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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In review: Sigmar's Heirs

Sigmar's Heirs- A Guide to the Empire
Anthony Ragan
GW: Black Industries
http://www.blackindustries.com/default.asp

The new BI/Green Ronin WFRP2 range continues to expand rapidly, with 10 products already on the shelves, 8 of them hardback books. Sigmar's Heirs- A Guide to the Empire (WFRP2:SH) was the first general background book to be released for the new range. As such it could be said that SH is a landmark book for the WFRP2 range. I mean to say: 1st ed. WFRP has long been famous for its campaign packs, with The Enemy Within in particular widely regarded as the best rpg campaign ever produced.

All the same, the WFRP Old World setting has long been at least as popular as any specific product throughout the game's history. Moreover, I would venture that it is the underlying strengths of the setting itself that will carry the game forward in its new incarnation. This is why I would suggest that the setting background books which will open up the Old World to a new generation of players are going to be important parts of the new line. Make or break might be too strong a way to put it, but crucial strikes me as less than an overstatement.

So let's see what Mr. Ragan has given us in this here tome.

First Impressions
As ever with this new line of frpg product, first impressions are about as good as they get. We have a nice little hardback volume that will sit nicely on your gaming shelves alongside other books from the range. Inside we find the nice layout for which Green Ronin are justly reknowned. What is particularly neat about GR's approach is that it breaks the contents down nicely into bite-sized chunks that make the contents as digestible as possible for harassed GM's. This isn't unique to GR to be sure, but they do a damn good job.

Delving deeper
The contents of WFRP2:SH break down into an introduction, 8 chapters, and 2 appendices.

The introduction is of the form that will already be familiar to readers of WFRP2 products: a summary of the contents of the book.

The 8 chapters are as follows:
1. The Land and the People
2. The History of the Empire
3. Government and Foreign Relations
4. Law, Justice and Criminals
5. Cults of the Empire
6. The Grand Provinces
7. Forbidden Cults
8. Ill Met in Bogenhafen.

The appendices are:
1. New Careers
2. Provincial Features.

The appendices
Of this material, the 2 appendices are the easiest to evaluate.

There are 8 new careers that provide more colour to the Imperial background. These range from street careers like Gambler and Raconteur, to careers with more of a place in the Imperial hierarchy like Knight of the Blazing Sun or Verenean Investigator. Three careers are basic careers- and the appendix includes notes on how GM's can make these available to new PC's; the other 5 are advanced careers. All in all these look like good additions to the WFRP2 career system, and they should prove particularly useful to GM's looking to widen the range of their NPC's, not to mention offering new scope to players.

The 2nd appendix gives variant starting skills and talents for human characters according to which of the 10 Grand Provinces they hail from. As with the new careers, these are simple rules that add an extra touch to the cultural depth for which WFRP has long been famous. More good stuff in other words.

Meat and drink: the chapters
This material is the core of the book, and it is by this content that it will stand or fall. Overall, it has to be said that the material is very good.

Some of the material expands upon that in the core rulebook. Other material is newer. Chapter 4: Law, Justice and Criminals strikes me as a case in point. One of the things that marked the Old World out from day one was that it was a world of consequences. That is to say: in a time when PC's would regularly walk into village taverns tooled up for all out war- and then wage it against the hapless locals- WFRP was a setting whose very detail addressed players' attentions to the legal consequences of their more murderous actions. So a chapter like Chapter 4 is very important for establishing this important part of the classic background.

This chapter is brief, to be sure- 6 pages, as are others: eg. chapter 1-covering the geography of the Empire, and the 4 races- is a mere 6 pages; or chapter 3- covering the forms of government and foreign relations- 4 pages.

That said, the merit of all this material is that it is well written. What I mean to say by this is that it is well focussed on the sort of material that will help GM's with their games. In other words: what we are getting is a gaming supplement and not a sociohistorical treatise.

This is most evident in the lengthiest chapter in the book: chapter 6: the Grand Provinces. This gives details of all 10 of the provinces that make up the Empire. Each province is presented in the same format:
- Quick details
- The Land
- The People
- Significant Places
- Sample character
- Gazetteer
- Adventure hooks
As well as the above list, each section also includes colour text giving:
- comments on the province from various sources
- local sayings
- lengthier accounts by outsiders.

The latter material gives a real flavour for the self-image of the provincial inhabitants as well as how they are seen by others. The overall effect is to give a nice feel for the insularity inherent in the Old World setting, which is a key feature in the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that has always been so liked by the game's many fans.

The detailed accounts of each province is more than sufficient for GM's new to the setting to find their feet in the Empire. The Gazetteers detail each settlement listed according to 6 categories (plus notes) including size, ruler, wealth, and so on. The other sections give vivid descriptions appropriate to their topic, all of which are focussed on the kind of information which should give GM's ideas for scenarios, or of backgrounds to the same.

The adventure hooks- of which there are 2 for each province- might not be terribly original, but they are well suited for giving new GM's an idea of the kind of scenario they could run in the Empire. Experienced GM's might not need this material in other words, but at some 3-4 pages all told, this is still pretty good bang for your buck it seems to me.

All in all then, while WFRP2:SH might very well be the proverbial quart in a pint pot, it is certainly one where the key decisions- about what to include- have by and large been well taken.

The downside?
So by this time you might be thinking that I am well satisified with my purchase of WFRP2:SH, and I am: it strikes me as a book that will stand a new WFRP GM in good stead for a long time. But there are gripes I have to say.

My first gripe is one that the people at BI are already well familiar with from their forum: typos. It has to be said that there are too many typos for comfort in this book. Truth to tell, there are none that I can remember having a terrible effect on the sense of the text. All the same, I am just the sort of person who's bugged by spelling mistakes, so I have to mention this.

More serious than this IMO is the matter of maps. The Bogenhafen scenario aside, there are only 2 maps in this book: both of the Empire as a whole. One looks like an 'actual' map of the Empire, while the other is an 'actual' document from the Empire itself. These are both OK (the 2nd one is really quite nice in fact).But only having 2 maps is something I don't like. If I am not mistaken 1st ed. WFRP was well known for having many maps, something that I think is important for a fantasy setting in general, but more especially for a game which sets such store in versimillitude as does WFRP.

I mean to say: the 'Ill Met in Bogenhafen' scenario takes up 19 pages (nearly 1/6th of the entire book). Now it has to be said that the scenario looks quite nice: it gives a taster of the unique style of WFRP scenarios while at the same time building on the events of 1st ed's Shadows Over Bogenhafen. So, in this sense, the scenario is OK. But the question does have to be asked whether or not it was appropriate to devote so much of a background book to material of such limited utility, relative to the rest of the book.

It seems to me that this question is all the more pertinent when you consider that the space allotted to 'Ill Met in Bogenhafen' could've translated into an extra 2 pages per province (for example). That is to say: a full page map plus extra background material, to give but one suggestion. Regional maps of this ilk would've been all the more useful given the detail of the gazetteers themselves, which all include more than a dozen locations. Only a handful of these are represented on the larger map of the 2 in this book. And it has to be said that the editorial decision to include a scenario in this book makes even less sense when you consider that BI have 4 books of the size of WFRP2:SH either published or planned.

Conclusion
The above caveats do not mean that this book is less than useful to a WFRP GM. In fact I would have to say that this book is indispensable to a GM new to the Warhammer Old World looking for more information about the central setting for games of WFRP. One of the main reasons for this is that what the book does contain is well written, and well focussed to the needs of a GM. Read this book a couple of times, and I'm sure you'll have plenty of ideas for your own game.
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