Warning. This review contains spoilers for Death on the Reik and other parts of the Enemy Within campaign.
It is not possible to step into the same river twice.
– Heracleitus, fragment 91
Death on the Reik is the next instalment in Cubicle 7’s reissue of the Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay‘s fourth edition. It is an update of the 1987 adventure of the same name, and follows on from Enemy in Shadows, released last year. It will in time be accompanied by a parallel volume of supplementary information, the Death on the Reik Companion.
Covers then and now (1987 left, 2020 right)
The scenario has been a long time coming. It was promised for 2019, but was delayed repeatedly. This has led to the absurd situation where there has been a longer gap between instalments in the Cubicle 7 reprint than there was when the original campaign was written from scratch. Sadly WFRP4 is so far shaping up to be possibly the least supported edition of WFRP yet. In the two years since the WFRP4 rulebook was published Cubicle 7 has released five supplements in physical form, mostly reprints. Even the thinly supported first edition of WFRP managed six in the equivalent period, and all were original.
Deduplicated* physical supplements released in the 24 months following the core rules
As in previous reviews, I have here tried to achieve three objectives: to provide information for those new to the campaign who might be considering buying it; to help grognards familiar with the original decide whether the new version is of interest; and to provide some hopefully useful pointers to any who have already purchased the scenario.
The adventure runs to 160 pages (excluding adverts). It for the most part maintains Cubicle 7’s very high standards of visual presentation.
I have to confess, though, that Ralph Horsley’s cover leaves me cold. It is not a patch on Ian Miller’s memorable cover from 1987. The interior art, though, is outstanding. I have great affection for Martin McKenna’s original drawings, but the new art is of greater quality (though lower frequency). As in previous WFRP adventures, the scene illustrations are all in colour, and the NPC illustrations in black and white. One of the creators has stated the reason for this was to make the NPC sections stand out from the rest of the book. The explanation makes the decision seem no less eccentric to me. NPC illustrations are among the most useful for GMs to share with players, and there are obvious benefits from having them in colour.
Artwork then and now (1987 left, 2020 right)
Maps are with few exceptions retouched and recoloured versions of Charles Elliott’s maps from the original adventure. The original maps were excellent, and the new colouring improves their aesthetics, though occasionally compromising their readability. Disappointingly, however, the scale is still wrong on the Castle Wittgenstein map. (GMs should double the distances indicated.)
Location maps then and now (1987 left, 2020 right)
One map that has been changed completely is the region map. It is the same as Cubicle 7’s poster map of the Reikland, also used in the Starter Set. Unfortunately this is not a change for the better. The map employs a pictorial style, which makes it is difficult to read. It also lacks a scale. The 1987 hex map may be less pretty, but is far more usable.
Region maps then and now (1987 left, 2020 right)
The handouts are much as in Enemy in Shadows: functional, but a little lacking in character. It is a shame more of Cubicle 7’s artistic capability was not dedicated to them. They are, after all, the few pieces of art that the players will definitely see.
Again little attention been has paid to the fonts used. The Arch Lumen has the same handwriting as Johannes Teugen and Friedrich Magirius. Unless there is a stunning plot twist coming, it is lazy graphic design. The converse problem affects Jean Rousseaux’s handwriting, which is represented by two different fonts (one of which happens to be the same as Margritte von Wittgenstein’s handwriting). This was an error in the original adventure, but it is disappointing to see it slavishly repeated.
Also repeated from the first version is the omission of a handout of the Red Crown’s map (mentioned on p55). It is not critical, but is a little careless, when the omission has been known for a long time.
Handouts then and now (1987 left, 2020 right)
The text of the adventure has been thoroughly reorganised from the 1987 version. The original divided content according to a confusing mix of time, place and plot. The revised version replaces this with a straightforward chronological sequence, dividing events into eight distinct chapters. It is a more linear presentation, and so makes it harder for the GM to adapt it, but no single arrangement can satisfy all requirements, and I am in no doubt the new organisation is a huge improvement on the old.
One defect of the revised arrangement is that the core plot is not adequately introduced. It is summarised only in the briefest terms, omitting important details (such as the role of Dagmar von Wittgenstein and the location of the meteorite). The result is likely confusion on the part of new readers (for example, when “Dagmar” is mentioned on the very next page without any prior explanation).
The encounters with mentors (Josef Quartjin, Heironymous (sic) Blitzen, Maximilian Schnippmesser and Luigi Belladonna) have all been relocated to an appendix. Since they are not part of the main adventure plot, this makes a lot of sense. However, I can’t help but feel they belong even more naturally in the Death on the Reik Companion.
