Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Those who have looked at the new Fantasy Flight edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay might wonder if it's very different from the original Games Workshop edition. To that, I have to say both yes and no to the extreme.

[Image: The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay kit, splayed out across my table like a train wreck. Contains four books; scads of cards for skills, abilities, insanities, professions, and conditions; stand-ups for the included professions, and 36 custom dice. That is a lot of stuff to pack into a game that can only accommodate three players at a time without buying an expansion.]


Yes, it's fantasy roleplaying with swords and magic and miracles and such, but it's a rather specific kind of fantasy. This is a game world of Games Workshop's creation, featuring a medieval empire threatened from without and within by the forces of chaos and which can only be saved by the efforts of a handful of stalwart adventurers.

The Fantasy Flight edition is very much the same, thematically at least. Several of the professions from the old edition are in the new one, but several aren't. Those removed were potentially weak or less combative, making the focus of the new edition the fighting and occasionally the getting to the fights.

Besides, I always thought the jailer, rat catcher, and torturer were peculiar careers to feature in-game. Whether those are a loss or not depends on what kinds of games you play with your friends. (And yes, I'm going to let that double entendre stand.)



Well, come on. The description I gave at the top was "a medieval empire threatened from without and within by the forces of chaos and which can only be saved by the efforts of a handful of stalwart adventurers." If this doesn't reek of desperation, I don't know what does.

(Contrast this with the Warhammer 40,000 world as originally created by Games Workshop, which is represented by three different and related games from Fantasy Flight Games: a star-spanning empire threatened from without and within by the forces of chaos and which can only be saved by the efforts of a handful of stalwart adventurers.)

That was apparently even true in the Games Workshop version. (It could be hard to tell; it was a thick book.) The Fantasy Flight edition brings that threat to the forefront and cranks it up to eleven, adding some character professions (and game mechanics) that stress (ahem) just how world-class screwed up people can get when fighting the unrelenting hordes of Chaos.


Case in point: The striking fellow pictured here is the "Flagellant," an advanced profession. It represents someone so heavily obsessed with the "end times" that he's gone full penitent, eschewing armor, cataloguing and wearing his vows on parchment, and generally acting up for what he believes is a just and noble cause. It's available to anyone who completes the basic profession "Zealot," or meets other conditions.

Note the right edge of the card. There is an insanity system within Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and this guy gets a free scoop of soft-serve crazy for choosing this path. The "other conditions" I mentioned for getting in on this gig [?!?] is having two insanities. (I checked, and GW's WFR had insanity rules too, and a place on the back of the character sheet for recording "disorders." However, the section on those was buried in the book, gathered under a single little heading of the Gamemastering chapter. It certainly wasn't as prominent as it is here.)

Like I said... Desperate. Like, insert-sound-of-dog-drinking-from-lawn-sprinkler desperate. Like the fabric of society will tear itself up over the stress desperate. So at least we can be sure there's no shortage of conflict, right?


There are a lot of writing credits here which, admittedly, I don't know. Shout-outs to Jay Little, Daniel Lovat Clark, Michael Hurley, Tim Uren, and numerous other individuals on the title page.


Irreproducible Goods

In an age when digital material is easily copied and physical goods are reproducible with nanofabrication, concepts like copyright, trademark, and intellectual property are fighting a losing war. Despite the best methods of encryption, DRM, and similar anti-piracy measures, very little escapes the clutches of pirates for long. It's not unheard of for copies/blueprints of new goods to be shared on pirate networks before theyre even officially released.

In response, some manufacturers, designers, and artists attempt to produce goods that are irreproducible—and thus more highly valued. Possible approaches include transgenic living sculptures with built-in obsolescence and termination genes, energy art, items made from extremely rare materials (e.g., a chair crafted from titanium mined from the Mead crater on the harsh Venusian surface), or intangibles such as skilled performances.

Eclipse Phase rulebook, p. 64

That I led off with an excerpt from Eclipse Phase here should give you a sense of warning, and rightly so. In the day and age where PDFs are eating book publishers' lunches, different companies have resorted to different tactics. Wizards of the Coast tore itself completely free from PDF publishing. Some publishers are resorting strictly to PDF. And Fantasy Flight, well, you'll see.

The GW edition was a 360-some page book with a lot of text and grayscale art. The FF edition of WFR contains four full-color and decorated rulebooks with 288pp bertween them. But the box that they come in measures 11.5" tall x 9.25" wide x 5.75" deep. You have to wonder what's in that box, and the answer is, lots of stuff. Profession cards in multiple sizes. Profession tokens. Plastic bases to stand those profession tokens upright. Skill cards. Ability cards. custom counters of several shapes and colors. And custom dice.

Custom. Dice. They're different colors and side-counts to represent different circumstances, e.g. the difficulty of a challenge, the skill of the performer, the outlook of the performer whether conservative or aggressive, favorable or unfavorable circumstances, etc.

