The very same copy from all those years ago…

My first RPG back in the day was Maelstrom – published under the Adventure Gamebooks label by Puffin.  I didn’t realise it was an RPG when I bought it – I assumed it was some kind of new fangled Fighting Fantasy book with a blue spine, rather than the distinctive green ones that had become such a feature on my bookshelf during the mid 80s.  However, rather than another foray into the fantasy kingdom of Allansia, Maelstrom actually turned out to be something called a roleplaying game – and it led to me merrily taking up the mantle of gamesmaster as I wrote adventure after adventure for my friends. 

Happy Christmas to me!

I don’t remember much of those early games, other than the fact that we all had great fun and our eyes were opened to the wider possibilities that this hobby offered.  At around the same time I had received a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Battle second edition as a birthday present, and I was absolutely sucked into the world that Games Workshop had created.  When I became aware of the fact that GW were releasing a roleplaying game set in this universe, well; I had to have it!  I got a copy the Christmas it was released and at that moment Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay became my first “proper” RPG. 

No disrespect Maelstrom.

A grim world of oversized nonsense

I stuck with it until the early 90s, but by then the direction GW were going left me disenchanted with the setting – gone was the grim world of perilous adventure and instead we had the high magic world of oversized hammers and shirtless dwarves on steroids.  I bought a copy of second edition when it was first released but, again, I was put off by its artwork and focus on “chaos spiky bits”. 

I didn’t even bother with Fantasy Flight’s third edition – their fetishism for board game components and custom dice in their RPGs always puts me off their products.
Why am I mentioning all of this in the context of a review of Cubicle 7’s 4th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay?  Well, I thought it only fair that I lay out my stall early on and make it abundantly clear that I was a massive fan of first ed, didn’t really give second ed much of a chance and didn’t bother with third ed at all.  Therefore, this is a massive “your mileage may vary and Iain’s a bit of a grumpy old grognard” warning.

Pretty but not exactly functional

As far as first impressions go, it’s an impressive book.  Weighing in at just over 350 pages, this is a hardback that you could do some serious damage with.  The cover is an homage to John Sibbick’s iconic first edition artwork and everything is laid out in a clean, clear, easy to read manner.  I’m not a massive fan of the maps  found at the beginning and end of the book.  It seems, in a bid to make them more stylistically appealing they’ve actually made the maps more difficult to read.  They’re also out of place – they’d be much better served in the chapter dealing with the setting.  As it is, a reader unfamiliar with place names will find themselves flipping back and forth when reading about the setting to try and build up an impression of the land.

Regarding the rest of the artwork, it’s well produced…but it’s not my cup of tea.  Remember what I said earlier about disliking GW’s change in direction from “grim and dark” to “oversized everything for everyone”?  That very much applies here. Let’s dig into that for a moment. 

I have an issue with that the fact that over two thirds of the dwarf illustrations in the book are of Slayers.  For those of you unfamiliar with this aspect of the Warhammer mythos, Slayers are Dwarves who have suffered shame or dishonour and seek to make amends by finding  death in battle.  The thing is – they’re presumably not that common in the setting otherwise the dwarven population would be considerably smaller than it is.  However, if these images are anything to go by, a good sixty six percent of the resident dwarves have dishonoured themselves to that point that they feel the need to go off and seek a glorious death.  For new players, this pretty much cements the idea that dwarves have to be jacked-up shirtless Crossfit bros with ridiculous haircuts.

Speaking of which, I’m not a fan of the signature characters that the artists keep using again and again throughout the book.  We’ve got our aforementioned Slayer, whose hair seems to take on more and more ludicrous proportions.  Seriously – check out page 12; I actually laughed out loud when I saw that.  We’ve also got a lady sporting an ever-so-mysterious Guy Fawkes look.  All I can say is that if I pulled a hat down as low as she has in nearly every picture she’s in, I think I’d be banging into things constantly.  Seriously, how does she see where she’s going?  We’ve also got some kind of wizard guy.  Now, in the Warhammer setting, although magic is legal – provided you’ve got a “wizard license”; we’ll get to that later – the common folk are still fearful of sorcerers and the Church still have an annoying habit of burning those who get out of hand.  This fella though, seems either oblivious to the prevailing feelings towards wizardy types or is willing to provoke the ire of all around him, as he’s clearly going for some kind of Grim Reaper vibe.  Honestly – the guy’s carrying an honest-to-goodness scythe and is dressed in a long robe.  There’s also a woman who owns a hat which – much like our troll slayer’s hair – seems to vary in terms of impracticality.  On page ten it looks fairly normal, but by page fifteen it has grown to silly proportions, whilst on page 25 I’m not sure how she can walk about with it on without breaking her neck.

There’s also an over abundance of firearms.  Our angsty Guy Fawkes is pretty commonly seen posing with two of them, but they also absolutely litter the careers’ illustrations.  There are careers that don’t even have firearms listed as one of their trappings that see their character posing dramatically with one in their picture!

Check out my purity scrolls…

Speaking of the careers’ artwork, there seems to be a weird fetish – and I’ve seen this repeated in other Cubicle 7 Warhammer products – for characters to wear Warhammer 40k style “purity scrolls”, which is to say little sheets of paper secured to their person with a wax seal.  It also appears that 40k Terminator honours – that vaguely Maltese cross style medal with a skull on it – are worn as some kind of fashion accessory too.  There’s also weirdness like characters having scrolls tied to various parts of their costume, even when their profile doesn’t include the “Read/Write” talent – is this some kind of odd practical joke that happens in the Empire?  I remember in science classes in secondary school where pupils would attach crocodile clips to the bottom of their classmates’ blazers and wait to see if they’d notice them.  Maybe this is the equivalent?  “Hey!  Gunter!  Check it out!  Franz can’t read but we’ve pinned a copy of the Reikland gazette to his tunic!  Lol.”

By far the worst  image, just in terms of sheer “WTF” excess is that of the “thief” career.  I’ve looked at it several times, and I still can’t work out why a thief from Warhammer’s Empire would dress like Bane from Batman.
On the positive side, it’s nice to see some diversity in the artwork for a change.  Yes – you don’t have to exclusively play a white Anglo-Saxon Sigmarite any more…
As I’ve said, your mileage may vary – the Warhammer aesthetic might very much be your thing; it’s just not for me. 

So, now that you’ve finished bleating on about the artwork Iain, what’s the actual content like?  Well, the  first two dozen or so pages are made up of background fiction.  The first part of this provides two views of the Empire – one is clearly written by a sycophantic courtier who has nothing but praise for the rule of the Emperor, whilst the other view comes from someone more worldly and cynical.  It’s a nice touch, presenting both sides of the story – as always, the truth falls somewhere between them.  There’s also a letter, written providing an overview of the Empire.  It is what it is – as a long time fan of Warhammer there was nothing new there, but maybe new players will get something useful out of it.

We then jump into the chapter on creating a character.  This is all fairly similar fare to previous editions – you select a race, a career, attributes, skills and talents.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had ditched alignment.  It was present in first ed, but I always felt like it was a hangover from the Warhammer Battle game; the inclusion in which was probably a hangover from D&D.  Heroes in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay always seemed to operate in that “shades of grey” territory (remember, it’s a GRIM world of perilous adventure…) so it always seemed unnecessary to clearly box in someone’s morality.  As it largely served as a roleplaying aid, its inclusion as a “stat” was redundant.

Unlike first ed, where your attributes, skills and careers are all generated at random, fourth ed gives you the option to choose everything from stats to career.  However  you can choose to roll randomly and if you go with what you roll, you are awarded extra experience points.  I like this, as it encourages players to accept the vagaries of fate.  It can also be more fun taking the mish-mash of options that has been dealt to you and trying to tell a coherent story with it.

When it comes to race, players can be humans, dwarves, halflings or one of two types of elf – wood or high.  As usual, the non-human races have better profiles than poor old humans – with elves particularly falling into the “everything you can do we can do better” territory – but this is balanced out later on as human are given more Fate Points; Warhammer’s “extra life” currency.

One gripe I do have around character creation is the use of the word “skill” when describing the characteristics of “weapon skill” and “ballistic skill”.  Now, I know why they use this nomenclature – these two attributes, representing as they do your natural fighting ability have been around since the beginning of the Warhammer line.  However, given that they’re attributes and you have a second category called skills the inclusion of a couple of “not quite skills but we’re calling them skills” in the attributes section can be understandably confusing.  In fact, I’m confusing myself as I say this so I’ll stop!

The skills themselves are bonuses that you add on top of an attribute when trying to do something that you’re, well, skilled at.  So, for example, the Pick Lock skill gives you a bonus to your Dexterity characteristic when you’re trying to nefariously tinker with a closed door.  In first ed skills existed, but they were a mix of bonuses to certain tests, additions to your characteristics and other more esoteric things such as the ability to cast spells.  4e takes this jumble of concepts and breaks them down into three separate stats:

  • Characteristics – your raw ability to do certain things.  Strength, dexterity and intelligence are all examples of characteristics.
  • Skills – things that you have been learned to do.  Cook, pick lock and navigation are all skills.  Some skills are advanced meaning that regardless of what your characteristic is, you can’t attempt this skill without having trained in it.
  • Talents – these are akin to special abilities; quirks or tricks that you’ve learned.  Things like spell casting, combat shenanigans and being able to hold your ale in a drinking competition count as talents.

What determines what skills and talents you can learn?  Well, that comes down to your career.  Unlike other games with their levels and classes, WFRP has a system of careers – namely what was your profession before you decided to sod off and become an adventurer?  This will inform what skills and talents you will have, as well as your social standing and any possessions you may own.  I’m pleased that Cubicle 7 have stuck with the careers system, as it’s always the thing that’s marked WFRP out as being somewhat different from other fantasy RPGs, and it certainly went a long way to contributing to it’s more grounded feel, as opposed to a high magic setting like D&D.

Unlike previous editions, where characters would bounce around from career to career, looking to pick up as many useful skills and characteristic bumps as possible, 4e looks to keep characters in their main career as long as possible.  Yes, you can switch career, but each one has its own system of levels – or a career path as the book calls it – which allows you to develop expertise within the confines of a single career.  This means that certain desirable skills or characteristic advances won’t be “unlocked” until you’ve devoted some time and effort to mastering your career. 

