WFRP: What is the game about? How could it be more focused?

One of the few RPGs I am dearly in love with is WFRP. It's an unmitigated disaster, quite naturally, a transitory product between old school D&D and modern games. The Old World setting, a d100, and some glue bind the system's pieces into a tangle of mechanics. It's a beautiful system nonetheless, capturing the grit of low-level D&D into a skill-based system, and so it pleases me.

Cubicle 7 has picked up the license from FFG, whose third edition disappointed the masses. Eagerly awaiting more news from Cubicle 7's publishing department, I have reflected on the original WFRP. What was the purpose? A grimmer fantasy wargame? A zero-to-mildly-heroic medieval adventuring simulator? The system straddles the loose, free-wheeling structure of the OSR with new school trappings, including metacurrency (Fate points), a skill system, and story-based XP.

This leaves me scratching my head: what is the game about? It has a strong identity underpinning the system (corruption, insanity, dark gods), but the mechanics are scattershot and ill-considered. In stark contrast, games set within the Warhammer 40,000 have a premise clearly set forth: investigation and extermination of potential threats to humanity.

Comments

  • Yeah, I always took Warhammer as an excuse to play D&D with more time spent describing gory maimings in combat. And also to enjoy Khorne, Nurgle, and the Scaven. I don't really remember the rules except for that glorious critical hit combat table. Somehow the pelvis-shattering entry was the one that stuck with me.

    Actually, I'm shorting the game by only mentioning Chaos Gods, ratlings and gore. The game was industrial punk rock in many ways. Trollslayers -- pierced-up, mohawked dwarven zealots -- fit right into the aesthetic. And Games Workshop always had the best art direction for their books.

    I wonder if White Wolf took their hint that you could sell an RPG based on aesthetics from the fact that WFRP successfully shared space with D&D on that premise.

    If it were my job to redesign WFRP to be more focused, that's what I'd focus on: the chaos punk aesthetic vision. WFRP should be the Dethklok of fantasy adventure roleplay. (For those of you who've never seen Metalocalypse, Dethklok is a fictional band that turns all the tropes of death metal excess up to 11. This is how they bury their cat.)
  • I don't have a deep relationship to the game, but I've done some spitballing with it recently. It is certainly a horrendous thing to be subjected to without gloves and a game designer on hand to file down the worst jags [grin].

    Aside from the setting and aesthetics, the big selling point of the game is the career system. To me, reading the game as a latter-day gamer, it reads like a game that should be about slice of life career sagas of a loosely affiliated circle of acquaintances, instead of the dusty D&D party adventuring scheme that obviously dominates the thoughts and dreams of the designers. It should be about character ambitions in their jobs (instead of being an adventurer who's recently quit their job to adventure, yet inexplicably still deriving their character development from said job), which turn interesting because the setting is such a fucked-up place. The highlights are about getting to swap jobs either forcibly or intentionally, drifting through the setting and seeing it from different perspectives as you're a toll-guard one day and a smuggler the next. Essentially, the game should be an expansive take on Ghostbusters (thinking of the way the absurdity of the job intersects with office comedy here) as a rpg campaign.

