So, the Warhammer 3 campaign has moved beyond published modules to an urban semi-sandbox. This started last night, and here is a brief report.

Having dealt with the Cult of the Unseeing Eye at Grunewald Lodge, the PCs were given a letter of introduction to Lord Aschaffenberg’s niece in Ubersreik, and told that they could stay their free as long as they wanted, and get healing from some friends of hers in the Church of Shallya. Given they were extremely injured and quite weakened, and money is something of an issue for them, this seemed like an excellent idea, so they set off across Reikland to Ubersreik.

Orc Ambush

They left Grunewald Lodge with most of their damage healed, but three PCs remained critically wounded. Repeated attempts to heal these critical wounds during the journey failed, and even an extra night at Grunburg Castle en route failed to help. So, when they were 2 days out of Ubersreik, a sudden ambush by 2 Goblins and 2 Orcs proved near-fatal. They failed to see either the goblin archers or the Orcs, and while they were focussed on the goblin arrows (coming from nearby forest) the Orcs emerged from ditches around the road, one attacking the soldier at the front of the party and the other attacking the Wizard at the back. The Orcs won initiative and inflicted savage damage, so that by the beginning of the second round the Soldier was half dead and the Wizard unconscious, with two critical wounds. The thief was next, cut down by a goblin, but in taking on the Initiate, one of the Orcs inadvertently (?) killed a goblin, using his “‘Da Big Smash” action. This also nearly killed the Initiate, who was using the spell Morr’s Touch and managed to incinerate the Orc in the chill fire’s of Morr’s wrath. The Initiate and the Soldier then finished off the remaining Orc and the remaining goblin fled.

This battle left the party seriously wounded, with the Soldier and the Initiate only having 4 wounds, and the Thief and the Wizard on 1 each. Everyone was critically wounded, and if either the thief or the Wizard were knocked out again they would die. I had ruled that in the wilderness you can’t heal properly from resting, and the Initiate could only do one first aid roll apiece (which she mostly failed) so the party had to press on, being extra cautious.

A strange burial party

The next day – one day out from Ubersreik – the PCs became aware of a possible ambush in a copse of trees. Being very wary of Greenskins at this point, they sent the thief to investigate. The thief crept into the woods and found a strange scene. He came across two goblins, one of whom was standing up, and the other sitting on the ground. The sitting goblin was carrying a large fork in one hand and a small sword (his “choppa!”) in the other. Around his neck was a babies bib, clearly taken from a human settlement, and decorated with a happy rabbit, a shining sun and 3 cute mushrooms. Lying on the ground in front of the goblin was a partially-decayed human body, its shirt lifted to reveal a first incision into the belly, from which spilled some maggots. The goblin, knife and fork in hand, was clearly about to tuck in, when the standing goblin hit him in the head. As the thief watched, the following strange conversation ensued:

  • Goblin 1 (Standing): You mustn’t eat that!
  • Goblin 2 (Sitting): but it’s delicious! Look! There’s even maggots! Yum yum!
  • Goblin 1: The chief told us we have to make the death look natural. It won’t look natural if you eat the damn corpse!
  • Goblin 2 [Attempting to tuck in again]: Oh come on, just a bit!
  • Goblin 1 [Cuffing G2 so hard his face falls into the cut, and emerges smeared in maggots which G2 eats greedily, with declarations of their yumminess]: You can’t eat it! The chief said so! Now help me dump it!!!

The sitting goblin threw away his fork with a sigh, sheathed his choppa! and helped the standing goblin lift the corpse, which they then began carrying to the road.

At this stage even two goblins are too much for our party, so the thief left the copse in a (silent) hurry and warned the party to hide, which they did. The goblins dragged the body to the road and dumped it, and then began running back to the trees. At this point, with distance safely between them, Wizard and Thief rose to their feet and let rip with magic dart and arrows, cutting down both goblins while they ran. The Initiate then tried to revive one goblin so they could interrogate it, but she failed miserably and they both passed on to whatever horrible afterlife awaits the degenerate children of chaos.

