Category Archives: RPG

On playing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

My friends and I played a lot of games as kids; roleplaying games, wargames, boardgames, computer games (starting with Bubble Bobble and moving through Sim City to Tetris, Mario, Street Fighter 2 and, eventually, ISS Pro Evolution: I pretty much stopped there), made-up games, playground games, football games (not always football itself, but Headers & Volleys, or Passing & Shooting, set-ups to try and score outrageous goals or keep the ball in the air) and more besides. I have a terrible memory for events, for things I actually did, but a good memory for ideas and facts and concepts, so I can’t remember individual instances of playing, but I know we did.

We played Dungeons & Dragons a bunch of times, enough that I recognised something in the Stranger Things kids and Pixar’s Onward, but it was only ever an enjoyable diversion, never a passion. We dallied with a bunch of other RPGs and pseudo-RPGs – Marvel Heroes, Call of Cthulu, Heroquest – and various Games Workshop products; I still love Space Hulk (and even bought a second-hand copy of a recent edition), and would probably enjoy Blood Bowl again, although assembling entire armies for Warhammer Fantasy Battle or 40k always seemed far too daunting to ever actually finish one to a point where you could play a game (though we played many half-games with unpainted armies).

A few years ago, thanks to Matt, I got back into boardgames via Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. But, as with so many things, I’m often dilettantish, picking things up, enjoying them, and then putting them down and moving to the next thing. (Flamme Rouge! Ticket to Ride! Pandemic… not really any further. I gather Terraforming Mars is good.)

The same goes for my approach to fantasy fiction. My dad read me Lord of the Rings when I was a kid, and I re-read The Hobbit years later, but Tolkein never really did it for me beyond enjoying the spectacle of the Peter Jackson films, and the idea of it, of some ordinary people getting caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and doing on an adventure. I never dug any deeper. I don’t really understand what The Silmarillion is, and more importantly I don’t want to. I read CS Lewis as a pre-adolescent, and then devoured Pratchett from the ages of 12 to 18 or so.

Likewise I watched Game of Thrones as a piece of entertainment, but never felt any need to read the books. I’ve only recently read the first Harry Potter book, and that was to my daughter. I have read – and loved – Pullman’s His Dark Materials, including the little offshoots and the sequel trilogy (or the two of it released thus far), and thoroughly enjoyed the TV adaptation (the film not quite so much, though it’s not without merit), but there are a million other fantasy worlds out there – in books and games and films and who-knows-what-else – that I’ve never engaged with at all. I’ve never read any Moorcock, but I had a subscription to White Dwarf from the age of about 10 (1989) to about 14 (1993), when I started getting NME instead. Probably because I thought girls were more likely to pay me attention if I was geeking out about music than about made-up worlds with elves and dwarfs.

So it’s intriguing and amusing to me that, after decades away, I’ve come back to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and for the last year have been running a weekly session with four friends where I GM (‘games master’, fyi) them through a campaign (some of us in person, some of us via videolink, all of us via video for the strictest lockdowns, and even all of us together in the garden once), which takes a bunch of nobodies from less-than-humble origins through a sinister web of plots to overthrow a realm based roughly on the early-renaissance Holy Roman Empire (or “Space Germany” as we call it).

What is it about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay? I was borderline obsessed with it as a 12 year old and am again, 30 years later, at 42 years old. It was the only roleplaying game I played with any conviction, the only one where I bought and read sourcebooks as if they were novels rather than rules, where I dreamed about playing in campaigns that lasted years (even though we seldom made one last more than a few weeks). The only game where I would sometimes grab the rulebook and some dice and a pad of paper and roll up a random character, just to imagine their narrative, the journeys they’d go on, how they’d develop, what they’d bring to a party of adventurers, because I enjoyed doing it. I wore out the softback of WFRP 1e (and recently found myself a copy in very good condition in eBay, for nostalgia’s sake – just flicking through it and seeing those illustrations and page layouts brought back intense sense memories). I can’t remember what I did with all the old sourcebooks I had, but I can’t find them anywhere at my house or my parents’ house, which leads me to believe that someone got a bloody great find in a Dawlish charity shop at some stage.

