Old Ways to the Old World

Cubicle 7 have announced that they are doing a new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, set as always in the Old World (a separate RPG with a different system is planned for the new and extremely different Age of Sigmar setting) and taking inspiration from the 1st and 2nd editions of the game.

All this is music to my ears, particularly since I didn’t care for Fantasy Flight’s 3rd edition of the game; as interesting a testbed as it was for a component-heavy style of presenting an RPG, aspects of which eventually manifesting in their Star Wars RPGs, such a test could have happily been done with a different property without trampling all over an existing and well-loved system. (Moreover, FFG never quite seemed sold on the idea of using that system for Warhams purposes – they never switched their 40K RPGs over to it.)

At this time, then, it’s worth having a good look at the first and second editions of WFRP to see what Cubicle 7 could usefully draw from each.

1st Edition

Emerging in 1986, when the Warhammer wargame and Old World setting were still new, WFRP is an impressively complete-in-one-book RPG. Games Workshop had, by this point, been instrumental in getting a number of classic RPGs into the UK market, having printed UK versions of Dungeons & Dragons, Stormbringer, Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and even Paranoia, but with their distribution agreement with TSR coming to a close they decided they needed to fill the D&D-shaped gap in their portfolio.

Another factor driving the development of the Warhammer setting was the desire to make a wargame players could use all of their fantasy-themed Citadel miniatures in, which of course included miniatures for several of the games I mentioned above. Thus, as well as more standard races, Stormbringer Melniboneans became Warhammer-style dark elves, Chaos warriors from that became Chaos warriors here, Runequest broos became Chaos beastmen, and so on. (For similar reasons, I am convinced that Arbitrators in Warhammer 40,000 are riffs on Judge Dredd because of Games Workshop’s Judge Dredd RPG line having its associated miniatures line.)

This heady mix of influences quickly coalesced into a distinct setting and tone of its own, because this first WFRP core book is absolutely dripping in atmosphere and flavour. (This is especially the case if you compare it to Rogue Trader – not the RPG, the original Warhammer 40,000 rulebook – where, in part because they hadn’t yet pulled the trigger on incorporating Chaos into that setting too, the whole thing feels like much more of a heterogeneous patchwork of bits that don’t really feel like parts of the same setting.) Particularly impressive is the setting chapter, which paints a fairly complete picture of the Old World in general and the Empire specifically in the space provided that essentially hasn’t changed that much since.

Other bits of flavour arise from the extensive bestiary and the wide selection of character professions. WFRP is joked about as being the game where you can start out as a rat-catcher with a small but vicious dog, and that is the case, but each and every one of those starting professions is useful in its own right as a source of stat advances and skills.

The profession system feels to me like it was inspired by Maelstrom, a British RPG written by a schoolboy who managed to get it published by Penguin as part of their gamebook lines. The professions in Maelstrom were rich and flavourful in the sense that they covered just about any job you might have in Tudor England, but the weakness was that many of those professions wouldn’t give you many useful ways to contribute to an actual adventure. WFRP very successfully ensures its professions are defined in terms of game usefulness, whilst at the same time conveying much of the similarly Renaissance-themed style of the setting through the selection presented.

Having the fame and the vintage that it has, the major drawbacks of WFRP 1st Edition are pretty well-known by now. Characters start out with some fiendishly low stats and will tend to fail at most rolls; at the best of times, this encourages a gritty, cautious style of play in which cunning planning to maximise the bonuses on the player characters’ side is the order of business, but that requires a GM being willing to provide such bonuses and handle such unusual plans, and the GMing advice section isn’t especially good at encouraging that. At the worst of times, it can just be downright frustrating.

On top of that, the magic system is rather flavourless, and is also set up to make it frustratingly difficult to actually learn any magic in the first place; it’s easily the most fiddly and overengineered part of the rules. The Realms of Sorcery supplement, which finally replaced it with something more flavourful, only creaked out towards the end of Hogshead’s run with the licence.

Still, for grim low fantasy gaming there’s nothing quite like the flavour of classic WFRP, where even the artwork is rich and evocative. This, then, set the bar which future editions would be compared to.

2nd Edition

Published via Games Workshop’s Black Industries imprint but developed by Chris Pramas and his team at Green Ronin, the 2nd Edition of WFRP was a welcome tune-up for the system with a couple of quirks here and there. The introduction of character talents – effectively feats under another name – were an inevitability at the time, since this was during an era when 3.X D&D was being widely imitated by other systems. (Feat-like heroic abilities were added to Mongoose’s version of RuneQuest at around this time too.)

They’re nice to have for player characters, but the extensive reliance on them in this system and the various Warhammer 40,000 RPGs which would follow its lead – and the infuriating insistence on just listing the talents in monster listings rather than listing out what they all did right there, ensuring that if you wanted to know a monster’s full capabilities you had to do an excessive amount of flipping back and forth, made them a bit of a chore. What designers of this era didn’t grasp is that whilst a player only has to know what the feats their PC happens to possess does, the GM needs to understand both the feats of all the player characters and every NPC they meet, creating an enormous burden for them.

