WFRP‘s fourth edition has been available for a few months now. It has attracted a few reviews and a lot of comment. I thought I would add my own (slightly belated) thoughts on the game. They are first impressions, based on reading the core rulebook, not based on play, and are, of course, entirely idiosyncratic.
It’s probably worth prefacing my thoughts with some context. I have played WFRP1 extensively, but have only a passing familiarity with WFRP2, and have never even seen WFRP3. This inevitably skews my perspective.
Equally, my attitudes are affected by my personal preferences. I generally enjoy narrative play, with some characterisation and occasional tactical challenge. I abhor power gaming. So my preference is for simple, consistent rules that do not get in the way. I have limited interest in complex tactical options, long ladders of levels or the relentless pursuit of game balance.
In what follows I assume familiarity with either WFRP1 or WFRP2. I shall pass over WFRP3 entirely. Sorry for the inevitable errors and misunderstandings on my part.
WFRP4 really is a delight to look at. The artwork is excellent. The typography and layout are clear. Above all it feels like WFRP, not least because of several graphical nods and other allusions to earlier editions.
My only quibble is in the recurring use of the same characters in the art. I dislike this in general, as I feel the game should be about the players’ characters, not the developers’. I also dislike it specifically, because the recurring characters seem like over-the-top clichés: there is a vampish goth with a taste for Van Helsing cosplay, an eastern-monk-meets-Grim-Reaper priest and the inevitable steroidal trollslayer, who seems to split his time equally between the gym and the hair salon. They are not to my taste, but they do not alter my overall view that this is the most attractive edition of WFRP yet.
As for the organisation of the text, it is clear and logical, but unforgiving. The structure is more that of a reference document than a tutorial. It makes it relatively easy to look up specific rules, but hard to put them all together. For example, the combat rules are scattered over four different sections of the rulebook. Combat tests, skills and talents are dealt with in the chapters on those subjects, the properties of weapons and armour in the consumer guide and the rest in the combat section.
The difficulty is exacerbated by a dearth of examples. There is, as far as I know, no example of a combat sequence. It creates a steep learning curve for some aspects of play. Hopefully the newly released Starter Set addresses some of these issues.
The developers have taken the approach of offering in a number of cases a choice of rules, and the overall message is to encourage customisation and house rules. This seems to me an excellent approach, particularly given WFRP‘s fragmented base of different editions, though the optional rules presented in the rulebook mostly tinker with the system, rather than alter it substantially.
Character generation is broadly similar to WFRP1 and WFRP2. There is a familiar choice of four races, though elves are split into two kindreds (High Elves and Wood Elves). There are no gnomes, but this will matter only to a small (but surprisingly vocal) contingent of gamers.
Attributes include an established array of percentile characteristics: Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, Initiative, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, Willpower, and Fellowship. WFRP1‘s redundant Leadership and Cool seem to have gone for good. Agility is carried over from WFRP2. Dexterity and Initiative return after disappearing in WFRP2. It’s a good balance of attributes. I personally would have liked a Perception characteristic, and still feel Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill should be, well, skills, but these are long-running debates and relatively minor issues.
Starting profiles are for the most part reasonably balanced, with the exception of elves, who still show vestiges of Tolkien’s elf fetish and have characteristics closer to their overpowered counterparts in WFRP1 than those in WFRP2.
One interesting innovation is that players are rewarded with Experience Points for accepting randomly generated character options. It’s a clever attempt to achieve game balance, but personally I would prefer to make the options more balanced to begin with and leave them entirely to player choice.
Fate survives from earlier editions, along with its little brother Fortune from WFRP2. They are now joined by Resilience and Resolve. Whereas Fate and Fortune reflect good luck, Resilience and Resolve relate to a character’s determination. It’s a fairly thin distinction, but clearly defined in the rules. Resilience, like Fate, is not normally replenished and has major effects. Resolve, like Fortune, is replenished each session and is much less powerful.
I was initially somewhat sceptical about this proliferation of fudge mechanisms. It seems unnecessarily complicated. Fate and Fortune would perhaps have sufficed, but with a broader range of uses attached to each. That range of uses might even have included earning clues, rather like the GUMSHOE system. But the system as written is clear, and will probably appeal to the tactically minded.
There are also a collection of characteristics to describe characters’ objectives: Motivation, short-term personal Ambitions, long-term personal Ambitions, short-term party Ambitions and long-term party Ambitions. Pursuit and achievement of these goals is rewarded with Resolve and (again) XP. It is a nice attempt to encourage characterisation, but is too structured, mechanistic and unsubtle for my preference. My preference is to not to constrain the players so rigidly. In any case, five different characteristics seem to me far too many for this.
SKILLS, TALENTS AND TESTS
Skills comprise learned abilities and operate in a similar fashion to WFRP2. Basic skills provide bonuses to everyday tasks. Advanced skills confer the ability to peform specialist tasks. Both can be taken multiple times and the benefits stacked. However, under the new advancement rules skills are increased in increments of just one per cent. This creates the odd situation where a one point increase in an advanced skill confers all the special abilities of the advanced skill at modest experience cost. Prima facie it seems disproportionately generous.
