By Chris Pramas et al, Black Industries/GW/Green Ronin, £25 / $39.99
Warhammer has a special place in most UK roleplayers hearts. Back in the late eighties, when Games Workshop were still generic hobby store, it gave many of us our first taste of an RPG. For us it set the goalposts for what we expected, in the same way that D&D had for people ten years before. The game achieved a cult status with its dark fantasy setting, street level adventurers and black humour.
Then GW stopped stocking RPGs and ceased producing their own. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay became the preserve of the die-hard fan. Hogshead kept it in print throughout the mid-nineties and even produced several supplements. It became one of those games with a huge following who played the game, rather than simply awaited supplements. When James Wallace finished with Hogshead, the license reverted to GW, and the fans worried that it would never see the light of day, due to GWs seeming indifference to the roleplaying hobby. Then last year news spread that GW's black industries imprint were producing a new version with Green Ronin, producers of D20 material, writing it.
A lot has changed since the original WHFRP was published. Gamers expect more in terms of coherence of rules and quality of production. While the old game was fun, it had its quirks and a certain set of 1980s assumptions on how all RPGs should work. The new version has to tread that fine line between improvement and moving away from the original source. Do they manage it?
Lets start with the look. 254 pages of full colour, shorter than the old edition, but with cleaner design. The Geoff Taylor cover showing a grizzled group of adventurers knee-deep in Beastmen is spot on. It manages to be vivid, without sacrificing that “grubby” look that WFRP always had. The main book is scattered with characterful illustrations and easy to read text. Coherent ordering. Decent index. As an artefact it's quite good.
The opening fiction is short, and ties in with the example of play, so it seems to actually serve a purpose. There's the obligatory “What is roleplaying” section, which is less awful than some, but still gets itself a bit confused about what the point of the game is. Like many it tries to describe what RPGs are, rather than what this RPG is.
After a brief intro we're dumped into character creation. It's random. Now I pondered for a while on this decision. It flies against current trends, but there's something endearing about randomly being a tattooed Hochland Rat-catcher born under the sign of the bonesaw, and it neatly dovetails into the street-level feel of the game. It gives the game a particular flavour, forcing creativity though not getting what you want. I'm sure some Fan will create a points build version soon enough though.
The creation process leaves you with a Dwarf, Elf, Human or Halfling with a random profile consisting of Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower and Fellowship, ecah rated in a percentage. You also calculate a second set of characteristics: Attacks, Wounds, Strength Bonus, Toughness Bonus, Magic, Insanity and Fate points. You also get some racial and random talents, things your character is good at.
Careers follow, and are at the heart of the system. Each is a flavourful insight into what people do in the Warhammer World. You don't need prose on how the Empire is filled with dissent, when you have a career like the Agitator. Each career gives you certain things you can buy your character as you earn experience. As noted above your first career is random, after that you can follow through it's various exits to new ones: Ratcatcher to Thief to Rogue.
Each career gives your character access to a variety of skills and talents. For players of the old game, this is new tweak. It separates learned stuff from natural talents and aptitudes, almost. Effectively it's a game difference between skills to achieve tasks, and talents that grant other bonuses or access to things like magic. For example you have the perception skill, but the Acute Hearing talent gives you a bonus on a particular type of roll. Skills allow you to make a percentile roll against one of your primary characteristics to achieve a task, if you don't have a skill you can try but your characteristic is halved. Skills can also now be taken multiple times for additional bonuses.
So, you create a character. Then you equip them. The equipment chapter contains details of all your favourite weapons and armour. Details of weapon qualities (Pummelling weapons help you strike to stun, for example). It also contains details on travel, living expenses, coin types and the effects of getting drunk (for those unfamiliar with this). Again, it's a bit retro in it's approach to such things, but made entertaining by the little details about the Empire setting included. If you like tracking everything to the last coin, then this is great, if you prefer a more abstract “story necessity” method then it'll be less enthralling.
The combat section gives a look at the core of Warhammer, gritty combat. It retains the wargamesque nature of the original, with a healthy dash of D20isms thrown in. It talks about miniatures, splits up rounds, defines available actions and gives entertaining critical hit tables. The basic combat mechanic is still: Roll under your skill on D100, reverse the roll for location, roll D10 and add your damage subtract toughness and armour, take the result from your wounds. If you get reduced to 0 wounds, take a critical result from the tables of mutilation.
Magic is the most changes section of the book from the older version. The new system is more in line with current Warhammer Fantasy Battle, bringing in colour magic and making every spell failure a possible daemonic manifestation. The new spells are clear and flavourful, so I don't think any older players will object and petty magic like “Protection from Rain” remains.
Belief and Religion gets it's own chapter, and adds a nice splodge of setting flavour. It gets the superstitious nature of the setting across well, and nothing defines people better than what they believe in. Sure it's mostly background colour, but worthwhile.
The GMs section is your standard “Act as Referee, define the story, play non-player characters, here's some sample adventures” kind of affair. Given the rest of the book's focus, the section on Themes and character driven adventure seems out of place, but it is welcome. The chapter also deals with insanity, in fact a good deal more space is spent on this that how to GM. Good for setting the nature of the game, bad for advising how to run the game.
The Empire setting gets a chapter of its own. As mentioned above, much of the falvour for the setting is spread throughout the book, so don't be surprised that this is a relatively short summary of history, geography, politics, external and internal threats. It does the job, and you don't need to know most of it to play anyway.
Finally the game includes a quick set of sample antagonists from Orcs to Bandits to Dogs and a Sample adventure involving guarding some refugees. The bestiary is not exhaustive, but since Warhammer mainly concerns itself with the internal goings on of the Empire, an array of beasts isn't necessary. The scenarios is quick and a useful intro for newcomers.
Overall: If I'm honest, what I wanted was the Warhammer Storygame, what this is is a very loyal modernisation of the original WHFRP. The new book is loyal in tone and mechanics to the old one, and as such will please existing fans. For my part though, I can't help but wish that it had tried to innovate just a little more...