[WFB] Exegesis of Terrible Fiction: “Ancient Blood” by Robert Earl, Black Library, 2008

Two things before we begin. Firstly, this is another of those posts where I arguably read too much into mediocre pulp tie-in novels and I’m aware some of you find that irksome. Secondly and not so trivially, it’s difficult if not impossible to discuss this book without using the wordgypsiesat some point, and I’m aware that many if not most actual Romani consider that word a slur. I use the word here when engaging with the context and origins of a fictional construct; if I need to talk about actual people who really exist I’m going to say Romani. And just to defer the inevitable: no, I’m not offended on anyone’s behalf, this is just a courtesy note to people who might be offended on their own behalf, and that’s only fair and polite. That said: let’s get on.

Ancient Blood passed me by originally, coming out in the same sort of timeframe as Steven Savile’s fascinatingly execrable vampire trilogy and somewhat overshadowed by it. Which is a shame, because it’s a quieter, better, arguably more thoughtful book, despite making a few of the same missteps and turning over some awkward ground in the process. I bought it on a whim over the weekend and it’s… intrigued me.

I won’t give much of a plot summary because honestly it’s not that important. There’s a racist nobleman, he’s taken against a minority group for distinctly Freudian reasons because there’s nothing quite like Freud for easy villain motivations, and this book follows what happens to the people he’s persecuting, as well as the kinds of nasty bastards who can be relies upon to deliver racism by proxy. And since the minority group in question are the Strigany, there are vampires. (It’s not a spoiler, you muppet, there’s one on the front of the book.)

Who the balls are the Strigany? (Even casual Warhammer fans may be scratching their heads at this one.) We’ll get back to them in a minute, once we’ve established something important about this book.

There’s a weird atemporality to Ancient Blood, in that the battle depicted resembles a scenario from White Dwarf that came out around this time in which Marius Leitdorf, the Mad Count of Averland, takes offence to the existence of Halflings and hires mercenaries to invade the Moot. They’re similar in terms of location and plotting, and in terms of the mercenary units involved, whose presence sites the book in the Warhammer world’s present day. But the framing device anonymises the Elector Counts involved; they’re just “Stirland” and “Averland”, which Kim Newman used to do for Electors who we weren’t expected to give a toss about but never for an actual character. More than that: the prologue explicitly locates the story in the Time of Three Emperors some two to eight hundred in-universe years earlier. I can’t work out if this is editorial meddling designed to separate a fan favourite special character who actually had a model available from Freudian Fantasy Racism, or if it’s sheer coincidence and nobody bothered about the dates. The Time of the Three Emperors is peak Vampire Counts lore time after all, and Earl’s contemporary Savile quite happily moved Detlef Sierck five hundred years back in time to locate him in the period, so it’s not as if the Black Library was paying its continuity editor a Christmas bonus that year anyway.

I don’t mean to get all frothy about this; guess what, freelance writers hacking out some pulp fantasy don’t attend to the details of the setting like semi-professional fanboys do, i.e. with terminal intensity. That’s fine. I mention it because it may indicate something about the publisher’s and author’s priorities. The Black Library wants the book out and not actively poisoning sales, and Robert Earl is far more interested in the Strigany than their oppressors. (He’s a WFRP writer, not a WFB writer, and I wonder how much of a factor that is here.) He has some fun with some Dogs of War units who’ve clearly caught his eye, but he’s fundamentally on the side of their victims here.

So. Let’s talk about the Strigany. They have their origins in the sixth edition Vampire Counts Army book from 2001-ish, where they appear in the theme list for the Strigoi vampires; a token unit of rank-and-flank living troops among the Ghouls and Skeletons. A throwaway gesture. They represent the last survivors of the ancient kingdom of Strigos, which itself represents the last living outpost of old Nehekhara; driven from their home by the final war against Nagash, they settled down under the guidance of the vampire Ushoran and the Crown of Sorcery. Then they got their bonches punched in by orcs, the chief priest was killed, the Crown taken, and the survivors fled north again, becoming a nomadic race of…

Oh, for fuck’s sake, they’re gypsies. All right? Because Dracula had gyspsy minions so Strahd had gypsy minions so Warhammer vampires have to have them too, because Warhammer is a trope hoover and doesn’t have the best record with regards to ethnosensitivity. BUT:

You have the real-world misnomer – “gypsy” being derived from “Egyptian” because that’s where pig-ignorant Europeans decided the Romani came from– and then you have this fantasy version which takes that misapplied belief and runs it to ground and builds on THAT rather than the real Roma. The Strigany came from Fantasy Expy Egypt but it’s the first nation they built in exile that defines them and there’s something poetic about that.

