Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
In the grim, dark, grimdark fantasy version of Late Medieval Germany, you will roll up peasants and be slain by fantastical creatures and Daemon lords vastly more powerful than your character can ever hope to become, no matter how much experience he gains. That is if you get the cholera first. Unless you have the Tome of Corruption supplement, in which case, you can be a badass motherfucking daemon-worshipping viking. But he can get cholera too.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is, as its name implies, a roleplaying game set in the world of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, within the same vein as Dungeons & Dragons, taking all the good bits of D&D (brilliant lore, fun shenanigans with friends) without the bad parts (weeaboo DMs, overpowered magic, general bullshit). In your usual noblebright Dungeons & Dragons game, you play great heroes trying to stop the apocalypse. In this game, the apocalypse has pretty much already happened and the people who could have stopped it probably didn't care. It's a bit like "Call of Cthulhu meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail"... in fact this world's version of France is exactly like that, but worse.
It has had a checkered past, going through a number of different publishers and frequently sitting for years in development limbo.
Although the setting is occasionally Tolkienesque, it generally takes far more inspiration from the real world, being essentially an alternate universe version of Europe circa the 1500s. Most of the game is set in a fantasy version of the Holy Roman Empire (a medieval superstate in what is now Germany comprised of thousands of bickering states, some of the very smallest were just one city and the immediate surrounding land; also the most non-indicative name for anything ever besides the minigun, as it was not an empire, not Roman, and not particularly holy either). Cities and central governments have begun to rise, but it brings with it crime, corruption and general rot. Your local doctor has much the same skillset as your local butcher, and the insane are hounded out of fear daemons have touched them, except here there really is a chance. Firearms are fairly common but also fairly inaccurate and the actually affordable ones are scarily likely to catastrophically fail and shred your forearms with shrapnel. Similarly magic exists, but every time you cast a spell you are literally putting your soul on the line as you may be horribly mutated by eldritch energy or just sucked into the Warp and raped by daemons for all eternity if the invocation goes wrong. Humans are the dominant race but by no means do they call the world theirs - as well as their (dubious) dwarf and elf allies, they are opposed by beastmen, orcs, daemons, trolls, and all manner of other horrible things that may inflict loss of life and limb. Doom stalks the countryside, the dopey inbreds are being left to fend for themselves while the nobles bicker in their courts, and there are no heroes - you lot will have to do. The world is probably doomed (and it is in the long run), but maybe the village beyond yon hill can still be saved, and if not, maybe at least one orphan girl in that village can be.
Outside of the very-German Empire, there are other nations. Bretonnia is the stand-in for France, with a dash of King Arthur's England, an ass-backwards place where the nobles are utterly infallible and also worship some Lovecraftian Lady of the Lake who turns them into half-elf ubermensch. Kislev is a fantasy version of medieval Russia that lies right on the edge of the Chaos Wastes and the country has been invaded several times by bloodthirsty giants in black armour forged in the fires of Hell itself, but never once fallen (Kislev is really badass). The Norscans (who often fight the Empire and Kislev) are 8-foot tall vikings on crack. South of the Empire is the Border Princes (the Balkans), Estalia (Spain and Aragon) and Tilea (Italy). Across the sea to the west lies this world's version of Atlantis, where the elves come from. The east of the continent has the World's Edge Mountains (the Urals), home to dwarfs, greenskins and fat, Mongolian ogres.
There are four races in the main game: Humans, elves, dwarfs and halflings:
- Humans have balanced stats and the widest selection of possible careers with the best progression. They can come from all walks of life and various places. The rulebook snarkily points out that you should know about these and how to play them. Usually most human characters are from the Empire but this can encompass Bretonnians, Kislevites, Estalians, Tileans and even people from further away.
