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 don't get cholera first. Unless you have the Tome of Corruption supplement, in which case you can be a badass motherfucking daemon-worshipping viking. And then die of 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. Really, if D&D is Pirates of Penzance, WFRP is a historical reenactor explaining how in the Royal Navy in real life, they used to paint the floors red to conceal all the gore. The writing is quintessentially British in character, and the humour is either of the gallow's variety or exceedingly dry. 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.
It has a Warhammer: Age of Sigmar counterpart in the form of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar Roleplay: Soulbound. For extra fun, play through a WFRP campaign during Karl Franz's reign, hold a last stand in the End Times, then switch to Soulbound with the souls of the survivors.
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 they were. 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. 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. Or if you can't even save her, you can at least save for your retirement - the Old World sucks enough already, you want to spend your twilight years penniless and freezing in the basement of a tavern?
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 would make Ivan the Terrible himself shit with terror because it lies right on the edge of the Chaos Wastes and the country has been invaded several times by mutants, daemons and bloodthirsty giants in black armour forged in the fires of Hell itself, but Kislevian ice is hard to crack and it has never once fallen in spite of it. 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) where pirates and scallywags wrangle with petty nobles who are not so different from them, 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.
Humans are the dominant race within the Old World, 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.
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 ever try to forgive and forget); 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. One particularly famous dwarf career is the Slayer: if you dishonour yourself in dwarf society, you chop your mop into a bright orange mohawk and fight the enemies of the dwarfs until they kill you. Progression in this career goes Troll Slayer, Giant Slayer, Dragon Slayer and finally Daemon Slayer, just in case you can't find something big enough or mean enough to kill you. Slayers are honour-bound to never wear armour (after all armour is for people who actually want to survive) and have only three non-combat skills, Dodge, Intimidate and Consume Alcohol - in other words the only use for a Slayer outside of a fight, is starting one.
- 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 ("Asrai" or wood elf), or one of the great trade cities like Marienburg or Altdorf or perhaps a traveller from Ulthuan itself ("Asur" or high elf) or even an infiltrator from the western continent on the other side of Ulthuan ("Druchi" or dark elf, who split from the Asur and caused the Dwarf-Elf war through false flag attacks, said war also caused some colonists to get left behind by retreating Asur, creating the Asrai). 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, access to one of the best ranged weapons in the game (the elfbow), and their unique career list lacks a lot of the suckier options (like the peasant). The obvious downside to being an elf however, is that you are an elf and expected to roleplay as one. Elves are hated in most places for being snobby jackholes and any given country town is populated by superstitous racists who fully subscribe to the philosophy "Around elves, watch yourselves" and 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 short humanoids who hail from the Moot, a minor province of the Empire. In the old days, halflings used to be scouts and skirmishers in the armies of the Empire so they got rewarded with half of Stirland and a vote in Imperial elections (that hardly ever matters in practice but the halflings like to remind everyone of it). 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 actually cares enough about halflings to hate them. And despite being mostly a joke race, a halfling mercenary character with a decent arquebus or crossbow can actually be quite a threat in combat.
4th edition seems to be intent on slowly raising the playable races list (which is fair, as technically 2nd edition allowed you to play a Skaven, a Vampire or a Chaos Champion), giving players the option to play as an Ogre or a Gnome (a race which hadn't existed in the setting since 1st edition).
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay uses a custom-made D100 percentile system that shows a clear ancestral lineage from the system used in Warhammer for large-scale wargame combat involving dozens of miniatures at a time fighting in coherent units. This becomes apparent through several oddities in the system such as Weapon/Ballistic Skill (skill with melee and ranged weapons, respectively) being distinct from Strength and Dexterity, and a character's "quickness" is determined by three stats - Initiative, Agility and Dexterity. The system has been praised for its remarkably bug/exploit-free nature over the years.
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" with the weirdo Ranald gives you is thematically encouraged (and mechanically as well, with bonus starting XP). WFRP does not do conventional D&D classes, instead you have a career system; PCs are likely to come from working-class backgrounds like woodsman or charcoal-burner or beggar to reflect their decidedly unheroic natures. PCs progress down career pathways to enhance their skills and equipment and are expected to jump across careers multiple times. 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, or throw your lot in with the thieves' guild and become a burglar. 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.
Perhaps the biggest claim to fame for the system is the extreme amounts of character careers available to players. While the base game is generally rather simple (start as an apprentice, then become a 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 authorities who don't want to create a moral panic or, worse, by the ratmen themselves). 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.
Crippling poverty and shortage 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. 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 rusted or 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 get your hands on 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 20 silver shillings, 1 silver shilling is 12 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 (there is actually a book purely to handle exchange rates between different Old World currencies, but if you DM is nice he'll just arbitrate this).
As a consequence of the game system's wargaming background, 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. You can even get the squits by risking a "cook 'em fast, sell 'em cheap" Rumster's Special pie - which might be beef, might be rat meat, might be Rumster's business rivals, it's a pot luck. Poultices are valuable (and arguably overpowered), and anyone who can do magical healing is worth more than their weight in gold.
To offset the horrifying lethality of combat, you get Fate and Fortune points, because even starving German peasants get plot armour if they happen to be PCs. 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 greentexting, and what's worse, burning a Fate point reduces your Fortune point pool.
WFRP 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 is a minor mishap table and a major mishap table for miscasts.