I don’t know how much of this was intended (bearing in mind that the architects of Warhammer were trained archaeologists, but also let shit like the Pygmies slide) but I also know a thing or two about the intentional fallacy and whether it was intended or not, there’s room here for a sympathetic retelling of that past and the present it leads to.

Robert Earl makes a credible attempt at taking that sympathetic point of view. I’m not Romani, so I don’t want to stick my neck out and say it’s acceptable or not on the Fantasy Racism front, but the really obvious exoticising and hate is sited in the antagonists, while Earl is much more matter of fact in depicting the Strigany and their life in renewed exile. There is a certain amount of “Strigany sorcery” involved but it’s all things the Strigany do to even the odds against them, and plenty of what they get up to is commonplace tactics and good sense. We do meet three of our characters while they’re thieving, but it’s clear that they do it because they’re young, bored and greedy, not because they’re Strigany. The Strigany do travel from town to town and play to stereotypes to bring the locals in, but it’s made clear this is a performative act in which they’re making a living (and there’s another caravan who do essential battlefield and plague cleanup that the Empire can’t be arsed with, so there’s at least a squint at something broader). Maybe you can’t ever do this sort of thing well enough but I thought it was a fat sight better than, say, the WoD’s Ravnos clan or Ravenloft, which just had… evil tricksy fantasy gypsies who serve vampires because that’s what they do.

Ah, yes. The vampires. The other half of the Strigany diaspora. The ancient and terrible living ancestors who have watched over the Strigany in exile, and who are approached to avenge wrongs like, well, the pogrom in this book. Flick through the Goodreads page for this book and you’ll see reviewers vocally disappointed that this book isn’t about the Strigoi bloodline. The thing is, the Strigoi aren’t that interesting. They’re feral killing machines who’ve forgotten almost everything except their eternal status as whipping boys to the other bloodlines. Everything that makes them interesting in a novelistic sense is also true of the Strigany, and the Strigany are functioning characters who can have conversations and differences of opinion and fall in love and so on.

The one Strigoi we meet here becomes interesting as he regains his sense of self and past, his appreciation for the finer things, and there’s a particularly effective bit where he commissions a macabre memento mori that relates the story of the bloodline without any tedious “as you know, your father the king” fantasy expospeak. In fact, the whole book is pretty light on that; the Strigany and the mercenaries and the vampire do what they do and Earl trusts we’re clever enough to get the gist of it.

Anyway, Earl is also clever enough to pull off the “understanding vampires through the eyes of others” thing Savile was going for, showing us the Strigoi as yes, terrifying monsters, but also inheritors of a shattered kingdom who have never lost their sense of obligation to their people. It’s only boring when his Strigoi turns around, sees a beautiful woman, and comes over all my-bride-in-darkness, and Earl seems to decide that’s a misstep quite quickly and end up abruptly having it not go anywhere.

Personally, I’d have preferred it if the Strigoi had entered into the love triangle subplot, especially since it first appears in the novel as part of the setup to that plot. There’s another weird misstep around that; it’s not teed up very well and later in the book one character refers to another’s vampire-blood-fixed-it-for-you facial scars like they’re still there. I’m not sure how well this one was edited or even redrafted; there are a lot of little elisions and flat character beats, especially with the generically nasty mercenary general, which feel like nobody passed over this thing to tighten it up, and that’s a shame.

I’ve brushed up against this now so let’s have it out: I don’t think this book was finished. Besides the occasional stumble on craft or pacing level, it’s too damn short. The premise is built up, the battle is established and resolved, the Strigoi calls his people home and they look pretty set on going, surrounded by omens, the love triangle is “resolved” in a way that could still turn out fascinatingly adulterous and the mercenaries are still out there and not the kind to give up…

All the pieces are in place for a nice long haul story that shows a side to the Warhammer World we don’t get to see very often, marginalised people and vampire sympathisers and the Dogs of War and going back to Strigos, something which can afford to happen without wrecking the status quo –

And then it just stops. Turns out this was a two act story, even though the tail suggests it could go to four or five. Checking the reviews for his other books suggests Earl does this a lot; clocks off when he hits a page count and the first thing that feels like a finale. Or maybe he was commissioned to write something about a battle, and with the battle done so was the book, and he was just leaving room for another trilogy set in the Border Princes and then down into Strigos. (Earl also seems to be responsible for relocating the ruins of Mourkain further south; I wondered, when they turned up in Total Warhammer II, whose idea that had been.)

