RAT RACE

Warning. This review contains spoilers for the Enemy Within campaign.

Rats!
They fought the dogs and killed the cats…

– Robert Browning, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’

The Horned Rat Companion is Cubicle 7’s fourth miscellany of material to accompany the Enemy Within campaign. This time it is infested with loathsome ratmen….

THR-Companion-Standard-Cover-copy-1200x1507

PRESENTATION

At 126 pages (without adverts), the book is of a similar length to the previous companions, and its presentation follows the same style, but with the welcome surprise of an index. My only complaint is the low resolution of some images, such as the “16-bit” art on p17 and the mine map for the scenario ‘Horror in the Darkness’ on p102, whose key is barely legible.

The Horned Rat Contents

INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK

Previous volumes in the series have opened with historical background on the writing of the Enemy Within adventures, but on this occasion there is nothing of the sort. Regrettably this means no new light is shed on the troubled history of The Horned Rat. It seems that Games Workshop has grown reluctant to discuss how the Warhammer sausage was made.

THE LOATHSOME RATMEN

The bulk of The Horned Rat Companion takes the form of a fifty-four-page guide to Warhammer‘s iconic enemy, the skaven.

It begins with a short history of the ratmen. This runs to only four pages, and lacks a timeline, but pithily covers as much as most GMs are likely to need.

Skaven society is analysed with sections on the Council of Thirteen (three pages), Grey Seers (four pages) and various clans (seventeen pages). The discussion of the Council includes an interesting account of the clan politics surrounding Maliss Manwrack’s plot in The Horned Rat, but is let down somewhat by the lack of a clear description of the Council and its members. It would have benefited from a simple table showing this information. The description of the clans is comprehensive, and covers the major clans Eshin, Moulder, Mors, Pestilens, Rictus and Skryre, along with some lesser ones (Gritus, Septik, Treecherik and Vrrtkin).

Throughout this section there are a great number of profiles of skaven bands and individuals, along with notes on how they might be connected to the events of The Horned Rat. They are well done, but there seem to be more than the GM is likely to need for The Horned Rat. To make use of most of them would require the GM to develop a separate campaign deep into the Under-Empire that is not covered in this book.

Of somewhat greater use for Enemy Within GMs is a three-page write-up of an apprentice to the skaven assassin Fleer Twitchkill from The Horned Rat. This includes ideas for using the apprentice either to help or hinder the PCs in that adventure. I doubt many GMs will need to use this character, but it provides a nice option.

Skaven equipment and magic are also covered. Nine pages are dedicated to the skaven armoury, with an extensive collection of close-combat weapons, missile weapons, heavy weapons and magic items. A further nine pages detail thirty-nine skaven spells.

A short, three-page bestiary describes a handful of creatures: the great pox rat, wolf rat, plague rat, brood horror and rat-ogre bonebreaker. Though few, the creatures seem to be a useful mix for GMs.

The skaven material concludes with three pages on general knowledge of the skaven conspiracy. This adds very little to what is said in The Horned Rat, and at times struggles to reconcile the presence of warlike skaven hordes with their supposed secrecy. For example, it stretches credulity that skaven could raze close to half of Nuln and still go undetected (p8).

Some of the content in these chapters overlaps with WFRP2‘s Children of the Horned Rat (2006). The weapons are largely the same, though with some additions in the Companion, most notably among the ranged weapons. All of the spells in Children of the Horned Rat reappear bar one (Plague), along with nine new ones. The magic items only partially match. The history and bestiary are considerably shorter in the Companion.

A significant portion of Children of the Horned Rats content is not reproduced, however. The Companion omits its discussion of skaven anatomy, body language and settlements; rules for skaven characters; campaign ideas; the adventure ‘Slaves of Destiny’; and the very many extracts from in-game documents. Yet, despite having less than half the page count of the earlier book, the account in the Companion does not in my opinion suffer greatly for its reduced length. I would even go so far as to say that I value the Companion’s brevity over Children of the Horned Rat’s detail, as much of the latter’s additional content appears to me extraneous.

