If you’re a follower of this blog, you know that I am fascinated by swordmanship and historical European martial arts (HEMA), and that I very much enjoy roleplaying games that demonstrate some knowledge, however abstracted, of the actual practicalities of melee combat. In that vein, I’m going to discuss in this article melee combat and fighting styles in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 4th Edition.
Whether by intent or happenstance, the designers of WFRP 4e managed to capture some of the feel (and advantages) of certain fighting styles in their mechanics. This article will be partly a review of those design choices and their effectiveness, but a good deal of space will also be devoted to some character build advice in light of various fighting styles.
The various incarnations of WFRP (for now, we’ll leave 3rd edition out–I very much liked what FFG was doing there, but it’s its own creature) have long erred toward deadly combat. The grittier feel, the pastiche of early 16th century Europe, and the incorporation of some of the less pleasant aspects of late medieval/Northern Renaissance life (treated, of course, with some humor) have always attracted me to this setting and ruleset over something like D&D (which has it’s own advantages and attractions, don’t get me wrong).
With regards to combat, there’s just enough of the feel of HEMA to sate desire, without something as complex and specifically focused on medieval combat as The Riddle of Steel. I have, years back, run a WFRP game using TRoS, with good result, and while that system will always have a fond place in my heart, my current mood does not need the full complexity (and time consumption) of that combat system in my already-tight gaming time.
The first thing that WFRP 4e gets right, I think, is opposed melee tests. Earlier editions first had the attacker make an attack test and, if successful, the defender could make a parry or dodge test to deflect. Omitting the additional step eases things along and captures more of the feel of HEMA, where combatants are not taking turns pounding on one another but involved in a complex and fast-paced set of test attacks, maneuvering, feints, parries, moves and countermoves. While it might be more “realistic” to have melee combat resolved by a single opposed test, winner scoring the hit, the attack roll vs. defense roll allows for additional mechanics (like certain Talents and weapon Qualities) that further deepen the choices available in the system.
The second point is the (optional) rule for bonuses and penalties for relative weapon length and In-fighting (WFRP 4e p. 297, hidden in the Consumer’s Guide and not the Combat section). These rules are simple enough not to slow combat while providing a greater significance for choice of weapon in particular circumstances. In fact, the In-Fighter and Enclosed Fighter Talents really aren’t of much use if the GM is not taking bonuses and/or penalties for weapon length into account. In my opinion, these rules should always be used.
Hit locations, critical hits by location, and piecemeal armor likewise add to verisimilitudinous combat. Wounds are visceral and specific, the choice of how much armor to wear–and where to wear it–matters. Again, this really only works to full advantage if the GM and players are paying attention to the Encumbrance rules. I realize that many GMs and players hate using all but the most abstracted of Encumbrance rules, but these really aren’t that bad and are worthwhile in the end.
Some players don’t like their characters to be permanently injured and/or disfigured, and I understand that, but the roleplaying opportunities that are opened up by these systems should also not be overlooked (the Physician career is an extremely valuable one in WFRP!). If necessary, allow means of reversing permanent injuries (Shallyan blessings or Jade magic) some additional prevalence and accessibility–give your players a few scenes or sessions to grapple with lasting injuries with the hope of undoing them in the long-run. Some groups, of course, are happy to retire characters who sustain significant injuries (and content with a high character death-rate to boot), and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Further methods of keeping visceral injury while softening the long-term effects would be to adopt a troupe-style play system (where each player has several different characters to choose from in each session) or to allow a greater carry-over of XP between characters than the rules-as-written provide for.
The Advantage system in the core book, though perhaps more narrative than realistic, does provide a method for mechanically mapping the fact that, once a fight hits a crucial turning point, it becomes more and more difficult for the underdog to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Group Advantage system in the Up in Arms supplement provides a system more in line with Wrath in Wrath and Glory, which is mechanically satisfying and promotes teamwork amongst players (both in themselves admirable goals) but provides less verisimilitude than the core system. On the other hand, no one wants to watch their character get hit right out of the gate and then be locked into a long pummeling as the opponent gains ever more Advantage, so opinions may vary.
The last thing I’d like to point out here before moving to specifics is the use of weapon and armor Qualities. I don’t always agree with specific choices made by designers from a “realism” standpoint, but I find that they are well-written to provide for actually-different styles of fighting. I’ll mention some of these minor criticism and some ideas for “correcting” them below.
