The very same copy from all those years ago…

My first RPG back in the day was Maelstrom – published under the Adventure Gamebooks label by Puffin.  I didn’t realise it was an RPG when I bought it – I assumed it was some kind of new fangled Fighting Fantasy book with a blue spine, rather than the distinctive green ones that had become such a feature on my bookshelf during the mid 80s.  However, rather than another foray into the fantasy kingdom of Allansia, Maelstrom actually turned out to be something called a roleplaying game – and it led to me merrily taking up the mantle of gamesmaster as I wrote adventure after adventure for my friends. 

Happy Christmas to me!

I don’t remember much of those early games, other than the fact that we all had great fun and our eyes were opened to the wider possibilities that this hobby offered.  At around the same time I had received a copy of Warhammer Fantasy Battle second edition as a birthday present, and I was absolutely sucked into the world that Games Workshop had created.  When I became aware of the fact that GW were releasing a roleplaying game set in this universe, well; I had to have it!  I got a copy the Christmas it was released and at that moment Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay became my first “proper” RPG. 

No disrespect Maelstrom.

A grim world of oversized nonsense

I stuck with it until the early 90s, but by then the direction GW were going left me disenchanted with the setting – gone was the grim world of perilous adventure and instead we had the high magic world of oversized hammers and shirtless dwarves on steroids.  I bought a copy of second edition when it was first released but, again, I was put off by its artwork and focus on “chaos spiky bits”. 

I didn’t even bother with Fantasy Flight’s third edition – their fetishism for board game components and custom dice in their RPGs always puts me off their products.
Why am I mentioning all of this in the context of a review of Cubicle 7’s 4th edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay?  Well, I thought it only fair that I lay out my stall early on and make it abundantly clear that I was a massive fan of first ed, didn’t really give second ed much of a chance and didn’t bother with third ed at all.  Therefore, this is a massive “your mileage may vary and Iain’s a bit of a grumpy old grognard” warning.

Pretty but not exactly functional

As far as first impressions go, it’s an impressive book.  Weighing in at just over 350 pages, this is a hardback that you could do some serious damage with.  The cover is an homage to John Sibbick’s iconic first edition artwork and everything is laid out in a clean, clear, easy to read manner.  I’m not a massive fan of the maps  found at the beginning and end of the book.  It seems, in a bid to make them more stylistically appealing they’ve actually made the maps more difficult to read.  They’re also out of place – they’d be much better served in the chapter dealing with the setting.  As it is, a reader unfamiliar with place names will find themselves flipping back and forth when reading about the setting to try and build up an impression of the land.

Regarding the rest of the artwork, it’s well produced…but it’s not my cup of tea.  Remember what I said earlier about disliking GW’s change in direction from “grim and dark” to “oversized everything for everyone”?  That very much applies here. Let’s dig into that for a moment. 

I have an issue with that the fact that over two thirds of the dwarf illustrations in the book are of Slayers.  For those of you unfamiliar with this aspect of the Warhammer mythos, Slayers are Dwarves who have suffered shame or dishonour and seek to make amends by finding  death in battle.  The thing is – they’re presumably not that common in the setting otherwise the dwarven population would be considerably smaller than it is.  However, if these images are anything to go by, a good sixty six percent of the resident dwarves have dishonoured themselves to that point that they feel the need to go off and seek a glorious death.  For new players, this pretty much cements the idea that dwarves have to be jacked-up shirtless Crossfit bros with ridiculous haircuts.

Speaking of which, I’m not a fan of the signature characters that the artists keep using again and again throughout the book.  We’ve got our aforementioned Slayer, whose hair seems to take on more and more ludicrous proportions.  Seriously – check out page 12; I actually laughed out loud when I saw that.  We’ve also got a lady sporting an ever-so-mysterious Guy Fawkes look.  All I can say is that if I pulled a hat down as low as she has in nearly every picture she’s in, I think I’d be banging into things constantly.  Seriously, how does she see where she’s going?  We’ve also got some kind of wizard guy.  Now, in the Warhammer setting, although magic is legal – provided you’ve got a “wizard license”; we’ll get to that later – the common folk are still fearful of sorcerers and the Church still have an annoying habit of burning those who get out of hand.  This fella though, seems either oblivious to the prevailing feelings towards wizardy types or is willing to provoke the ire of all around him, as he’s clearly going for some kind of Grim Reaper vibe.  Honestly – the guy’s carrying an honest-to-goodness scythe and is dressed in a long robe.  There’s also a woman who owns a hat which – much like our troll slayer’s hair – seems to vary in terms of impracticality.  On page ten it looks fairly normal, but by page fifteen it has grown to silly proportions, whilst on page 25 I’m not sure how she can walk about with it on without breaking her neck.