I’ve not played 4e yet, so I’ve not seen how this works in practice.  At an initial glance I like the thought of characters sticking with what you know, rather than being jacks of all trades.  Certainly, it takes away that issue that 1e WFRP saw where the GM – if they were running the game in a purist manner – would have to invent contrived excuses for how a character moved from one career to another.  Also, this idea does have precedent.  In 1st ed the wizard careers and things like the jump from mercenary to mercenary sergeant to mercenary captain all followed this route.

Artist’s impression of 4e’s mechanics

One aspect of the new system that I’m not so hot on, is how they handle advances.  In 1e, you had an advance scheme where you bought improvements to characteristics in ten percent chunks, and where skills were one off purchases.  In 2e I believe that characteristics were bought five percent at a time.  In 4e, not only can you improve characteristics, you can buy advances in skills and you can also buy talents – sometimes you can even buy them multiple times.  When you’re buying skills or characteristics, you’re improving them in one percent increments.  In addition, as you take more and more advances, the cost to improve goes up.  Oh, and the costs for skills and characteristics are (obviously) different.  This will lead to a LOT of book keeping.  I can quite easily see a situation where a character is paying three different costs to advance his characteristics and several more for his skills while trying to determine if those talents he has can be bought more than once and, if so, how much they cost.  That’s not to say the system is bad – merely that it’s very crunchy.  D&D players – and players of other “You reach this XP threshold and you level up” games – be warned!

Careers also have the social level of the character baked into them.  This is represented by something call their status tier, and it can be brass, silver or gold representing the poorest in society to townspeople and professionals all the way up to the rules of society.  Each tier is further split up into five separate levels, representing the distinction between people of the same class.  This is a nice split – it shows that a simple trader won’t be able to distinguish one noble from another as they all seem important to him and people he should curry favour with.  Likewise, to the aristocracy, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hard working peasant or a filthy beggar – those at the bottom of society are all smelly oiks!  There are various rules for the effects of interactions between people of differing statuses, as well as mechanics for the cost of maintaining your standing in society.  Yes, it is possible for nobles to lose status by slumming it with the hoi poli…  More rules and crunch, but I think they’re handled pretty well – a few scribbled notes on the back of a GM’s screen should make this fairly easy to remember.

Speaking of crunch, characters also have fate, resilience, fortune and  resolve points – all of which let you interfere with core game mechanics in certain ways, and which are all regained in different manners.  
Character creation is rounded out by around half a dozen pages on “adding detail”.  A lot of this is cosmetic, like hair and eye colour, age and other physical details, but there’s a surprisingly crunchy (there’s that word again) section on your long term and short term ambitions – conditions which, if you fulfil them, you get a mechanical bonus.  There’s also the same for the party – rather than a “you all meet together in a tavern and decide to go on an adventure” approach to party building, 4e assumes that the protagonists will have a collective goal – the fulfilling of which will, again, generate a mechanical bonus.

I’m not sure how I feel like this – it feels a bit like the old White Wolf concept of Nature and Demeanour, which were tools to prod characters into roleplaying a certain way (with the promise of getting a refill on willpower) but which, in practice, very rarely came into effect.

Likewise, a lot of players, when a new game begins, don’t generally have a firm view of what their character’s long term goals are, and instead like to settle into their character and see where things will go.  Forcing them to nail down their ambitions – without necessarily knowing what form the campaign will take – seems artificial and limiting.

This far in, and still no actual system

So, after the introductory, character creation and careers chapters we come to the fourth which details the various skills and talents that a character can have.  It’s here that I have a problem with the book’s structure.  By the time you’ve finished the fourth chapter you’re over one hundred and thirty pages into the book and you still don’t know what the rules are!  I can imagine a lot of flipping back and forth in the first few sessions of a game – in fact, session zero where people make up their characters is probably going to particularly painful.  People like to know what effect on the game their choices at character creation will have – especially in a system as crunchy as this one.  When you consider that the actual core system itself only takes up around five pages, would it have been that hard to move the basic method of resolving tests to much earlier in the book?  There are also a lot of talents and, when you consider how they interact with fundamental game mechanics, I can imagine that these would slow a lot of games down and necessitate a lot of homework on the GM’s part to memorise the more important ones and what they do. 

Speaking of the system, when it comes to resolving challenges, 4e has two types of tests – simple and dramatic.  The difference between the two is…well…simple.  If the degree to which a test succeeds or fails is important you make a dramatic test, otherwise you make a simple test. 
A simple test involves throwing a d100 and comparing the result to the skill or characteristic that the GM asks you to use.  If you get lower or equal to it you pass, otherwise you fail.  The GM can impose a modifier depending on how difficult or routine the task is.

Easy, right?

Sadly, dramatic tests are not as straightforward.  These are used when it’s important to know how well (or badly!) a test went.  This is done through the concept of Success Levels (or SLs).  To determine this, take the 10s number of what you rolled away from the 10s number of the characteristic or skill you’re testing.  The higher the SL, the better things have gone, whereas the more negative it is the worse the consequences.  There’s a handy “have you succeeded” table for GMs to consult.  Like simple tests, it is also possible for the GM to throw over modifiers as necessary.  One nice touch is that an “average” test gets +20% to its success chance, taking away some of the “wiff factor” that WFRP is famous for.

Again, I’m going to caveat this with “…and I’ve never played this…” but the feedback I’ve seen online is that the concept of SLs – which is baked into a lot of talent usage not to mention combat – slows things down a lot.  Any test that has modifiers and which is affected by talents is going to take a lot longer to resolve than a simple D100 roll.  With a system already burdened by crunch this is probably not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s a welcome surprise.

Combat essentially boils down to a series of opposed dramatic tests.  Both combatants roll their melee and whomever scores the most success levels hits.  For ranged combat, you simply make the test – your opponent doesn’t oppose it. 

If you hit, reverse your roll to determine the hit location, then take the weapon’s damage number, your strength bonus and the number of success levels you scored, add them together and the resulting total is the number of potential wounds caused.  Then, subtract your opponents toughness bonus and any armour points on the location hit from the potential wounds total to determine the final damage total.


WFRP combat can feel like this

There are also additional rules for critical hits and fumbles, but it should be evident by now that there is a fair amount of maths involved in every swing of the sword.  Yes, 1e had a fairly similar and cumbersome system, but that was over thirty years ago!  One of my hopes for the new system was that it would cut some of the fat from the mechanics, but it feels a bit like Cubicle 7 have doubled down on the complexity.  Thinking of the opening chapters of the Enemy Within – the flagship Warhammer Campaign – the combats that crop up there could easily take up a sizeable chunk of a game session.

Anyway, this goes on for twenty odd pages with rules for critical injuries, healing and using fate and resolve to survive otherwise lethal blows.  It’s all very detailed.  Fine if you like that stuff, but fairly hair raising if you don’t.

There’s then ten or so pages dealing with corruption, disease and psychology.  This is all good, Warhammery stuff.  One of the things that always made WFRP stand out from the crowd was that it was set in a pretty grubby, dirty world.  Unless those wounds you take are going to be treated, chances are they will become infected.  Likewise, in the filthy cities of the Old World, disease abounds and things like the plague and the pox are as deadly as any monsters from the forests. 

Hand in hand with this physical decay is the concept of corruption, which represents the insidious influence the Ruinous Powers of Chaos  have on a character’s soul.  The more corruption a character accrues, the more likely the are to fall to the lure of Chaos and then they’ll start to change in various interesting ways…

THIS is Warhammer!

One aspect of this system that I love is that of “dark deals” and “dark whispers”.  In short, you can gain corruption by voluntarily accepting a point in exchange for something like a re-roll, whilst you can also lose corruption by letting the darkness within come out to play for a little while and generally cock things up for you.  Letting an enemy escape, making a mess of a ritual or telling that important noble exactly how you feel about him are all great examples of this.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to have played in more than a handful of games run by me will learn, very quickly, that I adore mechanics like this.  I’ve always found that any “temptation” mechanism can be used to drive story and interparty roleplay like nothing else, and I really, really  take a gleeful delight in letting players damn themselves like this.

In short, this is exactly the kind of approach to Chaos that I would put into my Warhammer games.  It’s insidious, subtle, slow and frequently starts from a place of good intentions.  In short, it embodies The Enemy Within.

We then come to a chapter that is…well…let’s just say I’ve seen mixed feedback about it online.  It’s entitled “Between Adventures” and it covers how to fill the potential weeks of downtime between adventures.  This isn’t a new concept – I’ve seen stuff like this in other games.  In Vampire’s The Transylvania Chronicles, for instance, there is a system of “maturation” to cover what the characters get up to for the decades that can exist between chapters of the story.  It uses a system of tables and points to allow players to further develop their characters and provide a bit of colour other than “Yeah, I guess I slept off the years in my coffin…”

WFRP tries to do something similar.  It breaks downtime down as follows:

First, you generate a random event that has occurred.  Then, you spent any money you might have acquired on your last adventure.  After this you take part in what is called “endeavours” to represent tasks that you might take part in when not adventuring like plying a trade, or managing an estate.  Finally, all of this players resolve this stuff and they are ready for their next adventure.  Oh, and then the players lose all their money.  I’ll come back to that one shortly.

Now, credit to Cubicle 7, they DO have a box saying “IT’S ALL OPTIONAL” and that some people might choose not to follow the rules presented in this chapter, and after reading them, I know I would be one of them.  Simply put, there is waaaay too much crunch here for the sake of crunch with little regard to logical consistency. 

As an example of this, each player gets one endeavour per week of downtime between adventures, but no more than three regardless of the length of time that passes.  This makes no sense – yes, I get that they want to limit players potentially abusing the endeavours system, but there is a substantial difference to what a character can do in three weeks of downtime and what they could accomplish if there were six months of downtime between adventures (which isn’t an overly unrealistic thing to imagine!).

Then there’s the fact that high tier characters have to take an income endeavour or they’ll drop to a lower career tier, and the fact that elves have to use one of their special endeavours to send messages back to their elf families – this wasted endeavour is apparently a way of balancing out the fact that elves are so much better at everything else.

