ÉMINENCE GRISE, PART TWO

Derrick Norton continues his insights into the development of Power Behind the Throne below. (Go to here for the first of Derrick’s posts.)

Warning. Spoilers for Death on the Reik and Power Behind the Throne.

FURTHER REFLECTIONS ON DEVELOPING WFRP’S POWER BEHIND THE THRONE

Power Behind the Throne pits the PCs against “the brilliant mind of one man”. I used to wonder whether the writer – Carl Sargent – had planted a great in-joke and was referring to himself! The adventure is set after the events in Death on the Reik but it is not connected to them. I had assumed PBT would pick up where DTR left off so I was surprised at this initially but not concerned. Phil Gallagher and Graeme Davies had both worked on the manuscript and they were much better placed than me to comment on overall direction.

Like most WFRP gamers, I thought PBT would move TEWC towards a grand finale already mapped out. The reality was that commercial interests had swayed both the timing and substance of PBT: there was pressure to release the next TEWC adventure; writing an original manuscript which built on previous episodes would take too long; GW capacity (not the same as capability) was limited; and writing it in-house would be more expensive. I was based in Leeds when I started work on PBT so doubt I knew any of this at the time, and I don’t recall knowing Carl had based the manuscript on an adventure he had written earlier for AD&D (GW would have been quite circumspect in releasing this information).

As a result, the manuscript included two plots which passed in the night: one a legacy from DTR, the other new for PBT. I may have considered aligning them but found it too difficult / outside my remit so simply retained or added advice which terminated the relationship to DTR: “…investigations [into von Wittgenstein] will prove futile but may lead the PCs to the conclusion that a bigger mystery is to be solved”. Note use of the word “will”. This advice is quite perfunctory and, looking back, I should have done more to aid the GM and players’ transition from DTR (eg von Wittgenstein could have been unmasked and executed before Carnival week to avoid PCs investigating a thread which the GM knew to be pointless).

I have digressed into “coulda, shoulda, woulda” territory. At the time, I was less concerned with links to earlier TEWC adventures and more concerned with the major problem I saw with the climax to PBT or, more accurately, the absence of one. As best as I can recall, the ending in the manuscript was around influencing the Graf to repeal tax law designed by Wasmeier to cause unrest. This was consistent with the concept of “NPC influence points” which, in the introduction, explain how Wasmeier got the vote he wanted. Clearly, any use of these influence points at the end of PBT – to get an audience with the Graf and repeal the tax laws – would either have to be before the traitor was identified (a bit difficult and dangerous) or afterwards (a tad easier and safer).

EG5

I seem to recall having trouble getting NPC influence points to work in gameplay. It is possible that a specific mechanic was provided in the draft but, if so, its absence from the published version suggests it wasn’t that workable (“waffy” was the GW term used to describe more rickety material). It seems more likely, given the rest of the adventure, that role-play would govern the ending so how might this work? One option could be a Poirot style dénouement by a PC: “I put it to you Lord Hoflich that you are, in fact, a doppelgänger”! This would be climactic but difficult to bring about. Another option could be NPC role-play, say on the part of Ar-Ulric after he got the love letters back: “Now that I have dealt with – ahem – pressing ecumenical matters, I have reviewed these laws and no longer feel they should stand”. Slightly less climactic perhaps, and would require the GM taking on all the speaking roles. So, paraphrasing Harrison Ford’s aside to George Lucas about the first Star Wars screenplay, “You can write this stuff but you can’t play it”.

More problematic, in my view, was the risk of a climax along the lines of “Huzzah! We have repealed regressive tax legislation – the City is saved”! Reforming tax law might be grim but it is not perilous and I felt there had to be a fight: PCs had to have an opportunity to defeat Wasmeier, not learn from the GM that he was dead, captured, or at large following one final Fu Manchu cackle. And such a fight, unless it was to be one-sided in favour of the PCs, had to involve more than just Wasmeier (which meant it couldn’t take place in the Palace away from his minions). I also thought moving from role-play to action would be more fun given the frustration level of some players. Finally, a fight (with limitations on “who, where, when”) could also make it easier for a GM to dial events up or down depending on how well PCs had figured out the plot.

There is some poetic licence in the above as, after thirty years, I don’t recall all the detail. I do remember speaking to Phil with concerns about the ending and need for a fight. Phil could overrule the proposal but I don’t recall he needed much persuasion. I went on to write ‘The Traitor Unmasked’ (that title may have been in the manuscript already), draw a rough map of Wasmeier’s house to help run any encounter, and edit / develop other material to align with the new finale. I suspect this included making Dagmar care about Reya, and protecting her from Klaglich, so that Reya could take the PCs to her uncle and set the final confrontation in motion.

EG6

Each GM will have their own view but the adventure worked for me. Knowing the text backwards did help and I had great fun running PBT, including a merry Luigi bumping into the PCs on a clandestine mission (and their efforts to keep it that way). We also had an exciting final chase with PCs fighting NPCs on the back of a wagon hurtling out-of-control down Middenheim streets. I seem to recall blowing the wagon up: as GM, I wasn’t going to waste the ten barrels of gunpowder I’d written into the story!

Phil gave me first credit for editing and development alongside himself and Graeme which I found rewarding: a lot of work had gone into PBT. Having said that, PBT is not without faults – some down to me – and some gamers dislike it. One could also argue that, at my instigation, GW lost the courage of its convictions and PBT should have retained its role-playing focus right to the very end. I’m still not convinced this would work but the option is there for the GM.

