A Newcomer’s Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition

As Lauri said in his review, I have never played or read any edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or WFRP. My own experiences in RPGs are mostly horror and then American indie games during the last 10 years. My tastes have been drifting as of late, though, which is why I was eager to set my eyes upon a relaunch of a British classic.

Disclaimer: Cubicle 7 was kind enough to send us a pdf for review.

The first British thing in the game is the bloody table of contents. It has little snippets of flavorful text and a surprising amount of stylistically appropriate exclamation marks. It has enough guts to claim that one of the books chapter is marvellous. Sadly, the pdf isn’t hyperlinked, but the index in the back seems to be pretty exhaustive.

Visually, I like the book. The layout is clear and the text is easy on the eyes, the only exception being a letter near the beginning of the book that uses an italicized font going for a handwriting feel. It’s a little heavy to read, but pretty short.

The art gives off a feeling of a warm, soft grimdark, if that’s a thing. The motifs are definitely dark or grim (burning windmills, mighty warriors, cold mountains), but the technique gives it a certain warm glow. I guess there’s a smidge of humor and warmth, or maybe that’s it’s a living grimdark instead of dead grimdark. The characters portrayed in the art look like normal people. Some are overweight, many have dirt on their faces.

The characters feel lifelike and non-polished.

Being used to indie games that are often one-person efforts, I was skeptical of how a book written by ten people would read. While there are some stylistic differences (the rules text being drier and technical than the bloody table of contents), the book holds together well as a whole. It seems to have had a good editor who has trimmed away all the unnecessary bits. The resulting text feels like a… I don’t eat meat that much, but you know the idiom or metaphor where a well-prepared meat is something like no unnecessary fat and only the really good bits? This is kinda like that. While in some parts I could have used more flavorful examples, for instance, it’s a drop in the ocean.

The Old World Through A Poor Newbie’s Eyes

The book portrays its world through both some chapters dedicated solely to setting material and mixing setting stuff with the rules. In the beginning, there are some in-character perspectives and later on, an objective view on the world. I’m not usually big on the in-character perspectives and the letter I mentioned earlier is a little hard to read because of the font.

Whenever the book talks about the world, it seems to find a good balance between color and usefulness. As a result, the world feels alive and easy to play RPG adventures in. It feels like a real place in the middle of changes, populated by a wide variety of people and classes and creatures, and influenced by forces mundane, magical, and blasphemous. The chapter for the world later in the book covers foreboding forests, impressive peaks, ruins that you should stay away from, and a lot of settlements. However, that is not all there is to Warhammer’s world.

In fact, I think one of the coolest things about WFRP is that it feels, for lack of a better world, sociological. Technologically and socially, it is late Renaissance or early Modern, and it is very much a class society. Using a random method, a starting character can be a rat-catcher or a noble. And how a well-off courtier and a beggar living on the street see the world is very different.

Rather than just being individuals in a fantastic world, WFRP manages to paint a picture of the player characters as always being a part of society, part of something bigger than themselves. I can’t recall any other fantasy games that have managed to create such a vivid feeling of living in an actually functioning society with its own rules.

The society as a whole feels familiar enough to be relatable, but also somewhat strange and unsettling – and never formulaic or clichéd. A lot of it might boil down to a matter of taste, because for me the German-based names alone are a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by Tolkienesque languages.

Speaking of Tolkien, I should mention the playable races of WFRP that are quite familiar at first glance: the dominant humans, dwarves, halflings, and elves.

A lot of the dwarves of the world haven’t even seen mountains or even hills, and gather in clans in human settlements instead. They are nothing very original, but they fit seamlessly into the feeling of the world. The certain humor that there is to these dwarves also pertains to the whole game. (This is, of course, a highly subjective matter.)

