Vigilwatch: Warrens of the Ratmen
Vigilwatch: Warrens of the Ratmen Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 27/12/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
While they are reminescent of the Skaven, this book fleshes out the Slitheren into something unique enough to be useful in just about any D&D game you're playing. No Elfbiter Scumdangle, though, dagnabbit.
Product: Vigilwatch: Warrens of the Ratmen
Author: Dave Brohman, Ben Lam, and Wiliam Timmins
Company/Publisher: Sword and Sorcery Studios
Line: Scarred Lands
Page count: 112
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Darren MacLennan on 27/12/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Horror Espionage Gothic
So, are they the Skaven?
The Creature Collection managed to beat the Monster Manual to the shelves back in the early days when the first edition of D&D3e came out. Besides being decidedly different – and more interesting – than the creatures that we were used to in the standard Monster Manuals, the Creature Collection featured groups of ratmen who had organized themselves into rough tribes, each along a particular principle – disease, fire, sailing, and so forth, and who’d come into being because of their contact with some kind of mutating element.
Of course, they were promptly identified as being knockoffs of the Skaven – the ratmen of the Warhammer universe, who form clans based on particular principles – disease, mutation, engineering and so forth – and who came into being because of their contact with warpstone, Warhammer’s equivalent of magickal uranium.
So, with that in mind, we’re looking at Warrens of the Ratmen: Are they blatant knockoffs of the Skaven? Are you going to get anything out of them besides a few ideas borrowed haphazardly from the Skaven, and maybe Fritz Leiber?
Nope. Actually, Warrens of the Ratmen makes the difference between the ratmen of the Scarred Lands and the Skaven quite visible, and in a way that’ll make them useful to just about any campaign you’d care to name. As a matter of fact, they’d make wonderful antagonists for any urban-based campaign, if you were so inclined to start one – think of “Gangs of New York” combined with Lankhmar, for example, and you’ll have what I’m getting at.
At the same time, there are a lot of aspects of the Slitheren that seem awfully inspired by the Skaven – if you look carefully, you can see analogues for Clan Pestilens, Rat Ogres, Plague Monks, Skaven Assasssins, warpstone, mutated monstrosities and the like. If White Wolf didn’t want the comparison made, there’s an awful lot of stuff that they could have changed to have prevented the comparison.
Anyways. The book opens with a description of each tribe of Slitheren – the Diseased, the Black Pelts, the Scarlet Witches and so on and so forth. Along with a description of their central hook – sorcery, disease, piracy and so forth – there’s a description of their society, how they regard other Slitheren, and so forth. I’m not a huge fan of all of them – the Stalkers, Diseased and the Stricken, for example, borrow entirely too much from the Skaven, representing assassination, disease and mutation. Those are the Skaven hallmarks, especially the diseased. On the other hand, the Foamers, Storm Chasers, Unseeing and White Wraiths are pretty interesting – especially the Unseeing, blinded Slitheren who have resigned themselves to pacifism and the knowledge that their patron Titan is slain.
Truth be told, this chapter is briefer than I would have liked. Some of them are only a page long, and detail a short blurb about each aspect of that particular Slitheren’s life before shifting along to the next. They get their point across quite well, I should note, and there’s enough meat here for intrepid game masters to flesh them out, but I had the feeling that they should have either fleshed out the tribes by cutting back on also-rans – for example, the Stalkers could have been folded into another group without losing much, ditto the Brown Gorgers.
The Mourning Marshes, and the various creatures that live there are given a breakdown in the next chapter. Since it’s the Slitheren home town, it’s given a lot of good atmosphere – broken trees, choking mist, and, most cool of all, ships thrown deep into the swamp by the devastation of the Titanswar. (There’s something instantly cool about the idea of an abandoned ship rotting far away from the sea; it’s creepily out of place, especially if there’s no real indication of how it got there.) There’s also a list of the different creatures which inhabit the marsh, although no stats are provided. (They’re in the Creature Collections, though, so no biggie.)
The Slitheren activities is the place where the reason for having an entire book about the Slitheren shows up – the Slitheren are slowly collecting themselves for an assault on the civilized lands, gathering in the safety of the Mourning Marsh. It’s pretty standard stuff, taking the form of a discussion about what’s going to be done about the Slitheren menace – and coming to the conclusion that the divine races may have to crack the Mourning Marshes open before the Slitheren can gather their forces in sufficient numbers. (Visions of a series of pitched battles in a swamp dance through my head – setting up temporary camps, fighting the Slitheren and then packing up and moving to somewhere else.)
There’s also a brilliant bit where the tactics of fighting a Titanspawn army are discussed – rather than “hit them hard and hit them fast”, there’s explanations of why the Titanspawn fight the way they do, and how best to defeat them, such as using their natural bloodlust against them. (Of course, as one of the characters in the book points out, the Slitheren don’t seem to follow the same rules that the rest of the Titanspawn do.)
