Thursday, 16 August 2018

Bringing down the hammer: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st and 2nd edition

Last year, Cubicle 7 announced that they would soon be bringing out a 4th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Not long afterwards, pdfs of the entire line of 2nd edition WFRP books were made available on Humble Bundle. I picked up the whole set for $20, and have been browsing intermittently through them ever since.

Now that previews of WHFRP 4th edition have actually been released, I thought it might be an appropriate time to do a post about the game's first two editions: what they achieved, why they mattered, how they differed from one another and from the wargame they branched off from, and so on. But once I got going I discovered I actually had quite a lot to say. So this is going to be a series of posts rather than just one.

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Like many British gamers, Warhammer was a big part of my childhood. My older half-brother, Rob, had been a Warhammer fan back in the mid-1980s, when the wargame had just been getting started; but in his late teens he moved onto other, cooler things, like meeting girls and playing the guitar, and when I was about 12 he gave me his collection of old White Dwarf magazines and a couple of beautifully-painted chaos warriors. (He was an artist for a while. I've always envied his skill with a brush.) At the time I was still reeling from my discovery of Dragon Warriors, so giving someone with my recently-acquired love of dark historical horror-fantasy a pile of early White Dwarf magazines, Ian Miller art and all, was like pouring oil on a bonfire. For more years than I like to think about, every penny of hoarded pocket money was spent on buying skaven warriors for Warhammer and tiny plastic orcs for Space Marine. (Remember Space Marine?) I even tried my hand at painting some of them, although I was never very good at it.

So I was playing Warhammer in the 1990s, which I gather counts as 'Oldhammer' by modern standards; but because the gift of Warhammer had come to me by inheritance, I always felt that my Warhammer, the real Warhammer, wasn't the Warhammer in the Games Workshop shops I visited, but the early 1980s version I'd read about in the magazines which had been bequeathed to me. Even then, it was obvious to me that a huge amount had changed between the first edition published in 1983 and the fourth edition version that I was playing in 1993-6: it had been made shinier, more heroic, more kid-friendly, more marketable. There was less historical grounding, less black humour, less sex and violence, less satirical Blackadder-esque grimness and grime. (Warhammer 5th edition, which came out in 1996, took these changes even further, and marked the point at which I started sliding away from the wargame entirely.) With the knowledge I have now, I can retrospectively diagnose it as an example of 1980s British counter-culture being absorbed by 1990s consumerism, and ideologically neutralised in the process. At the time, though, I just knew that something had changed, and that while I liked the version of Warhammer I was playing, on some important level it was not the same. 


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As a result of all this, when I finally obtained a copy of the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, it came as a bit of a revelation. My copy was from the 1995 Hogshead reprint edition, but the text was identical to that of the original 1986 version, and thus served to connect me to that almost-vanished world of very early Warhammer which Games Workshop was then trying to expunge entirely. The version of the Warhammer World I encountered in WFRP, and later in the first three parts of The Enemy Within (1987-8, reprinted 1995-7), was so much more vivid than the one that was then being marketed by GW that it won me over almost immediately. I promptly gave up on the Warhammer wargame and turned, instead, to running a multi-year WFRP campaign that remains one of the best and most successful RPG campaigns I've ever had the pleasure of participating in.

The original, 1983-vintage Warhammer World is an extraordinary creation, and I don't think it gets nearly enough credit. Very little in it was genuinely original, in that it just gleefully mashed together early modern history with Tolkien, Moorcock, Hammer Horror, and 2000AD: the skaven and the chaos dwarves are just about the only significant parts of the setting that weren't ripped off from somewhere else. But the resulting mixture was so compelling that it basically invented a new subgenre on the spot, or at any rate reinvented a subgenre that had previously consisted only of a handful of Solomon Kane stories from the 1930s. It provided an enormously influential model of how to combine fantasy with horror: so much so that even today, twenty-five years later, virtually every work of 'dark fantasy' is full of Warhammer pastiches. In particular, the drawings that John Blanche and Ian Miller did for Games Workshop in the early 1980s created an aesthetic that has endured largely unmodified down to the present day.

