[Adventure] Shadows over Bögenhafen (1987)
Graeme Davis, Jim Bambra & Phil Gallagher (Games Workshop)
Shadows over Bögenhafen is the second part of the Enemy Within Campaign and is an overal very excellent entry in the series, an almost perfect investigative adventure, with a single crippling flaw. I was tempted to give it a 10, not because it’s perfect, because nothing is, but because it is an almost platonic example of a good investigative adventure. If it weren’t for that fucking crippling flaw. Ah las.
Shadows over Bögenhafen can either be run as a standalone, as a follow-up to The Oldentaller Contract (in the core rulebook) or as a sequel to Missing Identity, part one of the Enemy Within campaign. Lured by the promise of a free House or the prospect of getting shitfaced during the local Schaffenfest (the fantasy version of the Oktoberfest, presuming Germany has not yet culturally whitewashed it to Diversifest or WorldPeacefest) our heroes accept a simple assignment that reveals hints of a much darker conspiracy.
Where does it go RIGHT? It all begins with a Great map and location. Bögenhafen is given a complete and gorgeous map, with plaza, districts, main roads, warehouses, temples, various guilds and so on. Every major buildings gets its own floorplan. Everything from Watch patrols to taxes are detailed. The dedication to getting the players invested in the town of Bögenhafen as a living, breathing place is nothing short of amazing.
The game spends a great deal of time explaining the balance of power in the Town Council, with the Merchant Guilds holding most of the power and several Guilds like the Stevedores’ and the Doctors Guilds the rest, and the Baron a distant figure mostly concerned with hunting and jousting. The existence of a secret inter-house cartel by the name of the Ordo Septentrionalis is the real power behind the throne. Why is this important? Because figuring out who holds real power in Bögenhafen is actually vital to figuring out who is behind the occult rituals that set the players on the course for adventure. So the fluff is not just there for color, but is a vital part of the adventure itself. A nice detail is the existence of guilds. Anyone practicing medicine without a licence is going to find himself on the wrong end of an accusation of murder and don’t even think about disposing a body without involving the Mourner’s Guild. Medieval Guilds were like a cross between Unions and the Mob. I like it.
Habitual note on the overall look and layout of the adventure. It rocks. Moody, unnervingly detailed black-and-white art pieces portray the unnerving atmosphere of the adventure quite splendidly. The rats and the three-legged goblin are particularly well done, to say nothing of the cover. The humans are almost caricatures, radiating a subtle wrongness. This. This is what I fucking wanted.
The adventure presumably opens with the players accompanying their boatman buddy Josef in delivering some wine to Bögenhafen with the prospect of collecting their FREE MANSION, they discover to their dismay that the house was a lie concocted by the now deceased bounty hunter Adolphus to lure them out. Fuck. Josef suggests they visit the Schaffenfest instead and chill the fuck out.
The Schaffenfest itself is a very atmospheric start of the adventure proper, with SoB’s penchant for thoroughness shining through everywhere. A fully functional livestock auction subsystem (with a random event where the PCs accidentally bid on a Ram) is naturally included. The fest has several fixed locations, some with opportunities for some harmless side-quest stuff (i.e Can you last 3 minutes in the ring with “Crusher” Braugen?), The Freakshow of Doctor Malthusius and will you help an old drunk dwarf out and pay his bail? Many of these locations are meant to come back later in the adventure, and the GM is expected to adjudicate chilling out in the Schaffenfest somewhat fluidly, serving up random encounters for additional excitement until he deems it is fucking time to move on. Props for including an actual Pharmacist (among dozens of charlatans and scam-artists) that can serve as a future trainer for the Herbalist stock PC. Little details like that make it suitable for campaign play.
Anyway, after you have had your PCs falsely accused, pickpocketed and harassed by the corrupt and omni-present Town Watch for a while, it is time to get the fucking game on. Doctor Malthusius has a problem! His Mutant Three-legged Goblin has escaped into the Sewers before anyone could stop it. He offers 50 cockgargling Golden Crowns if you can get it back alive since its primary source of income, and the Town council backs it up with another 50 if you get rid of the bugger. Right the fuck now. It’s evening but what are you, afraid of a little sewage?
Wait! Hear me out! Sewer adventures tend to suck, as my spiritual liege and brother from another mother Tenfootpole Bryce tends to say, but hear me out on this one. The sewer portion is what you would expect in a Dnd Sewer (random encounters with rats, sewer gas, a fucking Amoeba, red mould, bats etc.) but there are some points of light to set it apart from the rest of the dreck, pun fucking intended.