Fighting Styles and Builds
Combat Skills and Characters
Note that the Endeavors rules (WFRP 4e p. 195) make it relatively easy to learn the various Melee skills outside of a character’s career, but much more difficult to learn Talents from outside of one’s career. Therefore, if your character is not in the Warrior class, or one of the careers in other classes that contain combat Talents, err on the side of combat styles that require few or no Talents.
If your table has altered the way you treat the Unusual Learning endeavor for purposes of Talents, then the above may not apply. You may also plan to move between careers (and classes) to collect the skills and Talents you want for your character. Personally, though, I could drive myself mad in consideration of all the different possible career combinations focused on acquiring specific Skills and Talents, so I would also consider letting the narrative dictate your career choices and taking the below into account as a separate consideration.
Sword and Shield: The Go-To Style
The sword and shield (or buckler) fighting-style should be the go-to fighting-style for most characters, and particularly those without much skill in combat. This style offers good advantages without having any Talents dedicated to it and can become even more effective with just a few Talents.
Characters who do not intend to fight unless absolutely necessary should carry a sword and buckler. The first advantage of this is that a sword has only 1 Encumbrance and the buckler has no Encumbrance. The buckler provides both an armor bonus to all areas (with the Shield 1 Quality) and a bonus to defense (with the Defensive Quality) and they are, relatively speaking, easy to acquire and inexpensive. As a bonus, this follows historical precedent: in 16th century England, the sword and buckler were known as “the servingman’s weapons.” They were easy for retainers to carry (where weapons were allowed) and also allowed for shows of bravado in fighting the retainers of other nobles houses while minimizing (to the extend possible while swinging sharpened steel) of significant injury. (On the other hand, the earliest fighting manual of which I’m aware, the Royal Armouries Ms. I.33, a German sword-and-buckler manual from around the 1320’s, also demonstrates the complexity of sword-and-buckler fighting and its usefulness for skilled combatants).
Shields fall under the Melee (Basic) skill, meaning that your character may start with some skill in the style even in a non-combatant career, and the Unusual Learning Endeavor allows easy training in the skill even if it is not a career skill. Regardless of Talents, this weapon combination is strong one. As a side note, my read of the rules (particularly those regarding off-hand parrying weapons) leaves the possibility that defending with a shield in the off-hand (without the Ambidextrous Talent) imposes a -20 penalty on rolls. However, I believe that that would be a misreading of the rules as intended and that using a shield imposes no penalties to defense.
As a point of strategy, I would recommend that the sword-and-buckler fighter use the Fighting Defensively rules (WFRP 4e p. 158, upper sidebar) to first generate Advantage. If you’re using the Advantage rules from the core book, this allows you to potentially generate a significant bonus to your tests before going on the offensive. If using the Group Advantage rules from Up in Arms (p. 132-136), you don’t gain Advantage for winning defensive opposed rolls (the test must be one you initiated to gain Advantage). Still, for a character not intended for fighting, use of defensive fighting until you can get help from a more-skilled ally must be considered.
There are two Talents that may be of particular benefit to the sword-and-shield fighter: Reversal and Shieldsman. Both are somewhat contingent on which Advantage system you are using (Core or Up in Arms Group Advantage), so I’ll address them under each system:
Under the core Advantage system, Reversal allows you to take all of an opponent’s Advantage on a successful opposed melee test (including defense). That could potentially be a tide-changer. On the other hand, it’s usefulness is limited by the fact that, under the basic rules, your opponent would lose all Advantage and you would gain one Advantage anyway. Shieldsman is also of somewhat dubious use; the core description of the Talent gives you Advantage when you lose one the defensive side of opposed melee test. The cost for gaining the benefit of the Talent is high; I’d rank “don’t get hit” among the top rules of combat, so maybe pass on this one. The good news is that, under the core Advantage system, there’s not a strong reason to devote XP (or career choices) to specific combat Talents at all.
Both Talents become much more useful under the Group Advantage system: Reversal as revised in Up in Arms retains the benefit of gaining Advantage on successful opposed tests while defending with a shield. Shieldsman allows you to spend Advantage to deal damage when successfully defending (or to push your opponent). Since those careers that include Shieldsman do so at level two, this is one of the easiest Talents to achieve to increase damage output (through a pesudo-extra-attack)–but contrast with Two-Weapon fighting below.