There’s also an over abundance of firearms.  Our angsty Guy Fawkes is pretty commonly seen posing with two of them, but they also absolutely litter the careers’ illustrations.  There are careers that don’t even have firearms listed as one of their trappings that see their character posing dramatically with one in their picture!

Check out my purity scrolls…

Speaking of the careers’ artwork, there seems to be a weird fetish – and I’ve seen this repeated in other Cubicle 7 Warhammer products – for characters to wear Warhammer 40k style “purity scrolls”, which is to say little sheets of paper secured to their person with a wax seal.  It also appears that 40k Terminator honours – that vaguely Maltese cross style medal with a skull on it – are worn as some kind of fashion accessory too.  There’s also weirdness like characters having scrolls tied to various parts of their costume, even when their profile doesn’t include the “Read/Write” talent – is this some kind of odd practical joke that happens in the Empire?  I remember in science classes in secondary school where pupils would attach crocodile clips to the bottom of their classmates’ blazers and wait to see if they’d notice them.  Maybe this is the equivalent?  “Hey!  Gunter!  Check it out!  Franz can’t read but we’ve pinned a copy of the Reikland gazette to his tunic!  Lol.”

By far the worst  image, just in terms of sheer “WTF” excess is that of the “thief” career.  I’ve looked at it several times, and I still can’t work out why a thief from Warhammer’s Empire would dress like Bane from Batman.
On the positive side, it’s nice to see some diversity in the artwork for a change.  Yes – you don’t have to exclusively play a white Anglo-Saxon Sigmarite any more…
As I’ve said, your mileage may vary – the Warhammer aesthetic might very much be your thing; it’s just not for me. 

So, now that you’ve finished bleating on about the artwork Iain, what’s the actual content like?  Well, the  first two dozen or so pages are made up of background fiction.  The first part of this provides two views of the Empire – one is clearly written by a sycophantic courtier who has nothing but praise for the rule of the Emperor, whilst the other view comes from someone more worldly and cynical.  It’s a nice touch, presenting both sides of the story – as always, the truth falls somewhere between them.  There’s also a letter, written providing an overview of the Empire.  It is what it is – as a long time fan of Warhammer there was nothing new there, but maybe new players will get something useful out of it.

We then jump into the chapter on creating a character.  This is all fairly similar fare to previous editions – you select a race, a career, attributes, skills and talents.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had ditched alignment.  It was present in first ed, but I always felt like it was a hangover from the Warhammer Battle game; the inclusion in which was probably a hangover from D&D.  Heroes in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay always seemed to operate in that “shades of grey” territory (remember, it’s a GRIM world of perilous adventure…) so it always seemed unnecessary to clearly box in someone’s morality.  As it largely served as a roleplaying aid, its inclusion as a “stat” was redundant.

Unlike first ed, where your attributes, skills and careers are all generated at random, fourth ed gives you the option to choose everything from stats to career.  However  you can choose to roll randomly and if you go with what you roll, you are awarded extra experience points.  I like this, as it encourages players to accept the vagaries of fate.  It can also be more fun taking the mish-mash of options that has been dealt to you and trying to tell a coherent story with it.

When it comes to race, players can be humans, dwarves, halflings or one of two types of elf – wood or high.  As usual, the non-human races have better profiles than poor old humans – with elves particularly falling into the “everything you can do we can do better” territory – but this is balanced out later on as human are given more Fate Points; Warhammer’s “extra life” currency.

One gripe I do have around character creation is the use of the word “skill” when describing the characteristics of “weapon skill” and “ballistic skill”.  Now, I know why they use this nomenclature – these two attributes, representing as they do your natural fighting ability have been around since the beginning of the Warhammer line.  However, given that they’re attributes and you have a second category called skills the inclusion of a couple of “not quite skills but we’re calling them skills” in the attributes section can be understandably confusing.  In fact, I’m confusing myself as I say this so I’ll stop!

