The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day, my good buddy Scotty the Dwarf stops by for a visit. He shows up bare-chested and with a giant orange mohawk, which meant only one thing: There was a new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in town.
“Y’know, Scotty,” I says, leaning back in my chair, “I’ve always had me a soft spot for WFRP. Great dark fantasy setting. But those rules in the first two editions just never did it for me. And that third edition went way off the rails.”
“Well, yer in luck, laddie,” he says. “I happen t’know that the fourth edition of WFRP cleans up all the nonsense and gets right down to the Troll-slaying goodness.”
“Speaking of Troll Slayers,” I says, “the look suits you. I’ll bet you really lay your enemies low.”
“Ye’d best be glad I’m not a Smartass Slayer, laddie…”
Here the text introduces the concept of tabletop roleplaying games, explains how to use the book, and goes over the text conventions found in the book.
Much more interesting is the tour of the Resplendent Empire of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Karl-Franz I, roughly equivalent to a polytheistic Holy Roman Empire at the height of the Renaissance. This takes the form of the idyllic “party line” on various topics — the peasants, the rivers, the cities, the inns, and what have you — followed in each case by a more cynical viewpoint. Taken as a whole, it paints a picture of a picturesque country with a dirty and dangerous underbelly.
Further aiding in this description is a letter to a previously exiled noble from a guardian (and witch) assigned by his father, summoning him back to the Reikland, the province at the heart of the Empire, and dispelling whatever false notions he might have of the place.
WFRP introduces one of the most innovative character creation systems I have seen. Rather than going 100% random or point-based, the game presents a delightful hybrid. At every major step of the way, players are given the choice of either directly choosing an option or letting a roll of the dice make the call. There’s no penalty for the former, but there’s a bonus in Experience Points each time the player goes with the latter.
WFRP offers four species to play:
- Humans (Reiklander): Humans in the Reikland tend to be more open and friendly than other folk but are often seen as arrogant and meddlesome by outsiders.
- Dwarfs: The stiff-necked, honor- and muscle-bound, gold-obsessed fellows you’d expect, with the caveat that many of those living in the Reikland are the descendants of those driven from the mountains in years past.
- Halflings: Cheerful, chubby, pipeweed-smoking diminutive folks, the Halflings of WFRP have much more in common with the classic Hobbit-style Halfling than they do with the revisionist Romany-like Halfings of the newer editions of D&D.
- High Elves: Aloof, passionate, and sophisticated, they follow the archetype of the “civilized” Elf pretty closely.
- Wood Elves: So reclusive in the Reikland that most folks don’t even believe any live there, these are your stereotypical “tree-hugging” Elves.
As a side note here, the animosity that the Dwarfs bear for the Elves is strictly optional in this edition, allowing them to work together in the same party.
Species selection provides a list of Skills and Talents that help make each species “feel” right. For example, Dwarves are all sturdy, Halflings are resistant to Chaos, and Elves of both sorts have acute vision.
Class and Career
The game is class-based, but not in the same manner as, say, D&D. Class determines the character’s general place in society:
- Burghers (townsfolk)
Under each class is a set of careers that PCs can follow. For example, the Academic careers are:
In this game, Characteristics receive percentage ratings, with the tens digit treated as the Characteristic Bonus that is used for various purposes; e.g., the Strength Bonus adds to melee damage.
Again, by default, you roll for your scores. (For humans, this means 2d10+20 across the board.) If you go totally random, you get a big XP bonus; a lesser bonus if you shuffle the rolled scores around; and no bonus if you simply assign 100 points to the 10 Characteristics:
- Weapon Skill
- Ballistic Skill
A couple of thoughts here…
I used to dislike treating weapon skills as characteristics, but I’ve since come around. This design keeps Agility or Dexterity from being “god stats” and avoids the silliness of Strength being used to hit (as opposed to determining damage).
And speaking of “god stats”, I appreciate the fact that the game splits Agility and Dexterity. Splitting out Initiative from both seems a bit much, but I’m okay with that.
