Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #2

If you've been reading this series since the start you may have been wondering when this game would be coming up; after all I've already expressed my love for Fighting Fantasy and mentioned my dalliances with Games Workshop, so there was a certain inevitability about the appearance in the top ten of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

WFRP is a bit of an orphan. Games Workshop had a great deal of early success selling role-playing games but almost all were reprints -- albeit handsome ones -- of existing products. I'm sure someone will pop up in the comments and tell me about something I've forgotten -- I know both Inquisitor and Warhammer Quest have rpg elements, and more on the latter in the new year -- but as I recall the only home grown rpgs GW produced were Judge Dredd and WFRP; both got a couple of years in the sun but the latter was released just as the company was moving over to miniature-based war games and not even the Warhammer name was enough to save it from cancellation. WFRP retained a healthy and enthusiastic fanbase and popped up again at the now-defunct Hogshead, then a second edition was again published by Games Workshop before again being axed. Fantasy Flight Games released a third edition with a different ruleset but also produced a big pile of Warhammer 40,000 rpgs that used the same system as the second edition. At the time of writing the game is once again in limbo. It's all a confusing mess and it's a wonder that I managed to play the thing at all.

I had been reading White Dwarf since 1991 so I knew about WFRP from the occasional article -- even then they were becoming more sporadic -- but I didn't get to play it for the first time until around 1997. I remember being intimidate by the size of the rulebook -- larger than anything else I'd seen at the time -- and the dense and teeny tiny text. My friend Chris took the challenge of running the game and we made it through some of The Enemy Within before we stopped, I think through a combination of the group splitting -- university beckoned -- and the rest of the campaign being out of print at the time. Still, it was good fun and it set the tone for how I see the game to this day.

WFRP is often characterised as either horror-fantasy or -- more often -- as grim and dark and po-faced but I don't think either is true. Yes characters can be fragile, and yes it is possible to die of an infected stab wound, and yes it seems as if everything in the world is out to kill the player-characters, but a bit of murder and demon daemon summoning in the first chapter of the game's iconic campaign -- er, SPOILER -- has given the wrong impression of what is to my eye a comedy game.

Almost every name in the game is a pun or joke based on poor German translation; the dwarves have mohawks; the orcs are the Hulk as played by Ray Winstone; almost all of the player-characters are going to be working class oiks and if any of them are nobles they are probably idiots or drunks or both; any scheme, for good or ill, is bound to fail due to someone's incompetence; and in a fight no one can hit anything but if they do the damage will probably multiply so when they try to knock out the watchman in Bogenhafen they instead end up splattering him across the sewer wall. Oops.

What it is, you see, is Blackadder does D&D. How anyone can think it's supposed to be a serious game I don't know.

My favourite version of the game in terms of mechanics is the second edition; in polishing some of the rough edges of the first edition some of the game's unique personality is also lost but I do think it is the better game and as I tend to run it based on my own jumbled conception of the setting circa 1988 it all balances out. As should not be a huge shock to anyone at this point I like the simplicity of the system; it's based on percentile rolls against the characters' attributes, with skills and abilities modifying the rolls rather than having values of their own. There is a bit of wonky design in that one has to remember what Strike Mighty Blow -- for example -- does in terms of actual numbers but whenever I run the game I cheat and use simplified non-player-character statistics with all that stuff built in so it's not an issue from my end, and the idea at least is an elegant one.

The magic system is great fun; wizards have to roll dice to generate the energy they need to cast spells but as it is WFRP there is always a chance of something going wrong, from all milk in the locality curdling to a daemon crawling out of the caster's ears and laying waste to everything in sight. Spellcasters feel as dangerous to play as the superstitious folk of the setting believe them to be and with that danger comes a thrill, although it is perhaps best suited to the more reckless player. I was lucky enough to have just such a player when I ran the updated-but-not-really-related Enemy Within and his character ended up with a flaming skull head, umpteen fingers on each hand, and a long, skeletal trunk. As you do.

In stark contrast to most of the games on the top ten so far I do play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay quite often; it's one of those games that everyone -- both in my group and the larger world -- seems to like so it's a surprise and shame that no one seems to be able to keep it in print. I hope to be playing it again in 2015, following the player-characters of The Enemy Within II as they enter the world of Imperial politics, because what could go wrong for a noble with a burning skull face?

Next: loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men. Or something.

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