Another major rules tweak is the complete revision of the magic system, which is both vastly more flavourful and much more faff-free than the original 1st edition system. It’s quite nice how it handles magical backlash – to cast a spell you can roll a number of D10s up to your total ability (but can roll less if you wish) and total them up, and if you get doubles, triples, or even quads you get to roll on progressively more perilous tables for associated phenomena. Between this and the target number of spells, this means that you can if you wish get off minor but undeniably useful spells more or less safely and, if not 100% reliably then at least with decent chances of success (especially if the winds of magic are with you and you have the ingredients to hand) by rolling a single die, and you can get more accomplished with still decent chances of not-too-horrible consequences by rolling two dice (giving a 1 in 10 chance of having to roll on the mildest table), or you can pull out the stops and roll three dice or more at the cost of potentially hideous consequences.

The various 40K RPGs played with different ways of kicking off Psychic Phenomena and Perils of the Warp from use of psyker powers, none of which quite followed this method. I get the impression they felt constrained to try and make use of psychic powers based off a percentile roll like the rest of the system, but I genuinely think this was an error, because I don’t think any of the solutions they arrived at worked quite as nicely as this one does.

One think the 40K RPGs do manage, however, is to have a slightly better appreciation of the probabilities. Whilst WFRP 2nd Edition does give a bit more of a discussion of applying modifiers to skill rolls, it states that an action of average difficulty should get a 0% modifier – whereas in the 40K RPGs an average task difficulty actually gives you a bit of a bonus. Here, I think WFRP buys into its own hype too much – it’s infamous as a game where player characters aren’t that competent, but I think the advice here exacerbates that.

The presentation of the book is beautifully done in terms of layout and page design, and the artwork is technically proficient, but it somehow feels a bit less flavourful than the classic old artwork of the original edition. Furthermore, the default starting date of 2522 AE is set after the Storm of Chaos metaplot event, which makes the threat of Chaos a bit more overt and obvious and puts the Empire on a bit more of a total war footing than the original WFRP did. However, at least in this core book, there isn’t actually much discussion of that – recent history isn’t really covered in the setting chapter, and the current date is only specified in an out-of-the way sidebar which points out that you can set your game at any point in Imperial history if you really wanted to.

2nd Edition WFRP was a lot of fun, but at the same time I am very interested to see what Cubicle 7 do with 4th Edition. If they are able to get the rich atmosphere of 1st Edition delivered with the production values and (mostly) clarified and tuned-up game mechanics of 2nd Edition, they’ll be onto a very good thing indeed; let’s cross our fingers and pray to Tzeentch for a favourable tide of change.

Dark Heresy 2nd Edition: Under the Influence

What with all this fuss about the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it’d be easy to miss the fact that Fantasy Flight Games have put out a 2nd Edition of Dark Heresy. Replacing the previous edition of the game – the only Warhammer 40,000 RPG which wasn’t developed under FFG’s auspices – the 2nd Edition was, like D&D 5E, subject to an open playtest. Whilst Mike Mearls has mentioned how the 5E playtest took the game’s design into an unexpected direction – in particular, the realisation that a sizable demographic of players preferred a more rules-light and loose approach to the game than both 3E and 4E had offered is cited as something which really changed the development team’s thinking – it’s rare that a game publisher’s intended direction with a game has been so comprehensively changed by an open playtest to the extent that Dark Heresy‘s was.

For those who didn’t follow what went down with the open beta, here’s my understanding of it (as someone who didn’t take part in the beta but kept an eye on the news): the first version of the beta rules which went out were substantially different to the product as released. In fact, it was substantially different to most of the prior Warhammer 40,000 RPGs. A substantial portion of the beta testers objected; they didn’t want the backward compatibility with earlier products to be nuked, and they especially didn’t want to break compatibility with Black Crusade and Only War, whose rules updates had generally been well-received. (Indeed, many had assumed that Dark Heresy 2nd Edition would mostly consist of applying the Black Crusade/Only War updates to Dark Heresy). Thus, midway through the beta test, FFG announced they were changing direction in response to this feedback and released an extensively revised beta which formed the basis for the game we’ve now received. (Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth from folks who liked the radical shift represented by the first beta version.)

Continue reading Dark Heresy 2nd Edition: Under the Influence”

A Stony Sleep, A Shaky Ending

It had been about half a year, which meant it was time for us to Fist again (like we did last summer). Having run an interim adventure so that the player characters were actually of a level appropriate to the campaign, I ran the gang though the next episode of The Emperor Protects, entitled A Stony Sleep. Session logs are up here, Dan’s thoughts are here and here, Shimmin’s thoughts are here, here and here, my thoughts are immediately below. (Spoilers ahead.)

Continue reading “A Stony Sleep, A Shaky Ending”

Listen to edited highlights of exciting Fisting sessions!

