GM Thoughts: Creative Brushing

Putting up with Cortez’s desire for multiple backups, or Darren’s excessive wrestling puns. Putting up with attempts by the party to burn down whole towns for lulz or dealing with situations like Drop… Drop… Drop… AKA, a complete and rather successful attempt at plot derailment, if temporary.

I ask myself; why do I do this. Why do I do this when retirement is so tempting.

Well, creativity, is what keeps me going. Ok, that’s a lie… creativity and the fact that I do enjoy gming, but being able to craft stories and watch as my players stumble through them like a bunch of moronic goats tumbling down a mountain without hope.

It’s fun.

Most people who gm will do it for various reasons. I do it cause I like the creative challenges it brings. Which leads me to what I call creative brushing.

Gming published content can be difficult, at least the larger ones can be because most campaign books can never cover every aspect. Some books will assume you have specific classes of PC’s in your party, and will go out their way to include hooks that really only work if that PC is, for example, a wizard. This is less of an issue in dnd, but in Warhammer where you have 260+ careers, ha! Yeah, it’s an issue…

Or coming across a plot that doesn’t blend in well, or hitting a wall because the party, earlier on in the campaign, missed a plot hook that was meant to bring them into the next part of the campaign. All of these are stumbling blocks, especially for new gms.

This is where creative brushing comes into play.

First of, as much as I enjoy playing published material, I enjoy inserting my own material into a plot even more. I personally didn’t get into gming just to read a book out to my players. I need to get ‘something’ out of it as well, and having a creative influence on the story is my take. Even if that influence is marginally smaller than the published content, I find it boring just to simply play out published content word for word. A gm should be prepared to spice things up a little. It may not always work, or it may improve the published material tenfold; there will always be a risk in fudging it up, so being careful with brushing up a story is important.

So lets take a look at… The Enemy Within.

 

The Enemy Within (CONTAINS NO MAJOR SPOILERS)

The Enemy Within campaign is the darling of campaigns for Warhammer. Anyone who has ever roleplayed Warhammer before, will likely have heard of this.

Published by Games Workshop back in the 80’s, this campaign is remembered fondly by the fans as the best campaign that GW ever published. Some would even dare say, the best rpg campaign around. It was my first campaign as a player and a gm and only major campaign so far that I’ve done. I am now gming it for the second time.

The campaign is well known for its grounded approach, its level of intrigue, the longevity of the campaign and the increasing scope that can have massive changes upon the actual Empire as a whole. It contains a nice blend of, well, everything that makes a good campaign.

But, has it stood up to the test of time? Is this campaign merely considered ‘the best’ purely because of nostalgia?

Well, as good as the campaign is, it’s not without its flaws. It ain’t perfect, and while I do not have enough experience with other campaigns to say what is the best campaign, having gone through the written material, I do cast doubt on whether this can honestly be the case.

The book is good. The first two chapters in particular, Mistaken Identity and Shadows Over Bogenhafen are great adventures, and work just as well as standalone, which makes them even better. As a campaign, they tie into each other rather well. After that, Death on the Reik is the next chapter. While Death on the Reik certainly works great as a standalone, it struggles when trying to connect the previous chapter into the main plot, and really struggles to establish motivation for a party to travel to Middenheim, where the next part comes into play: Power Behind The Throne.

What’s even worse, is that the book makes assumptions based on party composition. If you don’t have the right composition, you are missing out on some hooks. As standalone adventures, they work great. When a gm is trying to establish book plot hooks to guide the party into the next chapter, and to continue the overall story, it suffers a lot. This is where the Enemy Within falters.

So, with my creative brush at hand, I got to work. I made several changes to the campaign to accommodate the party composition, and also significant plot structure changes that I felt was just ‘filler’ content without a purpose.

