Warhammer FRP 3rd Ed: First Hands-On Experience

This past weekend I had the unexpected pleasure of running a last-minute session of the new Warhammer Fantasy RPG – the 3rd Edition boxed set from Fantasy Fight Games, to be specific. The folks over at Gnome Stew have an excellent “unpacking” article on the game, with lots of pictures of its juicy innards, so I’ll skip that part and get right to the fun.

I’ve had this for a couple of weeks now, and have been itching to give it a test run. I wasn’t expecting to break it out in full game mode so soon, having only read the player book and most of the GM book (and not even touching the magic books yet). But when the call came in, it was the first thing that popped into mind, and in hindsight, I think it was a great idea. Despite none of us having any real experience with it, the end result was a very positive one.

Setting it All Up

Although this was an impromptu game, my hope was that if everyone involved enjoyed it, we could actually continue it a couple of times and play out a complete adventure. The boxed set came with such an adventure, but alas, no ready-made characters with which to play it. But these guys were all fairly experienced roleplayers, so I figured we could go ahead with a round of character creation and still have time for an hour or so of play.

Breaking out the game and getting the characters hammered down (pun intended) took a couple of hours due to smoke breaks, beer runs, and general “how ya been, bro?” chit-chat. There were a few small snags (see Criticisms, below), but all things considered the flow was simple and straight-forward, and most important it was easily digested by first-time WFRP3 players when presented by a GM who had never run it before (me). That’s always a big plus in my book.

I want to make a special note here to fans of the “old ways” of Warhammer: Random Creation is still an option in WFRP3’s character creation system. The default method is to pick your own careers, but it also includes an option to have the Careers and Races determined completely randomly, which I opted to enforce for this game. I used a method of my own devising to accomplish this. First I laid out the cardboard stand-ups for all of the careers and had each player pick three which looked interesting to them, going around the table picking them one at a time. Then they got the career cards for their chosen three, and each decided upon a single career. Once chosen, they rolled dice per the printed rules to pick which of that career’s available races they could play. The resulting four characters: a Reiklander Dilettante, a Reiklander Barber-Surgeon, a Dwarven Mercenary, and a Dwarven Trollslayer. Two warriors, a healer, and a socializer. Wicked.

With four characters ready to go, another round of beers1 on hand, and our bellies filled with delicious freshly-grilled hamburgers, the game was ready.

The Game in Play

In basic implementation of the hobby’s usual concepts, Warhammer FRP 3rd Edition played a lot like any other mainstream RPG. There are two basic modes of play: Story Mode (wherein all of the free-form roleplaying occurs) and Encounter Mode (where you fight things). Sure, the latter mode can be used for debates, but its primary purpose is to provide a fair flow to combat. Plus, Social Encounters seem more easily handled by the sole application of the Progress Tracker (see below). Focus flits back and forth between the two, with Story mode being a lot more open and abstract. All of this should be familiar ground for anyone who’s played a mainstream RPG in the last decade.

The game uses dice for resolution of all in-game conflicts and tasks, and its dice are entirely custom-made for this game alone. These numberless dice run the D6, D8, and D10 ranges, are colored according to their purposes, and each have unique symbols that must be scryed to determine in-game effect. Upon an initial look some might find that this could make things confusing, but once you roll two or three times, it all makes complete sense. It’s also a nice touch that the symbols are all tied closely into the setting’s own history, symbology, and lexicon. For example, a roll of a Chaos Star implies that terrible things might happen to you, while a roll of the twin-tailed Sigmar’s Comet could bring great and unexpected fortune upon you.

The types, numbers, and results of the dice you roll for any given situation are determined primarily by what particular Action Card you are applying. Pretty much everything your character will ever do, mechanics-wise, is represented by an array of custom Action Cards. Some of these will be generic and thus available to all characters equally. Others are more specific, matching with your career, abilities, gear, or other chosen enhancements. Some cards can be used quite frequently, while other (frequently more powerful and/or dangerous) cards require a cool-off time between uses for them to recharge their usefulness, which is represented by ticking off one or more counters placed upon them. Your character’s array of other effects, such as Talents, Racial Abilities, Fatigue and Stress levels, and so on can also affect the dice pool and its interpreted results.

