This is the last of a series of posts looking at the design intentions of the original WFRP authors. The first can be found here.
BOTHERED ABOUT D&D
It has been noted before that WFRP1 was a reaction against the kind of role-playing presented by D&D/AD&D at the time, but it is striking just how many of the designers’ comments refer to D&D/AD&D.
WFRP1 sought to differentiate itself on every level. Its rules showed a preference for narrative mechanics, rather than abstract ones, eg the careers, combat and fate rules. It had a distinctive “grubby” low-magic setting. Most of all, it sought to move fantasy role-playing out of the dungeon and introduce a style of more investigative play.
Given how hard WFRP1 tried to be different, it is surprising how little of it was genuinely original. The careers system and the (in my view) unsuccessful experiment with one-off skills were the only innovations in game mechanics. Much of the combat and magic systems followed RuneQuest. Fate Points came from Top Secret. Insanity from Call of Cthulhu.
The background was a mash-up of Tolkien, Moorcock and European history. With the exception of skaven and zoats, pretty much everything came from somewhere else. The Empire … a thinly disguised Holy Roman Empire. Sigmar … Charlemagne/Arthur. Fimir … Fomorians. Etc.
Even adventures largely aped the style of other games.
But the blend of elements was unusual and it was this that established WFRP‘s distinct identity.
IMBALANCE OF POWER
Many of WFRP1‘s mechanics were obviously imbalanced. Ironically, though, I think this may have helped the game. It was so easy to break the system that it discouraged power gaming. Players had to police themselves, and it created a very different atmosphere from other games of the time.
Several designers were involved in WFRP1. Rick Priestley and Richard Halliwell created the first draft. Phil Gallagher, Jim Bambra and Graeme Davis were the forces behind the Enemy Within. Bryan Ansell’s periodic directives dictated several aspects of the game. Although this no doubt enhanced creativity, in my view this also created conflict in many places: confusion over careers, a clunky skills system, inconsistencies in the background, etc.
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME
Overall, I think WFRP1 was in many respects simply in the right place at the right time. AD&D, then still in its first edition, was ageing. RuneQuest was committing commercial suicide. Other games had demonstrated different mechanics and new styles of play. WFRP1 simply picked up the various pieces and put them together. The result, though, was exactly what many gamers were looking for.
For another perspective, compare the D&D Manifesto.
Title art by Ian Miller. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.