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 at Altdorf 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 battlemage (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). Unlike D&D which runs on Vancian magic principles (Wizards are a magical gun who have to be "loaded" every morning with the spells they want that day and each spell has a prescribed effect that cannot be dialled up or down when convenient), arcane spellcasters here channel the Winds of Magic that sweep across the world from the poles to produce magical effects. In other words, every arcane caster is like a Wild Magic Sorcerer. If the Winds are absent in the area when casting a spell, it is likely to fail, but if you try to cast a Fireball spell that normally has the effects of a grenade in a place where the Winds blow strong enough, the Fireball might come out the size of a house and able to level an area the size of an entire city block. Each school is based on one of the Winds and humans can normally only learn one (elves can learn more), and mastering more than one wind is the quick path to power but also damnation as that way lies Dhar, a school using a mixture of multiple winds used by daemonologists and necromancers (when you cast Dark Magic, you roll on the miscast table even if you succeed, and failing just makes everything even worse). 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; if you join the Metal order, you might gradually transform into a walking, talking gold statue (which has its own benefits until you become unable to walk and have to be wheeled everywhere by an assistant).
Oh, and don't be an unsanctioned magic user casting from the Hedgecraft or Witchcraft lores. Or you can expect a visit from a gang of scowling, heavily-armed men with spiffing hats eager for a little chat.
Similarly there is divine magic that can be cast by priests and other holy figures, divided into lesser Blessings and higher Miracles. The Empire is polytheist and acknowledges several gods of varying stations, even excluding the non-human deities. The largest cults are those of Manann (sea god worshipped by sailors and fishermen), Morr (god of death and dreams, worshipped by undertakers and undead hunters), Myrmidia (Athena-esque patron war goddess of Estalia and Tilea), Ranald (god of trickery and luck, worshipped by gamblers and the poor), Rhya (goddess of fertility and life), Shallya (goddess of mercy and healing, her priests are pacifist "white mages"), Sigmar (patron god of the Empire, basically Thor meets Charlemagne meets Jesus), Taal (folky god of animals and the wilds, popular in Tabalecland), Ulric (the manly old god of war, winter and wolves popular in Middenland and is the Odin to Sigmar's Thor, also Sigmar's favored god before he ascended) and Verena (goddess of learning and justice, the "other half" of Myrmidia continuing the Athena analogy). Divine magic is generally safer than arcane magic but requires you to live by certain strictures and if you break them you are likely to offend your god when you call their aid, leading to mishaps and curses.
Unfortunately 4th Edition brings a controversial shake-up to the magic system that leaves arcane magic in a poor spot. Percentile system tend to be extremely failure heavy at the best of times, and previous games like Dark Heresy accounted for this by making a (+20) test standard for a Normal test, giving a mediocre 40 score a decent chance of succeeding and extra success levels simply improved the result. Here, someone apparently ignored everything learned from before and made every single spell require at least a Challenging (+0%) test, so a starting a wizard has at best a 50% chance of casting the weakest spell, and wizards do not get access to the Instinctive Diction skill to give extra success levels until TIER 3. This is just for the lowest difficulty spells. Many spells require 6-11 success levels to cast, meaning that without maxing out the plus success level skills you have to have a total skill over a hundred to even have a 1 percent chance of casting them. Now you can use the extremely broken advantage system and things like the Bright Lore of Magic trait to boost casting but good luck getting to a point where your wizard isn't useless. The only band aid they offer is Channeling, which allows you reduce the SL of spell to zero over a few turns, but giving up your action over multiple turns to cast a single spell will play havoc on your action economy. If that wasn't enough, you still have an extremely high chance of miscasting over multiple turn while Channeling, plus even using Channeling requires you to waste experience improving the Channeling skill instead of your Language Magic skill which is still required to cast any spell. And, if you take damage while Channeling, it fails anyway. So unless the DM is deliberately having enemies avoid you then it's practically impossible to channel in combat. This is especially pathetic when you compare spells to miracles and see how priests get divine abilities as strong or stronger than your spells, all of which are SL 0, plus they are socially acceptable in the setting so have no roleplay issue like wizards do. All in all, playing an arcane spellcaster in 4th Ed. is the true WFRP masochist experience.
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. After months of playing, 4th edition is much like 2nd Edition: 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 (Dark Heresy 1E had so few non-white characters in the art that you could count them on one hand so bring it on). Much polite and calm debate was had over this matter and its place within the Warhammer Fantasy universe.
4e's career and character advancement changed significantly, with a reduced number of careers (though supplements slowly build that number up, with Up in Arms providing a sizeable number of careers based in other old world countries). Instead of jumping around different careers that could have very little to do with one another as you progressed, now each career has 4 ranks, with each rank having an attached societal prestige. This makes sense for a good number of careers, such as military and religious ones, but not so much for Beggar, Villager or Flagellant, for instance. A player can get an advancement in a skill that's not within the career at 2x the XP cost. Changing careers is still an option, though unless you can make a solid argument to the GM (like an Engineer or Doctor temporarily switching to Scholar during a university visit), you'll start the new one at rank 1. Also, all careers have some advancement for characteristics which are rank locked: the cross means you can get them anytime, the crossed axes at rank 2, the skull at rank 3 and the shield at rank 4. Why use symbols that can confuse new players and take time to make sense of instead of simply using R1, R2, R3, R4 to represent the rank needed is anyone's guess.
The prestige is separated in 3 tiers: Brass, Silver and Gold, representing lower, middle and higher class, with each one going from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest), save specific exceptions, like Noble 4, who has Gold 7, or the Flagellant who stays at Brass 0 throughout. They also indicate how well off your character is. Just like in real life, belonging to a higher tier makes you earn more money from your job and grants you bonuses when dealing with people of lower tiers. However, if you don't maintain the appearance by showing off your rank and eating as expected, you might end losing status, because hey, if the Watch Captain is always scrounging for food with the beggars, he surely won't mind the extra tax on his salary! Speaking of which, you can earn money from just doing your job instead of going out and adventuring.
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.