Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Echoes and Reverberations part 1: WFRP 3rd edition - the setting

My overview of WFRP 2nd edition may be finished, but the work goes on. So many different people made so many different requests during the last series of posts that I've decided to do a second series, albeit hopefully a shorter one, which covers what happened to WFRP and its spiritual successors after 2nd edition came to an end. Material I propose to cover includes WFRP 3rd edition, WFRP 2nd edition fan-content, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Zweihander, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Small But Vicious Dog. There's a lot to cover, though, so these will be much more 'zoomed out' than the previous series.

First up: WFRP 3rd edition.

As I discussed here, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the WFRP license in 2008, and promptly killed off WFRP 2nd edition in favour of their own WFRP 3rd edition in 2009. This edition represented a major departure from tradition. Instead of WFRP being sold as a book, it was now marketed as a boxed set, which contained multiple books, special dice, and lots and lots of fiddly little components. It looked like... well... this:

Image result for warhammer fantasy roleplay 3rd edition

In retrospect, I can understand FFG's decision to go with this kind of hybrid RPG / board game setup. The third edition of Dungeons and Dragons had demonstrated that it was possible to market RPG books in the same way that one might market board game expansion sets, with people buying books like Races of the Dragon simply in order to get the rules for that one prestige class they were itching to try out. D&D 4th edition, which came out in 2008, took this even further, with ultra-codified spells and powers that worked pretty much exactly like action cards used in many board games - spend this resource to inflict this much damage on this number of squares on the board, and so on. WOTC even brought out decks of power cards for players to use, and supplements which were little more than shopping lists of new powers for them to choose from. FFG were board game manufacturers before they were RPG publishers: they had the resources they needed to produce high-quality components, and they understood that you could charge a lot more money for a big box of shiny objects than for a single softcover book. Black Industries had given up on WFRP precisely because the old supplement treadmill business model for RPGs had proven to be insufficiently profitable - so why not abandon the old approach entirely, and replace it with boxed sets of cards and components that could be sold like board game expansions, instead?

The logic must have seemed compelling at the time, but it soon became apparent that FFG had badly misjudged their audience. The core player base for WFRP didn't want 'chrome': they were attached to grimy minimalism, to a game that could be played out of a single book, to character sheets scribbled on bits of paper and rules that you could still mostly remember even when drunk. They didn't want clever, fiddly mechanics, where you moved a token on a character dashboard to modify the type of dice you rolled when you played your next action card. They just wanted big books filled with long lists of crap jobs, horrible mutations, and hilariously violent critical hit tables. They treasured their memories of sitting around a big table with six of their mates, taking turns to narrate their attempts to brutalise some unfortunate clanrat in a sewer someplace, and they did not take kindly to discovering that the big, expensive core box for WFRP 3 only included enough components for one GM and three PCs.

As a result, WFRP 3rd edition seems to have been a commercial failure. A glance at the 'Strike to Stun' forum archives for 2009-13 demonstrates that the players there were much more interested in discussing WFRP 2 than WFRP 3 even during the years in which the latter was the official edition. The rate at which FFG released material for the game during 2010 implied that they hoped WFRP might become a product like their Game of Thrones LCG, with players buying boxed expansion sets every month or two; but the regular release of new boxed sets really only lasted two years, from November 2009 to November 2011. After that came two 2012 boxed sets, a dribble of print-on-demand card sets, and then nothing. FFG claimed that this was because they had 'delivered a complete game experience', but given how little of the Old World they'd actually covered in the course of their run, I don't think that anyone actually believed them.

I haven't played WFRP 3, but I have read the rulebooks, and it looks like a very cleverly-designed game. I like the way that the special dice cram lots of information into a single dice roll, for example, allowing you to tell at a glance not only whether you've succeeded or failed, but also whether you've exhausted yourself, whether there have been additional complications, and so on. But it looks like a very poor fit for what I - and, I suspect, many other people - want from WFRP. When I'm playing a scruffy grave robber engaged in a frantic back-alley knife fight with a chaos cultist, I don't want to be thinking about building dice pools and selecting action cards and moving stance tokens, as though I was playing some kind of martial arts master coolly contemplating which technique to use. I just want to roll some dice, and have the GM roll some more dice, and then listen while the GM tells me that I've just taken a knife in the face and that, furthermore, death from shock and blood loss are instantaneous.