Talents have changed more substantially. They are no longer one-off abilities, but can be taken several times. They have also grown considerably in number; there are now well over 100 of them. I expect some will like the variety the system offers, but it comes with an overhead of complexity. GMs need to handle a plethora of special rules. My personal preference is to minimise one-off rules of this kind.
Tests still involve rolling under a characteristic or skill value on D100. Opposed tests work the same way, but the margin of success is compared to determine which party is successful.
Careers are WFRP‘s most distinctive feature and the cornerstone of the advancement system. Their operation has changed substantially in WFRP4.
Careers are now all broken down into four levels. Characters typically start at the lowest level of their career and can then rise through successive levels. The structure is similar to the tiered careers in previous editions, such as Mercenary-Mercenary Sergeant-Mercenary Captain or the different levels of Wizard. However, the implementation in WFRP4 seems forced in some cases. For example, the Beggar career now has tiers of advancement rising up to Beggar King. Such a hierarchy of poverty makes little sense to me. Surely advancement for a Beggar involves ceasing to be a Beggar. In other cases, it feels as though different careers have been shoehorned into a single career path. For example, Grave Robber and Tomb Robber are quite different careers, despite their similar names, but they are bundled together, presumably to fill out the levels.
Characters may still change career, but there are no career exits. They simply move to the lowest level of any new career. It is a material departure from the branching career paths of earlier editions. GMs are, nonetheless, encouraged to use their discretion to allow any career change that makes sense, including to higher levels within a career. This is a welcome addition to the written rules, though I suspect games have in practice been played this way for many years with previous editions.
There are a number of advantages to the new system. It provides a simple advancement route for all characters. It reduces the likelihood of characters changing career just to access new advances. It eliminates characters bouncing around dead-end basic careers, or choosing a career simply as a shortcut to a better one.
However, some of the character of the original system has been lost in my opinion, and we are left with something closer to the linear level advancement of D&D, which WFRP was originally trying to escape. The new system prioritises playability over colour, and that is not a trade I personally want to make. The designers have been brave to change WFRP‘s sacred cow as much as they have, but I don’t feel their changes have been altogether successful. It should not be difficult, though, to modify the system to restore features of prior versions.
Character advancement in WFRP4 relies on the same basic mechanics as previous editions. Players spend XP to improve their characters’ attributes and skills. However, the details of the system have changed materially.
In WFRP4 attributes and skills are increased in increments of a single point, rather than five or ten points as in WFRP1 and WFRP2.
The XP costs of advancing attributes and skills or changing career are no longer uniform. Attribute increases cost more than skill increases. The cost of increases rises as more advances are taken. It costs more to leave an incomplete career than if all the skills and advances have been taken. It is possible to take out-of-career advances and skills, but at double the normal cost.
There are no longer maximum characteristic advances. At higher levels advance schemes simply broaden to encompass more attributes, rather than offer greater magnitudes of advance.
Overall, it is a flexible and well balanced system. It strikes a good balance between characteristic increases and skills. The rising XP costs create a learning curve effect. The mechanism for non-career advancement is a welcome addition.
It is, though, fiddly. The single-point increments are too small for my liking. XP costs are less transparent than before. Overall, I think many of the system’s objectives could have been achieved with a simpler set of mechanics.
Until recently I had never even considered the need for a downtime system in WFRP. But when last year Graeme Davis mentioned the unfulfilled intention of WFRP‘s original designers to include such a system, it seemed an obvious and even essential adjunct to the careers system. I even developed my own version for WFRP1.
So it is no surprise finally to find a downtime system in WFRP4. WFRP4‘s version contains three components: events, endeavours and money.
Events are randomly generated happenings. There is an interesting collection of them in the rulebook, but there are too few (just 30). They are also far too common. For each character there is a 97% chance of something happening in downtime. Downtime events will rapidly become repetitive, unless downtime itself is a rarity. And a system that only works if you do not use it much strikes me as flawed.
Endeavours comprise a range of activities that characters can engage in, such as earning income, banking savings, inventing new trappings or training in non-career skills. Characters can engage in one endeavour per week of downtime (up to a maximum of three). Endeavours do not include career-related advancement, which is to me a missed opportunity. Downtime seems like the perfect time to address the difficulty of incorporating career advancement into the game narrative.
The final component of downtime relates to money. In downtime PCs lose all their money except any that they have banked or earned from work during downtime. This is an arbitrary and to me deeply unsatisfactory arrangement. I imagine many players will be frustrated by it.
Overall the downtime system seems to me undercooked. In particular its elements of vague handwaving contrast sharply with the intricate crunch of the advancement system.
The combat system has changed from WFRP1 and WFRP2 in a number of respects. The most significant is the introduction of opposed rolls to resolve attacks. Attacker and defender both roll simultaneously and compare their margins of success; the party with the greater success margin hits. The system has apparently been introduced to reduce “whiff”, where no combatant hits in a combat round.
