The roleplaying game Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) has had a long and interesting history since its first release in 1986. But if you’ve only just become aware of the fact that you can roleplay in Games Workshop’s venerable Warhammer world, now’s the perfect time to get started, because Fantasy Flight Games recently released a brand new third edition.
First, a little history. The first version of WFRP was a thick, everything-in-one hardcover book, and immediately the game set itself apart from other RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons with two innovations. The first was the career system. Instead of progressing through ‘levels’, WFRP characters could move through a series of careers that ran the gamut from lowly grunts like rat-catchers and charlatans to respected members of society like nobles and scholars. Careers were just the first sign of a strong emphasis on roleplaying and storytelling instead of ‘dungeon-bashing’. The second innovation was a combat system surprising in its lethality. Unlike D&D, for example, where you could bash away at a powerful character for ages without significantly wearing down its stock of hit points, WFRP characters were always at the mercy of a few lucky arrow shots or well-placed blows; and a gruesomely detailed critical hit system made combat damage far more realistic and visceral. It was indeed, as advertised, A Grim World of Perilous Adventure!
(Personally, I’ll never forget our very first game, when one of the players confidently picked a fight in a bar and ended up being carried out with a broken leg and various other wounds which led to a protracted period of healing as they journeyed down river. But then again, the other guy ended up in the river …)
WFRP was a great success, not least because the first adventure campaign for the game, The Enemy Within, is still regarded as one of the best in RPG history. The first four episodes—Mistaken Identity, Shadows Over Bogenhafen, Death on the Reik, and The Power Behind the Throne—established all the classic elements of WFRP gaming; the grim and gritty atmosphere, the secret Chaos cults among the powerful, the quirky English sense of black humour and bad puns, and a pageant of interesting and memorable characters. Unfortunately, the quality of the last two episodes, Something Rotten in Kislev and Empire in Flames, didn’t live up to this high water mark, and some would say that WFRP fans are still awaiting adventure material to match the incredible inventiveness of those first releases.
After a strange D&D-like adventure series, the Doomstones campaign, WFRP went out of print and entered the first of several ‘hibernation periods’. Fans kept the game alive—most notably in the Strike to Stun newsletter—but some years passed before finally, in 1995, a small English company called Hogshead Publishing gained the rights to publish WFRP material. The original rulebook was reprinted, and along with other reprints came some excellent new books, especially material centred around the Venice-like city of Marienburg. In 2001 their most ambitious release came with the long awaited magic supplement Realms of Sorcery (this author had the honour of designing the cover around the Ralph Horsley illustration), and later a Dwarven sourcebook, but the game was once again to slide back out of print when Hogshead gave up the licence for various reasons in 2002.
After another long break, the GW division Black Industries, in collaboration with Green Ronin, re-released WFRP in a brand new edition in 2005. The combat system was changed somewhat to add more options and variety, character characteristics were modified a bit, but the game was essentially the same. A veritable tide of WFRP material followed, in both soft- and hardback form; almost 25 books and supplements, including the Paths of the Damned and The Thousand Thrones campaigns, and many interesting sourcebooks covering places in the Old World that players had never seen in detail before, like Tilea, The Border Princes, and Karak Azghal.
In 2009, everything changed again. WFRP moved to Fantasy Flight Games, and ater selling some of the old v2 material and releasing a Character Compendium, FFG suddenly announced a totally new version of WFRP that would see the most changes to the game since it was first released. It was a controversial announcement, especially among older players; when it became clear that the new system relied on dice pools and printed components there were cries of “boardgame!” But now that the game has been out for a while and the dust has settled, old players seem to have accepted the changes and realised that the focus is still on the storytelling, and the unique atmosphere of the Old World.
The new version is quite a different beast from its predecessors. In keeping with FFG’s reputation for graphic quality, it looks stunning, and instead of using tables of information in a hardcover book, most of the gaming information is presented in the form of full colour cards which players can acquire as their characters progress, all in a big box. The career system is still there, and combat is still lethal, but there are many more options in combat, and much more interpretation and flexibility due to a ‘dice pool’ system. This means that instead of calculating a particular chance to achieve some action and rolling a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ result, players roll a pool of different dice that represent, for example, the relevant characteristic, the level of challenge, and the vagaries of fortune, and then interpret the results depending on the final number of success or fail icons, and other results like ‘boons’ and ‘banes’. So not only can you see if your action succeeded or failed, but by how much, what factors were responsible, and what other quirks of fate affected the outcome. It all adds up to a greater emphasis on creativity and storytelling, and after you quickly get used to the system, you’ll find your games flowing faster than ever before.
So far the core game and an Adventurer’s Toolkit has been released, and coming soon is a Game Master’s Toolkit. The most hotly anticipated release however is a new adventure boxed set, The Gathering Storm. It remains to be seen whether FFG can live up to the high hopes and expectations of players worldwide and release a WFRP campaign that recalls the glory days of The Enemy Within …
For more information about WFRP mentioned in this article, visit Fantasy Flight Games at http://www.fantasyflightgames.com. You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for the game at http://www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html#wfrp3.
by Universal Head
Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing graphics from the most corporate to the most creative for more than twenty years. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, most notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent a year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for the computer game ‘The Omega Stone’. In between he’s designed everything from large corporate websites, to postage stamps, to a mobile phone interface. His personal site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.