[WFRP] Actual Play Review: Warhammer Fantasy Role Play Third Edition (Fantasy Flight)

WFRP is definitely one of those games. The first edition was the first RPG I ever ran, and the first from which I gutted four-fifths of the rules like the Disintegrator GM I am – or would one day come to be. At the time I simply couldn’t be bothered spending whole minutes of  my lunchtime flicking back and forth through the several hundred page rulebook – and hold on to that thought, ’cause we’ll be coming back to it before this review is out.

The point is that it’s my old-school game. I have a very strong attachment to its first edition, it’s integral to my concept of The Hobby, and I’ve been dubious of any attempt to change it. Change is bad. We fear change. Change is what Chaos does to us. But we like Chaos! I’m so confused.

Second edition WFRP was greeted with cautious anticipation; it was smaller (which, by that time, I’d decided was a Good Thing), and glossier (which I still don’t automatically see as a virtue, I’m afraid) and definitely more conscious of the modern Warhammer brand, with its eight colours of magic and its siting squarely after the Storm of Chaos worldwide event. That said, I… didn’t hate it. It obviously had a sense of humour, it still felt like the same game (in much the same way that its contemporary sixth edition WFB still felt like the same game as the fifth edition with which I came in, only with a different aesthetic and a streamlined style of play) and most of my first edition resources were more-or-less cross-compatible.

Third? Oh, fuck third. Third’s a glorified board game from those Yankee board game  merchants. Look at it! Where’s the rulebook? Who needs all this clutter? Are those proprietary dice, for crying out loud? What’s wrong with a handful of d10s? In other words, it was new and different and American and I hated it. It took me a long time to mellow out, grow up, get over my irrational anti-Americanism and… okay, I’ve never liked Fantasy Flight’s convoluted ass-about-face way of presenting rules for board games that take a small eternity to play. The point is that I’ve given WFRP.3 a try, not long after Fantasy Flight announced that it was now a dead line and would receive no further updates. Good, precious. We like the dead ones. Nobody will take the dead ones from us…

I’m sorry. I’ll try to rein it in a bit. Anyway, WFRP.3. It’s actually a lot better than I expected, once your expectations are adjusted and you have your head wrapped around why it is the way it is.

In my old-school WFRP days, we imagined where everything was; miniatures came late to roleplaying, for me, when I started playing with people who’d argue about who was where and who could see what, or demanded that ranges be more rigorously observed. We had two or three or four page character sheets, and a plethora of abilities and spells which all had a write-up in the book… somewhere. We spent a lot of time looking things up, or in my case throwing rulebooks across the room and resolving everything by ‘roll a d100, beat this number or roll below that stat, and from there, we fiat, and I might bung a few more dice around…’

WFRP.3 is designed specifically to eliminate that looking-things-up time. Everything you need to know about your character is on some sort of card; one for your career, which covers some core abilities and shows you things on which it’s economical to spend your XP; a couple for your skills and tactics, abilities which you can use to influence the outcomes of various die rolls, and quite a few for your actions; your basic melee and ranged attacks, your blocks and dodges and parries, and the rather neat ‘Pull A Stunt’, which integrates “I want to do something that’s not in the rules” into the turn sequence and provides a set of probabilities rather than demanding a ruling from the GM on the fly. There are also special actions, again purchased during character creation; these are many in number and include things like shield bashes, dramatic flourishes, two-pistol gunslinging (with flintlocks, but mine’s not to reason why…). Character creation allows you to load up on quite a few special actions and talents, so while there’s a certain hint of “you can’t do that, you’ve not got the rules for it”, it’s far more likely that you’ll have had a riff through the action deck and picked half a dozen that you like the look of and are likely to use.

All of your character’s various statuses – significant bits of equipment, wounds, the two different forms of fatigue, and the number of turns left before you can use a particular action again – are tracked with counters or cards. I grew to really like this in the one session we’ve played so far; rather than endlessly rubbing out and pencilling in and wearing holes through or putting smudges all over our character sheets, we were putting down counters on various cards and sheets and handing them back, taking and returning wound counters. The character sheet records our character in peak condition; their base-line stats and specialities, their weapons and their experience. Rather than demanding that you remember everything and make notes of everything, WFRP.3 puts its gameplay into the form of actual physical artefacts that are passed around the table.

