Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – History

Back in the mid 1980s, White Dwarf was a very different magazine to the glorified catalogue it has become today.  Issue 82 – released in October of 1986 – still bore the strap-line of “The Role-Playing Games Monthly”.  


The contents very much reflected that; this issue saw reviews for the AD&D “Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide”, the Paranoia adventure “Orcbusters”, the excellent Call of Cthulhu double-header of “The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer” (still one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu supplements), an AD&D adventure, a brand new fantasy RPG called “Skyrealms of Journe”, and the board game “Kings and Things”.  


In addition to this, there was an AD&D scenario set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a Traveller adventure, not to mention information on running informants – or “narks” as we Judges call them – in the Judge Dredd roleplaying game.  

Mixed in amongst these were the usual blend of adverts, publicising such delights as GW boardgames, first edition “Paranoia” supplements, D&D modules, the usual avalanche of mail order firms peddling their wares and – in a move that would stun people that have only ever seen White Dwarf in its more modern incarnations – only three pages advertising Citadel miniatures.

However, this issue was special.  Sandwiched amidst all this roleplaying goodness was a pull out, advertising a new roleplaying game.  Embossed across a dark grey page were the words “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – a world of perilous adventure”.  Inside this pull out were two pages of fiction – fiction that had a rather grim and unsettling ending – which made it quite clear to the reader that whatever was being advertised here was not set in the shiny, heroic, high-magic world of D&D.  

There then followed a brief explanation of the game’s setting, a bit about the system – making it abundantly clear that the combat would be fast, deadly and bloody – and then information on the package itself and how it was going to be supported in the future.  The pullout was also lavishly illustrated and ended with a paragraph of fiction that sounded far more Call of Cthulhu than D&D.

Like a lot of gamers back then, this went straight on my Christmas list for 1986 as a must-have present…

And what a present it was!  A beautiful hardback that weighed in at just shy of 400 pages, it was absolutely PACKED with information.  Unlike a lot of RPGs whose rulebooks were more like pamphlets, or which saw their information spread across several different books – D&D was particularly guilty of this… – WHFRP tried to cram everything you needed into one package.  As well as the rules needed to play – which took up the first half of the book – it included background on the religions of the world – with each of the main gods getting a multipage write up – a forty page bestiary that covered nearly every conceivable creature a games master would want to throw at their players, a massive guide to the setting and a full, ready-to-play scenario!  
It was extremely well laid out – with its first chapter leading the players through character creation and the rest of the book being GM territory.  The rules were clearly explained and logically split up – there were no rules for combat found outwith the “Combat” chapter for example.

Oh, and did I mention how great the illustrations were?  Featuring the talents of such powerhouses as Tony Ackland, Dave Andrews, Colin Dixon, Jes Goodwin, John Sibbick and John Blanche, WHFRP was absolutely crammed with amazing black and white pictures and some outstanding colour plates – all of which did a great job of helping the reader visualise this low-magic, gritty and – dare I say it? – perilous world.  The cover?  An absolute masterpiece…
Published almost simultaneously with the main rulebook, and designed to let new owners know that GW were firmly intent on supporting their new baby, were a couple of supplements.  The first was a set of Dungeon Floorplans – the rulebook made it quite clear that GW would be very happy if you bought their miniatures to use in your adventures – and “The Enemy Within” campaign pack.

Most long time gamers will have heard of “The Enemy Within” being spoken of in hushed reverence as one of THE best RPG campaigns of all time.  One of the factors that set it up for so much success was the publication of this pack.  Consisting of a flimsy cardboard cover, a 56 page booklet, a map and some handouts, this was the publication that would breath life into the WHFRP setting and – arguably – help build the foundation for the rich world that GW would go onto create in later years.  


Not only did it provide detailed information on the history, people and places of “The Empire” – the main setting for WHFRP – it also gave a guide to the tone and setting that the GM should affect, even offering notes on how to inject humour into the proceedings.  


It also came with an introductory adventure, but the main take away from reading this pack was clear – the setting and the atmosphere of this game was a far cry from that of existing fantasy RPGs. Rather than medieval Tolkien, this game was set in what could only be described as early Renaissance Germany!  And unlike the other games, magic was not at the centre of things.  Instead, this setting very much concentrated on the everyman.  Rather than having players who were heroic paladins or powerful wizards, the average WHFRP character was more likely to be an artisan’s apprentice, a trader or even a grave robber.  These were characters who became adventurers because they were bored with the mundane life they lived – not because of any heroic calling.  