The book’s adventure focuses on the exploration of a Slitheren warren, but there’s more to it than a simple dungeon crawl – if the characters aren’t careful, they can wind up inflicting only surface injuries to the Slitheren while leaving more major threats behind.
More specifically – swipe for spoilers: The Slitheren are planning to poison a series of nearby cities with disease taken from their slaves, who have been deliberately infected. If the PCs aren’t interested in checking the details of the Slitheren experiment, then thousands of people die, and the Slitheren invasion steps up its timetable. Pretty heady stuff for an a short dungeon crawl, and it fits nicely into the theme of the Slitheren as a major threat, rather than a pinprick nuisance.
The second adventure is basically a straight combat encounter, where the players take on a Red Witch Slitheren and assorted company; it could make for a great tactical wargame, with lots of sneaking around and silent assassinations, culminating in a sudden, vicious battle whenever the time is right. (Or when a Slitheren suddenly darts out of a tiny hole and severs a fighter’s tendons with its teeth.)
The book closes out with advice on playing Slitheren, especially those who have stepped away from the Slitheren society. There’s nothing terrifically in-depth here, mostly details on how you shouldn’t play Slitheren as humans in rat-suits, how they’ll be hated but can eventually become respected as half-orcs are, and so forth. It’s not bad, but White Wolf has done brilliant jobs of describing ratling societies – if you haven’t picked up Ratkin, for example, you’re missing an absolutely fantastic book. I wish that they’d brought some of that to this book.
Along with character templates for each of the Slitheren tribes, there’s also a new prestige class, the Skaven grenadier. While it’s a pretty straightforward prestige class – you get better at throwing grenades every level – there’s something about it that specifically rubs me the wrong way, and it’s not just this prestige class; it’s a lot of others, including just about any missile-based prestige class. As the grenadier progresses in levels, he can magically empower them to do fancy tricks, like going around corners, or unleash multiple grenades in a single barrage, or a grenade that phases through walls. I can live with getting better at throwing grenades, but a phase grenade just seems somehow wrong. It’s not something that I’m fond of in D&D3e – the extension of magickal abilities to people who are simply very skilled with a particular weapon. For example, the tail fighter prestige class just gets better with its tail weapon as time goes on, eventually winding up being able to attack ahead and behind without restriction; the Twilight Wardens gain the limited ability to control the landscape that they frequent. Those abilities seem a lot more in tune with a realistic game than a grenadier, however good, suddenly being magical enough to create a powerful magical effect centered around his grenades.
Besides some relatively straightforward poisons and diseases, most of which have been described elsewhere, the book has a trio of great spells revolving around the manipulation and breaking of bones. I think that the game effects of breaking a bone should be much more dangerous than they are – they’re enough to make a character hurt, but I’ve heard stories about what it’s like to do anything with a broken bone, none of them pleasant. (Then again, standard d20 doesn’t really simulate penalties for damage, unless there’s an optional rule that I’m missing someplace.)
The monsters: A good crop in all. I liked the rat golem, for example – a twelve-foot tall humanoid constructed entirely of squirming rats. You could easily scare the Christ out of players with an encounter in the middle of a sewer – have it crawl out of an open sewer at the far end of a tunnel, barely illuminated by the rays of a dying lantern. The Dead Eaters are also pretty cool for anybody looking for a non-undead alternative to ghouls, since they’re technically human, but still cannibalistic and evil. (Think C.H.U.D, and you’ll have them in a nutshell.) We get a description of the new Slitheren, and while the Stricken aren’t really Chaos Spawn, the Slitheren Mauler illustration was pretty clearly derived from an illustration of a Rat Ogre. Of course, it’s a damn good illustration; I think that I can forgive it.
The art: Good throughout. I’ve gone on record as saying that I don’t think that Ron Spencer has ever done a bad drawing of anything, and his cover piece of a ranger being attacked by Slitheren and giant rats is no exception. (Spencer’s artwork reminds me of Timothy Truman’s at points.) Most of the book’s art is very detailed, with Slitheren leering in the foreground at adventurers in the background, or leaning into the frame from one side; the extra detail, like the warts on a Slitheren’s face, or the shine of a lantern off facial fur, adds to the impression. Some of Leif Jones’ work doesn’t capture the attitude of what it’s trying to represent – a group of diseased slaves comes off as a bunch of people lying around in mud, without any obvious disease symptoms.
Is it worth your dollar? I’d say yes, without hesitation. There’s enough new, good material in here to power an urban campaign for years to come; used in context with the Scarred Lands, they’re a good hook to get adventurers fighting alongside of a larger force. The art is good, the price cheap – hell, just buy it.
(Oh, also: No Elfbiter Scumdangle? Boooo!)