They’re Gonna Eat Me Alive

Warhammer fandom mostly passed me by. The wargame came onto my radar around my cash-strapped college years as something it costs a hundred dollars to even start playing. I read one of the Dan Abnett novels on recommendation and (very) briefly played a Dark Heresy game, but find myself completely baffled by the attraction of the 40k setting, where the principle selling points are that it is grim, it is dark, and there is only war. It’s hard to get attached.

However I’ve been more intrigued by the fantasy setting, which is at least grounded in a world similar enough to historical Earth that there’s something to hook onto. Plus, evidence suggests that it takes itself a good bit less seriously than the future setting. But the crucial alignment of “the rules for the RPG are in print” and “I have a group interested in playing” always seemed to pass me by. Then the new edition came out.

The first thing to know about Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying is that it’s a strong inheritor of the “costs a hundred dollars to even start playing” factor of the wargame. In fact, the core set costs about a hundred dollars even (though you can get it on pretty steep sale these days) and I felt compelled to drop around a hundred more on a couple of GM sets and a module before I really felt like I had enough materials to give it a fair test. Fortunately, I’m not a cash-strapped college student anymore, but damn.

The reason for this is that WFRP 3rd involves a huge number of special dice, tokens, and cards: Fantasy Flight is primarily a board game company known for making full use of heavy sheets of die-cut card stock and plastic components, and they took this behavior into the RPG. I’ll go into the details more during the review, but there’s a lot of fiddly bits involved. Interestingly, this makes it more or less the first DRMed (or, technically, ARMed) tabletop RPG: even though the game is expensive enough to bring the pirates out in droves, it would be a hell of a lot of work to reproduce the necessary components from a torrented PDF. Unfortunately, this also means that it’s really hard to create your own material for the game, but I’ll probably talk about that later.

I would say that I’d expect more major RPG producers, like WotC, with access to economies of scale big enough to justify producing the special components, to get into this racket, except Fantasy Flight itself has backed off. They’ve recently begun releasing pure book versions that seem to have a lot of stuff that was previously only on cards incorporated into the text. I don’t have those editions, I have the one with all the fiddly bits, so the review will focus on that. I’m honestly not even sure the game makes sense without all the toys…

Core Mechanics

The game uses specially made dice. There are blue, green, and red d10s for characteristics, yellow d6s for skill expertise, white d6s for miscellaneous bonuses, purple d8s for opposition/difficulty, and black d6s for miscellaneous penalties. Each of the dice has some constellation of symbols: hammers for successes, crossed swords for challenges (which cancel successes), crests for boons, skulls for banes (which cancel boons), comets for awesome luck, chaos stars for awful luck, and then a few more that won’t come up much. Any die face can have no symbol, one symbol, or two symbols (I don’t think any have three). The bad symbols are mostly on the purple and black dice, and the good ones are on the others.

You build a die pool based on a fairly universal process, despite the variety of the dice:

  1. Take blue d10s equal to your applicable characteristic.
  2. Exchange blue d10s for red or green ones based on whether your character is currently in a reckless or conservative stance (and how many steps into the stance you are).
  3. Add one or more yellow d6s if you’re trained in the applicable skill.
  4. Add white d6s if you have a characteristic or skill specialty, spend Fortune points, or have some other misc bonus.
  5. Add one to four purple d8s based on how hard the GM says the task is.
  6. Add black d6s if the opposition has something special going on (like a shield) or there are other misc penalties (like darkness).
  7. Roll all of those dice.
  8. Add up all the symbols.
  9. Cancel out successes/challenges and boons/banes.
  10. Spend the leftovers on whatever your action says you can do with them (though having at least one hammer uncancelled is always a success).

This speaks to what I mentioned earlier, in that it’s hard to make your own stuff: this is very much an exceptions-based, somewhat disassociated system. If you have an attack card that says three hammers does +3 normal damage, that’s what you do if you have three hammers leftover. If I only have a success line for one hammer on my attack card, my three hammers are wasted (but my card might have some cool uses for excess boons or comets that yours doesn’t have). This is not a system where you’re encouraged to make your own house rules and new stuff; you could very easily come up with something that’s so broken your players will fight over the card or so inferior they’ll never buy it.

It’s also a system that can be very swingy. Good and bad dice don’t cancel out before you roll them, but their symbols do after the roll: a black die and a white die will average zero, but they might be a pure positive or a pure negative based on your roll. In my first playtest, Harbinger rolled something like 15 dice for a single action and wound up with a complete wash between rolling blanks and cancellations. It can be weird.

But, it also means that even the basest roll can mean a pool of half a dozen dice. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that there are few thrills greater for players than rolling a big fistful of dice.

Part 2