However, I do think it was a mistake not to build on events initiated earlier in TEWC as it meant the campaign element got lost (and stayed lost in the final two adventures). Instead, investigating von Wittgenstein and foiling Jade Sceptre could have served to alert the PCs to an even greater threat from Purple Hand. This would act as a bridge between plots and make the main PBT plot easier to engage and solve (Jade Sceptre could have intelligence on Purple Hand minions). In gameplay, the PCs would then be claiming to NPCs that they are not paranoid and there really is another traitor in the city!

More radical still, the episode after DTR could have seen PCs trying to find von Wittgenstein with no substantive plot role for the Purple Hand (yet). The PCs could still meet some of the more accessible NPCs, creating hooks for future encounters, but their objective would be to foil Jade Sceptre. Imagine then a fifth adventure – away from Middenheim – before our heroes return (in their sixth and final adventure) to enjoy Carnival in a city they know well only to find new taxes are causing unrest…

Many thanks, again, to Derrick for sharing this.

Derrick has shared more WFRP memories in this post.

Power Behind the Throne is now available again in PDF form form Cubicle 7. Note the Cubicle 7 version includes the additional adventure ‘Carrion Up the Reik’ added by Hogshead Publishing.

Title art by Les Edwards. Internal art by Martin McKenna. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

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10 thoughts on “ÉMINENCE GRISE, PART TWO

  1. Can’t say I was a fan of the tax plot, and by extension, its methods for trying to draw in the party. I just did not find it exciting and felt that my group would not sufficiently bite into it. In the end I upped their ambitions a little in my campaign that I felt was more suitable for a cult trying to cause civil unrest, and also to draw in the party more. It’s a great campaign regardless, but one that requires a lot of creative input from the GM to fix up the bits in which it falters.

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  2. This (and the previous entry) are absolutely fascinating – big (massively belated) thanks to Derrick for sharing. Hearing the story of how the published version of PBtT came into being makes a lot more sense of the problems with the adventure, which is hugely impressive in what it tries to achieve, but (imho) at the expense of being very daunting and somewhat confusing. In particular, the fact that the “gaining influence with the Graf” turns out to all be unnecessary in the end has long frustrated me… but as Derrick quite rightly points out, a renouement of “hurray the taxes are repealed!” wouldn’t exactly be very exciting. Personally I like the dramatic ending, even if it is somewhat out of left-field.

    My own armchair opinion is that the adventure could have done with making Gotthard Goebels a high-ranking member of the Purple Hand rather than the Jade Sceptre, thus providing a tie into the ongoing PH plot which is rather weirdly dropped in PBtT in spite of the principal antagonist being a leader of the cult. But obviously that would have required even more rewriting. It sounds like we were lucky that PBtT was as comprehensible as it was!

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  3. Thanks Zekiel. I’m not sure I thought of this at the time but ‘influence points’ may have worked as a climax if the PCs could have known how exactly many points were needed overall and how many points they had ‘in the bag’. The climax in this approach would have been whichever encounter with an NPC put the PCs points total in the majority. That said, I’m sure Wasmeier would have moved again the PCs if he got wind of their intentions!

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  4. Great articles!

    I’d love to know what Graeme is planning for the latter parts of TEW in the director’s cut.

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    1. So would I. I hope he fixes the problems in Power Behind the Throne: the weak hooks, neglected von Wittgenstein and Lieberung plots and the disconnect between the main adventure and the finale. The only way to find out in advance, though, seems to be the developer diaries with the advance pre-orders of The Enemy Within Collector’s Edition.

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  5. Yes, I’m still trying to decide whether to stump up for it or not. I can afford it, but I have a nagging doubt about whether I should afford it. My guess is that the collector’s editions of the individual volumes will be about 20-25% at retail if you shop around. I’ve not seen any UK sites with a preorder on Enemy in Shadows yet though, but a couple of US ones have (notably at about 30% off). I don’t think there’s an option for the dev diary purchasing it that way.

    The PBtT->SRiK->EiF axis is obviously where we’ll see the big changes here. I’ve no idea what to expect from The Horned Rat (except Skaven!) and how much the changes in EiF will reflect the original plan.

    Although I love PBtT, and it’s great in its own right, it’s where the plot fragments. I think patching it up is easy enough, but it will depend on what comes next and that’s where the real work lies.

    There will be the issue of the community, too. TEW is loved, warts and all, and players and GMs have been spending a quarter of a century patching and head-canoning the series into something that works better. I do worry at the changes being inevitably not the changes many would have made.

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    1. Enemy In Shadows is up for pre-order on the Chaos Cards website, though it doesn’t come with the PDF ( i’m trying to get Chaos Cards and Cubicle 7 to change this ), and the companion to Enemy In Shadows isn’t up yet.

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      1. Thanks. It’s just the standard edition. A few other places have that preorder, too. The collector’s edition I’ve only seen available for preorder direct from Cubicle 7, and a couple of places in the US.

        I suspect we don’t get the dev diaries if we preorder the collector’s edition from retail stores either.

        I definitely think we should get the PDF with this, whichever version and from wherever. I don’t know what to expect with respect to handouts, but having the PDF is handy for printing them out. Plus, you can print other bits and bats out, too.

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    2. For some reason i can’t reply to your reply to my post below, so i’m replying to this post instead.

      To be clear, Enemy In Shadows standard edition available from Chaos Cards doesn’t come with the PDF, but i suspect it will if it is ordered directly from Cubicle 7. This is the situation with Rough Nights & Hard Days. According to Cubicle 7, when i asked them about Rough Nights & Hard Days, the PDF is only available with the physical copy from retailers when those retailers are signed up to the ‘Bits & Mortar’ program.

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