What has been moved into the Companion is the material on the river life of the Empire, including background information, encounters and rules for boat handling and trading. It is a material loss. Travelling and trading by river were important parts of the original adventure’s charm. The Death on the Reik Companion is likely to be an essential purchase for GMs of the adventure, as shown by the numerous references to it in the adventure text.
In place of the river life material, a section of ‘Carrion Up the Reik’ has been added to the adventure. ‘Carrion Up the Reik’ was a short scenario published in Hogshead’s reprint of the Enemy Within Campaign in 1998, designed to bridge the gap between Death on the Reik and the next instalment Power Behind the Throne.
There are some problems with the presentation of the text. Like Cubicle 7’s other PDF releases, it is in need of further proofreading. There are, for example, several references to “page @@” (for that genuine vintage feel), and one handout in particular is riddled with typos that make the writer sound like Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo ‘Allo (“I’ve alroody boon put in charge of ooganising something special foo ooxt yoor’s Hexensnacht”, sic). Also, whereas Enemy in Shadows is blessed with not one, but two indices, Death on the Reik has none at all. It is a disappointing omission, particularly given the complexity of the scenario.
Over a century ago, an astronomer named Dagmar von Wittgenstein learned of a meteorite which fell from the Chaos moon Morrslieb and landed in the Barren Hills. He undertook an ill-fated expedition to recover it, and transported it back to his ancestral home at Castle Wittgenstein. The meteorite was made of warpstone, and over the intervening years it has had a powerful mutating effect on the castle and its surroundings.
The existence of the meteorite has been discovered by Etelka Herzen, an agent of a Chaos cult called the Red Crown, and she has embarked on her own expedition to locate it. Unknown to her, a group of skaven are simultaneously pursuing the meteorite. Also unknown to her, the PCs are on her trail, as she provided Johannes Teugen with the scroll for the ritual in Enemy in Shadows.
Having come into possession of a river barge, whose crew were murdered by mutant bandits, the PCs follow in Herzen’s footsteps as she attempts to locate the meteorite. This eventually leads them to the lost observatory of Dagmar von Wittgenstein, where they discover of the ultimate fate of the meteorite and finally confront Herzen.
For the climax of the adventure, the players journey to Castle Wittgenstein to face the horrors there. They join with a band of outlaws, attack the castle, but find at the death that the skaven have beaten them to the meteorite. As the castle crumbles because of skaven undermining, they flee for their lives.
In the background the Purple Hand continue their involvement with the PCs, becoming increasingly concerned that they have absconded with the inheritance from Enemy in Shadows. After several unsuccessful attempts to persuade the adventurers to travel to Middenheim and hand over the inheritance, the Purple Hand arranges for a merchant to deliver the PCs to Middenheim by means of an elaborate ruse. What happens in Middenheim is the subject of the campaign’s next instalment, Power Behind the Throne.
Death on the Reik is a sprawling epic, encompassing multiple intersecting plots and a wide variety of people and places.
In the first phase the PCs criss-cross the southern Empire by river boat, following the trail of Etelka Herzen. In principle they are are afforded considerable freedom of movement, and can take their river boat wherever the will takes them. In practice, however, there is a clear trail of breadcrumbs for them to follow, and they are unlikely to deviate far from a predictable course.
The scenario disguises this linearity by overlapping the different plots and by introducing sidetracks and diversions. There is a brief subplot relating to the kidnapping of an acquaintance made in Enemy in Shadows. There is also a series of mysterious encounters with the Purple Hand. They continue the storyline from Enemy in Shadows, but do not advance it greatly, and the PCs are mostly kept in the dark. Depending on their disposition, players may find this either intriguing or frustrating. It is to be hoped that future episodes of the campaign develop this storyline more fully, and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion; the original campaign abruptly abandoned it after Death on the Reik.
Much of the action in this phase takes place in what are effectively small, but interesting, dungeons: a signalling tower, protected by undead guardians; a goblin-infested mine at Black Peaks; Herzen’s tower; and some caves in the Barren Hills. There are also a couple of interesting set-piece battles: a circle-the-wagons defence of a farm, and the showdown with Herzen. Investigative elements are limited. This is not a scenario in the mould of the latter part of Enemy in Shadows (or the original Shadows Over Bögenhafen). The players are mostly led from clue to clue, and simply have to collect the pieces of the puzzle (both metaphorically and, in the case of some prismatic keys, literally).