Now, Elves get the lion’s share of bonuses, which may seem unfair, but Elves take a hit when it comes to the next bits: Fate and Resilience. The former represents the maximum level of Fortune (luck points), and the latter represents the maximum level of Resolve (get-out-of-trouble points). Elves get just a couple of points to to spend on these, a nice way to represent their status as a fading people.
In another nifty application of the rules, players must choose a Motivation for their characters. Appropriately enough, acting according to this Motivation lets characters regain Resolve.
Class and Careers
Each Career has four levels. For example, the Scholar Career has the following levels:
Each level, in turn, offers a selection of Characteristic advances, Skills, Talents, and Trappings, and mandates the character’s status in society.
A character can only increase the Characteristics available at his current level and can buy his way into a new level once all advances in the current level have been taken. However, the game is amazingly flexible for one based on classes. For the right amount of XP, the character can change Careers within or outside of his current Class, and with sufficient in-game explanation, can even skip Career levels.
The flexibility doesn’t end there, however. Characters are even able to stay at their current Career level in perpetuity if they prefer, continuing to increase the Characteristics and Skills available for improvement at that level.
And longtime WFRP fans will be happy to know that the Rat Catcher still has a Small but Vicious Dog.
Skills and Talents
Each skill is based on a Characteristic. Some are Basic, meaning that anyone can attempt using them with the relevant Characteristic, while others are Advanced, meaning that they can only be attempted if the character has taken advances in them. Overall, I agree with the way the rules categorize them in this regard, although I wonder if it makes sense that Ranged (as in ranged combat) is Advanced. Having trained in archery, I readily concede that it’s a skill that requires training to use, but anyone can point and shoot a firearm. That’s one of the reasons they became prevalent.
I would say that the skills are relatively specific — Consume Alcohol and Row come to mind. The prevalence of Basic skills makes this far less onerous than it might be.
Talents, by contrast, are special abilities that might be called “perks” or “advantages” in other systems. These include the ability to use magic as well as various martial tricks like dual-wielding weapons.
WFRP 4e uses a simple percentile roll-under system with some clever twists.
First of all, it’s worth noting that the game fixes the problem of its fairly low Characteristic and Skill levels by using a difficulty level system that sets average difficulty at +20%. That’s a welcome change, as my experience with WFRP 1e includes some unpleasant memories of an extreme “whiff” factor.
The system also uses a success level system (when degree of success matters, obviously). By default, the success level is the tens digit of the Skill or Characteristic (plus any difficulty modifiers) minus the tens digit of the dice roll. Simple enough, although for my math-addled mind, even that little bit of arithmetic makes me stop and think a bit. Thankfully, the game suggests simply taking the tens digit of a successful roll as the success level, which is much more transparent and, consequently, much more my speed.
Speaking of success levels, the game blows the top of what used to be a universal Skill/Characteristic cap of 100% by adding an extra success level for every 10% above 100% that a score goes. Since I can’t abide universal caps, this is a very welcome change for me.
The system also includes a dead-simple method for determining critical successes and fumbles without any math at all: doubles (11, 22, 33, etc.). Simply put, doubles that are successes are Criticals, and doubles that are a failure are Fumbles.
Combat is relatively simple but quite deadly.
Fights take place in Initiative order, with each combatant getting a move and an action each round. Melee combat is an opposed roll; ranged combat is not.
One important aspect of WFRP 4e combat is Advantage. Combatants gain a point of Advantage whenever they win an opposed test in combat or otherwise improve their situation in some way. Each point of Advantage, in turn, adds +10 to any relevant combat or Psychology test, and Advantage continues to accrue until combatants lose an opposed test or take a Wound or a Condition (such as bleeding), at which point they lose it all. This means that dominant fighters grow exponentially more dangerous while the fight’s going their way but that the tide can turn at any time. Great stuff.
