creature guide. Don't worry, we'll also hide it in a sidebar on a different page of this book that you may have already skipped past without noticing. Good freakin' luck."
  • There's an animated stuffed crocodile (it's in the room with a ton of subtle Disney film references) that as Strength 5, DR 5, Toughness 5 and Wounds 15. It gets two manoeuvres per turn. No other stats are provided. So I guess that means Defense 0? That's pretty rare that a monster would have neither Defense nor Armor ratings. With neither those nor an A/C/E budget, it's not likely to survive past the first attack. Does it have the special abilities of a beast, an undead, or both?  And what happens if the PCs try an Action against it that's opposed by the target's Willpower? They only gave us 1/3 of what you need to run a monster in this system. The GM will need to make something up there.
  • There's two different encounters where the monsters get random reinforcements each turn, from a pool of 6 different monster types (and zero overlap between these two encounters), some of which come from other random supplements you may or may not have. Anyone who's GM'd this game knows that it's really hard to run more than 2 monster types in one fight. Each monster type basically has its own deck of cards, and three piles of tokens. If the fight runs to a third round with those sorts of reinforcements coming in to play you've run out of table space.
So, GMs, if you're gonna run Book Four, you'll need to do more prep work than it took for the other parts. I suggest try running a dry run of each fight for yourself. Run one round of each battle in advance all by yourself so you can catch all the subtle hidden problems before they bite you during actual play.

My First Job Was Programming Binary Load Lifters

One of the best elements of the 3rd Ed WFRP system is the non-binary dice system, where every action has at least 4 possible results, and most have around 64 different meaningful result variations. There's the pass/fail axis, plus the boon/bane axis, either of which can have many degrees of variation, plus the possibilities of comets, chaos stars, delays and exertion.

That's the core of this system...and yet Book Four is packed full of Binary rolls. A check to see if you fall for an illusion or mind control should NEVER be binary pass-fail in this system. Those sorts of effects scream out for bane and chaos star results. If you pass with banes you should retain your free will but still suffer penalties on certain action types because your senses or emotions are conflicted.

That, plus all the random charts for resolving Castle Tzeentch feels like Book Four may have been originally written for a different system -- probably 2nd Edition -- and given a hasty conversion to 3rd Ed.

The Return Of The King

Have you ever seen The Return of the King? Remember how it fades to black like 50 freaking times as the last hour of the movie teases you with the promise of actually ending? Hope you didn't get a big soda with your movie ticket. Book Four does the same thing.

The PCs think they've escaped, but it's all an illusion created by Tzeentch. If they fall for it, there's plenty of opportunity for their ambition to enslave or corrupt them. If they figure it out and resist, they can break free of that world, only to end up in an illusion created by Slaanesh. Then you break free of that, and end up in an illusion created by Nurgle. You break free again, and you're finally home, but then Khornate daemons attack. If you survive that fight, you get the real epilogue.

Trying to time your last session is really hard. If you reach the Tzeentch illusion late in the session, the players will assume the campaign is over, and be more inclined to except little discrepancies because they're trying to rap up all the plot-threads in a narrative hand wave. So they fail and lose their souls because they were trying to help you "stick the ending" of the campaign. Oops. If you stop just before the illusion, you'll raise suspicions and that's almost as bad. No one wants an entire session of tidying-up, "so why don't we just play an extra 15 minutes tonight to wrap up the whole campaign?" is what they'll ask you. Basically, the campaign is 2 to 6 hours longer than the players think it is, and you'll "ruin the surprise" / "give them an unearned victory" if you let on about it. That's fine if you game on a Friday or Saturday and no one minds running past time, not so great if you game on a weeknight and some of your players rely on catching the bus.

My advice:
Leave off with the players passing through a door in Castle Tzeentch. Don't tell them what's in the room they arrive at, leave that for next week. Then start the final session in the Torture Room. Keep it brief, and make it seem like monstrous reinforcements are on their way. With any luck, the PCs will activate the gem and bail as fast as they can... leaving you several hours left in your normally scheduled session to run what should normally be less than an hour of wrap-up and epilogue. Then proximity to the end of the session won't make them ignore clues, and proximity to the start of the session won't make them doubt it, because they didn't know prior to the session that it was going to be the final chapter. Ideally, you'd end the session just after the PCs figure out that it's a Tzeentch illusion, but before they've escaped it. They'll have a week to brainstorm and worry about escape routes. At the start of the next session, give them a good chase scene or fight as the illusion crumbles around them, and ideally dump them in the Slaanesh world after roughly an hour of adventure so again you're not too close to the start nor end of the night. They'll take less time getting out of Slaanesh land, and hardly any time with Nurgle, and then can either can wrap up there, or leave off with them assuming this must be a Khorne illusion when it isn't (so you'd end up with one more session that would actually be shorter than normal).

That's _not_ what I did, but I foolishly thought I could cram through all 3 illusions in one session. Instead, it was an unintentionally double-length session and everyone left really late. Depending on your group, that might not be so good.

Well, that got a lot of the rant out of my system. I may revisit the topic if I dream up some better solutions to any problems I glossed over here, but for the most part I've unleashed my own personal Enemy Within and am ready to move on.

Again, I liked the campaign enough to run 50+ sessions, despite all the flaws. Overall, there's more good than bad there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It does work much better as farce (which plays to the strength of the DM). Players have more fun when the DM is having fun.

One of the awkward bits of a double-length session is that the once per session powers don't reset, nor do players gain xp. I suspect that definitely Ninewise and probably young von Engler would have escaped (further) mutation if fortune points and 1/session powers had come back mid session.