It probably didn't help that the mechanics are often oddly disassociated. First aid, for example, can be used once per scene - but how long is a scene? Is a five day journey five scenes, or one? Can I keep starting new scenes by doing random things along the way, simply in order to give me more chances to use my first aid skill? Insanities have formal game effects, which is fair enough: I can understand why working with someone suffering from paranoia, for example, would be stressful for everyone involved, and having it add tension tokens is a perfectly reasonable way of representing that. But am I also expected to actually roleplay the insanity, by saying and doing paranoid things, or are the effects of my paranoia simply assumed to be abstractly modelled by the increasing number of tension tokens accumulated by the group? Locations have special rules, which are sometimes perfectly reasonable - taking physical actions in a crumbling building means a chance of injuring yourself - but at other times feel more like things I'd expect to see written on a square in a board game. ('Ballroom: whenever you regain stress, regain 1 extra stress.') The 'progress tracker' makes sense for some situations - whittling away at the morale of an attacking force until they give up and retreat, for example - but is simply bizarre for others, such as investigations. In the starter adventure, for example, the GM is told to 'direct the party towards an as-yet undiscovered overt clue' once they've moved five spaces along the progress tracker by uncovering five unrelated pieces of suspicious information. But why should noticing that someone is behaving suspiciously suddenly mean that I also notice the blasphemous books in the library? Once again, this feels more like a board game mechanism - 'trade in five minor clue tokens for a major clue card' - than an attempt to simulate a fictional world.

Setting-wise, WFRP 3 dialled the timeline back to just before the Storm of Chaos: but if you think that means a return to the low-fantasy setting of WFRP 1, then you'd be sorely mistaken, because WFRP 3 offered the most D&D-ified version of the Old World yet. Wood elves, dwarves, humans, and high elves - high elves! - are all given equal amounts of attention in the corebook as possible PC races, and there's a lot of emphasis on the fact that the characters are heroes, with the expected party composition clearly closer to the 'elf, dwarf, and wizard' mix of traditional D&D than the 'boatman, agitator, ratcatcher' mix of classic WFRP. The careers list is weighted towards traditional 'adventurer' careers like Witch Hunter rather than 'scum' careers like Bonepicker, and it is apparently possible to buy 'healing draughts' - basically D&D healing potions - in any Old World settlement. And as for the setting... well... I'll let the book speak for itself:

'The greatest realm of the Old World is the Empire, a land of courageous men ruled by a wise Emperor.'
'Those who serve the Empire strive to defend it against many enemies. The Imperial armies guard the borders against invaders. Witch hunters scour the land for witches, Chaos cults and mutants. Roadwardens and shipswords protect the Empire’s highways and riverways from bandits and beastmen. However, the Empire is a vast place, and the Emperor’s servants cannot be everywhere.'
'“On my first visit to Altdorf, I was surprised by the number of races rubbing shoulders with each other in the narrow streets: men of every nation, intractable dwarfs and portly halflings. I even met a few of my own kind, as well as a curious representative of those elves who remained in these parts after the exodus. What surprised me more was how they all seemed to get along... well, most of the time.” – Suriel Lianllach, High Elf envoy'
'Under the current Emperor, Karl Franz of Altdorf, elected in 2502, the Empire enjoys a renaissance of strength and prosperity. Karl Franz realised that the Empire could not stand alone against its many enemies. His ambassadors have secured alliances with the other nations of men, and rejuvenated the ancient friendship with the dwarf holds. Envoys sail between the Empire and Ulthuan, and high elf merchants are no longer an unusual sight in the markets of Altdorf or Nuln. The Emperor also strives to maintain the Empire’s unity. Relationships between provinces have always been fractious, but the Emperor rewards those Elector Counts who display loyalty. Those who do not receive a visit from his stern champion, Ludwig Schwarzhelm. They never stray again.'
A great realm of courageous men ruled by a wise emperor, whose stern champion ensures the unity and loyalty of the nobility. Armies, roadwardens, and witch hunters all working in unison against threats from within and without. Formal alliances with the High Elves. Humans, elves, dwarves and halflings all getting along happily together in the streets of Altdorf. The Emperor rides a griffon, and, according to Omens of War, he also has a pet dragon. It's not quite the way I remember the setting from 1st edition.

