[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.

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