- Dwarfs are an ancient race nominally allied with humanity, their empire was shattered by a cataclysm and a war with the elves long ago and now they are dying out in part because they wage constant war with basically everyone. See, dwarfs in this world are pathologically obsessed with retribution (and it is implied their gods punish them if they don't); a human noble once found an army of angry dwarfs seeking to kill him and ransack his castle because centuries ago his ancestor cheated the dwarf stonecutters he employed to build it out of twelve pennies, then after they won they went home and listed all the casualties in the battle as a separate grudge to be settled again later. They have decent stats but skew towards "slow but strong" and have their own unique career options.
- Elves are pretty, talented with magic and have a glorious and tragic history. If you are an elf either you are from one of the hidden forest enclaves in human territory, or one of the great trade cities like Marienburg or Altdorf. They have excellent stats, a base movement as fast as a horse, don't need to pay tuition fees if you want to be a mage and their unique career list lacks a lot of the suckier options. The obvious downside to being an elf however, is that you are an elf. Elves are hated in most places for being snobby jackholes and any given country town is populated by superstitous racists who will cheerfully greet you with torches and chopping implements. Many parts of the world have an "Ear tax" that applies to elves - basically, you pay a silver or you lose an ear.
- Halflings are the inverse of the elves. They have miserable stats, the lowest strength, weapon skill and toughness scores and the lowest number of wounds. So why play one? Two reasons. First, because halflings are practically immune to Chaos corruption - they can juggle pieces of wyrdstone with no ill effects when other races trying that can expect for their lower jaw to fall out and be replaced by tentacles. Second, because they are the only race who won't face racism... much, because nobody cares enough about halflings to hate them.
Nearly every portion of character creation can be rolled leading to amusing tales of a peasant, a noble, a doctor, and a sailor getting together to claim a lost dwarven stronghold. Edition depending, you are allowed to choose your race, class and background but "making do" is thematically encouraged (and mechanically as well, with bonus starting XP). Depending on what career you roll up you might not even start with a proper weapon, and you can forget starting with any armour at all unless you are supremely fortunate. You might have enough starting gold to get a decent pair of boots or a leather skullcap though, but any chainmail you get is probably moth-eaten and nabbed off a dead bandit. Guns likewise are extremely powerful but unless you roll up a soldier you are unlikely to be able to afford one for a long while, and they aren't exactly accurate or reliable except for Hochland Long Rifles, which are painstakingly hand-crafted by family craftsmen in a forested region with jackshit for industry and thus you'll be lucky to ever see one in your entire career. Money is also hard to come by and difficult to work with not only because it's non-metric like old British money (a gold crown is 12 silver shillings, 1 shilling is 20 bronze pennies, etc.) but also because there is a good chance that you go into the next state and it is worthless because nobody recognises it. Crippling poverty is a near-perpetual state of being for PCs, and they'll be scrambling for every penny even if they are doing well - in 2nd Edition, the most expensive item in the whole game is a Best craftsmanship galleon, worth 120,000 gold crowns. In a game where having more than fifty in your purse at any moment is a big accomplishment. It practically takes the piss.
Combat is extremely (and often hilariously) lethal, and has many rules for crippling injuries and critical hits. It is fully possible for a lowly badger to bite you on the leg and cause you to lose your limb, and this turns attempting to mount a horse into a dangerous endeavour only undertaken by the most foolhardy of warriors. For the true WFRP experience however, there is an epic compilation of expanded injury rules and tables (one document 79 pages long) created by Josef Tham, an ER doctor who read the original injury ruleset in all its glory and all its horror and decided to spice it up a bit. His rules do a brilliantly macabre job of describing the kind of damage these primitive weapons would have on human tissue. Disease is also a fact of life and something your characters will not get away from; your character can survive a tense combat with zombies only to catch a contagion from the blood splatter and perish five days later in agony after their eyes rot out. Poultices are valuable, and magical healing is worth more than gold.
To offset the horrifying lethality of combat, PCs have Fate and Fortune points. Fortune points can be spent during a game to reroll a bad roll, but are reclaimed at the end of every session. Fate points work like a 1-Up, you permanently burn a Fate point to (narrowly) survive something that would have otherwise killed you. GMs are encouraged to never give Fate points except for truly incredible feats of roleplay worthy of greenposting, and what's worse, burning a Fate point reduces your Fortune point pool.