The skills themselves are bonuses that you add on top of an attribute when trying to do something that you’re, well, skilled at.  So, for example, the Pick Lock skill gives you a bonus to your Dexterity characteristic when you’re trying to nefariously tinker with a closed door.  In first ed skills existed, but they were a mix of bonuses to certain tests, additions to your characteristics and other more esoteric things such as the ability to cast spells.  4e takes this jumble of concepts and breaks them down into three separate stats:

  • Characteristics – your raw ability to do certain things.  Strength, dexterity and intelligence are all examples of characteristics.
  • Skills – things that you have been learned to do.  Cook, pick lock and navigation are all skills.  Some skills are advanced meaning that regardless of what your characteristic is, you can’t attempt this skill without having trained in it.
  • Talents – these are akin to special abilities; quirks or tricks that you’ve learned.  Things like spell casting, combat shenanigans and being able to hold your ale in a drinking competition count as talents.

What determines what skills and talents you can learn?  Well, that comes down to your career.  Unlike other games with their levels and classes, WFRP has a system of careers – namely what was your profession before you decided to sod off and become an adventurer?  This will inform what skills and talents you will have, as well as your social standing and any possessions you may own.  I’m pleased that Cubicle 7 have stuck with the careers system, as it’s always the thing that’s marked WFRP out as being somewhat different from other fantasy RPGs, and it certainly went a long way to contributing to it’s more grounded feel, as opposed to a high magic setting like D&D.

Unlike previous editions, where characters would bounce around from career to career, looking to pick up as many useful skills and characteristic bumps as possible, 4e looks to keep characters in their main career as long as possible.  Yes, you can switch career, but each one has its own system of levels – or a career path as the book calls it – which allows you to develop expertise within the confines of a single career.  This means that certain desirable skills or characteristic advances won’t be “unlocked” until you’ve devoted some time and effort to mastering your career. 

I’ve not played 4e yet, so I’ve not seen how this works in practice.  At an initial glance I like the thought of characters sticking with what you know, rather than being jacks of all trades.  Certainly, it takes away that issue that 1e WFRP saw where the GM – if they were running the game in a purist manner – would have to invent contrived excuses for how a character moved from one career to another.  Also, this idea does have precedent.  In 1st ed the wizard careers and things like the jump from mercenary to mercenary sergeant to mercenary captain all followed this route.

Artist’s impression of 4e’s mechanics

One aspect of the new system that I’m not so hot on, is how they handle advances.  In 1e, you had an advance scheme where you bought improvements to characteristics in ten percent chunks, and where skills were one off purchases.  In 2e I believe that characteristics were bought five percent at a time.  In 4e, not only can you improve characteristics, you can buy advances in skills and you can also buy talents – sometimes you can even buy them multiple times.  When you’re buying skills or characteristics, you’re improving them in one percent increments.  In addition, as you take more and more advances, the cost to improve goes up.  Oh, and the costs for skills and characteristics are (obviously) different.  This will lead to a LOT of book keeping.  I can quite easily see a situation where a character is paying three different costs to advance his characteristics and several more for his skills while trying to determine if those talents he has can be bought more than once and, if so, how much they cost.  That’s not to say the system is bad – merely that it’s very crunchy.  D&D players – and players of other “You reach this XP threshold and you level up” games – be warned!

Careers also have the social level of the character baked into them.  This is represented by something call their status tier, and it can be brass, silver or gold representing the poorest in society to townspeople and professionals all the way up to the rules of society.  Each tier is further split up into five separate levels, representing the distinction between people of the same class.  This is a nice split – it shows that a simple trader won’t be able to distinguish one noble from another as they all seem important to him and people he should curry favour with.  Likewise, to the aristocracy, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hard working peasant or a filthy beggar – those at the bottom of society are all smelly oiks!  There are various rules for the effects of interactions between people of differing statuses, as well as mechanics for the cost of maintaining your standing in society.  Yes, it is possible for nobles to lose status by slumming it with the hoi poli…  More rules and crunch, but I think they’re handled pretty well – a few scribbled notes on the back of a GM’s screen should make this fairly easy to remember.