All in all, it promised to be a VERY different game.


1987 saw four releases for WHFRP, including a character pack – which was really just a pad of character sheets and a background booklet; photocopying was still expensive back then! – two adventures, and a guide to the city of Middenheim.


The adventures – “Shadows Over Bogenhafen” and “Death on the Reik” – are both classics that stand up even today.  Shadows was the first supplement I bought for the game, and it has a very special place in my heart.  In a day and age where people were becoming bored of dungeon crawls and wilderness treks, Shadows showed that it was possible to make an urban, investigation-based adventure for a fantasy setting.  


It is also incredibly well paced, with just the right level of challenge for a beginning party, and it comes with the usual range of incredible hand outs and maps that help the whole thing come alive.  


I also need to give a shout out to the illustrations.  To this day, Shadows remains one of THE most atmospherically illustrated supplements I have ever seen for an RPG.  After all, when you have Wil Rees and Ian Miller doing the art for what is essentially a horror game, how can that fail to hit the mark?  I remember, as a teenager, finding the cover art particularly unnerving.
I won’t spoil anything, but Shadows strikes that perfect balance between investigation and action, and it should appeal to almost any party.  After all, who doesn’t like foiling the machinations of evil cultists masquerading as the great and the good of society?


“Death on the Reik” was WHFRP’s first “big box” product coming, as it did, in a box!  As well as a sprawling adventure, the box also included handouts, a large, full colour map, and a booklet entitled “River Life of the Empire”.  Without giving away spoilers, the PCs come into possession of a boat fairly early on in this adventure.  With this they are free to go here, there and everywhere throughout the Empire.  


This is what makes this adventure so good – it is essentially a sandbox, that gives the adventurers free reign.  While I’m not 100% sure of this, I’m fairly certain that this was one of the first times that this was attempted and successfully executed in a fantasy RPG, and one of the reasons it worked so well was down to the “River Life” booklet.  


Here were all the details that the GM needed to keep life on the river interesting, to allow the PCs to make a bit of cash by trading and – most importantly – to make the whole thing feel consistent and really engender a feeling of player agency.  The main book has a whole, action-packed adventure in it, complete with cultists, Skaven, the undead and a fully detailed spooky castle, but it also makes clear that the players can take as much time as they want messing around on their boat – the hooks to draw them into the main plot are all there to be used as and when they need to be.


1988 was another busy year for WHFRP, seeing as it did the publication of “The Power Behind the Throne” – the fourth chapter for The Enemy Within -, “Something Rotten in Kislev” – a series of “filler” adventures set between the fourth and fifth chapters of the campaign, the republishing of the the first two chapters of the campaign in a single hardback called “Warhammer Adventure”, the republishing of “Death on the Reik” as a hardback and the long awaited release of the “Realm of Chaos” supplement.


When I say “long awaited” I’m not exaggerating – the first edition of Warhammer Battle contained references to a future, as-yet-unnamed, chaos themed book.  It was then finally named in the first “Citadel Compendium” in November of 1983, promising – amongst other things – rules on “Roleplaying a Champion of Chaos”.


When the first book – “Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness” was released in 1988 it received a so-so reception from those who purely played the roleplaying game (whereas those that played the Battle game absolutely lapped it up – I was lucky as I did both!).  


Why so-so?  Well, firstly, this book only covered two of the four chaos gods, meaning that we’d have to wait another couple of years to get the full picture.  Secondly, while the book contained a TON of background and detail, most of it was aimed at Warhammer Fantasy Battle players.  Indeed, whilst the – at the time – young, upstart game of 40k got an entire chapter dedicated to the “Dark Millennium”, the rules for Champions of Chaos as Player Characters were confined to a single page, with the proviso that these rules were much better for creating NPC villains.  For those had waited over five years for this “roleplaying supplement” this was disappointing to say the least.   


Of the two adventure books released, “Power Behind the Throne” is by far the better one.  A dramatic scenario set within the city of Middenheim, it places the PCs at the centre of some heavy duty politics, and it is through their interaction with the many, detailed NPCs that they will succeed.  


These detailed NPCs, whilst being the scenario’s strongest point, also mean that a LOT of pre-work was required for the GM running this adventure.  There is information given on where various characters are at various points in the proceedings, so it is essential that the GM keeps track of this, as well as what effect other PC interactions will have on the NPCs responses.
However, by far the weakest part of this adventure is the simple fact of getting the PCs to Middenheim in the first place.  Unless the GM has prepared some hooks to transition from “Death on the Reik” to “Power Behind the Throne”, this is going to feel forced.  Indeed, when this adventure was reprinted years later, the new publishers attempted to solve this problem by including another, shorter scenario as a link.


