Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, First Edition, was the first fantasy roleplaying game I ever owned. It was the early nineties, and like all good Christian parents, mine denied me access to Dungeons & Dragons, fallout and carry over from the demonic-worship craze of the late eighties. As we all know, but I didn’t question as a child, there was nothing inherently demonic or evil in D&D (the opposite mostly, though one of Tom Hanks’ early films told a different story). But, not knowing better, they allowed me this gem of a game, darker, grittier, and far less wholesome than the high-fantasy cheese of AD&D.

Ownership of this vaunted tome (which I lost or gave away or sold somewhere along the way, much to my present chagrin) had a very formative effect on me. It solidified my love of roleplaying games, proved the gateway into my miniature gaming hobby, and gave me my first real taste of dark fantasy (a penchant I cannot shake even now). As someone, even in elementary school, deeply interested in medieval and early modern history and wanting some semblance of verisimilitude in my roleplay, it’s little wonder that WFRP, warts and all–no, warts especially–has a special place in my heart. Before high school, I’d also purchased several of the Rolemaster FRP books so, though I didn’t know it, 80’s “realism” in RPGs became my foundation.

I never ran or played a game of First Edition WFRP, though I did manage to collect most of the books at one point or another. When Second Edition was released (I was now in college), I scrupulously and slavishly purchased each of the books as it was released and ran a few games with those rules (though I admittedly used the Riddle of Steel rules, released close in proximity, for those Warhammer Fantasy-based games I most enjoyed). My miniature gaming had focused mostly on 40K, but something about the Tolkien pastiche smashed up with a more historically-influenced setting always called me back to WFRP in my gaming (of course, the first edition of Dark Heresy had not yet been hinted at even–though that’s a story for when I review Wrath & Glory, I suppose).

Likewise, when FFG published the third edition of WFRP, I couldn’t help but go all in on that system as well. For all of the quirks and fiddly-bits of the 3rd edition (much of which I found very innovative and fascinating from a design standpoint), I ran some of the most narratively deep scenes based on those strange custom dice. The board-game like pieces really did provide some opportunities for building unique subsystems to support the story, from chases to countdown clocks. The “stances” adapted just enough from Riddle of Steel (which remains one of my favorites for three reasons: (1) at the time of its release, I was a study group leader for the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts and deeply invested in the study of real swordplay; (2) the writer of TRoS was also a member of ARMA, one with whom I’d had the fortune to spar with; (3) there are design ideas, like spiritual attributes, that I still find amazing, even if I now find the combat system too intricate for my gaming needs and desires) to sate my desired treatment of combat at the time.

I don’t want to participate in “you-should-have-been-there”-ism too much, but I will relate one fascinating development in one of the WFRP games I ran. When the PCs stumbled across some warpstone, one of the characters decided to squirrel some away to sell later. As it tends to do, the warpstone started to have an effect on this character, and a fellow PC (a staunch and suspicious Kislevite), discovered this. While the first character slept soundly, the Kislevite snuck up on him and, pressing the barrel of a pistol to the first character, ended the foolish threat to the party. What surprised and pleased me was the response of the murdered character’s player: “Yeah, that’s what you should of done. That was not going to go well.” That’s mature roleplaying from dedicated players. Drama!

I should also note that, perhaps the result of my fumbling with Rolemaster, I’ve never been a huge fan of d100/Percentile RPG systems. I fully admit that this is a personal thing and not some objective complaint about that style of system itself (my preference, almost certainly a side-effect of my playing White Wolf games, Shadowrun and TRoS, is for dice pool systems).