Speaking of crunch, characters also have fate, resilience, fortune and  resolve points – all of which let you interfere with core game mechanics in certain ways, and which are all regained in different manners.  
Character creation is rounded out by around half a dozen pages on “adding detail”.  A lot of this is cosmetic, like hair and eye colour, age and other physical details, but there’s a surprisingly crunchy (there’s that word again) section on your long term and short term ambitions – conditions which, if you fulfil them, you get a mechanical bonus.  There’s also the same for the party – rather than a “you all meet together in a tavern and decide to go on an adventure” approach to party building, 4e assumes that the protagonists will have a collective goal – the fulfilling of which will, again, generate a mechanical bonus.

I’m not sure how I feel like this – it feels a bit like the old White Wolf concept of Nature and Demeanour, which were tools to prod characters into roleplaying a certain way (with the promise of getting a refill on willpower) but which, in practice, very rarely came into effect.

Likewise, a lot of players, when a new game begins, don’t generally have a firm view of what their character’s long term goals are, and instead like to settle into their character and see where things will go.  Forcing them to nail down their ambitions – without necessarily knowing what form the campaign will take – seems artificial and limiting.

This far in, and still no actual system

So, after the introductory, character creation and careers chapters we come to the fourth which details the various skills and talents that a character can have.  It’s here that I have a problem with the book’s structure.  By the time you’ve finished the fourth chapter you’re over one hundred and thirty pages into the book and you still don’t know what the rules are!  I can imagine a lot of flipping back and forth in the first few sessions of a game – in fact, session zero where people make up their characters is probably going to particularly painful.  People like to know what effect on the game their choices at character creation will have – especially in a system as crunchy as this one.  When you consider that the actual core system itself only takes up around five pages, would it have been that hard to move the basic method of resolving tests to much earlier in the book?  There are also a lot of talents and, when you consider how they interact with fundamental game mechanics, I can imagine that these would slow a lot of games down and necessitate a lot of homework on the GM’s part to memorise the more important ones and what they do. 

Speaking of the system, when it comes to resolving challenges, 4e has two types of tests – simple and dramatic.  The difference between the two is…well…simple.  If the degree to which a test succeeds or fails is important you make a dramatic test, otherwise you make a simple test. 
A simple test involves throwing a d100 and comparing the result to the skill or characteristic that the GM asks you to use.  If you get lower or equal to it you pass, otherwise you fail.  The GM can impose a modifier depending on how difficult or routine the task is.

Easy, right?

Sadly, dramatic tests are not as straightforward.  These are used when it’s important to know how well (or badly!) a test went.  This is done through the concept of Success Levels (or SLs).  To determine this, take the 10s number of what you rolled away from the 10s number of the characteristic or skill you’re testing.  The higher the SL, the better things have gone, whereas the more negative it is the worse the consequences.  There’s a handy “have you succeeded” table for GMs to consult.  Like simple tests, it is also possible for the GM to throw over modifiers as necessary.  One nice touch is that an “average” test gets +20% to its success chance, taking away some of the “wiff factor” that WFRP is famous for.

Again, I’m going to caveat this with “…and I’ve never played this…” but the feedback I’ve seen online is that the concept of SLs – which is baked into a lot of talent usage not to mention combat – slows things down a lot.  Any test that has modifiers and which is affected by talents is going to take a lot longer to resolve than a simple D100 roll.  With a system already burdened by crunch this is probably not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s a welcome surprise.

Combat essentially boils down to a series of opposed dramatic tests.  Both combatants roll their melee and whomever scores the most success levels hits.  For ranged combat, you simply make the test – your opponent doesn’t oppose it. 

If you hit, reverse your roll to determine the hit location, then take the weapon’s damage number, your strength bonus and the number of success levels you scored, add them together and the resulting total is the number of potential wounds caused.  Then, subtract your opponents toughness bonus and any armour points on the location hit from the potential wounds total to determine the final damage total.


WFRP combat can feel like this

There are also additional rules for critical hits and fumbles, but it should be evident by now that there is a fair amount of maths involved in every swing of the sword.  Yes, 1e had a fairly similar and cumbersome system, but that was over thirty years ago!  One of my hopes for the new system was that it would cut some of the fat from the mechanics, but it feels a bit like Cubicle 7 have doubled down on the complexity.  Thinking of the opening chapters of the Enemy Within – the flagship Warhammer Campaign – the combats that crop up there could easily take up a sizeable chunk of a game session.

