Monday, November 17, 2008

Nathan Long's Blackhearts = The Dirty Dozen

Last night I finished reading the rather massive Black Library omnibus edition of Nathan Long's Blackhearts novels, set in Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy world. To quote the blurb from the above page:

"Under threat of death for their crimes, Reiner and his companions are forced to carry out the most desperate and suicidal secret missions, all for the good of the Empire. Chaos cultists, ratmen, dark elves, rogue army commanders and more – time and again the Blackhearts are pitted against impossible odds and survive – yet what they most what is their freedom."
In the introduction to the omnibus, the author freely admits that the first novel (and by extension, the entire series) is essentially a rip-off of The Dirty Dozen. But you know what? Why not? There's nothing wrong with stealing from the best, and I consider that movie one of the great classic action/adventure movies of all time (I dunno if I'd really classify it as a "war movie", because even though it's backdropped by WW2, it doesn't have all that much to do with the war itself - it just provides a convenient excuse for the plot).

This series of novels actually provides a lot of idea fodder for gaming. The "Blackhearts" are all convicted felons of one stripe or another, and have been given the choice of death for their crimes or (probable) death in service to the Empire. To keep such villains "honest", their blood is laced with a magical poison that can kill them from afar if they simply run off into hiding, ensuring that they'll perform their duty rather than slink away and go into hiding.

This is the third omnibus of Warhammer World fantasy fiction I've read, along with the two omnibuses from the Gotrek and Felix series. The Warhammer World is very traditionalist "fantasy" with orcs and goblins and elves and dragons and dwarves and lizardmen etc. etc., but there's enough going on to keep it fairly fresh and interesting to anyone new to the setting. The two major deviances that I can think of are the involvement of the Chaos Gods and how Chaos affects the world, and the relatively high technology level of the Empire and Dwarven kingdoms - both cultures make extensive use of steam power and firearms. I know that firearms are a point of much contention among many gamers, who think that allowing even the most primitive of firearms into their fantasy campaign means that a few sessions later, their PC's next goblin-hunting expedition is going to look like this:

Anyhow, miniguns and whatnot aside, this idea strikes me as an interesting one for a short campaign, or at least an arc within an existing campaign. The PCs get convicted for crimes they didn't (or did, who knows) commit, and they're offered either death by the noose or a chance, however slim, of survival by "volunteering" for what would essentially be a suicide mission. How the PCs pull off the mission would be mostly up to them, and the real "adventure" could be trying to find some means of escaping from their sentence, backdropped by the actual mission they've been tasked to perform.

Some players might grouch that this is a form of "railroading" that most heinous of gamer crimes, but I don't realllllly see it that way. Yes, it is something of a contrived premise, but once the situation is set up, how the PCs handle their situation can vary wildly. Do they play ball with their captors and try to do what they are asked in the hopes that they are freed at the end, or do they immediately try to find some way of escaping their mission and gaining their freedom? You can play it a lot of different ways, and the scenario can provide a lot of role-play as well as adventure (one of the things Long notes in his introduction is that his characters win through as often or more often by trickery and guile as they do by force of arms - a perfect balance of situations and solutions for a good PC adventuring party).

Hrmmm, I think I see a Campaign in A Bottle forming up nicely.

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