In addition to the characters, another team-oriented game element factors in heavily to many aspects of the characters’ mechanics: the Party Card. I absolutely love-love-love the Party Card. This mechanic essentially turns the entire group of heroes into a character-like unit of its own. Players can take their characters’ own Talent Cards and actually “slot” them onto the Party Card, allowing them to apply the effects of that Talent to the entire party due to their character’s own assumed guidance and initiative. Imagine if D&D characters could just as easily apply any one of their feats to everyone in the party? That would totally rock. Additionally, the Party Card applies special circumstantial bonuses to its members, and also keeps track of any escalating levels of inter-party Tension. That last part is really nice to me, because it actually turns character squabbles, social mishaps, and massive failures into another tangible mechanic. The core set comes with a good handful of these cards, with names such as “Brash Young Fools” and “Swords for Hire” and so on – the core set does a good job of covering most of the classic party formats, in my opinion.

But I want to go back to the action cards. When I first saw people using special Power Cards in D&D 4th Edition, I immediately fell in love with the concept. Whereas D&D’s cards were merely an optional game enhancement, WFRP3 makes them an integral part of playing the game. The use of these cards reminded me a lot of my time playing Tyler Tinsley’s then-named Upright Criminals game at this past Gamestorm2. The Action Cards in WFRP3 cover pretty much all basic actions you will ever want to try with your character. Each player gets a set of eight basic actions, and can then select one or more extra cards from the stack supplied by the set. There are quite a few in there, covering a wide range of enhanced abilities, most of which actually have different in-game effects if your character is in a “Reckless” or “Defensive” stance focus.

Let’s talk about my single most favorite element of this game: the Progress Tracker. This concept isn’t really a new one, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it implemented so well, and so pervasively. Basically, there are many times in the game in which you set up a Progress Tracker, which usually consists of eight or ten or so sequentially-connected puzzle-pieces (supplied by the box). Most often one or two of those pieces will be special “event markers” – usually the midpoint and far end. This tracker is then used to gauge the progress of the characters as they seek to attain a goal of some kind. It can also be used to track two or more opposing parties seeking conflicting and potentially exclusive goals. Each party or other such force of interest involved in the tracked situation is represented by a token placed upon it, and as the tokens move along the track we get to see who is closest to achieving their goals. The event markers usually signify that important things happen, depending upon who reaches them first. One interesting take on this, provided in the rules materials’ own text, is the use of the Tracker to resolve social combat, using it to show how close each side is to achieving their intentions.

The implications here should be obvious: the possibilities for implementing the Progress Tracker are nigh unlimited. I love the concept of the Progress Tracker so much that I have decided to incorporate it into pretty much every single RPG I ever run. Just this past Monday night I used twice it in a Savage Worlds game, first making a planned skyship dogfight much more exciting and dramatic than the methods promoted by that system’s own rules, and then later using it to play out the party sneaking across a war zone in a city with survivors in tow. Both turned out to be quite exciting.

Our own play time was limited due to a late start, but we got to do some roleplaying, try some simple tests out, and enjoy a viciously dramatic combat with some gnarly beastmen, in a scene that seemed a good fit for a Vin Diesel action flick. Everyone had a good time, and we all agreed to meet up again and continue the adventure. Personally, I’m glad we didn’t get any further, because the stopping point was right about as much of the included adventure as I had read. Phew!

Criticisms

I have a few problems with the game’s layout. First off, the process of picking Action Cards and Talents during character creation is not very conducive to the quick establishment of game play. There’s really no easy way that I can see to present to brand new WFRP3 players their available choices, other than passing them the entire stack of cards (minus spells in most cases) and telling them to go to town. The creation process could benefit immensely from a few lists, examples, and career-tailored recommendations of useful action cards and talents to take at that crucial “first level” of the game.

Second, like all Fantasy Flight productions, the reference material designers chose to focus too heavily on production image, sacrificing mid-game readability and citability in the process. Quite simply, finding the rules that you most need on the fly is a complete pain in the privates, an issue it shares with Tannhauser, Twilight Imperium, Call of Cthulu, and every other Fantasy Flight game that I own. As with all of their products, there is no index, and I was only able to find certain extremely important rules mid-game because my prior experience with their other products gave me the foresight to tackle my first reading of the rules with a highlighter in hand. While I praise them for having a game product which, I dare say, looks damn sexy in every aspect of its style and tangibility, I lament the growing trend with Big Game Companies (TM) to attain these lofty presentation milestones by casting aside the actual mid-game usability of their rules materials. The cards definitely help to keep some rules handy and in-your face, but the meta-rules that guide those more situation-specific cards are sometimes lost in the void of poorly-referenced source material.