By far the most egregious part of this system – and the one that I’ve seen most outcry about online – is how it handles money.  In a nutshell, if you don’t bank your cash you lose ALL THE MONEY YOU’VE ACCRUED ON THE LAST ADVENTURE DURING DOWNTIME. 


Cubicle 7 vs their WFRP players between games

Apparently you’ve drunk it, gambled it, paid off old debts, had it stolen or whatever other reason you want but, it has all gone. Now, for adventurers with a purse full of coin, I can see  that being possible.  You’ve just come back from seeing off those goblin bandits and you’ve spent your three weeks (no more, remember?) of downtime living it large.  Time passes and you’re left thinking “Best sharpen the old sword, strap on the backpack and get adventuring again, because those beers won’t buy themselves.”  However, what if instead of dealing with some miserable goblins you and your erstwhile companions had undertaken a quest of epic proportions and had returned with a king’s ransom in treasure?  Or even just a few thousand gold crowns.  Are we honestly meant to believe that you’ve somehow managed to splurge all of that with nothing to show in a couple of weeks?

Now, there are options to try and mitigate this.  If you want to start the next adventure with some money you can either take the “income” endeavour and earn an honest wage, or you can choose to “bank” your cash.  With the latter you can choose to “invest” and can then roll for things like interest rate and whether or not your investment goes bankrupt and you lose all your money.  If the investment succeeds you can use another endeavour to withdraw your money and do more fun bookkeeping to work out how much interest you’re due.  If that doesn’t sound appealing you can choose to stash your money – you don’t earn any interest, and you can withdraw your cash without spending another endeavour, but there’s a ten percent chance someone will find your stash and steal all your money.

Do you get the impression that the authors thought that if they took cash away from the players GMs would be able to make more use of “…and the NPC offers you great riches if you’ll accept the adventure?”  Only, if they know that they’re probably going to lose it all when they finish whatever quest they’re on, it’s hardly a great incentive is it?

Moving away from downtime, we jump into the Religion and Belief chapter.  This was always one of my favourite sections of the original WFRP, and I’m pleased to say that Cubicle 7 have done a brilliant job with it this time around.  The gods of the Warhammer world always had a very unique feel to them, and this has been captured perfectly across 20 or so pages.  All of the main deities of the Old World are accounted for, with one page write-ups for each detailing things like worshippers, holy sites, penances and strictures. 

One of the best chapters

Following these, there’s a brief overview of non-human deities, and an even briefer note on the Chaos Gods.  Hopefully, a future supplement will expand upon these topics in more detail, as these were always areas that I felt were lacking in the original (Realms of Chaos supplements not withstanding). 

We then get details on the two types of powers available to clerics – blessings, which are minor miracles, and invocations which are your flashier manifestations of divine favour.  Each deity provides those with the Blessings talent six Blessings, whilst the miracles are flavoured to each of the individual cults.  I really like this update to the system.  In first ed, Clerics were essentially wizards with a much more limited choice of spells.  In this edition, clerical magic feels special, different and – more importantly – themed to each of the individual gods.  Therefore, a Cleric of Verena will invoke miracles of a very different type to those of a worshipper of Ulric.  My only gripe is that the focus of miracles is purely limited to human Old World cults – it seems like halfling, dwarf and elven clerics will have to wait for another supplement to get spells of their own.

Following on from Religion we dive into a chunky chapter on magic.  This was one area that first edition REALLY struggled with.  Seriously – the magic system was a straight port from Warhammer Fantasy Battle 2nd Ed and really not suited to an RPG.  Advancing as a wizard was difficult, learning new spells was difficult, casting spells was difficult and in general the whole thing was a clunky mess.  With a few exceptions, all of the spells were a straight port from WFB, and as a result their application in a non-battle setting was seriously limited.  Hell, the main body of spells (which Clerics drew their magic from too) was called “Battle Magic”.
So, how does 4th edition compare?  Thankfully, the system is a LOT better, and also a lot more thematic.  Naturally, this means that things are a lot more crunchy but, if you’ve made it this far into this review you’ll probably not be surprised at this!  At its simplest, casting a spell involves making a casting test and accumulating a number of Success Levels equal to the casting number.  If you don’t manage this, you fail.  Given that all but the most basic of spells  have a casting number much higher than that which can easily be achieved, spell casters have the option to “channel” the winds of magic, allowing for the round by round accumulation of arcane energy until they are ready to attempt their spell.  I like this – it conjures up images of sorcerers trying to control the dangerous energy that surrounds them and weave it into a spell which they finally unleash upon their opponents. 

Thankfully it’s not this…

The rules also do a great job of conjuring up how dangerous magic is – a critical roll means that the winds of magic have flared out of your control, granting your spell extra power but with potentially disastrous results.  Being around a source of chaotic corruption makes this more likely, which fits very nicely with Warhammer’s theme of “magic is really just controlled chaos”.  Allowing wizards options to mitigate the effects of miscasts through preparation and ingredients helps add to the flavour and gives magic using players a lot of options.  Do I take the time to safely cast this spell, or do I really need to get it off quickly?

Spells are broken out into petty magic – simple cantrips every wizard learns when starting out – and lore magic, which represents your character’s area of specialisation.  Normally, a wizard can only learn one lore but, naturally, elves are able to learn more if they meet certain conditions.  Because they’re magical and amazing presumably?  Lores might relate to one of the schools of colour magic, witchcraft or something naughty like demonology or chaos magic.  While each lore is wonderfully thematic, magic users can also choose from a pool of “arcane” spells which allow for more generic magical effects like flight, magic shields, teleportation and magic missiles.  There are almost twenty pages of spells, so there’s plenty for budding wizards to get their teeth into.  I love how each Lore feels different from the others, and I’d be interested to see how the system plays out in an actual game.  Yes, it’s crunchy but I think that could work in its favour.  After all, isn’t magic meant to be complicated and laden with potential risk?  I can see a player accidentally forgetting that they could use an ingredient with a spell and having the spell flare out of their control!

But…but…we’re a grimdark, dark fantasy, low magic setting unlike that silly D&D game!

The only real gripe I have with the magic chapter is that I am not a fan of the direction Warhammer went with regards to magic following the 3rd edition of fantasy battle.  Suddenly we had “wizard licenses” and “magical universities” and the low fantasy world of Warhammer all of a sudden became much more high magic.  This is a personal thing – I know some people love it – and this edition was released with over three decades of fluff established for it, so I’m not going to suggest that the inclusion of these elements somehow makes this a bad product.  Just don’t claim your game is gritty, low magic grimdarkness when you’ve got wizards wreathed in blazing nimbuses of fire, whizzing by on griffons and blasting people from their skull-topped wands.

After we’ve finished with magic we get around half a dozen pages on how to be a gamesmaster.  There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but I’m sure new players would find it useful.
We then get around 20 pages that serve as a guide to the Reikland – a section of the Empire that is the game’s default setting.  The content is fine, and it details the setting quite nicely, but as someone who has ready the World Guide in first ed this just feels somewhat sparse in comparison.  If 1e could give us an overview of the entire world, how come we only get detail on what amounts to a single province here? 
Worst of all, there are no maps!  If you want to work out in your head where everything is, you’ll be flicking back and forth between this chapter and the end papers which, as I mentioned earlier, aren’t that easy to read.  Whilst these maps do a wonderful job of looking like an Olde Worlde mappe, they’re not that usable.  Plus, they’re repeated – once at the beginning and once at the end of the book.  Why not replace one of these with a useful, simple, black and white map?  This example of style over substance goes a long way to making the Reikland chapter less useful than it could be.

We then have the Consumer Guide, which is to say pages and pages of useful equipment to spend your hard earned gold crowns on – presumably before downtime steals them away!  This includes everything from weapons, to clothing to prosthetics.  Weapons, unsurprisingly, add more complications to the game.  They can have “qualities” and “flaws” which is to say extra rules that affect combat.  On one hand, this makes weapons more interesting than “this is a sword and this a plus one sword – I like the plus one sword better” but it does mean that there’s a lot more to remember in a fight and combat will consequently take a lot longer.

Quick! Let’s buy something before our money all mysteriously vanishes…
This guy looks properly monstrous unlike some of the tosh GW used to churn out…

The final chapter is a bestiary made up of a mix of generic fantasy creatures and creations that are pure Warhammer – Fimir and Skaven, I’m looking at you! Each entry is exactly what you’d expect – a brief description of the creature, a stat block and a picture.  One nice thing is that creatures are assigned a number of “traits” which do a good job of shorthanding things like skills, talents and weapon qualities.  For example, the Orc has a trait saying “weapon +8” which means when it hits, to calculate damage you just take the success levels earned in combat and add them to 8 to get the total wounds caused.  This is a great design decision and should hopefully make things like combat move more quickly.  The downside is that most creatures have a LOT of traits – the goblin, one of the most generic of adversaries, has at least half a dozen!  This means that the GM will have to do quite a bit of prep before most games and, I would imagine, it will probably entail a lot of page flipping during the first few games they run. Speaking of orcs and goblins, the artwork for them is great and the descriptions are devoid of the “gobbo” nonsense that Games Workshop are  so fond of in every publication ever to feature these creatures…

It’s funny ‘cos dey soundz like cockneys…

…so imagine my disappointment to find a quote from an “Orc Boss” full of the “dis, dem, day” pigeon English that is still serving as a substitute for humour after almost three decades.  Still, at least I’ve not found any references to “Zoggin’ ‘oomie gitz“….yet…


That was a BIG book.

So, after 350 or so pages, what do I think?  Well, gripes about artwork aside, I think there’s a lot to like.  It’s a complete package in one book, and its overhauled some aspects of earlier editions quite nicely.  I have my reservations about how complicated some of it feels, but not having run it yet I can’t comment fully on that just yet.

The most important thing is that it “feels” like a Warhammer product – again, other than my gripes around some of the more high magic elements creeping in.  I was happy that, after reading it, my first thought was “I can’t wait to run it”.

Guess I’d better get something planned before Steve listens to this and takes that last statement as a promise…

Pretty much the contents of my schoolbag circa 1985.