The characters investigated the body, and although the Initiate tried to use Morr’s magic to investigate the time and nature of death, they learnt nothing. On the body they found:

  • A small sword
  • A locket with a picture of a woman
  • Two mouse traps
  • A game chit, with a snake carved on one side and “The Sad Shield” written on the other

They also noticed that the body had a tattoo of a rat on it (everyone said “skaven!” but of course the PCs know of no such beast). Confused, the PCs buried the body and continued on their weary and injured way to Ubersreik.

Ubersreik and Gerinde Nieder

At Ubersreik the PCs were directed to the house of Aschaffenberg’s cousin, Gerinde Nieder. Though she was surprised, she made them welcome after reading their letter of introduction, and found them rooms in her small but comfortable home. Miss Nieder, 26 years old, lives in the Nobles’ section of town, in a pleasant but not particularly grand 3 story townhouse. She has two servants and a guard, and is single – bar the 21 year old servant Naberg, it is a house full of women.

Ubersreik itself is small and pretty, divided into two halves around the river. The PCs entered the Eastern gate – the Water gate – and stayed on the Northern, richer side of the river. The town has a population of about 3500, 20% of them soldiers, and makes its money through mining and metal-working. Being on the base of the Grey Mountains, it is a fortified town with much risk of war and strife. The town has a surprisingly large temple of Sigmar, which is good because the PCs have a very nasty chaos item (the Unseeing Eye) to dispose of, and Sigmar’s shrine is the place to do it. No doubt they will visit soon, but their first goal is to find healing, and to rest after many bruises and damage. Plus, of course, they wish to find the family of the dead man, and tell them of his sad and cruel fate.

Conclusion

The session ended here after 3.5 hours of play (an hour or so was spent discussing a new game, Mallifaux, which they want me to help them play – it’s only in English – and doing advancement, which takes a bit of time because I have to explain the rules each time, as I haven’t written them down). I presume next session will be spent finding this man’s relatives, securing the picture of the Unseeing Eye, and getting healing.

Once again, Warhammer 3 showed its deadliness, with another near-TPK and a lot of worrying about injury. Large parts of the journey were devoted to repeated failed attempts to heal critical injuries, and the two that were successfully healed came to nothing, since the Orc attack simply inflicted several more. Two of the PCs can sustain a maximum of two critical wounds before they are at risk of death (should they go unconscious) and all but one PC will go unconscious after two blows from an Orc (or one if they’re unlucky). I didn’t realise how nasty Orcs are in Warhammer, but the battle reminded me. The players are rapidly developing a very cautious approach to conflict.

Kraken, by China Mieville, is another “city-within-a-city” novel, like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s previous (rather lacklustre) effort, UnLunDun. In this case the city-wthin-the-city is a supernatural world of grafters, shonksters and magicians, all oriented around a plethora of cults who worship “cast-off” deities and apocalyptic visions, all residing within London. There are some parts of London that are hidden or secret but the majority of it happens in plain view, in the same London that you or I know.

Unlike Mieville’s previous effort, the elsewhere London in this novel is really apt to the real London. It’s a world of cockney arseholes, criminals, rip-off merchants and sleazebags, where people construct their magical lives from cast-off objects and ideas, working their magic in the interstices of objects and cultures. Even the magic itself is beautifully London, a type of make-do enchanting called “knacking” that depends on the resemblances between real objects and the spells constructed from them. The magic is often low-key, cobbled together, not-quite-right, and a bit dirty. Just like London. The elsewhere world perfectly reflects the realities of London’s fragmented, higgledy-piggledy reality, its dirt, the way everyone in the city has to make the best they can of what they’ve got. It also cleverly reflects that sense in London of ideas and cultures all packed together, confused, borrowing from each other and overcrowded in the same supposedly English space. London is a broken, nowhere town, full of transient people, transient plans and transient cultures. Mieville seems to have finally put all this together into a science-fantasy of quite stunning brilliance.