WFRP2‘s awkward system of actions and half-actions has mercifully been abandoned and replaced with a simple rule of one action and one move per round.
There is also an advantage rule, where a winning combatant can gain snowballing bonuses.
It is difficult to assess how well the new rules work without playing them. They seem to involve more mental arithmetic than my lazy mind would like, and I have never really been bothered by the “whiff”. But without having run them in practice, I can’t really offer any meaningful judgement.
The chapter on religion provides detailed information on the major human deities of the Empire and a summary view of non-human pantheons. It is a well presented overview of religious life, similar to that in WFRP2.
The standout part of the chapter, though, is the section on divine magic. Divine magic comprises blessings and miracles. Blessings are a range of minor charms that are acquired as a group with the Bless talent. Miracles are major divine manifestations that are learned one by one by any character with the appropriate Invoke talent. There are specific lists of blessings and miracles for each major deity. They build on the equivalents in the WFRP2 rulebook and Tome of Salvation, and provide a range of colourful and distinctive effects.
Blessings and miracles are performed by making a successful Pray test, which operates in the same way as other tests. Major failures, as in previous editions, can incur the wrath of the gods. Impiety is also handled with the welcome addition of Sin Points.
The divine magic system in WFRP4 looks excellent. It is simple, functional and interesting. It takes the best parts of previous editions (mainly WFRP2) and smoothes off rough edges. It is probably the best system of all the editions I have seen.
The foundations of the magic system are Warhammer‘s winds of magic. They have by now been part of the Warhammer background for nearly thirty years, but I am old and reactionary enough still to think of them as the “new” magic system and bristle at some of their aspects. They are certainly more colourful than the rather bland magic system that preceded them, but some of their elements seem to me too fantastical for the gritty setting of the Old World. That said, it is easy for the GM to strip away the more exotic accoutrements of the winds and associated colleges.
The system divides spells into different lists like WFRP2. There are Petty, Arcane and Lore spells. Petty magic comprises, as before, minor incantations. Arcane and Lore spells are more powerful, with the former available broadly, but the latter only to specific colleges.
Unlike WFRP2, however, spells are learned individually for rising XP costs. Spells are also cast via a standard test mechanism, against the Language (Magick) skill. Overcasting is allowed, where a greater margin of success increases the effects of a spell. It does not match the flexibility of, say, Ars Magica‘s system, but is a welcome addition.
Overall, despite my long-standing distaste for the colleges of magic, I like the latest incarnation of the magic system. It is elegant and interesting.
The bestiary in the rulebook covers most creatures in the Warhammer world; fimir even make a return from WFRP1. However, the bestiary entries are quite cursory. For example, in the fimir entry there is barely any mention of their different castes, and their controversial aspects are entirely ignored. GMs seeking a detailed monster manual will be disappointed. But as an introductory bestiary it is quite satisfactory, and in the core rulebook I don’t expect anything more than that. A more detailed bestiary may well follow in a future supplement.
The world guide is the narrowest yet. Whereas WFRP1 covered the Old World and WFRP2 The Empire, WFRP4 describes just the Reikland. It still leaves plenty of room for adventure, and it seems likely there will be regional supplements. (In any case, there is plenty of material for previous editions still available.) Most importantly, it is comprehensive and well written. It does inevitably bear some of the scars of WFB‘s development after WFRP1, though they are mostly confined to the timeline and are easily written out.
The most obvious omission from the rulebook is an introductory adventure. However, it has been corrected with the free PDFs If Looks Could Kill and Night of Blood, and the recent arrival of the Starter Set. It will matter even less when Rough Nights & Hard Days and The Enemy Within: The Director’s Cut have been published. My only concern is the slow rate at which Cubicle 7 seems to be completing WFRP4 products. The core rulebook was a year late and the Starter Set was also heavily delayed. Resources will, I presume, soon need to be directed to the Age of Sigmar RPG. It feels as though the release schedule might be more like the trickle of WFRP1 than the deluge of WFRP2. If the quality is as good as WFRP1, though, the complaints shouldn’t be too loud.
I had worried that this paragraph would begin “I wanted to like WFRP4, but…”, but there is no “but”. This is a good edition of the game. Despite my grognardly grumpiness, I found much to like. Certainly it’s not exactly what I had hoped for, and I’ll probably rewrite substantial sections of it for my own purposes, but the same was true for WFRP1, and that’s been with me for more than thirty years.
WFRP4 is at its best when it refines the rules of previous editions. It is less successful when it tries more radical change. Ironically, had the designers done less, I suspect the outcome would have been improved.
Nonetheless, I imagine new players will worry little about some of the changes that might bother players of earlier editions. And old players will for the most part encounter few difficulties in restoring sections of older rules.
What really matters now are the adventures. I can forgive a lot if the adventures are good.
Guide to ratings:
The review copy of the WFRP4 rulebook was purchased at my own expense. I have received no inducements in connection with this review.
Title art by Ralph Horsley. Artwork used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.