Temporarily Living, Breathing NPCs – A Deep Dive of Shadows Over Bogenhafen, Part 2

As I talked about here, I’m committing to only reviewing RPG products I’ve actually used – so, run or played – and in Part 1 I talked about how I ran and adapted the second half of the first part of the classic WFRP Enemy Within campaign. If you’re interested in the first half of the first part, you’ll want to look at my deep dive of Mistaken Identity here and here. In this part, I’m going to more generally review the adventure, and see what gems we can steal for our own games from it. It’s in Enemy in Shadows, and is available from Cubicle 7 here.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

As with Part 1, below is full of spoilers – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

This is, as you’d expect, a well presented adventure – and generally organised well to run it. I did find it a bit of an ovelarge sandbox to work with – as the adventure basically gives you access to the entire city to ask around – but every other section was relatively simple to parse and deliver at the table.

There Are Some Old-School Roadblocks

There’s a couple of structural things that stood out for me that I altered. The whole investigation segment relies on the PCs, after lengthy legwork, hitting a brick wall, and Magerius telling them everything that they’ve been trying to find out. This is weak, and I let my players have a shot at sneaking into the council meeting themselves to find out first hand – a shot that they singularly failed to succeed at, but a shot nonetheless. 

Similarly, when they disturb the Cult of Ranald, as written there’s a weird no-roll-to-prevent bit about being ambushed and tied up, which again is weak, and entirely unnecessary – the Cult are ideal allies later in the adventure. So, again, I took this out. The summoning circle in the sewers has an undetectable (and unopenable) secret door, and an odd roadblock to find where in the city it actually is, which I wasn’t able to find a way around – other than by making sure they had plenty of other leads to pursue when they got back to the surface.

There’s the odd other bit – like the goblin escaping with no roll possible to stop him – I can live with that as a plot necessity to kick the adventure off – but there are points where this adventure shows its age a bit. Indeed, the scene-by-scene progression which started in Mistaken Identity when they were literally point-crawling (or sometimes pub-crawling) along a sequence of encounters makes the loose sandboxing of the exploration segment sit oddly.

Great NPCs – While They Last

As with Mistaken Identity, there’s some great NPCs in here, sketched out well and fun to play at the table. This feels like a living, breathing world; except that many of those NPCs don’t breathe for too long after the PCs meet them. It’s a slight exaggeration to say that everyone dies shortly after encountering the players… but almost everyone does, which gives a grimdark edge that isn’t far from farce at the table. I tried to make sure that some plot-adjacent NPCs survived, just to give some continuity from game to game, but didn’t always manage.

Friedrich Magerius, a deus ex machina clue machine (deceased, obviously)

A Good Sewer Dungeon!

It’s a cliche now, but fighting rats in the sewers really is fun. There’s a plot reason for the sewers to be dangerous (the council has stopped the watch going there so they don’t find their summoning circle), and the sewers feel genuinely alien and weird – while still very close to the city, which as already established, is plenty dangerous enough on its own. 

Fighting a man-sized rat while knee-deep in effluent felt really desperate and dangerous at the table, in part because of the shadow of the disease rules hanging over the players. And encountering the Cult of Ranald’s cellar – and in fact the summoning circle – reinforced that the PCs were very close to the hustling, bustling, dangerous city above them.

Why Stay in Bogenhafen?

Given that Mistaken Identity ends with the PCs being nearly killed by a witch hunter and then saved by a ravening demon of Tzeentch, it’s not entirely clear why they’d want to stick around or poke their heads up investigating stuff around the town. While my players responded well to the expectation that the adventure’s name is Shadows Over Bogenhafen, not Shadows over Weissbruck, there was a bit of dissonance reported from them, with some commenting that even Altdorf felt safer. And they were really scared in Altdorf.

Overall, it’s a good adventure that has just about stood the test of time. I didn’t make as much use of the Grognard Boxes as I did in Mistaken Identity, mainly because they didn’t seem to address the problems I saw in the ways I wanted to, but it ran smoothly and came to a satisfying conclusion. We’ll be revisiting Death on the Reik next year, with a plan to do the whole adventure – so look forward to those write-ups!