After my group left Bogenhafen in the current campaign, I needed, or rather, they, needed a reason to go to the next major part: Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, the book, as written, provides very little encouragement. The existing plot-hook, if you can call it that, is flimsy at best and does nothing to entice a party to bite, not to mention the actual plot is convoluted and contrasts with the aim of the module; to keep the story flowing.

So I created the Palisades. Originally born out of my desire for a plot-hook, I soon developed them into a full lore-friendly organization. They would serve to guide the party (in exchange for relative safety) to the Wittgenstein estate, having heard of strange goings on taking place down there. Ernst Steurmann, who has been a long-running npc and well known to the party at this stage, introduced them to the Palisades, as he felt they could help. It would be revealed much later (a few blog posts back) that he is an actual Palisade spy.

Ernst Steurmann is another point I want to bring up. Originally, as written in the book, the role of Ernst Steurmann is played by a barge captain called Josef Burgman (I think that’s the surname). Josef is designed to have a loose connection with one of the party members, but serves to have no significant role other than to be the party’s taxi to Bogenhafen. I got rid of Josef, and replaced him with Ernst. I tied Ernst in with two PC characters; Liliana, and Kall Horst, with him being the uncle of Kall Horst. I also expanded his role, having him served as the hook to guide the party onwards into the story.

I had made several other changes throughout; all of which was to serve one purpose, to guide the party along as seamlessly as possible. Note: This isn’t railroading, far from it, but merely hooks for the party to follow, should they desire.

Aside from the lack of interesting plot hooks in the book, one of the major issues I have however concerning the Enemy Within is the writing, or perhaps more accurately, the ‘themes’ used throughout the campaign. It’s easy to forget that the Enemy Within is a campaign from the 80’s. And with that, comes cheesy 80 references, cheesy art (I think 90% of the art I showed to my players was art I found online, and not book art) and generally just cheesiness all round. I still remember the Frankenstein monster, the toupee wearing cockroach who can play the piano or the smiling Chaos moon… A lot of this can be easily updated to suit the more ‘grim’ nature that Warhammer has become. But CheesyMacCheese is so prevalent throughout the books, I find it hard to put my creative brush aside. Again, the book was written in a different time. 80’s was a different world altogether, so its to be expected. The campaign however has not aged well, and I recommend anyone running it to seriously brush up the details and general themes.

One of the major stumbling blocks I think any GM can run into when running published material, is what to do when the entire party dies early on…

Most will probably not run the campaign after that, which is fair enough. But Enemy Within is, despite its cheesy flaws, is still a good solid campaign to run; and not having completed it yet, I really did not like the idea of dropping it altogether.

So I was given a fairly difficult task of bringing a new party together (thank you for that Ulrico by the way…) not to mention designing a whole new set of hooks just to get the new party hooked into the plot, again. I cannot understate how hard that can be. I had the advantage of the earlier TPK happening at a sort of crossroads, which was nice. Getting their business done at Wittgenstein was certainly a plus, and if the party was going to get dismantled, just after that would be the perfect time.

So for any players or past gms who have played The Enemy Within, and you see all this ‘nonsense’ concerning The Guild of Wizards and Alchemy, wondering what the hell am I doing… Just remember that I had to write up whole new hooks to try and establish as to why a High Elf wizard, a Bretonnian Knight Errant, a Bretonnian peasant turned Bounty Hunter and all the other characters, and trying to fit them in.

Not to mention the domino effect that I have to deal with. New hooks means a restructuring of the plot. To be fair, the original Power Behind The Throne plot hooks are weak, and I would have designed a hook that had more oomphh to it. That hook being Foros, and his death sparking an investigation, with his character having met most of the party. Other plot hooks introduced later served to guide and further commit the party to finding out what happened. Klemet, Jurgen’s teacher, is just one example of doubling down on a hook.

So with all that said, The Enemy Within remains a somewhat flawed but thrilling, if done right, campaign, that can hopefully keep the players interested.

But for the love of all that is holy; do not play it as written! Make changes, be creative, and if done right, you may just improve what is highly regarded as a solid campaign.

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