Monday, July 19, 2021

(P)Late Mail -- Kriegsmesser

When I received Kriegsmesser in the mail I finally googled "kriegsmesser", and found out it meant "war knife". Which makes sense; Gregor Vuga's ZineQuest 2021 project is a tribute to "roleplaying games named after medieval weapons".

I love Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's piss-renaissance Old World setting. I tend to pick up WFRP-a-likes sight unseen:

Warlock (quality); Small But Vicious Dog (yesss); Zweihander (which I have come to hate) ...

Anyway: I backed Kriegsmesser without really knowing anything about it. So Kriegsmesser surprised me. 

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Kriegsmesser grew out of a Troika! cutting. Its 36 backgrounds are compatible with that system: each come with a couple of lines of description; a list of skills and possessions; an a visual cameo cropped from actual 16th-Century woodcut art.


Cohesive and competently flavourful. My favourite is the Labourer, who always starts with "an empty pine box":

" You've spent your life breaking your back, working hard for other people's profit. You have nothing to show for it but a spectre of the future. "

(The obligatory ratcatcher-analogue , called the Vermin Snatcher, is here  -- check that box!)

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Kriegsmesser also comes with its own ruleset.  Hits all the notes it needs to, with lots of orientation and advice for how to run a game -- but ultimately super-simple, mechanically:

Roll d6s equal to the value in a relevant skill, look at the highest result. 6 means you get what you want; 5 or 4 means you get what you want, at a cost.

It's not quite a dice pool, since only the highest result matters. No opposed tests.

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Kriegsmesser intends to have this base mechanic handle fights, too. The combat rules - with armour, toughness and weapon values -- are nested in an optional section.

For a WFRP-a-like, this feels like a purposeful departure.

Many of WFRP's most celebrated adventures are celebrated for bits that their underlying ruleset does little to support: the investigative structure of "Shadows Over Bogenhafen"; the complicated timetable of "Rough Night At Three Feathers".

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Ludwig von Wittgenstein never needed a statblock to be memorable.

Not to say that lethal, hyper-detailed fights isn't super Warhammer-y. (Kriegsmesser includes an injury table, broken down by body-part -- check that box!)

But here it feels like Gregor is saying: "I'm not Games Workshop and Roleplay isn't an ancillary of Warhammer Fantasy Battle; we can evoke grim-and-perilous-ness even if we fork away from heavy combat rules."

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It has become ritual for me to read my partner Sharon to sleep. 

Sometimes I read her RPG things. The other night, after I read her Kriegsmesser's introduction --

" The Empire wages an eternal war against Chaos. Its priests preach of Chaos as an intrusion, something unnatural ... These men see Chaos in anything that does not buttress their rule. They call it disorder, anarchy, corruption. They say that to rebel against their order is to rebel against god and nature. That the current arrangement is natural, rather than artificial.

" Meanwhile, the common people look to the Empire to deliver the justice that they were promised and they find none. They look to the Empire and do not see themselves reflected in it. They look around at what they were taught was right and good and see only misery.

Their world begins to unravel. Chaos comes to reside in every heart and mind sound enough to look at the world and conclude it is broken. "

-- Sharon remarked: "Nice one."

The RPG things I read her generally leave Sharon lukewarm. She has enjoyed a couple -- but, yeah: for many of these books, text isn't their strong point.

Kriegsmesser is the only time I can recall Sharon praising the writing of an RPG book without my prompting.

Nice one.

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That introduction surprised me. It underlines Kriegsmesser's biggest departure from its WFRP-a-like pedigree: how it characterises Chaos.

