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Saturday 30 July 2022

2001: The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night
was published in 2001 by Privateer Press and introduced the Iron Kingdoms, the Steampunk and high fantasy setting best known for its miniatures combat game, Warmachine: Prime. In 2001 though, the Iron Kingdoms was very much a roleplaying setting, The Witchfire Trilogy being written for the d20 System and thus compatible with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. The trilogy would be completed by The Witchfire Trilogy Book Two: Shadow of the Exile and The Witchfire Trilogy Book Three: The Legion of the Lost, all before being collected as The Witchfire Trilogy in 2005. The Iron Kingdoms is notable for three things. First, its interesting mix of races—Gobbers, Ogrun, and Trollkin alongside the traditional Humans, Elves, and Dwarves. There are no Halflings or Gnomes, and even the Elves are different to those of more traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy. Second, the prevalence of technology, in particular, the use of firearms and Steamjacks and Warjacks, steam-driven robots with magical brains, used in heavy industry and on the field of battle. Third, the tone of the setting is fairly grim, there being an island to the west, Cryx, where the sorcerers have long experimented with combining the undead with Steamjacks and Warjacks, and have long planned to invade the Iron Kingdoms. Some, but all of this would be introduced in 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night.

What strikes you first about 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is the cover. It is an incredible piece by Matt Wilson, depicting a young woman wielding a black two-handed sword crackling with energy whilst she is surrounded by the undead. The cover promised much, and whilst the scenario would deliver in terms of story and plot to match the cover, the cover also revealed the villainess of the piece. But then, so did the back cover blurb! What strikes you second about The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night are its internal illustrations, heavy pen and ink pieces by Matt Wilson and Brian Snoddy which brought the industrial gothic of the Iron Kingdoms to life. It gave The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night and the Iron Kingdoms a singularly recognisable look and that cover would win the ‘Best Cover Art Gold ENnie Award’ in 2001.

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night though, has something of a split personality. This is because it has to do two things. One of which is to introduce the setting and the other is to give the first part of the scenario. Although it introduces the Iron Kingdoms, the bulk of the setting material is devoted to Corvis, the City of Ghosts, in and around where the scenario itself is set. Boxed sections cover elements of the setting as the scenario goes along, such as how firearms work and what skills are relevant to their use and manufacture in the d20 System; how steam power and steamjacks work, again with the appropriate skills; Human religion in the Iron Kingdoms; and more. Only a tenth or so of The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is devoted to this setting’s background, and it is both enough and not enough. It is enough with which to run the scenario, but not enough to do more than that. Notably, there are no notes on what Player Characters are like in the Iron Kingdoms. In fact, that information would not be available until the Lock & Load: Iron Kingdoms Character Primer was published in 2002. This introduced all of the new Races and Classes particular to the setting, all of which were different to that of standard Dungeons & Dragons and contributed very much to the feel and flavour of playing in the Iron Kingdoms. Without them, The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night and the Iron Kingdoms feel like a very different setting for Dungeons & Dragons, but one still played using the standard Races and Classes of Dungeons & Dragons, even down to the Halfling, a Race actually mentioned in the scenario.

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is designed for Player Characters of First to third Level. As the scenario and the first act opens, the Player Characters are on their way to Corvis as guards on a merchant caravan, when the caravan is attacked by Swamp Gobbers raiders including one with a device capable of creating heavy mist! Unless the Swamp Gobbers manage to run off with one of the chests, the Player Characters will be able to progress into the city fairly quickly. There they will encounter Father Dumas, High Priest of Corvis, who will hire them to investigate a series of grave robberies that he has been unable to persuade the city Watch to look into. After visiting gravesites both in and out of the city, the Player Characters learn that the bodies stolen were all connected to a witchcraft trial which took place ten years ago. Further, one of the witches put on trial and executed was Father Dumas’ sister-in-law and he himself, is the guardian of her daughter and his niece, Alexia Ciannor. By this point, the Player Characters may also have suspicions that she is behind the grave robberies.

