This is the third in a series of posts discussing the design objectives of the authors of WFRP first edition. The first post in the series can be found here.
This was developed from the combat system in Warhammer Fantasy Battle with a greater level of detail, as befits a role-playing game.
At the same time we wanted combat to be fast and east to play, without the need to spend several minutes of each combat round feverishly looking for tables and charts, and the combat rules are intended to reflect this.
– WFRP Design Team, WhiteDwarf 87
It is interesting that there is an inherent tension in these design objectives. The combat system in Warhammer Fantasy Battles was slow, table-based and lacking in detail. To move to a fast, tableless and detailed system, while preserving compatibility with the original posed a significant design challenge.
On the face of it, the designers met the challenge. The tables were eliminated and replaced with arithmetic calculations. The three-stage process was reduced to two stages. A wealth of detail was added: parrying, dodging, stunning, hit locations, critical injuries, a host of new and specialist weapons.
Many of these elements were not new to fantasy role-playing games. RuneQuest had pioneered most them many years earlier. But by 1986 RuneQuest was becoming a niche game. Mainstream gaming was represented by D&D and AD&D, where combat was an abstract process. WFRP‘s approach, on the other hand, was more narrative. Combat comprised specific manoeuvres, counters and injuries. It was exciting and dramatic.
It also didn’t work.
It didn’t take long for the cracks to show. Strength and Toughness had been overemphasised at the expense of armour, with the (now infamous) result that dwarfs could rapidly advance to a position of near invulnerability. Elves could quickly learn to dodge the majority of blows they faced. Fist fights usually ended in death. And as the rules were originally written, there was simply no reason to have a parrying weapon.
Somehow it didn’t really matter. The problems could mostly be overcome with bodges and fudges and the greater colour seemed worth the difficulties.
Besides, there was another factor.
One thing we wanted to avoid was turning WFRP into a hack-and-slay game; while this is possible, if you like that kind of game, we have designed most of our adventures so that combat takes a back seat to thought, investigation and role-playing. Not that combat isn’t important – there are some situations where it is the only choice – but we wanted to produce a game that was more than just a series of one-to-one combat rules with a few skills and a world setting attached.
– WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87
Combat just wasn’t as important in WFRP as it was in other games. Certainly there was plenty combat in an adventure like Death on the Reik, but there was much more besides. And in Power Behind the Throne you really had to go looking if you wanted to end up in a fight.
It’s hard to tell if WFRP ‘s combat system was flawed because it wasn’t an area of focus, or if it wasn’t an area of focus because it was flawed. Either way, though, its problems had surprisingly little impact.
We weren’t afraid to make combat dangerous – it is in real life, after all, as and the possibility of death or serious injury should make players think about non-violent solutions to problems. Hence, also, the graphic detail of the critical hit system – Wounds or hit points can be recovered in time, but replacing severed arms and legs is another matter.
– WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87
The deadliness of WFRP‘s combat system is, in my opinion, often overstated. As already mentioned, nonhumans could achieve remarkable levels of invulnerability. Characters may have spent time staking out villains, poring over ancient texts or skulking in the sewers, but they could still be pretty quick to reach for their swords.
Overall, I think the combat system was a mixed bag. It succeeded in being distinctive, at least in comparison with D&D/AD&D. It was fast and colourful, but nonetheless maintained a relatively low profile in adventures.
It’s just a shame it didn’t work.
The next post in the series will discuss Fate Points.