Have you run or played Shadows Over Bogenhafen? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Cultists, Rats, and Yet More Pubs: A Deep Dive of Shadows Over Bogenhafen, part 1

Shadows Over Bogenhafen is the second half of the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and follows Mistaken Identity – which I looked at here and here. In the latest iteration of the campaign, the two are folded together as Enemy in Shadows. Enemy Within has a reputation as one of the “great” RPG campaigns, so I played through it with my Tuesday group – you can get hold of it from Cubicle 7 here.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’ll start by giving you a session-by-session breakdown of how it went, and any alterations I made to the adventure as published. In part 2, I’ll discuss my overall impressions of the adventure. With my Tuesday group, part of our play culture is to share Stars and Wishes at the end of each session, so I’ve folded in some feedback from a player perspective here as well. Expect spoilers – so look away now if you don’t want plot reveals from a 35+ year old adventure!

Synopsis

I ran Shadows Over Bogenhafen over 5 sessions, immediately following the run of Mistaken Identity (5 sessions) – this included a session for character generation and learning the system, and a one-shot when a player was missing, so all told it was 8 sessions of play. We do tend to aggressively pursue plot threads and keep the game going in my Tuesday group (no game suffers from too much pace, as one player is wont to say) – so you might expect it to take a bit longer with a slower pace. 

Session 1 – What Happens in The Schaffenfest…

Following a hook I laid in the previous adventure from the Enemy in Shadows Companion, the PCs went to the Schaffenfest and wandered around trying to find Dieter Rundmann, bumping into various NPCs and being given clues and rumours as to what was going on. Eventually, they find themselves at the circus and agree to track the three-legged goblin into the sewers, in one of the all-time-classic adventure hooks.

I picked out an NPC for each player based on their background and interest, and selected rumours and hints that were actually relevant for this. The Schaffenfest supplies a lot of plot-unrelated trouble to get into, and I did tighten it up a bit with a mission to get them where they needed to go. I introduced a witch hunter as a side NPC at the fair who I failed to give proper importance to later on – I think the players wanted him to be a bigger deal than he turned out to be, but you live and learn.

Session 2 – Under Bogenhafen

They went into the sewers, disturbed some rats, fast-talked their way into the Cult of Ranald, fought a giant rat, and discovered a summoning circle. As expected, a demon appeared, that they fought, before running away to the surface. At some point, they found a dwarf’s body, and the bones of the three-legged goblin. Upon their return, they were assured that the goblin had been found at the docks and dealt with – despite their protestations.

This mini-dungeon sewer-crawl was actually a lot of fun! I ignored the Cult of Ranald advice in the book to have them knocked out and captured (a no-save fun-ruiner) to allow the halfling thief to blather his way into making them allies – a source of information they turned to later in the adventure. The demon fight was a bit of a damp squid with WFRP’s swingy combat swinging in the PC’s favour – the giant rat was more dangerous!

Session 3 – Chasing Shadows

Upon their return, the PCs embarked on a mammoth investigate-a-thon around Bogenhafen. They gradually uncovered the conspiracy in an action-light session that wasn’t really my best work as a GM. It ended with them being invited to dinner with the Guild leader to allay their concerns and a long list of clues that they were just starting to piece together.

The adventure has far, far, more information than even I shared with the players, and a lot more “verisimilitude-clues” than “story-clues” – that is, lots of hints and rumours that add more colour than plot direction. At a different point in the story this might have been fine, but in the context of “there’s a massive ritual about to be done in 2 days time” it fell a bit flat.

Session 4 – The Countdown Begins

After dining with Magirius, who reassured them that all of their solid evidence was merely coincidence, they continued their investigations. Resolving to sneak into the meeting of the Council that Magerius was attending, the fickle winds of WFRP dice rolling led to their discovery in the gardens and a brutal fight and a near-TPK – only Fate points spared their blushes. As they recuperated in a nearby pub, Magerius told them that they were right, and in fact a massive ritual was expected to be carried out – and begged them to stop it!