FFG's business model of releasing boxed sets rather than books had a number of knock-on consequences. Most boxed sets consisted of a box of cards and tokens, plus a book that told you how to use them; whatever pages that the book had left over then contained either some setting information, or an adventure, or both. Even when the new cards obviously represented the main purpose of the set, something had to go into the book, and this resulted in a proliferation of weird filler material. So Omens of War, the boxed set containing the cards and tokens for advanced combat styles, also contained an oddly superfluous book about the armies and military history of the Empire, while Black Fire Pass, the boxed set containing cards for advanced dwarf careers, contained a whole book about, um, Black Fire Pass. (It's not very interesting.) Perhaps the most extreme example of this was the decision to bring out one boxed set for each chaos god, each including a book containing an adventure, some new rules - the disease rules, for example, were in the Nurgle box - and then a heap of filler to round out the page count. Get ready to be told that Khorne likes blood and skulls and also violence over and over and over and over again.

With so many of the books in the line devoted to trivia like the military history of the Empire, the edition was only ever able to present a very superficial version of the WFRP setting, with a heavy focus on the Reikland province and very little on the wider world. The presentations of religion and magic essentially recapitulate the 2nd edition versions in a more condensed form, though I was pleased to see a greater emphasis on the way in which the invention of the printing press is shaking up the religious hierarchies of the Old World, and on colour magic as a deliberately crippled form of sorcery taught to the humans by Teclis to limit their magical potential. The colleges of magic described here are less restrictive institutions than their 2nd edition counterparts, doubtless to make it easier to play as an adventuring wizard; unfortunately, they've also become even more boring. (The 2001 Realms of Sorcery interpretation of the colleges remains my favourite version.) The chaos books, as I've already mentioned, are huge disappointments - much weaker than the 2nd edition Tome of Corruption, which was itself already much weaker than the 1st edition originals. They repeatedly stress that there is no good reason to join a chaos cult and you'd have to be totally crazy to do so, and then go on to blithely assert that all four gods have loads of cults packed with fanatical cultists ready to devote their lives to them for no damn reason at all. The 2nd edition presentation, where most chaos cultists didn't actually know that they were chaos cultists, made a lot more sense. 

The bestiary draws on the wargame, and it shows. Chaos marauders live only to fight and kill. Greenskins live only to fight and kill. Demons live only to fight and kill. Beastmen live only to fight and kill. Trolls and giants live only to fight and kill. Cultists are fanatics eager to kill and die for their dark masters. Undead tirelessly attack the living until hacked apart. It's little more than a parade of cannon fodder. Skaven are presented here as a race of sneaky, paranoid cowards, rather than as the apocalyptic threat they were described as in 2nd edition. Compared to previous editions, the published adventures make greater use of adversaries such as goblins, dark elves, trolls, and dragon ogres. Coupled with the much greater emphasis on non-human PCs - there are even rules for playing an ogre! - this further enhances the sense of WFRP 3 as the most 'high fantasy' version of the RPG to date.

In conclusion - if you're looking for setting or background material, then WFRP 3 offers very slim pickings. In quantity, it's inferior to WFRP 2; in quality, it's inferior to WFRP 1. The system looks clever, though I have my doubts about how well it would work in actual play, but seems a poor fit for the themes and setting of WFRP. For fans of WFRP 1 and 2, the most valuable thing about it is probably the adventures, some of which are rather good, and most of which could be very easily adapted to other editions of the game. I'll cover them in my next post. 


  1. I've always liked the Imperial Zoo, but it is very silly if you think about it for more than a second. You could maybe work it if the sales pitch and trappings were a lot grander than the actual sickly, disgruntled griffins inside. Still terrifying for a common slob to face, but nothing on the wild versions.

    Warhammer Fantasy's high elves are also for my money the best non-Tolkien version of Tolkien elves... but I cannot imagine having one actually physically appear in a game of WFRP. You could maybe hear about them, or see a ruined elvish tower, or meet a blind soldier who's last vision was of the glorious elvish hosts charging the enemy at a distance... but if one actually showed up to talk to your players, it would be immediate farce.

    1. You're right - sad monsters in tawdry cages would fit the setting perfectly. But the emperor's riding griffon and pet dragon in WFRP 3 are clearly supposed to be terrifying warbeasts rather than miserable curiosities from far-off lands.

      And I think you could get away with the odd High Elf NPC. It's the emphasis on High Elves as a PC option in WFRP 3 that I found surprising. It is not at all clear to me how a race that are described as equal part Elric and FĂ«anor are supposed to fit in with a bunch of grimy urban lowlives doing odd jobs in the city sewers.