I’ve come to appreciate that sort of thing – as I a) grow older and b) play more Warcraft I’ve become accustomed to a system that keeps track of my character’s various statuses and advantages and disadvantages for me, and displays the results in terms of an actual thingummybob that I can look at and recognise and go “ah, that’s that one, that means I can do this or I have to do that”. It’s… tactile. Tactile’s the word for which I’m groping. I like the business of actually handling paper rulebooks and physically being in the same room and having a plain old pencil in my hand when I roleplay, and WFRP.3 draws on that feeling of tactility and harnesses it for ease of play.

And it is easy, once you’ve overcome the initial oddities. Much like Vampire: the Requiem, another revamp of which I’ve come to think more kindly in the last few years, WFRP.3 is a single-roll system where modifiers are expressed by changing the number of dice you roll – and, in WFRP.3, the type. If you’re just an untrained schlub, you roll a handful of blue d8s. If you’re being aggressive/defensive, you swap some of them for red/green d10s, and you know how many you swap because you have an aggression tracker right there in front of you, with a counter showing how many dice you swap in and out. If you have a skill, you add a yellow d6 or two. Black and white d6s represent good or bad luck. There’s a purple d8 which, as far as I can tell, is the “your GM hates you” die.

All those dice have symbols on them. You bung the dice down, look at the symbols, and then look at the card for the action that you’re trying to use. Most cards have an aggressive and a defensive option – and again, you know if you’re being aggressive or defensive because you physically flipped the card over to show the red or green side.  The card tells you what all the symbols do – if you have this many little hammers, that happens – but if you also have that many little skulls, this happens and that’s bad – and if you got a comet on one of your yellow dice, you did something totally awesome. There’s a little bit of maths involved for damage, but it’s of the “add this to your weapon damage and take away their toughness” variety, which the GM can do almost reflexively when handing out or putting down the wound tokens or fatigue/stress counters.

You have a lot of dice and a lot of counters and I piss and moan until the sky falls in when this sort of thing pops up in wargames, so why am I okay with it here? Because of the way WFRP.3 uses table space. There’s no giant map in the middle and, unlike some modern RPGs, there’s no sense that you’re obliged to use miniatures and precisely delineate ranges and spaces. Encounters involve a few sturdy cardboard figures clipped to plastic bases, a couple of cards defining aspects of the terrain – “road” or “forest” or “coach” and how they modify your die pools – and a set of range bands, essentially long-medium-short-engaged. That’s it. Everything’s expressed in those terms. It’s a nice compromise, about as complex and detailed as the maps I naturally tend to draw for combats and not prompting or asking you to keep track of every last rock, bush and crate on the landscape in case some bugger’s trying something complicated. Trying something complicated is just Pulling A Stunt and the player can describe whatever the hell they like.

That’s all very well and good, I hear you ask, but is it fun? Well, this Wednesday, a batch of the Corehammer lads sat down, built characters and played through a sample combat encounter in about three hours. Once Rob-the-GM confirmed that Ogres were an option I became possessed by the idea of playing one, which is… unusual, for me. I’m basically playing the Squirrel character – get stuck in, smash things, doze off until someone tells me what to kill.

Tofu Bean – I don’t know why either, it’s something to do with Stevie’s Halfling being called Bunce and something to do with mocking Robb-the-Irish-vegan – is basically the party’s tank. I found myself thinking about World of Warcraft a lot in character generation; the range of various actions with, basically, a cooldown (number of recharge counters) feel very much like a WoW action bar, and I became fixated on the idea of having more interesting things to do than just make a basic melee attack or block every turn, so I loaded up on four extra combat actions and gave myself a little rotation: a fearsome Ogre roar to skew some die rolls in my favour, a shield bash to knock things down and set up my next attack, a duellist’s strike to do loads of extra damage, and a sword-and-board option for a bit of aggressive defence. I also picked a tactic that gave me extra dice if my opponents were using active defences (weaving around trying not to be hit) and another that would let me discard two skulls from one roll per combat, taking the edge off bad luck. The other thing I had my eye on was cards with lots of symbols on them; as an Ogre I could roll a lot of dice for Tofu’s melee attacks and I wanted to get the most out of doing so.