After the previous session, I shifted my prep notes to use Sly Flourish’s Lazy DM method for structure, and this helped me keep the pace up a lot. Dieter showed up at the start, trying to question them for smuggling, which was a good way to remind them they still hadn’t tied up that original quest and start with a bit of action. A defeat in combat was what we all needed after a few lucky fights, and it felt much more WFRP – and a good emergent story structure to be nearly killed just before the finale.

Session 5 – The Ritual

After finding Magerius dead, and framed for his murder – the least of their worries at this point – they raced to find the location of the ritual and eventually – after the Wizard had discovered some hidden knowledge (hidden in the magic chapter of the rulebook) managed to save the day and disrupt the ritual, saving the town. After which, they resolved to leave forthwith – and a hasty sailing back to Weissbruck, dreaming of a crawl between the three pubs.

As a finale to the adventure, this worked well – the initial scene and chase through the streets pursued by the guards went well, and added a sense of urgency that kept through a pacy finale. As with a lot of the adventure, while stopping a chaos cult ritual is a bit of a cliche, it’s a cliche because in part of this adventure, so we’ve got to forgive it that.

So – five sessions to save Bogenhafen. In part two, I’ll talk about overall impressions, and any big changes I made – or wished I’d made – to the adventure.

Alas, poor Rolf: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, Part 2

As I talked about here, I’m committing to only reviewing RPG products I’ve actually used – so, run or played – and in Part 1 I talked about how I ran and adapted the first part of the classic WFRP Enemy Within campaign. In this part, I’m going to more generally review the adventure, and see what gems we can steal for our own games from it. It’s in Enemy in Shadows, and is available from Cubicle 7 here.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

As with Part 1, below is full of spoilers – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

Overall, I think this is an excellent adventure, with a few quirks which come from (a) its being written in another age, and (b) being designed to be the opening act of an enormous campaign. It pulls the PCs together well, with an quirky hook that gets them to travel to Altdorf, and then to Bogenhafen, and leave them at a loose end with a reason to stick together and a lot of potential threads to pick up.

Poor old Rolf Hurtsiss has seen better days

The art is consistently fantastic, and the writing manages to tread a tightrope and be both evocative and laugh-out-loud funny at times. In particular, the NPCs are sketched really well, and the character of the places you visit – from the Coach and Horses Inn, to Altdorf, to Weissbruck – really comes across.

Everyone has a name

The first ‘monster’ you meet on the road – the mutant Rolf Hurtsis – is an old acquaintance of one of the characters; but even after this, every character is drawn with a past, and every one is named. The rest of the mutant band – led by Knud – all have names (I made them call out to one another as the PCs – as expected – slaughtered them). Nobody appears on the scene without having a richer and fuller life outside the story they are in, and the world is richer for it; the road warden is tracking down his sister on the road to Altdorf, for example. And, even more so…

Everyone has character

The NPCs are so well drawn in here, it’s worth taking the time to give them some character at the table. I jotted down some of the 7-3-1 technique for each one, although that sometimes led me to “now what does Josef talk like again?” moments, it made their interactions – which are at the centre of this adventure – more interesting.

Playing online, there are a few tricks to make characters stand out. The first is to show their picture (and every NPC in the adventure has great art) when you talk as them – I used “Show to Players” with Handouts on Roll20, but there are lower tech versions like sharing a screen if you’re running without VTT. The second is to overact terribly. I exhausted my limited repertoire of accents after two sessions, but it does help to have Josef talk like a pirate king (Hans Pflaster, the aforementioned roadwarden – was Jason Isaac’s Marshall Zhukov from Death of Stalin, and just as short-tempered) to get a sense of versimilitude. That said…

It can be a bit Carry On

There’s an element of farce to the central conceit – and several of the key scenes – that might take some careful running. There are times when your players might be tempted to back out – when they follow Josef to the pub in Bogenhafen, and it’s quickly obvious they’re in a very dangerous place – so I think setting the tone is important. 

There’s a lot of Long Game Foreshadowing

I’ve never run a game before where I dropped a rumour in the first session that foreshadows Empire in Ruins, the fifth instalment of the campaign that sits maybe 40-50 sessions away. I’ll deal with if they remember the (false as it turns out) rumour then if and when it occurs. I took the approach of, whenever the book gave me a page of rumours, liberally spreading them out to my players, without showing them which were immediately relevant and which were flavour. This seemed to work well, and they’ve not led to too many red herrings yet.

