Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise- grim and gritty is fun. Since 1986, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has built off of the setting of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle miniatures game to offer adventures and untimely deaths in the Old World, a “Europe with the serial numbers filed off” beset by both feudal politicking and chaos beasts from beyond. Now, in 2018, the Fourth Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) has recently hit stores, ready to introduce a new generation of gamers to “A Grim World of Perilous Adventure”. But like so many grim and perilous things, WFRP has had a difficult quest to get to this point. Before we dive into the game, let’s talk about WFRP’s 32 year history and why Fourth Edition is so pivotal.
The First Edition of WFRP was released in 1986 by Games Workshop, developers and copyright holders of the Warhammer properties. Games Workshop very quickly soured on the economics of RPG materials, but had an internal group, Flame Publications, continue the line from 1989 to 1992, when financial problems led Games Workshop to shutter the division. In 1995, Hogshead Publishing picked up the license, and published a revised version of the WFRP core book (but like BX and BECMI D&D, these were similar enough to both be called ‘First Edition’). After 7 or so good years, Hogshead Publishing was sold, the rights were returned to Games Workshop, and they once again found themselves in control of a solid game they didn’t really want to develop.
In 2004, Games Workshop announced a new edition of WFRP, and set up a group called Black Industries, a division within their Black Library fiction imprint. Developed by Green Ronin, the new core book came out in 2005. While there were significant overhauls, the core mechanics were largely the same (this will be important later). Like their previous dalliance with Flame Publications, though, Black Industries was short lived, and Games Workshop sold the publication rights for the games to Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). FFG acquired the entire run of RPG properties in this transaction, including the existing Warhammer 40K game Dark Heresy. FFG would use the system in Dark Heresy as a basis to release several other games in the Warhammer 40K universe, including Rogue Trader and Only War. WFRP would get more special treatment. While FFG released several supplements for the second edition of WFRP, by 2009 they had announced a Third Edition, released later that year.
WFRP Third Edition landed with a resounding thud. FFG had discarded the core percentile mechanic in favor of dice pools, but dice pools using seven custom dice. What was worse, the game had a decidedly board game feel, using counters and tokens and requiring a table setup akin to what had been done in some FFG board games up until that point. Likely the biggest nail in the coffin, though, was that the game was, at release, only available as a $100 box set. 5 years to the day after Third Edition was announced, FFG announced the game was “complete”, a nice way of saying they didn’t want to commit any more resources to it. FFG lost the license to Games Workshops properties two years later, likely due to FFG’s growing competitive minis business.
The story doesn’t quite end there. At the time of the discontinuation, Games Workshop had no plans to distribute or maintain the old game lines. One enterprising gaming group, having already houseruled their campaign of WFRP 2nd edition extensively, saw an opportunity akin to the one being seized by the OSR with D&D. Zweihander successfully raised a hefty Kickstarter campaign, and the Warhammer Fantasy retroclone made a strong impression on both OSR supporters and WFRP fans. But while Zweihander was still being fulfilled, Games Workshop announced their partnership with Cubicle 7. Cubicle 7 is best known for their licensed RPGs- The One Ring, Doctor Who, and The Laundry Files, among others, so their combination of experience in game design and history of treatments for other authors’ properties made them an ideal choice. Nonetheless, when Fourth Edition came out this past August, there was still a collective held breath to see how they did.
The comparisons to the Dungeons and Dragons development path in WFRP are unavoidable. WFRP Third Edition, like D&D Fourth Edition, took a very successful game and changed several core elements, alienating fans. In both cases there were even competing throwback systems published (Zweihander and Pathfinder, respectively). Also in both cases, the follow-on edition pulled back to the core of two editions prior and then worked from there.
The history lesson is a protracted way of saying that if you’ve played previous editions of WFRP, Fourth Edition is going to seem mighty familiar. The percentile core mechanic is back, though everything has been simplified. The characteristics are essentially the same, the skill list will look familiar, and if you know what page to turn to, you will still find a ratcatcher career which starts with a small but vicious dog. Core details worth noting crop up when looking at character creation and advancement, combat, and magic.
Now, I’ve played a number of games using the core WFRP mechanics, but I’ve never actually played WFRP Second Edition. I’m going to note this now as my touchpoints for comparison are going to be Zweihander and Dark Heresy…you can send the angry letters to my editor, but please include some money so I can buy WFRP Second Edition and correct this grave injustice. Anyway. Looking at character creation, the biggest difference I noted, from Zweihander at least, is that character creation has gone from completely random to potentially random. In a nod to the old style of character generation, each character creation option is still laid out on a d100 table to enable rolling random choices. However, the game’s rules also give players who choose to roll randomly XP bonuses, ostensibly to balance their characters out compared to those which have all of their attributes chosen. While I can’t comment on if this ends up being balanced or not, I like having the options more than not having them…it’s clear that a character with selected race, class, and characteristics will be more potent than one which is randomly rolled, and this method recognizes that. The biggest mechanical chunk in character creation and advancement is contained within careers. Each career has a list of skills and talents, and a set of six characteristics. As the character advances through the career, they can only advance the skills and characteristics they have access to, and only take the talents on the list. Each career has four levels, with its own list of talents and skills…as the character advances they get access to more talents and skills. More importantly, though, is that out of the six characteristics only three are available at the lowest level of the career; advancing the other characteristics only happens at the higher levels. This does mean that, while the career list is shorter than in earlier games, the increased depth with staying in a single career greatly increases the number of choices and potential builds. The basic philosophy seen in earlier games is the same, though: characters should have a narrow range of what they’re good at, and breadth always comes at the expense of depth and vice versa.
