The new game arrived in 1983. It had grown beyond its original conception of a “mail-order giveaway” and become a game in its own right. In fact, it had become two games. The rules were intended to cover both mass battles and role-playing, and so its title was not Warhammer Fantasy Battles, but Warhammer, the Mass Combat Fantasy Role-Playing Game. (For simplicity I refer to the game not by its published title, but as WFB1, in line with the name of subsequent editions.)

When the first version of Warhammer came out Dungeons & Dragons was at its height. It was quite a phenomena. Any number of role-playing games and fantasy board games sprang up as a result. All the toy and model shops were selling these new role-playing products from America. Of course, Games Workshop was the distributor for D&D in the UK, and the company had really been founded off the back of this new and exciting hobby, importing and distributing American made games. In those days everyone wanted role-playing games. To launch our new ‘battle game’ we had to make it a role-playing game too – after a fashion. If you look at a first edition of Warhammer you’ll see that it’s described as a ‘mass-combat fantasy role-playing game’. The rules are very much based on individual models, heroes and characters that you could bunch up into units too. There was a simple system for character progression as well as random generation and the sorts of things that were common to role-playing games in those days. We also had an adventure scenario with briefing notes for the players, much as a games master would brief players and lead them through a dungeon adventure. So, Warhammer as it was conceived had a lot of role-playing elements to it. Over time players developed an enthusiasm for the battles over the role-playing part, and the game evolved into a more conventional wargame, but its roots are in role-playing as much as in historical ancient and medieval wargames.

– Rick Priestley, Juegos y Dados

Let's Smash Skulls.png

Warhammer was published as a boxed set with three black-and-white booklets. The first booklet, Tabletop Battles, was 50 pages long and contained the movement and combat systems, a bestiary and a short scenario, ‘The Ziggurat of Doom’. The second booklet, Magic, was 38 pages long and described spells and magic items. The final booklet was Characters. This contained 34 pages and sketched out the role-playing system, including another scenario, ‘The Redwake River Valley’.

The production quality was not high. The text contained spelling and grammatical errors. There was minimal cross-referencing and no index. Presentation comprised blocks of text typed on a Xerox printer with Letraset headings and drawings by Tony Ackland.


The movement and combat mechanics of WFB were largely established in the first edition. Troops are described by a set of fighting characteristics that have only modest differences from later editions: Move can be scored in halves, and Strength (usually called Strength Grade in WFB1) and Toughness are scored 1-6 and A-F respectively. The selection of characteristics seems to owe its origins to the earlier TTG games. Move, Strength and Toughness derive from Reaper‘s Move, Kill Factor and Strength Value. Weaponskill, Bowskill (it would not become Ballistic Skill until WFRP1) and Initiative resemble Laserburn‘s Combat Skill, Weapon Skill and Initiative.

Combat is resolved by the same three D6 rolls that were also used in later editions. This was derived from Reaper’s system of two D100 rolls:

The D6 was a prerequisite. Bryan did the brief on the game and he said that you have to do rules for everything we make; and it has to use a D6. So, right from the beginning, you’d got certain limitations. Hal and I thought that the idea of using a D6 was already quite primitive. We took our Reaper game and tried to convert it over into D6. What we found was that there weren’t enough modifiers in a D6 to be able to do everything we wanted. So we split the system down: instead of being a two-stage hit/defend, it became a three-stage hit/defend/save. Which is also inspired partly by the old Tony Bath and Terry Wise rules, which had saving throws. But we were very conscious that this was old fashioned, and clunky, but we kind of made a virtue of it.

– Rick Priestley, Battlegames

WFB1 has only one Wounds scale, which leads to the unsatisfactory situation that role-play characters start with just a single Wound. To mitigate this problem partially, a table of detailed injuries is provided for the RPG rules. These can perhaps be considered prototype critical hits.

WFB1 Injuries

WFB1‘s rules for flying creatures were rudimentary and clearly inferior to those already published in Reaper. It is not clear to me why the authors took this backwards step. Perhaps they wished to simplify the game for the original plan of a freebie game. Perhaps there were concerns about copyright. Whatever the reason, the designers would reverse the decision in WFB2, which took its flying rules from Reaper with minimal modification.


WFB1 carried over morale tests from Reaper, but added a now familiar array of different psychological effects: fear, terror, hatred, frenzy and stupidity. It also introduced a range of personal characteristics that would remain in subsequent editions: Intelligence, Cool, Will Power and Leadership. Surprisingly, however, these characteristics were not used in the psychology rules. They were part of only the role-playing system and there was very little instruction on how they should be used:

These characteristics are used mostly by the GM as a guide to play.

Warhammer, first edition, Characters, p6


WFB1’s magic rules abandoned Reaper’s factor-based mechanism in favour of a more traditional system of spells with predetermined effects.

Spells are grouped into four levels, in the same way as in later editions. Notably, however, wizards are able to cast spells above their Mastery levels, albeit with penalties. Casting magic requires the expense of energy points, though at this stage those points were still known as Constitution Points (as in Reaper). There is also a concept of Life Energy. Every time a spell is cast, the wizard also lost some Life Energy. While Constitution Points can be recovered, Life Energy could not.

Spells require preparation time before and rest time after casting. This is another vestige of Reaper and would not reappear in subsequent editions. A further requirement that would disappear from later editions was the need for material components called Talismans:

WFB1 Talismans

Spells can be miscast. If the wizard is casting a spell for the first time, receives a wound or is casting a spell of a Mastery higher than his or her own, a fumble test is required.  This involves rolling 2D6 with various modifiers and consulting a table of fumble effects.

WFB1’s spell lists for unspecialised magic (which was not yet called Battle Magic) were actually more extensive than those in later editions of the game. Several spells suited mainly to role-playing would disappear in WFB2, but reappear in WFRP1 as Petty Magic. However, nearly half of WFB1’s general spells would disappear altogether in subsequent editions. Warhammer wizards would never again be able to cast Turn Someone to Frog or the Vancian-sounding Skirrik’s Pentagram. As for the remainder, they would survive with little or no modification, other than a more systematic approach to zones and auras in later editions.

By contrast, specialised magic is only briefly described in WFB1. The only specialism available is necromancy and that offers a very limited selection of spells. In this respect, WFB1 again follows Reaper. More on magical specialisation, including elementalism, was promised in future supplements.

WFB1 Spells.png

WFB1 spells and their WFRP1 counterparts

The next post will look at WFB1‘s role-playing system.

The first post in this series can be read here.



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