The system includes hit locations, which doesn’t thrill me, but this is simply to determine whether armor covers the location in question. Damage isn’t tracked per location, which is a good thing in my book.
Speaking of damage, it’s determined by adding the success level of the attack — something I always appreciate, as it rewards skillful attacks. Armor (along with Toughness) reduces damage, another plus to me.
Damage is rated in Wounds, which are basically hit points. Lose all your Wounds, and you start taking Critical Wounds. This is when things start getting serious — anything from a simple scar-producing cut across the forehead to instant decapitation in the case of a head wound, for example, depending upon a d100 roll against the relevant Critical Wound table. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds, since negative Wounds less than the Toughness Bonus mean that the d100 roll is at -20, but it’s still pretty rough. And remember what I said about Criticals earlier? Well, a Critical in combat results in an immediate Critical Wound. That’s really nasty, since even the worst fighters can get lucky now and then. This means that no fight can be taken for granted, which is ideal for a grim and perilous setting.
Fate & Resilience
Fate and Resilience form the basis of two pools of points: Fortune and Resolve, respectively. Fortune and Resolve can be spent for minor benefits, like re-rolling a failed test (Fortune) or ignoring the modifiers from Critical Wounds for a round (Resolve). These points refresh with relative ease — Fortune at the beginning of each game session, Resolve when a character acts in accordance to Motivation. However, Fate and Resilience can also be spent directly for major effects, such as avoiding death (Fate) or automatically succeeding at a task (Resilience). These points come back only in extraordinary circumstances: acts of supreme heroism (Fate) and of great importance to Motivation (Resilience).
I’m always a fan of “metagame” currencies, and I especially like the two-tier system used here. PCs can get a break, but at cost that varies with the importance of said break. And I particularly like how the game requires major character developments to replenish the more precious of these points.
Corruption by the forces of Chaos serves a function in WFRP similar to that of Sanity (and Sanity loss) in Call of Cthulhu. Characters gain Corruption points in one of two ways: dark deals and corrupting influences.
Dark deals, as the name implies, are entered into voluntarily by the character — the PC can re-roll a failed roll even without Fortune points by accepting a point of Corruption.
Corrupting influences are external sources of Chaos, like Mutants, Daemons, and Warpstone. These call for rolls of either Endurance (for physical sources) or Cool (for spiritual sources). There are three levels of corrupting influences — minor, moderate, and major — each with increasing target numbers for success and increasing Corruption points for failure.
I like this a lot. Chaos can get you through temptation or like radiation, making it a truly insidious force.
So what does Corruption do? Well, if your amount of Corruption ever exceeds your Willpower Bonus plus your Toughness Bonus, you must pass an Endurance Test or mutate mentally or physically.
Interestingly, Halflings only physically mutate 10% of the time, Dwarfs 5% of the time, and Elves 0% of the time, while Humans physically mutate 50% of the time. I’m not sure which is creepier: the fact that Humans are so vulnerable to turning into freaks or the fact that there’s never a physical sign that an Elf has turned to the Dark Side, so to speak.
The book provides extensive lists of both physical and mental mutations — some of which actually have a positive aspect, like Inhuman Beauty or Iron Skin, but all of which will get you executed if they’re discovered for what they are. (You might as well wrap things up if you get the Inverted Face mutation.)
On the bright side, mutating removes Corruption points equal to the PC’s Willpower Bonus. The only other ways to remove Corruption points are by voluntarily allowing the GM to have your PC do something unpleasant or by the difficult path of absolution.
Again, great stuff. This provides a tempting easy but dark path to removing Corruption, juxtaposed with the hard but “right” way to go about it. Not to mention the fact that the easy way out is bound to result in delicious paranoia among the PCs.
Disease and Infection
I won’t go into the nasty details of this section, which includes such charming afflictions as Blood Rot, the Bloody Flux, and Galloping Trots. Suffice it to say that the book provides enough of details on diseases and their symptoms to make the Old World a suitably nasty place.
