THE WFRP MANIFESTO: MAGIC

This is part of 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.

MAGIC

The magic system, in particular, seemed to me to be much more about mass battles than for small parties of adventurers, and I worried that, in the draft we were faced with, wizards would have too much power too easily.

– Phil Gallagher, Realm of Chaos 80s

The WFRP1 magic system was more-or-less entirely lifted straight from WFB2. As Phil Gallagher notes, this meant that many of its spells were poorly suited to a role-playing game and wizards were unable to achieve many of the effects they could in other games. Falling through the air? The AD&D wizard casts Feather Fall; the WFRP  wizard goes thud. Need a firework show? The AD&D wizard casts Pyrotechnics; the WFRP wizard wows audiences with a Magic Flame.

Moreover, faced with unsuitable spells and insufficient time to revise them, the design team chose to make many of them all but inaccessible to PCs. Spells became more and more difficult to learn and and ingredients grew more esoteric. Demonologists and necromancers faced severe penalties.

The mechanics of spellcasting were also entirely conventional. They followed similar level mechanics to those used in D&D/AD&D and used a Magic Point mechanic clearly derived from RuneQuest. There was little effort to distinguish the system from what had gone before. It was a missed opportunity to innovate, as Ars Magica would show the following year.

In short, the WFRP1 magic system was limited and uninspired.

Curiously, though, these deficiencies in many respects worked to WFRP‘s advantage. They helped establish the low-magic tone of the game, which was very different from D&D/AD&D and RuneQuest.

Having seen some fantasy RPGs where magic dominates everything, we wanted to make sure magic in WFRP was balanced and low key, avoiding situations where characters get into an arms race with spells and magic items, which can detract from role-playing.

WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87

There were also some respects in which WFRP‘s magic system did present some differentiation from peers.

There are eight different sorts of wizard, plus clerics, druids and runesingers who can all use different sorts of magic.

White Dwarf 81

WFRP1 may not actually have had eight types of wizard (and certainly not runesingers), but its magical specialisms were something different from the generic magic of D&D/AD&D (which would not adopt specialisms until three years later in AD&D second edition). It is a shame more was not made of them. Detailed information was provided on clerical cults, but nothing on orders of wizards.

At the moment the only organised magicians are cultists!

– Graeme Davis, Warpstone

Improvements were, of course promised in Realms of Sorcery.

For reasons of time and space it was not possible to add very many new ideas on the magical side, but we hope to expand the magic system in the Realm of Sorcery supplement, which should be released some time in ’88.

WFRP Design Team, White Dwarf 87

Overall, the whole thing was done in rather too much of a rush, and I think it shows especially in the magic system. The numerous mentions of Realms of Sorcery really amounted to an admission that we knew the magic system needed some work, but we didn’t have time to do it then, and we really intended that RoS would come out very soon after the rulebook and fix everything.

– Graeme Davis, Warpstone

It is intriguing to think what Realms of Sorcery would have looked like, had the design team fulfilled their ambition of a 1988 release. The rulebook had made scattered promises of rules for manufacturing magic items, inscribing and using runes, exorcising spirits and summoning demons, plus descriptions of more magic items. There presumably would also have been a more comprehensive expansion of the system, but within the existing mechanics.  Possibly there would also have been descriptions of magical orders and colleges. Realms of Sorcery could have sent Warhammer magic in a grittier direction than the bright technicolour of the later college system.

WFRP1‘s magic system is often described as “broken”. I disagree with that view. I think magic is one of the least broken parts of the system. The mechanics are clear and work. There are no problems of game balance. The system is just restricted, unoriginal and unexciting. It is the opposite of many other areas of the game, which were experimental and interesting, but sometimes unworkable.

The next post in the series will cover the Old World.

Title art by Frank Frazetta. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

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6 thoughts on “THE WFRP MANIFESTO: MAGIC

  1. The magic system in WFRP is one of the things that disappointed me the most, though I loved the system dearly. Had it launched with a system closer to WFPR 2nd (though a little more toned down; scaled for the low-magic nature of 1st), I would have been thrilled, and might well prefer it to 2nd today. Magic is one of the few things I feel that 2nd really “fixed” from 1st.

    (Of course, I was coming from WFB 4th, and so was already used to the “winds of magic” concept, as well as the colleges of magic. I did really like the way 1st had elementalists, demonologists, necromancers, and the like, however.)

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  2. Runesinger was an Elf career I was working on – sort of an AD&D style bard with magical songs. It was intended to come out in Realms of Sorcery (when Realms of Sorcery was intended to come out soon after WFRP and fix all the magic system’s problems), but I don’t think I ever got the chance to finish designing it. Whatever work I did on it is long lost now.

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      1. No. I started to work on the Runesinger and the Exorcist (which you’ll find in semi-finished form on my Freebies page), but I wasn’t formally working on RoS – just sketching out new careers which I hoped would end up getting published there.

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