Corruption, a mainstay of most grim-dark-y games, is made an optional rule, like combat. Explaining this, Gregor writes:

" Kriegsmesser partially subverts or deconstructs the traditional conceit of Warhammer where the characters are threatened by the forces of Chaos. In this game it is the player characters who are the agents of 'Chaos': they are likely to become the 'rats' under the streets, and the wild 'beast-men' in the woods bringing civilisation down. It's the Empire and its nobles and priests that are corrupt ... "

Describing the Empire, Gregor writes:

" The Empire encompasses the world yet is terrified of the without. It enforces itself with steel and fire yet considers itself benevolent. It consumes the labour of others with bottomless hunger yet calls its subalterns lazy, or wasteful, or greedy. "

Holy shit this is the first time I've seen the word "subaltern" in an RPG thing, I think?

I love this.

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Rant incoming:

With every passing decade Warhammer abridges its Moorcockian roots more and more; nowadays it is "Order = Good" and "Chaos = Evulz", pretty much.

Gone are the days when chaos berserkers are implied to grant safe passage to the helpless (because Khorne is as much a god of martial honour as he is a god of bloodletting);
Or that the succor of Papa Nurgle is a genuine comfort to the downtrodden;
Or that Tzeentch could unironically embody the principle of hope, of change for the better.

As Chaos is distilled into unequivocal villainy, Order goons get painted as Good Guys by default --

Giving rise to Warhammer's contemporary problem, wherein fans are no longer able to recognise satire.

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When I was introduced to 40K, it seemed pretty clear that the Imperium was a Brazil-esque absurdist-fascist bureaucratic state: planets are exterminatus-ed due to clerical error; the way it stamps out rebellions is the reason why rebellions begin in the first place.

Tragi-comic grimdarkness. That was the point.

Nowadays that tone has shifted -- and you're more likely than not going to encounter a 40K fan who argues that the Imperium's evils are a justified necessity, to prevent worse wrongs.

We went from:

"Space Nazis because insane dumbass fuckery, also chainswords vroom vroom so badass!"

To:

"Space Nazis because it makes sense actually, and also chainswords make sense because [insert convoluted rationalisation here]."

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Even Fantasy Flight's Black Crusade line, which ostensibly offers a look at 40K from the perspective of Chaos, never truly commits to its conceit.

With prep you could play a heroic band of mutant freedom fighters, resisting the tyranny of the Evil Imperium --

But I don't remember Black Crusade giving that kind of campaign any actual support. Its supplements service the relatively more conventional "You can play villains!" angle; the Screaming Vortex is a squarely Daemons-vs-Daemons setting.

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This tonal drift culminates, in my mind, with Age of Sigmar, Games Workshop's heroic-fantasy replacement of the old WFRP / WHFB setting.

Here's the framing narrative for AoS's recently-launched Third Edition. Let's see whether I've got things right:

A highly professionalised, technologically-superior tip-of-the-spear fighting force (the Stormcast Eternals);
Backed by an imperialist military-industrial complex (Azyrheim);
"Liberating" rich new territories (Ghur) for exploitation by a civilised settler culture (Settlers of Sig-- I mean, Free Cities);
Justified because the locals are irredeemable heathens (Chaos and Kruleboyz).

I mean, that's a sweet-ass Warhammer setting. It's contemporary, laser-guided lampoon. Except it is played totally straight.

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In AoS, a literal crusade is justified as the moral good.

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I think Kriegsmesser surprised me because its framing of Chaos -- as a promise, as the light of hope shining through cracks of a broken world --

It feels so fucking right.

Yes: its a subaltern deconstruction of the conventional moral universe of Warhammer -- but it is a take that is also already implied / all but supported in the various depictions of the setting: from WFRP to the modified title crawl of Black Crusade.

I'm annoyed I didn't think of it, myself. Damn you, Gregor!

And I'm annoyed that more Warhammer fans aren't thinking it, also. 

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lmagine if Kriegsmesser's perspective stood on equal standing as the GW orthodoxy. Imagine if, instead of simplifying stuff into "Order = Good" and "Chaos = Evulz", GW did a Gregor Vuga.

You'd have a Rashomon-ed Warhammer, where villainy depends on perspective:

You are fearful villagers, huddled around your priest, muttering prayers against the wild braying coming from the trees beyond your gates.