And if the game is going to cover the unpleasant physical aspects of the Old World, why not cover the mental ones as well? The book does this well, addressing such issues as prejudices, hatred, and fear, but also mentioning the undeniable power of love.
This game manages to make “off-screen” actions between adventures fairly interesting through the use of Events and Endeavors.
Events are rolled on 1d100 and range from adventure-spawning happenings to peace and quiet.
Endeavors are activities the PCs get up to between adventures: earning income, training, researching, or what have you. PCs get one Endeavor per week, with a maximum of three.
There are two Endeavors of particular note. The first is the fact that Elves must spend an Endeavor interacting with their own kind with no accrued benefit, serving as another balancing mechanism to offset the Elves’ inherent advantages. The second is that unless PCs engage in a banking Endeavor, they squander all of their accumulated loot from the previous adventure.
Religion and Belief
Confession time: Given that the Old World is clearly based on Renaissance Europe, the choice to make the setting polytheistic always grated on me a bit. Fortunately, the evocative manner in which this chapter describes the various pantheons and their worshipers somehow manages to make it work for me this time around.
In particular, I love the contrast between the primal Old Gods and the more cosmopolitan Classical Gods, with attention paid to the lesser provincial gods and the nonhuman pantheons as well.
Then, of course, there’s Sigmar, patron deity of the Empire, and the vile Chaos Gods.
The chapter goes into great detail regarding the cults of the major gods of the Empire, including symbols, holy books, festivals, penances, holy sites, and, of course, the worshipers themselves.
I’m quite fond of the system for Blessings and Miracles. The former are minor and imperceptible, such as +10 to a given Characteristic for six rounds; the latter are powerful and overt, such as a black fire sent by the god of death to destroy the undead. Keeping these powers in check is the chance of angering one’s god, which can go up dramatically if you’ve accumulated sins. It just feels right as a system and is quite distinct from magic.
In the world of Warhammer, magic manifests as a difficult-to-perceive wind that sweeps down from the north and separates into eight different colors of wind representing different lores:
- White (Light)
- Gold (Metal)
- Jade (Life)
- Blue (Heavens)
- Grey (Shadows)
- Purple (Death)
- Red (Fire)
- Amber (Beasts)
Humans traditionally are limited to specializing in one of these lores and learn them in the officially sanctioned Colleges of Magic, while Elves can use multiple lores. Elves can also learn to blend the Winds of Magic together for powerful effects. On the flip side, the Winds can blend in a far more sinister manner, forming Dark Magic.
Other lores exist but will get the Witch Hunters after you:
- Hedgecraft: Folk magic dealing with spirits and nature.
- Witchcraft: An unpleasant lore dealing with Dark Magic.
- Daemonology: Summoning, binding, and controlling daemons, a big no-no.
- Necromancy: Raising and controlling the dead, another big no-no.
- Chaos Magic: Dealing directly with the Great Powers of Chaos, the biggest of the no-nos.
The Winds of Magic respond to the proper spoken words. Appropriately, then, the casting roll is made using the Language (Magick) skill, pitting it against the Casting Number of the spell. A Critical results in extra power at the cost of a roll on the Minor Miscast table, a list of unpleasant effects that include the possibility of a roll on the Major Miscast table. (A Fumble results in a miscast roll without the extra power.) Using expendable physical components provides some protection against miscasts. Thus, you have the explanation for incantations and arcane ingredients.
The setting also offers a single explanation for both wizards’ outlandish garb and their general avoidance of armor. It turns out that it’s harder to cast or channel (see below) if you aren’t dressed appropriately. This means wearing clothing that matches the Wind of your lore. Furthermore, metal armor and leather armor partially repel all but the gold and amber winds, respectively; ergo, metal and beast magicians are the only wizards who can wear metal or leather armor, respectively, without penalty.