    As a practical example of what I mean, here's what I did when we did a bit of chargen for the game last month in preparation for perhaps playing it at some point (with a clueless GM who doesn't realize that they should be running some flavour of D&D instead):
    * I decided to make a halfling, because as god is my witness, I'll do that every time somebody puts me in a chair and tells me to make my pick of human, dwarf, elf and halfling for a stupid fantasy cliche adventure game. For spite if nothing else. You want to stop it, you're free to tell us that halfling's off the table because it's not suitably heroic, and you're obviously just making fun of the game, Eero.
    * I rolled grave robber for my starting career. OK, so I'm a hobbit graverobber. Gears start to turn regarding character personality and goals, because it's that sort of campaign - we were explicitly invited by the GM to work out a bit of a scenario together.
    * The halfling Moot (The Shire, essentially), where all the halflings live, is not known for a steady demographic of crazy doctors and necromancers who'd buy bodies, so what's a man to do when he's a grave robber in the Moot? I could become a ghoul, I suppose, but halflings are well-known for their gourmet sensibilities, so that's off the table. Quite a conundrum.
    * Solution: after successfully stealing and salting 40 or so bodies from Moot graveyards (easy job, because I'm probably the only grave robber in the Moot, due to the lack of an after-market), I borrowed an ox-cart from a cousin who's into cider business. I might have downplayed the risks involved, but the basic premise was solid: I would export the hobbit corpses to a suitable buyer elsewhere, make my fortune and move to Altdorf to become a student of the magical arts (because who doesn't want to be a wizard, and it's one of the allowed career exits).
    * A vigorous debate of various setting matters convinced my character to go sell his supply of bodies in fantasy-Transylvania, the in-setting name of which I forget - it's the place with all the vampire counts, and clearly the most insane/stupid/humorous/interesting option to pursue when you're a hobbit grave robber. My character is ironically ignorant of course, he's just heard stories of how grave robbing's a sweet gig in those parts, and there's steady demand for fresh bodies.
    * After convincing the rest of the players, we had our first adventure: I hired them to accompany me on a bold journey there and back. Surely nothing would go wrong when a hobbit tries to sell their own grand-uncles and aunts to sinister clients in vampire country.

    The reason for my lengthy story of pre-game plotting is that I'm sort of happy with how that turned out in general terms, even if the GM is probably pretty ill-prepared to make interesting use of the funny adventure hook. It's got that Ghostbusters vibe I want: the career system gives us a very specific and colorful occupation, which we then spin into a humorous, adventurous, zany scenario. The character is further motivated by their ambitions, informed by the career web: you can see how one of the allowed exists from being a grave robber is "Student", for example, so it's natural and satisfactory to be thus motivated. Much of what was established in that pre-game chargen came directly out of the way I utilized the career rules block. There's evidently potential in that.

    Of course it's a rough jewel, and there's lots of serious questions about this all still unsolved: how do you work with multiple PCs, aside from casting one as the primus motor and having others as party stringers? How do the vapid experience rules connect to the career system? What rules to drop and what to add to make the careers maximally supportive of crafting and executing Ghostbusters scenarios in the game? What to do about the fact that the game's combat system and task resolution systems are largely a horrible mess?

    ***

    The above's my central observation about WFRPG, but there are a few other interesting details that one might work with, too. For instance, I think it's interesting how Moves-based the 1st edition vision for task resolution is - I sense some valuable lessons in that. It's definitely a game one should read carefully, eyes open, so as to not miss interesting bits.
  • I am more or less with @Eero_Tuovinen on this. The game pushes you in the day job, dark comedy, blood and piss setting.

    Your characters spend a lot of time being exploited and used by the ruling/upper class for their own ends.

    Out of the three GM's I've had for this game two got what was going on with, one just treated it like D&D and that game was terrible.

    I've run WHFR a bit but the first time around I screwed it up by not making the color, setting, exceptions the first part of character creation.

    WHFR 3rd is a pretty brilliant bit of game design marred by disorganization and some not great marketing. That's the What is Warhammer is assigned mechanics to every bit.
  • Of course it's a rough jewel, and there's lots of serious questions about this all still unsolved: how do you work with multiple PCs, aside from casting one as the primus motor and having others as party stringers? How do the vapid experience rules connect to the career system? What rules to drop and what to add to make the careers maximally supportive of crafting and executing Ghostbusters scenarios in the game? What to do about the fact that the game's combat system and task resolution systems are largely a horrible mess?
    Aside from a thorough rewriting (one using an axe and red pen), it would be feasible to organize the system around characters advancing in their careers through expenditures of time, favors, and other resources. To go from a blacksmith to a runesmith over the course of one's career could involve tasks like: buying a title from a craftsman's guild, forging a weapon or piece of armor imbued with warpstone, fetching a rare and precious hammer from a Khornate berserker, etc., etc., etc.