I’ve got a wonderful little app on my phone called Fighting Fantasy Classics by Tin Man Games. At its core, FFC is a virtual bookshelf with a built in engine that allows the reader to play Classic Fighting Fantasy books. There are currently around a dozen to choose from, with each costing a few bucks, and they can be played in a variety of forms – from Hardcore Hero where every decision is final, to something approaching “old school cheater”, where you can jump back and forth between book marks (nicely mimicking the old “five fingered bookmark”) and decide the results of combat and other tests.

These fellas make a good app

Much as I love the tactile feeling of books, and much as I have an enormous nostalgic love for the physical products – seriously, my bookshelf has all the originals bar two – this app is brilliant for things like long journeys on public transport or waiting around in a doctor’s surgery, needing as it does none of those new fangled internets. In terms of presentation, the app is lovely, with options for different fonts, new or classic versions of the illustrations and even a choice of atmospheric music.

Yesterday I found myself waiting around for my daughter whilst she was visiting the doctors’, and rather than spending my time doomscrolling on Twitter and trying to avoid the urge to get involved in discussions with people who were losing their minds over the “startling revelation” that Critical Role was making quite a lot of money over on Twitch, I decided to fire up Fighting Fantasy Classics. Upon doing so, I found that they had added a new book to the shelf…

Now, for those of you not aut fait with the wonderful world of Fighting Fantasy (shame on you!) you’re probably thinking “So what?” The title is fairly typical Fighting Fantasy “The something of something!” fare, with no hint as to what the story might be about, other than the fact that the guy on the cover is probably not going to be one of the good guys…

This game is much better than it looks – trust me.

Eleven year old me probably thought something similar when I first bought this back in *cough cough*. I was in town with my mum, and I had some pocket money burning a hole in…well….my pocket. I had just bought the computer game Feud for my Amstrad for the princely sum of £1.99 and was on the look out for something else. Naturally, I gravitated towards a Fighting Fantasy book, and it was as I was browsing them that I found this new release – Creature of Havoc. The thing that REALLY stood out for me? The very first line on the blurb…


Hmm. Tell me more…

Obviously, to learn more a purchase was required, so I quickly parted with the princely sum of £1.95 and the book was mine. In a display that would probably have my kids rolling their eyes in an “Ok dad, whatever…” sort of way if I told them, I rushed home, put my new computer game to one side, and dived into this book.

They weren’t kidding when they said it was unusual…

For starters, there was the little story on the first page.

Blah blah evil is festering in the land blah blah evil necromancer blah blah legions of chaos blah blah bestial creature, ruled by hunger blah blah taste for fighting and flesh of other creatures blah blah you’re playing the creature bla…wait. WHAT?

You’re NOT playing this guy…

That’s right – in this adventure, you’re not brave adventurer set on vanquishing the evil from the land. Instead, you’re this near mindless brute who loves fighting and eating other creatures.

But, as the blurb promises, it may be possible for you to begin to control your bestial nature. It also goes on to say that it may be possible for you to learn more about yourself, and even to learn your true destiny.

Even back then, I loved stuff like this so at that point, I was pretty much considering my £1.95 well spent.

The whole “the most unusual Fighting Fantasy yet” claim was pretty much born out in the rest of the introduction. Normally, an FF book would have some character generation rules, a bit on the system, how to use your equipment and magical potions, some general hints and advice, a character sheet, and then your “story so far…” background, which was usually a fairly standard “…and here’s how you were summoned on this glorious quest” boiler plate piece.

Creature of Havoc takes a different tack – you start with a character sheet, which is essentially three boxes for your stats followed by a massive section for clues. Where were the boxes for me to record my equipment, weapons and gold? Clearly this was not going to be an Ian Livingstone “collect these items or perish!” tale. We then got rules on creating our character, some system stuff…and then Tales of Trolltooth Pass. Unlike the other FF background sections which were very much “the background story for your character”, the Tales section was exactly what it said – stories about the region in which the game is set. It’s good stuff too – about twenty pages of world building, followed by a page that basically says “…and most of this will probably be of no help to you…”

VICTORY! Take that books!

Once you get into the game it is very different from a “normal” FF story. For starters, most of your early decisions are governed by a throw of the dice, and what is more you can’t understand anything that is said to you, something that is represented in game by an ingenious cypher.

I’ll be honest though, tweeny-me didn’t really get on with this book. The randomness was frustrating, and the puzzles – like the language cypher – were pretty tricky. I quickly gave up on it – I cheated to find out what the big mystery was – and ended up putting way more time into Feud than I ever did with Creature of Havoc.

Ok, so if it was such a drag, why write a blog article about it? Well, Mr Smartie-Pants, I didn’t say it was a drag – I said it was something that eleven year old Iain couldn’t wrap his tiny little mind around. Coming back to it years later as an adult, I can honestly say it is one of the cleverest, most finely crafted, and most satisfying Fighting Fantasy stories to play through. From the dungeon at the beginning where you have to come to terms with your nature (and where a few fantasy tropes are turned on their heads) to the exploration of Trolltooth pass, to your final destiny – all of them are beautifully put together, excellent to read, and extremely good fun to puzzle your way through.

The overall story is fantastic – wedding elements of Frankenstein into a fantasy narrative where the role of the hero is turned on its head – and the endgame, in whatever form it takes (this book has multiple endings rather than a binary “You won!” / “You died!”) closes things off nicely. Yes, I’m being deliberately cautious with what I say, as there are a lot of potential spoilers for this book, and I really don’t want to spoil it for people who are lucky enough not to have played through it yet.

And that, I suppose, is the point of this article. Now that this book is available via the Fighting Fantasy Classics app, my recommendation is that if you’re looking for an entertaining, if slightly different, fantasy story, you really should pick up Creature of Havoc. It is difficult enough that it will keep you going for a while, but it is not impossible to overcome – I have managed to complete this without cheating! Plus, it costs less than a cup of coffee (unless you’re drinking really cheap, nasty coffee that is)!

Check it out – you won’t regret it – there’s a reason this book has been reprinted every time the Fighting Fantasy license moved to a new publisher…

In 1993, I found my first “proper” job, as a waiter no less.  Actually – I say “found”, but the job actually found me, in the form of my mother thrusting a copy of the Evening Times in my direction, jabbing at a classified ad, and suggesting it might be nice for me to earn some cash for myself.

Aaah… Happy days…

The hours were long , the shifts were gruelling and – this being in the days before “minimum wage” was even a concept – the pay was lousy.  Thankfully, the tips – at least to my teenage mind – more than made up for my paltry weekly earnings.   I learned to be effortlessly charming and efficient very quickly. 

And it was a good job I did too, because in 1993 I had a lot to spend my money on.  Some new game called “Magic: the Gathering” had just hit the market, and it was a lot of fun.  It combined the fantastic worlds of RPGs with the giddy rush that I had only previously felt collecting football stickers as a kid. 

Got, got, got, got, NEED!

Ah – those memories of standing around in the freezing cold of a Scottish primary school playground watching as your friend flicked through a massive pile of stickers while you and your friends chanted something along the lines of “Got, got, got, got, NEED!” like some demented cultists.  If anyone did end up “needing” any of the stickers, that was usually the cue for the owner of the pile of cards to assume the stance and bearing of a Mafia don and ask you what you had to offer for it.

Magic had that same feel, but was considerably more expensive.  Fun fact – as part of my spending spree on Magic cards back in the early 90s I managed to get a Black Lotus.  Players of Wizards of the Coast’s card game will no doubt be seething with envy right now.  The Black Lotus is, without a doubt, THE best card ever printed for Magic.  It is also on a list of cards never to be reprinted. 

Yours for a cool $150k…

In fact, it’s so sought after that one recently sold at auction for well over $150,000.  I thought I was being smart in 1998 when I sold mine for £300…  Que sera.  Mind you, I doubt mine would have raised much more at auction.  I played the hell out of that card on many a beer stained university union table, and that was in the days before deck protectors were a thing…

It was during one of these forays to spend my ill-gotten gains on Magic cards that I discovered one of my favourite RPGs of all time.  I use “ill-gotten” in the truest sense, because I learned very early on that if you said to a table of old ladies “I’ll be with you in a minute, girls” you were onto at least a £5 tip.

On this particular excursion, the guy behind the Virgin megastore counter told me that they were all out of Magic cards, and that they didn’t know when they’d have more back in.  Disappointed, I started browsing the RPG aisle instead, and my eyes hit upon a game that I hadn’t seen before.
It was a softback book, and the cover depicted a fella wearing a trenchcoat – and looking for all the world that he’d been rejected by a tribute band for The Cure.  He was standing in the pouring rain and at the top left, in bright red letters were the words “S.L.A Industries”.  I would later learn that this was pronounced “SLAY”.

Flipping it over, I scanned the blurb.  It suggested that this was a game where the players were agents for the titular company.  It sounded pretty violent, but it also seemed that there was a televised element to it – was this like the Running Man?  Then there was the tag line:
Guns kill – but so does the truth.
I HAD to know more.

Curiously, it also seemed like SLA was published in the town I was living in at the time – Paisley, in Scotland.
That evening I read ALL of the background to this game and I was absolutely hooked.

At first glance, SLA seems to be a sci-fi investigation game.  Set in a dystopian universe, the players take on the roles of Operatives working for SLA Industries.  Ops fulfil all sorts of functions for the company.  On one hand they are investigators and detectives, but they can also be hit squads, spokespeople, EMTs, janitors – basically anything the company needs them to do.

Set on the company’s HQ world of Mort – a dying planet where it continually rains – the players operative out of Mort City; a gigantic hive, where the super rich and glamorous live at the top levels, and where the further down you go – literally to Downtown – the worse the conditions become, and the more awful your life is.  SLA Industries owns EVERYTHING – they refer to the known universe under their control as The World of Progress.  However, despite their dominance, the World of Progress is not an amazing place to live in.  The crime rate on Mort is through the roof, so it is up to the Ops to hold things together. 

Welcome to SLA – this is your life now.

