Friday, November 5, 2010

Top 5 Roleplaying Games: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

To continue the series on what I believe the top 5 role-playing games of all time are, I hereby give you: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

Much like the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay system (of which I wrote in the first installment), this is a dangerous game, where one cannot simply walk into a room of orcs and begin swinging safely, nor can you discount the effects of madness, or disease. Very few healing potions will save you from Nurgle's Rot, or the sight of watching your friend's leg get hewen from her body.

Remember what I said in the preamble to this series: These games are arranged in no particular order, otherwise this would be last in the series taking it's rightful place as what I believe to be the best roleplaying game I've ever played. Also remember what I said about editions. When I mention a game I take into account all of the editions I have played, in this case it's all of them.

I began my first foray into Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) during the years when Hogshead took over production of the game. This was in the early 2000s, and during that time the Games Workshop in Metrotown Centre (which was my game shop of choice) actually carried the books. Apparently they didn't sell exceptionally well, but I bought every, damned, book they had over time. i had dabbled in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition previous to WFRP, but never had I dove into a game with such enthusiasm as WFRP 1st edition. Perhaps it was my already well-grounded love for the Warhammer World through the fantastic miniatures game, or perhaps it was the fact that while AD&D 2E was fun, WFRP promised to be a dangerous and brutal game that would tax my decision-making skills in ways that dungeon crawling never had.

I began Game Mastering (GMing) the Enemy Within Campaign (even today hailed as an amazing campaign by critics, and the most fun I've ever had playing an RPG). The Enemy Within took the players on a quest from Bögenhafen near Altdorf, all the way to Kislev and back to confront a Greater Daemon of Tzeentch and save the Empire. Though the time in Kislev was a bit tedious and strayed from what is now believed to be absolute canon of the Warhammer World, the dark humor of the stories and the recurring characters made you feel totally immersed. If you're looking for a sentence to sum up the greatness that this campaign and game possessed: WFRP 1st edition and the Enemy Within Campaign kept a group of four 9th graders playing every week for the entire 5-volume set.

Then in 2005 during my time working as a redshirt at the very Games Workshop where I first experienced WFRP, Black Industries was founded. This subdivision of Games Workshop was to deal with Games Workshop's board and role-playing games, though the rules were developed by the ever-creative Chris Pramas and the folks at Green Ronin Publishing in Seattle. Green Ronin created the 2nd edition of WFRP; tidying up some of the loose ends and clarifying bits here and there, but overall not changing much. To a gamer like myself (who hadn't sojourned across the Old World in over four years) this was perfect. Now more people could experience what I and my three friends did back in high school. The big campaign was called Paths of the Damned, and was a three-part series that advanced the WFRP timeline to the current events of the Warhammer World: The Storm of Chaos.

In 2008/2009 the reigns of board and role-playing game publishing went to another American outfit called Fantasy Flight Games (FFG), a company who had made other forays into role-playing but was most famous for its boardgames. Fantasy Flight soon announced another edition of WFRP, and this time it would be different again from other role-playing systems. This time it was to have board game components. This news shocked the role-play community (gamers are a fairly conservative group), and I must admit even shocked myself.

As a clerk at a games shop I got a complimentary copy from FFG and I ran the intro adventure in it for a group of gamers. While skeptical at first, it quickly grew on me. I realized that what I loved about WFRP wasn't the percentile dice, or the critical hit charts, or the miniatures (though all those things were great), but that I loved the grittiness, the danger, and the insanity. The third edition (though adding cards, symboled instead of numbered dice, and counters) was exactly what the other editions were, but more innovative.

So how do the games work then? Well, the first two editions are similar, but the third isn't really, so I'll do them in two groups.

1st/2nd Editions
To begin you'd roll d10s and add a modifier for each statistic, which were similar to the Warhammer Fantasy Battle statistics: Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, Wounds, Leadership, Intelligence, Willpower, and Dexterity. Then you'd choose a race and a class (Elf, Human, Dwarf, or Halfling; Warrior, Academic, Priest, Rogue (classes were gotten rid of in 2nd edition)). Then you'd roll a d100 on a career chart (or a specific career chart as determined by your class in 1st edition), and cross-reference your roll with your race and get your career. This would describe what you did before you became an adventurer.

The game was d100 based with low-rolls being better than higher ones. You'd want to roll under your characteristic to succeed, then for damage you'd roll a d6 (in 1st edition) or a d10 (in 2nd) and add the first digit of your strength (or the Strength Bonus in 2nd edition, which was the same thing as in 1st, it just got its own entry on the stat line), subtract the Toughness and armor of the opponent and that's how many wounds you'd do. If your opponent's wounds got to below 0, you'd roll a d100 on a chart, cross-reference the amount that the damage brought the opponent below 0 by, and get a result which you'd look up on a chart. Also, the game was location-based, so you could hit someone in the arm, head, whatever.

The magic systems were the most different in the two editions: In 1st it was more like Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3rd edition where your character would have a certain number of magic points that would decrease with spell use and increase with rest. Almost like a currency. In 2nd edition, you had a magic number which would be the number of d10s you had to roll. If any of them turned up a 9 (Tzeentch's favorite number) you'd roll on a specific chart depending on how many 9s you rolled and see what your penalty is. Magic in 2nd edition was more in line with Warhammer Fantasy Battle 6th edition, and was, thus, more dangerous. I liked the 2nd edition way of magic better.

3rd Edition
3rd Edition still has the careers, still has the critical hits, and still has the insanity, but they all work a little differently. The characteristics are point-buy instead of rolling (because in this edition there are no numbered dice, only ones with symbols). Then you'd choose your career card, and choose your talent, and action cards. Talent cards fit into your career sheet like slots, with each sheet having space for a certain number of talent cards, and the action cards are ones you're trained in, or have the requirements for. The dice mechanic is much better than in the first two editions, and it goes like this.

Take the number of blue d8s based on your characteristic, and add any white d6s if you have a bonus to your characteristics. Then add a number of purple d8s equal to the difficulty. Then you must convert a number of blue d8s into either red d10s if you're reckless, or green d10s if you're conservative (as determined by choice, and career). If you have any pertinent skills, add a yellow d6, and then add white d6s for favorable environments/situations and/or black d6s for unfavorable ones.

Then roll. Certain symbols cancel out others, and others just stay there. You're able to succeed, and still have bad things happen, as well as fail, and have good things come out of it. Personally, I believe this mechanic helps role-playing as opposed to hindering it. In games with numbers, it's easy to just say "I hit" and move on. This way, you're forced to describe the scene to make sense out of why you can succeed but still have bad luck. "As you stab into the beastman, he slips on the blood of his comrades, wrenching the sword out from your hand and falling to the ground just as the minotaur bounds towards you."

The game also takes miniatures and battle mats out of the equation. Weird, especially with the fantastic range of figures Citadel Miniatures has. However, this makes the role-playing the center of the action and the exact placement and fiddly details of maps gets pushed aside. Criticize the game all you want, but you can't say that role-playing is limited in favor of a 'board game aesthetic.'

Overall, I love the new edition (possibly the best). It definitely adds more to the game table (which isn't always good), but the to-hit ratio is greater, and it still retains all the bits of the last editions that I loved. That being said, I wouldn't have played the last editions for nine years if they weren't brilliant either, and so I shouldn't say that the new edition blows the others out of the water, but that it adds to them to help make WFRP the best roleplaying series I've ever played.


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