THE WFRP MANIFESTO: CAREERS

When WFRP first appeared, it was a breath of fresh air. It departed from many of the norms of fantasy role-playing at the time (as principally represented by D&D and AD&D). As the year of WFRP‘s 30th anniversary draws to a close, I thought it might be interesting to examine the original designers’ perspective on how they sought to differentiate WFRP.

CAREERS

It was decided from the start that WFRP would have a careers system which avoided the usual Fighter/Cleric/Magic User/Thief stereotypes of D&D/AD&D, but which offered more in the way of colour and variety than the generalised ‘Adventurer’ of RuneQuest. The careers system was intended to convey the colour and variety of the Old World.

WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87

The careers system was probably the most distinctive feature of WFRP. It wasn’t an entirely new revelation – White Dwarf 51 had shown a first glimpse of the system more than two years earlier – but, as far as I am aware, no other game at that time had presented such a wide variety of character types.

Hal [Richard Halliwell] seemed to come up with two or three new careers every day, often based on people he’d seen around Nottingham: some got very silly indeed, some were no more than half-formed ideas, and we only used about half of them in the end.

– Graeme Davis, Realm of Chaos 80s

The careers system moved away from the abstraction of existing games towards a more narrative mechanic. Characters’ abilities and advancement could be explained not just in terms of game mechanics, but also in terms of the story.

The careers system was intended to help personalise characters, avoiding the state of affairs where one nth level Fighter is pretty much like another.

WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87

Players have a real say in how their characters develop.

– White Dwarf 82

WFRP presented choices. Choices of characteristic advances, choices of skills, choices to change career. The careers system offered something entirely different from the linearity of character progression in D&D/AD&D or RuneQuest‘s undirected skill advances.

The most impressive element, to my mind, was that this was all achieved with a relatively simple system. There was detail, colour and choice, yet an entire career could be described in a fraction of a page.

The closest antecedent I am aware of was Traveller‘s character generation process.  This determined characters’ starting profiles by modelling their historic career progression and life story. However, this was a much more involved system. It also provided no mechanism for future advancement.

In short, WFRP‘s careers system was quite unlike anything that had gone before.

The problem, though, was that it was never quite clear what a career was. Did it represent a character’s former career or current career? If it was the current occupation, how could it be combined with the character’s adventures?

The original WFRP authors themselves seemed to present different answers to these questions.

The basic career shows the character’s background and gives a range of skills acquired during the character’s past life.

– White Dwarf 82

Here a character’s basic career is clearly his or her former occupation.  But a basic career still affects a character’s advancement. It determines what advances are available. It determines career exits. The character may even take skills from the career, if they were not received initially. These points only really makes sense if the basic career is also the character’s current occupation. Furthermore, there is the matter of advanced careers, which can only be explained as current occupations.

The careers system also means that most characters have some way of earning a living between adventures.

WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87

This seems to envisage an episodic style of play, where the PCs are part-time adventurers, part-time artisans, artillerists, acrobats, etc. The problem is that WFRP  did not really go in that direction. The design team did not produce unconnected episodic adventures. It gave us The Enemy Within.

The part-time approach simply does not work with a long narrative campaign like The Enemy Within. There are few unexplained gaps in the story where we can assume players are making horseshoes, firing rocks or perfecting their tumbling.

The career system can be handled abstractly, simply allowing players to enter new professions.

– White Dwarf 82

This approach does eliminate the problem, but it does so by ignoring it. It entails the loss of much of the character that made the system attractive in the first place.

The career system can  be played out as part of a gaming  session, with a player having to find a teacher or convince a local guild that he or she is a suitable candidate for membership.

– White Dwarf 82

This is, of course, the approach the designers pursued in The Enemy Within. However, it had profound implications for the game. Previous RPGs had defined characters in vague terms as adventurers or assigned them a specific role suited to the adventure (such as Troubleshooters in Paranoia). The PCs’ roles never came into conflict with the adventure. In WFRP, though, career progression effectively became a parallel game.

It was hugely challenging for the GM and there was scant guidance on addressing the difficulties. How does one fit an artillerist into The Enemy Within? Or any other military career? A spy? Sea captain?

It seems to me that there were conflicting or uncertain ideas among the designers regarding the career system’s place in the game. There was a conception that careers reflect only characters’ former lives (as in Traveller). There was also another conception of careers as taking place between adventures in an episodic style of play. Finally there was the notion of careers as part of the campaign itself.

I wonder if the careers system was originally envisaged as a template just for character generation and that its use for character advancement came later. The early careers material in White Dwarf 51 certainly supports this view.

Prototype careers in WD51

Perhaps when careers-based advancement was added, it was initially just assumed to be a background mechanic, but later became a narrative instrument.

It is also tempting to see the tension of ideas in terms of the changes to the WFRP design team. Until 1986 the WFRP project had been handled by Rick Priestley and Richard Halliwell. In 1986 Phil Gallagher, Jim Bambra and Graeme Davis took over. Perhaps Priestley and Halliwell envisaged a more abstract system, while the new team decided to go down a more narrative route. That temptation is probably to be resisted – there are many other possible reasons for the inconsistency – but it is an interesting possibility.

Overall, the careers system was revolutionary. It provided a colourful, flexible system that could be used as a storytelling device in its own right. But it was also a Pandora’s box that potentially created all sorts of difficulties for unprepared GMs.

This is a post that grew in the posting. The subject of the designers’ manifesto is continued here.

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3 thoughts on “THE WFRP MANIFESTO: CAREERS

  1. [Cross-posted from The Oldhammer Community FB group]

    I think the careers system developed out of a mix of intentions. Everyone wanted to get away from the character class model of D&D, but I don’t think everyone was ready for a classless system like RuneQuest was at the time. Hal, as I have said, got carried away creating new careers by the bucketload, and Rick was very eager to cut down on character creation time by including trappings in the career package. Anyone who has spent hours waiting for an AD&D game to begin while other players shopped off the equipment list will sympathize. Jim and Phil and I, meanwhile, had some vague idea that a player’s career could be used to make a living between adventures, if we ever got around to designing a downtime metagame; Bushido had a downtime system that intrigued me. In the end, of course, we never got a chance to work on such a thing.

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    1. Thanks for the insight. (And thanks for cross-posting; I’m not on Facebook.)

      It’s intriguing what that metagame might have looked like. I never played Bushido and am not familiar with its downtime system.

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  2. Well, the career system isn’t entirely clear but it does it’s job. WFRP informes players that basic career is what they did before they decided to risk their lives and sanity in adventuring. When you’ll look at advanced careers, you’ll notice that they’re not random. There’s reason why they’re called adventuring careers in the corebook. Witch hunters, explorers, wizards, mercenaries – even medics and merchants have something about them that encourages adventuring, instead of sitting in one place. Advanced careers are presented in such a way that PCs can in fact practice them during an adventure, not necessarily between them.

    The problem is not in the careers themselves, instead it’s in different visions if game in the corebook and supplements. It is clear that Warhammer Fantasy suffered from a malady of it’s creators not entirely sure about what they wanted to create and design. In corebook you have nice instruments for creating and exploring strange, gritty new fantasy world in a pure sandbox style (random encounters, hex maps, random villages and towns, random magic intems – hey, you can find super powerful magic item in ordinary shrine! – mad spells ingredients encouraging you to adventure, etc.); yet in the supplements the world is made far more solid and in fact distances itself from the corebook vision (the plot and scenes instead of exploration and randomness, etc.). Careers are perfect fit for the former, and they will create issues in the latter. That’s why you notice this dissonance.

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