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.