Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Witch Finder by C. L. Werner

A brief synopsis: Many threads are woven together as new complications make life more than interesting for Mathias Thulmann and his hencman Streng. C. L. Werner throws politics, city adventuring, and other elements into a book that is distinctively Warhammer in nature.

For those who want to avoid spoilers, read no further.

1. City Life

Mathias and his comrade Streng return to Wurtbad in order to hunt down a book that was not found at the end of their previous adventure. In doing so, Mathias becomes involved with several churches of the city, including Morr, god of death, as well as the goddess of mercy. This does not count his involvement with the politics of his own witch hunter temple, those of the ruler of the city, or those of the lawmaker of the city.

In short, there are a lot of things going on here and it makes life more interesting for Mathias because no sooner has one ball hit the hand than the other one is in the air. This is part of the lure of the city for me. You can have several, if not outright dozens of things happening that may involve the character and may be things that they can become involved with.

2. Plauge

What makes city life more interesting? Why, city life under the plague. C. L. Werner goes to town in a setting with a plague god, mad doctors and skaven and does with with a plague. The role of the priestess of mercy come clearer here, as they try to give succor and healing to those who need it, while those of Morr, the god of death, provide sanctity to the dead. This is a very real threat to the setting as the undead are not an unknown menace so making sure the dead stay at peace is indeed a vital part of the duties. Why they would not simply burn the bodies on the other hand...

Anyway, plague makes for some great elements in a setting. It can create mass change, depopulate whole regions, take out allies and enemies alike. However, the one thing that C. L. Werner does, as I've tried to do myself when running such situation, is avoid taking it out on the main characters. Mathias and Strength, despite being deep down in the plague ridden areas the most, are untouched by it. When you make the disease more about how its effecting the region around the characters, the effects on the character's shouldn't be some penalty to an ability score or the use of wealth to purchase a cure disease. It should be shops closing because the owners are dead. It should be the city being held in quarantine until things are cleared. It should be social breakdown as even those in the higher reaches of society fall victim to plague.

3. Signature Setting Elements

On one hand, the Warhammer setting is generic. Armored knights ride around using great weapons to cleave into the undead or trolls or goblins. Wizards engage themselves in the art of magic. Clerics tend to the flocks but really, they smash the heathens and often have the blessings of the god and a different type of magic. Could be D&D right?

On the other hand, Warhammer is one of the first, if not the first setting to codify ratmen as anything other than lycanthropes with their Skaven who worship the Horned God, use Warpstone, have strange technology powered by sorcerery as well as Rat Ogres and dozens of other unique elements about them.

While they do have pagan gods and cults, the Four Ruinous Powers that serve as the setting's Chaos Gods have their own chants such as "Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne", in addition to signature creatures of other sorts.

It is in these fields, even when describing the different types of vampires and their strengths and abilities, that C. L. Werner makes this a Warhammer novel and not some generic fantasy adventure. By playing off the vast material and the huge scope of the Warhammer setting, even as things change and the table top moves away from Vampires being several subbranches to other variants, and the Undead have moved from being a generic undead army to Vampire Counts and Tomb Kings to begin with, the fact that a setting has all of this information waiting to be used allows the setting to sing with its signature strengths.

And at the same time, remain all purpose enough to plunder from. A mad noble whose transformation into a thing of horror and chaos would fit well in most fantasy settings. A vampire sorcerer looking for his book of spells that were bound in his own skin? A mad doctor using magical elements to warp humanity about him? These elements could be applied to most fantasy settings, or indeed, even more modern or steam punk settings, with little difficulty.

In Privateer Press own setting, perhaps the mad doctor uses dragon blight instead of warpstone. Perhaps in the Forgotten Realms, it is a Shade who is a Shadovar seeking an ancient tome from the time of Nethril's prime.

The general ideas can be crafted into specific points for your own campaign if you're willing to put the polish into them.

4. Timing

Here, C. L. Werner may have pushed his luck. While I don't have any problem with the way things all came together in the end, the various threads, plots, characters, and events may be so crammed in a game, that the GM tries to resolve them in one big party.

If you are comfortable with this, if you can quickly change the scene, if you can quickly take action from one character to the next, to the next to the next with little pause between, then go for it.

If you cannot handle the quick pace of multiple elements coming together, if the issue of making multiple enemies from different factions come out, if the resolution of several plots might be more than you want to run, the goods news is you don't have to. Allow the players to try and set the tone and the pace and if necessary, throw a red herring or two at them in order to keep the pace of the game one you're comfortable with.

C. L. Werner provides a lot of material in the second book of Witch Hunter for the reader who wants a little variety.