The concepts above are equally applicable to sword and shield as to sword and buckler. The advantages of the larger shields are additional armor points and the ability to oppose ranged attack tests at the cost of increased Encumbrance. If you’re character is going to be at the forefront of the fighting, a larger shield makes more sense than the buckler.
As a last consideration in this style: the bonus armor points from shields are especially helpful if you are wearing light or no armor. But what about heavier armor? The Knight, Knight of the Blazing Sun, and Knight of the Panther careers all assume you’ll be donning heavy armor (see below) but also contain the Shieldsman Talent. I think that a shield is less useful when wearing heavier armors for several reasons: (1) you’re much likelier to be over your basic Encumbrance allotment, (2) there are better weapons to use when you already have high armor (such as polearms and two-handed weapons, see below), and (3) you hit somewhat diminishing returns on armor points by stacking in this way.
Fencing: The Masterclass
By “fencing” I mean the use of the rapier and parrying dagger (“main gauche”). This style offers some excellent benefits but requires a character who is devoting the majority of their XP to fighting. In fact, my personal view is that this method of fighting is too costly outside of the Duellist career. Some benefit may be seen by fighting with rapier and buckler for those outside of the Duellist career who do not want to spend too many resources on combat.
I’ll address the latter situation first: WFRP’s description of the rapier doesn’t actually fit the typical description of the mid-to-late 16th-century and early 17th-century rapier (which would have been a long thrusting weapon with a blade cross-section that doesn’t allow for strong cutting, if any at all). Instead, it describes the “cut-and-thrust” swords that began to focus on the thrust but retain strong cutting ability (the “espada ropera”). These begin to show up in the early 16th-century and continue alongside the development of the rapier. The confusion of terms is entirely forgivable, as the distinction is really a modern one and the contemporary terms used to describe sword types lacked hard categorizations that would be satisfactory to the 21st-century scholar. For ease, I’m going to follow the WFRP naming convention and use “rapier” generally.
The buckler was used with both types of weapons (the “cut-and-thrust” swords and the “true” rapier). In WFRP, you only need the Melee (Fencing) skill to gain the benefits of the rapier–you get the defensive benefits from the buckler without having to acquire the Melee (Parry) skill (see below). What are those benefits? The rapier has three potential advantages over the basic sword: the Fast and Impale Qualities and a long length rather than average (despite the description of the sword given, the mechanics of the weapon do seem to lean toward the “true” rapier intended particularly for thrusting). Again, with the weapon length rules, this can be a good additional advantage (though context matters, and tight spaces or in-fighting will make the weapon a liability, as was historically the case). Fast and Impale are the real attraction. Fast allows you to make attacks outside of the Initiative order and imposes a -10 penalty to defend for weapons that do not also have the Fast quality. Impale increases the likelihood of Critical Hits. If you want to spend some of your character resources on combat skill, but not too many, rapier and buckler is a strong choice, requiring only a single Melee skill and no Talents to get solid benefits.
The “true” fencer is the one who devotes great resources to combat with rapier and an off-hand weapon (cloak or parrying dagger, primarily). In such a case, both the Melee (Fencing) and Melee (Parrying) skills are required (the Parrying skill, not the Fencing skill is used for defending with the off-hand weapon, otherwise a -20 penalty is suffered, so the Defensive quality of the parrying weapon is useless without the proper skill). What are the benefits of the parrying dagger over the buckler? There are a few: first, the dagger gives you a backup weapon in the case of in-fighting, hedging some of the liability of the rapier. Second, the off-hand dagger does not have the Undamaging Quality (which shields do) in the case of dual-wielding attacks. The cloak offers the Entangling Quality rather than a significant attack, which may be a worthwhile exchange when fighting in a group.
I’ll also pick out the “hidden” advantage. As discussed below, the Ambidextrous and Dual Wielder Talents are requirements for the successful use of rapier-and-dagger in making two attacks per turn. Both Talents apply equally to ranged weapons and melee weapons, meaning a character can carry a brace of pistols, fire them both in the first round of combat (before others have a chance to react if you have the Fast Shot Talent), switching to sword-and-dagger to follow. That gives two high-damage attacks that may cause the Broken condition right out of the gate, an impressive opening move.
