Review: Enemy in the Shadows

Enemy in the Shadows‘ is the first part of the director’s cut version of the legendary Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It combines the first two books in the series – Mistaken Identity, and Shadows over Bogenhafen, and is published by Cubicle 7. Part two in the series – Death on the Reik, is due out soon.

My regular gaming group has just wrapped up Enemy in the Shadows and now it’s done, my GM has given me permission to read the book, which means I can write a spoiler free review.

What we did

While we definitely played Enemy in the Shadows our GM is running the Enemy Within campaign for the third time, and he was certainly happy to take liberties with the plot. So we largely skipped the material in Mistaken Identity. We did start with a coach ride, which led to our disparate characters getting pulled into a home-brewed game set around a haunted village. From there we segued to Cubicle 7’s ‘If Looks Could Kill‘ scenario, which concluded with us establishing ourselves in Bogenhafen.

At which point some rolls on the ‘what happens between adventures’ tables saw us fall foul of a Sigmarite Cult and some Witch Hunters so we immediately fled Bogenhafen for Carroburg. On the way we ditched our pursuers and rescued a young woman called Mala from the clutches of some unsavoury types. She’s not in the scenario as written, but our GM made great use of her. We didn’t share a language, but she wanted to go to Carroburg, and being chivalrous types we committed to getting her there without really knowing who she was.

This meant that our group played ‘Shadows Over Carroburg’ rather than ‘Shadows over Bogenhafen’, and that it was our efforts to safeguard Mala rather than the hooks in Mistaken Identity that pulled us into the main plot. Shortly after arriving in Carroburg we found time to play through the WFRP classic ‘The Haunting Horror’ as a side quest, which left the party feeling thoroughly traumatised, but which was also used to lead us toward the main plot.

From there we hewed much more closely to the material in the book, although our GM tells me that many of the things that happened to us which aren’t in the book are lining things up for future installments, so I won’t say anymore about them here.

What it feels like

For the players Enemy in the Shadows is an extended exercise in not knowing what is going on. In the beginning you’re hoping to get rich, then you’re hoping to understand what’s going on and why people keep trying to kill you, and then you just want to survive before you’re finally presented with a chance to strike back. You’re a footloose bunch of adventurers in a society where everyone else has friends and allies, and somehow you’re on the wrong end of it all.

This is perhaps a weak spot in the adventure. It’s so overwhelming that leaving town for somewhere else is an attractive option, and there aren’t many strong reasons not to. For us a wish to rescue Mala, (she got kidnapped again), was the reason to persist, but it was touch and go, and she was a home-brewed addition. Had we bailed out and decided to try our luck in Altdorf, Middenheim or one of the other great cities that are the price of a boat ride away it would have been a pretty reasonable decision.

That’s something to consider for GMs. If your PCs have a strong commitment to the rule of order, or a strong sense of loyalty to the Empire they’ll want to do the right thing. But if, like many Warhammer parties, they’re a band of gold hungry ragamuffins with a strong sense of self preservation , well, you’re going to need something to stop them running.

But as a player you do want to know what’s going on. You want to work it out, even though every lead you uncover just makes things seem that bit more complex.

Behind the screen

For the GM things aren’t as hard as you might think. The adventure is clearly written, and as usual, if you know what’s happening things aren’t as confusing as they appear to the players. Even so, some sort of diagram summarizing what’s going on would have been a valuable addition to the scenario.

Usefully, the book includes a number of ‘Grognard boxes’, sections of boxed text suggesting alterations to the plot to throw at anyone who’s played the adventure before. I’d say these are well worth a look even if your players are new to the adventure. In particular many of the opening encounters in Mistaken Identity could feel a bit cliched without them.

While the game feels a bit like a sandbox to play the truth is it’s a roller-coaster, rattling along from one set piece to the next. In particular the setup for the grand finale is basically handed to the players on a platter at the appropriate time, rather than uncovered by them.

This gives the GM plenty of room to adjust the pacing. We took our time, and wrapped things up in around twenty 3 hour sessions, including If Looks Could Kill (3 sessions) and the Haunting Horror (three sessions). But I think a GM in a hurry could rattle through the whole thing in maybe five four hour sessions and still give the players the full experience.

One thing that’s lacking is some guidance about the difficulty of the scenario. When we boarded the coach we were starter characters, and when we finished most of us had racked up around 2000xp and were starting our third career (almost everyone side-stepped to a second basic career). I had the feeling reading the scenario that had we played it as written with starter characters and a GM who stuck to the stats we could have been in a lot of trouble very quickly.

This isn’t so much because the big bads are overpowered, but because some of the most mundane opponents turn out to be extraordinarily tough. Street toughs, bounty hunters, bodyguards and night watchmen are all statted out in in a way that would let them make mincemeat out of a party which isn’t built for combat. This is an ongoing issue with Cubicle 7’s WFRP scenarios, and I find it a bit demoralising. Characters are supposed to start out as average people and get tougher from there, but at times it feels like you could survive a dozen adventures and still come out on the losing side of a dust up with an old man guarding a warehouse.

As a side note, the guidance on XP is also a bit lacking. There are notes about ‘give 10 XP for this and 20 XP for that’ but all listed as ‘In addition to the XP you provide for good roleplaying and cunning play at the end of your gaming session’, which is nice, but there’s no suggestion as to how much that might be over the course of the scenario.

The product

The artwork is lovely, in particular the black and white sketches of the NPCs are packed with character and help bring the Warhammer world to life, and a couple of stunning full page images by Mark Gibbons. I was also delighted to see a number of NPCs of colour making their way into the world as ordinary citizens of the Reik, something that’s been long overdue.

Mark Gibbons stunning artwork

As well as the scenario you get a complete guide to Bogenhafen, in which each point of interest, and there are many, is presented along with a couple of scenario hooks. These are variable in quality, but combining a few of the good ones could easily form the basis of a session of play. It’s likely the PCs won’t be welcome back in Bogenhafen once the campaign has been played, but these locations and the associated scenarios could easily be moved elsewhere.

Reading the scenario hooks it also strikes me that you could easily use them as the starting point for the campaign. Let your characters start in Bogenhafen, with stable jobs, friends and family, and then gradually introduce the main plot. It would be different, the characters would definitely feel more invested and it could make the ending particularly shocking.

The book is clearly laid out, and plenty of the material is reusable. In particular the coaching inn where you start can be recycled. Indeed if I was to run this I think I’d just go with ‘You start on a coach’, skipping the inn and getting straight to the action.

In summary

While role-playing games have moved on a lot since the first publication of the Enemy Within in 1986 this director’s cut version is a great piece of work. While it feels a bit old school in places the main plot is solid, and the clashing agendas behind it should keep a group of players nicely off balance. I certainly had a ton of fun playing it, and I’m looking forward to the publication of Death on the Reik with what I assume is an appropriate mix of dread and anticipation.

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