Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay - First Edition Review

Just so we’re clear on this – this isn’t a review for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Second or Third Edition. This is a review of the 1989 softback Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay First Edition, the re-release of the hardback edition with some of the mistakes of the hardback printing corrected.

I’d been playing RPGs for about five years when Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay came out. I’d primarily been taking part in D&D, AD&D, MERP and Star Wars D6 games and I wanted to do something of my own, get hold of and GM a system that nobody else in my gaming circle had played. I had read the background of Warhammer Fantasy Battle and enjoyed it immensely and so when I saw the softback version of the rulebook I snapped it up. This was 1989. As it turned out, I never got much use out of it until a few years later. Now it’s my favourite fantasy RPG of them all.

It’s an incredibly well presented book. I’ll admit it was the cover art that caught my attention (a dwarf with a mohican? I’ll have me some of that!). It says on the cover that this is a ‘grim world of perilous adventure’. They’re not wrong. Warhammer’s Old World - as it was back then – was dark and moody, down and dirty, with heretics, mutants and danger at every corner and chaos, monsters and devils in every shadow. It really was one of the first, if not the first, dark fantasy settings. There weren’t many shining knights in armour and dashing heroic types here. No, this was darker and much more sinister. If you wanted to play a desperate character up to his eyeballs in mud and filth then this was the game to play.

The system is primarily percentile based and uses all of the different dice, from 1D4s to 1D20s. The system is simple – roll your percentage skill rating or under to succeed. This is used for both normal skill use and combat. The statistics are closely modelled on Warhammer’s Fantasy Battle stats with a few more thrown in to expand the character’s depth. You start with the normal fantasy tropes – you can play men, elves, dwarfs or halflings.

Then we get to the interesting part during character creation – the careers. Careers will decide on how the character starts out and, as they progress through play, they also decide where they will end up and what skills and skill increases they with gather. Starting skills are decided randomly, from Rat Catcher to Academic to Boatman – there certainly are plenty. These careers not only decide how a character starts out but how they progress through their adventuring life. You see, careers have career exits, which means once you have completed a career (i.e. bought all the skills and skill improvements using experience points gained in gameplay) you can then move on to the next career that your current career allows you to. This next career then gives you more skills to purchase and more skill improvements to take.It sounds simple, and in many ways it is, but it really isn’t easy to follow to the letter. The career system can be restrictive on a character as it takes away some of the illusion of free will and only allows a limited path of progression. This can easily be avoided with a house rule or two but it’s one of those systems that you either love or hate. Personally I really like it and so did my players, but it’s easy to see why some people don’t like it as it can feel like the type of character you randomly rolled is limiting you on how you flesh out your character.

Then there’s the magic system.

Oh, my.

It’s a big part of the book – like, really really big – and it’s filled with different kinds of magic, such as Illusionists, Necromancers and Elementalists. It uses a magic point system, which is something I don't have a problem with, but where it falls to the ground is the need for ingredients. When some of these ingredients are things like ‘Giant’s Brains’, you get the impression that hunting supplies is going to be an adventure in itself and the wizard of the group is going to be hulking around a backpack full of brains. It’s not very well laid out and can be confusing, and subsequently there were never very many magic users in my gaming groups.

All in all the system works well and is easily modified if you need to make any house rules. The combat system is based around using miniatures of course (it’s Games Workshop, after all) but I’ve never run a game where I had to use them. That’s all fine, but the first edition of the game has been around for more than twenty years, so why review it now?

I’ll tell you why – because if you manage to get hold of a copy this book the chances are you’ll never have to buy any other books to go with it. This book alone has kept me in Warhammer adventures for years and the only reason why I bought any other supplements was because I wanted to expand my WFRP collection and not to expand the rules or the world.

You see, this book has everything. It has character creation, combat rules, rules for skills, complete career charts, a complete magic system, the history of the Old World, a map and world description, rules for travelling by boat and cart, rules for diseases and madness, a complete pantheon and how to use it, gaming tips, adventure tips and seeds, a massive bestiary and lots more besides. What I love about this book is that it has every single thing you need to run not only a few adventures but also a string of entire campaigns set in the Old World. You don’t need to buy the rulebook and then a handful of other guides to complete the set or make a playable game or gameworld – all you need is this one, solitary book. I have run literally hundreds of games where I have bought the rulebook and other supplements to the gaming table and I have only ever needed to rulebook. In fact, I’ve sold all my supplements, now. All I have left is the rulebook, a GM screen and a rules companion. That’s it. With these three things I’m sorted – there would be no need for me to buy any other books unless I wanted to run a published adventure (and I pride myself in the fact that during my long years as a tabletop roleplayer I have never, ever, run a published adventure).

I've also used this book to run other fantasy-based games set outside the Warhammer universe. By allowing players to choose their careers and career paths they had complete control over how their character's progressed. With very few modifications and interpretations I managed to use the rules in a variety of fantasy settings, from dark to historical to high fantasy.

I still have my original rulebook from 1989. It’s still in one piece – none of the pages have fallen out. Where my thumb had been flipping the pages is a bit grimy, the covers and spine are creased, but it’s all still there. Yes, the rules can be clunky and the career and magic system need tweaking and house ruling but it’s still a wonderfully atmospheric game that invokes the grim world of perilous adventure perfectly.