The legendary strength of Altdorf's high, white walls—15-feet thick in places—has attracted citizens in times of war and desperation going back 2000 years. Each new influx of citizens to the city has had to start from the bottom, and in Altdorf the bottom goes a long way down. The city’s guilds and colleges control the best work and require fees, and the nobility isn’t something you can just sign on for. Getting your name recognised on the Civic List of Altdorf isn’t easy either, as those who have lived there half their lives without managing it can tell you. On the docks though, almost anyone is welcome. Strong arms or loose morals will find you work where the streets are paved with ordure.
The Altdorf waterfront stretches from the spot where the channels of the Reik and Talabec enter the city walls to where they leave them, including many lesser channels that branch away between the islands the city is built on. However, when local people talk about the docks of Altdorf, they are usually referring to one of three main areas.
The Reiksport is a deep-water harbour built outside the walls to the north of the city. Here ocean-going vessels too large for the narrow river channels and low trade bridges of the city can dock safely. The Greatships of the Imperial Navy start and end their journeys here, as do explorers, the larger merchant ships, and those trying to avoid the city taxes. The official dockworkers of the Guild of Stevedores, nicknamed the Wharf Rats, control most of the docks of the Reiksport as well as the shanty-town that has grown up around it to service the needs of sailors on shore leave.
The Old Docks were the original port back when the city was just a town that still remembered being a village that went by the name of Reikdorf. Now, the Old Docks are largely abandoned in favour of the newer, larger, and better maintained harbour area, and the slums of the Reikerbahn stretching behind them are a run-down maze of note only to smugglers and rogues. The dock gang known as the Fish are the only ones who bother working the wharfs of this area.
The Docklands is a district behind the Altdorf Pool, which stretches upstream from Three Toll Bridge. This is the deepest harbour point between the river gates, where most river barges and some ocean-going vessels dock. The Docklands is where most of the city’s dockers live, a ghetto close enough to the Street of a Thousand Taverns to cause frequent trouble. The entire enclave is controlled by the dockers’ gangs—the Hooks and the Fish mainly—and is separate enough to have its own regiment of the City Watch and its own by-laws. The Docklands is a ghetto, but a crowded and thriving one unlike the hopeless expanse of the Reikerbahn.
In the Docklands new arrivals to the city can find cheap accommodation in crowded tenements that would be firetraps if fewer of them collapsed before they had a chance to catch fire, and they can also find work with the dock gangs. The gangs offer these immigrants something else as well: identity and purpose.
The docks bring into proximity a combination of poverty and a breed of strong-armed, hard-working, and hard-drinking men that leads to the formation of gangs as if by some arcane law of nature. The dockworkers are often immigrants who have left behind their families to find work and safety in the city, though they usually only find one or the other rather than both.
The work gangs offer a replacement for the familial ties left behind, bonds of brotherhood that allow the dockers to redefine themselves and find a place in the city. Vital to a sense of belonging is exclusion—a club isn’t a proper club until you’ve decided who isn’t allowed in it. The rivalry between gangs is essential to their existence; a Hook hates the Fish because it makes him who he is as much as which Snotball team he favours or which tavern he drinks in.
When Altdorf was still young the word “gang” was just what the work crews of the docks were called and there was no pejorative sense attached to the word. That changed as the settlement grew and the bickering between work gangs over who worked which wharf and who charged the fairer amount to unload a ship grew into brawls that spilled into the streets.
The aldermen saw a simple solution to a problem that threatened their growing trade industry. By offering the largest of these gangs, a crew called the Wharf Rats, the backing of the council and their own official status as a guild, they brought the docks back under control. You either signed on for an apprenticeship with the Wharf Rats or you didn’t work. The Guild of Stevedores grew to be a vital part of the city’s economy and coincidentally they were much easier to tax than the disparate gangs.
This state of peace on the docks continued until 2051, when Altdorf was flooded with refugees from the provinces that were threatened by the advancements of the army of Vlad von Carstein. The city groaned and loosened its belt, admitting hundreds of impoverished and frightened folk from miles around. These new additions to the city were mostly housed in the Docklands. It was not nearly large enough for all of them and in the overcrowded tenements starvation and disease soon became common.
Old provincial feuds returned and fresh ones started as the citizens fought for food and space and work. The Guild of Stevedores refused to take on the new labourers who flooded the docklands and so the workers were forced to organise themselves. Gangs flourished again, at first divided along familial and geographic lines, then simply in opposition to each other.
As the final ships bearing emergency supplies unloaded their precious cargo in Altdorf, unscrupulous traders and smugglers also unloaded their wares, planning to sell basic produce at highly inflated prices. The Guild of Stevedores refused such work and so it fell to the independent dockers, willing to work for whatever meager pay they could get, to unload these illicit cargos. Fights broke out between rival work crews and factional lines solidified.
