Just because I’ve been playing nothing but D&D this last 18 months, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping my ear to the ground with the wider hobby. I’ve still snagged a few new games and the most recent acquisition has been Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd edition). I really, really like it, and 4e D&D has quite a lot to do with that assessment.
I’ve had a very long history with Warhammer. Partly that comes with being a Brit of a certain age, but mostly it’s because I spent the best part of a decade wortking for Games Workshop. Prior to that I’d run the Enemy Within campaign at least three times under first edition, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Old World, much more than I ever had for the tabletop battle game from which it sprang. So it’s an old love, full of bitter sweet memories.
GW hasn’t had a huge input into it’s roleplaying prodigal child for some time, and the latest caretaker of the license is Fantasy Flight Games, a company best known for it’s boardgames. That’s a pertinent point because the designers of this latest edition have used their mastery of board and card gaming rules to develop a 21st century RPG that looks and feels very different to the standard game model. Note, that doesn’t make WFRP a board game, nor a card game (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s still a classic RPG in every sense. The innovation is in the way the game is presented and handled at the table. I want to call on a few parts of the game that have really impressed me, and where I think there might be parallels with the other great RPG innovator of recent years, D&D 4e.
Let’s start with the covers of the 4 books in the box. They look like a blend of D&D 3rd edition’s PHB and the subsequent dress of the Eberron line. Take that as a compliment. The art and production qualities are right up there with WotCs, yet what impresses me the most is that it all looks like FFG have made it their own. The history of Warhammer art is lengthy indeed, and it’s had a few styles and fashions over the years. There’s some venerable art pieces included here but somehow it all looks fresh and unified. I think a lot of it is from the online and card games which I’m not very familiar with, so that might be part of it. Either way this is good looking kit.
FFG must have an allergy to pencils. They have gone to extreme lengths to ensure that no-one at the table will need to write anything down or erase any numbers. Where other games character sheets have boxes to fill, this game has tokens to move. Even such a straightforward task as counting successes has a colourful track made up of jigsaw pieces for the GM to use. It’s all incredibly tactile and kinesthetic. The same is true of the way lists are handled. Where other games have tables and alphabetically listed feat chapters, WFRP has decks of cards to replicate the task. It’s simple, and it’s genius. You know how DDI prints off your D&D power cards for you? Well this is the same deal except the core game gives you all the actions for all the players in physical form. That means there’s a lot less page count to trawl through, you can shuffle through cards and just select the ones you need. The really clever part is that the cards are double sided and differ depending on the characters current leaning (stance) towards caution or recklessness.
And then there’s the party card. This game actually recognises party play in the rules, and uses those rules to reinforce the grim and gritty nature of the setting. You pick a party type like Swords of Justice or Brash Young Fools and that gives everyone in the group benefits that all can share. So right away you are choosing a common ground for the way you want your campaign to run. There’s a mechanic for swapping talents between the party using the group pool and there’s a unique common benefit too. This comes at a price, in the form of the tension meter. This is a track that the GM moves a marker along every time the party bickers, prevaricates, squabbles, or splits up or whatever the story suggests. At a couple of points along that track there are negative consequences and at the very end it all boils over and resets back to zero. Now, it’s not perfect. It’s open to abuse from poor GMs (but in that case your games stuffed anyway I suppose). In that, it’s like the skill challenge rules in 4e, a sound idea (innovative even) but not completely ready for publication. What I admire is the way it so elegantly represents the way WFRP players actually work at the table. Better that that, deeper than that, it represents the warhammer world and the way things are bad and getting worse by the minute, so relationships are tested to breaking point.
Like D&D the core of the game runs off of 6 abilities, and the two games have almost identical lists. Where they differ is that those stats in WFRP remain front and centre to the whole game. They power all the dice rolls, and have direct links with the well being of the characters through an interesting stress and fatigue mechanic. One extra point in a stat is a big deal, and the authors have recognised that in the advancement rules. They’ve also been clever enough to not have everything key off of Dexterity (Agility here). The game looks very complex on a read through, yet at it’s heart, it just comes down to the 6 core stats and the way they run through the whole system. Everything else is built on this foundation. It’s a strong stat set.
I have a couple of niggles though. The game tries to have an abstract method of resolving positional issues in combat (not unlike that seen in FATE), but hasn’t really followed it through. Given the minis heritage of the game, why shy away from that? D&D embraces the tactical elements of fantasy RPGS, WFRP doesn’t have to go that far but it shouldn’t move away from it so strongly as to dilute a core strength of the game. You get a bunch of nice character stands in the box, but there’s not enough, and unforgivably they don’t give you any dwarf swtands that aren’t the rather specialist slayers.
My other niggle is the GM advice. It’s confusing, and that’s a massive lost opportunity. I get mixed up with the metagame terminology of episodes, encounters and acts. There’s a rally phase which I love (it’s a superb pacing mechanic that outperforms D&Ds extended rest), but it’s easy to miss. I’m going to spend more time with this section because I need to get to grips with it. I think this advice needs to be squarely aimed at WFRP GMs (as opposed to RPG GMs generally) and right now I don’t think it’s as good as it should be. I reserve the right to change my mind.
This is a subject I’ll return to for sure. It’s certainly on my ‘must play this year’ list and I’ve got just the players in mind…