Halflings are never one of my favorite races. I do like hobbits the way Tolkien portrays them, but overall, in fantasy games, the idea of merry-making little guys prancing around just irks me. To my surprise, WFRP pulls them off pretty well! Instead of just writing off their thievery and merriness as a racial trait, their lifestyle is described as very communal, which makes for some conflicts with other races. And it’s not just about no respect for private property – it’s also a lack of personal space and social boundaries. I’m sure that in play, they can be played obnoxiously, but as a concept, I’m positively surprised! Halflings are a good example of the “sociological” aspect I mentioned earlier because their common traits are explained through a social, rather than a biological phenomenon.

I don’t much care for elves in any game, especially high elves. In WFRP, a good starting point is “a standard perfect elf”. But a couple of ideas go against that and make these somewhat interesting to me, as well. First, there’s been a civil war in the elves’ homeland; and second, they aren’t actually aloofy perfect. They are passionate and emotional, and their society’s (again!) strict discipline aims to keep those in check and keep them focused on intellectual challenges. It reminds me of certain pointy-eared folks from Star Trek and it’s not a bad resemblance. I want interesting conflicts and contradictions, and those two fit the bill; from a roleplaying standpoint, the conflict between strong passions and a required rationality actually seems like a fun thing to do.

The other elves are wood elves, and they managed to take me by surprise! They have a fairy-like mystery to them, appearing alien and even malignant to others; my first impression of them being the above-ground drow of Warhammer doesn’t quite seem fit, though. To the other races, the wood elves are either a myth or a distrustworthy bunch; to the wood elves, the others seem stubborn, hateful, and arrogant. As a concept, they’re very much a familiar bunch of forest-dwelling immortals, but their description feels fresh and intriguing. I like them a lot! The only thing I don’t much care for is the Tolkienesque names (Athel Loren, Laurelorn), but that’s me being bored of Tolkien.

Finally, before going into the rules, a few words on religion-

The gods are very real in WFRP and religion is a big thing in the Empire. Refreshingly, it’s not a Not-Christian Monotheism despite the era, but rather feels like Ancient Greece and Rome in its polytheism.

Myrmidia resembles Pallas Athene, my favorite goddess of mythology.

Religious life is structured around cults and the ten main cults of the Empire each get a page. It may not feel like much, but instead of background fluff, the writing focuses on colorful details and usefulness. Each cult feels different from one another in its practices, visuals, feelings, and strictures. Anyone can read a page and easily refresh their memory on their own cult. The word I’d use to describe such quality is “exemplary”.

Characters with religious powers can call upon their gods for blessings and miracles. The former are subtle and simple, with all 19 of them fitting on a single page; miracles, however, are more complex and clearly miraculous to everyone who witnesses them. If all goes well, a beneficial thing happens; if you fumble (or have sinned too much), you’re struck with the gods’ wrath.

The sin mechanic seems pretty cool in that you accrue Sin points (and sins vary by cult). The more points you have, the more likely the gods are to unleash their wrath upon you from a random table and the more severe the consequences. It’s a lightweight mechanic to make religious folks more nuanced than, say, a paladin losing all his powers for not being the perfect paragon of their faith. Decreasing sin is possible by particular piety, if you’re not willing to be punished for them.

And this seems like a perfect opportunity to segue to rules.

The Character and Their -istics

Mechanically, characters in the game are based on ten characteristics, each with understandable, non-fiddly names. The small exception to the non-fiddliness are Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill, which are remnants from the first edition of the game. It’s a little odd to have weapon skills as separate from other attributes, as strength and agility don’t affect these in any way. On the other hand, I like how the system separates mental faculties into Intelligence (analysis), Willpower (strength of mind), and Initiative (speed of thought). Nuance in mental characteristics is always welcome!

Some non-whites in the Old World, too.

The characteristics are percentile-based and you roll under; I will go deeper into the dice rules later on. In addition to characteristics, a character has skills and talents. Skills are simple bonuses adding some percentiles to the characteristics. They seem a little clunky or measly as bonuses, but they’re also simple. It’s great that the skill chapter offers examples of how to use each skill in combat. The descriptions are clear and technical. I appreciate the lack of purple prose or unnecessary witticisms, but a few touches of Warhammer wouldn’t have gone amiss, either.

