The Old World’s Never Felt So Fresh

WFRP 4th edition is here! As the back cover blurb proudly puts it (beneath the classic tagline of “A Grim World of Perilous Adventure”), “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay takes you back to the Old World.” Whereas Games Workshop blew up the Old World setting to kick off the Age of Sigmar setting as far as their tabletop wargame offerings go, Cubicle 7’s new edition of WFRP is one of a range of licensed products, including the Total War: Warhammer videogames and Black Library reprints, to have been set in the original Old World setting despite emerging after the Age of Sigmar release.

An entirely separate Age of Sigmar RPG, with a different system more suited to the somewhat different style of fantasy that setting lends itself to features, is apparently in the pipeline: WFRP 4th Edition, in contrast, is something of a nostalgia product – Cubicle 7 set themselves the goal of presenting an updated, improved take on the 2nd edition rules but injecting a lot of 1st edition feel and atmosphere, and they pretty much deliver exactly that – right down to the cover art paying tribute to 1st edition’s cover.

That’s frankly a smart move. Fantasy Flight Games made the infamous call to scrap the old WFRP system entirely for their 3rd edition of the game – despite continuing to use what was essentially a variant of it for their Warhammer 40,000 RPGs right up to the point where they lost their licence – in favour of a funky-components-and-proprietary-dice-heavy variant.

In principle you didn’t need the components and dice – the dice could be simulated with ordinary polyhedrals, after all, and midway through 3rd edition’s life Fantasy Flight put out big hardcover rulebooks of the system for those who simply refused to buy the (absurdly massive) core boxed set. In practice, though, the components and dice were very much the intended way to play the game, and using them was definitely the path of least resistance.

Fantasy Flight has taken a somewhat stripped-back approach to the same idea (jettisoning most of the components bar the proprietary dice) for their Star Wars RPGs, the new edition of Legend of the Five Rings, and the generic Genesys system (which sadly does not have a Lamb Lies Down On Broadway or Selling England By the Pound supplement). However, in the context of WFRP it predictably proved to be divisive.

For one thing, there’s the fact that the feel of a game is closely connected to its system, and when you radically change a game’s system to the point of outright junking the old one and replacing it with a different one, you’ve arguably not just produced a new edition of the old game but have produced a complete new game. (Note how Ulisses Spiele, who are producing the new Warhammer 40,000 RPG, is calling it Wrath & Glory rather presenting it as a new edition of one of the old Fantasy Flight 40K RPGs.) Even when GDW did something very similar with Traveller: the New Era, they didn’t call it Traveller 3rd Edition; they presented it as essentially a brand new game in the existing setting.

Were WFRP 3rd Edition given a different title, it might have caused less controversy among the WFRP fanbase – though equally, at the same time the axing of the old WFRP line would have been even less disguised, so maybe not. For my part, I’d have considered it a more honest move. If you call a game Roleplaying Game (number) Edition, you’re claiming it to be part of a continuum – a stage in an evolutionary process, rather than a brand new total redesign from the ground up. Maybe that evolution can be a great leap forwards – as with D&D 4E – and maybe it’s incredibly incremental (like the differences between the first six or so editions of Call of Cthulhu), but to my thinking you should at least be able to see the basic design principles of 1st edition reflected in the most recent edition, even if the implementation is decidedly different. That honestly wasn’t the case for WFRP 3rd.

On top of that, WFRP 3rd Edition came out towards the apogee of a shift in the general aesthetic of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle wargame away from the grim low fantasy style of its earliest years. There’d always been a bit of a gradual divergence in the direction of the game lines ever since Warhammer budded into WFB and WFRP, with the game taking on a more high-powered, superheroic tone (and Emperor Karl Franz going from the beleaguered and very vulnerable leader of the Empire to being a super ultimate badass) and a general tendency creeping in for the game to believe the Empire’s own propaganda about itself (much as has happened with Warhammer 40,000 until that gameline started righting itself in recent history and rediscovering its sense of humour).

WFRP 2nd Edition infamously came out in the wake of the Storm of Chaos special event which heralded a lot of these changes, and Games Workshop set a requirement that the game take place in that period, but to their credit the designers of that took the approach of minimising the extent to which they referred to it and tried to present a setting which could be drifted back in a 1st Edition direction if you wanted (and in general most of the audience wanted exactly that). Fantasy Flight, however, leaned into the stylistic and tonal shift that WFB had undergone (though this may well have been mandated by Games Workshop rather than being a Fantasy Flight decision), and as such the 3rd Edition ended up not merely having a completely different system from 1st and 2nd, but also ended up moving away from the game’s original feel.

Since Games Workshop are not actively advancing the Old World timeline any further, the need to have the RPG reflect the wargame is gone – it’s the Age of Sigmar RPG and Wrath & Glory RPGs who have to co-ordinate with their respective current wargames these days. As such, Games Workshop has wisely given Cubicle 7 a bit more leeway in terms of which direction they go with in WFRP 4th Edition – and since there’d be huge costs and potential legal barriers to using FFG’s system, and reverting to something based on 1st and 2nd Edition would give Cubicle 7 instant goodwill with a large portion of the WFRP player base, the decision to go for a “updated 2nd Edition” approach to the system was a no-brainer.

In addition, being free to pick whatever point they liked in the timeline to set the core game, Cubicle 7 have gone back to year 2510 of the Imperial calendar – the era of 1st edition, over a decade before anything before the now-retconned Storm of Chaos or now-canon End Times kick off, allowing them to bring in the “1st edition setting and atmosphere” half of that game plan. Overall, the presentation of the game is gorgeous and communicates that feel brilliantly whilst working in a welcome dose of additional diversity in the artwork. (There’s even a sidebar noting that, even though some careers have gendered names, all careers are open to all genders.)

