Saturday, January 15, 2011

Witch Killer by C. L. Werner


Witch Killer, while it stands as the third book in the omnibus Mathias Thulmann Witch Hunter, isn't necessarilty the close of the story started in the first book. Indeed, it almost seems like one of those old serial movies that keeps going and going and going.

C. L. Werner brings back most of the characters from previous books including Mathias, his loyal yet troubling henchman Streng,some loathsome ratmen, the necromancer, his new ally, the vampire Gregor, first introduced in book one, as well as more of the internal politics and signature setting material that indicates this is a Warhammer book and not a generic fantasy book.

1. The Never Ending Battle: As I mentioned, C. L. Werner brings a lot of the previous cast back, even when that previous casts interaction with the main characters here is minimal. On one hand, if you're writing a series that has to be kept open ended because you don't know what the next novel, indeed, if even there will be a
next novel, will bring, keeping things open and 'breezy' allows you to bring those fan favorite elements back at a later date.

This works well, to a point, in super hero comics. Superman, is noted as fighting a never ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way. Comics are often fighting a battle for readership and utilizing old elements to appeal to older fans. Even game systems aren't above this, rehashing old names and ideas.

But in a role playing game, you have to keep your direct audience in mind. How well are the adventurers going to link together and how closely will they be tied together. Paizo speeds out twelve modules a year in two adventure paths. In my early days of playing, anything purchased would rarely have any direct ties or lead ins to anything else purchased in terms of 'story'. There were exceptions but I didn't pick up one adventure or issue of Dungeon expecting that adventure to be continued next week so to say.

Know your audience. If they're getitng tired of the same cast of characters and the same subplots, move on. You as the GM are not writing a novel or a comic. Your ability to react to the players is immediate.

2. The henchman.  Once again, back in 'the day', many characters would have allies and henchmen who might be greater than the other rift raft out there, but not as awesome as the main character. Comics tended to do this by introducing younger versions of the heroes, Captain America and Bucky, Human Torch and Toro, Batman and Robin, Superman and Supergirl... but in novels, you had Elric and Moonglum, as well as Michael Moorcock's other Eternal Champions and the Eternal Companion.

The henchman had a unique set of rules tied into Charisma back in the day. Later editions have kind of gone away from that idea. One of the reasons why is probably character complexity. Another reason is that the literature that the game is based on tends to focus on characters as equals.

The nich thing about having 'lessers' around though, is you can use them to cast a nice contrast to the characters they follow. While Streng has no blessings of Sigmar upon him and no magical silver sword, he is a brute and a loyal ally. He is a quick thinker able to use his dishevelled looks to his own advantage. While Mathias is pious and tried and true and enjoys his work, Streng enjoys getting paid, enjoys getting the better of someone else, enjoys bringing pain to others... in many ways, the dark reflection of Mathias work given flesh and enjoyment in that work.

3. The Turnaround: I've mentioned before that failure should not necessarily be the end of the game. If the characters have to make a skill check to beat a monster and fail, perhaps that just results in them being captured by a trap. If they have to overcome a particular foe, perhaps they are held hostage in hopes of exchange for funds or future assistance. Part of this will depend on how much the characters want to fight against the dice and how much they want to go with the story. If the players are outmanned left right and sideways because of poor decesions they have made and you offer them the chance to surrender and they want to fight it out, take off the kid gloves and play the monsters as intelligently as possible.

This doesn't mean that opportunities for survival aren't there. For example, if the players are surrounded by ogres and trolls, perhaps the side that suffers the worst of the player's initial attack decides to help the players out and wipe out their enemies. After all, they can always take care of the players later right?

4. The Intelligent Magic Item: Game books are filled with intelligent magic items. Fiction abounds with them. Elric's black blade, Stormbringer, is probably one of the more famous. In the three books of Mathias Thulmann, Das Buch die Unholden, speaks not a word, but its actions make clear that it is alive in its own way, possessing its own malevolvent intelligence and purpose. One of the problems with 4th edition D&D, and to a lesser extent, 3rd edition, is that they are games with hard written rules. Without spelling everything out, there may be room open for different interpetations of how powers and abilities work. Run with those possibilities. Describe a sword of berserking as seaking to leap out of the blade, of rattling around in the scabbard. Describe a vorpal blade as always pulling to the neck of the opponent. Describe a weapon of unholy magic as emiting an atmosphere of toxic unholy energy.

These things don't need game stats. Atmosphere and feeling are there to cater and create just that, atmosphere and feeling. If you want to reward a player for doing the description and taking advantage of those things in specific skill checks, go for it. "Listen friend, the sword of berserking is about to shatter my scabbard so either you start talking or I feed you to it." might warrant a +2 bonus on bluff or intimidate but shouldn't be an excuse to give character access to abilities they don't have.

While Witch Killer is a good popcorn novel, it is the weakest of the three but still worthy of ideas to pillage.