Don't get me wrong; they're fine, solid-feeling dice, but I'd mentioned them at the tail-end of an earlier IPTD post, Prop Comedy, because they are highly specialized. You can't buy replacements "off the shelf" at your FLGS, and even Fantasy Flight Games doesn't sell them individually that I can see; all you can get is the "Extra Dice Set" which contains 12 dice in a company-selected range of types.

You see where that quote from Eclipse Phase comes in now, don't you? There are enough custom parts and shapes in this game that a photocopier cannot do them justice, and even if you try it, the dice are so wildly exotic that it's pretty darned hard to play without 'em.

As for managing this steaming pantload of potential vacuum cleaner snacks, sandwich bags really do the trick (as the picture above shows). But you'll still end up with quite a few sandwich bags in use.

Overall, the stuff is beautiful. Pray that you never lose it.


The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay system has been simplified from its precursor.

How simplified? In the old edition, you'd roll a wide variety of dice to generate a character: 1d3 plus something here and there, 2d10 plus something a lot of other places... In the new edition, you're spending points and assigning numbers, usually from 1 to 5. Numerically, it's slightly above Freemarket (my review), in that you could end up having to allocate as many as twenty or twenty-five points. But in the end, the result is the same: single-digit math.


The system works like this: The GM assigns a challenge a rating, for which he puts in a certain number of purple dice. As the player, you roll those along with blue dice representing your level in the appropriate skill, yellow dice representing the relevant attribute, red or green dice to represent your character's attitude (red=aggressive/reckless, green=conservative/timid), white dice to represent favorable conditions, and black dice to represent unfavorable conditions. Dice will come up with boons, successes, failures, and setbacks which cancel each other out, leaving you with How You Did. Any net boons and successes count toward the quality of your attack or effect.

It's simpler than it sounds, really. Physically, it's a matter of grabbing the right dice and rolling them. Mathematically, the only skills you need are addition, subtraction, and counting. If you want to figure your odds of success beforehand, you'll need to engage in more math, and that means more math. Deal with it.

Great Rolling! Less Tactics!

The system has gone the horrifically simple route in other ways too. Have a map to run combat? Roll it up and stick it in the tube, because WFR uses chits to determine how much distance there is between combatants. Rather than use a map, they codified an abstract movement system.

The Motley Crew and the Group Dynamic

And yet, there are innovations. Characters advance in their professions as they progress, adding chits and markers to their characters which allow them to roll different numbers of dice under different circumstances, and the party as a whole also has a "profession" of sorts. Even if the characters seem to have nothing in common to bring them together, the group card provides "artificial gel," shall we say, to gather them together.

The group system provides sticks as well as carrots; if the team argues, the GM can add stress to the group as a punishment for squabbling, making any benefits for banding together less effective. Whether it's diegetic or adiegetic is debatable, but whatever it is, it's an in-game effect on player or character discord, and for that reason I like it.

Three shall be the number of counting

Oh, and I need to mention this: The basic boxed set has all the parts to perfectly accommodate up to three players. That's right, this game has a steaming pantload of components, but there are certain key items, like bases and card boxes, which can only accommodate three players. Likewise, there are a lot of ability cards, but there is no more than three of each cards, and there are some cards that everyone will get. Except the fourth person, that is.

There is an expansion out there which will shoehorn in that fourth player. It contains extra cards, parts, and another cute little card box. But those are extra, and dangit we're reviewing the basic boxed set here. So no, three.


This edition of WFR provides a measure of randomness in character creation. Race is selected (unless a lot of people want to play nonhumans; then it provides an easy out for the GM) and attributes and skills are bought up from dedicated pools.

Profession, however, is based on the luck of the draw. There are twenty-five basic professions from "Agent" to "Zealot." To select a profession, you shuffle those cards and draw three. Of those three, you choose one. It's not completely random, because you get to choose between those three and you might have a preference. But it'll happen: sooner or later you'll be forced to choose between three unlikely heroes and shoehorned into an untenable role. That's life, I suppose.

After that bout of stochasticism, you have full control: a set number of points to buy attributes up over their racial defaults, and pick up other basic perks too. I suppose it's their way of letting you make lemonade.

Stance and Delver

Among other things that players have to keep track of at the table is a stance track. This indicates whether the character is behaving conservatively, being defensive and taking extra time to land good hits; or aggressively, rushing in and going for the hit no matter the consequences. Two of the dice types I talked about above were red and green, and these are what they're used for.

If your stance isn't neutral, some of your dice are replaced with the appropriately colored stance dice, and while these may grant better results, they may also grant worst consequences. It's a gamble, basically.


Not a lot, really; aside from the usual subtle variations in tone, you're in it pretty much for the game as presented. The setting is the game's raison d'ĂȘtre, right on down to the symbols on the dice reflecting elements of the campaign world.

If you're not in it to face the threat of the end times (no spoilers here; the threat alone is obviously enough to drive people mad), then this might not be the best game for you.

Play This Game If...

  • want to play the heavily reimagined extended dance remix of Games Workshop's original setting
  • don't want to deal with large numbers in your system
  • don't want to deal with large numbers of friends
  • don't have small children (choking hazards)
  • collect unconventional dice

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