1. It behaves more like an actual sewer then a sewer shaped dungeon. This means it is not easy to navigate or even cross from major to minor sewers without wading through the muck (fucking not recommended btw, half fellowship until you clean up and disease risk), any wounds you take might be infected and crossing major and minor sewers is actually kind of a bitch.
2. The Sewer map is actually overlaid on the city map, complete with manholes where you’d expect manholes to be, making the search, again, feel less like a dungeoncrawl in a sewer shaped dungeon then an actual fucking scavenger hunt. Another point in its favor is that the goblin escapes via a stormdrain and can only be tracked directly if the character takes off his armor and has the Contortionist skill.
3. There is an opportunity to discover an entrance to a hidden thieves lair, setting up the possibility of an subsequent source of information, or, failing that, a quiet death followed by disposal into the sewer. I.e some of the encounters do not lead directly to the dead goblin but tie into the plot in some other fashion (i.e dead dwarven drunk with heart missing/thief using sewers as means of getting around).
Our merry jaunt into Shitworld turns ugly when the PCs track the blood to a hidden temple. (if they are smart they can figure out under which temple it lies). After you get a few seconds to get your bearings and take in the room and some clues (some obscure, some pretty obvious, but nowhere does it reach the immersion-breaking-absurdity of A Darkness Gathering, which I now realize is merely an inferior copy of SoB btw), a DEMON APPEARS and in uncharacteristic WHF fashion, actually asks you to fuck off before it wades in. The Guardian Demon is alright but a little disappointing if you are used to the monstrosities of 2e. Bat wings, horns, claws etc. Anyway, after the characters presumably flee, taking what clues they might (or risk getting the shit kicked out of them), the investigative part sets in proper.
Since the goblin is dead, they receive no reward (there are opportunities to guilt-trip or haggle to get SOME compensation), the hidden temple is dismantled when they look for it next, a watchman claims to have found the goblin dead somewhere in the docks but the government refuses to produce a corpse, and all claims of demonic involvement are laughed off or “but it was dark maybe it was swamp gas you silly boys etc.” Something smells fishier then a lesbian marine biology convention, and the players set out to investigate, presuming they are not so autistic as to let go of the bait and play with trains instead.
This portion is the créme de la créme of the investigation genre. Different factions give different clues, there are multiple ways to figure out who the probable culprit is, the Identity of the Ordo Septentrionalis, there is a ticking clock (displayed fucking beautifully and horrifically by having the 2nd Moon, Morslieb, manifest a vast grinning face that grows in size as the urgency increases, fucking awesome), a magistrate is stricken with a mysterious illness, the opposition sends thugs to dissuade you at first and there is a timetable with fixed events counting down to the final day. There are many different ways you can figure out what is going on, which is what makes the investigation part of this adventure work. In addition, I found the NPCs to be unusually strong for an average adventure. Characters like Franz Baumann and Teugen are described in simple but vivid terms and have credible motivations, which is AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY in an investigative adventure. I mean anything from quiet meetings in fancy lunchrooms to breaking and entering are covered, it rocks.
I love the way the authorities are portrayed in SoB, and firmly believe this should be the standard for all elfgames ever. Corrupt, incompetent, unco-operative and if you cross them they will fucking bury you. Nailed. If the authorities worked we wouldn’t need heroes. The Town Watch is by far the most frequently encountered adversary in SoB. Fortunately they can be bribed relatively easily.
There is a fucking great! great! semi-sidequest involving Heinrich Steinhäger, the brother of one of the top members of the Ordo Septentrionalis, who is actually the only character who will believe outright the tales of Demon-worship the characters present without any evidence. He will promptly offer the PCs 1000 GC to kill his brother. Do you accept?
Before everyone gets confusing, let me explain the plot. Johannes Teugen is a former scholar turned Demonologist in charge of the one of the largest Merchant Houses and head of the Ordo Septentrionalis, who think he merely uses some harmless sorcery to increase their prosperity so as to make Bögenhafen the center of commerce in the Empire. He made a deal with a demon of Tzeentch to get himself some knowledge and power in exchange for his soul. Now he is given the option of getting himself out of this deal if he opens a gateway to Chaos and feeds all of Bögenhafen to Tzeentch instead. Aided by his demonic buddy Gideon, who can take human shape, they start doing DA black magick.
