Monday, 21 November 2016

A few thoughts on: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition

When I wrote about the end of the FFG/GW relationship, I mentioned that I wanted to write something about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition (WFRP3). A post-mortem if you will.

Since FFG seems to have sold off the rest of their stock during the current Christmas-sale, now seems to be good time to actually do that write-up.

WFRP3 is without comparison the system I’ve GM’d most. It’s the system that got me back from a decade-long hiatus as a game master and in a way it’s the system that got me in to Oldhammer. But, as I mentioned last time, even though I respect the system a lot, I don’t really think it’s a very good one.

I’m not going to do a thorough A-Z-review. Other people have already done that better than I could, and it would probably end up as an unreadable mess anyway. Instead I’m going to write about some of the great ideas behind WFRP3; why they were great, how FFG managed to mess it up anyway, and what they could have done to make it better.
I’m going to assume a level of knowledge about the system, but otherwise you should check out some of the original posts about the game from FFG, where they go through the basic rules. Link.

Please understand that I harbor no ill will towards FFG in general or WFRP3 in particular. I’d gladly buy a WFRP 4th Edition from FFG and I think that they were brave to try something so radical. I just think that WFRP3 it too unpolished to really be as good as it could have been.
I should also mention that I’m approaching this purely from a GM-perspective. When I eventually switched to 2nd Edition, my players were very unhappy (they were having a lot of fun), but I felt that I was having to work way too hard as a GM under WFRP3. YMMV.

Several of my gripes can be answered with “just make up your own rules”. I know, and I did, but eventually you start to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to just make up an entirely new system and be done with. FFG seemed to agree, and eventually made the much more polished Star Wars RPG, which fixes most (but not all) of my complaints. I’m not sure it would be a good fit for the Warhammer setting (it’s possibly a bit too simple), but it shows FFG’s dedication to learn and improve, and I’m sure a WFRP 4th Ed from them would have been even better. Sigh.

Onwards to the ideas:
1: Taking the rules out of books and putting them in front of the players
Why it was a great idea:
When it was released, WFRP3 caught a lot of flak for being “a board game dressed up as an RPG”. This is simply untrue, and I’m willing to bet that anyone who says so hasn’t actually tried it. It does look an awful lot like a board game though, with all the cards and tokens and whatnot.
While it might have been partially driven by the desire to sell some cardboard, FFG’s stated purpose was to remove the need to look through a bunch of books to find whatever little-used rule you happen to need at the time. Instead you simply had a few cards in front of you with the specific rules you need. What an awesome idea.
It also allowed them to make special abilities a little more complex, as you didn’t have to remember everything. You could just look at the card in front of you!
How they messed it up/it was messed up as a concept:
In a few ways:
1: Only giving you a single copy of each card (baring a few exceptions). What do you do if two of your players want “reckless cleave”? I guess you could photo-copy the card or have them share or whatever, but then you aren’t really benefitting from having the rules on a card, are you now? Might as well write it in a book then…
2: Say, do you like to play somewhere other than your dining-room table? Well, forget about that. You need space to play this. A lot of it. And forget about playing outdoors; A light breeze is just going to ruin your day.
Are you the GM? I hope you own the world’s largest GM-screen, ‘cause you are going to need even more space if you want to fit in your notes, monster cards, upgrade cards, action cards, health tokens, stamina tokens, progress trackers, and so on and so forth...

A reconstruction of the view from behind the GM-screen during an encounter. If you are thinking “holy cr*p, that looks busy”, you’d be absolutely right. And I’ve even left out the heap of dice, decks of cards and rulebooks you’d usually place on the front, so the players can reach them.

What they should have done:
Severely limit the amount of extra stuff needed and/or make it optional – you know, like they did with the Star Wars RPG.
Also, did we really need seven bajillion different actions? No, no we didn’t. In fact, it probably makes the game worse (see my point about combat below). Instead they should have made a manageable amount of different cards, but included enough copies of each.

2: Creating a fast, easy-to-use, semi-abstract range system
Why it was a great idea:
This is the thing that originally drew me to WFRP3. I never liked the way previous editions (or most other RPG systems for that matter) handled ranges, and WFRP3 has a system that’s just brilliant in its elegance with none of that grid-and-miniatures-based nonsense 2nd Ed relied on. I know, I know; technically you didn’t need the grid – you could use graph paper #burn.  
WFRP3 still needs miniatures/standees, but it’s much faster and less reliant on exact positioning.
Bonus great idea:
Creating these beautiful cards you can use to mark locations. Seriously, I could just sit and look at these for hours on end…
A small sample from my collection.