For the benefit of the user who got here after asking their preferred search engine “what does one feel with insertions and fists?”: you might get a better idea by listening to Shimmin’s recordings from the first Deathwatch mission, which he’s been posting bit by bit to his blog over the past few months. These are particularly significant gaming sessions for this blog, because they were the subject of my first few posts here, so if you’ve like what I’ve posted here over the past year or so, you might like to give them a listen.

Excellent Search Queries Episode 2

Subsequent to this: today somebody got to the site by searching “what does one feel with insertions and fists?”.

Can’t help you, friend; it varies a lot depending on which supplements you use, what tier the Marines are at, what career paths people have chosen in character generation, which (if any) prewritten adventures you use, how seriously you and your Fisting partners take the whole thing, how well you know the other participants, how much you trust each other and feel safe in each others’ company, how relaxed you are and which and how much lubricant you use. There’s just too many variables!

The Siege of Mersadie Hive: The Waaagh Hits the Fan

On Saturday we had the chance to conclude my siege-based adventure for Deathwatch. This essentially boiled down to a linear series of crises for the PCs to react to – the arrival of an Ork gargant on the battlefield, an invasion of the upper hive by Dark Eldar slavers allowed through a webway portal by aristocrats who think the idea of a city where pleasure never ends is just dandy and forgot to ask whose pleasure never ceases, and so on. I think in other contexts this might have come across as railroading, but I think linear adventures are generally alright in Deathwatch and arguably demanded by siege-based scenarios. Deathwatch, after all, isn’t (usually) about parties of freelancers who get to decide their own agenda – it’s about squads of super-soldiers who get given missions and are expected to complete them. As far as sieges go, what you essentially have to deal with as the commander of a defending city in a siege is a long series of crises which you have to deal with one at a time as they arise. Granted, in periods of downtime you might be able to cook up plans to do something proactive, like sallying forth to raid the besieging army and steal their supplies or plotting an internal coup or something like that, but this is necessarily going to have to wait until a gap between emergencies. Provided you let the players have their heads when it comes to how they want to respond to these emergencies, it’s all cool unless you don’t actually have player buy-in to run a game oriented around linear missions or a scenario based around a siege – and if you don’t have player buy-in that’s a problem far more fundamental than whether or not your adventure is a railroad.

As it happened, I didn’t have the siege running over as long a timescale as I had originally planned. Given how sporadic the Deathwatch sessions have been (100% intentionally), I thought that dragging the siege out over even more sessions would begin to get tiresome, so I decided to wrap up the adventure with a high-octane session with lots of combat. I was worried that this might be too abrupt or get monotonous, but actually the players seem to have enjoyed this session more than its predecessors – cool fights are an opportunity to be show-offy and heroic, which is precisely what you want when playing a Space Marine.

Or at least, they are in theory. In practice there are issues here with the Deathwatch system; fights against inferior foes see the Marines steamrollering them, fights against tougher adversaries turn into games of what Dan identified as “rocket tag” – whoever shoots and hits first wins. This did lead to some tense moments in the game – the players were properly worried when facing off against a Dark Eldar Archon and a clonk on the head from the Ork Warboss’s power klaw forced Shim to burn a Fate point. However, it also means that Deathwatch encourages less-than-heroic strategies – taking out combats at a distance with heavy bolters, in particular, is just plain sensible. The Warhammer 40,000 RPG line in general has this feature and, to be fair, in other lines it’s less of an issue – for instance, in Dark Heresy your characters will probably be decimated in a fair fight, but you’re not meant to fight fair because you’re the Inquisition. In Deathwatch, 3 PCs ganging up on one Chaos Space Marine feels unfair and unheroic, but pitch 3 PCs against 3 Chaos Space Marines and you may easily get a TPK.

Another issue which came up this session was that whilst two of the three players were quite conversant with the setting, one of them really isn’t, which is something I and the others kept forgetting. This actually means that concentrating on combat helped, because as the Imperium teaches us you don’t have to understand something to blow it up.

On the whole, I think the Siege adventure was a success – the players especially seem to have enjoyed the chance to catch up with the lads they pulled recruited in the first adventure. If I were to run it again, though, I’d have had the siege begin as soon as the PCs reach the Hive (or before, if they dawdle about getting to the Hive on time), and I’d have trimmed back the downtime sections which didn’t involve interesting fights. Likewise, if I run any published adventures for the group in future – there seems to be interest in further Fisting sessions, though it’s likely we’ll end up playing some Dying Earth or A Song of Ice and Fire or Mahna Mahna before then – I’ll probably look to trimming down any investigative components they cram into them in favour of hyping up the action sequences and fights.

Lessons learned:

  • If the players signed up for a load of fighting, give them a bunch of fights.
  • Remember to always pitch descriptions of stuff for the benefit of the player who’s least familiar with the source material.
  • You don’t have to be a diablodon to get a TPK in Deathwatch.
  • It might be worth tweaking the way Fate Points work to make them a little more generous, which may help the players be a bit more heroic in fights.