Sunday, September 11, 2005

In review: Darkness Rising

Darkness Rising: A Complete History of the Storm of Chaos
Phil Kelly and Anthony Reynolds
GW: Black Library

Regular readers might remember that I picked up a copy of this on a day out in my old home town of Dundee during my recent trip east. Here is the review I promised.

Darkness Rising: A Complete History of the Storm of Chaos (DR) is a background book from the BL range. Presented in the format now familiar from across the gaming industry- namely that of a pseudoreal volume from the setting it covers, at first sight DR presents a sumptuous package. Its 96 pages are laid out like those of an illuminated printed book, and are bursting with illustrations, mock letters and other clippings. These are production standards of the high quality longtime GW customers have been taking for granted for years.

But as Donald Sutherland's Vernon L. Pinkley in The Dirty Dozen said: "Very pretty, General. Very pretty. But, can they fight?"

The central conceit
As my above remarks suggest, DR is built around a central conceit by now very familiar to fans of the F&SF genres: namely the pretence that this is a real book written by an actual person in the setting the book describes. This is such a hoary old device that a review of DR must take into account the use that the book's writers make thereof, in terms of how useful the book will be to its readership.

To begin with though, the conceit is nicely set up on the book's frontspiece. The following appears under the book's title and subtitle:

Being a Considered Essay on the Rise of the Darkness, the Storm of Chaos and the Invasion of the Lord of The End Times

Compiled and written by Frederich "Old" Weirde of Altdorf, Noted Scholar, Professor of Esoteric Studies, Historian, Antiquarian, Fellow of the Altdorf Men's Historical Society and Connoisseur of Finest Estalian Port

With capable assistance from the boy, Stefan

A History of the Fate of the Empire of Karl Franz during the time of the Darkness Rising

Altdorf Press

Immediately then we are plunged deep into the entertaining riches of the Old World. A good start.

Meanwhile, I wonder who was first responsible for this device, and if there is a proper name for it?

Summary of contents
The contents of DR are presented in the form of "Old" Weirde's Prologue, 7 chapters, and an Epilogue. The chapters are as follows:
1. Archaon, Lord of The End Times
2. The Holy Sigmarites of the Empire
3. The Conclave of Light
4. The Eastern Front
5. The War in the North
6. The Mustering
7. The Siege of Middenheim.

There are also 67 pictures- ranging from small insets to full double-page spreads; 25 'reproduced' letters, manuscripts and other clippings; and 4 maps- for a grand total of 96 illustrations in a 96 page book. This is simply excellent.

The illustrations
As ever with GW products (and not only with GW these days), I am already familiar with some of these from the pages of White Dwarf (WD), WFRP2 product, and WFB:SoC. I would also be familiar with many more were I a player of Sabretooth Games' Warcry Warhammer CCG.

So all matters of quality aside, the question immediately arises: should DR be marked down because of this recycling of imagery? Not in the opinion of this reviewer.

I have long believed that GW essentially invented the modern British F&SF illustration industry back in the 80's, with WD, WFB, 40K, and other products. This opinion about history is not a reason for not marking down DR (or any other product from any other company for that matter) for recycling illustrations I'll readily admit. But it does point to my essential point: sheer economics.

Simply put: if GW- which both employs illustrators and commissions work if I am not mistaken; if even the mighty GW can only afford to produce so many lavishly illustrated products by recycling illustrations, then I would suggest that we face a simple reality check. Either we have fewer illustrations, all new; or we have more illustrations, some recycled. I know which option I favour.

Moreover, the issue is not just one of how many illustrations in any given product are recycled. Rather it is one of to what use all the illustrations are put. Do they serve a purpose in the given product, or don't they?

I really can't give an exhaustive account of which illustrations in DR are recycled, and which aren't. What I can do is give my impressions of their qualities, and their usefulness. As noted above, the illustrations in DR fall neatly into 3 categories: maps, ms, and pictures. I'll take each in turn.

The 4 maps in DR appear in chapters 1, 4, 6, and the Epilogue. They are all the same basic map, with the classic campaign maps' coloured arrows to depict the paths of Archaon's horde as it descended upon the Empire, and of the Empire's various defenders in their responses. This is good, because it gives a clear and concise image of the conduct of the campaign in its key phases. In other words: exactly what any reader of this book would want to know.

These represent "Old" Weirde's own writings, field despatches from "the boy, Stefan" (who turns out to be "Old" Weirde's only child), and sundry other ms, clippings and letters received, collected and collated by "Old" Weirde. These are presented in a variety of styles representing different kinds of paper, calligraphic styles, and even printing on occasion.

In general, this material is used extremely well. The various ms are introduced in a timely manner, so that they amplify the thrust of the basic text. They are also from sources of a sufficient variety to add breadth and depth to the account of how Archaon's horde made its impact felt across the Old World.

My only real complaint about this material is that some of the fonts and layouts chosen are just a wee bit too difficult to read. This is not to say that these are unreadable; rather that they contrast just a touch too unfavourably with everyday printing typefaces.

The pictures in DR fall into the following categories:
1. the forces of chaos
2. the forces of the Empire and it allies
3. the grim realities of war in the Old World
4. the horrors of the aftermath.

As I've already noted, many of these are recycled, most notably from the Warcry CCG. I reckon these are the most easy to identify, for one reason or another. Some of the illustrations are better than the others; eg. several of those that I would imagine are recycled from the CCG look a bit sketchy when reproduced on the larger scale of this book compared to the thumbnails of a playing card. That said, the overall effect of the illustrations is excellent.