Talents as a name painted of picture of a complex set of exception-based rules that I’m not fond of. I was positively surprised, however. Firstly, WFRP talents are not based upon other talents, so you don’t have requirements or talent trees. Secondly, the rules are mostly very simple and many of the talents are explained in one short sentence. Thirdly, you’re not drowned in options, as talents are dependent on your career.

Careers resemble character classes, but they’re more varied and all rooted in the society you’re living in. They encompass a healthy serving of different professions, with flavorful descriptions and reasons to go on adventure. Lawyer doesn’t sound very appealing at first, but it establishes an actual legal system and ways to use and abuse it; the game offers an example of getting rid of a pesky thug by legal means instead of violence.

Physicians, in turn, are not allowed to study cadavers, which makes medicine a pretty unreliable business, and their Guild’s fees are prohibitive; this leads to lots of physicians to seek out income and knowledge from elsewhere. Adventure seeds like this feel embedded into the setting and moreover, to the society. Everyone is a part of this society and I like it a lot.

You can either choose your career or roll it randomly which gives a slight XP bonus in character creation. With characteristics, it’s the same thing: randomization gives an XP bonus. Choices like this are sprinkled all over the game which I think is very cool: throwing dice is the most fun when coupled with decisions.

The character creation has a few steps to follow, but the rules text is clear and seems easy to refer to. With a delightful surprise, the books dedicates a few pages to character naming customs across the races and even includes an Elf Name Generator. Other oddly fascinatng tables are eye and hair color, made interesting the differences between races: some examples are halflings’ liquorice or almond hair, wood elves’ mahogany brown, dwarves’ copper.

Each character and the whole party also has short- and long-term ambitions. The game also has ten example questions to bring your character to life, with the standard “where are you from” and “why are you adventuring” included. My favorite of the bunch is “what are your best and worst memories”, because it’s not only about the objective circumstances of the character, but deeply personal and emotional.

Lastly, from my perspective here, the game offers rules for modeling status in a class society. Status is divided into three Tiers (brass, silver, gold) and within each of those Tiers are Standings from 1-5. That is, a Brass 4 is of a higher status than Brass 2, but lower than Silver 1. It is an excellent idea that enforces the feeling of a society different from ours with simple, unobtrusive mechanics. Besides, hierarchies make for great roleplaying opportunities.

The one thing that I find weird are Advances. Instead of just raising your skill, for example, you pick Advances and pay XP in accordance. And the more often you’ve picked an Advance for said skill, characteristic, or whatever, the more expensive it becomes. I’m not sure how I feel about this. It seems like a little extra bookkeeping. Nothing gamebreaking, to be sure, but it feels like the weirdest design decision to me. Maybe it’s to limit raising an ability too far above the starting level, resulting in a situation where a character starting out from 30 could achieve their rival’s level of 50, but the level 50 person could more easily reach heights that the level 30 person can’t.

The Fiddly Bits

One of the best bits in the book is a section called “Great Game Rules” on page 151. It’s a short list of how to make the game considerate and fun socially. Extra points for “respect people who don’t want… uncomfortable topics in the game, and accept they don’t have to justify why. There are many very good (potentially traumatic) reasons.” There’s something of the same, healthy but non-preachy consideration scattered here and there that I respect a lot.

Better not fiddle too much with that.

The rules as such, the mechanical bits involving dice rolls, use a d100, and a success is a roll under the skill. I don’t know how the old WFRP handled things, but this one has the same dice operations I first saw used in Unknown Armies: doubles (11, 22 etc), rerolls, and reverses (81 becomes 18). That was one of the coolest things UA did mechanically. D100 isn’t a personal favorite, but as long as you’re using it, I welcome all fidgety bits like this. They add to the fun.

While personally I often prefer dice mechanics that use addition or roll-high, this sort of roll-under is very low on the math and as such, a good thing. The game also uses Success Levels (SL) in a pretty elegant, low-math manner. Let’s say your skill is 81 and you roll 17, so it’s a success. For determining the success level, you only consider the difference between the tens: in this case, 8-1 = 7 success levels.

