Sunday, 14 October 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer Part 11: WFRP 2 in retrospect

Over the last ten and a half posts, I've surveyed the entire line of WFRP 2nd edition books produced by Black Industries and Fantasy Flight Games. Now, having reaches the end, I can turn back and say: so what was the point of all that, then?

If ever there was a game that proved that most RPG supplements are basically unnecessary, it was WFRP 1st edition. Between 1986 and 2004, over 400 books were published for D&D, compared to 26 for WFRP - and yet WFRP players never seem to have had any difficulty running successful games, despite only having one-sixteenth as many books to 'inspire' themselves with. Even this understates the case, because many of those 26 books were failures, dismissed as irrelevant by most WFRP players. When people wax lyrical about WFRP 1st edition, it's never because they want to heap praise on Castle Drachenfels or the Doomstones campaign. The true heart of WFRP has always been just four books: the 1986 corebook and the first three books of The Enemy Within. It's rather as if the majority of D&D players, circa 1983, had looked at the B/X rules and their copies of Keep on the Borderlands, The Lost City, and Horror on the Hill and concluded that they now had everything they needed in order to happily run D&D for the rest of their lives.

So along came WFRP 2nd edition, and it looked at a player base who had essentially been playing happily with the same four books ever since 1988, and it proceeded to throw twenty-eight more books at them in the space of just four years. Some were good and some were bad and most were somewhere in between, but none of them ever came close to dislodging the 1986 core, Shadows, Death, and Power as, essentially, the four gospels of WFRP.

The need to conform to the new wargame canon caused plenty of issues, of course, but I don't think that was the real problem. I think the real problems were the supplement treadmill, and what I'll call the anxiety of influence.

Image result for skaven doomwheel
The supplement treadmill, Warhammer style.

1: The Supplement Treadmill

The WFRP team circa 2005 may not have been as good at this whole 'RPG writing' business as the WFRP team circa 1986, but they weren't bad. Collectively, they had a lot of good ideas: and even if Jim Bambra and Phil Gallagher could clearly outgun David Chart and Robert J. Schwalb on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, the latter pair still produced a lot of very good work. But they were hamstrung by a business model which demanded an endless stream of content. The books were too long, and there were too many of them, and they were produced too quickly. Most books in the line would have benefitted from losing at least 25% of their page count: Ashes of Middenheim is twice the length of Shadows Over Bögenhafen, and the difference is essentially made up of sheer bloat. More extensive playtesting might have reduced the amount of padding and railroading in the modules. Pascal famously remarked that if he'd had more time, he'd have written a shorter letter. The same may well have been true here.

Imagine if all the best bits from Sigmar's Heirs, Shades of Empire, and The Tome of Salvation had been condensed into a single large sourcebook: say 100 pages on the Empire, 100 pages on its religions, and 50 pages of rules and spell lists and new careers stuffed away at the end. That could have been a book that was really worth putting alongside the best books from 1st edition. Or imagine if The Thousand Thrones had been boiled down to the same length as Death on the Reik, becoming a single long adventure about a failed crusade rather than an ungainly and railroad-heavy campaign-in-a-book. There was so much good material in The Thousand Thrones: so many memorable scenes, details, situations, NPCs. But its ambition was its own undoing, and what could have been a really good scenario became, instead, a rather disappointing campaign.

I daresay that nothing Chart and Schwalb could have come up with would have persuaded the really hardcore first edition purists. But if they hadn't been shackled to a business model that demanded large numbers of lavish coffee table books designed for reading and daydreaming instead of small numbers of densely-written pamphlets designed for actual play, then I'm sure they could have produced something that most 1st edition fans would have regarded, if not as a new WFRP gospel, then at least as worthy of inclusion among the apocrypha.

2: The Anxiety of Influence

This is a fancy term (which I've borrowed from Harold Bloom) for a simple concept. You look at something really good and you say: 'Wow! I want to do something just like that!' But it's already been done, and that puts you, the imitator, in an awkward position. You can't paint Michelangelo-style paintings better that Michelangelo, because Michelangelo is, by definition, better at being Michelangelo than anyone else is ever going to be. You have to find a way to put your own unique spin on it, or you'll never be anything more than a copyist.