When I heard that Cubicle 7 had the contract for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition, two things excited me: first, I’ve found the One Ring to be both the most faithful RPG version of Tolkien’s world yet and mechanically innovative to boot; and, second, I’d hoped that the new ruleset would veer away from the d100 system used in the past (as Wrath & Glory has done). One of those things proved true.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give WFRP4 is that it’s a percentile system I’d actually consider running. Even with my preference for the Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime systems, this ruleset reinforces the grittiness and darkness of the setting in what I feel merits the additional crunch. Reading the rulebook has also reminded me that, second only perhaps to D&D/OSR rules, how much material there is out there that could be easily adapted for subsystems or alternative/house rules for WFRP4. I’ve found myself very interested in some of the things that the Mythras system has done with d100, and then there’s all of the Chaosium, Runequest, Zweihander (particularly appropriate) and Rolemaster stuff out there as well.

My personal confession to the versatility and playability of percentile RPGs is not the point of this post, however. Let me instead focus on the (many) things that I really enjoyed about this system, especially as an iteration of the first and second editions (which I’ll assume you’re familiar with).

First, the art is beautiful. Andy Hepworth and Jon Hodgson, who worked on The One Ring illustrations also worked on this tome, and the artwork is similar to that of TOR: watercolory, somber and evocative of the setting’s tone. As I said in my Witcher RPG review, the artwork itself is almost worth the price of admission–but I’m a very visual person.

Additionally, in the style you’ll remember from the FFG version of the game, much of the setting information is given in-character through letters and reports. The beginning of the book combines pictures with a skillful economy of words to highlight the Empire, giving just enough detail for even a newbie to the setting to run a session that a seasoned veteran would say, “Yep, that feels like Warhammer.” I just love this.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself, though. I really should have led with the thing that I love most about WFPR4–its transparency that the players and GM should make the setting their own personal version of the Warhammer Fantasy world, supplemented with reminders about this throughout the text on the subjects of both mechanics and setting, and supported by optional rules and reminders that rules that don’t fit your game should be ignored or changed.

Let’s talk about some of the changes to the previous incarnations (of course skipping the outlier that was 3rd Edition). Fourth Edition has “softened” character generation and brought it into the world of “modern” gaming. Where the early editions of the game relied entirely on random generation of player characters (yeah, everyone wants to be a Ratcatcher, but no one wants to play the poxy doxy), the latest edition has kept the random generation tables but has given rewards to sticking to them rather than making them mandatory. For instance, for your starting career, you first roll one result. If you take that result, you get a substantial XP bonus you can either hoard or spend on starting upgrades to your character. Didn’t like that result? You roll two more, and if you pick one of the three, you still get an XP bonus (though not as substantial as when you only had the one option). Don’t like any of the three results? Just choose what you want to play. No XP bonus, sure, but at least you’re playing something you find interesting. This goes for most aspects of character generation.

Above, I mentioned the Spiritual Attributes of The Riddle of Steel RPG. While WFRP4 doesn’t use those per se, it does join the forefront of modern player-driven (narrative) gaming by giving both the individual players and the group as a whole ambitions. Ambitions are short- and long-term goals that, when completed, grant XP for character improvement (in addition to the normal XP of session survival and accomplishment). Like 13th Age’s “One Unique Thing” or Milestones in Fate, they give the GM some guidance on what players are interested in dealing with in the narrative of their game.

As well, ambitions are a call-to-action for players to learn about the game world (so that they can craft good ambitions) and help define those elusive both most-important aspects of character–character itself (as in the inner life, personality, beliefs and psychology of a fictional entity beyond the mechanical numbers on the page).

My other favorite new thing in Fourth Edition? The “Between Adventures” chapter. These optional rules recall the “township events” of Warhammer Quest (God that we would get an updated version closer to the original instead of the bastard “End Times” game that was produced–oops, my rabid fanboy is showing). I spent a good deal of my youth (when I was but had not realized that I was an introvert) playing that game. In WFRP4, the Between Adventures chapter gives the players interesting complications that might arise while not in the wilderness fighting orcs or Chaos as well as endeavors that might be undertaken to gain small–but perhaps lifesaving–advantages during the next adventure. It’s a clever way to provide for some roleplaying opportunity and character development without having to devote large amounts of playtime to characterization–though if that’s what your group wants, there’s no reason you can’t do that, either!

