Death's Dark Shadow
Death's Dark Shadow Capsule Review by Jody Macgregor on 25/07/01
Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 2 (Sparse)
Hogshead reprints the 1991 sourcebook and adventure pack.
Product: Death's Dark Shadow
Author: Carl Sargent
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing
Line: Warhammer Fantasy
Page count: 120
Year published: 2000
ISBN: 1 899749 276
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Jody Macgregor on 25/07/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Horror
On the back page of Warpstone #15 there's an ad for Death's Dark Shadow. In great big Caslon Antique letters it declares "BECAUSE YOU DEMANDED IT." At the bottom, a couple of font sizes down, it says "(Not because we've had so many delays on the new Warhammer FRP books like Heart of Chaos and Realm of Sorcery that we've had to put out another reprint. No, really.)"
Damn I love Hogshead.
That ad tells you all you need to know about Death's Dark Shadow. It's from the GW/Flame era of WFRP which wasn't up to scratch in the first round of reprints like The Enemy Within, but isn't down on the level of stuff they'll hopefully never reprint like Castle Drachenfels. Since I have to justify getting my free copy somehow though, on with the review.
The cover art, depicting a bald warrior and a scantily-clad vampire babe in a dark forest, isn't spectacular, but it fits the mood of the game if not the mood of the supplement. Internal art ranges from some great character pieces (notably those by Paul Bonner) to blowups of pictures from the rulebook. Several pictures appear twice, once in the text and once in the appendix. The maps are quite good, with scales and external views of several buildings, though why one of the rooms in the Inn has a smiley face on the floor is beyond me.
Death's Dark Shadow describes the village of Kreutzhofen in the south-western corner of the Empire, and its surrounds. The village has trade links to four nations, an idea that might seem forced (one link is an underground river and another is a highway through a notoriously elf-guarded forest) but the detailed history justifies them well enough.
A gazetteer goes into detail -- EXTREME detail. Every house in the village is described, along with the inhabitants, their relationships and secrets. It fills a small gap in the source material, which only has a typical Empire village outlined in the rulebook and a couple of scenarios set around them, such as in Dying of the Light, and this is the highlight of the book. Details on commerce, religion, law, and local customs are all provided, including some colourful holiday festivals.
As with many WFRP books the text is littered with obscure references. Whether they make you groan or laugh, a knowledge of explorers, fictional detectives, wine, Italy, tanks, and orders of Jewish assassins won't go astray.
Missing in the Hogshead reprint is an article describing several characters from the Warhammer Novels. The Gotrek and Felix section saw print again in Apocrypha 2, but the foxy Genevieve's stats are now tragically lost to the mists of time. Sigh.
The next three chapters are devoted to mini-adventures, adventure outlines and 'optional locations' which is a fancy way of saying 'dungeons.' That's twelve potential adventures in all, a fair amount to set in and around one small village. But are they any good?
Money and coincidences are scattered around liberally. A party could easily get rich collecting rewards and committing thefts (which sums up a lot of fantasy roleplaying). Worst among the coincidences are a scenario in which five unconnected people all murder one man on the same night, and one in which the PCs discover the secrets of half the villagers who just happen to be on secret errands in the area the adventurers are watching for cattle thieves.
Lifting things up a little are a riverboat chase and a plot based around a villager working on a hot-air balloon. There is potential to be dredged out of several ideas, but if it's short scenarios you crave, Apocrypha Now is a better source.
The fully-fleshed out fourteen page adventure that finishes the book is called The Curse Of The Reichenbachs. It's a story about strange events and long-buried mysteries in which author Carl Sargent betrays his enjoyment of exclamation points.
What could have been an enjoyable investigative scenario based around a two hundred year old secret turns out to be an episode of Scooby Doo, with an unconnected Frankenstein pastiche thrown in. The Frankenstein bit has already been done in Death On The Reik, and it was a low point there as well. The Scooby Doo element isn't like one of those cool episodes where Shaggy and Scooby get chased around by a vampire or a mummy, but one of the lame ones with the whole gang and freaking Scrappy too discovering that the monster is really old Mr Sykes from the fairground wearing a latex mask. It's not the best way of finishing the book, and asking my group to playtest the damn thing would only have been cruel and unnecessary.
The obvious village scenarios are Agatha Christie murder mysteries and isolated rural horror stories. There's a murder mystery here, but it's a joke and the setting isn't dark enough to be easily used for horror, unlike most of the rest of Warhammer. In Kreutzhofen there's no inbreeding, not much fear of outsiders, no mutants, and some very tame dark secrets. The local demonologist is described but not capitalised on, and the werewolves turn out to be victimised innocents.
Phil Rickman has basically made his career out of writing novels about spooky, claustrophobic British villages with dark histories, but Death's Dark Shadow completely fails to hold that atmosphere. Like some of Carl Sargent's other creations, Kreutzhofen barely seems to fit into the Old World at all. There is potential here, but it's definitely a book for the completists only. For anybody else who wants to base a WFRP campaign around a village, I recommend reading one of Rickman's novels instead.