THE WFRP MANIFESTO: COMBAT

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.

COMBAT

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 thoughts on “THE WFRP MANIFESTO: COMBAT

  1. Combat may have had major issues, and may have been severely imbalanced, but I think it worked quite well for narrative effect—it usually wasn’t too hard to press the players hard enough to make them worry without pushing them over the edge, and that leads to great dramatic moments.

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  2. I have only played 1st edition – were any of the combat problems solved in the 2nd edition? Or has anyone written a revision of the 1st edition rules – the things I struggled with are the Initiative system and the endless turns of no-one hitting – also at 10 seconds a combat turn seems way too long

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    1. On WFRP1 initiative, I presume the problem you are referring to is combatants with high I scores dominating fights. This particularly applies to PC elves, but the most egregious cases are greater demons, which have 10 S10 attacks before anyone else. (You might reasonably argue PCs shouldn’t be messing with greater demons, anyway, but it would be nice if they could get a few die rolls before being slaughtered.)

      The Effective Initiative system addresses this, but is complicated and cumbersome in my view. A better solution is to apply an incremental -10 modifier after each attack by the same combatant in the same round. So the combatant’s first attack is at I, the second at I-10, the third at I-20, etc. Attacks with an I below 0 are lost. It is only worth the inconvenience of this system where there are lots of attacks in the round.

      This initiative system encourages PCs to advance I alongside A, which I think is a good thing, given how powerful A increases are (though A advances should really cost something like 250 EP, anyway). You also need to add an I+10 advance to the Prospector career for this reason.

      Other options are to reduce elves’ excessive starting I scores and to add a bigger random element (initiative order is determined by I+2D10/D100, etc).

      I’m not sure if that’s helpful.

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  3. Mark, some were—in particular, Naked Dwarf Syndrome definitely went away. However, the introduction of the d10 for damage caused its own problems; swings in damage (and thus danger) were much larger, making it harder for the characters to accurately assess the danger of an enemy.

    I don’t actually remember 1st edition Initiative.

    Endless turns of no one hitting is still a thing in 2nd…

    Don’t have a problem with a 10-second round if you abstract it.

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