While I’d game every day if I had the time, between a job and a family I (with the loving support of my wife) cut back to about 1 game a week. The system I’m currently using to support my habit is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition by Cubicle 7. It’s a fantastic setting and system for telling fantasy stories in a setting you might find just a bit familiar – even if you’ve never played a day of Warhammer in your life.
As is usually my role, I GM. This forces my friends to tolerate my idiosyncrasies as I torture them mercilessly. Also, I relish the opportunity to have creative input on the individual stories they seek to tell with their characters, as well as the story the group wishes to pursue as a whole. For me, roleplaying has always been about storytelling. But enough about my Sunday game… this isn’t a session recap! I’d much rather talk about a system that I think deserves a close look from any avid fantasy roleplayer.
Let’s start by accepting a difficult truth: The Old World was destroyed. Games Workshop isn’t going to undo it, and Age of Sigmar (their replacement) would make a poor setting for any Tolkien-esque style adventure that I’d prefer to tell, so why does Warhammer 4th edition appeal to me so?
Thankfully, Cubicle 7 had the foresight (or, perhaps, hindsight) to roll back time to a kinder, gentler age – 2508. Truthfully, not much has changed… Karl Franz sits on the Imperial Throne- newly minted but not untested, Chaos and Greenskins threaten the Empire’s border settlements and make the mountains unsafe, Dwarves and Elves dislike each other, the Church of Sigmar persecutes nonbelievers and exerts its will on every facet of civilized life. It’s a grand setting for an adventure of epic proportions- or an equally grand death. If you keep to the traditional timeline, there’s a wealth of adventures for your PCs to invest themselves in. If you’ve no qualm with drifting off, well… that’s another matter entirely. With the eclectic cast of characters made available to us with the stories surrounding the End Times, it’s easy to tear common names from known fiction and insert it into our own, giving stories a breath of familiarity even as players explore the unknown. Truly, 2508 IC is an excellent time to be alive.
With the setting resolved, let’s talk system- namely, classes. Barring some elements of Zweihander RPG that I really enjoyed, Warhammer Fantasy’s class system has always seemed to be done right to me. Not much has changed in the 4th edition… save for choice. Character creation – by the book – gives you a choice between taking a random result for bonus starting experience or forgoing that extra XP and taking your choice. This goes for race as well, but the ability to chose it on class I found particularly enticing. No more would a player who dreamed of being a lofty Bretonnian knight be trapped in the role of rat-catcher… though they are incentivized to do so.
Additionally, the trappings system has been modified slightly. No longer do you need the trappings of your class to gain a rank, though they are linked to your character’s Status (which aids in social situations and earning coin between adventures- a little more on that later). The trappings have gotten considerably lofty, as well. So what if you’ve acquired the experience of a Rank 4 soldier? Nobody’s calling you general until you get a few units of soldiers under your command.
Warhammer 2nd Edition was pretty good, but most agree there were some issues: chief among them was combat. It often seemed like nothing happened – or everything did. From constant whiffs in which players couldn’t manage to hit one another one round, to exploding damage dice that killed three characters in a single round in my 2nd-ever WFRP2e session… there was quite a swing. To have it in such extremes was sometimes incredibly exciting- and others incredibly boring. 4th edition resolves that in a couple of ways:
First, combat rolls are opposed. Even if you fail your melee test with -3 SL (success levels), you still hit your opponent when they fail with -4 SL (or more). What’s more, successful attacks and a slew of other modifiers can give you bonuses that carry into other tests. This ‘Advantage’ adds successive bonuses of +10 to your combat tests each round, eventually building you into a combat God – though not really, because all modifiers to a roll are capped at +60 to -30… In this way, advantage can help you overcome negative effects while not making a character overpowered, leading to an unending train of incredibly rolls that have you one-shotting a Greenskin Warboss (I initially did not understand the system and there were some calculation errors). Also, this advantage can be spent on other things. I allow my players to make non-aggressive combat tests as a free action for 2 advantage: Jump on a ledge, flip over a table, etc. Additionally, advantage can be transferred to other players with a Leadership test. This advantage isn’t permanent though- a singled failed opposed test (which automatically fail if your dice come up 96-00), and your pool goes from 20 to 0. It really captures the back and forth of battle.
Now let’s talk survivability. Damage is no longer rolled on an exploding die- it’s calculated based off the aforementioned success levels. You have a combat skill of 60, but roll a 20? That’s 4 success levels, and 4 extra damage heading your enemy’s way. That one-in-one thousand three 10s in a row that seems to happen way more often than it should is no longer placing every PC within a single die-roll of death… though other die rolls do. Additionally, those critical hits that were so gruesome in past editions and would fell front-line fighters without mercy have been welcomely mitigated by allowing characters to burn permanently burn armor points at their hit location rather than taking the critical hit… thus resulting in costly repair bills and the loss of a cherished item that might be difficult to replace.
Sounds pretty safe, until we talk about just how often critical hits come about now… Any opposed combat roll, even one that you lose, can result in a critical success. So if you’re swinging against a Skaven with a 30 weapon skill, and you beat him by 4 SLs, you win… however, if his roll is a 01-05, an 11, or a 22, he’s scored a critical success, and there’s a critical hit coming your way regardless of your successful combat roll. Of course, this goes the other way as well, with characters succeeding while simultaneously “fumbling” … it is unendingly humorous to see a player deal a deathblow to an arch-nemesis while simultaneously smacking themselves in the face.
A few things round out the system that bear mentioning: Endeavours, Ambitions, and Status.
Endeavours are an especially interesting addition in my opinion. Between “adventures” (not sessions), characters are able to pursue their own interests depending on how long their GM gives them until the next adventure begins. This can be used to bank money (as all the money you have disappears between adventures), earn coin, and pursue other interests such as research, training, commissioning new gear, or “fomenting dissent” along with a slew of other class-specific endeavours.
Ambitions are another nice addition. Short-term ambitions provide behavioral guidance for characters, incentivizing them with a small XP reward to pursue their own interests even as the rest of the party pursues theirs. Long-term ambitions are far wider-reaching and carry a far greater reward- along with the opportunity to retire the character and create a new one, carrying some bonus experience forward into the character creation process. The party has goals, too… something to guide the group as a whole and encourage them to work together to achieve success. All-in-all, ambitions are a great way to incentivize both character development and teamwork.
Finally, status is something I haven’t gotten to play with in an active session much, but it’s something I really want to incorporate more of into my games. Character status comes into play in endeavours as it relates to how much coin you can make and carry into the new adventure, but it’s also useful for social situations. When characters are of different social tiers (Brass, Silver, or Gold), they confer different bonuses to one another based on which social skills are used against which class (Brass beggars actually gain a bonus to Begging when begging from Silver tier characters). Additionally, several talents confer a specific bonus based upon status (such as Beneath Notice – who’s effects you can likely guess). It helps round out the social side of the game, which I always felt 2nd edition neglected. Social combat is still lacking, but that simply forces players (PCs and GMs alike) to work harder to bring those social situations to life- and I don’t mind at all.