I think this was a major problem for WFRP 2nd edition. The further it went from The Enemy Within, the more it was pilloried for being unfaithful to the true spirit of the game. But the closer it came to The Enemy Within, the easier it was to dismiss it as simply an inferior copy of something that already existed. The way out of this crux is to find your own voice, and articulate clearly how what you're doing is 'the same but different', in much the same way that the best contemporary OSR material is clearly indebted to D&D circa 1980 without being simply an imitation of it. But I'm not sure WFRP 2nd edition ever got that far.

I can see glimpses of how it might have done. In books like Realm of the Ice Queen, Renegade Crowns, The Thousand Thrones, and even The Careers Compendium I see hints of a version of WFRP in which the PCs aren't just the same old early modern scum, but early modern scum on the make: ambitious, power-hungry, and internationally mobile. The expanded careers system provided rules for advancing into all kinds of exalted social roles - sea lord, abbot, knightly grandmaster - and the post-Storm of Chaos setting is one where the old order lies in ruins. Someone has to pick up the pieces, so why not the PCs?

If they'd really leaned into this, then I think they might have managed to produce a distinctively new version of WFRP. Doubtless many people would still have preferred the old one, but it would have been much harder to write off the new one as simply an inferior imitation. (Schwalb did a much better job of this in his next game, Shadow of the Demon Lord, which was essentially his own unofficial 3rd edition of WFRP.) As I mentioned in my last post, however, this is an area where the two halves of the line never seem to have matched up. The rulebooks and setting books suggest the possibility of a game of great geographical and social mobility, but the adventures continue to assume that the PCs are penniless desperadoes lurking around the back-alleys of the Empire.

Because WFRP 2nd edition never really managed to articulate its own distinctive vision of the game or the setting, its deviations from the path laid out by 1st edition usually looked like failures or mistakes rather than genuine new alternatives. Possibly it would have found its voice if it had been given a few more years to climb out of the first edition's shadow. But FFG's decision to abandon it in favour of their own version of WFRP ensured that it never got the chance.

In Conclusion

2005 was a long time ago, and the RPG industry has changed a lot in the interim. Back then, the accepted wisdom was that the best way to make an RPG profitable was to throw out as much material as possible, treating your audience as though they were subscribers to a magazine who would expect their regular monthly dose of content. The production of new copy was king, with direct usefulness at the table a distant second. These days, the old kings of the supplement treadmill have all gone out of business, and even Dungeons and Dragons only gets a few new books per year. In this sense, WFRP 2nd edition is like an artifact from the bad old days, a salutary warning of why bigger does not always mean better.

The question of whether it's still worth reading despite this boils down, like everything else related to 17th century Germany, to the division between Protestants and Catholics.

If you take a Protestant, or even Puritan, view on RPG books, where the gospels are everything and further additions are likely to do more harm than good, then the whole edition will probably strike you as unnecessary. It didn't articulate any big new ideas that weren't already to be found in 1st edition. Its adventures were mostly just remixes of 1st edition material. Its supplements were full of rules and settings that almost no-one ever actually used. The core WFRP experience was the same in 2009 as it had been in 1989, just with rules that ran a bit more smoothly. So you might as well just stick with the four gospels - 1986 corebook, Shadows, Death, and Power - and ignore the new stuff.

If you take a more Catholic view of the subject, however, then your assessment is likely to be more generous. The adventures aren't great, but several of them - Spires, Forges, Barony, Terror, Thrones - would be perfectly useable with a bit of work. The random tables in Renegade Crowns could come in handy for anyone running a domain-level game or stocking a hexcrawl. Knights of the Grail and Realm of the Ice Queen contain plenty of ideas worth stealing for games set in approximations of fantasy France or Russia. The skaven could bring a bit of demented colour to virtually any setting. Tome of Salvation is much better than most RPG books on religion. No one book here is likely to bowl you over, but the vast majority of them contain something which you could potentially use in a game. I've even added a version of 2nd edition Kislev to my current D&D campaign world-map, just in case my PCs reach Vornheim and decide to keep heading north.

You don't need this stuff. But if you're looking for a general dark fantasy miscellany to loot for spare parts and raw materials, then you'll find plenty to work with in WFRP 2nd edition. And every lover of OSR-style horror-comedy should take a look at Barony of the Damned.

Coming next: my own private WFRP!


  1. Thanks for all these posts - I generally agree with your assessment of the books. I've found the whole thing fairly depressing but only because I find the idea of WFRP much more interesting than D&D of any sort but I've had very little luck actually playing it. I don't find most D&D very inspiring but I have played hundreds of hours of pretty good to great D&D. This probably says more about my friends and me than it says about D&D/WFRP but still...