They do this by carrying out the missions that are assigned to them.  Called Blueprint News Files (or BPNs) these missions are colour coded, and are what Operatives carry out to get paid.  BPNs vary from Blue – which equates to street maintenance, and which covers the filthiest, most simple, worst paying jobs; usually clearing out a sewer of some undesirables – to White – which are investigations – to Red – which are literally Red Alerts – all the way up to the top secret Platinum BPNs that are only issued by Head Office.  Sometimes squads even get a choice of BPN.

These are your new colleagues – happy induction day!

As well as a steady pay check, BPNs also give squads a chance to advance their Security Clearance Level (or SCL) and to get noticed by the media.  You see, in a bid to keep the unwashed masses happy, SLA has pretty much wholeheartedly embraced the Roman poet Juvenal’s maxim of “Bread and Circuses”.  Every citizen is paid a stipend of unis – the civilian currency –  every week and, to keep them entertained, most of the work carried out by SLA Ops is televised live.  There are is also “The Contract Circuit” where SLA sanctioned “Contract Killers” compete against each other in futuristic gladiatorial games.  Occasionally, channels such as Gorezone will go into a neighbourhood, open up all the sewer covers, and let all the nasties that live there pour out onto the streets while Ops, Contract Killers and anyone else who wants to get in on the action will take them down, live on air.  Occasionally, Ops will get caught up in something like this whilst their in the middle of a BPN…

It’s really not surprising then that one of the driving motivations for Ops – and therefore the players – is to earn enough money to  buy the latest armour and weapons.

Of course, the televised aspect CAN make investigations tricky.  If your squad is trying to track down a notorious serial killer, it’s kind of hard to get the drop on him when he can sit at home in front of the TV getting a play by play from Third Eye news on how close he is to being caught…

At this point, you’re probably wondering why anyone would want to work for SLA.  After all, wouldn’t it be simpler being one of the idle civilians, lounging about on your benefit cheque, watching TV all day?

“Join up” they said. “Visit exciting places” they said…

The simple answer is not “no” but rather “HELL NO”.  Mort is a horrible place to live, and Downtown – where the bulk of the unemployed masses dwell – is literally the pits.  Put aside for one moment the fact that you’ve barely got enough money to survive, there are gangs everywhere who want a cut of whatever you own “for protection” and the police – a corporate force run by SLA called The Shivers – are amazingly corrupt and are more interested in penning you in and making sure you don’t bother the great and the good in Uptown than they are of preventing crime.  You’ll also probably find that there is at least one serial killer active near you at any given time – Mort’s dark, hellish, claustrophobic conditions aren’t exactly conducive to good mental health – and the fun part is that these guys aren’t the worst thing that could come crawling into your apartment!  Mort’s sewers are infested with all sorts of nasties, from carnivorous pigs to the omnipresent Carrien packs – a weird, humanoid race of creatures with dog-like skulls for heads and an insatiable appetite for flesh.
Still, although living in Downtown sucks, you could find yourself stranded outside off the city walls living in the Cannibal Sectors.   This blasted wasteland clearly owes a lot to Judge Dredd’s “Cursed Earth” but it’s like someone said “How could we take that concept and make it more horrific?”  EVERYTHING in the Cannibal Sectors wants to kill you and eat you – yet as an Op you sometimes have to go there for work…

Further enriching the background of SLA are the cast of aliens that make up Mort’s population.  There are – of course – humans, but they’re joined by Frothers – humans born with a predilection for drugs and raised in a pseudo Scottish culture, Ebons and Brain Wasters – creatures who are similar to humans except they can manipulate a force underpinning reality called The Ebb – Shakters – big, red reptile guys who live by a code of honour and have a lot of Klingon and Predator going on – Wraith Raiders – super fast cat people from a frozen homeworld with all the empathy you’d expect to find in a domestic moggy – and Stormers – SLA’s genetically engineered super soldiers.  Think eight foot tall walls of muscle with weird, slightly equine faces and you’re not going far wrong.

All of that probably sounds pretty odd and that’s because it is!  However, it all kind of works – SLA has a VERY unique vibe, and all these weird aliens, the strange city and this strange, mega-consumer driven society where it is perfectly legal – and encouraged – to shoot up on combat  drugs really comes to life through the book’s black and white images and the fiction which crops up randomly from time to time.

These black and white images are a zillion times better than some modern CG

I say randomly because, although this is a professional production, it still has a bit of a feel of a fanzine.  There’s a lack of organisation to some of the sections, and sometimes the artwork can feel slightly out of place or not at all connected to what is being discussed.  At one point, for example, there’s a two page spread of what looks like CAD drawings… 

The contents reflect this too.  There’s  some general scene setting pieces, followed by the standard “What is a roleplaying game?”  We then get almost ONE HUNDRED pages of background before we hit any rules.  Now, the early 90s was infamous for this sort of thing – White Wolf, I’m looking at you – but a HUNDRED PAGES?  Most of it will either not impact the players, or will have little material outcome on the state of play – the history which is such a big part of this material is rigorously suppressed and sanitised by  SLA in the game world that most starting characters would not know of it. 
Even within the history chapter, the structure is plagued by this same randomness.  There’s the history, then there’s a section on what an operative does, then there’s a load of information on Mort.  Wouldn’t it have made sense to have had the Op information first, then rules & character generation, and confine the other stuff to a GM’s chapter?

The last chapter of the book is a particular head-scratcher.  It includes information on the media….followed by a brief look at the Carrien – the problem vermin from the Cannibal Sectors.  Huh?

I’m probably making more of a big deal out of this than there needs to be – as I mentioned before, the setting reeks of atmosphere; the fact that they way it’s laid out does nothing to diminish this.  Indeed, after my first reading I was very much of the opinion that I NEEDED TO RUN THIS NOW!

Unfortunately, where SLA did fall down, was the system.  It’s a bit cobbled together, and the kindest way to describe it would be “functional”.  When I ran games of SLA it worked just fine and we all had fun, but it wasn’t exactly sleek and streamlined.  Take the organisation – again – for example.  There are almost four pages given over to rules on fear and reputation.  These are rules that, in all my times running SLA, I hardly ever used as written.

Combat – always the longest section of most RPG rulebooks – takes up around a dozen pages and is pretty crunchy.  However, there’s not a lot of randomness in there – apart from the rolls to hit – so it’s pretty easy to game the system, and after a bit of time with it, it becomes pretty readily apparent that certain types of ammunition are just flat out better than others.

The section on wounds leads to situations that make little sense.  Under the SLA rules, every time a character is hit, they take it a wound.  It doesn’t matter if they’re hit by the biggest gun in the game, or the worst gun in the game – if they take damage they take a wound regardless.  The mechanical effect of having a wound means that you lose a hit point every five rounds.  Multiple wounds shorten this duration, and more than five wounds increase the hit points loss.  You also get a -1 penalty to your actions for every wound you take. As mentioned before, a blow has to do at least one point of damage to cause a wound, but given that the worst civilian rifle is capable of penetrating starting operative armour, this is kind of moot.  Imagine a starting Op, highly trained and armed to the teeth being jumped by a gang – five of which manage to damage him.  He SHOULD be able to tear through them, but the rules as written mean that he’s flailing around all over the place and bleeding out where he stands.  Not a great look on Third Eye News.

Then we come to character creation…

There’s a lot going on in this character sheet..

I’m not going to spend too much time here, but suffice to say it’s a points based system… 

…and every character has 300 points to spend on their characteristics and their skills.

Given that for your average human their stats are on a range of five to ten, and that each skill is governed by a stat and that skill can’t go above the stat value you can see that this leads to a LOT of bookeeping!

As was the fashion for the 1990s, there are a ton of merits and flaws to choose from.  However, each merit and flaw comes on a scale of one to ten and you either  receive or pay a certain amount of points per level you take.  This gets unwieldy very quickly. 

Let’s take the first merit / flaw combo – Handsome / Ugly as an example.  There are  ten levels.  Each one gives you or costs you a point.  One point of handsome is “slightly better looking” and ten points mean “stunningly attractive”.  What effect does this have on the game?  Well, that’s not clear.  Stuff like this really needs to be defined, otherwise how does the GM work out what effect one point of “handsome” has on a roll that relies on appearance?

It gets more ridiculous when you pair up certain advantages and disadvantages.  Remember our definition of 10 points of “handsome” – stunningly attractive.  Well, there’s a disadvantage called “bad figure” – also on a one to ten scale.  What happens if you take ten points of handsome and ten points of bad figure?  Apparently you’re stunningly attractive…but with an overweight, misshapen and hideously ill proportioned body.  Literally just a pretty face…  Oh and there’s no guidance on how this Igor-like body impairs your physical day to day.

If it was said that “The GM decides the effects of the different levels of advantages and disadvantages” things wouldn’t be so bad.  However, Captain Inconsistency  shows up again.  Guess what?  Some advantages and disadvantages DO have mechanical effects written into the rules…

By far the most infamous advantage, though, was “sterile”.  It landed you TEN points to spend on skills.  To put that into perspective, that’s the same as being THE most horrendously ugly person on the planet or being possessed of the Quasimodo-like figure we talked about a minute ago!  Unless one of your driving goals was to have a family (and who in their right mind would try and raise a kid on Mort?) this disadvantage had ZERO impact on the game.

Yes – these are the “good” guys…

Following the character creation rules, were write ups on each of the races.  This positioning is an odd choice – it’s traditional for players to read about their character choices BEFORE the make up their characters.  However, this is a minor gripe as these two page spreads were a great read, and really helped conjure up the weird atmosphere of the setting.  However, due to the way the rules worked it became clear VERY quickly that there was little point – other than flavour – in playing a Shaktar because, pound per pound if you were going to play the squad’s “big fighty guy” you’d be better off playing a Stormer.