And if that’s too much math, there’s another option available, too: take your tens die straight. That’s your success level. The difference now is that you want to roll high, but still under your skill rating. For me, that’s familiar from Unknown Armies and I like it here, too.

Success Levels are used in easy ways: you compare them in opposed rolls, you try to gather the required amount in extended tests etc. It sounds like a good and fast way to use the basic mechanics. And in extended tests you can also hamper yourself by failing: so, for example, if you need 5 SLs to pick a complex lock and you only have three rolls to try, it creates a nice, tense die-rolling situation.

The book talks about when to throw the dice and what sort of tests to use. The rating you have on the character sheet is your chance at succeeding in a challenging situation. Difficulty adjustments add or substract from your roll in increments of ten. Just the way I like it.

Sometimes the GM adjudicates without a die roll, sometimes a simple pass/fail will suffice, and in the most complex case, you use a Dramatic Test. Basically, it’s a way to use SL to get “yes, and…” results and its ilk. That seems like a fun option for an indie/improv nerd like me.

The SL system sees a lot of use in the book and seems very useful and intuitive.

Lastly, the game has four kinds of points that players can use to influence dice rolls. It’s less complicated than it sounds, because basically the points are luck (fate and fortune) and personal strength (resilience and resolve), with a stronger and weaker level. I like the distinction as it brings both chance and determination into the game.

The rules for using the points are, again, simple. It would seem that they are also pretty “invisible” during play, unlike in some newer games like Fate which is built around the constant ebb and flow of Fate Points. I also appreciate how WFRP spells out the pros and cons of using and not using the points.

All of the rules of the game are presented as optional, as it used the oft-seen Golden Rule of RPGs: “If a rule negatively impacts fun for your group, change it or ignore it.” Gladly, in this case, it isn’t synonymous with bad rules. Rather, WFRP’s rule system seems pretty easy to grasp and adapt to any situation. It encourages the gaming group to ignore rules that don’t seem to fit their playstyle, and to experiment what works and what doesn’t.

I’ll Random Table Your Ass

As usual in a pretty traditional game, combat gets some separate rules that luckily only take 10 pages. The basics are simple: you can both move and act on your turn, in any order. The book says exact movement isn’t very important, and there is no complex variety of different sorts of full actions, half-actions, one-sixteenth-of-an-action and so on.

While ranged combat only uses a single roll, Melee combat uses opposed Melee tests which is often pretty fun: it gives both the attacker and the defender something to get excited about. Hit locations are determined by reversing the attack roll, so a successful hit of 90 becomes a 09 – a hit to the head. Damage uses the SL of the attack roll combined with the weapon damage. So a single (opposed) roll gives three pieces of information.

With rules as written, every double on the rolls (11, 88…) is either a critical hit or a fumble. This seems much too frequent for me, but it’s also easily modifiable.

Modifiers from circumstances can change your fighting ability by anywhere from +60 to -30, so that should give anyone enough incentive to seek out opportunities to turn the fight to their favor.

And speaking of favor, you cain also gain Advantage which is a +10 to your ability. You gain them from circumstances, maneuvers and even by winning the opposed test. I like the idea of Advantage, which seems like an easy way to model the dynamics of battle. Gaining it for each won opposed test sounds a bit unbalanced, though, and without testing it out, I think I might like a minimum SL for gaining Advantage.

Instead of Hit Points, the game has Wounds. The terminology is confusing, because losing Wounds is a mark of damage instead of healing, but other than that, it’s a pretty simple system where you can accrue both superficial wounds and critical wounds (rolled from a grisly table.)

In addition to wounds, WFRP also covers a host of colorful and icky diseases, and psychological conditions. I heard it was called Sanity in the old editions, and I’m happy that they changed it (and remind that the subject is sensitive and any custom rules regarding it should be treated as such). And as a very WFRP feature, there is Chaos which can mutate both mind and body. The systems are, again, simple and versatile.