Some of these dockers took to wielding the hooks they used to unload cargo as weapons; they became a feared gang known afterwards as the Hooks. Other crews, who worked together to pilfer cargo as they unloaded it—often with allies waiting in the water to salvage whatever they “accidentally” dropped overboard—became known as the Fish. Other, smaller gangs emerged and subsided, but the Hooks and Fish were dominant even then. While the army of Vlad von Carstein went to war with the city, the gangs of the docks were at war with each other.
The fighting did not stop when the siege was lifted. The Guild of Stevedores refused to change its requirements that members be officially listed on the Great Civic List of Altdorf, serve an apprenticeship, and pay their way into being an official Wharf Rat so the Hooks and Fish became alternative and unofficial guilds of their own. They took a small portion of their members’ wages and guaranteed them a certain amount of work, sometimes competing with the Wharf Rats for jobs and sometimes sending crews to do the kind of work the Guild refused. The waterfront slowly became split along hidden seams. The regular traders learned which wharf was owned by the Hooks now and could save you paying the full excise if you chose to dock with them, and that the Old Docks were the place to go if you didn’t want your cargo of Bretonnian brandy examined too closely.
Over the years the new gangs once again became an accepted and integrated part of Altdorf. The Fish dipped their fins into all of Altdorf’s smuggling business and from there into the fencing and brokering of exotic and illegal goods. The Hooks snagged corrupt watchmen in their schemes with bribery and blackmail and were snagged in turn, lending their muscle as a favour and collecting that debt with interest, solidifying their position as one of the city’s premier organisations of thugs and heavy men. When Mannfred von Carstein besieged the city in 2132 in a grim mirror of his forebear’s attack, the influx of refugees again went to the Docklands and again flooded the ranks of the Hooks and Fish.
Other gangs of Altdorf, like the overland smuggling ring run by coachmen of the Ratchett line who called themselves the Whips, and the beggar kingdom of window-fishers and junk traders who were known as the Rods, briefly came into conflict with the dock gangs over territory and business before being put in their place, which was usually at the bottom of the Reik.
An unlikely and short-lived alliance between the Hooks and the Fish finished off the Whips, who had discovered a sewer entrance leading to the waterfront that allowed them easy access for their raids. A skilfully organised surprise flood sent most of the Whips to the underground river that Altdorf ’s sewers and drains lead into, their bodies surfacing downstream where it joins the Reik. In an attempt to cement the alliance, the daughter of a Hook war chief and the son of a prominent Fish were allowed to marry and consummate their dock-crossed love. Things soured when the daughter returned to her family bearing bruises, and violence between the two gangs erupted on the wharfs once more.
In 2304 Magnus the Pious’s announcement that the Orders of Magic were to be housed in Altdorf caused a city-wide panic. The city’s famous mob reacted as it often does by starting a riot known afterwards as the Altdorf Indignation. Various political factions tried to take advantage of the martial law that followed and the dock gangs were among them, organising the slum-dwellers into militias and attempting to spread their domain out of the docklands. This consolidation of power was undermined by an event rarely spoken of that has passed into the mythology of the city as “the night of the black waltz.”
When Marienburg seceded from the Empire in 2429 the guilds and trading companies of Altdorf reacted with economic sanctions. The war chiefs of the Fish reacted more pragmatically, sending envoys to the newly independent city and seeding a franchise.
The Marienburg Stevedores and Teamsters Guild maintains such a complete stranglehold on that city’s docks that they were unable to set themselves up in the dockworking business, but the Marienburg Fish did succeed in opening up links between the city’s smugglers and their Altdorf brethren, ensuring that while legal trade between the cities became limited, illicit trade carried on more smoothly than ever.
By the end of the 25th century tensions between the Hooks and the Fish were at their peak. A simple brawl on the Street of a Hundred Taverns escalated into what the broadsheets dubbed “the Waterfront War.” The usual drunken fisticuffs turned into a campaign of battles that terrorised the citizens of the Docklands for five years. When the war chiefs of both the Hooks and the Fish vanished mysteriously, the Waterfront War suddenly reduced in severity, but never truly ended. The vendettas and battles continue on a smaller scale to this day.
During the Waterfront War the Fish found allies in some of the city’s revolutionist organisations, in particular the Kislevite Underground, composed of exiles from the Realm of the Ice Queen, and the Artisan’s Guild, which had been outlawed for its attempts to unite the craft guilds into a power bloc that would have been far too powerful for the city aldermen to allow. When the city’s agitators find a new cause to rally around, the Fish are often there to lend muscle to the arguments.