In short, the rules were a bit of a mess.  However, much as I’ve spent time here highlighting this, that’s only to contrast with the fact that they didn’t stop myself and my group having an absolute blast with the game!  I’ve probably not conveyed it very well in my description, but the unique atmosphere of SLA helped to completely eclipse any of the crunchy shortcomings of the rules system.  Yes, there were other sci-fi dystopian games out there, but none of them felt like SLA, with its weird aliens, its strange Ebb forces and its drugs – and what was with all those little call backs to the real world – the world that the players were living in?  As an example, Mort’s most infamous serial killer was called “Halloween Jack” and he had a Jack O Lantern shaped mask.  Clearly, there is nothing in SLA’s cosmology that corresponds to Halloween, so why is this?  Likewise, all the months of the year share the same names as those of the Gregorian calendar.  An oversight, or something else?  There’s also the song titles from real life bands scattered throughout the text.  SLA’s background captured the mind, and I’ve never met anyone who played it who didn’t absolutely love it.

Case in point: one of these fans was Max Bantleman who produced a fanzine called “The Big Picture” which was distributed and sold at games shops and cons.  This fanzine featured fan-made articles on races, creatures, opponents, equipment – all sorts of good stuff to slot into your SLA campaign.  Now, bear in mind that this was when the internet was in its complete infancy.  Nowadays, this sort of stuff would be on a website or a Facebook group somewhere.  However, back then a fanzine was the best way to distribute this information. 

Unfortunately, Max didn’t exactly endear himself to the folks at Nightfall.  He needed art for his fanzine, and he decided that the best place to take it from would be the main SLA rulebook.  As he said himself, his intentions were good, but this didn’t really help his cause and he was considered something of a nuisance by Nightfall.
Like Max, most fans who bought into SLA wanted more content.  So, when I saw a review of Karma – SLA Industries first supplement – in Valkyrie magazine, I naturally rushed out and bought it!

Karma was a very clever sourcebook.  Presented as a SLA Industries lifestyle magazine for Operatives, it was all flavour, with the rules crammed into the back.  Loads of sourcebooks since then have followed this pattern, but back then this was really unique and refreshing.
Karma doubled down on the atmosphere created in the main rulebook, with more evocative art and prose, and introduced some further typically SLA concepts.  One area that received a lot of exploration was that of biogenetics.  Unlike other games in the genre, SLA didn’t have any kind of focus on cybernetics – indeed, there’s a slice of history that talks about that having been a passing fad in the World of Progress.  Instead, SLA has biogenetics as an equivalent.  Want to be stronger, faster or tougher?  Get some biogenetic implants.  Want to see in the dark?  Get some biogenetic implants?  Want your life extended?  We can do that too with biogenetics.  In fact, one of the big articles in Karma is the concept of L.A.D, or Life After Death.  For a small fee, operatives can be fitted with an implant which notifies Karma when they die so that they can dispatch a medical team to stabilise you and bring you in for resurrection.   Like all things SLA, there was no guarantee it  would work.  End up dead in Cannibal Sector 1, and chances are the medics won’t be able to get to you in time…

It was around this time that Wizards of the Coast took note of SLA Industries and bought the game outright.  Amongst their publications was the “Mort” sourcebook that covered the HQ planet of the company.  It received mixed reviews.

Anyone who knows anything about Wizards of the Coast will know that they are not a company famed for their RPGs (other than that one time they swooped in and helped a little known game called Dungeons and Dragons that is….).  In December 1995 they announced that they were dropping their entire roleplaying line, SLA included.

The rights for SLA went back to Nightfall who made an agreement with Hogshead Publishing.  The main rulebook was reprinted along with a couple of supplements.  These were an adventure called “The Key of Delhyread” and a sourcebook called “The Contract Directory” which sought to define exactly what the Contract Circuit was, and what all these TV shows that the unwashed masses consumed were all about.  Both were ok, but neither really set the SLA world aflame.  Hogshead folded in the early 2000s and, once again, the rights for SLA went back to Nightfall.

Did I dream all of THIS?

When discussing SLA from this period, it is impossible not to talk about “The Writer’s Bible”.  Remember that quote from the back of the original rulebook – Guns Kill, But So Does the Truth?  Well, in 1998 a document called The SLA Industries RPG Writer’s Bible / Style Guide was leaked one of the SLA mailing lists.  Kids – ask your parents what a mailing list was.This document was just over two dozen pages long, and it seemed to be an internal Nightfall document for freelance authors, explaining how certain aspects of the World of Progress worked thematically and what the game’s metaplot was.  Clearly, the idea was that new writers would be able to stick to the game’s canon, whilst also knowing what could and couldn’t be discussed.  The document itself was very rough and ready – but then again it was an internal document intended for internal use; not as a polished piece ready to be consumed by the public.The really interesting part of the document was the second section,  entitled The Truth.  In this, Nightfall explain the secrets behind the various forces at play within the World of Progress.  About three and a half pages into this section we come to the metaplot.I’m not going to go into it here – the document is easy enough to find if you go looking for it – but suffice to say, the general reaction from the SLA community upon reading this was “WTF”?  Personally, I found it all rather interesting – it was like no other RPG I’d read before.  Yes the document was rough as you like – but it was never intended for public consumption.  I often wonder what would have happened if it wasn’t leaked and Nightfall were able to explore their Truth through publications.  There were aspects of The Truth that went a long way to explaining why the World of Progress was the way it was, and I really wish that some of this had come out in the form of supplements, rather than being left to fester in a Writer’s Guide.Back in the world of publishing, SLA Industries was taken on by Cubicle 7 in the early 2000s. 

Not a fan, I’ll be honest…

Despite an initial flurry of enthusiasm, Cubicle 7 only released two of the supplements they had lined up – “Cannibal Sector 1” and “Hunter Sheets Issue 1”.   Unfortunately, Dave Allsop – one of Nightfall’s directors and the guy responsible for most of the iconic SLA imagery – left Cubicle 7, and this probably took a lot of energy out of the SLA project.  2007 was the last time Cubicle 7 released anything for the game and then – once again – it reverted back to Nightfall games.

Nightfall spent the early 2010s releasing a variety of PDF only “data packets” for SLA Industries.  These small supplements were short on pages but VERY rich in lore.  For fans of SLA, they were an absolute delight to read through.  Many of them came with a “Truth Rating” on the front, which corresponded to how deep into the game’s metaplot they would go.  Interestingly, when Cubicle 7 took over SLA it was announced that The Truth as presented in the writer’s guide was no longer canon.  However, reading through these data packets it was very easy to see the influence of that document – albeit far better presented.  Did this mean that the Truth was back?  The way that some of the data packets left things dangling it was clear to fans of SLA that something was brewing on the horizon.

The form that the “something” took was not what a lot of SLA fans were expecting.  In 2016 Daruma Productions announced a Kickstarter for a SLA Industries miniatures skirmish game called “Cannibal Sector 1”.  According to the Kickstarter, backers would get the rulebook and factions decks.  Dave Allsop would be doing the artwork, and he would be collaborating with Jared Earle – one of SLA’s original creators – on the lore and background of the game.  Apparently there would be “other goodies” included, but something that was stated in the first update was that “we will not be including any faction starters or miniatures in this Kickstarter.  If the stretch goals reach high enough levels, we do aim to create on special character for each faction.”This didn’t bother me – as a rule I’m EXTREMELY wary about backing Kickstarters that include miniatures, as they never run to time, so I happily backed it for the book.  Some new official, tangible material that I could hold in my grubby hands from the guys behind SLA?  Yes please!There is a phenomena that I like to call “Kickstarter Bloat” – where a creator puts in a ton of stretch goals in a bid to entice more and more backers and ends up having to produce more than they can realistically hope to produce or ship.  CS1 was absolutely riven by this, and Daruma seemed completely oblivious to it.  Although I wanted the main rulebook (that is, the one with all the RPG bits in it – not just the skirmish rules) my pledge, after the stretch goals included:

  • A signed hardback rulebook
  • An A5 copy of the skirmish rules
  • A PDF of the rulebook
  • All 6 faction decks
  • A CS1 T-Shirt
  • A CS1 pin
  • A CS1 bag
  • A shiver sergent mini
  • A manchine mini
  • 4 character minis
  • A warithen mini
  • A shaktar mini
  • An ebon mini
  • A 313 stormer mini
  • A Xeno stormer mini
  • An Aetherman mini
  • A vevaphon mini
  • A sector ranger mini
  • A grit stormer mini
  • A chagrin stormer mini
  • An advanced carrien mini
  • An ex-War Criminal mini
  • A digger mini
  • Glyph cards
  • 6 sets of 4D10s done up in different factions’ colours
  • A campaign medal
  • A PDF campaign pack

That’s….a LOT!  Given that most miniatures games that are fulfilled on Kickstarter run into the hundreds of millions of dollars,  the fact that this one was funded on just over fifty thousand was concerning. People who backed the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition kickstarter are probably getting deja vu round about now…As was expected, in 2017 I received a message saying that “Things wouldn’t be delivered as planned” and then unfortunately – but not entirely unsurprisingly – in June 2018 backers received a message from Nightfall saying that they had parted ways with Daruma who were going into liquidation.  To help try and deliver the Kickstarter they were going to partner with Word Forge games but, unfortunately, all the funds from the Cannibal Sector 1 Kickstarter were gone and thus Nightfall and Word Forge were going to have to work out how to fund fulfilment. 

What followed was painful for a lot of people, but the new Nightfall and Word Forge partnership had to make some tough choices.  They had a bloated, creaking Kickstarter, and they had to cut some fat in order to make fulfillments of the core deliverables a reality.  In the end – by the middle of 2019 – I received my books, along with a handful of miniatures, some dice, the bag and a pin.  Was it worth it?  Well, the hardback – the only thing I REALLY cared about from the whole campaign – was a thing of beauty, and it was MASSIVE.  This mighty, full-colour tome delved into the entire history of CS 1 – from its origins as “Central Outskirts” all the way to the present day…and then into the future.  Yes – SLA’s authors had chosen to move the metaplot forward!  There were also a couple of moments where I’d read something, stop and go back and read it again as there were some tasty nuggets of the new Truth in there.

So, a few months later when the Kickstarter for SLA Industries 2nd edition went live I was all in!  Despite the shaky ending to the CS1 campaign, Nightfall had shown a lot of integrity in the way they had acted.  They took a massive financial hit themselves to ensure that the backers would at least get something – the main thing for the project.  Plus, their communication was spot on – they were honest, transparent and didn’t mess around with timelines.  Speaking as a professional project manager, this is all you can ask for! The SLA 2.0 kickstarter went largely to plan.  There was a little thing called Coronavirus that got in the way of a summer 2020 delivery, but otherwise it went smoothly. A Quickstart was released early on to give us a taste of the game. 