Much of the rest of the rules will prove familiar to the player of the first or second editions–nasty critical hits, rules for corruption and disease, limited magic, careers that range from the extraordinary to the ultra-mundane (if historically accurate), Skills and Talents, etc.

Petty magic is back for those who missed it (I did). Each Career now has four tiers of advancement, so the Apprentice Apothecary and the Master Apothecary are within the same write-up instead of spread across four different careers that represent incremental steps in the same line of work and training. Character social status (as within the Bronze, Silver and Gold tiers of society) is more explicitly treated and made relevant to gameplay. Task difficulty has been more effectively balanced (Very easy tasks are now +60 to Attribute+Skill Ranks) given the relatively low attribute and skill values of starting characters. Advancement, XP and skill ranks have been streamlined in a way I find to be an improvement.

First and second edition adventure material should require little or no adaptation to be usable, and previous mechanics or careers will be relatively easy to adapt.

In short (though perhaps it’s too late for that), if you liked the first and second editions of WFRP, you’re very likely to enjoy Cubicle 7’s take. If you didn’t, I’d take a look anyway.

The main competitor for WFRP4, I think, is the indy-game Zweihander (itself an iteration of WFRP2), though Shadow of the Demon Lord may be a better fit for those who want a game closer to classic D&D but heavily influenced by modern gaming mechanics and the approach and feel of Warhammer (the creator, Robert J. Schwalb, worked on WFPR2 among other things).

The release of the book has very much tempted me to return to the Empire circa 2511. If I do, I’ll probably even use this ruleset rather than trying to adapt to a more narrative-focused system, as WFRP4 seems a decent compromise between massive crunch (which I ideologically though not practically miss) and the narrative-focused games to which I’ve become more focused.

Have you had a chance to read through the book? What did you think?

Quick and Dirty Review: The Witcher RPG

I only found out about a week ago that R. Talsorian Games would be putting out an RPG for The Witcher, so I fortunately only had about that amount of time to wait before sinking my teeth into the new game. This stands in contrast to Netflix’s upcoming Witcher TV show, which seems to be coming to us only at a laborious pace.

Regardless, I’m a big fan of The Witcher books and setting, and I’m a firm believer that The Witcher 3 video game is hands down the best video game made to date. So an official RPG for this world certainly caught by attention. Not only for the setting itself–my own Avar Narn setting is a gritty fantasy world and I’m always looking for innovative design ideas that might influence my own eventual RPG design.

A brief caveat: this game was (as far as I could tell) just released on DriveThruRPG.com last night (at the end of GenCon, where I believe that hardcopies were available). I picked up my PDF copy on DriveThru for $24.95. A hgher price than many RPG PDFs I’ve purchased, but not as high as several others in my collection.

I do have a day job, so this review is based on a quick read of the book. Take that as you will.

R. Talsorian is known for the Cyberpunk RPG, a classic in the development of roleplaying games as a whole, though a game I’ve never played. The rules are derived from that system, though crafted to fit more particularly with the dark fantasy of The Witcher.

I will say this about the rules–they are sensible, and relatively easy to grasp in their various parts, but there is a complexity to them that makes me think, “Ugh. A fight’s going to take forever.” The attacker rolls for damage, the defender rolls to dodge, the difference between the numbers is compared to determine a hit or critical hit. Hit location is rolled. Damage and critical hit results are rolled (criticals make use of charts that vaguely remind me of The Riddle of Steel RPG and its successors). Those things are all great for creating a gritty feel for combat, but there are a number of ways that all that dice rolling for a single action could be made more efficient.

Still, if D&D is your go-to, I don’t think that you’ll find that this game plays slower than that. And, between the two, I’d take this combat system over D&D and its derivatives any day. It may have a lot of rolling, but its somewhat intuitive and at least interesting under its own mechanics. Sorry, I digress.