The Conclave of Light in 2522 brought another influx of new people to the city—not only diplomats and mercenaries, but nobles and gadabouts eager to take part in the social event of the year, firebrand preachers looking to rouse the citizenry to acts of devotion, and ordinary folk looking for a way to make a quick Crown from the other visitors. When Imperial recruiters scoured the docks looking for able-bodied men eager to join the fight against the Storm of Chaos, they found plenty willing to sign up.
Members of the Wharf Rats, the Fish, and the Hooks all found themselves side by side in the Free Companies of thugs and adventurers that were gathered together and sent north to do battle. The bonds forged in war between members of the gangs reduced the enmity between them and might have had a greater effect on the war their brothers were still conducting back home, had more than a handful of the badly trained and barely armed cannon fodder survived to return home. Instead, their uncaring commanders threw their lives away in sacrificial gambits.
The Altdorf Dockers Today Edit
With Emperor Karl Franz kept busy by the war and its aftermath, as well as by his frequent hunting trips, a Marshal has been appointed to fill in for him in the role of Grand Prince of the city. As expected, Marshal Mornan Braun has made all the right noises about cleaning up the docks and getting rid of the gangs, but little progress has been made so far. The Altdorf Spieler reports strange events along the wharfs, but as usual there are few in the city’s officialdom or the corrupt Dock Watch who care. As usual, only the dockers look out for the dockers, their families, or the other poor citizens who live alongside them on the waterfront. The gangs endure because they serve a purpose and fill a need that has not diminished over the years.
The Hooks and the Fish share similar structures because both are based on the standard work gang. Each crew has their own wharf and is made up of approximately half a dozen dockers, supervised by a foreman. The foremen of the largest crews are elevated to the rank of war chief; of these there are only ever a handful. The war chiefs usually defer to the chief with the strongest crew if there is ever a need for a single leader to make a decision that affects all of them, but fights among crews are not unheard of.
As an official city guild the Wharf Rats have a standard guild structure. The Guild Master is at the top with a board of masters to advise him, the journeymen make up the ranks of the members’ assembly, and the apprentices are at the very bottom. Their crews are of the same size as those of the gangs.
Goals and Motives Edit
Each of the dock gangs works for the betterment of their slice of society, maintaining a small empire of their own. Though they may seem altruistic at times, using their funds to look after the families of their members and improve the living conditions of everyone in their neighbourhoods, it’s essentially greed that motivates them. A bigger portion of the pie for their members and affiliates necessarily means a smaller slice for someone else and each of the gangs is ruthless in pursuing that end.
The Wharf Rats have long wanted to drive the Hooks and Fish out of the city, but so far have only succeeded in keeping most of them out of the Reiksport. Their legal status as a guild hampers the Wharf Rats, preventing them from openly breaking the law in their attempts to push the gang-affiliated dockers back, while making them a target for the city’s other guilds.
The Hooks see themselves as upholders of justice, though of course not upholders of the law. With a deluded romanticism they fight for the betterment of their downtrodden people, using either their fists or the cargo hooks they take their name from. When one of the segments of Altdorf needs to be blamed for the latest tax increase or other outrage, real or perceived, the Hooks are among the first to take to the streets against them. Whether persecuting the city’s foreigners, non-humans, or other undesirables, the Hooks are eager vigilantes. The Dock Watch secretly see them as serving a useful purpose, as undesirables who can be turned against the city’s other undesirables without making the Watch look bad.
Money motivates the Fish above all else, even more than their love of violence. Unlike the Hooks, they prefer not to deliver a bashing if someone somewhere along the line can’t be convinced to pay them for the service. The real masterminds of the underworld are happy to pay the Fish for their work and don’t see their slowly expanding criminal empire as much of a threat, at least not yet.
Symbols and Signs Edit
In Altdorf coloured fabric is much more readily available, even to the poor, than it is in other parts of the Empire, so each dock gang favours announcing their membership with a distinctive set of colours. The warm cloth hats called watch caps are the most common item of clothing to be so coloured, but ostentatious dockers sometimes spread the gang colours to their entire outfits.
The Hooks mix slate and blue, the Fish green and yellow (confusingly, the same colours as the robes worn by servants of the Grand Theogonist), and the Wharf Rats brown and red or a blood-and-mud blend of the two. Cloth patches in the colours or bearing the emblems of hooks, fish, or rats are also common. Visitors to the city who unwittingly dress in the wrong colours sometimes meet with violence, whether drowned or cut or simply pummelled into unconsciousness for their dubious fashion sense.
Tattoos also mark the dockers out, a tradition borrowed from the sailors they come into contact with. The Fish especially enjoy marking themselves this way and have tattooed fish on their bodies, usually somewhere likely to be visible such as their arms. Their war chiefs are also adorned with ink representations of their aquatic namesake across their faces. These permanent declarations of membership prevent members from leaving the gangs, especially to join their opponents. Once a docker, always a docker, as the saying goes.