“Something Rotten in Kislev” is…well….rotten.  Actually, that’s unfair – and largely an excuse to make a terrible pun.  “Something Rotten” simply doesn’t fit in with the themes established earlier in “The Enemy Within” campaign.  Whilst the other adventures feature a large degree of NPC interaction and investigation, and conjure up the atmosphere of being embroiled in a broader conspiracy, “Something Rotten” throws that out of the window in favour of a more high fantasy “questing” vibe.  Also, it takes place outside of the Empire – an area which the previous modules have spent a lot of time establishing in the players’ minds.  It also features an extremely forced, and slightly contrived, way of getting the players to go to Kislev in the first place.  I don’t know about you, but I have plenty of players who, if I played the “A powerful NPC comes and tells you that you have no choice but to go this place and do a quest” card, they would roll their eyes and seek to derail things at the first opportunity.


All that being said, as a stand alone piece it’s actually ok.  It features three interesting scenarios, and the background on Kislev makes for an interesting read.  You could easily turn this into a campaign setting of its own.  However, it really doesn’t seem to fit within the rest of “The Enemy Within” campaign.  Indeed, it’s almost like GW thought “How can we make this sell better?  I know – say it’s part of that campaign that’s been flying off the shelves…”


Come 1989 the production of new material was slowing, and GW were rapidly coming to realise that they would turn a much tighter profit by focusing on making little plastic soldiers, rather than by printing weighty roleplaying supplements…


However, we did see the release of “The Restless Dead”, “Warhammer Adventure” – which was the first three parts of “The Enemy Within” collected within one volume – “Warhammer City of Chaos” – a reprinting of “Warhammer City” and “Power Behind the Throne” as a single volume – a softback version of the main rulebook, and – fanfare please – the final part of “The Enemy Within Campaign” – “The Empire in Flames”.


“The Restless Dead” is a collection of scenarios from White Dwarf, with tips on how to insert them into “The Enemy Within” or run them as a campaign in their own right.  The quality of these vary from “really quite good” in the case of “Grapes of Wrath” to the “patently ridiculous” in the case of “Eureka”.  This is “Restless Dead”’s biggest problem as a campaign – the GM will have to do a lot of work to make the adventures thematically consistent if they want to establish the tone of a campaign, otherwise the whole thing feels disjointed.  Each chapter includes tips on doing this, but it feels like hard work.  


The book also includes some other White Dwarf articles on career advancement and training, magic, magic items and revised combat rules.  Handy if you don’t have the original articles, but filler otherwise.


“The Empire in Flames” was the long anticipated ending to “The Enemy Within” campaign.  As I mentioned earlier, the previous chapters in the campaign did an excellent job of stirring up that feeling of being embroiled in a conspiracy, and often the PCs’ investigative skills served them far better than a strong sword arm would.


When I was talking about “Something Rotten in Kislev” I made the point that what I didn’t like about it was that it felt shoehorned into the overall campaign.  The adventures themselves were solid and interesting.  As a standalone mini-campaign it would be a lot of fun, it’s just that in the broader context of “The Enemy Within” they simply didn’t fit thematically into what had been established before.


The material presented in “Empire in Flames” is also at odds thematically with what has been established before AND is also not very good into the bargain…


I’m not going to give too much away – some people might still want to play in this after all – but on page three of the book, there is this little nugget of wisdom under “Running the Adventure”:
“Empire in Flames is not an adventure like Power Behind the Throne.  In PBT the PCs could try any one of dozens of approaches to get at the information they needed.  This is an adventure with a linear plotline.”


Yes – this is a rail road job.  Now, in fairness it suggests that the GM avoids “at all costs” making the players feel that they are being led by the nose, and suggests creating side quests and encounters.  However, all of the previous adventures had this as part of the main body of the text!  Why should this be extra busy work for the GM?


In terms of set up, this adventure makes little to no reference to the events of “Something Rotten in Kislev” – further reinforcing the impression that that module was created as a standalone and tacked onto “The Enemy Within” campaign to sell it.  What is worse, there’s a feeling that nothing that happened in previous adventures actually meant or impacted upon anything.  Again, without spoiling too much, consider the protagonist in “Shadows”.  He has on him a clue which leads to the PCs trying to track down a villain in “Death on the Reik”.  Likewise, the cult that the players accidentally stumble upon in the first module show up throughout the campaign.  