I will say, though, that tracking weapon endurance points is a bit much. It’s one thing to have weapons break at dramatic moments, or to have a system that encourages players to have their characters maintain their equipment, it’s another to have to knock off a point of reliability every time I use it to block (though there are exceptions that allow for blocking without sacrificing weapon endurance in certain circumstances).

The other gripe I have is not necessarily a gripe with the rules but a potential pitfall for any RPG that does this setting justice–players who have characters who are not witchers or mages may find themselves greatly overshadowed. Careful planning and discussion before a campaign begins may be warranted to ensure that players are all on the same page.

To me, a “regular” guy (to the extent that RPG player characters ever represent average people, even within the game world they occupy) forced to deal with monsters is perhaps more interesting than a witcher who does–Geralt excepted, mostly because I don’t believe it’s his being a mutant monster-killer that makes him most interesting.

The rulebook misleads on this front a little, I’m afraid. While continuously making clear that most monsters take half damage from non-magical or non-silver attacks, it seems implicit within the writing that the designers just don’t believe that non-witchers would ever have access to silver weapons. I just don’t find that plausible.

It should also be noted that the game is licensed from CD Projekt Red, and thus based on the video game Witcher 3 rather than the books directly. There are some optional rules to bring the game more in line with how things work in the books when that divurges from the game.

As for the look of the book: the layout and artwork are exceptional; the end result is surely a thing of beauty. Combined with fairly extensive background information on the world of The Witcher, I think that this book is a must-have even for a fan of the setting who doesn’t have any interest in roleplaying games.

But for those who do, the gamemaster section of the book has some excellent advice for gamerunners. There are plenty of roleplaying game books that are valuable in particular for their advice to the GM (and a growing number of books dedicated solely to that task), but this is a nice additional benefit.

The Witcher RPG releases at an interesting time, I think–the early draft of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition just dropped recently. Both are gritty fantasy settings full up with desperate surivors over heroes, where adventuring is not a glamorous or desireable profession. Both are intricate settings with deep history and a rabid fanbase. Both games have, I think, pretty similar levels of “crunch” to them (though, to be honest, I hate the terms “crunch” and “fluff” attributed to games). In other worlds, they fill the same niche, a more mature-by-design setting for fantasy games compared to D&D and other “epic” fantasy games.

Is the RPG market big enough for them both? On the one hand, I’m not sure that it matters. They’re both out and I wouldn’t expect a whole lot of supplements for The Witcher RPG (though I won’t mind being surprised). If history is any indication, WFRP4 will have more supplements than the biggest guy at the gym. Certainly, there are loads of high-fantasy games and no shortage of designers trying to make it with new ones (or their own particular flavor of OSR games, for that matter).

In some ways, The Witcher RPG reminds me of the Artesia: Adventures in the Known World rulebook, a RPG that uses a pre-existing-ruleset-that-is-fascinating-but-more-complex-than-I-really-want-to-run to bring to life a fantasy setting born out of traditional fiction that I very much love.

Given that, I expect that The Witcher RPG will fill a similar role in my collection–an RPG that is fun to read but that I’ll probably never run.

Review: Under the Amoral Bridge

By Gary A. Ballard

Audible Narration by Joe Hempel

A cyberpunk backdrop of 2020’s Los Angeles sets the stage for Under the Amoral Bridge. This novella follows the exploits and misadventures of one Artemis Bridge, a former hacker-cum-fixer linking seekers with hard-to-find or not-so-legal goods and services, all the while trying to stay above any ethical quandary about his profession by never touching the goods or services directly. When a piece of information that could determine the results of the first election in Los Angeles since corporation Chronosoft purchased the right to govern the city, Bridge knows that he’s unwillingly been inserted into a game of life and death.