As mentioned before, Nightfall’s communication along the way was great, and whilst the shipment of physical product was delayed, backers did get their hands on PDFs of the book on schedule, and I have to admit that this was a pretty exciting moment for me.  My co-host Jason was spammed by a series of messages from me – the tone of which probably came across as that of an excitable teenager – as I read through the book.  Jason was a massive spoil sport though – declaring that he would be waiting till he got his physical reward before reading anything (SUBTEXT: ENOUGH WITH THE SPOILERS IAIN).Interestingly, as the campaign was coming to a close, Nightfall announced that certain of their products were now no-longer  canon.  These included the “Mort” sourcebook (which was rendered redundant by the Mort chapter in the new rulebook), “The Key of Delhyread” (that never really felt canon in the first place), “The Contract Directory”, the Cubicle 7 “Cannibal Sector 1” sourcebook (which didn’t have any of the original SLA crew involved in its production, and which was rendered pointless following the release of the new CS1 book) and the “Ursa Carrien” data packet (which didn’t fit with the new origins of Carrien as presented in 2nd edition and the new CS 1 book).  They also commented directly on The Writer’s Bible and pointed out that the Truth as presented there was not the Truth under pinning second edition.  Now, for those of you familiar with it, there’s clearly still a kernel of the old Truth there, but I’m interested to see where they go with it.Lately, Nightfall announced that all the other first ed supplements were now being considered non-canon and they’re going to be removed from Drive Thru RPG.  This is a somewhat puzzling decision.  Why remove them from DTRPG?  Sure, make them non-canon but why cut off a potential revenue stream?  I’m sure there’s more to come here…

Going back to the campaign, Nightfall will have my eternal thanks due to the way they handled my pledge, personally.  Because of circumstances beyond my control, myself and my family had to move house pretty quickly at the end of last year.  This was around the time that Nightfall were shipping the Kickstarter Rewards, so I contacted them asking if they could redirect mine.  They messaged me – ON CHRISTMAS DAY – asking for my details.  A few days later my goodies turned up.  It goes without saying that THAT level of customer service is above and beyond what is expected!

This may have been sent to Jason along with a note saying “What do I have in front of me that makes me cooler than you?”

So, how does 2nd ed compare to that original edition I picked up in Glasgow all those years ago?  The biggest change is the production values.  One thing that long time fans of SLA joke about is the quality of the old books.  Both my copies of Karma and my original rulebook fell apart in record time.  This new book is a study hardback that will retain its pages for many, many years.  The layout and organisation is also far more professionally done that in 1993, but that’s hardly surprising with both the advancement in technology and the fact that the Nightfall crew have had many moons to hone their craft!  When it comes to artwork, on one hand, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of where it was in the early 90s.  Dave Allsop was an excellent artist back in the day, but it’s clear that he’s become even better over time.  The pieces are all full colour, and they still reek of that strange, odd, SLA Industries atmosphere.  It’s actually very hard to compare them to the original pieces completed almost thirty years ago.  The production values in the new book are MUCH higher.  Seriously – I’ve mentioned it before but it deserves mentioning again – the layout and the simple construction of the book is up there with the best modern RPGs have to offer. 

However, there was something extremely compelling about 1st edition SLA.  Part of me really misses the black and white artwork from that first book.  Yes, the newer book is much more polished, but there was a certain raw power to the imagery in the original.  I don’t know – I should probably take these rose tinted glasses off…One of the new pieces of artwork that I loved – and which was long overdue – was the map of Mort.  This REALLY brings to life the bizarre structure of the city, and just why living in Downtown (not to mention LOWER Downtown) is so awful.  It really brings alive the scale of the place – from the spires of head office to the wastes of the Cannibal sectors.  Previously, Mort was pretty much whatever an individual GM made it – which was fine – but it was often hard to reconcile what was written in one place, from where it was described elsewhere.  With this new artwork it actually makes sense – albeit a twisted, dark, dystopian kind of sense…

The background and history sections have been expanded upon since first ed, being updated to include some of the material from Cannibal Sector 1 in addition to a whole load of brand new stuff.  For the keen eyed, the Truth – in some form – is clearly still there.  Indeed, there are blatant name drops for some of the folks mentioned in that original document.  However, this is clearly something that’s going to be built upon in future supplements, so I’m excited to see where they go with it.  Actually, I don’t know why I said “keen eyed” – the opening and closing pieces of fiction are both massive truth bombs that I loved.  However, if I was entirely new to SLA I’m not sure I would understand them or their significance.  That said, I’m not sure I understood SLA’s original opening fiction back in 1993 so maybe I’m over thinking this!There’s a new type of BPN too – Orange – to represent investigations into the Sh’ien cult that is making its presence known on Mort.  For long time SLA players the subnote of “LAD cannot respond to requests for assistance from operatives on an Orange BPN” should be suitably chilling reading.Along side the cults, one of the “new” foes facing Ops are the Conflict Aliens. 

I’m using airquotes around new, because the Conflict Aliens aren’t new – they’re a part of SLAs murky past that they thought were long defeated.  As antagonists go, these guys are seriously scary, very well equipped and out for bloody revenge.  Given how much SLA have sanitised their own history, Ops facing these guys are going to be totally ill-prepared.Join the cast of “newish” bad guys are the Dream Entities.  Those who have read some of the data packets released by SLA or Cannibal Sector 1 will know what these guys are – they seem to be the manifestations of the fears of people living in and around lower downtown.  They’re an interesting change to serial killers and carrien, because often these things can’t simply be blasted away, and they really let a creative GM make the lower reaches of Mort a thing of absolute terror.  They also raise some rather unsettling questions about the nature of the whole of SLA Industries’ reality.

The system is where SLA has REALLY made improvements.  Things have been simplified, streamlined and balanced.  I’ll caveat this with the fact that I’ve not played it yet, but a casual reading shows that it’s a zillion times better than the bloated mess that 1st ed was.  My co-host Steve is eager for me to run a game, so hopefully I’ll have a more informed opinion soon!  Combat looks to be fast moving and streamlined – minimising the amount of numbers that need to be crunched at any one given time – and gone are the silly rules on wounds.  Under the new rules, wounds are serious affairs that happen when you take a lot of damage.Character creation is much more balanced and simplified.  Gone are the need to keep track of several hundreds of character points, and each of the races seems to be fairly evenly balanced.  There are reasons to choose from all of them now. 

Gone, but not entirely forgotten – check out Progress Report Three on Drive Thru RPG…

Sadly, for long time players and fans of the Karma supplement, Vevaphons  – the biogenetic polymorphs – are no longer a character choice, but I can see why they were removed.  I only ever had one player choose to be a vev in first ed, and while it was a fun character it was THE most bookkeeping intensive character in the whole party!  They’re not ENTIRELY gone from the setting, and I can easily envisaged the opportunities of using a rogue vev as an NPC villain. 

The Chagrin variant of the Stormer is also gone too, but I’m personally not that bothered about this.  The Chagrin was really just for those folks who wanted to play the ultimate combat monster – as if playing a normal stormer wasn’t enough – and they weren’t that interesting to roleplay outside of their rather narrow “Hulk.  Smash!” window. Two other character options are added in place of the vev and the chagrin.  Firstly, we have a race that was made playable in “the contract directory” – the advanced carrien.  These are carrien with a human level of intelligence that have been captured and domesticated by the company.  The insight into their ways of thinking and how to roleplay them are fascinating.  I particularly love the picture in part of the book of an advanced carrien trying to comfort a distraught civilian – I think think this will be the experience of many players choosing this race!

This is not the most bizarre thing you’ll find in SLA.

In the “brand shiny and new” corner we have the Neophron – an avian race of conflict aliens.  These guys were never really at war with SLA, and after the Conflict Years they just faded into Conflict Space and did their own thing.  However, with the advancing metaplot and cults and other conflict aliens popping up all over the place, the neophron have decided to throw their lot in with the company.  Technically, they’re not BRAND NEW – Neophron have been referenced before.  Indeed, one of the big bads in Hunter Sheets 2 is a Neophron, but this is the first time players have been given them as an option.  Like the advanced carrien, there are some great notes around the psychology of this species and how to roleplay them.  These guys are much more Sherlock Holmes than Arnie, so they’ll be a welcome addition to any squad looking to make bank on White BPNs.  I’m also happy that Nightfall chose to not give them any kind of flight.  It wouldn’t be amazingly practical in Mort for starters, but I always find that unlimited flight powers can often disrupt the most well plotted scenarios…

So there you have it – SLA Industries’ on-and-off history for the last few decades.  What’s really interesting is how SLA has survived all these years.  On one hand, it looks like a really niche game.  A small press title that was released in the mid 90s, and which churned out a few titles before being bought by someone bigger before being dropped.  Most games would vanish into obscurity by this point, but SLA has somehow managed to keep going, even though the going got pretty rough at points.  What’s even more interesting is that, prior to 2nd ed being released, people were still playing SLA, years after it had vanished, even though it had a terrible system that most groups ended up houseruling within an inch of its life.  Why would players stick with this?

I think the answer is obvious – the creators of SLA Industries managed to craft a setting that was so unique, so compelling and so interesting to play in, that nobody minded if there weren’t official supplements being released – they simply wanted to explore and game in the World of Progress.  At one point the only two books I had were a tatty copy of the main rulebook and an equally tatty copy of Karma, but that didn’t stop me from running a four year long campaign, long after Wizards had dropped all support for SLA.

Like the Carrien who lurk in Cannibal Sector 1, SLA Industries has proven to be tough, adaptable and only slightly prone to mutation.  If you’ve never given SLA a try, now’s the perfect chance to jump in with both feet.  The shiny new 2nd edition is available both on Nightfall’s website and Drive Thru RPG.  For those of you who are veterans of the World of Progress, grab your FEN 603, strap on your Body Blocker armour and make sure you’ve packed enough Kick Start in your medical kit – there’s a whole new world of BPNs out there to explore and it’s as dangerous as ever.

