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Monday, May 5, 2014

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay- Death on the Reik

The long and winding River Reik has many places to adventure, but none so fearsome as Castle Wittgenstein. Just look at the Ian Miller cover, it is all kinds of awesome. Death on the Reik is a great module and I was fortunate enough to play it just as it was reaching America. We started playing the seminal, masterful series the Enemy Within right after (or there abouts) after THE CAMPAIGN. I do recall us playing a proto-warhammer campaign where I was playing a bounty hunter with a Strength (S) score of 2! Not much came of that.

As I noted here (Small, but vicious dog) my second character in WFRP was a rat catcher who got killed by a bird winged mutant, Alas poor Wilhelm! I can still remember his corpse being draped across some branches, ahhh good RPG times! Thinking back on it I'm pretty sure when started the Enemy Within campaign, the ratcatcher was not my original character. I started with the elf from Shadows over Bogehaufen, the minstrel Malmir Giluviel. Whether he died or not I can't recall, but by the time we reach Bogenhaufen I was playing
my rat catcher. He is the character I think of when I look back at this module, but he was one of many I played. Funny aside, when we reached the  castle many of the original
characters had perished, not just mine.

Since we did participate Shadows over Bofenhaufen and Dave's character was a Boatman we quickly saw the value of the boat early in the module. Aside from the fatality of my rat catcher we secured the boat and made our way. We didn't really need much prodding as we were quickly discovering that traveling by water was much safer then by road, recent fatalities not withstanding. Since we very, very poor we quickly grasped the principals of trading and did a bit to get us better weapons and armor. I think at this point I was playing (temporarily) Johann "Rowlocks" Dassbit a boatman from Shadows over Bogenhaufen (he may have been Pete's character who was showing up less and less) whom we had along as an NPC. Unlike the previous AD&D games my luck was none-to-good in WFRP. On the death of my rat catcher I played a bunch of the NPCs until I got assigned an outlaw (see below). Not sure why I wasn't allowed to roll a new character so I bounced from NPC to NPC.

We made it through all of the early encounters without too much trouble: the Cult of the Purple Hand (I don't recall who looked like Kastor Lieberung), Wisebruck, the signal tower, Kemperbad and the Barren Hills). The signal tower was great fun and it felt very spooky and old as we poked around it. The fight with the skeletons and the skaven in the Barren Hills went too well for us: it made us overconfident going into Castle Wittgenstein proper.

The GM did a great job utilizing the numerous NPCs in the series especially when character deaths happened which was often. As noted above my character was dead for several weeks of real time and I wanted a more combat oriented character. We werediscovering that some character classes were better then others in WFRP. So the GM gave me Hild Eysenck, an Outlaw (renamed and gender flipped to male) version of Hilda Eysenck to run from the module. It was a smart move as we needed more warrior types. He was a bit of wildcard, but helped us get through the brutal exploration of Castle Wittgenstein. Even the lower dungeons were a grind from my recollection and looking over the module. Again, we were not that high in terms of powered up characters and very of us were actual warrior classes which are a must in WFRP.

The town of Wittgendorf was fun, well at least looking back on it. Fortunately I wasn't the one that looked at the foul spider baby to gain Insanity Points. I think we did start a fight at the pale lady encounter and slew some of the guards as Lady Margritte rode off. Additionally, we did find the warp blade in the ruined Temple of Sigmar. I don't recall who carried it, but it did help immensely in the fight(s) in the castle later on. We rummaged around the town only briefly after fighting the guards and did not encounter Jean Rouaeaux or his brew house and horror filled basement.

Playing the part of my new character I led the party to Sigrid the outlaw chief. In short order we agreed to explore the secret way in (Under the castle/ areas #1-11). We did assault the guards at area 8 and secure our boat again. Why we didn't pilot it out and leave I'll never know ;) as it were we took the stairs that ended up in the ruins of the Outer Baily among the mutated beggars. Since we were fairly stealthy and had not fought any guards other then the ones by the river gate the alarm had not been raised. Carefully picking our way we made it all the way to inner areas where we encountered  the chaos warrior Ulfhednar the Destroyer (Jeff also used the mini for his BBEG in THE CAMPAIGN) who put a hurting on us. (he was not in his guest room so we encountered him much closer to the entrance). My memory is hazy, but after fighting him we hightailed it back to outlaw camp. Somehow we encouraged them enough to assault the castle with us heading back through the secret entrance and creating diversions.

I don't recall us adventuring much after this. I'm not entirely sure we made it to the end to confront Lady Margritte and her monster. Reading through the module many years later as a GM I  felt let down by the Frankenstein rip-off of the ending. If I ran it again I'd change the ending to something less cliched. As it was the only time I GMed it the party never got close to area 61-62.

