System Review: WFRP 3rd Edition, Conclusion

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If You’re Still Alive, My Regrets are Few

Looking back rationally, the money I’ve spent on WFRP seems hugely excessive. I mean, who dumps upwards of $200 on a game just to have enough material to run a couple of sessions? Crazy people, that’s who. I could have had a dozen indie games for the same price to demo, or a two-years-of-bi-weekly-sessions’ worth of modules.

And yet I regularly look at more supplement packs for the game online or at the local game store with a greedy eye.

If FFG has captured nothing else from the original Games Workshop oeuvre (and they have actually captured a lot of other stuff), it’s the ability to create product that preys on the wallets of geeks with extra disposable income and has them coming back for more. In a climate where digital distribution and rampant piracy have caused us to think deeply about the actual cash value of a book, Warhammer is a genre based more on stuff. While much of the rest of the industry is about creating an enjoyable read that you, every once and a while, have to pick up to reference at the table, WFRP is a pile of high-production-value plastic and cardboard that will constantly be moving through your hands and around the table as the game goes on. Kinesthetic appeal is a powerful motivator.

But in a lot of ways, for me, this appeal goes too far. While the draw of getting tangible goods is a siren’s song for my hand-to-credit-card reflex, the consequence is a blow to my limited-time-to-game reality. It literally took me over half an hour to set up my table with all the components in the right spot so that they’d be accessible during play. Sure, with experience that setup time would drop, but never to the same level as most other games: pass out character sheets, pull out dice and notes, make sure rulebooks are in easy reach, and go. As much as greed compels me to buy more WFRP, sloth reminds me how much of a chore it all is.

I suspect there’s a happier middle ground that some other game could hit: a combination of of high-quality components and ease-of-deployment that would create a very successful product that could charge a premium price. And it’s certainly a balance that some of the bigger companies might need to hit to continue to pay salaries. The rise of small teams and small print-runs sold online seems to have largely disrupted the bigger companies and forced them upmarket or out of the industry entirely. You no longer need a large business to produce a high-quality RPG book, but you might still need one to produce what’s effectively a board game/RPG hybrid. I’d be surprised if we didn’t see some more attempts over the next few years.

On it’s own merits, WFRP is a pretty fun game. It seems to do a reasonable job of achieving the style of play it wants, and takes a few risks in design (some successful, some not). My players all really enjoy it. But, at the end of the day, they don’t necessarily enjoy it more than games that are significantly cheaper and faster to set up. So if you’ve got a couple hundred dollars to spend and like Warhammer Fantasy, it’s certainly worth a look. But you’ll probably find your gaming dollar goes further elsewhere.

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System Review: WFRP 3rd Edition, Part 3

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Character Creation

One of the elements of classic WFRP that even I know about is the concept of progressing through careers, the first of which is randomly generated. It’s key to the unfairness of the whole setting: one player might start off as a noble’s agent, another as a highly-trained assassin, and a third as a broke peasant. That peasant may eventually work his way up by carefully trading to better careers along his progression path, but he’ll always have that social stigma.

Like most things, the new edition handles this with cards. There are a large number of careers that players can start with (and a few others that you can only advance into). Players randomly draw a few starting careers and pick one that’s appropriate to the race they’ve already picked. Each career lists attributes, skills, a starting stance track, and a list of ten potential advances. At character creation, those elements limit what the player can buy with chargen points. If Education isn’t on your list, for example, you can’t start knowing how to read.

The player then spends a handful of creation points to upgrade attributes from racial and class minimums and buy extra skills, talents, actions, and wealth. As noted, skills can only be trained within the current career’s list. Talents can be purchased outside this list, but you can only actively use talents for which your career has a slot (e.g., if your career is all about Reputation, you’re better off buying Reputation than Tactics talents). Actions are more open, but are often special uses of attributes and skills: if you career doesn’t focus on archery-related traits, you probably shouldn’t buy archery actions. Finally, buying extra wealth and gear may be a waste of permanent character potential, but really, really helps out in your early years.

Once you start playing, like most games you’ll get exp. Experience is traded off one-for-one for advances. As mentioned, each career has ten advances, which are things like “raise your wound threshold” and “train a skill.” You can’t repeat one unless it’s listed twice, but you can mark off several and buy up one of the career’s attributes instead. Anything else is more expensive, and goes into non-career advances. Once you’ve bought all ten, you’re basically done with the career (and also get the bonus of being able to permanently keep that career’s special ability once you transfer out).

At any point, you can spend exp to switch to a new career. Doing this costs less if you’re going into a career that is similar to your current one (i.e., it shares keywords on the cards). Once you’re in the new career, you have a new list of ten favored advances, a new career card (possibly with different talent slots), and a new career ability.

I rather like the system. It’s a little gamist (but no more than the rest of the engine) in how it limits what you can buy, but it does offer the option of buying other upgrades as a higher cost. It’s potentially not as unfair as previous editions, as every career is built around the same number of upgrades, but special abilities can certainly make it feel like one career is cooler than another. It does do a really good job of imposing class on a skill-based system: an Agent and a Mercenary, for example, feel very distinct in that one is socially focused and the other on melee. In a more freeform skill-based system, characters are more likely to focus on the same kinds of useful things unless they make a conscious effort at niche protection. The careers system keeps players from having to do that.