It sort of works (Rob-the-GM wasn’t really using active defences for his NPCs, so that might turn out to be a bit of a waster, and I chose not to use the discard-two-skulls option during the first short session) and it definitely results in an interesting melee combatant – not a phrase I generally have cause to use. Bean and Bunce make quite a good team, too, with Stevie bouncing around and backstabbing things that are tied up fighting the giant smelly brute who’s whacking them with a shield. I’m trying to persuade him to advance into Ratcatcher so we can have a Small But Vicious Dog and name it Boggis.

So. WFRP.3. It’s not bad. It’s essentially the usual RPG fare, i.e. perhaps a little more granular and over-designed than I’d like it to be, but it’s rendered a lot simpler by shifting the emphasis from “did you remember to write this down” and “what page is that on in the book” to “here, look at the card, and I have that many counters and that’s my die roll”, and that makes it more fluid to play, with fewer stoppages to find exactly the right page and find the right words in amongst the flavour text and – you get the idea. It does demanda well-organised GM (Rob-the-GM has little toolboxes to keep all the counters and things organised, and baggies for everyone’s character’s stuff between sessions) and I can see why the box set only covers three players (but that’s a good-sized group for me, so I ain’t whingin’). The game may be dead but there seems to be a healthy market in second-hand or back-shelf copies on Amazon and whatnot; I may buy one.

Bottom line? I was wrong about the board-game stuff. It’s a feature, not a bug.

[Meta Gaming] The Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, and makes us very afraid.

— M. John Harrison

… I’m fighting the urge to simply type ‘discuss’, really I am.

There’s more to it somewhere, but the original post seems to have disappeared.

Lexington, who showed me the tiny extract that exists, believes there was something about how Middle-Earth’s history, topography and populace merely existed, and was encountered, and only gave you the immediate, necessary details rather than exhaustively finding reasons to explain the unnecessary. That’s part of what’s doing my nut at the moment; the obsessive need to precisely break down how many of X and Y and Z species/ethnicities (if we’re lucky enough to have ethnicities, and not be in the presence of someone who farms off ethnic and cultural traits to non-human ‘races’ instead) are resident in the town and what its primary exports are and generally burden us with a truly tiresome level of detail.

Another thing that’s doing my nut is the tendency, particularly in game-universe creation, to flaunt your sources, to make overt pastiches and parodies and references, to base what you’re doing on “this meets that” – the High Concept approach to world-making. It’s particularly vexing to me since I cut my teeth on Warhammer and Pratchett and that’s how they work, and there’s something fundamentally satisfying to me about that sort of thing – but in my own creative efforts I catch myself simply piking things wholesale. Unlike Frankenstein, I recognise my creation’s ugliness before I give it life; I can see the stitches, and the misbegotten nature of the whole repels me.

Yet another thing: the habit of readers and audiences to look for the seams, and feel clever when they spot them, and consequently make creators feel that that’s what’s wanted; more obvious referentialism and explanations, less sense of atmosphere or wholeness. The production of inert environments, obsessively detailed and often with descriptive vocabulary but… not alive, somehow. Missing a sense of what it feels like to live in them.

It’s the kind of readership fostered by narratology and its outside-the-ivory-tower cousin, trope-hunting (I’m not going to link to TV Tropes, that’s evil). TV Tropes is oddly fascinating and compelling stuff, but… I want you to imagine a well trained and alert Troper, who is very much inclined to navigate worlds through Troperese – everything’s a Negative Space Wedgie or a Xanatos Gambit or what have you – and who world-builds with a very clear sense of what her world is About and how it works and what she wants to express with it, but which ultimately doesn’t lead her to go anywhere with any of it. Laden – positively burdened – with detail, all of it very well tuned and possessed of great verisimilitude, but… there’s no story in it. The nerdist perspective seems to treat narrative like trainspotting; once you’ve established what kind of everything everything is there’s no point in following it through. You’ve found the serial number and that’s all you need.