Overall, this part of the Companion forms an excellent guide to skaven. It is by no means essential for GMs of The Horned Rat, but is still a valuable expansion for GMs who wish to make more of the ratmen. One slight disappointment is that the Companion does not quite replicate or replace all the information in the brief skaven description on pp6-8 of The Horned Rat. A small number of the profiles there have no counterparts in the Companion, potentially requiring GMs to refer to both books. Also, some of the weapon statistics are inconsistent between the two volumes. These are relatively minor points, however.

Unknown, Skaven, 2021, from The Horned Rat Companion

FANGS FOR NOTHING

As usual for these companion volumes, there is a description of one of the Chaos cults that features in the campaign. This time it is a six-page account of the Yellow Fang, the human cult of the skaven god, whose members appear in The Horned Rat.

The content is fine insofar as it goes, but it does not go especially far. It suffers from the same vagueness as the cult descriptions in the other companion books. I would like to see detailed information on organisation, including positions, ranks, titles, divisions and typical cells; leaders, prominent members and internal politics; cult meeting places and geographic reach; beliefs, attitudes, cult objectives and individual motivations for membership; meetings, initiation rituals and other ceremonies; symbols and sacred texts; current activities and schemes, including adventure ideas; modi operandi, such as methods of communication, recruitment, punishment and financing; etc.

Some of these matters are addressed for the Yellow Fang, but not all and none in great detail. Its organisation is “secretive and clandestine”, which seems to be a euphemism for “left blank”. Detailed description of its members is limited to two cultists, one senior and one junior. Objectives, methods and activities are covered only in quite general terms, and there is nothing that ties into the events of The Horned Rat or ‘The Ritual’ in the Power Behind the Throne Companion. Refreshingly a rationale is provided for membership of the cult, and there are some pieces of good characterisation, such as cultists’ habits of imitating skaven, but overall the Yellow Fang feels as nebulous as the other cults in the campaign.

Unknown, The Yellow Fang, 2021, from The Horned Rat Companion

AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH

A further nineteen pages provide additional background on the Middle Mountains, which are the site for the later part of The Horned Rat. Regrettably this section does not address the most significant weakness of the region’s coverage in The Horned Rat, namely its map, which is repeated without alteration. Instead, it provides an assortment of brief background articles.

There is a single-page history of the mountains, including stories of a Chaos gate, a dwarf curse, the origins of Slayers and a gold rush, all of which have left footprints on the region. It is a good overview, which should provide GMs with plenty of ideas.

Descriptions are also given for a number of locations in the mountains, in varying detail. A handful of ancient fortresses are mentioned (Castle Lenkster, Roezfels, the Keep of the First Slayer and the lost dwarfholds of Karaz Ghumzul). However, their depictions amount to no more than short notes, often only a few sentences long. They are enough to provide background information, but of very little use should the characters visit these places.

Brass Keep receives more extensive coverage in a four-page write-up, which describes in general terms its history, layout and denizens. Statistics are also provided for the  Blightkings that inhabit the castle (though oddly without any description of their appearance), and rules are given for the disease Nurgle’s Rot. Again, however, this material constitutes notes that require development, rather than a detailed account. There are no map of the castle, no description of specific locations within it and no adventure suggestions and outlines.

The only location to be documented in nearly full detail is the Middenheim Mining Colony and Penitentiary, which receives a two-page write-up that essentially replicates content that originally appeared the WFRP1 supplement Apocrypha 2: Chart of Darkness (2000). This desperate place breaks up the succession of fortresses and is an interesting, if dark, location. It has echoes of Nazi concentration camps, not least the sign “Honest work makes an honest man”, which makes me think of Arbeit macht frei. Some might find this unsettling, but there is nothing objectionable. The biggest drawback of this location’s write-up is the lack of adventure material. There are no obvious reasons for the PCs to visit the Colony and no suggestions as to what might happen if they do. The lack of a map also reduces the location’s usability.