The rapier-and-off-hand fighting style needs several Talents to reach full potential. As mentioned above, Ambidextrous (two levels, for 300 XP in-career) and Dual Wielder remove all penalties to making attacks with both weapons in a turn. Levels in Riposte allow a character to deal damage while successfully defending with a Fast weapon (a number of times in a turn equal to the levels in Riposte). Combined with the two-weapon-fighting talents, a character using this style can put out a lot of damage in a turn, against multiple targets.
This combination of Talents is only found in the Duellist career, meaning only characters in that career are especially well-suited to this style of combat. Fortunately, that class is also full of other useful Talents: Combat Reflexes is of only some use given the Fast quality of the Rapier, but Beat Blade, Distract, Feint, Step Aside, Combat Master, Reaction Strike and Strike to Injure are all strong combat Talents (if somewhat contextual). Disarm seem to me to be a niche Talent; most of the time it will be a better choice to deal damage.
Two-Handed Fighting: The Damage-Dealer
The downside of the Two-Handed fighting style is that it requires a skill only a few careers have access to (though far more than the Fencing and Parrying skills). The upside is the Qualities available on two-handed weapons. I believe that this is a fighting-style worth considering even for characters outside of careers particularly suited to it (such as the Up in Arms Greatsword career.
I’m going to focus on swords here, as they have fewer downsides when compared to the Great Axe, Pick and Warhammer (which can be great weapons for tough and heavily-armored characters). The Zweihander gives you the Damaging and Hack abilities, which are both excellent. Damaging allows you to use the one’s place of the attack roll rather than the Success Level to calculate additional damage. That could mean up to 9 additional damage on a roll that barely hits–combine this with an already-high damage rating (SB+5), and you have the potential to drop many combatants in a single blow. Hack deals damage to armor, helping you win fights by attrition against heavily-armored opponents. Additionally, the high damage output can be an extremely efficient way to secure multiple attacks in a turn if using the Deathblow! optional rule (
The Bastard Sword trades out Hack for Defensive but retains Damaging; this is a very worthwhile trade in my mind.
Two-handed fighting lends itself to heavy armor, which I’ll address separately below. Aside from those Talents generally useful for combat, I find the Berserk Charge, Strike Mighty Blow, Strike to Injure, Very Strong, and Resolute Talents particularly useful for the two-handed fighter.
The knightly careers and Greatsword career are most suited to two-handed weapons as a style, though the basic Soldier career can be used, and, if willing not to worry too much about the Talents, any career could acquire the skill through the Unusual Learning Endeavor.
A brief aside for some rules modification changes: the Zweihander is a very specific Renaissance weapon, one designed for fighting pike formations and not general combat. It averages six feet in length, up to eight pounds or so (extremely heavy for a melee weapon), has a long grip, often hooks on the blade and a leather-wrapped ricasso (the portion of the blade that is not sharpened, closest to the hilt). The purpose was to swing the weapon like a big sword to knock long pikes out of the way (or potentially chop them up) and then to shift to holding the weapon like a spear (with one hand on the hilt and the other on the ricasso) upon closing with the enemy. The first technique allowed you to close in without being stabbed; the second shortened your weapon for closer combat while pikemen were struggle to drop their pikes and draw their swords. Outside of this situation, other two-handed swords were faster and more effective.
WFRP and Games Workshop seem to use the terms “Zweihander” and “Greatsword” interchangeably. A greatsword unlike a zweihander, was of a more modest length (closer to four feet, with plenty of variation either way in a matter of inches) and weight (three to four pounds). The greatsword was differentiated (or at least is now) from the longsword (a two-handed sword, despite what D&D tries to tell you) by its focus on the cut rather than having a blade shape more versatile between cutting and thrusting.
I believe that the weapon in WFRP really represents the greatsword rather than a zweihander. A zweihander write-up should have two entries: one for using the weapon like a huge sword, one for using it in a more spear-like manner.
While I’m nitpicking, I think WFRP’s “bastard sword” really represents a more traditional longsword. I’d changing that naming and I’d use the following for a true bastard sword (which often had a blade shorter than a longsword but could be wielded in one or two hands): I’d make damage SB+4, length Average, and give it the Defensive and Fast Qualities when used in two hands and no Qualities when used in one hand. Set cost and availability by reference to the two-handed weapons and the basic sword, leaning toward the former.