Combat

I’ve already basically explained the way the rules interact with combat. It really is a typical turn-based, mitigation-based, hit-point-based system once you get past the cards and the weird dice. But I want to call a few interesting things out.

Initiative

The game uses a hybrid of a modern D&D-style fixed initiative system (everyone rolls and goes in order) and an older-school, team-based system. Effectively, initiative rolls are made to organize the two (or three, if NPCs are helping) sides, and then the players and enemies decide among themselves who will actually go on an initiative tick. So, for example, if your party’s archer wins initiative, he’s basically just given the party access to going first. Any party member can claim that initiative tick on any given round, even the member who rolled lowest.

I still like a simpler system of just alternating between sides, but this is definitely preferable to an in-order system while preserving its trappings for those that like them. It certainly makes it more likely that the entire table will stay engaged in what’s going on instead of individual players tuning out until their turns come up or they’re attacked.

Movement/Range

I’ve explained the movement system and my reservations about it previously. I appreciate what they tried to do with making a fantasy game that doesn’t assume the use of a battlemat, but I don’t think it was accomplished as thoroughly as they’d hoped.

Stunts

I really appreciate that, in a heavily-structured, card-based combat system, one of those cards is Perform a Stunt with some basic guidelines for doing something cool that there’s not an existing card for. This does a really good job of softening the formality of the action system and letting players know that deviating from their action cards is allowed (even if it’s not often optimal).

Wounds and Healing

As mentioned, wounds are tracked with cards. Once you get more than your wound threshold, you go unconscious, one of the wounds flips to a critical wound, and you check to see if you’re dying (more likely if more of your wounds are crits). Other game effects, largely based on attack results, can also give you critical wounds.

Healing is pretty hard unless you have someone trained at First Aid, and even then it’s no walk in the park. Healing someone at all is one challenge die of difficulty, and if they have any crits it goes up to two dice. And failing the roll might make the wounds worse. Even if you have a priest, divine healing is very unreliable until rank 2 (at which point it just becomes expensive). You can also buy healing draughts which are really expensive.

For my first playtest, none of the PCs has First Aid trained, and they took crits in their first fight. The chance of success for First Aid was less than the chance of making things worse, so they dragged themselves around beaten up for the rest of the adventure. The next playtest, they made sure they had someone trained and the first fight’s damage was easily overcome, but there were no crits (which would have made it harder). It was actually perhaps too easy, because, outside of combat, there seems to be no official limit on how often you can roll First Aid on the same character (but I honestly could have missed such a limitation).

The wound system seems to mostly do a really good job of capturing how gritty the game and world are supposed to be: getting wounded more than a little bit is really terrible for your characters. I think the rest of the system makes getting into combat too much the default, which can cause problems once players realize how screwed they are once they take damage, but that’s not the wound system’s fault.

The wound system is just there, being perfectly appropriate, wondering why PCs keep getting into fights all the time. Seriously…they could die.

Conclusion

System Review: WFRP 3rd Edition, Part 2

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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

System Review: WFRP 3rd Edition, Part 1

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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

WFRP Alternate Range System

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The new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses an abstract method of ranges and movement. The basic idea is:

  • Extreme range is really far away and only certain ranged weapons can attack from this far. It takes three move maneuvers to get to Long range.
  • Long range is the maximum range for most ranged weapons. It takes two move maneuvers to get to Medium range.
  • Medium range is the standard ranged attack distance. It takes one move maneuver to get to Close range.
  • Close range is basically “just outside melee reach” and is common for spell ranges. It takes one move maneuver to Engage with another opponent at Close range.
  • Engaged means you’re in a melee scrum with opponents (or just adjacent to allies). It takes one move maneuver to safely extricate yourself back to Close range.

This is all well and good if there’s one big burly brawl that all the melee guys are trying to get to and all the ranged characters are firing into, but it quickly becomes confusing if there are multiple engagements, enemy ranged characters spaced differently around the fight, and other difficulties. Even if everyone is in a straight line, it’s hard to answer questions like “My ally and I were at Long range and he just moved to Medium range from the enemies. Can I still target him with a Close range buff spell?”

This system converts the ranges to a less abstract system to answer these questions more easily. It still uses the same distance measurements and movement rules, but requires either a ruler or a grid (preferably a hex grid to make diagonal movement easier).

One move maneuver allows a character to move two spaces, except when extricating from an Engagement, in which case it only allows once space.

Ranges work according to the following chart:

Spaces Range
0 Engaged (and all other characters contiguously based are in the same Engagement)
1 Close
2 Medium
3-6 Long
7-12 Extreme
13+ Out of range

 

Example:

Ranges for WFRP

Alternate Encumbrance System for D&D/Pathfinder

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Nobody likes managing their exact weight when playing D&D. The new Warhammer Fantasy RPG has switched to a more abstract system of encumbrance with smaller numbers. Here’s how to convert D&D/Pathfinder to the same scale:

Basics

A point of encumbrance is roughly equivalent to 3-5 pounds (for Medium equipment). If the item is particularly bulky, that number should be closer to 3. If it’s compact or otherwise easy to carry, it should be closer to 5.