There is some playable material in these chapters. Five pages are dedicated to encounter ideas: a selection of outlines without statistics (pp69-71) and a pair of fully written-up NPCs with notes on their use in The Horned Rat (pp78-80). There is probably enough material already in The Horned Rat that GMs are unlikely to need this content, but it at least provides further options. A two-page mountain bestiary discusses the monsters that inhabit the mountains and adds a selection of new creatures (cliff spider, great eagle and mountain cat); none of it is very inspired. The mountain content is wrapped up with a couple of pages describing a dwarf Ironbreaker career (Tunnel Fighter to grognards), along with a pair of gromril artefacts.

Overall, this section of the Companion feels underdeveloped. Here its brevity is a disadvantage. It reflects not a careful condensation of useful material (as in the case of the skaven content), but a lack of depth. None of the content is bad, but its use to GMs seems to me quite limited.

OLD FRIENDS

After reprinting so much of WFRP‘s first-edition back catalogue Cubicle 7 might have been expected to be scraping the bottom of the barrel by this point, but it has saved two of the better old adventures for inclusion in The Horned Rat Companion.

‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, by Carl Sargent, first appeared in White Dwarf 105 (September 1988) and was reprinted in Warhammer Companion (1990). Here it reappears under the slightly modified title ‘With a Little Help from My (New) Friends’, and runs to thirteen pages in length. The PCs are recruited by a famous Bretonnian detective, Alphonse Hercules de Gascoigne, to help him stake out an abandoned tenement where he believes kidnappers are holding a young boy. After the surveillance has been completed, the PCs plan and execute a raid to rescue the child.

It is an interesting, thoughtful and fun scenario, which provides a welcome break from fighting Chaos. It requires the players to consider their observations, make deductions about the disposition of the kidnappers and take a tactical approach for the rescue. Background colour and advice are provided by de Gascoigne, who is a flamboyant and amusing NPC. It is, quite simply, a classic.

The second reprinted-and-renamed scenario is ‘Horror in the Darkness’, an eight-page adventure based on ‘Terror in the Darkness’ in White Dwarf 108 (December 1988), also written by Carl Sargent, following an idea by Graeme Davis. This concerns a mysterious beast troubling a mine. It is hardly a novel premise, but it leads to a tense and atmospheric encounter, which once again calls for careful tactics rather than a banzai charge. It does, however, in some ways resemble the ‘Stolen Village’ and ‘Griffon Down’ sections of the The Horned Rat, so its inclusion in this stage of the campaign seems poorly timed.

Except for changes to game mechanics, both adventures are largely the same as their original versions. There are some minor revisions to be more socially sensitive. The exclusively male cast of significant NPCs has been altered to provide roughly equal male and female representation. The purge of Nazi names has continued with Adolf Schutz becoming Lukas. “Ladies of dubious virtue” are now “performers at a local inn”.

There is also some improved guidance for GMs. Fuller suggestions are provided for introducing de Gascoigne, handling gung-ho players and running spin-offs. There are less heavy-handed options for removing de Gascoigne from the scene and preventing PCs from using canaries to detect toxic gases in the mine.

There is, however, one major change in each adventure. To the chagrin of grognards everywhere de Gascoigne has changed race and is now a halfling, not a gnome. It is not an issue likely to bother newcomers, and grognards have a simple fix, but it does perhaps point to a more restrictive approach to Cubicle 7’s Warhammer licence.

The second change is that the creature in the mine is no longer an ambull from WH40K. Instead, it is a brood horror: a monstrous, tunnelling, rat-like beast bred by Clan Moulder. To my mind this is a better fit with the setting, but it has somewhat altered the sense of the adventure. In the original version the ambull was transported from the Death World Luther MacIntyre IX via a warp gate activated by a wizard’s presence. In the new, the brood horror is attracted by the presence of warpstone in the mine. This renders investigations into the history of the wizards largely a red herring. The change has also introduced an error to the map, whose key (if you can read it) refers to “ambull tunnels”, instead of tunnels made by the brood horror.