The images of the forces of Chaos range from the familiar highly detailed renderings of the baroque splendour of Chaos knights; through the barbarian spikyness of the northern tribes; to the howling insanities of beastmen and other degenerate servants of the chaos gods.

Defenders of the Empire and its allies include the Emperor Karl Franz, the Grand Theogonist, and Valten among other characters; Imperial units such as Wolf Kin Skirmishers; and allies such as Brettonian knights or Kislevite Winged Lancers.

Although of variable quality as I have said, all of these pictures are highly evocative. Some- eg. the pictures of the charging Winged Lancers (p.57) and Brettonians (p.61)- are particularly striking to my eye, nicely capturing both the insane grandeur and sheer power of these mighty horsemen in the mythology of the Old World.

But it is the pictures of the grim realities and horrific aftermath of war in the Old World that really mark this book out for me. Alongside the pictures of the warped faces of chaos and the grandeur of the Imperial forces and their various allies are many pictures showing a different side to things.

These pictures show the desperate fury and sheer terror of the fighting men in the face of Archaon's horde. Pictures like that on p.87 ('The Backbone of the Empire') showing basic Imperial troopers in action, where 2 nameless infantrymen stand side-by-side in the depths of the melee, patently unable even to wonder if they will survive. Or pictures like that on p.49 ('Daemon Unleashed') which shows a giant daemon cleaving apart most of a unit of these same Imperial infantry with one sweep of its mighty sword.

Then there are pictures like that on p.15, where a small girl stands lost and alone amid the charnelhouse of a ravaged village.

I suspect it's not often that a background book like this shows the truly terrifying side of its grim subject alongside the heroic imagery, let alone the pathos of the human cost of the bloody aftermath. It might've been done before; it might've even've been done better. I don't know. I just know that I am impressed.

The writing
As I noted above: the hoary old framing device at the heart of DR is one the treatment of which ultimately makes or breaks the book. I have to say that I consider Kelly and Reynolds' handling of this to be little or nothing short of a minor triumph.

The chapters outlined above take us through the portents of impending doom; the first intimations of Archaon's assault; the first flush of what turns out to be a false dawn of victory; the formation of the defensive alliance and the muster of the defenders of the Empire; the siege of Middenheim; and the great city's eventual relief.

This narrative is all seen from the perspective of "Old" Weirde in Altdorf. Throughout his tale, Weirde digs up strange ms; weaves in letters from young Stefan and other sources; visits his favourite taverns; meets various geezers who illuminate the events unfolding elsewhere; has a ghastly encounter; and gets caught up in civil and domestic unrest. Some of this is knockabout stuff to be sure, but it is all played straight, letting the situations tell their own tales.

A personal favourite part of mine is Chapter 3. The Conclave of Light (at which the alliance against Archaon, and its strategy, was formed), and I really must quote from it at some length.

After a list of those present (which includes the highly amusing entry: "Old Weirde, dashing historian and author of this transcript."), we are treated to extracts from the Conclave's deliberations. On day 30 of the Conclave, Teclis arrives. He makes a speech in favour of a general alliance. The dwarfs there present grumble among themselves. Then:
THUNGRIMSSON: Though the memories of others may grow dim with time, the dwarfs remember the wrongs done to them, and few are greater than the treachery of the Pheonix King and his beardless kin. But, before the deceit of the beard-maimers, the elves and dwarfs stood side-by-side on many occasions to face the hordes of Chaos, and put aside the differences during the time of Magnus. Though we shall never forget the wrongs they did us, we shall not let it be said of us that we would rather damn the world than listen to an elf. When the horns sound from the walls of Karaz-a-Karak, the dwarfs will heed them, and if need be, we will march at the side of the elves.

KARL FRANZ: Noble Teclis, what is the answer that you bring from the Pheonix King? Will he fight with us?

Hot damn, but that sends a shiver down my spine! Gripping stuff.

There is so much in this text that I enjoyed that my remarks have barely scratched the surface of its delights, with the politicking and paranoia of the alliance and the Imperial muster, and in victory's aftermath left for readers to savour entirely for themselves. I must however note that one of DR's merits is that there is a real story in there too, one so real that I can say no more about it in the time-honoured tradition of not giving away spoilers.

Sufficeth to say that the story Kelly and Reynolds give us is one that I am unashamed to say that I found genuinely touching. Surprised, for sure. But unashamed.

All in all then, I would have to say that Darkness Rising: A Complete History of the Storm of Chaos is a superior product. It takes certain familiar devices: the framing device; the episodic narrative with diverse 'addenda'; and lots of nice pictures; and delivers a damn good read, and what must surely be a exemplar of how to do a system-less background book for a gaming setting.

Is this book indispensable on a gamer's shelf? Well, if you're a GM new to WFRP2, and you're playing in the standard post-SoC setting, I would have to say that it is. I also have WFB:SoC. This book has a lot of useful material in it for a WFRP2 GM, but DR puts you right there, in the Old World and under the clouds of the SoC and its aftermath in a way that a WFB army book never could.

And a rating? Well, despite my remarks about the varying quality of the illustrations, I would have to give it full marks, on whatever scale, because it's so damn well written and organised. Well done to all concerned. ;)

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