Polearm Fighting: The Versatile Choice
At face value, polearms are very similar to two-handed weapons. They have a dedicated skill (Melee (Polearms)), the weapons take two hands to use, seem to favor a heavier choice of armor, and even have similar stats (with polearms generally doing less damage than two-handed weapons).
The difference is that polearms offer versatility in a single weapon. For this article, I’m going to focus on the Bill, Halberd, Partizan/Glaive, and Pollaxe. Each of these weapons has the Defensive quality–if eschewing a shield in favor of a two-handed weapon, this offers some parity between the styles. Each then, based on the specific design of the weapon, offers some combination of Hack, Impale, Pummel, Slash (2A) and Trip. The specific choice of weapon should perhaps depend on your character’s Talents: Pummel is especially useful with Strike to Stun, but of limited use otherwise. Hack, Slash, Impale and Trip need no particular Talents. All but the partizan have Hack, making them useful for those times you need to wear down an armored foe. Impale is generally useful for increasing Critical Hits. Because Slash requires a Critical Hit, and the partizan gives you the choice between Impale and Slash, the combination is perhaps less effective than others. Trip can be an excellent Quality, particularly if used to set up strikes by teammates (or if using Group Advantage and spending for immediate follow-on attacks).
I would be comfortable saying that the choice between two-handed weapons and polearms is a toss-up and depends on your character’s (and your group’s) needs. I personally lean towards the two-handers.
Since I’ve made some suggestions for weapon changes in the categories above, I’ll do so here as well. Historically, there were two major styles of using a spear and/or quarterstaff (and these correspond somewhat with the use of other polearms). In the English style, the focus was on the thrust, making the weapon fast to strike and useful for maintaining distance. The German style wielded the weapon much like a longsword, focusing on strikes rather than thrusts and better able to defend against incoming attack. Switching between methods is not terribly difficult on the fly. That being the case, I would add Defensive or Fast to the spear (I’d also allow players to choose between Long and Very Long lengths) and change the quarterstaff’s Defensive to Defensive or Fast.
Cavalry: I’ll Take Swords for Five-Hundred
The lance and demi-lance are useful weapons…once. The Impact Quality makes them truly devastating, but outside of the battlefield, how often are you really going to use one? That leaves the Cavalry Hammer and the Sabre. Both use Melee (Cavalry) from horseback but a different skill (Melee (Two-Handed) and Melee (Basic), respectively) when on foot. The hammer has Pummel so, if your character also has the Two-handed skill (and Strike to Stun, preferably) it might be preferred. However, none of the Knight careers have the Talent (I might have thought the Knight of the White Wolf would), nor does Cavalryman or Light Cavalryman. Less than useful, then. On the other hand, the sabre uses a widely-available skill (all of the careers mentioned above get Melee (Basic), though Freelancer and Knight do not until Level 2). The sabre can be used in one-hand, allowing for the use of a shield and retains the Slash Quality (though it changes from 1A to 2A unless you use it with the Melee (Fencing) skill, but why bother), making it better than a basic sword.
The choice here is clear.
Armored Combat: Do You Even Lift, Bro?
Given the danger of combat in WFRP, armoring up as early and often as possible can be a useful choice. But it’s not necessarily an easy one. First, you need to look at the inherent penalties that accompany certain pieces of armor (particularly helmets and plate leggings, but bear in mind you suffer -10 to stealth if wearing any chain or plate). Then, you need to consider the Encumbrance penalties from lots of armor: you’re very likely to suffer -1 Movement and -10 Agility from your armor (And that’s before you consider your weapons and any traveling gear. Also, don’t travel in your heavy armor unless you’re expecting a fight).
A full suit of Plate Armor will give you 10-11 Encumbrance points from the get-go. You may want to wear some chain or leather under it (you can choose either or combine them). The relatively low ratings of armor (even plate) means that you either need to double up or accept that there’s a high cost and quickly diminishing returns for wearing lots of armor. But armor rating isn’t the only consideration: plate armor allows you to ignore half of Critical Hits, and that’s no small thing.
A fairly well-rounded set-up with some “oomph” to it would be a leather jack, leggings and skullcap under a breastplate and open helm. That gives you three points of armor on head and torso with one point on arms and legs and six points of Encumbrance. Add a shield and you get another one (buckler, no encumbrance) or two (shield, one additional Encumbrance). Even that, though, will put you into Encumbrance penalties unless you’ve specifically built your character in expectation of wearing armor.