    All of those are things that involve some degree or another of questing, which makes it easy enough to tie into the other party members. To cut out the middleman, one could very easily port in OD&D's gold-is-XP system, whereby gold spent by the characters in advancing their careers translates directly to mechanical advancement. (Donating to the blacksmith's guild so they can expand their building with a new forge, bribing the king's adviser to set up a contract with the blacksmith's guild to ensure a steady supply of business, etc.)
  • edited December 2017
    Yes, that's the way to go - fatten up the "you need to buy/gather the equipment listed for your new career before being able to start in it" rule into something substantial, and give XP for resources invested into your career.

    The way I've pondered it, the party issue is tricky, though; it'll get old fast for the GM if they're responsible for figuring out why a ratcatcher, boatswain and a prostitute have to work together on wacky hijinks again. The game has a much too detailed character spec to do character stables, too; everybody clearly needs to have one character, and that's that.

    The way I'd go on adventures would probably be to drop the concept of "adventure" altogether and just do short anecdotes from the lives of these people, with plentiful weaving and crossing of their lives. The game needs solid, solid downtime rules to make it interesting when a character spends three months "simply working" now and then, and the adventures need to be relatively simple, while the social and office lives of the characters take center stage: the real positioning issue for your boatswain character is not that they're in a dungeon, it's that they're in a marriage, and their father-in-law wants them to become a smuggler.

    One big reason for the characters to work together on each other's problems is, of course, social capital: if the characters are good friends from the get-go, then of course they're going to help each other in their troubles. You want a situation where it's not too artificial for the boatswain to ask the ratcatcher for help in disposing a body - not because they're both PCs, or because they run an adventuring party together, but rather because they're friends. This could be emphasized with more robust social capital rules - if you have some sort of lists of NPC friends and allies, and calling on them costs social capital, then the PCs are pretty natural as your best friends, the ones you call for help.
  • Some of you might be interested in "Zweihänder", which is an open license version of old-school WFRP. https://grimandperilous.com
  • The game needs solid, solid downtime rules to make it interesting when a character spends three months "simply working" now and then, and the adventures need to be relatively simple, while the social and office lives of the characters take center stage: the real positioning issue for your boatswain character is not that they're in a dungeon, it's that they're in a marriage, and their father-in-law wants them to become a smuggler.
    I sense a black comedy mixing Fiasco and Urban Shadows.

    Something one might also consider to deal with the problem outlined here:
    The way I've pondered it, the party issue is tricky, though; it'll get old fast for the GM if they're responsible for figuring out why a ratcatcher, boatswain and a prostitute have to work together on wacky hijinks again.
    When creating a party, the professions are segregated based on the characters' backgrounds. Careers would vary based on the background that ties the party together. For lack of a better term, let us call this the "Community." A group of characters might have a Community of Rural, which would give starting characters career choices of Farmer, Stablehand, Swineherd, Woodcutter, Hunter, Trapper, Slave, Laborer, Carpenter, and so on and so forth, excluding ill-fitting careers like Nobles and Pit Fighters. This would provide immediate bonds between the characters and allow for relationship webs to develop naturally. The Hunter and Trapper share territory, but there's friction between the two because they compete for some of the same resources, but at the same time, they'll work together as long as the Hunter gets the meat and the Trapper gets the furs.
  • I've never played Warhammer, but the descriptions here make me think a great deal about Vincent Baker's playtest draft game Freebooting Venus, which combines bizarre and quirky Colour with real-life concerns for the characters (like being fed, having a nice place to live, and so forth).

    In that game, Vincent came up with a really nice way to reframe "treasure-as-XP" which could suit this genre, as well.