He’s also managed to merge the modern and the arcane in quite clever ways, just like Jim Butcher has in the Dresden Files. A few small examples:

  • a character uses the internet to search out her lover, and discovers a whole hidden world of “knackers” and cultists working online
  • a character is paid for his work in Star Trek memorabilia that has been “knacked” so that it works
  • cultists and believers steal ideas for their “knacks,” their style and manner from science fiction and fantasy, so that their work is self-referential, and sometimes their magic is intended to mimic the magic or tech of their favourite shows
  • a chameleon character uses his magic to infiltrate organizations by appearing to be one of their members; but the way he does it is perfectly and completely dependent upon mimicking and exploiting modern corporate culture

My absolute favourite so far has been the chapter devoted to describing the background of the guy who runs the Familiar’s Union. He used to be  a statue that served Egyptian souls in their afterlife, but he ran a strike there, then left the afterlife and swam back up through the netherworld to the world of the living, to become an organizer. This story is uniquely brilliant to me because it merges cultures rather than technologies from two different times. Instead of him being simply an Egyptian magician who wears an ankh necklace and hangs out in a club, he’s an Egyptian magical slave from a slave-owning time, who has transcended the netherworld to become that quintessential element of the modern Industrial age – a union organizer. But the things he’s organizing don’t always have souls, and work in an industrial landscape that is pre-modern (the cottage industries of wizards). This is Mieville at his best, blending politics, culture, and history through sci fi fantasy for the pure purpose of having fun.

The plot is also beautifully self-referential without being wanky. Essentially, it involves the theft of an embalmed giant squid from the London Natural History Museum. The squid is probably a dead god, and is worshiped by a cult of messianic krakenists, who believe that at the end of the world they will be drawn to a heaven in the Ocean’s deeps. The whole thing is full of cthulhu references (sometimes directly) even though there’s no admission that either the squid or the cult are directly cthulhu-worshipers. The theft coincides with some kind of magical change in London, and the chase is on to find the squid before something really bad happens. Of course the people doing the chasing are in conflict with a sinister, evil organization or organizations, who are really really evil and constructed from a really interesting pastiche of modern images, sub-cultures and cults. The book includes two bad guys, Goss and Subby, who are almost up to the standard of the bad guys in Neverwhere.

I thought that Mieville went off the rails a bit with Iron Council (pardon the pun) and UnLunDun, but he’s back on track with this gem. I haven’t finished yet but so far it’s brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone who needs a bit of science-fantasy entertainment. This book also cements my view of China Mieville as a great writer of, and possibly the main exponent/inventor of, some kind of new sub-genre of science-fantasy, Urban Chaos Science Fantasy, maybe, or CityPunk, or something. His three best novels that I’ve read – Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and now Kraken – are all based in a kind of city, and the vibrancy of the city itself is essential to the plot of the books. The city is almost a character on its own in his work, and his strength is in his representation of the extraordinary and ordinary lives of its denizens.

I also think that Mieville’s leftist politics is a complete furphy in analysis of his work, because although it clearly informs the creation of some of the characters, and his depiction of the different strata of the societies he creates, I think ultimately his works are surprisingly devoid of political messages (though rich in political conflict). For a man who is generally caricatured as a cardboard cutout lefty from the Politburo, his work is actually both suprisingly anarchist (not leninist at all!) and generally devoid of strong left-wing political messages. I don’t think I’ve met a single character outside of Iron Council who ever could be said to represent Mieville’s politics, nor have I read a plot that shows them clearly. Even The Scar, which is a bit of a Utopian quest, if it has any political interpretation at all, would be a guarded critique of the folly of trusting vanguardists – which would be a bit wierd coming from someone of Mieville’s supposedly Marxist-Leninist views. The key to understanding Mieville’s work is his representation of cities.

So, again: read this if you have the time and money, ’cause so far it’s great!