Third and final: this game takes up about as much space as Twilight Imperium, or maybe a tad less. While the lack of a central gaming board or combat grid helps to condense this, the hundreds of pieces and cards that need to be separated into easy-to-access bowls and tubs at the table present a logistics challenge I’m not used to with my tabletop RPGs. I’ve seen a few others echo this complaint on FFG’s official forums as well, and while most of the responses to those complaints have been friendly, few have really helped to resolve the issue. There are a few ways that this can be mitigated, mainly by planning ahead and preparing a game site most conducive to the spread of components. Had this particular session been played at my own home, I would have had a Dave3 and a good number of foldable TV Dinner Trays to help each player keep their stuff separate from the main gaming table, and I doubt the clutter would have been noticeable. As it was, though, the table was nigh overwhelmed with the character sheets, cards, tokens, and tracks alone, and we barely had room for the central play area for combats, locations, handouts, and extra pieces.

The Final Word

While I warn you to keep in mind that this is only a first-play review, with no insights into the Magic and Advancement systems, I must still recommend that you…

Buy This Game. Fantasy Flight has taken the Warhammer setting and made one kick-ass RPG for it. From my perspective as someone who found the previous editions cumbersome and whiff-tastic, this edition improves the game by leaps and bounds. Despite a few issues with presentation and the first game start-up flow, the pieces and mechanics fit together to let your group play a finely-turned game of dark (and sometimes darkly comedic) Old World adventure. If you like unique mechanics, lots of fiddly bits, card-based actions, and high production values, this is the game for you – especially if you’re a long-time fan of the setting who is open to new ideas.

One final idea came to me as I packed everything back up. This game could also be easily interchanged with the Dragon Age RPG from Green Ronin – another recently-published boxed set game that I’ve been itching to try out for the first time. There are a lot of similarities in the settings and their focus upon dark fantasy adventure. I’d be interesting to see one system used to play the other’s setting, and vice-versa.

Footnotes

1 I recommend Ninkasi Believer Double Red
2 Dammit, I keep forgetting to write up my GS2010 post. Adding that to the blogging agenda now.
3 Every gamer lair should have one of these, especially if you have a laptop. It has revolutionized my home gaming experience.

12 thoughts on “Warhammer FRP 3rd Ed: First Hands-On Experience

  1. Interesting. I do, though, cringe a little at the trend in RPG’s to try and be some kind of midpoint between “dice, sheets, and pencils” gaming and board games. If I want counters out the wazoo and nifty board sections, I’ll play Talisman.

  2. I’m mostly the opposite. I love having hands-on tangibility in my games these days. Back in the younger days of my gaming, I remember some players and GMs would bring nifty props and costume things and such and have them on-hand at the table. I ran a fun Savage Worlds high seas game wherein a couple of players brought setting-appropriate thingies like compasses and hats to help the feel. I ran a Little Fears game and had each player bring a toy that represented their character somehow.

    This is just taking it one step further: adding setting-evocative pieces and actually incorporating them into the mechanics. It’s like Deadlands and the playing cards, or ANY game that uses minis. Gods I can’t get enough of it.

  3. I’ve been interested in WHFRP3 since I saw the first round of reviews. Sounds like a good fit for how I like to run things, and I’m a big fan of the first edition’s bizarre and humorous take on the pseudo-Holy Roman Empire. I am reserving judgment on how much of that original flavor is coming through, though…

    My current taste in RPGing is tending a foundation of “dice, sheets, pencils” embellished with all kinds of stuff. Pictures printed out from Google image search, little plastic guys, counters, action or spell cards, items written on index cards that are passed around, etc. Not in a required-to-play way, mind you, but it just seems a bit more fun to plop a token in the bowl than to write down a lower number. Since you’re representing things abstractly anyway, why not have a bit more flash, I’m thinking.

    That’s what I’m currently working on with a Riddle of Steel one-shot. My plan is to work out packets of cards I can hand out with a pregen character sheet. The cards have your combat maneuvers on them and include the size of the combat pool, target number, and how they are resolved; then you combine that with a hit location card, which contains the damage table for that body part. I’m thinking I’ll color code the maneuvers by weapon, and then key the hit location cards to the maneuvers by a visual cue.