The second stage of the adventure focuses play more narrowly on Castle Wittgenstein and its surroundings.
The PCs first explore the nearby village of Wittgendorf, a pitiful, impoverished place suffering from the malign influence of the warpstone and the tyrannical von Wittgensteins. There they encounter beggars, mutants, the warped experiments of a local physician and the von Wittgensteins’ oppressive guards. This section of the scenario involves a somewhat more investigative style of play, but it does not make great demands on the players’ abilities. For the most part the narrative moves along regardless of their decisions. The castle guards will impound the PCs’ boat and run them out of town. Then the outlaw band will contact them and reveal a predictable secret entrance into the castle. It is all fundamentally quite linear, but there is enough interaction that once again Death on the Reik pulls off the neat trick of making it feel otherwise.
The meeting with the outlaws leads into a mass battle where the combined forces storm the castle’s outer bailey. It is a potentially exciting and dramatic set piece, though the guidance on running such a large combat is a little brief. The text advises the GM to focus on the PCs’ battles in detail, but provides only vague guidance on handling the rest of the battle. It would be helpful if it laid out more fully the options for the GM. The GM might adopt an impressionistic approach, preparing a loose script for the actions of the outlaws and guards and a handful of dramatic events to describe. This is perhaps the most cinematic choice. A more mechanical option is for the GM to run the battle using miniatures, floorplans and even the Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules. Neither approach is covered in any detail in the adventure.
With the guards conquered, events at the castle move towards a climax, as the PCs enter its inner bailey. This is a gruesome house of horrors. There is a charnel house where remains have combined into a single, hideous creature; a pipe organ that sprouts tentacles and squeezes victims into its pipes; a garden of carnivorous plants; and other monstrosities. The von Wittgenstein family itself is just as horrific: the head of the family has been transformed into a monstrous insect; his wife dotes on a pack of murderous mutant cats; their daughter conducts galvanic experiments on corpses, animating a monster; her brother is an insane four-armed taxidermist.
Many of these ideas are familiar from elsewhere. As I have discussed before, part of the campaign’s charm lies in its absorption of literary tropes. However, in the case of the galvanised monster, it strays into cliché. The idea has been used countless times, from Frankenstein to The Munsters. I would have preferred to see it replaced with something more imaginative. A grognard box offers some alternatives, but they are modest variations. More radical change is preferable in my opinion. One option not explored in the text is some form of doppelgänger, which with some rewriting could be the origin of the simulacrum in Power Behind the Throne (see further here and here).
Ultimately the inner bailey of the castle is another dungeon, but it is varied and interesting, and manages for the most part to be reasonably logical. The most obvious exception is the incongruous presence of a group of intoxicated Slaaneshi cultists. No explanation is given for their presence and little consideration given to their interaction with the PCs. It is simply assumed the PCs will quickly lose interest in them, given their insensible state. This is probably the most likely outcome, but it is a peculiar episode, nonetheless. It can, however, easily be removed or deemed to be a hallucination, should the GM wish.
Although events in the castle build up to a dramatic climax, the dénouement is a something of a cop-out. Rather than address the thorny question of what the adventurers will do with a warpstone meteorite, the adventure simply has it snatched from them at the death. It would be better if the PCs had a chance to battle the skaven and had some way of destroying the warpstone. Alternatively, it might be more satisfying if the skaven and the meteorite reappear later in the campaign. These are all ideas I have explored in The Enemy Within: a Companion. It is possible that subsequent episodes of the campaign will address these issues, but they are not explored in Death on the Reik, and the climax remains another frustrating bait and switch.
After the events at Castle Wittgenstein, there is an epilogue, taken from the first part of ‘Carrion Up the Reik’. The original version of this short adventure was inserted in the campaign to fill the substantial gap between Death on the Reik and the next part of the campaign, Power Behind the Throne, and to strengthen the PCs’ reasons for travelling to Middenheim, where the next episode takes place. It therefore existed to solve a GM need, and frankly it showed. It was in my opinion a contrived, illogical railroad.
The new version improves the logic of the scenario somewhat. There is now a more plausible explanation for the elaborate ruse to deliver the PCs to MIddenheim. But it still leaves the PCs largely as passengers and offers them few interesting challenges. Moreover, it reveals nothing more of the Kastor Lieberung plot, and does not seem to prepare the ground well for the next part of the campaign, for example, by introducing contacts and leads in Middenheim. It remains to be seen whether the second half of the scenario will address these issues, when it appears in Power Behind the Throne.
