Game Essentials – Hardcore RPG: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition

The Game Essentials series aims to highlight our favorite games in different genres. These games make the best of their setting and mechanics to create an compelling and exciting game experience.

The Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing Game is a venerable institution, and it was with much trepidation that I dove into the newest take on it, courtesy of Fantasy Flight. This wasn’t due to any concern that I would be let down with new rules, as I had never played the previous editions. Like most major edition changes, the ones who tend to be most vocal about the terrible changes that are coming are the crotchety old players and GMs who would rather stay in their familiar rule sets. They don’t want to risk making the transition.

The price of entry is intimidating, (although for players it has become more kind recently). At the time of release there was a single box set, containing all that you would need to run games with three players. The set runs at a slightly less than cool USD $99.95, and is quite a substantial investment, especially if you aren’t sure if it will catch on in your group. Still, I’m a sucker for game mechanics, and WFRP seemed like a sort of wild attempt to meld Fantasy Flight’s signature gameplay mechanics with an RPG. A lot of role playing and character building aspects were rolled right into play mechanics and abilities themselves, which seemed very cool. So I took the plunge, for like Wil Wheaton’s scumbag guild leader from The Guild, I am an epicurean. I want to sample the world’s game rules, and then move on. I will tell you though: WFRP has quite the flavor once you get used to the texture, and might be worth sampling regularly.

We recently ran an extremely abbreviated version of the packed in adventure, An Eye for an Eye. (Full disclosure: I have run this game a few times before, but had neglected writing an article.) We essentially dove right in after rolling up some characters. I had two players, and we followed the semi-random career selection method. I had spent a great deal of time reviewing the rules. Prospective Warhammer GMs: You can’t spend too much time reviewing these. The game plays very differently from D&D style games. It isn’t like many indie games either. It is heavily abstracted in some ways, certainly, but the amount of rules and things to keep track of are numerous. Wounds, fatigue, and stress frame a lot of the action, for example. Keeping track of them makes the game better, especially when character risk exhaustion and insanity, but they are rules that don’t usually enter into the modern RPG player’s consciousness very frequently. As a huge, occasionally hardcore gamer, even I frequently forgot about them the first few sessions I played.

The setting itself is very gritty. This is definitely a mature games. The violence is graphic and intense, the themes circle around corruption both in a moral and physical sense. Insanity and serious injury lurks around every corner. SPOILER ALERT: The adventure we ran focuses the third act around a graphic human sacrifice intended to summon a demon. Other adventures feature betrayal, debauched nobles, and all sorts of questionable content. This is all balanced by occasional black humor, and a slight glimmer of light in the darkness.

The game itself, as we discovered quite quickly, is exceptionally difficult. I don’t mean the rules are challenging. There are simple, but numerous. Failures can be particularly rough. Combat is brutal. Punches can be pulled by the GM if required, but players can also trip themselves up based on how reckless they are. Critical wounds don’t just hurt you a lot, they frequently impair you somehow. Perhaps you just get shaken up and take a minor penalty until you recovery. You could just as well suffer a major, debilitating blow from a weapon, crippling you for the long term. When you battle supernatural creatures, or if you merely witness a terrifying sight, you can become physically and mentally exhausted. If you are over your threshold, you risk becoming exceptionally fatigued, and in the case of mental stress, insane. In our game, the wood elf hunter was the one to stumble upon a creepy painting which features prominently in the adventure. It is a fearsome thing, taxing the one who looks at it mentally and physically. He was so shaken up by it that when they arrived to break up the ritual sacrifice, the scene itself played havoc with his already exhausted mind. He became convinced that the painting had cursed him, and that his flesh was rotting off his bones. We don’t know if the insanity is permanent yet though. Only time will tell.

Despite the game having a decidedly hardcore direction and sporting a fairly steep learning curve (especially if the entire group is new to the game), the game itself is very cool. No other way around it. The way that your character’s demeanor is reflected in the dice he rolls is a cool idea. The way that you can spend extra successes on bonus effects for some powers gives you an occasional situation advantage similar to the stunts in Dragon Age. Exceptionally bad results gives the GM some leeway with tripping up the party.  Once people get used to it, and if they have their own dice or the iPhone/iPod WFRP app, combat is fast, fluid, and fun, especially when critical wounds start to fly. With the addition of corruption in the newer releases, there are even more ways to mess with the players.

This game is a wild ride to be certain, and the barrier for entry and subsequent enjoyment is a little daunting, both in terms of money spent and time investment required. That being said, if dark fantasy is your thing and you want a more complex game than, say, the excellent but very simple Dragon Age, WFRP is worth a look. Just don’t get too attached to your characters.

By the way, with the addition of more traditional rulebooks and dice supplements, it is now much cheaper to jump into the game as a player. GMs though, should man up and grab that Core Set. Go from there, but be warned. The Old World is harsh and unforgiving.

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