Bridge reminds me vaguely of Lenny Nero in the film Strange Days (one of my favorites and one of few arguably mainstream films in the cyberpunk genre). While Nero’s character gives you a man of some conviction struggling to survive an increasingly corrupt world—with a likeable personality to boot—Bridge simply is. He’s not sardonically witty enough to amuse the reader with his cynicism, too self-interested to hold our interest as an exemplum of the “man against the world” theme, and too petty for us to pay him much respect. After meeting him in the world of this novella, I find him an ultimately-forgettable example of the all-too-common lowlife hustler that appears in cyberpunk.

Had Under the Amoral Bridge been written and published in the 80’s, I would probably find it more difficult to be so hard on the story. But, the book first appeared in 2009. Coming so late to a genre so well-explored in print, film, anime, roleplaying games and video games, a modern cyberpunk book needs to bring something new to the table. I’m not saying that no one can write good cyberpunk anymore (Richard K. Morgan wrote Altered Carbon, a masterpiece of both cyberpunk and noir, in 2003), but we’re well past the point of using a plot arc known by wrote with a cardboard façade of corporate control, ubiquitous technology, topped with a healthy dose of paranoia, slapping it all together and throwing it out like it’s something special.

Looking at Amazon, the book enjoys pretty positive reviews, so I ought to defend my general lack of enthusiasm for the work. I discussed the flatness of the protagonist above, but it’s the rigid and predictable nature of the plot that really gave me fits.

Cyberpunk descends in many ways from noir: the gritty feel, the moral ambiguity, the selfish motivations of the bad guys, the protagonist who we cannot expect to succeed. This doesn’t mean that every cyberpunk story must be a mystery, although many are—again Altered Carbon comes to mind, as does Snowcrash. The best writing within a genre uses the conventions of the genre, but not rigidly, and not always expectedly.

Instead, Under the Amoral Bridge follows convention too closely, making everything feel caricatured. As I stated above, the cyberpunk background of the story feels too canned and too well-trod, coming across like an original Star Trek set piece that will topple if pushed too hard. To be fair, there are a few places where convention is toyed with: the role of the “femme fatale” (if this story really has one) is a relatively unattractive woman who only truly steps into the role when masked behind her net avatar—there’s interesting stuff about identity that could have been explored here, but the opportunity is lost. Then there’s Artemis’ bodyguard, affectionately referred to as Aristotle. He’s a large black man with a penchant for philosophizing and as much brains as brawns, both of which seem to be considerable. I can’t help but think of him being played by Ving Rhames as the story plays through my mind. Aristotle is by far my favorite character in the novella (perhaps the only one I actually liked), and his relationship with Artemis has enough nuance to break away from being a half-hearted twist on convention (as most of the other minor tweaks throughout the novella come across).

Ultimately, the story plays by the numbers, remains relatively predictable to the end, and contains plot “twists” that the characters themselves should have been able to see coming. This culminates in shameless exposition by the bad guy at the end to make sure that the reader gets what’s happened—even though it’s already painfully clear to everyone except Bridge himself.

The work leaves a bit to be desired stylistically as well. In particular, I found myself often distracted by the use of the passive voice where just a smidge of effort could have crafted a stronger sentence. That said, the craft of writing proves exceedingly difficult, and a less-skilled wordsmith can be forgiven if she tells a powerful and satisfying story. The author skilled in technique but without solid storytelling skills is not so lucky. I see a potential in Ballard to rise to the occasion, and it is quite possible that his later works prove that he has improved his technique and storytelling, but I have only read this small part of his corpus.

In full disclosure, I found that the narration of this book on Audible lacked as well, and that might have contributed to my rather harsh assessment of it. The narrator mispronounced a few words, and his accents and voices for characters failed to bring them to life, only adding to their cardboard cut-out feel.

Overall, this is not a bad book. But neither is it extraordinary in any way. With a world so full of amazing works of fiction (and more created every day) and lives so bereft of time in which to enjoy them, I have to recommend picking up something else before Under the Amoral Bridge, unless you want to continue in the Bridge Cycle (currently a four book series) in hopes that Ballard constructs something more grandiose upon this rather plain foundation.