RPG Retrospective: WFRP

Funny word, nostalgia. It’s a goofy word. But then I was pretty goofy as a teen, too.

Anyway… for the past 12 months or so, I’ve been rediscovering games of my youth (some in new forms). Traveller was my first rpg. Basic D&D was my second. I never really got on with RuneQuest–I loved the differences from D&D but somehow the gamers I knocked around with back then never took to it. After that I somehow got sidetracked with Rifts… and then regained my footing with Vampire.

Now: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play.

WFRP

WFRP has three iterations, but the one I’m familiar with is 1e. 2e is sometimes described as “WFRP rewritten by americans” and it looks a bit sanitised to me, although the mechanistic changes are mostly consolidation and streamlining–always a good thing. (I have no idea about 3e other than it comes in a big box and has lots of cards–clearly FFG are trying to catch the boardgames market.)

WFRP has a reputation for a “grim and perilous” USP. This has drawn tacit comparisons with Dungeon Crawl Classics (lethal character funnel) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess (fantasy renaissance feel)–and I strongly feel those comparisons are from people with only the most superficial appreciation of WFRP. It probably helps if you grew up with the first series of Blackadder, but anyway–WFRP is not a meat grinder full of syphilitic peasants wading through turds.

What WFRP is, is a true alternative to its contemporaries–the US offerings of D&D and RQ. Not just in look and feel (system matters, but it’s not hard to insert the warpstone, chaos magic and faux renaissance into a generic fantasy game) but also mechanistically. WFRP introduced some innovations that have largely been forgotten in modern games.

1. Careers

There area a few ways games handle the “career” of a character:

  1. Character classes (D&D and imitations) with level progression
  2. Implied careers as starting points but no real reference to them during play (Traveller, CoC, Runequest)
  3. Packages of skills and advantages (Unisystem, GURPS)

WFRP uses the “package” method. Often this approach uses unique advantages or skills (to do with rank, supernatural ability, etc). Still, these packages are usually static after time in and the method reverts to the second approach (i.e. no career). WFRP manages to place the character within a lifepath rather than at the end of it, and that’s a neat thing.

Additionally the careers embed the flavour of the setting in character from day one without being nearly so restrictive as character classes. The careers system is a nice way for players to differentiate between who they are and what they can do.

Porting a careers system to another game may be hard work, however. WFRP careers is good for playing WFRP in the Old World. I don’t know if FFG’s 40k offerings have analogous systems. Still, you could in theory file the names off the careers and reconfigure the list for, say, the Eternal Champion setting.

2. Stat Blocks

On the face of it, the WFRP stat block is “just” a percentile system with some other dice rolled for damage, etc.

WFRP has its roots in WFB, which (being a wargame) relies on terse stat blocks with very specific functions. Translate that to a roleplaying game and you get characters who are rated for % function in a number of rather specific common activities–like Leadership and Dexterity and Weapon Skill.

Just think about that for a moment. Almost every other game either has such figures derived from the stat block (e.g. attribute bonuses in D&D, base competence in GURPS, the prevelance of Skill + Stat for almost all games since Vampire), totally independent of the stat block (BRP), or broadly abstracted (minimalist games like Everway, Summerland, etc).

This has a couple of interesting effects. Firstly this is going to sound dumb, but… the stat block reads left to right in WFRP 1e. Not up and down. That means there’s no implied priority of stats. It’s an axis. Physical abilities on the left, Mental on the right, in the middle are the awkward hand-eye coordination traits that aren’t fully mental or physical. I like that a lot. It also means that if you wanted to rip it off you just had to insert or remove traits that worked for you; the integrity of the stat line is preserved.

Having your numbers in a line reduces the seek time a player takes to look at their character sheet and find a number. Any modern game with appreciable crunch at the very least requires the player to scan their sheet up and down, and usually (thanks to Vampires stat+skill legacy) hunt for two numbers and add them together. These problems can be minimised by good sheet design (and player familiarity) but they’re still intrinsic to the system.

Once all actions of a certain type default to a single percentage (adjusted by circumstance and negotiated bonus) the skills become permissions to act in certain ways–their more like proficiencies than skills. For example, I like the way Weapon Skill covers Ordinary weapons (swords, etc) but something exotic like firearms or cavalry requires a proficiency.

The system doesn’t make sense sometimes–surely a high Fellowship implies a Charm or Carouse skill, so why are these separate skills? That’s easy to fix with list of basic skills (similar to Mongoose Runequest). Add those and you have a system that should be fairly quick to teach.

3. Fighting

Firstly, Fate points. I don’t know if WFRP invented Fate points (as opposed to FATE points) but it’s a cool mechanism. It includes resource management (on the player side) with reward mechanism (on GM side) and allows one to “tune” the game between gritty and pulp (a common notion for Savage Worlds, I understand).