You are Aqshyian tribeswomen, defying the thunder warrior towering over you, the foreigner demanding you bow to his foreign god.

You are a Tzeentchian revolutionary cell, desperately trying to disrupt a Inquisitor's transmissions so your home planet isn't destroyed by fascist orbital fire.

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Get Kriegsmesser HERE.

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9 comments:

  1. Very nice review. Convinced me to check out the game.

    About the system, what was written didn't appeal to me much, but the approach to the scenario is really interesting. In fact, Warhammer's pro-fascist focus is something that bothers me a lot and I really like the non-Manichean duality of Moocock's work.

    For the system, one I really liked for this style of play is @gayhalforc's minimalist Sledgehammer.

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  2. Totally agree about the Fascist Drift and Chaos. There are occasional suggestions that Nurgle is in fact benevolent, but it never carries through to his tabletop factions, who are all capital-V Villains. You also get the Thousand Sons, who are portrayed as tragic and betrayed by their brothers when all they wanted was to do good, but then once they flee to Tzeentch, they are Bad Guys through and through. It's a shame.

    Anyway, I hadn't heard of Kriegsmesser, but I like the ideas behind it, so I'm going to check it out.

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    Replies
    1. I feel like the desire for things like "Nurgle is actually benevolent" is driven by that same dualistic black/white instinct, just with a desire for a subversion up front.


      I think the most interesting characterizations are the complex ones - aforementioned honorable Khornates who don't hurt the helpless, or "papa Nurgle" who does harbor genuine affection for his victims, but whose hugs still come with undeniably horrifying disease and putrescence.

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    2. Yes, that's what I was getting at with Nurgle being "benevolent", with even the transmission of disease being seen as a gift. It's a lovely bit of complexity.

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  3. Poe's Law in action :/

    Good post

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  4. Even in the early 2000s when I was getting into Warhammer fiction, I remember there being a lot more support for a reading of "Chaos feeds on human misery, and the methods the Imperium employs to fight Chaos create the conditions for it to spread. Nobody in power can conceive of doing things differently, reform is impossible because it cuts against the power-structure's short-term interests, and the Emperor is obviously not a god but nobody can be allowed to admit that this is the case. On a long enough timescale the Imperium is unsustainable and bound for inevitable collapse". They had an end-date in the timeline and everything!

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  5. Nice one indeed! I’ve recently started looking at Warhammer stuff (on the back of painting some minis for a friend) for the first time since the mid 90s and have been surprised how, for all the baroque detail thats been added over the years, both the AoS and 40k worlds feel really flat and tonaly bland in just the way you describe.

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  6. This is such a fantastic review and really hits the thing that keeps me bouncing off of Warhammer. I'm drawn in by the extravagant satire, and driven away again by the "wow, cool fascist robot!" nature of the fandom.

    I'd be really curious if anyone has suggestions for Warhammer content (game or novel or whatever) that skews a little more toward the satirical reading so I'm not too grossed out to really dig into it, for once.

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  7. Your rant expresses everything that drew me to the worlds of warhammer and is exactly how I envision those worlds, despite whatever Games Workshops says.
    The thing that I liked about the idea was that there were noble people trying to do good on both sides of order and chaos. People who could have so easily have been friends and allies if things were a bit different was part of the tragedy of warhammer.
    It also lent itself to a interesting metaphysical/spiritual situation where not only are cultures are being invaded and/or dominated by a colonialist imperialist power, but a colonialist imperialist power that is explicitly a controlling, hyper-rational, logical positivist philosophy. A philosophy that either regards chaos as not existing or has to be crushed or domineered, little realizing that there is an other world, the world on the dark side, a world of fathomless arationality, of magic and mysterious symbols, and terror that can stand up even to the greatest powers of imperialist order.
    I feel like even Moorcock leaned into order=good, chaos=evil thing in his fiction as well, though I haven't read that much of his work. I think the dude is cool though.

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