    2. Yeah, the monster mounts are a wargame port. Warhammer Fantasy was fairly grounded (at least in comparison to 40k) with lords and heroes' stats for a long time, so in order to make Emperor Karl Franz as strong on the table as he was important to the setting the easiest thing to do is to stick him on a huge monster. But those cost a lot of points, so you get budget and deluxe monster options and a wacky justification for the situation. I suppose they must breed pegasi in there too for all the lower ranked heroes who can take flying mounts.

    3. That kind of contrast, the high fantasy with the grimy low-everyday, is actually what I most associate with Warhammer. There are settings that do the grime better, and settings that do the high fantasy better, but very few can have the two coexist (and I think the settings blend of dark humour helps with this)

    4. They can coexist *in the wargame*, because all they have to do is hit each other. But the RPG feels like more of a stretch. I'm sure you *could* build a version of WFRP in which a High Elf and a Sewer Jack could happily coexist within the same party, but I feel it would look a lot more D&D-like than the game has historically marketed itself as being.

  2. I played WHFRP 3 once, and everything just felt so clunky. The DM was actually trying his best but te other players were used to the second edition and I got into the group sold on their grimy war stories. Suffice to say we were all disappointed with the game, the limitations and especially the dice.

    1. You and many other people, I think. I don't think that this kind of board game / RPG hybrid is an inherently terrible idea, but I do think that WFRP was the wrong franchise to attach it to. It's hardly surprising that the edition failed so quickly.

  3. I can definitely see the Emperor owning a pet riding griffon even in the grittier versions of WFRP - as you pointed out in an earlier post, from the top down the Old World looks as though it's doing swell. The trick to not having it break the tone of the campaign would be to present it as "The emperor is so absurdly rich, he actually rides a griffon as a symbol of how different from you he is, despite all the obvious problems with that", not as "riding griffons are a thing".

    1. Yeah, I can see it working as an exotic status marker thing - the equivalent of the elephants, rhinos, lions, and tigers imported by real early modern rulers. Maybe not so much as a practical warbeast, though.

  4. Honestly, the system is basically a beta for the far slicker FFG Star Wars line, and Gensys.

    Star Wars dice pools work exactly like Warhammer, the game uses an open ended career system that allows characters to buy into new professions under the same umbrella or for a bigger XP hit into a new umbrella, and the Fortune points are only minor lay tweeked.

    I’d like to see a dedicated fan back port Warhammer Fantasy into Gensys like some folk did with Dark Heresy. It would be cool.

    1. I've seen several people mention that the Star Wars system worked a lot better than the WFRP 3 system did. It also feels like a much better thematic fit. Star Wars has always been very open about running on story logic rather than physics, so a more dissassociated system is perfectly appropriate, and I can see the stances and action cards and whatnot fitting in much better with the fighting styles of Jedi knights than with the desperate flailings of panicking rat-catchers!

    2. I’ve been running The Rebel Alliance splat for close to a year now. The dice pool system with the trademarked dice does a good job of replicating Degrees of Success while being faster.

      I just wish the books explained how to play in a way human beings would read. I was six months in GMing before finding out I’d been handling criticals wrong. I still don’t know how Force Powers work (not that matters in AoR, that’s more a F&D thing)

  5. Late to the party but I should mention that I seem to be one of the few people who've played the system in question.

    For what it was I quite liked it. I haven't played the previous WFRPG systems so I went into it with only the preconceptions of the Wargame. After a dozen or so sessions I could conclude that the combat was more engaging than the other games that I've played (Trudvang 4e, Pathfinder 1e, D&D 5e, Apocalypse World).

    It started out pretty clunky, but the benefit of having all your rules on the cards in front of you was apparent pretty soon. You learned them in chunks and soon the clunkiness went away. You added one card after another and never felt overwhelmed by the choices available to you. The result was a rather smooth system of many satisfying punches when you got to activate your strong card or made a combo work.

    I still hold that it's the best hack & slash game I'm aware of.

    The parts that were not hack & slash it did not do very well. It seemed to want to be about investigation but the rules for that were fuzzy, there were few action cards to support it. Only a single card that I remember, "calm crowd", was actually a meaningful "social ability". The game simply didn't exist for those things. It was left over to roleplaying, but the game never told you when to take the wheel so it always felt janky.

    For the amount of involvement it required it's not a perfect beer & pretzels game either. I stick by that I will recommend it to anyone who really just wants some dumb fun, but the experience is essentially the same as booting up something like Deep Rock Galactic with a few friends.