    That way, what maneuvers are available and how to resolve them is never in doubt, and damage doesn’t take a table lookup. Should mesh well with the spending dice from the Combat Pool and grabbing the red/white dice for initiative. I’m also thinking I’ll have the red/white dice in the middle of the table, so we’ve all got to pay attention for somebody to make a grab for them.
    While the system itself doesn’t count distances, I’m going to set minis out anyway. I think it’s helpful to give people’s imaginations something to chew on when they’re coming up with Terrain rolls (think Positioning test, if you’ve got a Burning Wheel background).

  4. Red:

    “Since you’re representing things abstractly anyway, why not have a bit more flash, I’m thinking.”

    Agreed! I have talked to several folks who have no problem with using tallies and erasers and pencils to mark these abstract “hit points” (which never have represented actual “health” in any printing of the D&D rules since the beginning), and yet are totally repulsed by the idea of using tokens to mange the exact same thing. They frequently state that the use of tokens are too tangible for them, but then they have no problems using minis, set pieces, terrain, and other such more established contrivances in their games. Hell, they will sometimes even outright require them.

    I myself like to use minis even when the system uses abstract measurements. Minis can work very well with positioning in Burning Wheel. Hell, WFRP3’s abstract positioning and distance system could work exceptionally well in conjunction with Burning Wheel’s Fight! weapon distances.

  5. Despite the ‘fiddly bits’, this game is less of a board game than say D&D 4th edition. The ‘board game’ tag is a misnomer. This system actually supports roleplay a lot better than most systems. The ‘bits’ are mostly for information tracking.

    Most RPGs use a grid (like a board), this game does not. It uses abstract positioning. Other games have defined ranges, this game uses ranged bands and group engagements.

    I’m about 12 games into our campaign and all my (experienced) players agree, this is the best RPG they have ever played. The fresh mechanics, combined with the rich back story of the Warhammer world is a win-win.

    If you like tight mechanics and a rule for every little thing, this might not be your game. If you like roleplaying and interaction, this game will suit you quite well.

    Nez

  6. One of my favorite changes implemented in this new system is that characters can actually succeed at their rolls every now and then. In every game of WFRP1 and 2 that I’ve ever played in or run on my own, everyone agreed that the general skill failure rate was too overwhelming. Sure, characters aren’t supposed to be epic heroes at the beginning in any of the editions, but being worthless at your actual career specialty is just inexcusable.

    I like that the new mechanics do a bang-on job of solving this.

  7. It seems that the first impressions of this product are always positive.
    The issue is that after some time, when someone is tired of handling hundreds if pieces, the few opportuneties (cards…) are explored, the balancing issues comes afloat… we will talk again.

  8. Your assessment could be very true, but I’m very hopeful. I am a huge fan of adding more tactile interactions to a game, and so far I don’t feel that the provided elements are taking that anywhere close to overboard.

    I look forward to more sessions, and seeing how this all plays out.

  9. I’m used to games that seems great (like Bioshock) with great reviews that, after a while, present their true nature.

    I’ve come to understand that the true gems are that games that are playable from the beginnig and… complete. WFRP V1…

    This new trend of expecting “expansions” (should I say delayed core rules?) is an excuse to take money from customers and will inject a false feeling of “need” that will urge us to buy, buy, buy… something that should have been there in the first place.

    V3 is a RTM (and I mean Rush to Market), with a very shallow playtest cycle, low-sense mechanics (recharge… ), a totally out-of-this-world combat system, too few careers, badly written core rulebooks, unbalanced encounters, unwieldy setup, etc.

    These issues, with the new expensions, will worse even more, as more rules will scattered thorugh tens of tiny rulebooks, hundreds of cards, counters, gadgets, etc.

  10. Very nice review!

    I’d just like to add that there is a “living index” available to download from the WHFRP3 support page:
    http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite_sec.asp?eidm=93&esem=4

    While I agree that missing an index is a capital sin, I can kind of understand them going this way to keep it all in once place as they add more and more expansions. However, you’d think that FFG would mention the living index in the actual books somewhere. Hehe!

  11. Martin,

    I’m not necessarily saying that having an index is an end-all be-all de facto requirement for a game, as some games are simple enough in concept and implementation to not really require one. The Savage Worlds Explorer Edition, for example, has such an in-depth Table of Contents that it doesn’t really need an index, nor has the lack of such a reference ever detracted from any of my games with it.

    But with a game as complex and full of specifics and components as WFRP3, I agree with you: the lack of an index is a capital No-No.

    Thanks for the link! I imagine this will be extremely useful to me in the coming game sessions.

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