How they messed it up:
By failing to account for anything more complex than a three-way engagement (and even that isn’t very easy to do).
The system works great for “bandits burst out of the trees on each side of the road” types of situations, but eventually you are going to run into a “several groups of goblins are shooting at you from the first floor windows of the tower you are assaulting, while you are surrounded by angry wolves and the villain you are chasing is running away in another direction”-situation, and the system is just going to break. Bring out the graph paper. Even a simple bar-brawl quickly degenerates into an amorphous blob.
Also: Remember those beautiful location cards? Well, they made them so small that you couldn’t really see the art unless you picked them up. Kinda ruins the whole point.
What they should have done:
First of all they should have made the location cards much larger. Show that art!
Secondly, the system needs some options to take the more involved situations into account. The funny thing is that it actually works fairly well if you do use a grid. It takes away some of the elegance, but it’s still much faster than 2nd Ed.

3: Making combat fun.
Why it was a great idea:
Time to be honest. Combat in previous editions isn’t really all that fun. Shut up – no it isn’t. Critical hits are fun, but they only happen after half an hour of people standing around failing to do anything impressive at all.
WFRP has always been played in spite of the combat – not because of it. I think that’s partially why is tends to be drawn towards horror and mystery. Sure, you can have exciting combat encounters, but that’s usually because the GM has devised a way to make it so, and not because of anything inherent in the rules.
WFRP3 does have exciting combat. Players have more decisions to make each round, it’s not nearly as slow, and it’s just good fun to slap a card onto the table and shout “Reckless Cleave” you !¤”#$€2&!!!
And then throw a bucket of dice.
How they messed it up:
Three ways:
1: By making it less balanced than a two-legged elephant trying to stand up in a canoe.
An example: When I started GM’ing WFRP3, one of my players was a former MtG player of some ability. He made a troll slayer and immediately picked a combination of stats and actions that allowed him to do around 20 points of damage each round. That’s dragon-levels of damage from a starting WFRP character. The player wasn’t even trying to be an ass; he just picked some actions that seemed good together.
I don’t care if he’s a troll slayer – that’s just ridiculous, and it made designing combats very frustrating, as anything that could stand up to the slayer would be much too dangerous for the rest of the party.
What’s worse is, it sorta ruined the fun for the bright mage in the party, who had to work much harder and take more risks to do, maybe, half as much damage.
That’s just one example; there are a many broken combinations to be found.
The strange thing is that FFG, as a company, has a lot of experience designing card games, but it seems like they didn’t make any of their card game designers test the combat here. I’m sure someone like Lukas Litzsinger would have been able to remove the worst problems if he’d given it a look.
2: By taking inspiration from MMOs – specifically actions that recharge over time. MMOs are generally horrible games. They may occasionally have good world building and fun social interactions, but take that away and you end up with slow and simplistic action-RPGs, so why on earth would you incorporate mechanics from them?
Sitting around waiting for your actions to recharge is one of the least fun things you can do, and it’s not even a very good balancing mechanic.
3: The magic system, while interesting in theory, is horribly overcomplicated and almost a mini-game by itself.
What they should have done:
1: Create fewer different actions, but make d*mn sure they are balanced. Also, maybe include more ways to pacify an opponent without killing him/her/it.
2: Why not balance actions by making the more powerful ones cause fatigue and/or stress? That way, people might even use the “Assess the Situation” action (which lowers fatigue) once in a while.
3: Reduce the amount of book-keeping needed. I’m personally a fan of the 2nd Ed rules, but whatever.

4: Taking social interactions into account
Why it was a great idea:
I realize that this is an area of near-religious disagreement, but I’m of the opinion that it’s odd that many RPGs devote entire chapters to combat but wave social encounters off with a “do some role-playing and roll for fellowship”.
This is even mostly true of WFRP, where it’s a long-standing convention that you need someone who’s good at social stuff, in addition to the normal fighter/mage/rogue/healer quartet.
WFRP3, on the other hand, actually gives GM a framework for designing social encounters and a bunch of actions to go along with it.
How they messed it up:
By not making it explicit enough. I can make up a complicated multi-evening encounter on my own initiative, but sometimes my players just run into some random guard who they want to persuade to look the other way for five minutes. In cases like that, it would be really nice to have some firm guidelines, so I can use my brain cells for something other than figuring out how long the progress tracker should be (roleplaying said guard for example).
Also, if combat is unbalanced, social encounters are a horrible, horrible mess (if you follow the rules to the letter). Almost any social action is less effective than taking a simple skill check, which in turn is worse than “Steely Gaze”. All a party really needs to do is to have a strong (and therefore intimidating) character stare every social encounter into submission.
What they should have done:
I personally rewrote the rules to give some structure to social “combat” and make social actions more effective but only able to "influence" once per encounter. They should have done that.
I’ll post it, if anyone wants me to, but I feel like this post is already getting way too long.

