Monday 31 October 2022

[Review] Castle Drachenfels

I'm pretty sure I've seen this
illustration before...
Let's celebrate spooky season with a horror adventure! To make things interesting, it is not one written for Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, or any other horror game: Castle Drachenfels is a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1e adventure that takes you to the creepiest place the Old World has to offer.

WFRP is one of my all time favourite tabletop rpgs thanks its career,system, visceral combat, volatile magic, and badass setting. Alas the latter suffers from a serious identity crisis. Is it an unholy lovechild of Tolkienian and Moorcockian clichés? Heavy metal dark fantasy with gritty heroes and unspeakable horrors? Grimdark low fantasy of crapmongers dying from syphilis and critical hits? Epic high fantasy with dragon riding heroes and fancy armies? It depends on which iteration you are looking at.

Jack Yeovil's1 1989 novel Drachenfels takes the murder mystery / gothic horror approach. The novel starts where most stories typically end. A group of adventurers led by the knight Oswald von Konigswald and the vampire Genevieve Dieudonné infiltrate Castle Drachenfels. Most of them ends up killed or incapacitated, but in the end Oswald fights and defeats the castle's lord: Constant Drachenfels, the vilest sorcerer of the Old World. Twentyfive years later Oswald hires the playwright Detlef Sierck to recreate the Great Enchanter's defeat on stage for the event's anniversary. The play will debut in Castle Drachenfels, and the audience will include Karl Franz and the few survivors of the original party, among others...

Drachenfels is one of the better classic Warhammer novels2, and its titular antagonist is my favourite Old World villain. He is a master necromancer and daemonologist. He is as old as mankind. He is phyisically imposing and wears a cool metal mask. He has no tragic backstory and not an ounce of humanity left. He commits crimes against humanity just for shits and giggles. He is like Doctor Doom, but without any redeeming qualities. Nagash, Malekith, Archaon can kiss his ass, they are lame.

Castle Drachenfels is a unique piece among WFRP1e modules. It has neither dark conspiracies to unveil, nor epic journey around the Old World: it is a dungeon crawl focusing on a single location, a huge ass haunted house. While there are some ideas how to insert the module into The Enemy Within, The Restless Dead, and The Doomstones campaigns, I advise against doing so. Use it as a stand alone adventure instead, with lots of backup characters, because it is a fucking deathtrap even for experienced characters. 

Players won't see much of the Great Enchanter during the adventure: he is either dead or in the process of regenerating. For the latter scenario there is a ticking clock mechanism based on the number of rooms the characters explored. The longer it takes to reach him, the closer he is to recovering his ultimate form. Don't fret though, his fortess is a worthy adversary and a character on itself. It is like a living organism invaded by a virus - it will mess with the intruders and retaliate when attacked. It is also indestructible until the weather vane is removed, which will release a hellish storm and a Fiend3.

The place is chock full of memorable encounters. Some are scary, like the corridor of gargoyles, others are silly, like the insulting puppet theater, and then there are some really fucked up things that belong in a LotFP adventure, like the kitchen where the zombie servants turn into familiar people, start flaying themselves, and throw their flesh on the grill. While some sections of the dungeon have a central theme, most rooms feel like set pieces thrown next to each other without rhyme or reason. The casual use of fantastic scenery might also surprise WFRP fans - rooms leading to the Realms of Chaos, spectacular permanent magical effects, encounters with powerful creatures are not uncommon. The warp points and passageways are also worth mentioning: while these paths that bend time and space are far from the central feature of the castle, there are several of them and they can mess up mapping and exploration greatly. While there is an appendix with ideas to spice them up, even there the general advice is to not overuse them, because they are frustrating.

The famous "nope" corridor of Castle Drachenfels.

There are two gauntlets that are grossly unfair. What do you say about a trip to the fucking Realms of Chaos? How about four in a row with no turning back? The other challenge has four alignment themed rooms, with the final leading to the coffin of a powerful vampire lord and his sidebitch. The latter will feign friendship to keep you occupied so her master can wake up from his beauty sleep - then you are fucked. This scene actually rewards murderhoboing. There is a yawning dude in the coffin? Stake the bastard! Shit like this makes it hard to trust the few actually helpful or not immediately murderous NPCs.

