Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay

Copyright Robert J Defendi © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

Ah, Warhammer. I remember the good old days, the elder times of gaming, back when D&D was in its first edition and Rolemaster was in its second. When the TSR catalog still mentioned Boot Hill. When modules still had a letter code. Those were the days. Honestly, I have the theme song to All in the Family playing in my head right now.

When we wanted to play something darker, grittier than even Rolemaster, we'd pull out Warhammer. We'd play rat catchers and nobles and we were always trying to get the GM to let us career into assassin. It seems we were always playing the Empire in Flames campaign.

Trials and tribulations. Later, the Warhammer FRP license shifted to Hogshead and they put out the same set of rules. We were able to buy new copies of the old books, which was nice, but I don't know if they ever put out a new product. I never saw one. [Editor's Note: They did put out new products, including the legendary Realms of Sorcery.]

So now this venerable license has been updated. Green Ronin is producing the new game under the imprint of Black Industries. So what has this new blood brought to the new game? Is it worth the money? The wait?

It depends on what you're looking for. This book is much lighter in content (not to mention tonnage). While the old one could be used to squash snotlings, the new one comes in at a slim 250 pages or so. Right off, we're putting a welter weight up against a heavy weight. But does the welter weight get his licks in?

Yes. There are really two sets of content in this book, the rules and the setting. In one, I believe they've come through, but on the other they've fallen painfully short. Lets deal with rules first.

At its heart, this is the same old Warhammer. You still progress through careers, although now you increase percentile stats by fives instead of tens. They've streamlined the stats somewhat and made changes to certain elements of combat. For the most part it plays with the same ease and logic of the old system. They've made refinements and these are good.

For instance they've smoothed out the advancements of all the careers so that there are no longer careers that everyone wants for powergaming purposes. They've given multiple classes the same number of attacks as the assassin, to name one change, helping to make sure that the powergamers and munchkins now only want the career for the fancy black pajamas.

They've also completely thrown out the old magic system, which was weak at best anyway. They've replaced it with a magic system where the wielder masters raw chaos and begins a slow but unstoppable path down the road to insanity (well, there are spells to stop it, but who knows any clerics of healing in Warhammer?). Finally your mage can wield magic that feels like it fits the setting. Warhammer magic just is more Warhammer-like now that you can accidentally summon a chaos demon.

That isn't to say that the system is without flaws. The prices look like they were assigned by a majority vote at a psychiatric ward. The encumbrance system is laughable. There are elements of combat that will probably make you scratch your head, but all in all, the improvements are improvements and nothing is broken much more than it used to be. Warhammer isn't rocket science. Warhammer is about fast, fun play, and this version of the game delivers with 80% less headaches.

So. Setting. First of all, there almost isn't any. Aside from the chapter on religion and a small chapter on the empire, the book is pretty empty. The old Warhammer was a tome while this one feels more like a pamphlet.

But on a deeper and more disturbing level, this new Warhammer seems to be taking everything in the Warhammer Fantasy Battles game as canon. Now, while I have nothing against that game per se, the tone of Fantasy Battles clashes painfully with the tone of FRP. Fantasy Battles is filled with griffon riders and steam tanks and all manner of silliness. It just doesn't fit. Now while you can ignore this in your own games, it will still inevitably pervade the source material as they release it.

Also, they've advanced the timeline but there is little or no mention of what happened between the old game and the new. I notice the chaos storm--the most eventful happening in the near past--mentioned once. To get any real info, you will simply have to go to the website.

So in short, I'd buy this game, especially if you have older source materials. The rules are an improvement, but still completely familiar. The character system is more balanced. The only problem is that the setting is at once both emasculated and almost non-existent.

If those things don't bother you, and if you love Warhammer like I do you'll get over them, then buy the book. If this is your first foray into Warhammer . . . well you might want to hold off unless you can find a group familiar with the older and purer setting.