There’s not much else to say about WFRP’s combat except that it’s straightforward and easy to see what’s going on–but that’s what you’d expect from a wargame derived RPG, eh? Still, I do want to mention the Wounds system. The conceit of 

damage = [strength + weapon + roll] minus [toughness + armour]

doesn’t seem revolutionary, but it’s notable for borrowing something that worked well in RQ (armour subtracts damage) and making the calculation as simple as possible. S, T and W usually fall in single digits–but running out of Wounds doesn’t mean death, just that you take Criticals from now on. Yes, there is the problem of Naked Dwarf Syndrome but otherwise damage is easy to work out, and the transparency of the maths is retained.

(As I recall the system did melee criticals well, but missiles weren’t given the same treatment. That’s easily fixed.)

Last Remarks

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p>There are a few things I don’t like in WFRP. I don’t like how Skills and Talents have been separated in 2e–I don’t see the point. I haven’t remarked on the magic because from what I remember it was a bit lacklustre.

I can see a lot of potential in combining RuneQuest and WFRP styles of character record–keep the list of skills, default to a common % based stat block and bypass those abstract stats entirely. Porting an entire Career system over to your homebrew fantasy world will be hard work–and in theory the Career system in WFRP is the source of game balance, but in practice I found it to be pretty random as to whether you got someone worthwhile or useless. As for magic, RQ and Elric! have different systems coming out of their ears–although Exalted Charms might be a good fit, too.

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  • IIRC (and I can’t be bothered to walk all the way upstairs), Warhammer Companion has ballistic critical charts. If so they were almost certainly originally published in White Dwarf. As you say, easily fixed.

    I don’t think the careers were really intended to provide game balance, but I agree that in the end they don’t *quite* work. The basic careers aren’t “fair”, and it’s cheap to switch to the career of your choice. You’d expect to earn the XP to do so by the end of session 1 or 2, the barrier being the GM’s willingness to provide an NPC Wizard/Cleric for you to be an apprentice/initiate to. If nobody gets one in character creation and the GM doesn’t provide this, then the party has no magic. But that’s OK, the GM “should” provide opportunities for the characters to pursue their chosen career paths precisely because the game “should” be (in part) *about* those paths.

    It’s notable that the starting careers of the pre-genned characters in GW’s own campaign are blatantly not random, they’re chosen. GMs have to choose whether to (1) do the same (in which case most basic careers will be forever unused) (2) to allow a kind of ramp-up phase at the start of the campaign in which everyone seeks new mentors (probably what the system expects, but not necessarily how you want to begin) (3) just cheat: give everyone 300XP to spend in character creation.

    There’s also some flagrant mini-maxing, where certain advanced careers get targeted – Assassin because it has +3A, Targeteer because it’s the only +40BS, Judicial Champion (or Trollslayer if you’re a dwarf) for various bits and pieces. There’s an uneasy balance between system and making sense. One can argue that it’s both realistic and dramatic if the only way a character can perfect their fighting style is via instruction from some *very* shady types sporting silk balaclavas. It’s a bit nonsense once the second player realizes that A4 is considerably better than A3.

    It’s certainly true that if you get a bunch of crappy stat rolls and a bad starting career, your character is pretty rubbish. But then, that was the style of the time. Kick-ass characters were dealt out by luck, which is is no better or worse than dealing them out according to player understanding of the system.

  • “there is the problem of Naked Dwarf Syndrome”

    — arguably that’s tweakable. Increase the rating of armour and weapons, and optionally also Wounds. This makes Strength and Toughness less important relative to money, but given the setting that’s probably more realistic. And because the stats aren’t all on the same scale anyway, changing the relative value of different stats doesn’t actually have all that much effect on game balance. It will make some careers somewhat less valuable, because if T is less important then fewer people will go chasing high T. You can always tweak the careers too.

    Anyway, it’s a price worth paying for those who feel it doesn’t make too much physical sense that a roll made in character generation has more effect on your character’s ability to survive an axe blow than wearing plate mail over chain.

    I agree that magic’s a bit “meh”, but the spell lists are in some ways better than AD&D (and certainly suit the setting). The spell components rules are pretty much just a PITA for players and characters alike. In theory they create exciting adventuring opportunities, but in practice they just reduce the value of spells with difficult components. And make you wonder whether ogre bladders and whatnot (and the demand for them) are truly so rare that they can’t just be priced as commodities on the open market, given the existence of places like Altdorf and Marienburg that should be suitable trade centres.

    • Agreed, NDS can be avoided and I actually like the S / T / W setup a lot — much more immediate and intuitive than D&D and RQ.

      One good thing about the spells were the relatively small number of levels. Those spell components, though… I guess that’s the old GW irreverence. Or they really have got it in for giants.

      I do like the “petty magic” spell levels though. Sounds a lot more… medieval than “cantrips”, etc.