Anyway, this goes on for twenty odd pages with rules for critical injuries, healing and using fate and resolve to survive otherwise lethal blows.  It’s all very detailed.  Fine if you like that stuff, but fairly hair raising if you don’t.

There’s then ten or so pages dealing with corruption, disease and psychology.  This is all good, Warhammery stuff.  One of the things that always made WFRP stand out from the crowd was that it was set in a pretty grubby, dirty world.  Unless those wounds you take are going to be treated, chances are they will become infected.  Likewise, in the filthy cities of the Old World, disease abounds and things like the plague and the pox are as deadly as any monsters from the forests. 

Hand in hand with this physical decay is the concept of corruption, which represents the insidious influence the Ruinous Powers of Chaos  have on a character’s soul.  The more corruption a character accrues, the more likely the are to fall to the lure of Chaos and then they’ll start to change in various interesting ways…

THIS is Warhammer!

One aspect of this system that I love is that of “dark deals” and “dark whispers”.  In short, you can gain corruption by voluntarily accepting a point in exchange for something like a re-roll, whilst you can also lose corruption by letting the darkness within come out to play for a little while and generally cock things up for you.  Letting an enemy escape, making a mess of a ritual or telling that important noble exactly how you feel about him are all great examples of this.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to have played in more than a handful of games run by me will learn, very quickly, that I adore mechanics like this.  I’ve always found that any “temptation” mechanism can be used to drive story and interparty roleplay like nothing else, and I really, really  take a gleeful delight in letting players damn themselves like this.

In short, this is exactly the kind of approach to Chaos that I would put into my Warhammer games.  It’s insidious, subtle, slow and frequently starts from a place of good intentions.  In short, it embodies The Enemy Within.

We then come to a chapter that is…well…let’s just say I’ve seen mixed feedback about it online.  It’s entitled “Between Adventures” and it covers how to fill the potential weeks of downtime between adventures.  This isn’t a new concept – I’ve seen stuff like this in other games.  In Vampire’s The Transylvania Chronicles, for instance, there is a system of “maturation” to cover what the characters get up to for the decades that can exist between chapters of the story.  It uses a system of tables and points to allow players to further develop their characters and provide a bit of colour other than “Yeah, I guess I slept off the years in my coffin…”

WFRP tries to do something similar.  It breaks downtime down as follows:

First, you generate a random event that has occurred.  Then, you spent any money you might have acquired on your last adventure.  After this you take part in what is called “endeavours” to represent tasks that you might take part in when not adventuring like plying a trade, or managing an estate.  Finally, all of this players resolve this stuff and they are ready for their next adventure.  Oh, and then the players lose all their money.  I’ll come back to that one shortly.

Now, credit to Cubicle 7, they DO have a box saying “IT’S ALL OPTIONAL” and that some people might choose not to follow the rules presented in this chapter, and after reading them, I know I would be one of them.  Simply put, there is waaaay too much crunch here for the sake of crunch with little regard to logical consistency. 

As an example of this, each player gets one endeavour per week of downtime between adventures, but no more than three regardless of the length of time that passes.  This makes no sense – yes, I get that they want to limit players potentially abusing the endeavours system, but there is a substantial difference to what a character can do in three weeks of downtime and what they could accomplish if there were six months of downtime between adventures (which isn’t an overly unrealistic thing to imagine!).

Then there’s the fact that high tier characters have to take an income endeavour or they’ll drop to a lower career tier, and the fact that elves have to use one of their special endeavours to send messages back to their elf families – this wasted endeavour is apparently a way of balancing out the fact that elves are so much better at everything else.

By far the most egregious part of this system – and the one that I’ve seen most outcry about online – is how it handles money.  In a nutshell, if you don’t bank your cash you lose ALL THE MONEY YOU’VE ACCRUED ON THE LAST ADVENTURE DURING DOWNTIME. 