    The way it works is that you must find/collect "treasure", which, upon inspection, helps you advance in various and somewhat random ways: "inspecting your treasure" might turn into an opportunity to "move to better lodgings", for example, or to "hire labourers to build a foundation for a new estate". In this way, adventuring (collecting mysterious treasure) quite naturally connects to watching a rather off-the-wall character in a phantasmagoric setting trying to move up the ranks and establish herself as a well-to-do person.
  • That's actually almost like how WFRPG works out of the book. The careers tend to be somewhat limp about really enforcing it, but the way it's supposed to work is that you can only advance to a better position in life by acquiring a defined set of gear for the position. Now, one would imagine that this gear set would include interesting things like owning a boat if you're going to be a boatswain, but in practice it tends towards relatively minor things - things an adventurer can carry, basically. Even this can sometimes be an interesting challenge for the gutter-rat existence of a WFRPG character, of course.

    The thing about the gear requirements, though, is that they get ever more interesting if they're not trivial to achieve. The more significant the gear/positioning requirements are in switching careers, the more fictional positioning would influence your career plans. This means that in the best case, instead of choosing a new career and then working towards acquiring all the tools of the trade, your character ends up first stumbling upon a boat and only then deciding to become a boatswain. I mean, you've already got the boat, so why not try you hand at that? That's a pretty interesting effect, and one that WFRPG should strive for. (Not as the only advancement model - I think that having personal goals and ambitions is also valuable - but as something that would occur more often.)

    For this to work, though, the gear requirements need a bit of sprucing up. It would help if one wrote up not only the gear, but also the social and study requirements of a given occupation. As it is, the game rather encourages ignoring the practical challenges of career-switching: just spend the XP and some paltry sum of money to buy the requisite equipment, and off you go. It'd be more interesting if e.g. the rat-catcher career listed something like "The favour of the catcher's guild boss" in its prereqs in addition to the "rat on a stick". No favour, no chance of gainful employment as a rat-catcher.

    Having something like that would, in fact, be interesting twice: not only would it be interesting for new entrants to the career to try to figure out how to get the guild boss to let them in, but it would also be an interesting fact that characters who start in that occupation also possess the boss's favour - after all, the chargen rules clearly state that a starting character possesses everything listed as career equipment for their career, for no extra charge.
  • I've never played Warhammer, but the descriptions here make me think a great deal about Vincent Baker's playtest draft game Freebooting Venus, which combines bizarre and quirky Colour with real-life concerns for the characters (like being fed, having a nice place to live, and so forth).
    Unfortunately, WHFRP chargen rules tend to produce a mixed party of Freebooting Venus-grade characters and (perhaps a majority of) Hand to Mouth in the City of Nephtys-grade characters (I'm pretty much sure this will make sense to you, Paul), plus the quirkiest PCs tend to be the least effective in game-mechanical terms.
  • Ah! Interesting.
  • Such a great topic, thank you for your suggestions!

    I think that Freebooting Venus and HtMitCiN is a good analogy. I played both games and their procedures created a very nice Jack Vance & Life of Brian mix.

    Also the downtime move of Undying could be used here, and of course Blades in the Dark if you treat the team as a loose community as suggested above.
  • I ran an old-schoolish WFRP 1e campaign a few years ago (going through the four epic Doomstones modules) and we had a blast.

    I think the combat system of WFRP 1e is excellent (if you like "fast, deadly, gritty and miniature-based") but utterly breaks down when characters advance (the so-called "naked dwarf" problem).

    The career system is a great starting point, but I'd either make that the focus of play (as Eero suggests and very nicely explains) or just provide four adventuring classes (fighter, rogue, ranger, wizard) to go forward if you're just dungeoneering and hacking and slashing in the setting.

    As written, the game's an incoherent mess, but a truly glorious one!

    (I houseruled the heck out of it, but in retrospect I should have gone much further.)
  • edited December 2017
    You embrace the horror elements and make the characters tragic heroes with a deep background, or you play it like a deadly, grindy 80's AD&D game with lots of Holy Grail jokes. Old fans tend to prefer the second version, and it's probably easier to make a new setting for the first version rather than to put up with the Monty Python legacy.
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