A Grim, Dark Route Into the Old World

RPG starter sets are in vogue again. There was a time when they more or less went extinct, except for extremely desultory efforts by TSR or Wizards of the Coast, partly because they can be tricky things to produce and partly because publishers of games other than Dungeons & Dragons assumed that nobody would pick up their products who wasn’t already fully aware of what sort of game these RPG things were and who weren’t already specifically looking for the full-fat version of the game in question.

To be fair, that seemed to be reflected by the market realities; for the most part, companies other than TSR/Wizards didn’t manage to get their products distributed outside of specialist gaming shops, and many such shops were of such a nature where you were deeply unlikely to spend much time browsing there unless you were very much interested in their contents. Where a game did manage to obtain a sudden following of people who hadn’t previously been RPG customers, as Vampire: the Masquerade did, it was typically seen as the result of a catching-lightning-in-a-bottle moment which it was pointless to try and capitalise on by building a smoother, easier onramp. (It’s bizarre that Masquerade never had a starter set, when you think about it.)

The craze for actual play podcasts and YouTube series – spearheaded by Critical Role but with a healthy penumbra of other shows around it, several of which step into games beyond D&D from time to time (Critical Role itself did a one-off Call of Cthulhu episode lately) – seems to have exposed a bunch of people to tabletop RPGs lately, and whilst a good many of them will likely never extend their involvement beyond watching the shows in question, at least a subset of them are likely to look deeper.

This being the case, there’s now a plausible route for people who are not currently active RPG players and referees to discover a whole range of games which would have escaped their notice in previous eras – and that being the case, it’s suddenly substantially more worth it to at least consider doing a starter set for your game, especially if its core rules are sufficiently complex to merit providing an easier onramp, and especially if, say, your game happens to be connected to a venerable and widely-recognised fantasy IP like Warhammer.

Thus, starter sets seem to be back on the menu. Chaosium’s one for Call of Cthulhu seems to be the gold standard at the moment, and for good reason – it’s a pretty decent collection of adventures, offering multiple full sessions of play (in stark contrast to the desultory offerings of the worse TSR/Wizards starter sets), effectively teaching players the underpinnings of the game, and more than adequately setting them up to move on to the rest of the game’s offerings, and the adventures therein are sufficiently interesting that the set offers reasonable value even to experienced gamers. WFRP has a long and hallowed history of following Call of Cthulhu‘s lead: does Cubicle 7’s Starter Set for 4th Edition WFRP manage to pull off the same trick?

By and large, the answer is “yes”. As is common with starter sets like this, this WFRP box gives you a set of pregenerated characters and an adventure which is designed to teach both the referee and the players the rudiments of the game as you progress, more or less along the model set by the 5th Edition D&D Starter Set. There’s a little railroading in the adventure in question – mostly to shunt the PCs into being sentenced to penal servitude in the Ubersreik City Watch, which is necessary to set up the less linear portion of the adventure before the final encounter gives them an opportunity to get free of that.

Where perhaps the set goes a little wrong is in failing to really put much effort into getting players and referee alike on the same page in terms of the tone of WFRP. There’s even a “everyone read this first” pamphlet where they could have done this, but didn’t. A simple statement along the lines of “WFRP is different from many other fantasy RPGs because it embraces a cynical take on the genre where bad things can happen to the protagonists for unfair reasons; you will have more fun if you play along with this to a certain extent rather than kicking and resisting the whole way” would go a long way towards alleviating this.

For that matter, some more support text for the referee – fully explaining the expected Watch duties and shift structure, and giving a worked example of how you might work in one of the optional mini-adventures from the end of the adventure book into the flow of the main adventure – might go a long way here; it feels like they were sufficiently tight for space that they had to do without a lot of the explanations which they could have otherwise offered.

Perhaps the biggest oversight is a note on horror, and getting player buy-in and using judgement about what content to include and what to avoid. In one of the mini-adventures tied to the elf pregen’s background, the culmination of the encounter involves an NPC giving birth to a horrible daemon-child of Nurgle which the PCs must fight – and it’s possible to read this as happening after she drugs and rapes the PC in question. It’s some needlessly horrid stuff, above and beyond the sort of grimdarkery that the setting is known for, and it’s pretty astonishing that Games Workshop gave the green light to put such content in the Starter Set. It seems to cry out for a sidebar along the lines of “hey, themes like violence against newborns, mutant babies, childbirth, sexual abuse and all that might not sit brilliantly with your players – WFRP is a game full of horror and it behooves you to talk to your players about what sort of horror-based content would cause them major troubles in the game before play so you can use your judgement as to whether to include this particular encounter or not”.

If the adventure book is a little underbaked, perhaps that’s down to the effort put into the real gem of the set: the Guide to Ubersreik. This is a detailed guide to the titular city and its surrounding Duchy, control of which has been usurped in an alarming move by the Emperor as of the assumed start date of WFRP campaigns. (This is apparently all tied in with the remastered version of The Enemy Within.) Lavishly developed, stuffed with adventure locations, NPCs, and organisations, it’s not only a good showcase of the local flavour which makes WFRP fun for so many, but is also a downright useful resource even for experienced WFRP referees.

As such, whilst I wouldn’t necessarily give the Starter Set full marks in terms of being a product you could hand over to a group of interested geeks who’d never played any WFRP and expect them to get high-quality results out of it, I still think it’s a product which is worth it. I’d recommend it more for experienced referees who want some nice pregen characters to ease novice players into the game, or who want more details on Ubersreik itself.

9 thoughts on “A Grim, Dark Route Into the Old World

  1. Agreed that the Chaosium starter set for 7th-edition CoC is pretty solid. It’d be a straight A+ grade from me if they’d sprung for sturdier cover stock for the booklets and if they’d included legible dice instead of Q-Workshop ones. Still a strong B+, though, not least because it includes a 7th-edition conversion of “Edge of Darkness”, for my money the best CoC starter scenario.

  2. The dice I am not too fussed about because I am reasonably confident in new players’ ability to find dice, or dice-rolling apps at least.

    The booklet stock does feel a little flimsy, but I suspect that was a deliberate choice to keep the overall price down – part of the point of such a set being to get it out there in people’s hands at a modest price point.

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