Cubicle 7 vs their WFRP players between games

Apparently you’ve drunk it, gambled it, paid off old debts, had it stolen or whatever other reason you want but, it has all gone. Now, for adventurers with a purse full of coin, I can see  that being possible.  You’ve just come back from seeing off those goblin bandits and you’ve spent your three weeks (no more, remember?) of downtime living it large.  Time passes and you’re left thinking “Best sharpen the old sword, strap on the backpack and get adventuring again, because those beers won’t buy themselves.”  However, what if instead of dealing with some miserable goblins you and your erstwhile companions had undertaken a quest of epic proportions and had returned with a king’s ransom in treasure?  Or even just a few thousand gold crowns.  Are we honestly meant to believe that you’ve somehow managed to splurge all of that with nothing to show in a couple of weeks?

Now, there are options to try and mitigate this.  If you want to start the next adventure with some money you can either take the “income” endeavour and earn an honest wage, or you can choose to “bank” your cash.  With the latter you can choose to “invest” and can then roll for things like interest rate and whether or not your investment goes bankrupt and you lose all your money.  If the investment succeeds you can use another endeavour to withdraw your money and do more fun bookkeeping to work out how much interest you’re due.  If that doesn’t sound appealing you can choose to stash your money – you don’t earn any interest, and you can withdraw your cash without spending another endeavour, but there’s a ten percent chance someone will find your stash and steal all your money.

Do you get the impression that the authors thought that if they took cash away from the players GMs would be able to make more use of “…and the NPC offers you great riches if you’ll accept the adventure?”  Only, if they know that they’re probably going to lose it all when they finish whatever quest they’re on, it’s hardly a great incentive is it?

Moving away from downtime, we jump into the Religion and Belief chapter.  This was always one of my favourite sections of the original WFRP, and I’m pleased to say that Cubicle 7 have done a brilliant job with it this time around.  The gods of the Warhammer world always had a very unique feel to them, and this has been captured perfectly across 20 or so pages.  All of the main deities of the Old World are accounted for, with one page write-ups for each detailing things like worshippers, holy sites, penances and strictures. 

One of the best chapters

Following these, there’s a brief overview of non-human deities, and an even briefer note on the Chaos Gods.  Hopefully, a future supplement will expand upon these topics in more detail, as these were always areas that I felt were lacking in the original (Realms of Chaos supplements not withstanding). 

We then get details on the two types of powers available to clerics – blessings, which are minor miracles, and invocations which are your flashier manifestations of divine favour.  Each deity provides those with the Blessings talent six Blessings, whilst the miracles are flavoured to each of the individual cults.  I really like this update to the system.  In first ed, Clerics were essentially wizards with a much more limited choice of spells.  In this edition, clerical magic feels special, different and – more importantly – themed to each of the individual gods.  Therefore, a Cleric of Verena will invoke miracles of a very different type to those of a worshipper of Ulric.  My only gripe is that the focus of miracles is purely limited to human Old World cults – it seems like halfling, dwarf and elven clerics will have to wait for another supplement to get spells of their own.

Following on from Religion we dive into a chunky chapter on magic.  This was one area that first edition REALLY struggled with.  Seriously – the magic system was a straight port from Warhammer Fantasy Battle 2nd Ed and really not suited to an RPG.  Advancing as a wizard was difficult, learning new spells was difficult, casting spells was difficult and in general the whole thing was a clunky mess.  With a few exceptions, all of the spells were a straight port from WFB, and as a result their application in a non-battle setting was seriously limited.  Hell, the main body of spells (which Clerics drew their magic from too) was called “Battle Magic”.
So, how does 4th edition compare?  Thankfully, the system is a LOT better, and also a lot more thematic.  Naturally, this means that things are a lot more crunchy but, if you’ve made it this far into this review you’ll probably not be surprised at this!  At its simplest, casting a spell involves making a casting test and accumulating a number of Success Levels equal to the casting number.  If you don’t manage this, you fail.  Given that all but the most basic of spells  have a casting number much higher than that which can easily be achieved, spell casters have the option to “channel” the winds of magic, allowing for the round by round accumulation of arcane energy until they are ready to attempt their spell.  I like this – it conjures up images of sorcerers trying to control the dangerous energy that surrounds them and weave it into a spell which they finally unleash upon their opponents. 

Thankfully it’s not this…

The rules also do a great job of conjuring up how dangerous magic is – a critical roll means that the winds of magic have flared out of your control, granting your spell extra power but with potentially disastrous results.  Being around a source of chaotic corruption makes this more likely, which fits very nicely with Warhammer’s theme of “magic is really just controlled chaos”.  Allowing wizards options to mitigate the effects of miscasts through preparation and ingredients helps add to the flavour and gives magic using players a lot of options.  Do I take the time to safely cast this spell, or do I really need to get it off quickly?