Either way, it’s unfortunate. But maybe the whole premise of “Warhammer gypsies and their vampire god” is unfortunate to begin with? I don’t get to say, but I’m sad Earl didn’t get to take this one further; I for one quite like these people, and I want to see where they end up. Although I really don’t need another huge fanfiction idea taking up my brain space right now. But I have one. Thanks, Robert Earl. You swine.

[WFRP] “In The Year 2525…” From the journals of Ariette von Carstein. Extract 2.

Lalla Ward, Vampire Circus, 1972

The night before, my dears, was a night and a half. Imagine, if you will, my delight at discovering Middenheim’s soul not yet fully crushed by the siege, and the poor souls thronging the streets; imagine my joy that the Red Moon’s doors were still open and the enchanting voice of its hostess still set the night ablaze. Eva is every bit as lovely as I’d been led to believe, and her companion, Magistrix Eberhauer, an utter charmer.

But needs must, on mission and revenge, and I made my way back to the Untergardners’ enclave in Grunpark. My companions on the road had been busy; I could tell from the lightness of their purses and the burdens in their arms that something was afoot. Woe and alas, they greeted me with more suspicion than I feel I deserved; they pressed me for the rhyme and reason behind my wanting to trace an expatriate dwarf with every reason to hate me and all my kin.

In the end I bartered with them; gave them a little titbit or two from the Red Moon’s tables. The grimoire their old witch had carried with them? Genuine. A magician of the Amber College had been in hiding in Untergard for I don’t even know how long, for reasons I’d like to know but simply lack the time to plumb. The scrip tucked in the back? Also genuine. Dark Magic – the other kind – and apparently likely obtained through the old Wyndward Haulage, a front for a cult even my Lord remembers. In return, they let me know Stormwarden is alive and living in Middenheim, and agreed to represent him on my behalf – purely to recover an heirloom of my house. They can’t know how important this is; I’m sure they think I’ve given away too much, but a book I can learn from and a scrap of paper that could kill me are mere trifles compared to… it.

While I was changing, I bore witness to a scuffle outside; some local toughs throwing their weight around, demanding to see and no doubt put the fear into Captain Schiller, who I gather has been reinstated to the Watch and not before time. Leni, the Mootlander, took a whack to the head, but the others saw the ruffians off quite nicely, and when done… changing… I set out in pursuit. Can’t hurt to keep an eye on the Untergardners, and besides, after three days I was feeling a little peckish. I hadn’t dined, after all, since the caravan was attacked.

My little gaggle of mortal friends, I heard later, were off to see Stormwarden. I wonder if he told them?

Those of us not limited to Ariette’s perspective would probably like to know that he did not. Far from it. The phrase he used was something along the lines of “tell her if she comes near me I’ll split her pretty face in two and see if it grows back.”

I had a lot of fun with this one. The Racketeers who showed up were another Random Encounter from Warhammer City (and a Beggar also showed up on the way back from Stormwarden’s place, while the players were discussing what to do about Ariette, her ‘heirloom’, and their promise to Stormwarden that they’d keep the one very very far away from the other), but all the random encounters so far have led to some fun emergent subplotting with the Margraf, his specific choice of hostelry, his obviously-former-thief-bodyguard, and the Man who Comes Around and more or less runs the district they’ve ended up in. If this vampire deal runs dry, we have a run of other threads leading to the Man and the criminal underclass behind him, the Purple Hand, and now the Graf of Middenheim since the players are determined to out Ariette to him. Which will be interesting. So I have some statting to do for the next session, because it’s about time some of this stuff became concrete.

[WFRP] “In The Year 2525…” Kommission for Public Order Digest – Aubentag 2 Sigmarzeit. Extract.

Item: that at two hours before noon a Caravan of Refugees on the Southern Road caused numerous Delays to Traffic while a Halfling among their number strongly disputed the validity of the Graf’s one-shilling-per-leg toll policy.

Item: that enquiries were made to the Elven and Halfling secretaries of the Kommission for Elf, Dwarf and Halfling Interests regarding the person of Kallad Stormwarden, signatory of the KEHDI Articles of Incorporation, donor to the city coffers and living ancestor to the Middenheim dwarf community.