Magic and combat are the two primary subsystems, though they’ve been pared down as well. The spell list is interesting and of fair length, and the rules provided cover instant spells, extended channeling, and the use of magical ingredients, among other things. Magical ingredients are optional but provide bonuses and protection from miscasts, which is a pretty good reason to try and acquire them. Miscasts should be familiar to anyone playing a Warhammer-based game; roll a critical (double digits) on your spellcasting roll and you may have an undesired effect. These range from “all milk within 1d100 yards goes sour instantly” to “The Dark Gods entice you to commit horrendous perfidy”. Actually reading the tables, it’s much harder to find yourself or your allies suddenly dead from a miscast, which is…nice? Even though it seems like the danger of magic is lower, there are still corruption rules, and learning spells costs XP. The setting is supposed to be low magic, and broadly it shows. Still, the unrelenting danger of using magic from games like Dark Heresy seems to be gone, and likewise the mechanics for gambling with miscasts (like “pushing”) are gone as well.
Combat will broadly be familiar to most who have played these games, but there are a few changes made. One common complaint for WFRP Second Edition was that it was “whiffy”, that is to say that since the core combat roll is an unmodified d100 roll and most skilled attacks were in the 60% or so range, you missed…a lot. The way that Fourth Edition deals with this is a mechanic called Advantage. Advantage is gained by a number of maneuvers, but most importantly it’s gained every time a character successfully attacks, and every time they successfully defend against a melee attack. Each advantage a character has gives them +10 on attack rolls, defense rolls, and rolls to resist influence. You also lose all advantage from failing an opposed roll (like a melee attack) or getting wounded, so this system both rewards tactical thinking but also creates large and fast reversals of fortune. Advantage seems to make the system shift from ‘whiffy’ to ‘swingy’, and there are optional rules offered to mitigate that. Damage works the way it has in previous systems: each character has a number of wounds. If you take more damage than the number of wounds you have left, or if your opponent scores a critical success, you take a critical wound. Take more critical wounds than your toughness bonus, you die at the end of the round. Of course, if you take a critical wound like “decapitated”, you may die sooner. There are critical tables for each body part (the game does have hit locations), which are gory and amusing in their level of detail.
In addition to the core mechanic and these important subsystems, the rules also go into detail on corruption, disease, and psychology, as well as systems for downtime and the required lists of gear and monsters. These aren’t as signifcant subsystems as magic and combat; the downtime rules are a welcome addition, and the psychology rules are an interesting attempt to mechanize the attitudes and prejudices of characters which may be better left to NPCs. Corruption and Disease are Warhammer standbys, and both mechanics should look familiar to those who have played the earlier games. After all that a large chunk of the book is spent on setting, detailing the Old World, geography, and religion, which should be familiar to Warhammer vets (the timeline is roughly aligned with the existing WFRP campaign The Enemy Within). This should help detail just how light this new edition really is. Zweihander, which has no setting material, clocks in at roughly 630 pages before the sample adventure. WFRP Fourth Edition comes in right around 350, and that includes all the setting. While it is potentially true that the Fourth Edition bestiary and spell list are shorter, the significantly smaller combat and magic rules sections also come into play, as does the more generalized and less exception-based ruleset. The Pathfinder/5e comparison rears its ugly head yet again: Zweihander is the older game with more options and tweaks, while Fourth Edition is the streamlined and more accessible revamp.
Just like Pathfinder and 5e, there will be fans of both games. And I think just like Pathfinder and 5e, the slimmer reboot is easier to pick up and play. For me, I’m torn; while I love the sheer number of options in Zweihander, Fourth Edition was a bit easier to wrap my head around, and the way they do advancement (adding directly to the base characteristic or skill) just makes more sense to me than doing the math around characteristic bonuses. That is entirely a preference rather than saying one is better than the other, and I believe that most people who like me read both games will be able to speak more to preferences than to whether one game is better than the other.
After a tumultuous history, it appears that role-playing games in Games Workshop’s Warhammer settings have landed feet first. Cubicle 7 has released WFRP Fourth Edition and will soon release Age of Sigmar, and Ulisses Spiele has released Wrath and Glory, the new game set in the Warhammer 40K universe. While WFRP Fourth Edition hews closely to the design space set out in previous editions, Wrath and Glory has gone a very different direction, making choices some reviewers have already called “indie”. And of course, Zweihander is trucking along too, with the Early Access version of their supplement Main Gauche now available through DriveThruRPG. With a number of solid offerings out and older editions being distributed as well, it’s a good time for gaming in the Warhammer universe. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay took some philosophical cues from D&D Fifth Edition in trying to make it easier for new players to come into the sandbox, and I think this approach is working.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition is available on DriveThruRPG. Our copy of WFRP 4e was purchased using funds from our Affiliate Account with DTRPG: travel there using one of our fine and elegantly crafted links to make your purchases, and we get a cut that lets us get more game to review!
Note: It was brought to my attention that I made an error with a regard to the game’s timeline in the text above. The article has been edited to reflect the timeline of the setting more accurately. This non-minis gamer apologizes!