When Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was released back in 1986, it was building on a setting previously established in Games Workshop’s miniatures’ wargame, Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Even though the latest edition to this game had been released two years previously, the “Known World” as it was called then had not been substantially defined. Warhammer Fantasy Battle came with a book entitled “The Battle Bestiary” which provided outlines for the various races available in the game, as well as a three page overview of the nations therein.
Curiously, it states that the Warhammer world “bears more than a passing resemblance to our own. This is because the Known World exists in a parallel reality…”.
I’m pretty sure that this is the first and last time that this concept was referenced.
Therefore, all the material released in both the main WHFRP rulebook and The Enemy Within source pack was, in 1986 at least, brand new.
The main setting – a human kingdom known as “The Empire” – was akin to Germany at the beginning of the Renaissance. It was also firmly a “low fantasy” setting. Magic was rare and feared – indeed, it was exceptionally hard for players to become and succeed as wizards.
This was not a D&D-esque setting where dragons roamed the skies and potions could be bought off the shelf at “Ye Olde Magick Shoppe”. Most people in the Empire were from the lower, labouring classes and were more concerned with putting food on their families’ tables than worrying about quests, fantastic creatures and magic.
This is very much reflected in the player characters themselves. Rather than choosing to have their alter-ego reflect some heroic fantasy trope like fighter, wizard, cleric or barbarian as was the case in most fantasy RPGs of the time, player characters in WHFRP had recently chosen to become adventurers as they had become bored of the mundane life that they were living, and were therefore leaving their old careers behind. These careers were suitably mundane as a result – things like “herdsman”, “student”, “labourer” and “beggar”. Sure, some were more traditionally suited to the fantasy RPG genre like “solider”, “thief” and “mercenary” but whereas in the likes of D&D you might be a paladin outfitted in glittering armour and wielding a magical sword called something like “Light of Justice”, a soldier in WHFRP was very likely to be a foot-slogger in some Grand Duke’s army, outfitted in a shabby mail shirt, and wielding a second-hand sword that most likely didn’t have a name…
That being said, it was made clear to the players that they were a bit special and unlikely to die, as the book put it, “at the hands of the first goblin to swing an axe at them”. This was reflected in the concept of “Fate Points”. Each character started off with a small pool of these (sometimes only with a single point!) and these could be used to cheat death. If a character was going to die – either as a result of combat or by doing something ridiculous and stupid in game – they could expend a fate point to live and fight another day. The GM was encouraged to get creative and use these moments of miraculous escape to advance the plot rather than simply as “extra lives”.
Of course, as gritty and “in the mud” as the setting was, this was still a fantasy world – a “grim world of perilous adventure” no less – so the GM needed some more fantastic building blocks with which to construct their world. This was provided in spades by the main rulebook.
Following all the “rulesy” chapters came the setting elements – namely details on the types of creatures that inhabited the Warhammer world (complete with all the stats and special rules you’d ever need) and an extensive look into the history of the setting, information on the Known World and a deep dive into the Empire itself.
The chapter on creatures and monsters included everything you’d expect from a fantasy RPG – goblins, orcs, dragons and griffins abound – but, this being WHFRP, there were several things unique to the setting, some of which have built up a cult following over the years. Things like Skaven, Zoats and Fimir were GW creations, and these – along with the setting itself – helped make adventures in WHFRP’s world refreshingly different to some of the more Tolkienesque RPGs on the market at the time.
Players of the more recent editions of WHFB coming to first ed WHFRP might be surprised by what they find. When it was first published back in 1986, the authors were very clear that they wanted to make this world “grim” and “perilous”.
No where is this more clearly illustrated than in the Emperor of the Empire – Karl Franz himself.
In later editions of WHFB this guy is a handsome, charismatic and mighty warrior, armed with the eponymous Warhammer, leading from the front, and riding a mighty griffon called DEATH CLAW.
“Death Claw”? Really?
Is he like that in WHFRP?
He’s a weak, inbred puppet who only happens to be Emperor because the rest of the Imperial Electors find him easy to control and manipulate. As long as he’s in power the rest of the nobility can do what it pleases.
But that’s just one individual, I hear you say. Ok, let’s look at the Old World nation of Brettonnia. In the last iteration of WHFB Brettonnia was a land of knights, sorcery and folk lore. Here, Arthurian myth is blended with medieval France to create a cauldron of valiant questing heroes, magic, forest spirits, honour and more chivalry than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, they even have a “Lady of the Lake” and a “Green Knight”. Oh, and grails. Brettonnia is your go-to place if you want a grail…
However, in WHFRP, Brettonnia is much more like France on the eve of the French revolution. The nobles of the land are riddled with corruption – wilfully blind to the decay around them, and sordidly decadent in every way.
