Dungeons & Dragons has brought a tsunami of new players to the table-top roleplaying game hobby. That is fantastic. But there are other games out there – games that appeal to different tastes or can add variety to your gaming-life. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) is one of the other classic games out there. I love both D&D and WFRP. This article will help you decide if WFRP is for you? The game was released in a fourth edition in late 2018 by Cubicle 7, so it is a perfect time to start.
As this is meant as a primer to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I will not go into a deep comparison of the new edition versus older editions. But I will compare the fourth edition to other current games. In a later post, I hope to go into a more in-depth review of the 4th edition.
Before I go into the details, let me note that WFRP is not one thing. The setting has evolved over time, from edition to edition, and each group will play it in their own way. There is no ‘right way’ to play WFRP. That said, the current edition is not designed to emulate the high fantasy universe of the more well-known Warhammer Fantasy Battle, by Games Workshop. The rules and setting are close to the 1st and 2nd edition, but with a number of changes.
What is special about WFRP – in a few bullet points:
- The Warhammer role-playing universe has many of the common fantasy tropes like savage orcs, stubborn dwarves and prideful elves, but is set in a fantasy Europe in approximately the 16th century. There is gunpowder.
- Warhammer is known among many as ‘grim dark fantasy’. Violence is more explicit, magic is less prevalent and more adult themes and elements are common. You can expect gore, plague and diarrhea, bad teeth, amputated limbs from critical hits and drug-using sex cults (but which elements you include or focus on is ultimately up to you and your game master).
- The ruinous powers – chaos – is the main enemy of most games. It is both an outside military threat, but also an insidious internal threat luring men with its power and corrupting player characters.
- The game has a lot of humor as a contrast to the tragedy, violence, poverty and ugliness of the setting. In our group, it is often the quirky, down on their luck, sometimes pathetic, characters forced to make bad decision by circumstance that add a lot of laughter to the game.
- Combat is violent and can easily result in amputations or death
- It is low magic. You can play wizards and priests with spells. Characters ARE special in that way, but in the wide society that magic is rare. There are no magic items in the core rules, which is an indication of how rare they are.
- Your character probably doesn’t know how to read and write
- The social status of the characters matters a lot. An adventuring group of mercenaries, tomb robbers, river wardens and peddlers are unlikely to be admitted to the count’s court, despite having “vital” information about an orc invasion.
D&D is essentially a game about fighting monsters and finding treasure. You can see that, looking at the three core rulebooks, one is about fighting monsters, one is about monsters you can fight and about a thirds of the final book is about the treasure you can find.
If you look at the Warhammer rulebook with the same lens, I would say the game is about struggling to achieve a better life in the face of adversity, poor luck, vengeful gods and an unforgiving and unfair world. The adventures also happen in between your ‘regular’ life as a cavalry soldier, rat catcher or merchant – few hunter monsters or loot dungeons as a ‘career’.
What characters can I play?
The character creation method and advancement system are one of the unique aspects of WFRP. Your character has a job (a career), and it is typically not glamorous, or quite the opposite, and you start at the bottom. There are 64 careers in total, each with four tiers in their ‘career path’. You can for example start the game as a peasant, a pauper, a dock hand, a body snatcher (digging up corpses, to sell them to physicians trying to learn anatomy (or is he really a necromancer…?)), an apothecary’s apprentice or potentially a noble scion or apprentice wizard. You can select what career you want – but you get bonus xp if you let the dice decide.
As you go on adventures, you both become more skilled (you improve your abilities and skills) and you advance your career – for example from pauper to beggar king or student lawyer to judge. Or you can break to new careers. Perhaps your Townsman is down on her luck and becomes a Pit fighter. Or you have an unfortunate adventure and your Boatman ends up as Outlaw. But essentially, the only restrictions on how you build your characters, what skills you take or talents you learn is set by the game master.
The game is excellent for a thematic game group: a cursed travelling circus, the crew of a river barge, a squad of watchmen, a criminal gang or the henchmen of a baron exiled to the Border Princes.
The amazing thing about this system is that it works as an internal story engine for each character. Each character’s development becomes its own cool story, partly driven by the trappings you need in your career. You may, for example, need to acquire a river boat to become a merchant or get your own gang of thugs to become a gang boss – all excellent role-playing drivers.