(Well, apart from the infusion of assorted anime-isms. You can blame Castlevania for those.)

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It helped, of course, that Games Workshop in its early days was lucky enough to include some of the most talented artists and designers who have ever worked in the hobby. Space marines were an instant design classic. So were chaos warriors. So were the Sisters of Battle, who seem to have been based on a random painting by John Blanche. (If you want proof of how good these designs were, take a look at how many other companies went on to produce their own imitation versions.) Orcs as hulking greenskins with tusks have now become so ubiquitous in fantasy that it takes a moment to remember that, before Warhammer, they were usually ugly, scrawny pig-men instead. And so on.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was just as much of a mash-up as its parent game, although in its case the key ingredients were Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu. Its biggest innovation was its famous careers system, which meant that instead of the PCs being fighters and clerics and wizards they were usually agitators and rat-catchers and printer's apprentices and whatnot. Again, in retrospect I can see the influence of the British Marxist historiography of the 1970s, here, with its emphasis on 'history from below': but at the time I just knew that its focus on the frantic struggles of the urban poor made the game feel vastly more grounded than Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms. It was the increasing disconnect between the wargame, which by 5th edition was all about magical superheroes riding dragons, and the RPG, which was more about alcoholic gamblers knifing cultists in slums, which led me to abandon the former for the latter.

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Just as Warhammer 1st edition had great good fortune in its artists and designers, so WHFRP 1st edition benefited from the work of three of the best RPG adventure writers of all time. Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallager, whom old-school D&D fans will know as the authors of the superb B10 Night's Dark Terror, all helped to write the first edition of WHFRP. [Edit: Graeme DAVIS wrote WHFRP. He's not the same guy as Graeme MORRIS, who wrote Night's Dark Terror. Thanks to Gideon for pointing this out!] They then went on to write the adventures Shadows Over Bögenhafen, Death on the Reik, and 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers'. Brilliant and justly famous as adventures, these modules, along with Carl Sargent's Power Behind the Throne, cemented a model of 'real' WHFRP as being, essentially, Call of Cthulhu in seventeenth-century fantasy Germany. The WHFRP setting notionally contained elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons and all the rest of the trad fantasy paraphernalia that it had inherited from Tolkien and Gygax, but these adventures eschewed such material almost entirely in favour of investigating the dark doings of criminals, cultists, mutants, and demons in grimy early modern cityscapes. The result was a gap between the RPG and the wargame which must have seemed increasingly unbridgeable by the time Games Workshop handed the former over to Flame Publications in 1990.

When the second edition came out in 2005-7, its authors faced at least three problems. The first was the difficulty of reconciling the heritage of 1980s WHFRP with the then-canonical setting of 6th and 7th edition Warhammer, which had become a much more heroic, high-magic, high-fantasy affair. The second was a business model - common in the RPG industry at the time - which required them to churn out as much product as possible, leading them to print twenty-five books for the game in just three years, compared to twelve books in five years for the original Games Workshop edition. The third was the simple fact that they didn't have anyone on their staff capable of creating material on the same level as Bambra, Davis, Gallager, Blanche, Miller, and the rest of the original GW crew. The result is that book for book, adventure for adventure, and image for image, the 2005-7 edition is much weaker than the 1986-1990 original. Moving from the hallucinatory fever-dream of the first edition chaos sourcebook Slaves to Darkness (1988) to the generic 'dark fantasy' filler of its second edition counterpart, The Tome of Corruption (2006), is a pretty depressing experience, while a comparison between the old and new adventures in the 2005 WHFRP adventure anthology Plundered Vaults demonstrates just how many of the principles of RPG adventure design had been forgotten or misunderstood in the intervening years, even by people who clearly had the originals right in front of them.