Each character has an encumbrance threshold equal to Strength plus Str Mod (if positive). When equal or less than that threshold, the character is Lightly encumbered. Up to 2x the threshold is a Medium load, and up to 3x the threshold is a Heavy load.

Characters treat gear sized for them normally and multiply or divide by 2 for each category changed (e.g., a Medium Longsword is 1 encumbrance for a Medium character, 2 for a Small character, 4 for a Tiny character, and less than 1 for a Large character). Quadrupeds have a +50% threshold.

Gear Equivalencies

Weapons

  • Light weapons have negligible encumbrance (though they add up if stored, see below).
  • One-handed weapons have 1 encumbrance.
  • Two-handed weapons have 2 encumbrance.
  • Particularly bulky weapons (like hammers and axes) have +1 encumbrance.

Armor and Shields

An armor or shield’s encumbrance is equal to (non-magic) AC bonus plus Armor Check Penalty (e.g., a Chain Shirt has +4 AC and -2 ACP, so has encumbrance 6). Add +1 for spikes or other adornments.

Gear in Containers

Other gear is rated primarily by the containers in which it is stored. The player and GM should agree on how full they think various storage items are, and assign encumbrance accordingly. For example, a knapsack is 0/3/5 encumbrance, depending on whether it is mostly empty, partially filled, or completely full.

Container Empty/Partial/Full Max Weight (Medium Sized)
Small Pouch 0/1/2 5-10 lbs.
Knapsack/Large Pouch 0/3/5 15-25 lbs.
Large Pack 1/6/10 30-50 lbs.
Small Chest 5/10/15 100 lbs.
Quiver/Case 0/1/2 20 arrows/bolts
Bandoleer 0/1/2 10 daggers

Other Gear

If the item does not fit in a container, assign it an ad hoc encumbrance amount equal to half its weight in pounds (because, presumably, if it can’t fit in a container it’s being carried awkwardly and uncomfortably). This is meant to reflect carrying the item for an extended period: it shouldn’t be used to determine the character’s ability to manhandle things short distances.

If the player specifies a number of items that could fit in containers but are attached to various belts or pieces of clothing, feel free to assign extra encumbrance as appropriate.

The character’s worn clothing is not encumbering unless it is especially bulky, in which case add up to +2.

Pet Peeve: Dual-Axis Stats

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I have an irrational dislike of dual-axis stats. By dual-axis, I mean any stat that applies twice to the same task in the game, such that effectiveness at the task basically increases as the square of the stat’s level: level 2 is four times as good as 1, level 3 is nine times, and so on. Ultimately, it feels inelegant to me in most cases, and often even feels like an unforeseen side effect created by the designer. Examples:

  • In Mage: the Ascension, Arete governs both the number of dice you roll to create magical (or magickal, depending on the edition) effects and limits the Spheres you use to create these effects. Arete 1 means you can only roll 1 die and create level 1 effects, Arete 2 means 2 dice and level 2 effects, and so on. The higher your Arete, the more successes you’re going to get on effects that are more powerful and versatile to begin with. It was rare for anyone not to raise their score as high as possible in character creation without intentionally wanting to play a weaker character.
  • In the Dresden Files RPG, a Wizard’s Conviction rating determines how much Mental Stress the caster will take from using Evocation magic, and the size of his or her Mental Stress damage track. Evoking deals Stress equal to the amount your spell’s power exceeded your Conviction. High Conviction also means you can take more and bigger Stress hits. Any player that plans to play a Wizard would, like in Mage, be intentionally playing a weaker character by not buying Conviction as high as possible in character creation.
  • In a non-magic related example, the new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses a character’s Toughness rating as both bonus hit points and damage resistance. A character with Toughness 5 will take four fewer wounds per hit than a character with Toughness 1, and will be able to take four more total wounds. In this case, the effect is diluted somewhat by having additional resistance from armor and a large number of base hit points, but a player who expects to be in combat a lot is well advised to buy up Toughness.

As mentioned, my dislike of this effect is largely irrational, when the effect is deliberately created by the designer: sometimes, a system benefits from a stat being made significant by raising on a geometric rather than linear scale. What I don’t like, however, is when this is a hidden element of the system, such that all rules indications make it seem like the dual-axis stat is just as important as stats that raise on a linear progression. In games with such deceptively potent stats, newer players may not focus on the stat, and wind up with a character that’s significantly underpowered relative to the party, while experienced players may feel compelled to max out the stat during character generation even if they’d rather make a more diverse build.

Ultimately, I’d probably be mollified if games with such stats called out the difference in the game’s character creation text. If the stat was raised by a different method than the other stats (possibly even having a locked rating based on character type rather than consuming a variable amount of creation points), that would, in my mind, be a bonus. But, really, no matter how mollified I’d be, I’ll still have that pet peeve in the back of my mind that the system would be more elegant if the stat didn’t have to double-dip into the same rules element.