We did not play much more of  the Enemy Within proper as around this time we started to play more Warhammer Fantasy Battle as it took less time, plus we we're all were starting to drive and serious girlfriends beckoned. I don't recall us playing much of Power Behind the Throne. I know for a fact we did not play Something Rotten in Kislev or the lukewarm at best Empire in Flames ( I have it but don't think I'd ever use it as is*)  In the end it was fun and I have fond memories of Death on the Riek. Years later I ran my current gaming group through it and had fun but they were much, much more wary then my original group.

Some random thoughts:
  • * Much like Q1- Queen of the Demonweb Pits at the end of the GDQ series
    it feels stilted, as in not part of the overall flow of the modules. Q1
    needed a much better ending and in my opinion was done better and more
    in character here. So fans banded together and produced Empire at War (I've not read through the whole thing yet so I can't vouch for its quality). 

  • Death on the Reik is regarded as one of the best RPG modules of any system and I'm not going to disagree. It was fantastic to adventure in and I loved every minute of it, PC death and all, well aside from the in my opinion tepid ending

  • Another thing that I always remember is the spooky weirdness of Castle Von Wittgenstein. The maps were uber-cool and the atmosphere dark and grim with mutants living in the courtyard! The graphic/design cartography was always top notch in WFRP products but Death on the Reik was perhaps at the pinnacle.

  • When I've GMed Warhammer the players were curiously reluctant to explore more of the castle or were much more cautious... I wonder why that is????

  • The River Life of the Empire section is fantastic. It really is full of very useful information for a campaign set in the Empire. Couple this with pages 4-38 of Shadows over Bogenhaufen and you have more then enough material for a Empire based campaign. 
In closing I give Death on the Reik a 9 out of 10, it's just that good. Its also certainly the best out of the Power Behind the Throne modules with the last two, Something Rotten in Kislev and the lukewarm Empire in Flames were mediocre at best... If you are lucky enough to play it you wont be disappointed.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Of hanging paper gravestones on the DM screen...

As I alluded to prior, I think its time to share another incident from those halcyon days gone by, that is of gaming in High School. Specifically, its time to discuss the module I6 Ravenloft and a certain DM's malicious punishment of forcing us through this meat grinder. As I get going I'll also point out this is not a review of I6, rather our foray into it and the  deadly results.

Like last time the players were largely unchanged: Dave, Jim, Daryl, Tom, Mike and myself. And like last time Jeff was DMing (as he often did). After finishing the campaign we played some WFRP 1st edition and some campaigns prior to the playing of The Enemy Within. I don't recall everyone elses PCs but I do have mine.

Jeff gave us a certain amount of latitude with our characters and gave us an XP allotment to start out our characters. In my case I chose to play a cavalier (this was the second time I played one with this group*)

(* Quick digress- the character is now lost, but the first one was for a high level module that Mike ran us through that he wrote. I do recall he had some pretty bad-ass uber gear as in a ring of regeneration, bag of tricks, +4 heavy lance, stone horse and magical full plate sword of at least +4. Needless to say it was pretty munchkin, but as I recall the rest of them were playing spell casters and was the primary fighter).

Back to my character (I still have the character sheet): Sir Alexander Silverglade, human male Cavalier, 6th level (more on that later). For some reason his proper name was Alexander William Christian Edward Kenneth Silverglade. Looking on the back of his character sheet his social class is Upper, Upper Class, so obviously royalty but the youngest of 10 children... I also recall reading a lot of Dragon #118 and Dragon #125 which had a lot of rules for jousting, chivalry and knighthood for the developing the character. I do remember playing him as quite snobbish, despite what I had written on my character background. Didn't really matter in the end with the absolute slaughter this adventure is/was. We were allowed to pick three magic items subject to DM approval. I did a quite sneaky thing in picking my items: shield+2? no problem from the DM, rod of lordly might? likewise fine, sword+1, Flame Tongue? Nope. In Jeff's writing its clear where he erased the item and made it a sword+2. All the while missing (or at least forgetting the various weapon functions) of the rod. I'd like to say that pulling this one over on the DM helped, but in the end it didn't matter. Full plate armor, shield +2 and an adjusted dex of 18 meant a very good AC of -6! The full plate in 1st edition also meant that it absorbed damage per the UA which probably explains his relative longevity, more on that later.

I rolled very, very well for the % scores that cavaliers were allowed in 1st so he ended with 18's in Strength, Dexterity and Constitution at 6th level. Again, I'd like to say this helped, but nope it didn't. I recall now I originally wanted to play him as a UA paladin but Jeff nixed that so the module would be tougher. I also recall our party cleric as having limited access to healing spells.

