Fiddly Bits

WFRP uses the following components:

  • Career cards (both a large sheet with details and a small card with a power)
  • Small special ability cards (talents, tactics, reputation, and caster order)
  • Large action cards (double sided, giving you a single special action in either stance)
  • Stress/Fatigue tokens (gained via various elements and key to going insane)
  • Wound cards (with critical hits on the back)
  • Insanity cards (each with a different derangement)
  • Casting side-effect cards (for when you screw up a spell)
  • Mutation cards (and tokens to track mutating energy accumulation)
  • Puzzle pieces (for building stance tracks and progress trackers)
  • Hourglass tokens (for tracking whether you’ve acted)
  • Party sheet (gives the group special abilities and penalties for arguing)
  • Miscellaneous tokens (for tracking fate, position, cooldowns, etc.)
  • Module-specific elements (like NPC reference cards or house crest tokens)
  • Character portrait pogs (with stands)
  • Dice

That’s a lot of stuff, and I actually think I’ve missed a few component types.

The components provide an easier way to deal with certain classic types of play. In particular, cards replace random tables: if you take a critical hit, you just flip over one of your wound cards and take that effect. Nearly all elements that would have to be a chart without the components are instead just a shuffled deck of cards. Even randomizing starting career is handled with the cards.

Unfortunately, they do have a couple of significant downsides.

The first, as alluded to last week, is that they make it annoying to add your own material to the game. Even if you go to the trouble of trying to replicate the format and printing on cardstock, the elements you make aren’t going to feel like part of the set of professionally printed and sealed cards. That may be less of an issue if you’re not as OCD as I am, but I suspect your players will notice and treat the new elements differently than the base ones.

The second is that they’re challenging to keep organized and deployed. One tackle box/organizer tray is insufficient even for the base set, and every new set adds more stuff. Many of the elements are meant to be deployed in specific ways relative to the others: special ability cards attach to character sheets and party sheets, puzzle pieces need to be arranged into tracks, tokens need to be placed on all the other elements, and so on. At my last playtest, it took me the better part of an hour to get everything set up and in easy reach for use during play. Again, your level of OCD may make this a lesser or greater problem, but at best you’ll find a lot of time being eaten up by component management compared to standard games where as soon as you slap down character sheets and pour out dice, you’re ready to go.

Yet they are fun to play with, once you’ve gotten past those downsides. The components lend a very tactile feel to the game, and do make it easy to reference the status of play (e.g., how much stress, fatigue, and wounds your players have). In general, maybe I’d be more satisfied if not everything had to be a card or token, and they were saved for the more core, generic elements of the system.

Three Act Structure

One thing the game tries to do is build story structure into the rules at a core level. Adventures are intended to break major segments into three sections, with a pause in between at a major shift or break. These pauses are called the Rally Step, and give the players a few refresh benefits and a free action between major scenes. Some actions and special abilities directly reference the Rally Step, making it more or less required.

Unfortunately, the structure is built into the rules deeply but not broadly. It mainly seems to apply to combat scenes, with roleplaying scenes handwaved as “story mode.” There are very precise rules for removing negative tokens, taking actions, and shifting stances in combat mode, but only minimal guidelines for story mode. The rules read like the designers had a cool idea for baking acts into the rules, but couldn’t quite conceptually bridge the gap between combat scenes and other scenes. The result is some significant unevenness in play, particularly since even the modules don’t always use the three stage structure for combats, often having a one-off, single-stage fight. I’ve spent significant parts of the playtest trying to find justification in the rules to keep players from just completely refreshing anything but wounds during story mode (and to figure out how often they can attempt first aid on those wounds).

I like what they tried to do, but I would have liked it more if the rule was either fully integrated across play or less integrated into combat. As it is, combat and story are more firmly firewalled than even other fantasy games. It also results in combats becoming set pieces: the players are almost certainly going to get into this carefully balanced fight. But, given that this is Warhammer and not D&D, combat is very dangerous (which I’ll likely discuss more later) and your players would probably rather you weren’t wasting a lot of planning for combat if you allow them to circumvent the fight with roleplay and cleverness. That is, when you spend time in your prep designing a combat encounter, you’re probably going to have to fight an impulse to railroad it into happening even if your players have a good plan to avoid it.

I did eventually hit on the concept of overlapping action scenes, where some of the action scenes were extremely long (e.g., each round of the investigation takes a few hours, so the investigation action scene may take several days, but combat can happen during these scenes without ending them). So it isn’t hopeless that the structure could be extended across the whole play experience. Out of the box, though, there’s not a lot of support.

Part 3