Clearly, your starting character is less competent than a D&D character. Furthermore, a D&D character will move from more mundane adventures to high fantasy at around 5th level in a few sessions. In WFRP you will stay much longer as more mundane and killable characters and may never move up to shape regional or world events.
What adventures will we have?
A Warhammer game can be about exploring dungeons, kicking down doors, killing monsters and finding treasure. There are certainly plenty of fallen dwarf strongholds, ancient tombs and necromancer’s towers around. But the survival rate is likely going to be low.
More common adventures would be investigating strange murders that lead to a chaos cult, which has infiltrated the local town council. Or perhaps recovering the cargo of a stolen river barge or stealing a mysterious artefact from a local collector. It could also be the classic escorting a caravan across Axe Bite Pass or less D&D-like instigating a peasant uprising in the neighboring barony – all depending on what kind of characters you have.
It is likely, as you advance your careers, the goals and adventures become loftier – with a burgomeister (mayor), spy master and a cavalry officer in the group, the adventures will quickly turn political or very personal.
Because characters don’t have the repertoire of spells and special abilities of D&D, more investigation focused adventures are easier to pull off, while combat heavy adventures are more difficult. You are not going to have 4-6 encounters in an adventuring day, as a critical hit can easily shatter your hip or crush your elbow, effectively crippling the character. Wounds like that takes 30+D10 days to heal, and you may need to find a surgeon to get if fully fixed. Let’s just hope the wound doesn’t get infected…
What is the system like?
The fundamental system is percentile – roll D100 below your percentage chance, which is a combination of your attribute and your relevant skill. An example would be a character with Dexterity 38 and Lockpick 15 for a total of 53%. You just have to roll under to succeed (in a simple scenario).
However, in this edition, there are more opposed rolls, which means you need to keep track of how well you succeed.
Compared to D&D, the characters are simpler with fewer complex combat options. The game has the equivalence of Feats, called Talents (examples are Nose for Trouble, Seasoned Traveller, Holy Hatred and Berserk Charge). There are more than in D&D, but many aren’t combat focused.
That said, there are some fiddly bits that I’d wager most people don’t remember in their first few sessions.
In combat the system works with more modifiers to attacks than D&D, most rolls are opposed and hit locations are important. It reminds me a bit of D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder in that way, where you often had to add and subtract multiple modifiers.
Critical hits are also more important than in D&D and you can fumble – including fumbling casting a spell. Furthermore, weapons and armor have qualities that influence each encounter.
All taken together, that makes the core of the combat more crunchy than D&D and a bit fiddly – but WFRP does not have the hundreds of complex spells, which at higher levels can bog down the game.
You can’t get resurrected in Warhammer, but it does have a system of Fate Points, which you can spend, if the dice turn against you or you did something stupid, like hunting skaven in the sewers beneath Altdorf. You might have 2 or 3, so deaths are likely over time.
What books do I need?
For fourth edition you only need one book: the core rules. It has all the rules, 30+ pages of setting information, 25 pages on religion and a solid selection of monsters – enough for many, many games.
A starter set is out on PDF (should be out in print in June 2019). It contains more information about a specific town called Übersreik (a solid 65 pages), a long adventure and several short adventure ideas (48 pages), handouts and some premade characters. The starter set is meant to teach newcomers to the hobby to run the game. It has situationally specific boxes on the rules you need with examples.
The core rulebook is – in my view – not written to introduce new players to Warhammer. So, if you’ve never played WFRP, I think the starter set is a good option.
Do I need minis?
No. The game is less grid-focused than D&D, mainly because you have less need for spell area of effect and the like. But if you like miniatures, there are 30+ years of minis to pick from. Although, the old vintage ones can be pricey.
Where can I learn more?
There are dozens of books from the previous editions available. Some are classic campaigns and source books, like the Enemy Within, which still command high prices in good condition. But you can probably get many 2nd edition books cheaply.
There are also a large range of novels to get inspiration from, although the newer ones from Games Workshop are more related to the Fantasy Battle version of the setting.
My personal recommendations would be the original Gotrek and Felix short stories Troll Slayer (which you can find in the First Omnibus, containing Troll Slayer, Skaven Slayer & Demon Slayer ), the novel Beasts in Velvet as well as the collection of short stories Ignorant Armies – which are out of print. But the Ambassador and the other parts of that series is also a fine grim dark read.