So there we were plunked into the setting with night fast approaching. We made it to the village of Barovia quickly and stopped in at the infamous "Blood on the Vine" Tavern where we gleaned a paltry amount of information. From there we went to Bildrath's Mercantile to gather supplies. I recall we couldn't find much and had to resort to gathering wood as ominous wolf howls resounded in the distance. We found a abandoned house (area E5) to hole up for the night as we wanted to approach Castle Ravenloft during the day... that first night was almost our last. Now, I'm not sure how many people have looked at the random night encounters in I6 on page 6, but they are murder! Every three turns check and an encounter on a 1-2 on a d6? Plus Strahd shows up, trys to gain entry or sends his wolves and bats or he does both?

In our case the following happened, well encounters up the wazoo happened.
  • Strahd shows up with his wolf and bat pets.
  • Wolves break into one room (more on that in a bit).
  • Zombies assail us.
  • A bunch of wraiths make their way in.
  • A ghost shows up (more on that in a bit).
Now, I've been accused in my DMing of being a hard-ass (including the immortal "Jesus Christ, Mark I hope you know what you are doing!") but this was brutal. End result? Several PCs were drained, and I was subject to the ghost's attack (we were all stationed around the house in various rooms in anticipation of a fight). Now being a cavalier I argued that my character should not be subject to the aging attack of the ghost, after all its an effect of fear and cavaliers are immune to fear right? Jeff didn't buy it. Sir Alexander was 22 to start so bam! 62! As it happened towards the end of the week's session and recall when we came back the following week he said it was only 10. Either way it was a Phyrric victory. I thought that was a good rules lawyering move on my part.

But, onto the part that ties this to the title of this blog post, the only fatality that night holed up in the unfortified house? My squire William (who was the only NPC I can recall). William was cornered in a small room and got shredded by some wolves after putting up a good fight. Normally not too sad of a moment right? After all, just an NPC in a brief game specifically to play this module. Well...No. The DM had other ideas. He takes out his printed gray colored gravestones with type reading "Rest in Peace". Then he takes a black marker, writes in "Squire William" and hangs it on the front of his DM screen with a paper clip! We all kind of sat there with this weird look of "Is this happening?" while Jeff has this huge grin on his face! Needless to say by the end of the game the screen was filled with all but one, my character, but not without cost.

We made it to the castle and through random chance ended up on the upper levels straight away (Map5- Rooms of Weeping). I recall this as once again I was mapping. We apparently didn't do too much more as my map abruptly ends around rooms K36-46) I seem to recall Jeff saying through the random draws in the beginning of the module that the sunsword blade was in K41. I was carrying the hilt on a normal long sword apparently.

In the end it didn't matter as the end came swiftly with me falling back (we never played cavaliers as stupid, unreasoning, suicidal French Knights at Agincourt types in our games) with the remains of two dead PCs. My memory says we were attacked by Strahd and at least 4 specters in the final bloodbath. At that level our cleric was toast as they pounced on him first. The group was decimated: level drained or killed outright. My very low AC (I think I was the only fighter type) meant that I survived many attacks. I was able to shrug of the charm attempts by Strahd after I reminded Jeff that cavaliers are 90% immune to mind effecting spells of which charm is one. Because of this I got pummeled by Strahd zombies and wraiths. In the end I was struck by two wraiths dropping him to 4th level. His armor was beat up, but his low overall AC and the damage absorption meant that he survived long after he should have perished. Somehow I made it out of the castle.

And unceremoniously, just like that, the brief campaign was over, a near TPK with Sir Alexander being the sole survivor. So what happened to him? Unable to get past the choking mists he made his  way to area E6, the Church taking up residence there helping the priest Donavich defend it nightly all the while watching the nightly procession of slain adventurers from area E7 march to the castle, of which his slain compatriots were part of. Sir Alexander did have the healing NWP so he was able to get back to full HP, a few levels lower, with beat up armor and 10 years older. Alive, but trapped in the lands of Ravenloft and the vampire lord there he remains. This part is speculative on my part as the game ended with the death of everyone else, I think it fits however. If I ever run I6 I'd have him make an appearance at the church, as a bitter, broken old man. 

We never really did much more with Ravenloft and in my later groups none of us were into Gothic horror all that much. Years later I got the module (mine is in pristine condition) and read through it. In my opinion the random encounters are tougher then the rest of the adventure if for no other reason then frequency. It was fun, but what would live in infamy was the paper gravestones on the DM screen!

Lastly, I'm not getting reimbursed for this, but here is a low cost, legal way to obtain this module I6 Ravenloft.