Spells are broken out into petty magic – simple cantrips every wizard learns when starting out – and lore magic, which represents your character’s area of specialisation.  Normally, a wizard can only learn one lore but, naturally, elves are able to learn more if they meet certain conditions.  Because they’re magical and amazing presumably?  Lores might relate to one of the schools of colour magic, witchcraft or something naughty like demonology or chaos magic.  While each lore is wonderfully thematic, magic users can also choose from a pool of “arcane” spells which allow for more generic magical effects like flight, magic shields, teleportation and magic missiles.  There are almost twenty pages of spells, so there’s plenty for budding wizards to get their teeth into.  I love how each Lore feels different from the others, and I’d be interested to see how the system plays out in an actual game.  Yes, it’s crunchy but I think that could work in its favour.  After all, isn’t magic meant to be complicated and laden with potential risk?  I can see a player accidentally forgetting that they could use an ingredient with a spell and having the spell flare out of their control!

But…but…we’re a grimdark, dark fantasy, low magic setting unlike that silly D&D game!

The only real gripe I have with the magic chapter is that I am not a fan of the direction Warhammer went with regards to magic following the 3rd edition of fantasy battle.  Suddenly we had “wizard licenses” and “magical universities” and the low fantasy world of Warhammer all of a sudden became much more high magic.  This is a personal thing – I know some people love it – and this edition was released with over three decades of fluff established for it, so I’m not going to suggest that the inclusion of these elements somehow makes this a bad product.  Just don’t claim your game is gritty, low magic grimdarkness when you’ve got wizards wreathed in blazing nimbuses of fire, whizzing by on griffons and blasting people from their skull-topped wands.

After we’ve finished with magic we get around half a dozen pages on how to be a gamesmaster.  There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but I’m sure new players would find it useful.
We then get around 20 pages that serve as a guide to the Reikland – a section of the Empire that is the game’s default setting.  The content is fine, and it details the setting quite nicely, but as someone who has ready the World Guide in first ed this just feels somewhat sparse in comparison.  If 1e could give us an overview of the entire world, how come we only get detail on what amounts to a single province here? 
Worst of all, there are no maps!  If you want to work out in your head where everything is, you’ll be flicking back and forth between this chapter and the end papers which, as I mentioned earlier, aren’t that easy to read.  Whilst these maps do a wonderful job of looking like an Olde Worlde mappe, they’re not that usable.  Plus, they’re repeated – once at the beginning and once at the end of the book.  Why not replace one of these with a useful, simple, black and white map?  This example of style over substance goes a long way to making the Reikland chapter less useful than it could be.

We then have the Consumer Guide, which is to say pages and pages of useful equipment to spend your hard earned gold crowns on – presumably before downtime steals them away!  This includes everything from weapons, to clothing to prosthetics.  Weapons, unsurprisingly, add more complications to the game.  They can have “qualities” and “flaws” which is to say extra rules that affect combat.  On one hand, this makes weapons more interesting than “this is a sword and this a plus one sword – I like the plus one sword better” but it does mean that there’s a lot more to remember in a fight and combat will consequently take a lot longer.

Quick! Let’s buy something before our money all mysteriously vanishes…
This guy looks properly monstrous unlike some of the tosh GW used to churn out…

The final chapter is a bestiary made up of a mix of generic fantasy creatures and creations that are pure Warhammer – Fimir and Skaven, I’m looking at you! Each entry is exactly what you’d expect – a brief description of the creature, a stat block and a picture.  One nice thing is that creatures are assigned a number of “traits” which do a good job of shorthanding things like skills, talents and weapon qualities.  For example, the Orc has a trait saying “weapon +8” which means when it hits, to calculate damage you just take the success levels earned in combat and add them to 8 to get the total wounds caused.  This is a great design decision and should hopefully make things like combat move more quickly.  The downside is that most creatures have a LOT of traits – the goblin, one of the most generic of adversaries, has at least half a dozen!  This means that the GM will have to do quite a bit of prep before most games and, I would imagine, it will probably entail a lot of page flipping during the first few games they run. Speaking of orcs and goblins, the artwork for them is great and the descriptions are devoid of the “gobbo” nonsense that Games Workshop are  so fond of in every publication ever to feature these creatures…

It’s funny ‘cos dey soundz like cockneys…

…so imagine my disappointment to find a quote from an “Orc Boss” full of the “dis, dem, day” pigeon English that is still serving as a substitute for humour after almost three decades.  Still, at least I’ve not found any references to “Zoggin’ ‘oomie gitz“….yet…


That was a BIG book.