It is also probably the only high fantasy universe in which magic is not (terribly) overpowered. Not so much because the rules don't have spells that can deal 4*1d10+4 damage every hit having a chance to be critical, dealing another 1d10 damage, which keeping in mind that a PC min/maxed and lucky too can at most have 22 hitpoints and 13 damage reduction is quite a bit. No. It's because of the fact casting even a lowly fireball has the chance to open a rift to the realm of Chaos that sucks you in so your ass can be eternally fucked by Slaanesh (done by rolling doubles on your casting roll). There are a lot of arcane Lores you can specialise in (Beasts, Death, Fire, Heavens, Life, Light, Metal and Shadow) and being a wizard means being inducted into the College to be sanctioned, though it is explicitly noted that if you are an adventurer with magic that is probably because you couldn't quite cut the mustard to be an Imperial battle mage (and if you are an elf, mastering the human Wizard Lord career means you are only just beginning to be considered skilled enough to begin serious elven magic training). Don't be an unsanctioned magic user, or you can expect a visit from a gang of scowling, heavily-armed men eager for a little chat. But being part of a school of magic actually changes you fundamentally as you become seeped in the magic - if you join the Bright Order, expect your hair to become bright orange, your body to carry a lingering smell of sulphur, and leave ash and scorch marks everywhere you touch.
Perhaps the biggest claim to fame for the system is the extreme amounts of character classes available to players. While the base game is generally rather simple (start as a noob wizard, then become shit wizard, then become an okay-ish wizard, etc.) additional books have added a shocking amount of player choice. Want to be a ratcatcher or a slave? How about a Grail Knight or a Vampire? Want to play a warp stone sniffing Skaven or champion of Nurgle? All of these are options. The best "class" is ratcatcher, as it has the most important piece of equipment in the game, a small but vicious dog; the downside to being a ratcatcher is you have to wade through waist-deep levels of shit to club vicious rats the length of your arm to death for pennies, and you can't talk about the ratmen you keep encountering down there because the people who do tend to be never heard from again (abducted either by the ratmen themselves or by the authorities who don't want to create a moral panic). Seriously, being a ratcatcher is the most thankless and pitiful job ever, you are probably the only thing standing in the way of the Empire being literally eaten and you have nothing to show for it besides a couple missing fingers. The career system is in many ways better than the static class system employed by D&D because character progression feels a lot more organic and spontaneous and less reliant on "builds". You can start out as a lowly dock thug, become a mercenary, aim to move up to join a knightly order, but then you meet up with some dwarfs and instead learn to become a shield-breaker with them. Highly recommended is playing with the Career Companion (even if the book itself is rarer than pieces of the holy cross) since it adds literally hundreds of classes from all the released books, but be aware that some aspects they add (like new types of magic) are not in the book and might require some extra legwork or modulation to figure out.
Over the years, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has had four editions, with much skub over which one is best. The only thing that anyone can seem to agree on is 3rd Edition was shit.
Published by Games Workshop themselves in 1986, First Edition is... strange. It was made before a lot of Fantasy's setting had solidified into what we know today, and it shows. Karl Franz is a weak old man who is assassinated part way through one of the modules for example. The game was a gleeful mashup of the Basic Roleplaying System used by Runequest and Call of Cthulhu with AD&D, bringing the dynamics of humans, elfs, dwarves, and halflings into a gritty, dirt covered world where every combat had a good chance of permanently maiming a character. The combination was an instant classic, and Empire In Flames was an iconic introduction to the Old World that would go onto inspire many authors, including William King's Gotrek and Felix series.