To mark their territory, wharfs belonging to specific gangs are graffitied with simple pictures of their gang’s symbol, just like the patches they wear. The hook-shape is also used as a hand symbol among the Hooks, a statement of solidarity that can be flashed across a crowded bar or used in greeting. Dockers in the Fish often learn the basics of the thieves’ secret signs to communicate with each other while working so that they aren’t overheard by the cargo’s owners, who would only be needlessly distraught to overhear that some of their stock is about to go overboard. Such risks are accepted because of the competitive rates of the Fish.
Another way dockers have of recognising each other is the bawdy songs they sing while working. Simple rhythms, often borrowed from sea shanties, set the speed they work to. The subject matter of these songs can be used to narrow down precisely where a docker works. A careful listener could learn not only which gang someone belongs to, but at which wharf their crew works, by which version of the chorus to The Woodcutter’s Daughter they sing.
Dockers are almost universally male. Though there is nothing forbidding a female from joining, it’s assumed that most of the women working the docks do so in another capacity. A woman would have to be exceptionally strong and hard-working to prove herself to the proudly masculine dockers. Nonhumans are unwelcome, especially among the purist Hooks who frown on foreigners even though they are made up of members of all the Empire’s provinces. There are a handful of Dwarfs and Halflings working the docks, mostly in the Guild of Stevedores, but the Dwarf quarter and the Kleinmoot of Altdorf are home to enough of their own gangs that they have no need to join docker gangs. Elves are unsafe even walking the streets of the docklands, let alone attempting join their gangs.
The typical docker, then, is a young Imperial male, usually from a family that can be traced outside the city, whether from the Reikland countryside or a poorer province. Physical fitness is a must, both for the hard work they endure and the after-hours duties they perform.
Because the Guild of Stevedores is a labour rather than a craft guild, their system of recruitment and apprenticeship is necessarily informal, though not nearly as informal as that practised by the dockland gangs. Four times a year the guild is sent potential apprentices, usually still in their teens, from families who proudly have their names in the Civic List though they are poor. Many are the sons of existing stevedores and are virtually guaranteed entry. Though this is not an especially prestigious guild, there are still plenty of able-bodied young men for whom a guild apprenticeship is a ticket to a life that doesn’t involve being sent to fight foreigners or Beastmen, and the master foremen have plenty of fit and eager workers to examine. They choose the strongest to be their apprentices and teach them the secrets of stopper knots and marlinspikes, and how to steeve a hold that looks like it’s already as full as it can get.
The Hooks and the Fish find new recruits by trawling the currents of the Street of a Thousand Taverns, an activity that brings the gangs into constant conflict, which they relish. The crews don’t always set out to find new recruits; they set out to have a good night, drink some drinks, and bust some heads, and if anyone they find manages to keep up, they’re worthy of joining. A prospective member will impress the crew in a drinking game or a tavern brawl and be dragged along as they find others to harangue or fight, whether rival gangs or slumming rakes or, by the end of the night, inanimate objects that look at them funny. Waking up in the morning with a splitting headache and possibly some new tattoos, the potential recruit will be brought with the crew to the dock for a hard day’s work. If he can load or unload a cargo in that state, he’s in.
Member Benefits and Responsibilities Edit
The most obvious benefit of joining the dockers is relatively steady work. The quays of Altdorf are usually busy, though the pay isn’t high and there are inevitably gaps when the river freezes over in winter. The pay is enough to live on, though not well. Membership fees always come off the top, further reducing the shillings in a docker’s pocket at day’s end and encouraging extra-curricular and extra-legal work to add that little extra.
The kinship between dockers is an important benefit to many; a docker always has drinking companions and fellow brawlers who will protect his back in a fight. Dockers look out for each other and avenge each other if they fall. That’s a knife that cuts both ways and PCs who join the dockers will find themselves roped in to even the score whenever a Fish gets hung up on hooks, or a Hook gets weighted with rocks and drowned, or scabs are brought in to work cheaper than the guild rates.
Being the kind of work that stops and starts, it’s expected that some dockers will seek work elsewhere part of the year and there’s no penalty for travelling, making it perfect work for adventurers. It’s usually there when needed and waiting for you when you get back. Though members of the Wharf Rats typically follow the Stevedore to Foreman Career progression (see The WFRP Companion), the Hooks and Fish are much less choosy about their members’ skill sets. Some are certainly Dockers, but there are many Thugs, Protagonists, Racketeers, Thieves, and Vagabonds working the docks as well, among others.
Another obvious advantage to an adventurer are those six to twelve toughs in your crew who will be willing to throw down on your side when you decide to clean out a tenement infested with Mutants or take on the young lordling and his entourage who beat you up the night before. In situations that require more thoughtful solutions, however, they will be of little use.
- Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd ED -- Shades of Empire (pg. 3-10).