Your basic Encumbrance level is Strength Bonus plus Toughness Bonus. You’ll want to get these stats into the forties as soon as possible. Very Strong and Very Resilient will be of significant benefit, if you can get them. Strong Back and Sturdy should also be acquired if you can. With the exception of the Knight of the Blazing Sun, all knight careers offer Sturdy at Level 1. Sturdy increases your Encumbrance rating by 2 x level, so picking up several levels before advancing would go a long way.
Bear in mind diminishing returns: assuming you get your Strength and Toughness up to at least forty and take four levels of Sturdy (a whopping 1,000XP), your Encumbrance maximum would be fourteen. You’ll have two to three points of Encumbrance for your weapon (assuming you’re not carrying several), leaving you eleven points for that full suit of plate with nothing underneath.
A durable set-up would be full plate (closed helm) with a mail shirt, a leather jack, leggings and skull cap. That’s fifteen encumbrance, plus three for your weapon. So, if you can get your Strength and Toughness into the forties and take one level of Sturdy, and tolerate the first level of Encumbrance penalties, you’re good to go. Take two levels of Sturdy and you can add a medium shield for even more protection. Without the shield, you’d have five AP on your torso and three AP everywhere else (while ignoring half of Critical Hits). With the shield and a Toughness bonus of four, you’re ignoring the first nine points of damage–that’s not too shabby.
Bear in mind, though, that the Robust Talent adds damage reduction per level of the Talent in a manner similar to Armor Points. You should strongly consider (if available to your character), adding this to the list of your character’s Talents if pursuing a front-line fighter, armored or not.
The Knifefighter: Close and Personal
This is not a mainline fighting style; it should be reserved for those characters who never intend to fight fair but may need to do some dirt from time to time–particularly when the victim–erm, opponent–is unawares.
Knives and daggers don’t do a whole lot of damage to begin with (and knives have the Undamaging Quality), so a high Melee skill and Strength bonus will be helpful. On the same lines, the Strike Mighty Blow Talent would be useful, as would the Stealth skill. The Combat Reflexes, In-Fighter, Enclosed Fighter and Disarm Talents would all be useful if you are unable to take down your target in the first strike.
There may also be times when a dagger or knife is all you have on you–the social or legal formalities may prevent the carrying of serious weapons in certain areas, or you may simply be caught traveling light. All of the above would help in such situations; as the goal when outgunned should be to break off the engagement and survive, the Flee! Talent may prove useful in such situations.
The Brawler: Back to Basics
The Brancalonia Roleplaying Game emphasizes as part of its genre that the law is unlikely to take much notice of the occasional bar brawl or streetfight where no weapons are produced and no “serious” injuries are inflicted (though unarmed combat can, of course, prove deadly). The same idea fits in WFRP: there are plenty of times when the Powers that Be simply have too much else going on (or simply don’t care) to deal with petty conflicts that do not involve anyone of importance. Further, there are some times when violence is a means to an end and not the end itself–the Protagonist and Racketeer careers are plenty evidence of this. You’ve always got your fists (almost always, anyway), and sometimes a knuckleduster is easier to carry into a restricted area than even a knife.
Then there’s the historical fact that all combatants were expected to have some skill in unarmed combat. Learning to brawl was a part of childhood, a fundamental that ought to be established before teaching skill in any weapon, and a common feature of melee combat even when weapons were involved. For all of these reasons, a character whose identity (read: career) involves combat ought to have some proficiency in the Melee (Brawling) skill. Most of the Talents applicable to knifefighting above, as well as the Dirty Fighter talent, make for good supplements. But, unless the character expects to do a lot of roughing people up without permanently injuring them, the Brawling skill is secondary to the armed-combat skills.
I hope this article has given some ideas of how the WFRP system captures the “feel” (to the extent that we can honestly reconstruct it) of medieval/early-modern combat without adhering to intricate and byzantine complexities. I hope also that it’s given you some solid build advice on choosing what kind of fighting techniques and equipment will best suit your character. On the other hand, there were a number of “masters of the art of defence” in the period, and a character whose ambitions lie in becoming one among them could be interesting to play and an effective member of a party. There are a number of ways such a character could go, moving between careers as necessary to represent different courses of study.