Published by Green Ronin in 2004, Second Edition mostly built on the first. It faced the unenviable job of matching the increasingly high fantasy bent world the tabletop game was building with the low power feel of the first editions, not always gracefully but in general it managed. It was notable for adding a number of new careers, including the aforementioned Chaos Champion, Grail Knight, and Vampire paths. The flaws of second edition mostly came down to the era when it was released, where companies were pumping out books quicker and quicker, often with high railroading, which can lead to problems in a system where combat is so lethal. Still, the books for Bretonia, Norsca, Kislev and the Border Princes are generally considered high marks, and you can always play the old modules with the new ruleset. Also the Skaven book, which in addition to letting you play as Skaven in campaigns, also gave some of the most in-depth background to the teeming little ratmen in existence and is a good read for anyone interested their fluff.
The second edition divided the ridiculous large amount of skills into actual skills and talents. Skills existed as Basic Skills, i.e: skills that any character could roll for, even without being trained in the skill, but with a penalty of halving the Characteristic and rounding up, and as Advanced Skills which required the training, no matter what. Talents were in turn, for the most part, advantages that influenced the use of Skills, Characteristics or Actions, either at all times or under special circumstances.
Another thing that the second edition has sorted out positively were Skill Groups by making use of categorization. Skill Groups refered to skills that consisted of "sub-skills", but where each sub-skill counts as a standalone Skill that had to be learned in order to be used without any penalties. Examples of Skill Groups were skills like Common Knowledge: Land X and Common Knowledge: Land Y. Both skills belong to the Common Knowledge skill group but are actually two standalone skills. While not a change in the mechanic itself, the way this is presented in the Corebook allowed both the GM and the players to see through how the system has been built without being overwhelmed by a clusterfuck of 100+ uncategorized skills, like in the first edition. The same method has been applied to Talents, i.e: Talent Groups.
While 1E made use of the standard set of dice (d4, d6, d8, d10 etc) of other popular Roleplaying Games, the second edition made use of two d10 exclusively, incorporating D% in Characteristic and Skill tests, and 1 or 2d10 for damage rolls.
Third Edition, aka the bad one
Published by Fantasy Flight in 2009, having acquired the rights to both WFRP and its sister game Dark Heresy, Third Edition is almost universally reviled by fans. Ditching d% for funky custom dice, tokens, and a pile of cards, Third Edition was more board game than RPG, and the box set (because it never independently released the book) only had enough for three players and the GM. Meanwhile, the story itself was much more heavily weighted toward high fantasy cooperation between Humans, Elves, and Dwarves, generally leaning away from the blood, mud, and shit that had characterized first and second editions, robbing the series of everything that made it special. The game was only active for 3 years before Fantasy Flight declared it dead, and good riddance. That being said, a lot of the ideas from this game and transfer them into the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, which is generally playable. Generally.
Published by Cubicle 7 in 2018, 4e is a return to the ideas of first and second edition. D% is back! No cards or tokens! It basically puts us right back where we were in 2004, which could be bad or could be good, hard to tell at this point. The biggest change the system makes is combat. Combat is now a series of opposed skill tests, with damage being dealt if the attacker outdoes the defender in Success Levels, even if both are in the negatives. That means it's possible to hit an enemy AND critically fumble, but also reduces the whiff factor that plagues early levels of a lot of percentile systems.
Time will tell if this edition will live up to its predecessors. After months of playing, 4th edition is like second one, I can say fights are fast and positioning is more critical, magic is more consistent, and set of optional rules let GMs to choose how heroic their warhammer will be. Only problem? Cubicle 7 screwed proofreading and there's a lot of errata to take into account. Though PDFs (and probably newer print) have been updated and do not require an errata (for now at least). Shooting is overpowered, though.
There was also some amount of controversy over the character artwork, which had things such as a black wandering Merchant and an obese Smuggler. Much polite and calm debate was had over this matter and its place within the Warhammer Fantasy universe.
Because Fourth Edition seems mostly as a way of reliving the glory days of First (and occasionally Second) edition, most of the published materials are translations or rewrites of first or second edition adventures.