Unknown, Brood Horror, 2021, from The Horned Rat Companion

GRAVEYARD SHIFT

The final chapter of The Horned Rat Companion is the next instalment in the Gravelord campaign that began in the Death on the Reik Companion. It provides a series of events to be interspersed in The Horned Rat. None of them is particularly interesting, and they seem to be more of a nuisance to the players and GM than anything else. I have to confess to finding the Gravelord character increasingly irritating. That is perhaps the intention, but I find it hard to embrace this storyline when the material can be tiresome to read, let alone play.

Alvaro Jimenez Hernandez, Cover, 2021, from The Horned Rat Companion

OVERALL

By now these companion volumes have found a rhythm that means their contents, at least in overview, are quite predictable: some meaty chapters on a background topic linked to the main adventure; a so-so cult description; some good-but-reprinted adventures; and the decidedly meh Gravelord campaign. The Horned Rat Companion fits the beat closely. The skaven material is the obvious highlight, and the reprinted adventures are among my favourites for WFRP1. The rest of the content has good elements, but is in general less developed than I would like. Still, The Horned Rat Companion is a good package overall, potentially of use to any GM, not just one running The Enemy Within.

To buy The Horned Rat Companion from DriveThruRPG, click here.

For my other WFRP4 reviews, see this link.

I would like to thank Cubicle 7 for providing a copy of The Horned Rat Companion for review.

Title and internal art used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders. Links to DriveThruRPG are affiliate links. I receive a small payment for purchases made through them. This does not change the cost paid by the purchaser. I have received no inducements in connection with this review.

14 thoughts on “RAT RACE

  1. I obviously missed Derrick’s post regarding GW’s new editorial policy, but I had wondered why the PBtT:C had such a small introduction. Oddly, I find it the most disappointing aspect of the latter books, but that is possibly a result of being too high on nostalgia. Although I’m well into the realms of speculation, it does further support a GW pivot unsettling Cubicle 7’s plans, probably including the mythical Gav Thorpe campaign and maybe relating to the resignations. Are GW as frustrating a company to work for (even indirectly) as they are as a consumer?

    Anyway, another good review. I’ve generally liked the content in the companions, and found there to always be good stuff in them, but I wonder how much of a problem the idea of tying the content to the sibling campain book is impacting the overall quality. From my point of view, as a purchaser of the full set, it’s not much of an issue, but as anyone who wants bits of information, it becomes a little more troublesome to determine where to most wisely spend money. As you point out, there are areas of information which could do with a bit more depth, and others where there’s perhaps a little too much.

    Ultimately, this is the problem of having physical books, which I prefer as a product despite the shortcoming. If someone came along with the idea of RPGs as a Service (RPGaaS?) with a big database of information dynamically published to users as requested, I imagine we fix the content problem and diminish the whole.

    I thought the Yellow Fang cult was the best effort yet at a cult description but still short.

    A couple of things that you may want to check though – the digital copy I have does contain an index, they likely added it in an update, which they’ve been prone to. This copy weighs in at 128 pages with 2 pages of adverts.

    I missed the 16-bit art, but had a bit of a laugh when I saw that. Not very professional, but brought back memories of Amiga loading screens.

    Also, I’m still waiting for my physical copy 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for flagging the updated version of the Companion, which, as you say, adds a one-page index. I’ve amended the review to reflect this. I haven’t checked for other changes, but I doubt they are substantial.

      I agree about the apparent pivot. It’s speculative, but the announcement of Warhammer: The Old World, the unexplained departure of Andy Law, the new editorial policy on historic information, the disappearance of gnomes (again) and various changes to the Enemy Within campaign seem to coincide.