In the second act, Father Dumas suggests that the Player Characters investigate the site where the witches were interred after their execution. This is in a former army outpost, deep in Widower’s Wood, the first of the two mini-dungeons in the scenario. It consists of a mix of caves and worked rooms and passages, there are obvious signs that the complex has been broken into and that once the chain-bound coffins are found, that not all of the witches were entombed there… The tomb is also a chance to have the Player Characters encounter more of the Iron Kingdoms’ strange creatures. There is a chance too, for the Dungeon Master to roleplay one of these and there is good advice to that end. By this time, the Player Characters’ suspicions about Alexia Ciannor will have grown and grown, and nobody will believe them if they voice such concerns. Their best course of action is to keep tabs on her and that will lead the Player Characters via the sewers—in very Shadows of Bogenhafen fashion—into her lair where she captures them, explains her plans, and temporarily traps them before making her getaway. Getting out of her lair and its surrounding tunnels ends the second act.

The third act begins with the Player Characters climbing out of the sewers and into the arms of the law. Or rather, Captain Julian Helstrom of the Watch. He more or less press gangs the Player Characters into working for him, revealing his own concerns over Alexia Ciannor, and sends them out on her trail to an old, abandoned fortress beyond Widower’s Wood. It was here that a century ago the army slaughtered a bandit army and it is their hundred year old bones that will form the bulk of Alexia Ciannor’s undead army. With this news in hand, the Player Characters must race back to Corvis to inform Captain Helstrom of the attack, which is just in time for the ‘Longest Night’, the annual celebration which takes place during a lunar eclipse. This is the setting for the climax of the scenario, the celebrations disrupted by the attack of the undead army and a showdown between Alexia Ciannor and the actual villain of the piece. There are some fun moments to throw at the Player Characters and get them involved, including a runaway coach, costumed undead using the dead as a raft, a merchant ship under attack by undead, and more. Alexia Ciannor will appear and attempt to bring her plans to fruition, and ultimately although she will be thwarted, she will get away. Of course, she will return in The Witchfire Trilogy Book Two: Shadow of the Exile.

In addition to the setting content and the scenario, 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night provides stats for all of its monsters and NPCs. The monsters in particular are all interesting creatures with a different feel to those presented in the Monster Manual. These would also go on to appear in the bestiary for the Iron Kingdoms, the excellent Monsternomicon.

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is a great looking book with wonderfully atmospheric artwork. However, that artwork is not always best placed. For example, the illustration depicting an attack upon a boat by a swamp squid, is placed several pages away from where it is described. The map of Corvis could have been larger and had more locations marked on it, whilst the individual dungeon and fortress maps are just a little too dark to read with ease. The writing feels rushed in places, the rules are poorly utilised in others, and the combination of mini-sourcebook and scenario means that the author has a lot to pack into the scenario, making it feel cramped in places.

There is no denying that 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night has a great setting and a great story, but the way in which it implements that story is often heavy-handed. There are scenes where the Dungeon Master is advised to try and have her players and their characters avoid certain actions and then push them back onto the plot. There is a scene where the Player Characters are captured by Alexia Ciannor so that she can explain her plans to them and she uses multiple Hold Person spells to do it. Then at the climax of the scenario where she appears, Alexia Ciannor is confronted by another NPC rather than by the Player Characters, and although they do have some influence over the outcome of the scenario, they cannot stop her escaping. Now some of this is understandable, as the author wants to tell a good story and if the Player Characters capture her or even kill her, it derails the plot. Mechanically, this is unlikely though, as the Player Characters are going to be Third Level at most and Alexia Ciannor is a Tenth Level Sorcerer! The result is that there are moments where the players and their characters lack agency even as they are on the periphery of Alexia Ciannor’s story and plot. Doubtless, a Dungeon Master would be able to fix some of these issues, much as the author did in the later The Witchfire Trilogy Collected Edition.

Yet despite its flaws, 
The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is still playable and far from being a bad scenario. It is though a scenario which comes its own with the addition of Lock & Load: Iron Kingdoms Character Primer or the Iron Kingdoms Character Guide: Full Metal Fantasy Volume 1 because it brings in Player Character options. Then of course, The Witchfire Trilogy Book Two: Shadow of the Exile and The Witchfire Trilogy Book Three: The Legion of the Lost build on it in epic fashion.

The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night is a hugely atmospheric scenario, full of flavour and detail that is worth experiencing even if the plot in places is heavy-handed. The full potential of The Witchfire Trilogy Book One: The Longest Night might not be realised until later books, but in 2001 it stood out as a well-received scenario offering something different from the growing array of d20 System third-party content which was then beginning to flood the market.

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