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Did you even read 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers' before reprinting it?

Despite this, however, there were quite a lot of things in WHFRP 2nd edition that I actually rather liked. So over the next few posts I'm going to move briefly through the line, discussing what I felt did or didn't work, and why, and what this might tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of WHFRP as a whole.

I will also be writing quite a lot about skaven.

Once a skaven player, always a skaven player.

37 comments:

  1. I love WFRP but I've never had much luck playing it. My players tend to not like failure very much...

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    1. WHFRP adventures shouldn't fail any more often than D&D adventures - probably less often, due to fate points. But if you mean failing rolls, then yes, that was a real problem. Default success rates of 30-40% were not a great idea.

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    2. Part of the issue was the parry/dodge rolls. So even when you hit, you might not. That was frustrating. The opposed rolls in WFRP 4e should be a massive improvement on that...

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  2. With AD&D 1e there is nothing you need to read after you have absorbed the credo in your teens, and in my case I began from that point to grow the matter I wanted from a bare garden.

    With WHFRP 1e the game technics and the setting were so tightly woven and writing and illustrations were so seductive that I felt I was being whispered at, 'you don't need to create anything ... ever.' There is no room for gardens in the woodwild Reik, and I wonder if anyone managed to turn the setting to their will, dispensing with the less successful, outre, gods and things ... creating their own work after the "investigations of the dark doings of criminals, cultists, mutants, and demons in grimy early modern cityscapes" which is a D&D staple.

    WHFRP 1e is so rich and so competent there is no room for an artistic GM to breathe. AD&D 1e is virtuously arid in comparison ... the testicles Gygax had to assume so much from his readers.

    In 100 years WHFRP 1e could wash up on a desert island and be played within hours. AD&D 1e I think would be incomprehensible but is much more powerful as a generative creative artifact. The desert islands with the one would produce many similar experiences, with the other fewer but the effects would be much more richly varied.

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    1. I think that's a very good point, actually, and it's one of the things I'll be writing about in the next few posts, as it was one of the central problems of WHFRP 2nd edition. Complete artistic success can be paralysing for subsequent creators. After 1988, what exactly was left for WHFRP writers or GMs to do, other than run minor variations of 'Death on the Reik' and 'Power Behind the Throne' over and over again?

      What makes it especially interesting is that early Games Workshop had such a heavy DIY ethos, with the strong expectation that individual players would kitbash together their own miniatures, scenery, scenarios, campaigns, etc. It's just that when your 'example' is as good as, say, 'Slaves to Darkness', most people are just going to respond by saying: 'Wow, my one wasn't nearly as good as that. I'll just use yours, instead.' Whereas the relative *carelessness* of original D&D - here are some monsters, here are some demons, they live in a cave or something, whatever - inspired endless creativity, as readers looked at it and thought, quite correctly, 'Hey, *I* can do that...'

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  3. I'm with you 100% WFRP 1E, which I only cottoned onto after I moved on from AD&D was absolutely amazing. The best of the best.

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  4. "At the time I was still reeling from my discovery of Dragon Warriors"

    Heh, I love Dragon Warriors and think it is a better introduction to AD&D than Mentzer D&D. Revisiting WHFRP & DW it is hard for me to deny as a brit that the US really struggled when it came to setting. The US should have devised a cowboy RPG in 1970. They fucked up. Just look at the difference in respect between Cowboy films and fantasy films. US fantasy is tepid. British fantasy is effulgent-insane. US cowboys are awesome dudes. British cowboys are effeminate dweebs.

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    1. I do find it perplexing that there's never been a real Western RPG, as it is, as you note, the quintessential American mythology. Possibly D&D ate all the really gameable bits of the Western genre - rootless wanderers on a savage frontier, isolated forts on the borderlands, everyone killing each other over hauls of stolen gold, etc - and left the Western proper with nowhere left to go...

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    2. The quintessential image of pseudomedieval fantasy combat is trading blows and parries with swords.

