Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
It worrys me that as years go by and gamers (like policemen) seem to get younger (of course this is probably just in regard to my own mid-twenties age) there must be an awful lot of gamers who are only familiar with Games Workshop as a money-grapping monopoly intent on fleecing spoilt juveniles out of their parents disposable incomes. I find this a little sad as there was a time before this.
There was a time when GW produced games first and money second.
When they single-handedly championed role-playing in the UK.
When White Dwarf didn't end every sentence with an exclamation mark.
Amazingly there was even a time when GW were actually loved by British gamers. Gamers wanted them to do well. And during this time, they produced some bloody good games. IM-not-so-HO the very best of them was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, or WFRP as it's known to it's friends, pronounced Woof-Rup. It also doesn't appear to have been reviewed on rpg.net so here it is!
If you haven't already got WFRP then you can get it very cheaply as it sold so many copies (biggest selling non-American RPG apparently) that there are plenty of second hand rulebooks in circulation. Or you could spend more money on the current Hogshead printing and support this small company which is bringing everything back into print and releasing new material. (Hi guys!) And get this - the entire game is contained in one thick rule-book. There is supplementary background material, the astounding Enemy Within campaign and a rules supplement (Acrophyca Now) that really is recommended reading but they are all optional and none are essential.
Without a doubt the main reason why this game is so damn good. First off though a fundamental point about the Warhammer background needs to be addressed. Once GW dropped WFRP, the Warhammer World went through a lot of changes to accomodate the Warhammer Battle wargame. GW therefore re-wrote vast chunks of history and made sweeping changes. This has been something of a sore subject amongst WFRP players. The world of WHB is no longer the world of WFRP so don't expect to find them the same. WFRP's background is much more mature, grimier and internally consistent. Don't buy this game and talk about the WHB background on the WFRP mailing list - you won't make many friends!
The WFRP background describes a Europe-like continent in the time of the Renaissance. The major power is The Empire, a fantasy equivalent of history's First Reich, the Holy Roman Empire. This gives the game a unique 'German' feel as opposed to the tired 'pseudo-England' feel of many other fantasy worlds. The Empire is split into several squabbling Electoral states. Humanity has discovered gunpowder and the printing press and the future looks bright and rosy.
Except for the grim underbelly of this world. In prehistoric times, the Ice Age-gripped planet was visited by the Slann, a race of space-faring Aztec amphibians (I kid you not) who seem to have stepped (OK, hopped) from the pages of Erich von Danikens 'Chariots of the Gods'. Using their arcane blend of magic and technology they influenced the course of civilization and erected two huge warp-gates at the planets poles in order to allow for galactic travel. Some unknown catastrophe caused the explosion of these warp-gates and Slann civilization collapsed. The poles are now home to the unstable regions known as 'The Incursions of Chaos' (see any Michael Moorcock book) and warpstone and warpdust (solidified chaos-matter) is the fallout of this, spreading mutation and chaotic influence across the globe. Mutated children are born to human women and bands of beastman stalk the dark forests of the empire. Underneath the cities of man lurk the Skaven, the chaos ratmen who spread disease and poison, and the positions of power within the Empire are tainted with the cancer of traitors who act under the influence of chaos and worship the dark gods.
Not at all shiny high-fantasy is it? Although the background can be used in any fashion you want (or even ignored) in practise most WFRP campaigns are quite low-fantasy and involve as much investigation as they do treasure-hunting. UK magazine 'Arcane' once described it as mix between Call of Cthulhu and AD&D and I think that is a good one sentence description. The best example of this is to be found in the (optional!) campaign 'The Enemy Within' which is a real epic.
A couple of notes on the Rules
(This is no attempt to provide an exhaustive examination of WFRP's mechanics, but just a couple of unique and/or noteworthy points. For more detail why don't you just buy the book? :) )
WFRP has a unique approach to the character class concept. There are only four classes, Academic, Ranger, Rogue and Warrior. Each class is subdivided into many careers, one of which is randomly rolled for at character generation time. So a Warrior character (think xD&D Fighter) might be a Mercenary or a Pit Fighter (or one of many Warrior careers) and a Rogue might be a Thief, Footpad, Bawd or Agitator (or, again, one of many Rogue careers). When the PC earns experience points, he can use it to gain skills and characteristic advances that are listed on his career profile. Evantually he may earn enough experience to advance to one of the career's 'exits' (such as from being a Mercenary to being a Mercenary Sergeant) or campaign circumstances might dictate a change. So, if the PCs decide to spend their time buying and selling riverboat cargo they could (GM willing) become Merchants and then spend their experience on Merchant skills and advances. It's a neat idea but beware - it really needs common sense and co-operative players in order to work correctly during play. In the Criticisms section below I'll address a few problems that can appear in a campaign.