The fucking problem with this adventure? Despite all of that research, you can’t really figure out what Teugen wants and where he is going to conduct the ritual unless you reach the last event and the game FLAT OUT TELLS YOU WHERE TO GO afterwards. As much fun as you might have had puzzling out what the fuck is really going on, the GM is meant to let the PCs investigate for about as long as they need to get a firm grip of what is going on and THEN spring another investigative classic on them (the dude who wants out but who knows too much). Now, this is not a FATAL flaw since you can run the game and it will work fine but it does mean that all of your clue gathering beforehand is essentially useless since Magirius (the informant) will contact you anyway and attempt to spill the beans. What a mess. I wouldn’t be so pissed off if that wasn’t the Only Way you can find out the location of the warehouse. What a bunch of bullshit.
The actual scene where they follow an errand boy that looks a little off only to find Magirius with his throat cut, a cryptic hint written on the wall in blood and the boy calling for the guards and before dropping his voice twenty octaves and saying “You Know, You Really Should Have Minded Your Own Business” and turning Ethereal accompanied by mocking laughter. Congratulations! You have been framed for fucking murder!
This is where the investigative adventure goes from quiet and moody investigation to 5 minutes to midnight and the characters had better put the pieces together and figure out where the fuck the ritual is being held before Bögenhafen becomes Tzeentch’s new prison bitch. There is some railroadery horseshit going on with the GM being told to use the Town Watch to funnel PCs into certain areas if need be but that is probably how all but the most anal-retentive GM’s would solve it so why the hell not. The game gives you licence to curb-stomp them if the PCs are idiots, and Gideon shows up again in the guise of one of the PCs to set the population of the town against them by SETTING A FUCKING FIRE.
The Actual final showdown is handled pretty well and allows for a variety of resolutions particularly if you take into account the possibility of accidentally busting into the wrong warehouse and taking a face-full of blunderbuss and guard dogs. Depending on your plan, disrupting the ritual should either be pretty simple (all it takes is killing one of the fuckers before midnight) or challenging (if, say, you waited OUTSIDE the warehouse instead of INSIDE IT for the cult to show up you find they have placed a shitload of guards outside), but that adds to the charm. The fight is bound to be challenging given the involvement of two 2nd Level Wizards, a nigh unstoppable shape-changing Demon and some flunkies but even if you only disrupt the damn ritual you get treated to the insanity-point inducing delicacy of SEEING TEUGEN DRAGGED INTO THE WARP BY A GIANT HAND. In addition to XP for advancing the adventure and roleplaying, you get A FATE POINT EACH for thwarting Tzeentch. Better do your looting when you can kids, Warhammer Fantasy doesn’t believe in loading you up with enough gold to buy a doubledecker full of A-list pornstars.
As far as resolutions go, SoB gives you the option of checking your punch like a bitch (admittedly whilst hinting at the fact that simply having the ritual not go off might feel like you just called everyone a fagot and bailed them out because their delicate sensibilities could not stomach having them LOSE an adventure (recommended for small children and contessa attendees only)), or just going through with it and having FUCKING TZEENTCH BREAK THROUGH THE CHAOS GATE AND DEVOUR THE TOWN, complete with purple horrors raining down, all who resist being crushed or scooped up into his giant fucking mouth and general mayhem and panic all around. The next adventure is in another country anyway, just run already.
When it comes down to it, SoB gives you one of the most detailed, thoroughly entertaining, atmospheric grimdark fantasy mysteries every made, with some spine-chilling encounters alongside the odd wink-wink nudge-nudge to keep you guessing. I almost gave it a fucking 10, until I realized that for all its brilliant design decisions, making a detective mystery where it is irrelevant how well you gather the clues before the final encounter happens is actually a fundamental flaw. I say that SoB succeeds massively despite this flaw since your PCs probably won’t figure it the fuck out and the detective part is fun in and of itself, but still, I can’t help but weep a single tear.
Pros: Detailed fucking fantasy town. Great use of foreshadowing and atmosphere. Genuinely disturbing atmosphere. Great detective section. Great NPCs.
Cons: Some railroadery bullshit and your detective work in the middle section doesn’t really contribute significantly to the outcome of the adventure, WHICH IS HORSESHIT.
Final verdict: For all my bitching and moaning, this is actually a terrific adventure of the Oldenskool variety. 8.5 out of 10.