SLA Industries is available from Drive Thru RPG and from Nightfall Games’ website.

Join the two mentalloids who share half my DNA as they explore Palladium Games’ epic superhero game, Heroes Unlimited.

Me and My Shadow Mark IV – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 4 Roll to Save

Join Troubleshooter Task Force 451 as they take on another fun, routine task for your friend and mine, The Computer.  As with most Troubleshooter missions, this one will be perfectly safe for everyone concerned.This episode sees the team get into an argument with a presumptive scrubbot, play a game of "who can get inside the Mark IV first", interpret the Computer's instructions incorrectly and with fatal consequences, and test out the fire suppression systems of the bot they're meant to be guarding.Thanks to our cast of @manticoretale, @4cornersgames, @guydadams, @dicepopuli – check them all out on Twitter!If you're wanting to see their podcasts then look no further than:The Four Corners Games PodcastTale of the ManticoreDice PopuliEMAIL: @savepodcastFACEBOOK: https://rolltosave.blogFRIEND COMPUTER: Keeley WilsonMUSIC & SFX:
  1. Me and My Shadow Mark IV – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 4
  2. The Dying World – a Mörk Borg Solo Actual Play Podcast – Episode 2
  3. Me and My Shadow Mark IV – a Paranoia Actual Play Podcast – Episode 3
  4. SLA Industries – The Assumptions – Episode 4
  5. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – 4e Review

Last night, my RPG group completed the Warhammer Fantasy Role-play adventure Shadows Over Bögenhafen, a game that I had enormous fun running for them. They’re a great bunch, with some really fun characters that I’ve really enjoyed getting to know. As we completed this chapter in our campaign, it got me thinking – I’ve run this module on and off over 30 years, and I’ve never failed to enjoyed it.

It also made me feel mega-old…

When I first ran Shadows Over Bögenhafen waaaaay back in 1988, it was actually the first ever supplement I bought for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The fact that I bought adventure two in the series instead of adventure one says everything you need to know about me…

However, back then I had no grand designs of running the vaunted The Enemy Within campaign. In fact, aside from a reference in the main book, and the words “The Enemy Within Campaign” being picked out on the front of Shadows I hadn’t even heard of it. No, I just wanted an adventure I could run for my players. Besides, this one had a really cool cover…

It’s a testament to how well designed this module is, that I could happily run it as a standalone without even having to reference the material that came before it. Sure, there’s a section dealing with the fall out from the previous game, but otherwise this module is its own beast.

The story itself is interesting, as it’s in a fantasy setting, but it’s largely an investigative exercise. It begins innocuously enough; the adventurers attend the local fair, have a great old time, and ultimately agree to go spelunking into the town sewers in pursuit of a goblin that has escaped from the freak show. After much too-ing, fro-ing, and falling into effluent, they don’t find the goblin, but they find…something else that makes them realise that there could be sinister goings on beneath the comfortable, easy-going veneer presented by Bögenhafen. What follows is a twisty-turny investigation that seems to hint at corruption in the highest echelons of society, and a race against time to stop something really bad happening to the town.

There’s some combat – especially during the finale – but not as much as the fantasy setting might suggest, so a lot of the time the player’s social skills and investigative abilities will serve them more readily than a strong sword arm. Shadows gives the impression of an orderly, well-kept town; the sort of place where the powers at be won’t tolerate gratuitous violence and blood flowing in the streets. The watch maintain a strong presence throughout the story, and I’ve yet to have a party of players who thought “I know – let’s just fight the law!” WFRP is a system famed for its lethality, and its always struck me how comfortable people who have played this scenario are with turning tail and running – especially when pursued by mobs of angry townspeople! Other systems might see the players assume the roles of unassailable threshing machines, but in Shadows players very quickly come to realise that discretion truly is the better part of valour!

As a games master, one thing that I’ve always appreciated about Shadows was the fact that the players aren’t guaranteed a happy ending. I read enough RPG modules in my time to know that there’s a default assumption that players will either succeed, or die trying. Very few of them touch on “What happens if they fail but live to tell the tale?” Well, Shadows doesn’t shrink from this. It reads:

If…the adventurers had ample opportunity to stop [the baddies – spoiler protected!] but failed to do so, you should not shrink from inflicting the full consequences on them…This option, detailed in Apocalypse, below, is extremely dangerous, and could lead to the entire party being wiped out if the adventurers do anything stupid, but will provide a more exciting climax to the adventure.

They’re not kidding either – the “bad ending” is truly apocalyptic in nature.

Adventure aside, the contents of the module always impressed me, and still does. As well as the main book, there’s a couple of maps: one “player safe” (and which is quite beautiful) and the other for the GM with all the secret locations marked for easy reference. I made a scan of the player map for use in Roll20, but sadly it didn’t render in anywhere near the quality I’d hoped for.

There’s some gamesmaster’s references printed on sturdy card which don’t have to be separated from the main book, and a sheet of good quality handouts. I always remember, in later years, that feeling of disappointment I’d get after buying an RPG adventure only to find that the handouts were part of the main book, and would therefore have to be photocopied. Thinking back to how good those found in Shadows were always made me feel slightly short changed.

The book itself also came with a pull out “Gazeteer of Bögenhafen” which was invaluable for the GM – both in terms of describing the city, but also if you wanted to use it as a reoccurring setting (providing things hadn’t got too apocalyptic of course…).

The art work is a particular highlight. From the eerie cover, to the moody interior pieces, Shadows really set the bar high for my expectations from future RPG products on what quality art should look like. There’s plenty of books nowadays that use computers to create their illustrations that don’t come close to the atmosphere Shadows creates.

It’s not all roses though; one thing I found on rereading this book last year was something that my younger eyes probably didn’t pick up on – namely that it is a complete mess of organisation. Looking at the various sections in the book, and knowing the content, I’d expect them to be laid out something like:

  • Introduction
  • A guide to the city (information on city structure, politics, key locations and individuals)
  • The story so far… (IE “What to do if playing this as part of a campaign”)
  • A timeline of the adventure
  • Details of the adventure itself
  • Aftermath
  • Appendix of characters stats / profiles

Instead, what we get is more like:

  • Introduction
  • Rough timeline
  • Start of the city guide
  • Start of the adventure
  • The story so far…
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • Pull out section with a continuation of the city guide and stats for some but not all NPCs
  • A timeline of key events
  • Common knowledge in Bögenhafen
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • A guide to key locations and encounters
  • A separate guide to temples
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • Aftermath

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that it can be exhausting to use.

Here’s an example – and bear in mind that this is coming from someone who has run this plenty of times before. There’s a point in the scenario where the adventurers will probably end up coming to the attention of the authorities in the course of their investigations. As a result, the powers at be send one of their number to speak to them to offer reassurance that things aren’t as they think they are. Now, this is a key event in the scenario. It gives the players an important contact – one who becomes instrumental in the climax of the adventure. Think of it as heralding the opening of the second act – when the players have their suspicions confirmed, and are driven to dig deeper. Now, where to find this event? Well, thankfully there’s an Events section in the book, which lists various happenings that occur throughout the course of the adventurers’ time in the town, you’d assume it would be found there.

It’s not.

Ok, so maybe it’s not there, but it is centred around a key NPC so maybe it’s found in the NPCs’ section.

It’s not. Little side note here, the NPCs section lists details for only THREE of the main NPCs. The other ones have their stats and descriptions scattered throughout the book. Minor NPCs are on the Gamesmaster’s reference sheet.

Instead, you find the encounter buried in the “Key Locations” section. In addition to this, when you read the rough timeline at the beginning of the book, it is stated that this encounter happens as a consequence of the adventurers’ gradual investigation and enquiries. The exact wording is:

In the course of their enquiries, the adventurers are approached by [NPC]..

In other words, this is one of the pivotal story events. There are a lot of optional side encounters that the players can have, but this one is essential to the plot. Indeed, if you’ve run this more than once you’ll know just how crucial this encounter is! However, taken as written in the “Key Locations” section the encounter will only happen if the adventurers do one, very specific, thing. Unfortunately, if the adventurers don’t do this thing, it makes running the climax of the adventure really difficult, because without encountering the key individual, it is extremely unlikely that the players will ever end up anywhere near the finale.

As I said, I’ve run this plenty of times and was therefore aware of how to bring this event into play (I just couldn’t find the bloody thing!) but for a new GM this would be a real head scratcher, and could lead to a very unsatisfying conclusion. Either the GM would have to railroad things so that the players end up where they need to be – which would feel forced – or else inflict the consequences of failing to put the clues together. Now, some might think “let the chips fall where they may”, but without the information that the encounter provides it would be unlikely that the players would be in a position to appreciate what had just happened when the GM presses the red apocalypse button…

Imagine you’re one of the Avengers at the end of Infinity War (spoilers btw). You and your team have battled Thanos, but he’s managed to get his big, purple paws on the six gems and BOOM! He snaps his fingers and you watch in vain as half of existence is annihilated around you and, before you can do anything, he disappears. You realise what’s happened, it’s horrible, but you’re driven to think “Was that my fault? What can we do next? How can we UNDO this?”

Now, imagine the same film, except this time Thanos proceeds in such a way that the majority of the Avengers are not aware of what he’s up to. Perhaps he kills Hulk and Thor so they’re not able to warn anyone of his plan? Maybe he goes after the stones in a more subtle way? Regardless, a major clue is missed, and there the main characters are, carrying on with their day-to-day, and suddenly a load of people just turn to ash around them. Why did this happen? Who is behind it? Why didn’t I have a chance to do anything?

That’s a very long and convoluted way of explaining how the player characters would feel in Shadows if they miss this vital encounter that is obfuscated by how badly the book is organised! In the first example, they had the chance to stop the big bad, but failed. In the second instance they simply aren’t even aware of it but are punished in an over the top and confusing way regardless…

However, having a toddler organise the book aside, Shadows Over Bögenhafen remains one of my favourite adventures of any game system. Atmospheric, cerebral and logical, it’s the perfect break from treks around the wilderness slaying goblins. If you fancy something gritty, low-magic and dark, you could do a lot worse.