5: Using components to make book-keeping easier
Why it was a great idea:
Tracking fatigue/stress with counters is easy and pleasantly tactile. Wound/disease/mutation/insanity cards are cool, and I really like how they did the front/back mechanic (a system FFG still uses). Progress trackers are, at least, not an awful idea.
How they messed it up:
By using it in places where it doesn’t make sense. Long-term effects are one example. 
Why is that, you ask? Well, let’s say that you are tracking the overall progress of a nefarious organization using an organization sheet and a counter. What happens when you are done playing for the day and need to pack up? That’s right; you have to write it down on a piece of paper (unless you are one of the ten people in the world who can simply let your games stay on the table when you aren’t using them). And then you might as well have written it down in the first place and saved the table-space in the meantime.
What they should have done:
Recognize what physical components are good for and what they aren’t.

6: Simplifying NPCs
Why it was a great idea:
I was continually amazed by how easy it was to convert older scenarios to WFRP3 on the fly, and a lot of that has to do with the simplified NPCs and FFG putting their stats on cards. Did the party just encounter a goblin? Pull out a “goblin” card. Is it a really tough goblin? Just put the “goblin” card on top of a “hero” upgrade sheet. Easy.
How they messed it up/it was messed up as a concept:
By (over)simplifying player characters as well. It’s mostly a problem of granularity. A character with a toughness of two is basically a dead-man-walking while a character with a toughness of five is extremely difficult to kill. That just leaves toughness 3 and 4 for the vast majority of more-or-less normal characters. Same goes for for the other stats. Two is (mostly) useless - five is overpowered.
Oh, and it seems like every NPC is fighting unarmed, if you compare their damage to the PCs’. Not a big problem, but you should keep it in mind.
What they should have done:
I’m not sure it’s fixable without reworking the whole system in a major way, but characters with Toughness and/or willpower two really should be made more viable somehow. You also really shouldn’t allow players to take any characteristic of five at creation (excepting ogres).
Now we are on the subject, maybe don’t use a point-buy system for character creation. WFRP has always been about embracing the hand you were dealt by fate and this just runs counter to that whole idea.

7: Disregarding the worst excesses of GW continuity and creating some good scenarios
Why it was a great idea:
Duh! Of cause it is.
Ok. I’ll get a little more specific:
Unlike 2nd Ed., WFRP3 is set before the Storm of Chaos event, which basically allows you to ignore the whole thing and run whatever adventures you want to. That’s nice. It also doesn’t mention of any of the really stupid later developments from the wargame (like demigryph-riders). That’s nice as well.
The “three tiers of economy” idea is really interesting and provides a great way to regulate the PCs’ relative wealth. Well done.
On the scenario side, WFRP3 includes the usual variations on cultists-in-a-Reikland-town/city, though it often mixes things up quite a bit. But in addition to that, we get some really interesting examples of under-utilized themes and places. Of particular note are the excellent The Witch’s Song and Crimson Rain (from the Omens of War supplement).
The new version of The Enemy Within is also a really, really solid campaign.
All in all, I’d say that WFRP3 generally has better scenarios than 2nd Ed and the two mentioned above almost rival the best from 1st Ed.
How they messed it up:
This is nitpicking, but it seems to me like they simply converted the 2nd Ed. prices to the new coinage-system. This is problematic because the 2nd Ed. prices were supposed to represent a post-crisis economy and as a consequence certain things are horribly overpriced, which doesn’t make any sense in the WFRP3 timeline.
Also, while I get the idea behind the simplified equipment list, it’s another thing that increases GM-workload in a game that’s already fairly intensive to run.
What they should have done:
They didn’t make any really big mistakes in this area, so no big changes are needed. Review the prices and provide a detailed equipment-list and you’re set.

I could think of several other things I love/hate about WFRP3, but this seems to cover the most important parts. As I said, I think it’s an interesting but fatally flawed system, though I should mention that it works better with low level PCs.
Normally I wouldn’t recommend that people buy it – mostly because of the seer amount of supplements you’d need to buy to get the same flexibility you got from the 2nd Ed. Core rulebook*.
However, if you can get a pdf of some of the scenarios, you could at least use them as inspiration for another system.


* Which supplements would I need, you ask?
To be honest, I think you need all of them (except the pure adventure-modules), including the hardback rulebooks, which include some very useful rewordings on some of the rules. The “vaults” are also quite nice to have – especially the Monster Vault.
You could maybe get by without Lure of Power and the dwarf supplement (if you don’t like dwarfs). Also, don’t buy the GM’s screen – it’s crap.

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