Overall, the fighting system seems fast and dynamic and encourages everyone involved to think up ways to turn the fight to their favor. Most importantly for me, it doesn’t require a grid to do so. You can gain advantages by ganging up, by using other skills, using stuff in the environment in your favor and so on.

A word on magic is in order, too, although it isn’t about combat as such.

Interestingly, snakes are associated with Lore of Light, “good” magic.

The use of magic is regulated in the Old World. It is powered by the eight winds of magic, each with a different color. Elves know how to use all of them at the same time, but humans are forbidden to do so lest they invoke the forces of chaos upon themselves. Humans teach (and regulate) magic in Colleges. To practice magic outside of it, like witches do, is punishable by death.

In mechanical terms, you learn spells by using experience points. Once you have done that, you have learned the spell and cast it as often as you dare (subject to some restrictions). The winds of magic are attuned to their color, so you suffer penalties if your clothes aren’t of the same color.

The funny thing is, both fumbles and critical hits release unfortunate side effects called miscasts (again, rolled from a table). They can be pretty nasty, but you can offset them by using ingredients appropriate to your wind. I like this approach to ingredients: they’re common to the whole “school” of magic and thematically appropriate to it. It should bring some variety to the game and reduce tedious spell-by-spell bookkeeping. They *do* require some bookkeeping, so you can go without them, but it’s always an extra risk to an already risky venture.

The spells themselves vary in power from petty spells to quite powerful stuff, including summoning and banishing demons. Most importantly to me, the rules text of spells themselves is lucid, as are the magic rules themselves.

The Miscellany

The GM section is the bit in RPG books I always most look forward to. Interestingly, WFRP almost starts out with a pretty long list of GM responsibilities to consider. It can seem daunting, but anyone who’s ever been a GM knows it’s not always easy. I actually see a list of this kind as a boon, because it’s a pretty detailed list of things you can do – and most importantly, get better at! Being a GM entails a host of skills, and the better you know the things you’re doing, the easier it is the get better at them.

The section is pretty short, but the book promises that there will be much more available on the Cubicle 7 website. If it’s of the same quality as here, I look forward to seeing it.

A fully illustrated bestiary ranges from pigeons to dragons to the undead to demons to creatures of chaos. Each gets a paragraph or two of descriptive text. Perhaps most importantly to me, the stat box is very manageable, consisting of the 12 characteristics and the names of their creature traits. The traits themselves are compiled into a master list which continues the same simple, rules-light approach of the game.

There’s a chapter on what you do between adventures. If I end up playing WFRP, I will probably mostly ignore it.

There is no introductory adventure. As I have rarely seen a good one in an RPG core book, I’m glad they used the space for something else.

In Conclusion…

WFRP offers a lot of bang for the buck. The 352 pages contain a lot of stuff and luckily, all of it seems useful. I appreciate how trimmed but lucid the text is. The rules text is technical, but succinct and easy to understand. I got the gist of everything by skimming through the sections and have no doubt that the necessary rules are easy to find and interpret during play. It might be one of those rare games where once you learn the system, you’ll always remember the basics of it.

Some confusing bits exist, but they seem to be limited to introductory sections: for example, the overview of Fate & Resilience seems to contradict itself by saying that Fate points both do and do not replenish quickly, but on further reading, it becomes clearer. Success Levels are mentioned before their rules are introduced, which is confusing on the first reading. The index is there to help and it won’t be a problem in use.

Apart from some organisatory issues early on the rules text is well-organized and explained. Of course, I can’t guarantee how well it holds up in play and what sorts of issues arise with rules interpretations, but my guess is that not a lot.

I have not played the game yet, but even by reading alone, it might be among my top three of fantasy RPGs, the others being Burning Wheel and B/X Dungeons & Dragons. As a text, it’s trimmed to suit its purpose; as a game, it refines some of the best bits of 80s/90s mentality. I like the transparency of its design choices and the tight and flexible core mechanic. I think I could even forego my aversion to D100 just for how easy it is to use here.

This is a quality product and I hope the physical book does justice to it.

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