If I’ve missed something you see in the WFRP system, or if you’ve got other thoughts to contribute to mine above, I look forward to hearing from you!
Addendum – Shields and Melee (Parry)
It has been brought to my attention that the WFRP4e errata “clarifies” the use of shields. Despite the listing of shields as “basic” weapons, the errata states that a -20 penalty should be assessed to a character defending (or attacking) with a shield unless the Melee (Parry) skill is used, forcing a player to decide whether they want to trade AP for a -10 penalty on defense (as a shield adds its AP to all locations and the -20 penalty is partially offset by the +1 SL to defense tests granted by the “Defensive” quality) or whether they want to devote precious character resources to the Parry (Melee) skill. AP are nice, but not getting hit is better–especially in a system as deadly as WFRP!
From a mechanical standpoint, this makes very little sense. Instead of providing a solid (and marginally affordable) defense for characters less-skilled in combat it provides a nuanced and ultimately problematic choice. And, from a historical/practical perspective, this is not how shields work. I’ve never sparred with someone using a shield where the shield made them easier to hit. To my knowledge, none of my shield-wielding sparring partners were either ambidextrous or had any training in sword-and-dagger or rapier-and-dagger styles of fighting (I’m thinking here of situations that would translate to the mechanical reduction of the shield penalty described above under the WFRP rules). The use of a shield is instinctive and natural, while it may require training to fully master, it requires little or none to achieve basic proficiency. The nicest thing I can say about the errata is that it’s a headscratcher of a design choice.
Needless to say, if you give effect to the errata in adjudicating your game, almost all of the advice I’ve given above in the main article regarding shields goes out the window. I’m inclined to believe that that should not be the case. You are, of course, free to disagree.
So, how do we remedy this issue, should one be so inclined? The simplest thing to do is to just ignore the errata statement–there is no penalty to defending with a shield and it uses the Melee (Basic) skill. But, if you want to take a more moderated approach, remove the penalty and also remove the AP bonus or the + 1 SL to defense–I’d personally lean toward removing the former. Alternatively, you could remove the penalty but say that the Melee (Parry) skill must be used to get the additional +1 SL to defense tests. That would at least replace stick with carrot.
Addendum – Damage
Having now played a few sessions under the new rules, I must admit some shock at the particulars of attack and defense rolls. I had mistakenly taken for granted that attack and defense worked mostly like previous editions: i.e. (1) the attacker makes a test, (2) defender makes a test (which I viewed as a parry test in previous editions but now made automatic), and the attack fails if either the attacker fails at his roll or the defender succeeds at his. This is not the case. The current system has each side make their test and calculate their success/failure levels separately, with success levels represented by positive numbers and failure levels by negative. The difference between the two (assuming the difference is in the attacker’s favor) is added to damage dealt. In other words, the defender’s result is subtracted from the attacker’s result and, if the sum is a positive number, the attacker deals the sum as extra damage. The result is essentially the same as if we were using a roll-high system where each side rolls dice and adds applicable bonuses and then the defender’s result is subtracted from the attacker’s result to determine whether the attack was successful and, if so, how successful. It’s the fact that we’re using a roll-under system here that gives the approach some quirks. The foremost of these quirks is that the attacker can technically fail his roll and win–if the defender fails their roll by a greater number of levels. That situation “feels” odd but is mechanically effective.
Because the statistical effects of a mechanic and the “feel” of the mechanic do not always coincide (human perception and emotion being the odd thing that it is), player’s ought to be prepped for this potential result so that they are not blindsided by an attack they think has failed based on the attacker’s roll but that has not because of the sum of both rolls. Is that logical? Not really, but to effectively deal with another’s emotions, we must accept those emotions as they are rather than telling the person whether they “should” or “should not” feel that way. Be prepared.
At the same time, this system allows for some truly massive damage to be done in a single strike. That’s not necessarily a bug, you might well see it as a feature, especially given the reputation and intent that WFRP combat be lethal. I’m not particularly in favor of altering the “rules as written” in this case, but I do want to point this out so that individual tables can make sure the system is working for them and not vice versa.
If you don’t want your characters to be so susceptible to unlucky falls of the dice, you might consider altering this rule so that only the attacker’s positive success levels are added to attacks as additional damage. That makes characters slightly safer, but also drags out your fights, makes armor that much more effective, and probably has some additional effects I’m not thinking of, so proceed with caution.