Date Posted: 22-07-2020

WFRP: Death on the Reik and its ancestry by Graeme Davis

#WarhammerWednesday

Below is an excellent excerpt from a previous Developer Diary from the legendary Graeme Davis concerning the Enemy Within and the ancestry of Death on the Reik.

When many WFRP fans talk about the Enemy Within campaign, they are mostly thinking about Death on the Reik. That is quite understandable: this sprawling adventure contains so much that became iconic about the campaign, and about WFRP itself. River travel, of course, and mutant attacks, scheming cultists, warpstone, bizarre NPCs — and, of course, an ending that leaves the Characters wondering whether they actually won. 

The adventure was planned around river travel in order to emphasize the role of the Empire’s rivers in transportation. As in medieval Europe, a river is a far easier way to move goods and people than the roads of the time. Rivers are already there and do not need to be built, they remain open and passable in all but the most extreme weather, and they automatically connect the most fertile lands — and therefore, the major towns and cities — because the soil on their banks is well watered and replenished with nutrients by the occasional flood. 

In some ways, Death on the Reik was the first part of the original campaign planned as a part of the campaign. I was writing Shadows Over Bögenhafen as a stand-alone adventure, and Jim and Phil wrote The Enemy Within around it. That’s The Enemy Within, the first part of the campaign, of course, rather than the campaign as a whole. The two were first published as two separate products using the old ‘module’ format, but ever since they were bound together as Warhammer Campaign for the 1988 reprinting, they have always shared a binding. Enemy in Shadows, the first part of the Director’s Cut, continues that tradition. 

But let’s get back to Death on the Reik — or rather, to its ancestry. Before coming to Games Workshop, Jim and Phil had worked at TSR UK, the British arm of the company that published Dungeons & Dragons at the time. One of their last projects there was a campaign module called Night’s Dark Terror. It was quite groundbreaking for this time, when stand-alone ‘modules’ were the norm and roleplaying campaigns were in their infancy. Almost as soon as they arrived, they set about applying the same principles to designing a campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Death on the Reik represented the first fruits of this process. They mapped a huge swath of the Empire, from Delberz in the north to Nuln in the south, with economic information on the towns and a trading system. Together with my contribution to the project — the “River Life of the Empire” supplement — Death on the Reik contained everything a GM and players needed to ply the Empire’s waterways forever, making money through trade and adventuring. 

Many groups did just that. When Power Behind the Throne was first published the following year, we started to hear from GMs who were finding it difficult to persuade their players to give up river life and travel to Middenheim for the next part of the campaign. In the Hogshead edition of Power Behind the Throne, James Wallis added a new section, ‘Carrion up the Reik’, in which the Characters’ barge was destroyed no matter what they did, forcing them to leave the river behind. Perhaps the river trading rules were a little too successful. 

There was more to Death on the Reik than just a vast expanse of territory to wander through at random. There were several mini-adventures within the greater whole, some following on from previous events and some designed to help the GM handle the Characters’ first Career progression, which we had calculated would be taking place during the course of this adventure. The whole thing culminated in a huge, Chaos-infested castle and dungeon that took up almost half the book. 

Developing the Director’s Cut version of Death on the Reik was a unique challenge. At first glance, there seemed to be little to do: in terms of its adventure content, this has always been the best-loved instalment of the campaign, so why mess with success? At the same time, though, thirty years of feedback had identified a few serious weaknesses. 

First, like Enemy in Shadows, this adventure was very well known. I heard from people who had played or ran Death on the Reik three times, or even more. I added ‘grognard boxes’ to offer the GM a wide range of options, so that the adventure could be fresh and surprising even for seasoned players. 

Secondly, players over the years had reported that they found the mass of information in the original version a little difficult to navigate, and reported some problems with the central section of the adventure, in which the Characters are racing a small group of cultists to a cache of warpstone. 

I took the adventure apart and re-ordered it so that everything is easier to find and the GM has all the necessary information to hand when it is needed. I expanded the timeline considerably, offering advice on adapting it to events as they unfold. Hopefully this will make the adventure much easier to run. 

Finally, players have commented on an uncomfortable jump in power between Death on the Reik and Power Behind the Throne ever since they were first published. Two adventures were published to fill the gap. Carl Sargent’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ was published in White Dwarf and reprinted in the Games Workshop anthology The Restless Dead, and as I already mentioned James Wallis added ‘Carrion up the Reik’ to the Hogshead reprint of Power Behind the Throne. I used the best elements of both, and in the Death on the Reik Companion and the Power Behind the Throne Companion I wove them into an entirely new sub-plot with a new recurring villain — I think readers will enjoy it. While I was at it, I took some measures to strengthen the links between the plots of the two adventures, and make the leads pointing to Middenheim much clearer. 

Just like Empire in Shadows and the other volumes in the campaign, Death on the Reik has its own companion volume. This is where you will find an updated version of ‘River Life of the Empire’, and many more things to expand and enhance adventures on the Empire’s great rivers, both in the Enemy Within and your own campaigns. 

For those who remember the original, I enlisted the help of artist Martin McKenna and former publisher James Wallis to contribute their memories, just as Phil and I did in the Enemy in Shadows Companion. At the time when he worked on Death on the Reik, Martin was at the start of what would become a distinguished career. His work had appeared in White Dwarf and some other Games Workshop products, but Death on the Reik was the first project where he was the sole artist. 

James became notorious for the brutal way in which his ‘Carrion up the Reik’ deprived the Characters of their barge, and he looks back to a vitriolic yet good-natured online exchange on the subject with a fanzine editor (fanzines were the analog equivalent of today’s fan blogs, printed on paper and sold in game shops and by mail order). The editor’s rant and James’s equally uncompromising reply went on to become part of WFRP legend, to the point where someone quoted it at me all this time later in a question about my intentions for that part of the adventure. I have offered the GM a much wider range of options, which should hopefully be enough to satisfy everyone! 

Stay tuned for another excerpt next soon!

Graeme Davis

Find out more and pre-order Death on the Reik here. All orders include a PDF.

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