Item: that the personage enquiring at the office of the Halfling Secretary bears passing resemblance to a known Public Nuisance and Exile from the Mootland Electorate.

Item: that similar enquiries are reported to have been made within the Wynd District’s dwarf quarter.

Item: that at around noon a Disturbance was seen in and about Grunpark when operatives of the Citizens’ Vigilance Committee were turned away from an Refugee Camp on the Park’s south-eastern corner, while within the Park proper a drunk did accost a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode and accuse the City’s water supply of “turning honest women into lovely trees.”

Item: that at one hour past noon a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode entered the Merchant’s Guild of the City and demanded directions to a repository of Cake whilst befouling numerous expensive fixtures and causing no small distress to the good burghers within.

Item: that at one and one half hour past noon a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode passed along Morrsweg behaving in a manner most intimidating to residents and refugees alike, before becoming involved in an Fracas with an employee of the Margraf von Totenbar which did lead to the breaking of the Margraf’s Nose and much Anarchic Mirth among the Occupants of the Prospect hostelry.

Item: that at two hours past noon a dishevelled Elf of no fixed abode was seen at the kitchen door of the Harvest Goose hostelry engaging the proprietor in spirited conversation regarding Cake, Mushrooms, and the Gräfin Katarina.

Joakim Ericsson

We continue to prosper. More funny voices and less rolling in this one, as I start to get my mojo back and remember how to improvise. It is coarse acting, to say the least, but the frightened members of the Merchants’ Guild (reminiscent of that “cake and fine wine” bit from Withnail & I) and the absowutewy wudicwous Mawgwaf got a few laughs and that’s what counts.

The Cake, in case you’re wondering, is a classic example of players escalating things. They’re going to see a living ancestor. They should bring him a present. Wait, he used to be a king? They should all bring him a present. Wait, he’s big into interspecies cooperation? They should bring him a present from their own people! And that’s why Siluvain spent her first afternoon in Middenheim trying to find a decent bakery that hadn’t been flattened in the siege… Because for some reason, fancy elven pastry came to mind.

The mushrooms are just a side quest.

It’s the first time I’ve run a campaign where all the characters have been what in a more rigid class-defined RPG would be called “Rogues”, and that’s unusual for me. I’m learning/making up some thieves’ cant for this in preparation for their inevitable encounter with “The Man” or the clientele of the Prospect.

Ariette von Carstein, incidentally, remains at large.

[WFRP] “In The Year 2525”. From the journals of Ariette von Carstein. Extract 1.

In my few years among the Aristocracy of the Night I have endured more than my due share of rude awakenings, it’s true, but this one took the proverbial cake, not to mention the proverbial biscuit – in fact, it made off with the whole proverbial bakery. For this, dear readers, is the day I awoke with an arrow in my gut, another in my knee, shielded from the noonday sun by a pile of corpses until a timorous priest raised up his hand to bless me and all but fainted dead away when he realised I was neither away, nor dead. I suppose I should count my blessings; a moment later and he might have completed his prayer and inadvertently finished me off. To find myself deceased by accident a mere day from journey’s end would be such a humiliating way to go.

The priest’s companions were made of sterner stuff. Apparently they were a refugee caravan from the freistadt of Untergard, somewhere down the river Delb; like so many others they were making their way to Middenheim, the Storm of Chaos having broken upon their homes before dashing itself against the Fauschlag. The witch among them, an old lady named Moeschler, must surely have had me at her mercy – warm hands on cold skin and a wound that cuts without bleeding are such telltale signs – but distracted by her own grief she turned her eyes from me and toward, apparently, a terrible revenge.

I heard all this second hand, of course, having spent a day among the walking wounded (loaded on a wagon with the children of Untergard chirruping in my ears). Much of it was solved for me by the halfling in their company – an unsubtle and salacious sort named Leni, not an unpleasant fellow in a nudge-nudge wink-wink sort of way. Apparently he is an exile of sorts from the Mootland, by choice and inclination – a small man with a large past. He had his suspicions, and at the close of the day I saw fit to confirm them – but ah, I run ahead of myself again.