Skills are dealt with in an odd way. Unlike RQ or CoC, skills aren't expressed in percentage terms. Instead, a character simply has a skill or not, so a character with Read/Write is literate, one without isn't. This may seem too binary for some people especially as some skills don't work in this fashion. Ride Horse for example isn't just the ability to sit on a trotting horse. Anyone can do this (in the pre-internal combustion engine WFRP world), but characters with Ride Horse can gallop and try and stay on during jumps. Although it seems a terrible mess in theory in practise it works fine. The suggested method of testing a skill is by percentage dice based on a statistic with a bonus for any relevant skills. The degree of success and failure is based on the amount by which the character made or missed the dice roll, but unlike Vampire, clear guidelines are given to the Gm to explain exactly how good or bad a result is.
Combat is based on a straight percentage versus Weapon Skill. Somewhat elegantly the digits of this roll are reversed to give another percentage score which states the hit location. Two random results on one roll - very clever. Damage is knocked off Wounds, but unlike most RPGs, 0 is not the point of death. Once W 0 is reached, the characters stays at W 0. The overkill of following hits are calculated and a grisly critical hit table is consulted cross-referenced to the amount of overkill. Combat is deliberately bloody in order to dissuade players from trying to solve every problem by poking it with swords. So although it can be played in hack and slash style jsut don't expect your PCs to have a decent life expectancy.
WFRP has never been revised (i.e. it's still in edition 1) and to be brutally honest it shows. It cries out for a core mechanic to cope with some clumsiness - some statistics are percentages, but Strength and Toughness is on a 1-10 range where 3 is a human average which is inconsistent and allows too little fine difference between characters. Some of the tables, such as the Random Treasure Generator are embarrasingly old fashioned and should be junked.
The unique career system is something of a two handed sword. It really allows for non-stereotyped characters and for PCs to slowly gain a realistic spread of skills based on their profession, but... there is a lack of direction for the GM on how this works in play. It is prone to incredible abuse with PCs becoming Mercenary Captains in order to gain the advanced combat skills, but going nowhere near mercenary units, let alone commanding one and PCs pursuing careers completely out of kilter with the current campaign situation. This problem should really have been predicted and tightened up during a pre-release playtest campaign. It's not too difficult to work around if the GM and players co-operate and apply a little common sense but the potential for abuse and munchkinism is there.
Magic is not poor - just uninteresting. Hogshead promise that Realm of Sorcery will be out soon which completely revises this. I'm not a fan of producing supplements merely to fix things that should have been mostly right first time but in this case I'll make an exception. There's nothing wrong with the Magic system but years of play have made it look dull and uninspired. The included spells are based on those found in the second edition of Warhammer Battle which sadly doesn't give them a wide range of effects as most spells seem to revolve around the battlefield. Wizards can be 'conventional' wizards, illusionists, necromancers, demonologists, elementalists, alchemists or druids. There is also a 'cantrip' level of magical spells known as Petty Magic which is a pre-level 1 spell level available to Wizards Apprentices. On the subject of apprentices this is a neat feature of WFRP. PC wizards begin at this level with an NPC teacher. In the Enemy Within campaign, one PC has such as teacher and the pupil/master relationship is used as a plot device. GMs running other campaigns can use this idea to provide the party with patrons.
Reading back over my review I seem to have criticized a lot of WFRP. But don't get the impression that this is a weak product. Far from it, I love the game dearly and the background is one of the best ever created for an RPG. Forget the insipid, juvenile background of todays Warhammer Battle and take a trip to the original gothic fantasy world which blows the newer version out of the water.
This review in mathematical form
For those of you who prefer diagrams to text, here is the above review in easy to digest mathematical formula format.
Quite good rules + (Michael Moorcock * Erich von Daniken) + Call of Cthulhu + Wonderful atmosphere + (Hammer House of Horror * Black Humour) + (Mean average of illustrations of Durer, Altdorfer, Bosch and Breughel) - AD&D Powergaming - Supplements (optional calculation) = Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
Style: 5 (Excellent!)