Monday, 14 November 2011

Anti-Climactic Critical Hit!

Critical hit systems are a great way to add colour to combat and leave characters with wounds and scars from a source other that the fiat of a cruel GM. They can, though, kill off villains a little too quickly.

A few weeks ago, our WFRP game reached the climax of Shadows Over Bogenhafen. For all the praise that has been heaped on this scenario, it didn’t play out as well as I’d hoped. The players sent their characters round in circles, making little headway in uncovering the diabolic scheme of Johannes Teugen, and seemed to grow more and more frustrated with each session. They wanted adventure, but ‘every time we thought we were rich, it all went wrong’. Perhaps there was a mismatch between the expectations of the players (only one of the four could be described a properly familiar with WFRP, one had played it a couple of times, one had played D&D back in the day, and one had never played an RPG before) and the tone of WFRP 1e. And perhaps I’m just not that good at running an investigative, combat-light game for characters with few resources in world quite so grim.

Nevertheless, the party saved Bogenhafen. Despite everything, but with more than a little help from the ‘let-me-tell-you-what-is-happening-NPC’, they managed to secrete themselves inside the warehouse-cum-temple. With the party split, hiding either side of the room, I prohibited talking between the different groups – someone was going to have to declare an action.

They leapt to the ambush just before the human sacrifice was made. With surprise on his side, Stanley, the Elven Agitator, managed to loose an arrow at Johannes before his mind was wiped by Gideon’s magic. ‘Exploding’ 6s later, and Johannes is bleeding to death, an arrow in the groin. With Johannes down, with filthy brutish armed men and a woman leaping from the darkness, and with Gideon revealing his true, demonic form, the fight was immediately in the party’s favour. The ordinary cultists were screaming in terror, and the hired muscle waiting outside the warehouse were unwilling to assist a demon, even if they could pass their Cool tests, so the fight was 3 on 1. For all Gideon’s powers, the accumulation of attacks will produce enough d6 rolls for damage to take him down. A failed Cool test or two was all that stopped him being hacked to the ground in a single turn.

An anti-climax. But then, it was an anti-climax to me, as GM. None of the players (much less, the characters), had any idea of just what was at stake as they disrupted the ritual. For all they knew, they simply rescued a young woman and smashed a demonic cult.

Funnily enough, our experience appears to be very similar to the ‘playtest’ of this RPGnet review. Except, at the final moment, ALL the dice all fell right for the player-characters. Which suggests to me that, for all Shadows Over Bogenhafen’s undoubted qualities, it is very often played poorly by players and GMs.


  1. The first time I played Shadows of Bogenhafen, it was fun because lots of weird and crazy stuff happened -- for example, we tried to knock out the night watchman, but rolled a 6 for damage and carried on rolling, so exploded his head accidentally -- but it wasn't satisfying.

    Only after reading it did I realise that it was much better than we realised, so I'm keen to try it again one day.

  2. Fair to say we had no idea what was going on or what to do. Not fair to say it was your fault in any way though. Being a GM is a tough gig and you did a good job with a bunch of hopeless plonkers!

  3. Kelvin: Accidental kills was a prominent feature of this adventure. I did forget to ask players to make the second WS roll at least once, but not when it really mattered. Not when Axel the Protagonist was busy caving in skulls with his fists.

    I'm not sure that a large part of the problem was the combination of quite a slow pace of play with shorter and less frequent sessions than designers would have expected, or experienced in their playtesting. As such, the idea of an unravelling mystery was lost, and instead there was a series of strange, frustrating encounters.