Speaking of NPCs... This is one of the weaknesses of the adventure, and not because those present are badly written or uninteresting, but because most of them are hostile, distrusting, and loyal to Drachenfels. Interactions with them promise to be fun, but rarely rewarding. Even the few genuinely helpful ones won't be of much use. Gerd the Mutant is grateful if you wake him up from his magical sleep, but a few turns later he dies from a chestburster that was kept in stasis by his slumber. Snitlet the Snotling is more of a comedic relief than a useful companion, but at least he is an entertaining one4. Bardul the Hunchback is the only with potential long term benefits for the party, for he knows the castle well and can navigate the warp passageways. There are also spirits, but they are more like dumb tools for the GM to foreshadow, or railroad the players, or mess with them. The appendix offers further NPCs to add colour to the place, and you should absolutely use them. My favourite is a band of greenskins called Gobrot's boyz, whose leader is smart enough to ally with the PCs if they prove themselves useful, and whose "gurly" will start flirting with one of the PCs just to stir up trouble.

Rewards are plenty. Slaying the two bosses can earn the characters 3 Fate Points, though they are likely to lose just as much in the process. The XP awards look good, and there is a great deal of magic items - including some cursed ones. There are dozens of potions, the Wand of Dust, which is the bane of undead, Blackshards, which are focused negative emotions that can be exploded in someone's face, Lermontov's Grimoire, which contains the extremely useful Cure Insanity spell, or Warptorches, which help navigating the warp passages.

Drachenfels himself towering over
some unfortunate soul.
Why would anyone visit this hellhole though? The book offers a few ideas, for some reason in the back of the book. The seeds include cultist hunting, sabotaging the stronghold, recovering someone's heart literally, or stopping the resurrection of Count Drachenfels. They are more than hooks: you get a half page outlines with a beginning, complications, and an ending. Several of them introduce further NPCs, which as I mentioned above, the adventure needs badly.

You know what else it needs even more? Good maps. Castle Drachenfels pisses me off in this regard. The overview maps only show walls, stairs, and doors. Windows? Nah. Furniture? Forget about it. There are floorplans for a few rooms, which are more detailed, but alas that's just a small fragment of them. Even worse, there is no grid. There is a scale on each map, but it is much easier to estimat distance by counting squares than pulling out the tape measure. The dungeon layout is non-linear, but would benefit greatly from some secret doors. The writing is good old-fashioned Games Workshop stuff: it is evocative and fun to read, but a bit too wordy for its own good. Adding more highlighting, bullet points, and cross referencing would also improve the usability of the text, but we are talking about an adventure from 1992. The art is top notch like in every other WFRP product of the era, though there are reused assets familiar from other books.

Due to its vulnerable player characters and being a product of the late eighties and early nineties, the typical WFRP adventure focuses more on intrigue, investigation, and characters. Despite bearing the marks of its era, Castle Drachenfels is an odd exception, being an unforgiving gonzo funhouse dungeon. It is WFRP's Tegel Manor and Tomb of Horrors in one, and despite its shortcomings, I can't help but appreciate it for that.

Rules system: WFRP1e
Publisher: Games Workshop
Publication date: 1992

Format: print, pdf
Size: letter-size
Pages: 112

Available from:
  DriveThruRPG (pdf)
Old-fashioned meatgrinder,
Warhammer style!

1 Also known as Kim Newman.

2 Canonically the novel is outdated with its oddities like Karl Franz being crowned emperor in 2491, goblins working for humans, vampires mingling with men openly and living in asylums, et cetera. The Empire Drachenfels depicts is a more open-minded and chaotic country than what you can see in the modern lore. 

3 "...a spirit of pure Evil, drawn from the Warp where all things are possible and everything exists, by Drachenfels himself." Cool shit.

4 Snotlings are always entertaining.

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  1. Replies
    1. Ravenloft has better layout, Drachenfels has better villain and more gruesome encounters. For a more detailed answer I will have to reread Ravenloft.

    2. A worthwhile comparison perhaps. I occasionally like to do these sorts of contrasts, always generates useful insights.