As I said, this is an “updated 2nd edition” approach, not a “photocopied 2nd edition” approach, and 4th Edition incorporates numerous system improvements and tweaks. (Incidentally, the cleaner page backgrounds and somewhat easier-on-the-eye text sizes is an improvement in and of itself – it makes the book positively pleasant to read in any light conditions.) The distinction between basic and advanced careers seems to have been dissolved, which seems sensible given that most advanced careers seemed to be just experienced versions of basic careers anyway; instead, all careers are subdivided into different levels, so the advanced careers are effectively folded into the descriptions of the corresponding basic careers.

Sufficiently advanced characters can, if they’re hopping to another career within their broad class and there’s an at least semi-plausible justification, enter that career at a level above level 1; if you’re changing classes, though, you have to go in at level 1. This nicely simulates the process of being able to change from advanced career to advanced career in prior editions without relying on a restrictive web of highly specific career exits. There’s a total of 64 4th edition careers in this book, but because each level of a career is effectively its own career in “old money”, this is the equivalent of 256 “old money” careers (2nd edition had 60 basic careers and 53 advanced careers in its core book), and neatly allows 4th edition to deliver about twice the careers of any previous edition in its core book without investing vastly more space in the rulebook just to career descriptions and without making the system more complicated.

On top of this change, each and every level of each and every career has a social level associated with it – Bronze, Silver, and Gold for a broad “lower class/middle class/upper class” assessment, and numerical values to allow comparison within classes. This is fantastic because not only does it provide a nice basis for some situation-specific tweaks to the social rules and a fiscal challenge for higher-status characters (who must maintain their standard of living at an appropriate level lest their status slip), but also gives you a really nice, at-a-glance reading on where a particular character sits in the stratified social order of the Empire. It’s a really elegant way of getting across some quite nuanced setting information across with a simple label.

Magic once again has changed – the dice pool method from 2nd edition has been removed so that spellcasting has a system more consistent with the rest of the system, but which avoids the flavourless magic point system of 1st edition. Instead, you make a skill roll, and if you get enough success levels the spell goes off; more difficult spells require more success levels. You can spend time channelling the Winds of Magic in order to build up power – once you’ve built up the appropriate amount of power, you can make the skill roll and not worry about the success level at all – if you just pass the roll, you still cast the spell, but in the event of a fumble you have to go straight to the Major Mishap table instead of the much safer Minor Mishap one, so Channelling is for when you absolutely, positively, would rather have your head explode than fail to cast a spell. (So, knowing players, about two out of three times you cast a spell.)

Combat is greatly sped up through a really, really simple improvement which instantaneously demolishes all “ooh, percentile systems are too whiff-y in combat” complaints: rather than working on the basis of “make a combat roll adjusted for circumstances, if you pass you hit and if you fail you don’t, then your opponent makes a roll”, under which you have the issue where any particular exchange can just have no effect, all to-hit rolls are now opposed rolls. If you win, you get an Advantage token (of which more later) and do your damage, if you lose your Action ends immediately and your opponent gets 1 Advantage.

Advantage is the other factor which spices up combat here: it is earned in a variety of ways, and each point of Advantage gives you +10 on combat-related rolls when you spend it. This means that in combats where one side has the other clearly outmatched, odds are that Advantage will build up on one side instead of the other and they’ll be able to use that Advantage to wipe out their foes, whereas in more even fights the ebb and flow of Advantage will be a bit more chaotic and keep combat a bit more lively and avoid stasis.

Between these tune-ups, there’s also a few welcome additions. Most particularly, there’s now an optional but useful-looking system for resolving downtime between adventures, which is something I feel almost all RPGs can benefit from the availability of to help create the sense of time passing and to allow for long-term projects and accomplishments to bear fruit. Another innovation is the fact that, whilst a pretty decent introduction to the Empire is provided at the start of the book, the setting chapter isn’t a general “here’s more about the Empire chapter” but a gazeteer of the Reikland – allowing a deeper look at a more specific adventuring region, which I feel is somewhat more useful for allowing people to get playing immediately.

Any fantasy RPG in an “elves, dwarves, orcs and goblins”-type world really needs its own distinctive schtick or twist in order to set it apart from Dungeons & Dragons – otherwise there’s very little point not just playing D&D instead, since it’s got more players and a much more substantial body of settings and other material available to it. The days when a game can just be a slightly different take on D&D and expect to get any commercial traction are gone – sure, OSR self-publishers churn out really minor variations on minor variations of D&D by the score, but most of them aren’t really writing to earn appreciable amounts of money and I suspect that the vast majority of these games don’t see play so much as they get raided for ideas to use in people’s preferred flavour of old school D&D. If your goal is to make an actual commercial product, you need a clear and distinct difference.

For WFRP, that difference has always been the flavourful Old World setting and its cynical British attitude, and WFRP 4th Edition delivers that in spades. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the set of two-page illustrations towards the start of the book, each subtitled with two quotes – one from a privileged fool who buys into the Empire’s hype, one from a more cynical voice pointing out the truth of matters. As well as showcasing some gorgeous art, this introductory section also nicely torpedoes the general tendency by some fans (particularly, in my experience, American ones, Yankerdoodlestan being the Land That Satire Forgot) to buy into the Empire’s myths about itself uncritically.

WFRP is, at the end of the day, a game about people from the margins of society confronting the fact that society is shit within and endangered from without too, and trying to carve out something good despite all that – and 4th Edition completely understands and communicates that. It may well be the best edition of the game yet.

17 thoughts on “The Old World’s Never Felt So Fresh

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