The epilogue serves a purpose, but little more, and in my view that purpose can be fulfilled more easily and more satisfactorily by other options. There are already plenty of other reasons for the PCs to travel to Middenheim: it is the current home of the last of the von Wittgensteins, the headquarters of the Purple Hand and Red Crown cults and the location of the famous Carnival. In my opinion it would be better to strengthen these links than to railroad the players there. There is also no shortage of less convoluted ways to separate the PCs from their river boat. For example, the boat could be damaged in an accident, reclaimed by relatives of the previous owners or just sold.
Changes to the substance of the original adventures are few and modest. There are more rumours and news to pass on to the players. There are some improved links with the first part of the campaign: Josef Quartjin now stays with the PCs, and there is some follow-up on Adolphus Kuftsos in Weissbruck. The PCs are now given a chance to exonerate the dwarfs without fighting the goblins in Black Peaks.
“Grognard boxes” again provide a selection of variant ideas. There are more than in the Enemy in Shadows, but they are shorter, and the changes they suggest are not especially substantial.
There is slightly greater female representation among NPCs, which were predominantly male in the original campaign: Aynjulls Isambard is female and Franz Bismarck has become Frida. Oddly Dagmar von Wittgenstein is still male, despite having a normally feminine name. These are superficial changes, but welcome.
The revision makes some improvements in the advice given to the GM. It provides more help on handling the confrontation with Etelka Herzen, which was badly neglected in the original. The chronology of the Red Crown’s movements is also dealt with more fully. The text description has been expanded considerably, and includes ideas for events to adjust the schedule, if necessary. It is a significant improvement on the bare outline of the original adventure, and considers nearly all of the chronological problems I have identified previously (see The Enemy Within: a Companion, p57). (The only issue unaddressed is the trivial matter of when the Red Crown lose a horse crossing the Stir and Narn.) There is also a map showing the Red Crown’s route. This would be a welcome addition, except that it retains the faults of the campaign map from which is is derived and is difficult to read.
These chronological improvements are, however, undermined by the lack of river travel rules. In the new edition there is no basis for determining the PCs’ travel distances and timeline, making it difficult to synchronise movements without further information. There is also a potential problem of scale. Although there is no scale on the map in Death on the Reik, the map in Enemy in Shadows indicated that the dimensions of the Reikland are significantly larger than in the original Enemy Within campaign. This creates a potential problem in that the timing of the Red Crown’s journey has not been changed, and they are required to travel at substantially higher speeds than before.
Some improvements are promised, but not delivered. I have suggested before that Etelka Herzen’s tower could contain correspondence with Johannes Teugen, which might explain the often obscure plot of Enemy in Shadows. Tantalisingly Death on the Reik promises exactly this: “documents in the wizard’s house shed some light on the strange events in Bögenhafen” (p7). But the promise is unfulfilled, and in the description of the tower there is no trace of the documents (or of the mysterious journals promised on p6).
Death on the Reik has long been one of the most popular parts of the Enemy Within campaign, and with justification. It is an enormous, multi-faceted and action-packed adventure that will keep a group busy for a long period of time.
It is also a very playable scenario. It does not make particularly onerous demands on either the players or the GM. Play is focused more on action and exploration than on complex investigation and role-playing, but it is satisfying and enjoyable, nonetheless.
The new edition preserves much of the original’s charm. The loss of the river life information is a backward step, when taken in isolation, but it is to be hoped that content in the Death on the Reik Companion will fill the gap. Other aspects have been improved, notably the organisation of the text and artwork. Little else, however, has changed substantially. Defects identified many years ago have gone uncorrected. While few of them are especially significant, and Death on the Reik is still a great adventure, more could have been done to improve the content, rather than just the presentation. Cubicle 7 will certainly need to up its game for the next part of the campaign: the brilliant, but flawed, Power Behind the Throne.
It’s not quite stepping into the same river twice, but it is pretty close.
* I have excluded re-releases of existing content for the same edition, such as Warhammer Campaign for WFRP1 and the Player’s Vault and Player’s Guide for WFRP3. Accessories, such as GM’s screens or character sheets, have also been excluded.
For my other WFRP4 reviews, see this link.
The review copy of Death on the Reik was purchased at my own expense. I have received no inducements in connection with this review.
Title art by JG O’Donoghue. Internal art by Ian Miller, Ralph Horsley et al. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.