I abandoned all this, abruptly, when I went to university, if not before. Which I suspect isn’t unusual. But some twenty-plus years later I had an imagination itch during lockdown and furlough, and scratched it via google, which lead to me finding out that WFRP 4th edition existed. And, moreover, was ‘remastering’ some of the key components of first edition, including that campaign about sinister plots, which I’d owned all the books for and always wanted to play through, but never had.

WFRP – to use the acronym – was the roleplaying game that made most sense to me as a mechanical system, too. The way the profile worked, the fact that pretty much everything worked off a percentage chance based on your character’s abilities, which meant you could improvise almost anything you could imagine. It also – I realise now more than when I was 11 – wore its radical 80s leftwing roots on its sleeve: orc warlords called Mag Uruk Thracker (say it out loud) causing trouble for dwarf miners, adventures built around the insane, chaos-worshipping corruption of wealthy merchants and the landed nobility, the fact that the heroes start off as Rat Catchers and Pedlars rather than Paladins or Barbarians, the downtrodden realising that those in power are in cahoots with evil forces.

(It’s probably not by coincidence that Games Workshop, in the 90s, turned away from this ethos and towards a glossy New-Labour-like hero-worshipping commercialism, ditching the book-heavy roleplaying side of things and concentrating on shifting lots and lots and lots of lead and plastic.)

It’s this slightly murky 80s realism – obviously it’s not realistic in any way: there are still magic elves, ffs, they’re just very, very rare – that’s riven through WFRP’s DNA. Instead of a ‘class’ you follow a career scheme, slaving away to become a slightly more respected Rat Catcher, dreaming about working your way up from Peasant to Village Elder, or a Brigand to a Bandit King (or Queen). Adventures are what happens in between the dull tedium of your actual job. Even innocuous bar brawls can result in mutilation and broken bones, never mind sword fights. You’re not plunging bravely into dungeons with magic swords, slaying dragons for treasure – you’re stumbling into dangerous rituals you don’t understand, getting coshed by footpads for walking down the wrong alley, being ambushed by terrible creatures because you travelled down a country road after dark.

The fourth edition has solved a bunch of mechanical issues I had with the first edition. No longer will you spend round after round of combat with both assailants failing to hit each other. The careers have been balanced to benefit good roleplaying rather than a good advance scheme: which is to say that you can be a terrible Witch Hunter or a REALLY good Villager, and both can add a lot of value to a party of adventurers if you’ve got imagination. The addition of Success Levels (ie how well you pass a test) helps propel the imagination – my players love them, and ask what difference they make on even innocuous pass/fail rolls. If there’s a fault it’s the surfeit of rules to cover pretty much any circumstances you (or your party) can imagine, and those rules are spread across several books (and not always in an easy-to-remember way). But there’s also one golden rule outlined very clearly in the main book; you can ignore all the other rules if you want, as long as you have fun. This is the one we play by most, and understand how to deploy it much more now than we did when we were 13.

Because that’s the main thing – we have fun. We all laugh a LOT, and I manage to make my players look concerned and even scared for the wellbeing of their characters on a reasonably frequent basis. We can each recall different moments of the story from the last year that have tattooed themselves on our memories – the crazy dwarf fighting mutants on rooftops; the hapless Outlaw finally hitting and killing something with an arrow and it being a giant beastman just about to kill everyone; the Rat Catcher’s eyes changing colour mysteriously and freaking everyone out; the normally talk-first Physician stabbing a kidnapper down a dark alley because he’d abducted a child. It’s nonsense, of course, but it’s dramatic, perilous, amusing, and enjoyable nonsense. I hope we keep doing it for another year, or two, or three, or more, to come.