It’s a bit Bait and Switch

Your group may vary with this – but I’d like to think that my players were under no illusions, when they found their lookalike body, that they weren’t actually going to collect 10,000 Crowns. By the time they get to Bogenhafen, and almost everyone they’ve ever associated with has turned up dead, more cautious players might be forgiven for being wary about heading to collect the inheritance. I presented this as if there weren’t many options – and in any case, it couldn’t be more dangerous than that dockside pub in Altdorf, right?

In Summary

It’s great. It’s not really like anything I’ve run before in a fantasy setting, and indeed it stands alone in terms of where its encounters come from. There’s no monsters to fight, or wilderness areas – it’s an entirely urban adventure, really – with a few interludes on canals or roads, but still well within reach of the Roadwardens. Given that it manages to still be terrifying even when in the midst of supposed safety, I’d recommend it to anyone – although tell your GM you’ve read this first so they can switch it up with the Grognard Boxes!

Have you played or run Mistaken Identity? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Three Terrifying Pubs: A Deep Dive of  Mistaken Identity from The Enemy Within, Part 1

Mistaken Identity is the initial adventure from the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and acts as a prelude to Shadows Over Bogenhafen, the first adventure proper. In the latest iteration of the campaign, the two are folded together as Enemy In Shadows. Enemy Within has a reputation as one of the “great” RPG campaigns, so I played it through with my Tuesday group – you can get hold of it from Cubicle 7 here.

The first of many mutants in this adventure / campaign, and a former associate of our thief.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

In this first part I’ll give you a session-by-session breakdown of how I ran it, including what I changed from the published adventure. In Part Two, I’ll summarise what worked well, and what worked less well – and suggest what can be taken from it for other games. There are, of course, a huge number of spoilers below – if you’re still wanting to play it “fresh,” 35+ years after it was first published, you might want to look away now!

Synopsis

I ran Mistaken Identity over 5 online sessions of between 2 and 3 hours for 4 PCs, with the first session including character generation. The adventure as written has some very useful “Grognard Boxes,” ways to alter the adventure if your players are familiar with it already. I used them to just pick from if it looked more interesting – especially in the first session.

The adventure as written has chapters that are roughly one session long (if you play with a fair lick of pace) – and I’ve written them up below, along with the names I gave each session as part of my prep notes. If Patrons would like sight of my actual prep notes, feel free to get in touch – although I find the writing up of them is more useful to me than reading them, if that makes sense – the process of creating them revises and solidifies the game in my head. I used Roll20 (which has a bit of a fiddly WFRP interface for improving PCs, but it’s too late now for us to switch) and Google Meet for A/V, if people are interested in those things.

You’ll note as you read this that I have a crew of absolutely top-drawer players. In this, my regular Tuesday group, plots are aggressively pursued and roleplay opportunities are harvested from even the least interesting scenes. Situations like one PC not knowing a secret the other three are keeping from them (the player knows, obviously) are handled maturely and leaned into for maximum roleplaying fun – your mileage may vary, obviously – but it’s worth invested in play culture at the table if you want to be able to engage with an adventure like this that’s full of unresolved secrets and bait-and-switches.

Session 1 – The Coach and Horses

After character generation and session zero stuff, they montaged talking to some NPCs at the Coach and Horses and then fought a daemon summoned by one of the patrons.

I completely ditched the structure of the first session in the adventure, which is the coldest of cold opens – some gambling (out of budget for almost all starting characters as written), some meeting strangers who don’t like them – the only action is if and when they catch the gambler cheating. Oh, and we did chargen by the rules – and ended up with human nun, smuggler, and wizard’s apprentice, and a halfling thief.

I quite liked the NPC Phillipe Descartes, so didn’t want him to be an enemy, so had him merely regale them with tales in his outrageous Brettonian accent. Each PC got a single short scene where they made a skill check (usually Gossip) to impress an NPC, and then received 1 or 2 of the rumours supplied. We cut from PC to PC as they did this, before I triggered “The Rival Magus” from the Grognard Box and had a daemon appear.