This is NOT the case with “Empire in Flames”.  Nothing from previous books is really referenced.  Nothing that happened before matters.  This is basically just a standalone piece.  For the climax to the campaign, this is unforgivable.


There’s also the perpetual problem that is seen in some campaigns, where the PCs are reduced pretty much to the role of observers whilst the great and the good make decisions and occasionally send the players off on errands.  


However, by far the most egregious mistake made by those who wrote “The Enemy Within” is that fact that rather than have the players track down clues and foil the machinations of…well…the enemy within, this adventure instead opts for a wilderness trek, followed by a dungeon crawl and then a boss battle.


Oh, and the fact that the book has a bright yellow cover that seems completely at odds with the colour scheme established in the other books.  Yes, it’s a petty point but it looks ODD.


1990 saw only one WHFRP release by GW themselves – the companion volume to the first “Realm of Chaos” book, this time focusing on the gods Tzeentch and Nurgle and entitled “The Lost and the Damned.”  It’s a well produced book, with some great fiction and brilliant illustrations, but this is largely Fantasy Battle and 40k territory.  Anything that WHFRP GMs would take from it would have to be converted into that system to work.


1990 was also the year that GW moved publishing of any material for WHFRP over to Flame Publications – an internal division dedicated to RPGs.  


Their tenure wasn’t long – in 1992, due to financial difficulties, Flame ceased their operations.  During that two year period they published The Doomstones Campaign, two reprintings of the character pack, “Lichemaster” – a reworking of an old 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle scenario, the Warhammer Companion (which was more old White Dwarf articles) and the scenario books “Death’s Dark Shadow” and “Castle Drachenfels”. 


Doomstones was not well received, being as it was adapted from old AD&D material.  What you have is four, fairly generic, high-fantasy dungeon crawls, that don’t really fit thematically with what has been established as the setting of WHFRP.


“Death’s Dark Shadow” features a series of scenarios set in the – very – detailed village of Kreutzhofen, so named as it is the crossroads where four different trade routes meet.  I say “very” detailed as nearly EVERY HOUSE in the village is detailed, which kind of feels like over kill.  It’s not a bad supplement, but it feels pretty high fantasy.  In fairness to the authors, Warhammer itself was switching to a much more high fantasy feel by this point in time, so some of that probably bled through into this publication.


“Castle Drachenfels” was a sourcebook detailing the setting and some of the personalities from Jack Yeovil’s novel “Drachenfels”.  This novel was extremely popular with fans, so it was only natural that a sourcebook would be produced.  In fact, in the September 1989 issue of White Dwarf – number 117 – the stats for the various main characters had already been printed.
The book itself is “ok”.  It gives an atmospheric location in which to have a dungeon crawl, but given the nature of the encounters detailed (especially those with Drachenfels himself) a party would have to be pretty high level to contend with them.  A couple of scenarios are included, and there’s even tips for using one of these instead of “Something Rotten in Kislev” as the “interlude” chapter in “The Enemy Within” campaign.  


Drachenfels is an intriguing villain, but his appearance was in line with the changes fans were seeing with WHFB at the time – namely a move to focus on the more high powered “hero” characters.


 Drachenfels was also the last publication produced by Flame.


And so it was, that in 1992, GW’s first RPG, which had promised (and BEEN promised) so much, went out with a whimper…


…that was until 1995 when Hogshead publishing received the license to publish WHFRP material.  It was back!  


Although, was it really?


1995 began with the reprint of the main rulebook, a reprint of the first two chapters of “The Enemy Within” and the publication of “Apocrypha Now” which was a collection of White Dwarf articles.  This was fine for people who were looking to get into the game for the first time but, for veterans, this wasn’t terribly exciting.


However, this year also saw the publication of “The Dying of the Light” – a campaign set in the Wasteland against an apocalyptic background.  Like “The Restless Dead” it suffers for the fact that rather than it being a coherent campaign it was a selection of individual adventures loosely stitched together.  The fact that each of the chapters was written by a different author didn’t help in establishing a consistent tone and feel. 


Between 1996 and 2002 Hogshead reprinted seven books from the Doomstones and Enemy Within campaigns as well as Death’s Dark Shadow.  In terms of new content they came out with a fifth chapter from the Doomstones campaign, a GM screen and reference pack, a guide to the city of Marienburg – which itself was based off old articles in White Dwarf – a compilation of the best of Warpstone magazine, a Dwarf Sourcebook and Realms of Sorcery.