    1. That's interesting... I've found the barrier to entry is lower for WFRP than just about any other non-D&D game, partly because of brand recognition, and partly because 'D&D but horrible' and/or 'fantasy Call of Cthulhu' are such easy sells. Still, though, being Not D&D remains a heavy burden for any RPG to bear!

  2. These have been a great series of posts. It's a shame it sounds like WFRP 2E's good parts are spread out across so many books - they sound like interesting tidbits, but not necessarily worth 20 bucks in my opinion (at least, not if I have to dig through each book to find what's good and not good). Glad to hear to you've found some worth putting in your campaign, at least.

    By the way, are we ever going to get a look at that world map? I've enjoyed reading your Team Tsathogga after-action reports and like the idea of a map made up of other, smaller premade maps crammed together. I'd like to see what yours looks like.

    1. Of course, there are more *cough* unethical ways of obtaining them, if you're interested in doing so. The game's Russian fanbase, in particular, seem to have systematically pirated the whole gameline.

      And I can't really upload the world map without spoilers, because some of my players read this blog, too. The campaign's likely to end next summer, though, so maybe after that!

  3. Great series of posts. I suppose I'm more on the "Catholic" side of things since I tend to see any RPG book as primarily something to mine for ideas.

    And even the "four gospels" are diamonds in the rough that, for a lot of those who love them (myself included), still need a greater or smaller amount of tweaking and reworking to get just right - just witness all the stuff you can find online on how to modify or improve TEW. In a weird way I think this elusiveness or incompleteness is part of its strength.

    Very much looking forward to the next post!

    1. I think you're probably right, especially in relation to how badly the whole saga finished. Any number of GMs must have looked at Empire in Flames and decided to write their own conclusions instead. I know I did!

  4. A very fair summary; a most enjoyable series of posts. One point might be expanded on: 2e could be viewed as a better/more streamlined/balanced rule set than 1e, and its virtue is that you can play 1e style games with 2e rules. Regarding AD+D, when 2e came along its rules were easier to understand/less cluttered than 1e (especially after Unearthed Arcana appeared), but surely everyone preferred the 1e modules.
    The core rulebook and TEW up to Power Behind the Throne are indeed great, but I prefer to see them as inspirational examples rather than unrepeatable brilliance. From 1e, I also like Death Rock and Lichemaster. In D+D, I don't think the OSR has touched the heights of Night's Dark Terror, Caverns of Thracia or Vault of the Drow yet, but they are getting close: The Red Prophet Rises, Blood Moon Rising and Ironwood Gorge are all excellent in my estimation.
    I am a little worried with the direction 4e WFRP is taking: reheated versions of the classics seem to be the menu.

    1. Supplemental: I forgot to mention the obvious, that for both D+D and WFRP, 1e and 2e are compatible rule sets, you can play 1e adventures with 2e rules with little conversion.

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  6. I 100%ly agree with you, Joseph, and I still cling to my WFRP 1st edition (French) and keep on clinging to....
    Thanks for all these reviews.

  7. Hello :)
    2 quick questions about that quote :

    "It's rather as if the majority of D&D players, circa 1983, had looked at the B/X rules and their copies of Keep on the Borderlands, The Lost City, and Horror on the Hill and concluded that they now had everything they needed in order to happily run D&D for the rest of their lives."

    Is that your "top 3" of modules from the B/X era ?
    What is you're opinion about the B/X Essentials booklets ?

    Thanks a lot and keep up the good work

    1. I don't think they're the best, no - they're just the first three complete modules in the B series, and thus the D&D counterparts to the first three Enemy Within modules. My B/X top three would probably be B4 Lost City, B10 Night's Dark Terror, and X1 Isle of Dread, though I'm also very fond of X5 Temple of Death.

      I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the B/X essentials series. Does it do anything that the dozens of free B/X retroclones haven't already accomplished?

    2. First three complete and widely-acclaimed modules, I should have said. B3 Palace of the Silver Princess is just odd.

  8. B/X essentials seems to be a strict B/X retroclone with a huge work done on ergonomy/usability. Something close to OSRIC from a design point of view (an old edition perfectly "cleaned"). That's why i wanted your opinion about it :)