The obsession with detail and mechanism often – not always, but often – seems aligned to a worldview which tries to take the fantasy out of fantasy, for the sake of some half-cocked ideas about ‘realism’ and ‘merit’ and ‘wanting to be taken seriously’. I feel, instinctively, that this is what leads us down the tangled path to things like Elder Scrolls Online – a game which is certainly richly detailed, but I draw the line at saying ‘beautiful’ because the images I’ve seen seem so… bland, so pseudo-historical, a wealth of effort put into expressing an awful lot of grey and brown and gritty places. I’m sick to death of grit, and realism, and merit, and I’m sick to death of ‘world building’, of sinking our energies into the pseudoscience of things at the expense of the things themselves. Show some people a portal to another world and they’ll be too busy fretting over how the cosmology and relativity and physics works to go through. As Lex said to me, it’s there because it’s there, and in the moment of your story, all of that stuff is irrelevant, even if you know some of it as an author.

One feels like a right heel telling people not to ask questions, but – it’s the spirit in which they’re asked. It can be ‘I wonder how that works’, which is not as fun a question as ‘I wonder where it goes’ but at least a step in the right direction, but all too often it’s a petulant ‘how does that even work?’ – a statement in disguise, an ‘actually I think you’ll find that doesn’t work because’, a great clomping foot of pedantic, overbearing fucking nerdism that comes down smush on wherever we were going to go and whatever we were going to do.

If you expect me to spend four hours working out and explaining how the portal works, don’t be surprised if you never get to go through it. I’m not interested in building worlds; I’m interested in exploring them. We’ll be talking about how on Sunday.

“I did not deliberately invent Earthsea, I did not think ‘Hey wow — islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let’s build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea.”

— Ursula K. LeGuin

[Meta Gaming] Dark Communion: the Return of Termite Art

This is where it started, you know. Bill King. John Blanche. Three pages, tucked away at the back of the second edition Wargear book. Four columns and a massive illustration in which Chaos is not explained but exemplified. I want you to hold on to that idea – not explained, but exemplified. I think we fall into bad habits, as nerd-folk: habits of codifying and classifying and explicitly stating I-think-you’ll-find-that-it-said-on-page-62-of-that-novel-that… and I can’t even be assed thinking of an example, because I’m pretty sure you’ve thought of one already. What we have here is an impression of what it’s like to be a Chaos Space Marine, to be something old and spiteful and powerful and yet lost in its own body and its own memories. It doesn’t baldly tell you things; it shows them to you, obliquely and elegantly articulating by example.

I can’t articulate some things without people articulating in songs for me. People can’t articulate what Shakespeare said without quoting Shakespeare chapter and verse. Not that I’m setting myself up against Shakespeare; I’m just saying that some things can only be articulated in Art. That’s what Art is for.
— Andrew Eldritch (again)

And is what we’re doing here Art? That’s one for the ages – what is Art, and what is Worth, and does what we’re doing have the signifiers of either? I’m not at liberty to say. It sounds to me, though, like what we can do with this is have some sort of vision, or impression, or concept in mind and communicate that vision through a medium, and it just so happens that our medium happens to be little toy soldiers and funny voices. I’m suggesting that if something can be articulated in a story or in a painting or in a sculpture then it can be articulated in something that has about it elements of them all and is, more to the point, something not consumed – look, don’t touch! – but created actively by a small group of people here and now, in the moment: something tactile and tangible and yet ephemeral, something gone in the morning. Art that renders you complicit in the act of making Art.