If Realm of Chaos had been long awaited, Realms of Sorcery had been anticipated even longer – it was mentioned in the original WFRP in 1986, but I seem to recall references to it in WHFB 2nd edition which had been released in 1984!  Therefore, when it finally appeared in 2001 it was an understatement to say that the Warhammer community were intrigued.


We’ll discuss this more when we talk about the system, but it’s fair to say that Realms of Sorcery had an uphill battle on its hands.  For starters, the WHFRP magic system was…to put it mildly…a bit crap.  It had clearly been ported straight from 2nd edition WHFB and that showed.  A lot of the spells were much more suited to grand, sweeping battles than they were to individual adventurers.  Aside from the inclusion of “ingredients” and “petty magic” the magic system seemed more or less the same as it had been in 1984…


The expectation amongst a lot of fans was that Realms of Sorcery would remedy these short comings.  So, how did it do?


The honest answer? 


It was a bit of a damp squib.


Rather than revamp the existing magic system, what Hogshead seemed to try and do with RoS was to cram in more of WHFB’s existing magic system into WHFRP.  One of the most glaring problems with this was the fact that by 2001 the setting and what was considered canon in WHFB had long since passed that of WHFRP.  While the latter still espoused its low-magic “everyman” setting, WHFB was much more magic intensive and high fantasy.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the first chapter – A History of Magic – where the current (for 2001) WHFB setting as regards to magic is crammed into the current WHFRP setting.  Apparently Battle Magic has only been around for the last 200 years or so (a gift from the elves it seems), which begs the question what exactly were wizards casting in battle prior to this?


Chapter 3 breaks the setting even further, by introducing the concept of wizards needing a license to be a wizard.  Something as patently ridiculous as this, takes us firmly out of a “grim world of perilous adventure” where wizards are rare and feared, and straight into Harry Potter territory where they all go to universities and run magic shops…


The rest of the book is given over to spells of various different kinds, but all it succeeds in doing is painting a picture that magic is common and readily available.  Take for example, WHFB’s “colour magic”.  According to this book, colour magic is what wizards go to universities to learn.  The only people who have mastered colour magic are wizards of level 4 and above.  To have the concept of a “magic university” suggests a substantial body of people are learning this, which means a corresponding high number of faculty members.  To service the twelve colours of magic mentioned means you’re looking at relegating hundreds of wizards of AT LEAST level 4 to teaching duties…


With this delivered, Hogshead handed the license for WHFRP back to GW in 2002, signalling the end of the line for the THIRD time…


All was silent for two years, before GW announced the creation of Black Industries whose main task would be the publishing of the brand new second edition of WHFRP.  This appeared in 2005, and between 2005 and 2007 Black Industries aggressively churned out brand new material.  These publications were not reprints of what went before – this was WHFRP brought up to date to match the current WHFB setting – in this case set in the aftermath of the ill-fated Storm of Chaos narrative campaign for WHFB.  


The art was also given a refresh.  Gone were the moody, dark images from the original WHFRP and instead the imagery of WHFB abounded.  Huge, oversized hammers and axes were everywhere, firearms – previously the rarest of the rare – seemed to be as common as swords, dwarves sported impractical Mohawks, Chaos had gone from being the Enemy Within to very much being the Enemy In Your Face, and wizards looked a lot more…er…wizardy.  Whereas in the first edition, the picture for the wizard’s apprentice career showed some poor soul lugging around heavy things for his master, the wizard’s apprentice in 2nd ed  has flowing robes and a staff with a skull on top.  Guess she got that with her wizard’s license…


In 2008 Fantasy Flight games took over publication of Warhammer 2nd edition before announcing a year later that they were publishing the third edition.  This new edition was more like a board game than an RPG, using special dice only available from Fantasy Flight games, and a variety of cards and counters.  


Between 2009 and 2013 a huge amount of publications were produced before Fantasy Flight abruptly announced that 3rd edition was “complete”.  The license stayed with them for a couple of years before passing back to GW.  


Finally, in 2017, GW announced that Cubicle 7 would be publishing a fourth edition that would very much be in the mould of the first and second editions.  So far, they’ve released around a dozen or so supplements and have also started reworking “The Enemy Within” campaign for the new edition including a replacement for “Something Rotten in Kislev” and a brand new ending!
It looks like WHFRP has gone back to its roots, and has a bright future on the horizon.

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