The book describes painted fops parading around in their finery amidst the mud and dung of the streets, whilst ladies sit like dolls in shining carriages, bedecked in glittering jewels and tall, white wigs, while hiding their ghastly pox-marks (and worse…) behind rogue and white powder. Meanwhile, the majority of the population are described as being “poor, disabled, diseased and politically volatile”. This is a land where Chaos has wormed its way into the nation’s very soul – very much an embodiment of “the enemy within”.
Contrast this to the Bretonnia of years later, where ranks of glittering knights with brightly coloured banners heroically charge the enemy whilst virtuous maidens sling spells from afar and heroes on Pegasi descend from the heavens. At some point it was clear that GW had realised that “the enemy without” sold more models…
As the Brettonnian example illustrates, GW’s vision at the time was that WHFRP adventures would be based around rooting out the corruption that was gnawing at the heart of society. Yes, there were still goblin dominated mountain-holds and dark, haunted forests for those that wanted a more traditional flavour to their fantasy adventures, but it was investigating in society itself where WHFRP really shone. The first parts of the Enemy Within Campaign really highlight this, and produce some of the game’s finest moments. Even the introductory scenario that came with the main rulebook – “The Oldenhaller Contract” – held true to this theme.
Set in the city of Nuln, this scenario sees the brand new adventurers agreeing to investigate a local organised crime cartel who have taken something from the main NPC. Ostensibly a dungeon crawl, this adventure none-the-less deals with the theme of corruption eating away at the heart of the Empire. As the players investigate they find out that the local criminals were dealing with more than they bargained for, and the climax of the adventure suggests that the characters’ patron may not be quite whom he seems.
Although in later years – particularly after the arrival of the Realm of Chaos books – Warhammer became synonymous with “chaos spikey bits” and armies of huge, black-clad armoured warriors descending from the north in droves, first edition WHFRP very much treated Chaos as a more insidious, subtle and corrupting force. Yes, you could put your players up against hordes of beastmen and Chaos warriors if you liked – indeed, the history of the world has a section on the “Incursions of Chaos” so there’s a precedent – but it was at the heart of human civilisation that the greatest danger lurked.
The more physical manifestations of Chaos’ corrupting taint are seen by humanity at large as easy to deal with. Malformed or mutated infants are slain at birth, and those who don’t manifest their taint until later in life are driven deep into the Empire’s vast forests, presumably to be slain by the creatures that live within. However, it is the spiritual taint – the corruption of the soul – that will be humanity’s downfall. Mankind’s meteoric rise to power is in part down to Chaos. The versatility and lust for change that drives humans to greater and greater heights – and which will ultimately doom them – is down to the mark that Chaos has indelibly left on their souls.
It’s also made clear that Chaos, by its very nature, is not necessarily “evil”. Chaos is about conflict, excess, corruption and change, but it doesn’t necessarily have a moral tinge to it. Indeed, the ultimate victory of chaos is portrayed as having all of reality decay into a seething mass of formless protoplasm. Even the antagonists that the players encounter aren’t necessarily evil in the traditional, moustache-twirling-Saturday-morning-cartoon villain sense of the word.
Take the main opposition to the players in Shadows Over Bogenhafen. His road to damnation is ultimately driven by the fact that he felt outcast and overlooked as the younger son of a rich family, and his embrace of Chaos as a quick and easy road to power came through a desire to make something of himself. His subsequent descent into greater and greater corruption came from the fact that his initial dash had been foolhardy, rash and short-sighted and he was looking to correct things. The fact that this will result in more death and destruction perfectly illustrates the corrupting nature of Chaos. He didn’t set out to cause the deaths of thousands. He just wanted a bit of power. Now, in a bid to save his own soul, he is willing to damn others because he is selfish and lacking in moral character. That’s on him, not Chaos. Chaos “merely” wants to dissolve all of creation back into its primal building blocks. This clown’s actions are simply a stepping stone to get there. The death and destruction caused along the way are not Chaos’ objectives – they’re just collateral damage.
Is Chaos uncaring?
Is it evil.
And when portrayed correctly that, more than anything else in this setting, should frighten your players.