This of course brings us back to the art of making, and to Termite Art. Now do you see why I reposted the old Frugal post? Everything I said three years ago still stands – while purporting to encourage conversions and creativity the contemporary Games Workshop (and, increasingly, other manufacturers, including those who pal up with Army Painter and Battlefoam to shill their expensive gamer-brand hardware) doesn’t encourage you to make stuff out of crap you found in your house but instead out of the official brand-name conversion kits (and don’t think getting yours from Kromlech or Chapterhouse or wherever places you beyond the reach of my grand and arrogant swinge; it does not, it simply shows that you’re a smart consumer with aesthetic taste). However, there are a couple of things doing the rounds which have extended my worldview a little.

The first is this alternate usage of ‘Termite Art’ as a term by Manny Farber, meaning not art-as-scavenging but art-as-digestion-and-excretion:

Good work usually arises where the creators seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite- tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.

We’re not operating under any pretence that what we do is High Culture or Great Art; the officer of my WoW-RP guild reacts with polite horror to the very suggestion that it has any artistic merit whatsoever. We are, I hope, acknowledging that what we do is in Farber’s sense an artistic practice. It’s not for anything other than the fun of doing it, and – if we discount the witless pursuit of Official Best Nerd status at events – we become better at it through a rather haphazard process of continually doing stuff.

The other thing that’s gnawing at my soul, post-Gamer-Gate, is the idea of the gamer as defined by what they consume. It’s about video games, of course, but I feel that much of it applies to the likes of us as well.

Gamer identity is tainted, root and branch, by its embrace of consumption as a way of life. If gamers suddenly became completely inclusive, if all of the threats and stamping of feet went away and the doors were flung open, conspicuous consumption would still be the essential core of their identity. The mythical gamer who does not exist to consume is not a gamer. A raisin is not a grape, and no amount of rehydration will turn it into one.

And let’s be honest here; primary or secondary markets, bought or traded, we’re all consumers here. The question is, are we smart consumers? Do we buy the shit that’s shovelled at us or do we say “this is shit, let’s make something better out of stuff I found in the kitchen cupboard or bought in the hardware store or have had in the loft forever”? Embracing Termite Art means, I think, that we take some degree of ownership; we don’t buy ugly models because they’re official or because they have good rules, we don’t spend a hundred and fifty quid on injection-moulded plastic when a perfectly decent 6’x4′ table with basic scenery can be hand-made for half that sum, and we don’t play Borehammer or Stallroller-type Warmachordes, obediently lining up to fit into the out-of-the-box experience that the siege mentality provides.

Embracing Termite Art means playing in a way that gnaws at the edges of the table, that spills over into other kinds of expression, that are bigger than just another pick-up game. I have so much that I want to do, so much that I want to write and draw and model and paint and play and, yes, all right, collect. Without, it must be said, automatically buying only models for parts, or even only buying things for parts. It’s still gaming as conspicuous consumption; but what’s consumed demands excretion, and that’s the principle of Termite Art. It’s not what we buy that counts, it’s what we do with it.

[Meta Gaming] Frugal Gaming, Termite Art

Every so often, my blogging worlds (all this nonsense and Doctor Who fandom, in case you’re keeping score) collide. This piece is one such incident, dating back to 2011 when I was undertaking a Year of Frugal Gaming.

Who pundit and novelist Lawrence Miles, before he effectively shut down in despair at the state of the current series, pontificated about about brands, making things, and TV spinoffs. Specifically, the rather cool Deadly Art:

But Deadly 60 has its own pilot-fish programme, Deadly Art. This is the latest and most carnivorous offshoot of the Take Hart format (or Art Attack, if you’re dead common), and you can probably see how it all fits together. We get a precis of the accompaying Deadly 60, and then two artists in the studio – usually young women, y’know, like with Tony Hart – make A GIGANTIC SODDING PRAYING MANTIS WITH GLOWING EYES OUT OF SCRAP METAL. Only pausing to run off a smaller version out of the sort of thing you might find, ooh, in your bins.