      The quintessential image of western combat is two men walking into a deserted street from opposite ends, staring one another down, and then the slower one dying instantly.

      That's a much harder feeling to capture in a game, I suspect.

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    3. Aces and Eights is a real western RPG.

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    4. The foremost western RPG I've played is, oddly enough, Swedish. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1152089861/western-the-roleplaying-game

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  5. Please define 'Mashable' in the context of rpgs.

    Intuitively 'Mashable' does a disservice to WHFRP which is coherent and tasteful (except for the daft gods and stuff). The veins go together. The pants fit.

    The term 'Mashable' in D&D treats incongruence as a virtue, broccoli-icecream- awesome ... sexy. Mashable means irresponsibility. CultureX would not behave this way? I don't give a fuck, I am a child. If the bar was too high no-one would have played D&D.

    I am loving your post!

    There is something so dumb about D&D that it could not have got off the ground unless it had infinite appeal.

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    1. The thing is, on paper, the Warhammer World is at least as much of a nonsense mash-up as, say, the Forgotten Realms. Snooty Tolkien elves and comedy goblins live side by side with Hammer Horror vampire counts, Cthulhu cults, Moorcockian chaos gods, World War One ratmen, and the fucking Holy Roman Empire. That this comes across as 'coherent and tasteful' rather than gibberish is a testament to the skill of WHFRP's writers in constructing something imaginatively cohesive out of the chaos of their raw materials. (By contrast, D&D - as you note - never even tried...)

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    2. Did you consider Greyhawk in that assessment?

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    1. I'm glad that my gaming group consists of more-or-less Marxist metalheads who gladly play through gory and grimy adventures, then. And we're all younger than Warhammer itself.

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    2. You seem to live in a very strange country, Bob. The Marxists gamers I have here tend to be metalheads and History buffs.

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    3. Times change, but so do classes. In 1980s Britain, Marxism wasn't just an intellectual game for university students: it was the foundation of working-class anti-Thatcherite political practise, from trade unionism to punk rock. That's the world that early Warhammer grew out of, with its DIY ethos, its cynical and satirical interpretation of history, and it's insistence on viewing fantasy from the perspective of the ordinary working man. (The WHFRP careers system ensures that the average starting PC will be a member of the working classes: a boatman, perhaps, or a printer's apprentice, the kind of person who would be invisible in most traditional fantasy settings.) It's a heritage that Games Workshop hastened to distance itself from in the 1990s, when political activism went out of fashion and their business model shifted from encouraging other people's DIY creativity to selling ready-made goods at premium prices to middle-class schoolboys.

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    4. I mean, when Games Workshop got started in 1975, it was literally a *workshop*. It was three guys in a basement, working with their hands, making games out of bits of metal and wood. All the corporate stuff came later.

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    6. The public float on the LSE in 1994 was a sea change in how GW operated. Products became less weird and more mass market oriented. I still love both of the first two editions of WFRP, but they're very different in tone and feel aimed at different audiences.

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  7. Hi Joseph ! I fully agree with you. WFRP was my second game as a player (in France in the 1980s) and I was so enthusiastic that I bought the book from my friend (and I still hoard it...)Looking at newer editions made me so depressed that... I would still cling to the 1st edition (with minor additions) if I had the opportunity to act as a gamemaster again!

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    1. WHFRP 1st edition was something very special. As I'll be discussing, I don't think WHFRP 2nd edition was completely worthless, and there are bits and pieces of it which I might use if I ever ran WHFRP again: but, overall, all twenty-five books of WHFRP 2nd edition put together don't come close to the value of one of the 1980s classics.

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  8. If the Skaven have any roots, they are in Lieber's The Swords of Lankhmar.

    That said, the rats of Lankhmar are of an ordinary size and not bipedal. The lack of warpstone reduces the number of inventions; the plague rat element is absent also.

    If Lieber is an ancestor, he is a remote one; but the imagery of the rat threat underneath the great cities of man is quite familiar.