      However, having earlier written off Gav Thorpe’s Albion-Ulthuan-Lustria campaign, I wonder if I might be proved wrong. Recent blog posts from C7 have included bits of Albion and Lustria, and the Salzenmund and Sea of Claws supplements might serve as gateways to such a campaign.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am incredibly excited by the hints of Lustria. I don’t even care for Lizardmen very much, but I’ve always found this continent fascinating… hopefully there’ll be some Old World colonies to interact with rather than all Lizardmen all the time!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review (as usual). I got my physical copy the other day, and I agree with the conclusions you’ve come to here. There’s some great content here, but some of it is left so vague that the GM could probably make it up themselves… My biggest disappointment with TEW as a whole is the main campaign. Initially my nostalgia for this was so strong – especially when I read that SRiK and EIF were being replaced – but since then, and since I’ve been reading the reprints, I’ve started realising more and more just how railroady and disconnected the whole thing is. Which is a shame.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Was that a preorder from Cubicle 7? They’ve generally got in touch with me to verify delivery address but I’ve heard nothing from them for a while.

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    2. I’d say TEW is, always was and remains a fixer-upper – something to finish for yourself and make your own. In a paradoxal way its incompleteness, with all the creaky joints and loose ends, has been one of its strengths. The new edition doesn’t really change this factor, but its – IMO rather misleading – marketing as the “definitive” version, like the-way-it-was-always-supposed-to-be, does threaten to obscure it.

      If Andy Law had stayed on at C7 and continued to develop the new TEW it would have looked very different. But even that, of course, wouldn’t have been the “true” or “definitive” version anymore than the present, or indeed the original publication, is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I completely agree – in looking at running the new edition I’ve found myself ripping out and replacing more than I ever did in the past. The companions are good for generating ideas for how to stitch things together in different ways. Ironically, I don’t find the grognard boxes useful in the slightest. While they started off as interesting, they very quickly devolved into “Here’s how to stop people metagaming” which was quite bizzare. As you state, the whole “definitive super duper edition” moniker is very misleading.

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  3. I don’t think Cubicle 7 have ever advertised it as the ‘definitive edition’. Cubicle 7 have called it the ‘Director’s Cut’, which is different though might be semantics to some people, and in any case i’m not convinced that the author got a free enough hand from Games Workshop or Cubicle 7 for it to be a director’s cut.
    I agree that the incompleteness of TEW Campaign has been of come benefit over the years, at least in so far the perfect has not been the enemy of the good and in terms of the wealth of unofficial material this has generated over the decades.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, while they haven’t called it the “definitive edition” in so many words, I’d say the “Director’s Cut” label and C7’s marketing of it in general definitely implies something along those lines. (And as you observe yourself, even the ‘Director’s Cut’ description seems misleading.)

      And that also seems to be the way it’s been received by numerous gamers. I think if it had been called, say, the “New Expanded Edition” it would have been differently received. But that’s a guess, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suspect they have used that or a similar phrase. At least somewhere. Possibly the dev diaries.

        On the one hand I understand why from a marketing point of view and would expect little else. From the other I think it’s an overstatement for at least some of the reasons you state.

        Personally I can live with it, but there’s still plenty of “exercise for the user.” In some ways it’s inevitable – think of the decision tree by the time the players get to EiR – a million and one things could have happened from the raw content alone before accounting for anything outside of that scope.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. According to your interview with Graeme, I’d say they are not holding back how the sausage is made. Instead, for this adventure, there is no past other than a vague outline (and that maybe only verbal…I don’t quite remember the specifics of the interview in that regard).

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    1. Even so, there are some things to be said about The Horned Rat, as I have covered in my own posts. Moreover, according to one of the authors, the historic content in the Power Behind the Throne Companion was cut by GW precisely because of heightened sensitivity about the past.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I’m working on the review, but it can be difficult to know when pieces like that will be finished; other things have a habit of getting in the way.

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