I mention this less to rattle on about children’s TV and more to pad the entry while explaining the term ‘Termite Art’. Y’see, Miles goes on to make an Interesting Remark:

If the Termite Art version of television provokes the viewer into going outside and poking around to see what’s there (and I still hold that this is what most good telly does, especially children’s telly), then this is more like siege conditions. Branding always closes the gates. This is your product, you don’t need anything else.

Now, you can probably sense where I’m going with this. Back when I was a lad, there was a lot of the miniature wargaming hobby that was a bit DIY. Actually, quite a lot DIY. Sure, Citadel made trees (they weren’t very good) and produced their own paintbrushes and paints and clippers and stuff, but there was never a particular drive for everything to be Official. White Dwarf ran frequent articles on how to make modular chipboard battlefields, with terrain crafted from of bits of toilet and the ridiculous amount of white packing material that their larger kits came in, and they showed this stuff in battle reports; it was part of the Right Way to do the Hobby, and it was mostly pretty damn cheap. Names were dropped in painting articles – Humbrol, Tamiya, Airfix – and there was a culture of crossover and usage between manufacturers. Furthermore, it meant there were relations, however tenuous, between my hobby and the sort of shops my grandfather loved to visit and random bits of crud picked up from skips or beaches or the moorlands that spread out to the north of our house at the top edge of Plymouth (I’m still sulking that I didn’t bring home that sheep skull I found, but the ants hadn’t quite finished it and there was no. fucking. way. my mother would have had that in her car or the house). The hobby sent me off into the big wide world looking for stuff to do things with.

Nowadays, of course, there’s a Citadel-branded everything, and a definition of the Games Workshop Hobby that actively avoids mention of any other kind of Hobby. The terrain you see in White Dwarf these days is exclusively the stuff you can buy in kit form in your local GW. Mention of other manufacturers’ paints and tools and miniatures and goodness knows what else is strictly off-limits. Privateer Press have entrenched behind the same thing, although their terrain line was an expensive series of disasters (I quite liked the Cryx piece though, and if anyone has one that they don’t want, I’d be happy to take it off their hands). Things are a bit woolier once you move further away from the Evil Empire and the Imperial Remnant, but I still see a lot of people talking about Army Painter as though they’re the only people who make primer or big tins of dark glossy stuff to dip your figures in. When I were a lad we did that with woodstain.

This saddens me, and it does so beyond the staggering expense of the stuff (I still reel at the cost of the Realm of Battle board complete with SKULLS UNDER THE TOPSOIL, even three years on). I like to keep the gates open and to have a steady flow of people outwards as well as in. I like initiative, and re-use, and re-cycling. I like putting things to strange new purposes. I don’t like having the Official Product and being told that I don’t need anything else: especially not when it’s four times the effective price of what I’ve come up with.

[IKRPG] Actual Play Review: Iron Kingdoms Role Playing Game

In theory, I should hate the IKRPG.

No, really. It’s a three-hundred-page rulebook with great slabs of abilities, skills, spells and complicated item construction systems; it starts with a Fantasy Humanities Textbook and doesn’t hit the gameables until a third of the way in; and, while it insists that it can be played without miniatures, it reads like such a straight upgrade of Warmachine/Hordes into a single-figure action-RPG that you’d probably be a bit mad to try it.

Then again, in theory, I should love the IKRPG.

I play Warmachine and Hordes – have done for eight years – and can generally be counted on to give Privateer Press the benefit of the doubt (not always: see also character upgrade kits, Colossals, and the increasingly transparent attempts to make No Quarter a must-buy). I owned (though never quite found time to play) the D&D 3.0 sourcebooks for the Iron Kingdoms and generally liked them (although I’ve never forgiven them for The Longest Night, ‘that adventure where you follow a DM PC around for a three-day murder-tour of Corvis).

Since I enjoyed it from the player side of the screen (an unusual seat for myself) and since I know the rules and setting fairly well and it’s been suggested that my ongoing attempts to teach new players might be enabled by working with something that’s known rather than something I’m making up as I go along, on balance, I thought it might be worth a pop with my usual Dark Ages Vampire / Star Wars d20 rabble.

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