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).
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.
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.