The year was 1987, and mad science was brewing in the offices of White Dwarf magazine. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay developer Graeme Davis held, in one hand, a steaming vial containing the concentrated essence of hundreds of schemes, plot twists, and capers. In the other, he held the core rulebook for WFRP 1st Edition. With a cackle and a grin, he poured the vial over the rulebook, pulled an ominous lever on the wall and a bolt of lightning crashed through a skylight to give birth to his new creation.
…Or something like that. The details may have been different, but the end result was the adventure A Rough Night at the Three Feathers. Up to this point, roleplaying modules focused on a single plot thread – an evil wizard kidnaps a princess, the king sets the heroes a quest, a dragon terrorizes a town, etc. Graeme wanted to see if multiple plots in a single story could work as well as they did on film when translated to roleplaying games. Judging by audience reactions, he was on to something, as A Rough Night at the Three Feathers continues to be one of the best remembered rpg modules of all time.
With the release of WFRP 4th edition, Graeme and the rest of the development team decided to update the original Rough Night alongside two sequel stories he’d written in the decades since, and add two more adventures in the same vein for good measure. The end product is Rough Nights and Hard Days, the subject of today’s review. Does the original hold up to modern rpg standards? And can this concept survive more than one game session? Let’s dive in and find out!
Let’s begin with presentation, as it’s obvious just opening the book that much attention was paid to how it looks: the cover and much of the interior of the book features custom, painted-style artwork that sets a consistent tone for the stories within and illustrates locations, characters, and key plot moments and can easily be used by a GM as a visual aid for players. Nearly all the art in the book is done in color, with some npc portraits being done in black and white. Maps are presented for all the major location in the story, helpfully labelled and detailed so that GMs and players can keep track of where events are taking place.
Of note, even when npc portraits are depicting such generic categories of npc as “cultists” or “other customers,” the art depicts specific characters described in the adventures rather than generic, re-used art from the core book. It’s a small touch, but it’s an early sign of the attention to detail evident throughout the book.
The five adventures contained in the book come with advice for the GM on how to run them as standalone stories, how to run them as a linked campaign of five stories, or how to weave them into the upcoming Enemy Within campaign scheduled to begin releasing this fall. Linked together, the adventures follow the players as they accompany Gravin Maria-Ulrike von Leibwitz, a noble embroiled in a feud with a rival family, on a series of escapades across the Reikland. Played separately, they can be fairly seamlessly integrated into most campaigns, requiring only that the GM arrange for the players to visit an inn, attend a wedding, etc.
So, how do the adventures themselves hold up? Unlike traditional rpg module layouts, each adventure in Rough Nights and Hard Days begins with a description of the plots in motion (usually around 7!) and then a series of timestamped events which will occur throughout the story. This layout helps the GM keep track of all the things that need to happen to keep 7 plots going at once. I prefer this layout for the style of adventure being displayed here, as without a detailed breakdown of who does what when, the gm has virtually no chance of accurately portraying the events to the players, and certainly not in a way that allows the players to puzzle it out and take meaningful action!
In general, each adventure follows a similar framework – a series of plots are in motion behind the scenes of an otherwise mundane event (a party, a wedding, etc.) It’s up to the gm to keep track of all the moving pieces occurring around the players, and to react when player actions alter the chain of events. The book is helpful in this regard, frequently including statements like “If x character is still alive, then at this point they will do y. Otherwise z happens.” Independent of player action, all of the plots will reach their intended goals by the end of the story. Players will have to act if they wish to divert, thwart, or co-opt any of them. Inattentive player groups may find themselves reacting to events with no idea what’s going on, and having to sort through the rubble to figure out what happened when the dust settles.
Actually summarizing the events of each module would take far too long for a simple review, especially given how many things are going on in each story compared to your average adventure. Suffice to say that over the course of Rough Days and Hard Nights the players will get caught up in a murder at an inn, attend (and possibly take part in) a trial by combat for a noble patron, visit the opera while saboteurs seek to blow them sky high, attend a wedding with a missing bride, and finally take part in a masquerade ball with something extra in the punch.
The plots and characters range from sinister to outlandish, and with so much going on it’s easy to get lost. That’s both a pro and a con in my mind. I love a good, dense adventure that really allows players to puzzle out the schemes of their opponents and make cunning (or dreadfully foolish) moves to counter them. However, it’s definitely not everyone’s preferred style, and I can easily see players who prefer more straightforward stories with heavier action and adventure focus becoming frustrated or hopelessly lost in these intrigue-heavy stories.
The book also contains two appendices, one of which adds a new race to WFRP: the Gnomes. The other contains rules for pub games and other diversions, all done with quick dice rolls to make gambling or passing the time at ins more interesting and fleshed out. With five adventures this is already a lot of value for price, so these additions are just icing on the cake. The Gnomes are a rare populace in the Empire who have an innate tie to the magical wind of shadow and illusion and are frequently mistaken for the much more common halflings. They present players with an interesting alternative to the races in the core book and at least one Gnome npc features in the book’s adventures. The pub games are quick, entertaining, and designed to be simple, so they allow for some flavorful world building alongside a chance for players to gamble or pass the time during appropriate segments of a session.
A Rough Night at the Three Feathers represented an experiment. It was a huge departure from the types of stories rpgs told up to that point, and even in the modern day it stands apart as something unusual and against the grain. It plants the focus on roleplaying, social interactions, subtlety, and observation rather than traditional sword-swinging and spell-slinging (although both are present in spades). Rough Nights and Hard Days Is definitely worth your time if you want to experience something out of the ordinary, chaotic, full of quirky characters, and lethal to the unprepared. Happy gaming!