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    1. Maybe, but Warhammer's skaven are quite a distance - both chronological and conceptual - from Leiber's pervy six-breasted rat-girls. D&D's wererats were probably a more proximate source.

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    2. I'll have to re-read it and tease out a few relevant passages. They felt quite Skavenesque at the time.

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    3. http://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.com/2018/09/rats-cats-and-albatrosses.html

      A month later and I have finally done something about this.

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  9. Bit of a tangent, which edition does the clone (Zweihander) more accurately emulate?

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  10. Dunno, sorry. I've not read Zweihander. After ploughing through WHFRP 1, WHFRP 2, and Shadow of the Demon Lord (which was basically WHFRP 2.5, in the same way that Pathfinder was D&D 3.75), I felt I'd had enough Warhammer to last me for a while...

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  11. Great post.

    I'm reminded of this piece from the introduction of the kinda-sorta retroclone Small But Vicious Dog about the influences on WFRP:

    "Whisper it (that fanboys may not hear and descend a-squealing), but for all the charm of its skewed-familiar 16th century milieu and the lurking horror of Chaos, Warhammer Fantasy Role Play was little more than a modcop of classic Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, our beloved WFRP was yet another ‘fix D&D’ fantasy heartbreaker, albeit one which had the clout of the biggest name in British gaming behind it. Whole chunks of the system were lightly disguised D&D mechanics adapted to a roll-under d% system1, and many setting elements not gleefully ripped off from Tolkien, Leiber or Moorcock were already established D&D tropes by the time WFRP was published.

    But that's ok. Indeed, that's part of why all right thinking people – Brits, Italians and Poles especially – love WFRP. To paraphrase a better man than I: we took an American invention, soaked it in a witches' brew of Bosch, Durer and Doré, Mervyn Peake and Tom Sharpe, Blackadder, The Young Ones, pints of bitter, cheap weed, Iron Maiden and The Damned, and then we played the hell out of it."

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    1. I think that's pretty accurate, honestly. There's loads of stuff in first edition WHFRP which is clearly just there because it was also in D&D: druids, illusionists, halflings, fantasy polytheism complete with very D&D-ish divinities like 'the god of thieves', etc. The extraordinary thing, as your quotation notes, is how something so distinctive ultimately managed to emerge from it!

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    2. I've just started running a heavily "remixed" The Enemy Within campaign, using an also fairly heavily reworked version of the Old World setting. I've pretty much weeded out all those D&D-isms (and Tolkien-by-way-of-D&D-isms) like demi-humans, orcs, fantasy polytheism and so on, aiming for a more faux-historical weird fantasy / gothic horror mashup. Still with a fair spiritual dose of Bosch, Dürer, Blackadder, The Young Ones and the Damned, though. ;)

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  12. Great post! I am looking forward to reading the whole series.

    One small correction: you have confused Graeme Morris and Graeme Davis. Graeme Morris worked with Jim Bambra and Phil Gallagher on Night's Dark Terror; Graeme Davis worked with them on WFRP.

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    1. Ack - you're quite right. (If I'm honest, I'd taken to thinking of 'Jim-Phil-and-Graeme' as a single three-headed monster...) I'll make a correction!

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  13. I would like to hear of any recommendations you have for WH 1e outside the Enemy Within campaign. Particularly from White dwarf magazine, if any.

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    1. From 1st edition I'd recommend the core book, the first three books of 'The Enemy Within', and the two Realm of Chaos books. My memories of White Dwarf are vaguer, but I thought that 'Rough Night at the Three Feathers' and 'Grapes of Wrath' (WD 94 and 98, reprinted with worse art in 'Plundered Vaults') were pretty good. I recall 'The Affair of the Hidden Jewel (WD 101) as being good, too, but it's been more than twenty years since I read it, so I don't know if my memories can be trusted...

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    2. Thanks, yes that's about the size of it.

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