Normally, I’m a fan of magic point systems. WFRP 4e doesn’t use one, but the designer created the next best thing: channeling. Essentially, the caster can use the Channeling skill to built up magical power from the Winds of Magic to pull off more powerful feats. The catch is that this is dangerous: As with casting, a Critical provides extra power at the price of a Minor Miscast roll, and a Fumble — which in this case occurs on a failed roll that is doubles or ends in a zero — results in a roll on the Major Miscast Table.
The game presents four kinds of spells: Petty, Arcane, Lore, and Chaos. Petty spells are like instinctive cantrips, and Arcane spells are usable by any type of magician, while Lore and Chaos spells require the appropriate Talents. That’s a lot of flexibility that keeps single-lore magicians from being quite so one-note.
The chapter includes many Petty and Arcane spells, a good selection of color spells and witch spells, and a brief sampling of Dark Lore and Chaos spells, the latter two of which are intended for NPC magicians. In yet another cool touch, spells of a given type have side-effects appropriate to that type; e.g., Lore of Fire spells will set the target on fire.
Taken as a whole, the magic system presents many familiar elements in new, logical, and flavorful ways.
General (but good!) gamemaster advice, including important tips about using the rules and awarding XP.
Of particular note is the information regarding travel, always an iffy proposition in the Old World. Included are considerations and expenses for travel by land and water and a random events table to spice up travel as needed.
Here we have a magnificent gazetteer of the Reikland, bringing the geographical and political landscapes into vivid life. It’s all here, from the grandest of cities to the most fetid of marshlands and darkest of forests and ruins, complete with adventure seeds and magical places of note in colorful sidebars. It paints a picture of a place in which I very much desire to explore.
Also featured is a quite detailed timeline of the Reikland, from the earliest primitive settlements to the most recent past.
The Consumers’ Guide
This is a truly extensive equipment chapter. Not only does it cover the cost of everything from a pipe to a monkey, but it also deals with the monetary system, bartering, and crafting.
The weapon stats go well beyond simple damage bonuses, factoring in all the features that make a particular weapon special. For example, a fencing foil is a fast and precise weapon that isn’t much use against armor unless said armor has a weak point that the fencer manages to exploit, in which case it ignores the armor altogether.
Oh, I do love a good bestiary. And this is a good bestiary.
The chapter divides creatures by category:
- The Peoples of the Reikland: Humans, Dwarfs, Halflings, Elves (High and Wood), and Ogres, plus a couple of sample Human individuals. (6 entries.)
- The Beasts of the Reikland: “Normal” creatures, albeit including giant versions of some. (9 entries.)
- The Monstrous Beasts of Reikland: General monsters, including Dragons, Giants, and Trolls. (16 entries.)
- The Greenskin Hordes: Orcs, Goblins, and Snotlings. (3 entries.)
- The Restless Dead: Skeletons, Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, etc. (Surprisingly, no Liches, however.) (10 entries.)
- Slaves to Darkness: Beastmen, Cultists, Mutants, Daemons, and Skaven. (13 entries.)
If 57 entries aren’t enough to get you started, keep in mind that each entry includes an array of optional Traits for customization.
Speaking of Traits, the Size Trait is particularly welcome, introducing various modifiers to combat between creatures of different Sizes. This is a major improvement over previous editions, because a Strength of 50 now means something very different for a Dwarf than it does for a Dragon.
The full-color artwork throughout the book is both consistent and outstanding. I particularly appreciate the moody landscapes that capture the feel of the Reikland. The layout is equally easy on the eyes.
The writing, like the art, maintains a consistent tone, managing to sound pseudo-Renaissance while remaining quite legible and engaging. The bits of humor sprinkled throughout are welcome and not at all jarring. I noticed no typos.
The book is well-organized, with both the table of contents and the index being extensive and thorough.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4e cleans up every issue I ever had with previous editions while remaining true to its dark fantasy lineage. Simply put, it is one of the most finely-crafted roleplaying games I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to anyone with even a passing interest in its grim and perilous subgenre.