After they’d fought the demon, of course, they were basically an adventuring party, and we’d got to know the interface and basic rules in session 1. All this took maybe an hour of play after characters were done – it’s my favoured approach for a session zero to get a bit of play in at the end to whet everyone’s appetite.

Session 2 – The Road to Altdorf

They fought a mutant, went further down the road, fought some more mutants, and discovered the adventure’s hook – a body looking identical to one of the PCs, with a will to collect from Bogenhafen and a signed affidavit that the bearer is indeed the long lost nobleman, and instructions to claim his inheritance in Bogenhafen.

I pretty much ran this as described – the players made it more interesting by three of them being in on the identity theft, but keeping it quiet from the fourth – a nun of Myrmidia – as they expected she’d not be in favour. Instead, they told her that Othelbert the apprentice actually was Kastor Leiberung, just travelling undercover to Bogenhafen – and swore her to secrecy.

Session 3 – Welcome to Altdorf

After a confusing encounter with some strangers, and surviving a theft attempt, they caught up with Josef – a boatman and old acquaintance who just happened to be going to Bogenhafen – and went with him on a very dangerous bar crawl. It becomes very obvious that everyone they meet at the moment seems to end up dead very quickly – and they see a shadowy figure tracking them.

I added in a quick chase scene at the start with some pickpockets for two reasons – firstly, to start with some action, and secondly to give a big of the ‘dangerous big city’ vibe. This happened at the same time as the Emperor’s procession, which the module stressed is important later. As they’d all been travelling to Altdorf, they each had a scene where they resolved that – the nun resolved to continue travelling in Myrmidia’s name, the halfling went to his uncle’s pie shop and made contact, the wizard’s apprentice tried to enrol at the university. These gave a bit more verisimilitude and allowed the players to drop their previous lives a bit as they seemed committed to be adventurers now.

The bar crawl I ran as written, with the halfling thief enthusiastically joining in with Brandy Bounce and them using their wits to navigate the situation. The whole bar scene is a great set piece – as they realised just how much danger they were in – and balanced off nicely by several of their NPCs being found dead the next morning.

Session 4 – Come Drown With Me

We were a player down, so with the finale approaching, I ran a fill-in session of Come Drown With Me from One Shots of the Reikland – the three remaining players survived a zombie attack and re-sealed the tomb of Kurgon Three-Eyes while they travelled down the Weissbruck Canal. Testament to how dangerous Altdorf felt that a potential zombie apocalypse was a welcome light relief.

The character art in the adventure is brilliantly evocative – e.g. this portrait of Maria Braund, the highwaywoman who I used as an extra link to the follow-up adventure

Session 5 – No Mister Lieberung, I Expect You To Die

After meeting a highwaywoman and agreeing to do her a favour on the canal, they went onwards to Weissbruck, where they tangled with their pursuer. Evading him, they went on to Bogenhafen – where they realised they’d inherited a setup meant to catch a cultist, and neither the inheritance nor the title were true. As a horrific beast appeared to ‘save’ them in the nick of time, they were left pondering what to do next – luckily, the Schaffenfest is in Bogenhafen, and they had an assortment of plot hooks leading them there!

Maria Braund, the highwaywoman, is from the Enemy in Shadows Companion, and I added her in to give a hanging plot hook to the Schaffenfest for when they arrived – the start of the session also had them avoid a robbery from their fellow riverfolk, who’d heard one of them was a nobleman in disguise. I had Adolfus smoke some distinctive cigarettes so they could tell he’d been around the pubs with them, and he fled when they confronted him and they fought his heavies.

The final scene, while a bit deus ex machina (daemonium ex machina?) is another great set piece – as they watch through the windows the splashes of blood, before finding the body of their pursuer ripped apart.

In Part Two, I’ll summarise what stood out about the adventure, what didn’t work as well, and what tricks and components of it we can steal for future one-shot (or campaign) play. Questions or feedback as always are welcome to @milnermaths on twitter.