The other players in this drama – Siluvain of Laurelorn Forest, a self-confessed thief, and Okri of Karak Hirn, a practical fellow who I’m sure is on the make somehow – raced off just after sundown, in pursuit of the runaway Moeschler. It seems the old baggage was more than she seemed – more even than the witch-sight might have told me, since she traded her life for that of the Graf von Sternhaus. I realised the moment the daemon of her vengeance shrieked over our camp (and set that twittering priest on his rump in a faint – hilarious!) that the game was up, and when it descended in fire and fury on Sternhause hill I was sure my journey would be wasted.

It was not to be so. When Siluvain and Okri returned from their pursuit, they had the body of the unfortunate gammer – burned out as her vengeance consumed her at the last – and crucially, not only her journeyman’s grimoire but the very text of the rite she had wrought! The fourth and last of their little party – a surly, surely somehow damaged peasant girl named Jarla who reminded me a little too much of my own humble origins – was all for burning the lot, witch and book and scroll all together. Cooler heads prevailed, and the prospect of investigating how she came by the rite edged out simply destroying it for safety’s sake.

While I had to vouch for my true nature – confronted with a direct question by the halfling Leni, who is not so much a fool as he acts – they have seen fit to trust me nonetheless, even so far as to grant me custody of the grimoire. They overestimate my abilities somewhat, but only somewhat, and I have learned from my master that one takes one’s lore where one finds it. I’m sure a delicate touch with the Fifth Wind will serve me well in some capacity, some day.

For the time being, with my journey curtailed, I elected to join the refugees and return with them to the City of the White Wolf. I confess myself curious about this ritual and its origins, not to mention Middenheim, a city I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing from the outside (and then only from a distance, with half the armies of the Conqueror between me and the gates). Provided the yokels of Untergard don’t see fit to bury me with a stake of hawthorn through my heart or some such rubbish, that is. We are two days out from Middenheim, and provided that the girl Jarla can keep her mouth shut around the priest, all should be well.

credit: Kugel Schreiber @ Malleus Maleficarum

And now, an explanation of sorts. In an attempt to blow the dust off my dormant “actually running games” skills and recover some of the joy that has dribbled out of my ears in recent months, I sat down with some friends and colleagues from le Twitch community (and Hark) and played through the Warhammer Fantasy Role Play second edition starter adventure, Through the Drakwald.

Now, Through The Drakwald sucks. It’s a collection of plot hooks thrown together without any hint of payoff – teasers that go nowhere, arbitrary scripted NPC deaths, and a heavy dependence on “roll to do anything” gamesmastery and “the party is together because the party is together” playstyle to actually have anything happen at all. The Oldenhaller Contract it is not. But I ran it anyway, because I could see how something good might be made of it with the little towns that all hate each other and the post-Storm-of-Chaos setting if it was made into something that just talked to itself a little better.

Also, everything is better with vampires, and Ariette von Carstein is one of the better NPCs from Night’s Dark Masters, so I swapped a badly injured Ariette (claiming to have been stabbed up by the Beastmen who replaced the arbitrary they-don’t-even-show-up-what-is-this-dead-end-shit Goblins) for the arbitrarily dead Father Dietrich and started grooming Dietrich as an antagonist. There were other changes – better foreshadowing around the gathering of the Beastman’s horn for the ritual, facilitated by putting a proper Beastman into the mutant attack at the start, and a general anti authoritarian streak derived from first edition WFRP, a party with three criminals in it, and the free town nature of Untergard itself. Perhaps having Granny Moeschler actually own a journeyman’s book of Amber magic was a bit much, but I wanted to get some decent loot in there to replace the icon of Sigmar, and it did prove to be a talking point at the end of the (long, too long) session.

It seemed to go well. Three out of four players will be back next time; the fourth enjoyed the roleplaying but found WFRP a counter-intuitive headache, which it is, and graciously permitted me to turn their character into a semi-sympathetic antagonist, which will make a fine B-plot once we arrive in Middenheim and I can settle into my preferred “intrigue and investigation in an urban sandbox” mode. I always like having a GMPC in WFRP – for some reason the concept seems to suit the mode – and Ariette might as well be tailor made for me. And since the players decided that Obviously the Bad Graf who did Granny wrong a century ago was another vampire and that made the timescale of the stupid adventure make sense, and the First Law at my table is “if the players come up with something better just fucking roll with it”, we have a burned-out daemon-haunted vampire lair to explore if the players get bored of being in town and decide to head back into the woods at some point.

So yeah, I’m running a WFRP campaign again. It’s good to be back.

This isn’t the only thing I’m doing, but there’ll be more on that later.