I had my third near-total party kill (TPK) in yesterday’s Warhammer 3rd Edition session. This one was so savage that I had to drop a hidden thief from the monster roster, because it was clear that I’d overpowered the opposition. This is an adventure I’d previously run using Pathfinder, and the difference in deadliness of the setup was obvious, though I don’t think it was a difference due to the system per se. This change in lethality also affected the flow of the adventure and forced very different decisions on the players. Since this is the first time I have ever run exactly the same adventure twice, it was interesting to see how the adventure changed the second time.

The basic setting of the adventure was a fairy stolen from an onsen (hot spring) that the PCs had been sent to chase. They were following the gnomes who stole it down a steamy volcanic valley, but what they didn’t know was that the onsen fairy – which gives the onsen its healing powers – had been sold off months before by the owner, and the pot that the fairy was imprisoned in, that the gnomes had stolen, was empty. The adventure resolves when they find this out and go back to confront the onsen owner, but to find it out they have to somehow deal with the gang of gnomes who stole it. In this world, gnomes are criminal thugs, a kind of race of East London grafters, with little honour or regard for each other and no respect for non-gnomes.

The near-TPK occurred when the group of three PCs were approaching a jumble of rocks in the middle of the valley, just on the far side of a muddy stream of hot water and shrouded in steam. Behind the rocks were three gnome minions with steam rifles, a half-orc sorcerer and a gnome fighter. Because the party scout had failed his observation check the gnomes got a free surprise attack with their steam rifles, and firing as a group with the Rapid Fire action card they managed to seriously mangle the group in the first round – they hit the insane dwarf troll slayer and nearly killed the elven scout, and only narrowly missed the wizard all in their first action. The party were already carrying critical wounds from the previous session (an encounter with some steam mephits) and the results were devastating. The dwarf charged into battle but he spent the ensuing couple of rounds incapable of hitting anything due to the gradually accumulating effects of his wounds; the wizard spent half of the following rounds casting healing spells; and the scout took a mortal wound the following round. I decided to give the wizard one chance to pull off a heal spell to prevent death on this scout, which he managed (though he couldn’t bring the scout back to consciousness) and it was at this point that the fourth gnome thief should, in the original plan, have backstabbed the wizard. This would surely have killed the entire party, because by this point the dwarf was really labouring and his enemy still undamaged. So I let the gnome thief idea slide, and even then their main foe managed to run away – the dwarf was literally too exhausted to run after him, and just let him go[1]. At the end of the battle the tally was: dwarf and wizard on half hit points, dwarf carrying three critical wounds, wizard and scout carrying two critical wounds (one away from death!) and the scout on 1 hit point. This from a battle with a single fighter, a single wizard and three minions. I guess I overpowered the fighter slightly. Also in this session I was using a house rule I conceived of after the previous adventure: the wizard can only attempt to heal any one set of wounds on one person once, and so needs to wait for a PC to become injured again before attempting another healing spell. This is because the rechargeable spells could be used infinitely often outside of combat were this rule not to apply, and adventuring would become trivial.

From this ambush the PCs’ goal was to head down the valley to its mouth, where they would attack the gnome camp and recover the onsen fairy. But with such a heavy accumulation of wounds and no idea whether they were going to be ambushed again, they changed tactics. They retreated and set an ambush of their own, on the assumption that gnome soldiers would come up the valley to finish them off. So instead of stumbling on the camp and overhearing the gnome crime boss complaining about the missing onsen fairy, they waited and were rewarded in the morning with hearing him walking up the valley, ranting to his underlings about what he was going to do when he found the fairy. At this point the players didn’t know the onsen fairy was missing – had the gnomes already got possession of the fairy the adventure would have been over at this point, since they would have left without coming back to kill off the PCs. Gnomes don’t bother with vengeance when they can settle for money! So actually, had the adventure been a straight “rescue the stolen goods” operation they’d have failed at this point, and would have either lost the fairy or would have had to track the crime boss for days, suffering a regular series of ambushes on the way (and the initial risk of losing him altogether). They basically only completed the adventure because of the twist of the missing fairy.

In this case the players almost “lost” the adventure without actually dying, because they basically had to give up on their original plan. I think this is yet another example of how even when the party has healing magic available to it, WFRP3 has the same atmosphere of extreme danger and weakness that imbued WFRP2, but without the associated constant frustration of not being able to do anything successfully. In WFRP2, adventuring was dangerous because the PCs were useless at it. In WFRP3 it is very dangerous even though the PCs are good at it, with a range of magical abilities and skills they can use. For me this is the perfect combination: adventurers who feel like adventurers rather than cowherders with a gun, but who are under the constant very real threat of death. I think in their next adventure the players are going to be very, very careful …

fn1: This arose because the dwarf had a critical wound that prevented him using a free manoeuvre, and another critical wound that meant every melee action cost him a fatigue. Getting into battle and then hitting people and changing stance thus accrued fatigue rapidly, and had he chased the gnome he would have been so fatigued by the time combat resumed that he wouldn’t be able to move. He literally just lowered his axe and slid down it into the mud once the gnome started running! I really like the fatigue rules in WFRP3, they put a huge extra dimension of risk-taking into combat.