So, after 350 or so pages, what do I think?  Well, gripes about artwork aside, I think there’s a lot to like.  It’s a complete package in one book, and its overhauled some aspects of earlier editions quite nicely.  I have my reservations about how complicated some of it feels, but not having run it yet I can’t comment fully on that just yet.

The most important thing is that it “feels” like a Warhammer product – again, other than my gripes around some of the more high magic elements creeping in.  I was happy that, after reading it, my first thought was “I can’t wait to run it”.

Guess I’d better get something planned before Steve listens to this and takes that last statement as a promise…

Last night, my RPG group completed the Warhammer Fantasy Role-play adventure Shadows Over Bögenhafen, a game that I had enormous fun running for them. They’re a great bunch, with some really fun characters that I’ve really enjoyed getting to know. As we completed this chapter in our campaign, it got me thinking – I’ve run this module on and off over 30 years, and I’ve never failed to enjoyed it.

It also made me feel mega-old…

When I first ran Shadows Over Bögenhafen waaaaay back in 1988, it was actually the first ever supplement I bought for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The fact that I bought adventure two in the series instead of adventure one says everything you need to know about me…

However, back then I had no grand designs of running the vaunted The Enemy Within campaign. In fact, aside from a reference in the main book, and the words “The Enemy Within Campaign” being picked out on the front of Shadows I hadn’t even heard of it. No, I just wanted an adventure I could run for my players. Besides, this one had a really cool cover…

It’s a testament to how well designed this module is, that I could happily run it as a standalone without even having to reference the material that came before it. Sure, there’s a section dealing with the fall out from the previous game, but otherwise this module is its own beast.

The story itself is interesting, as it’s in a fantasy setting, but it’s largely an investigative exercise. It begins innocuously enough; the adventurers attend the local fair, have a great old time, and ultimately agree to go spelunking into the town sewers in pursuit of a goblin that has escaped from the freak show. After much too-ing, fro-ing, and falling into effluent, they don’t find the goblin, but they find…something else that makes them realise that there could be sinister goings on beneath the comfortable, easy-going veneer presented by Bögenhafen. What follows is a twisty-turny investigation that seems to hint at corruption in the highest echelons of society, and a race against time to stop something really bad happening to the town.

There’s some combat – especially during the finale – but not as much as the fantasy setting might suggest, so a lot of the time the player’s social skills and investigative abilities will serve them more readily than a strong sword arm. Shadows gives the impression of an orderly, well-kept town; the sort of place where the powers at be won’t tolerate gratuitous violence and blood flowing in the streets. The watch maintain a strong presence throughout the story, and I’ve yet to have a party of players who thought “I know – let’s just fight the law!” WFRP is a system famed for its lethality, and its always struck me how comfortable people who have played this scenario are with turning tail and running – especially when pursued by mobs of angry townspeople! Other systems might see the players assume the roles of unassailable threshing machines, but in Shadows players very quickly come to realise that discretion truly is the better part of valour!

As a games master, one thing that I’ve always appreciated about Shadows was the fact that the players aren’t guaranteed a happy ending. I read enough RPG modules in my time to know that there’s a default assumption that players will either succeed, or die trying. Very few of them touch on “What happens if they fail but live to tell the tale?” Well, Shadows doesn’t shrink from this. It reads:

If…the adventurers had ample opportunity to stop [the baddies – spoiler protected!] but failed to do so, you should not shrink from inflicting the full consequences on them…This option, detailed in Apocalypse, below, is extremely dangerous, and could lead to the entire party being wiped out if the adventurers do anything stupid, but will provide a more exciting climax to the adventure.

They’re not kidding either – the “bad ending” is truly apocalyptic in nature.

Adventure aside, the contents of the module always impressed me, and still does. As well as the main book, there’s a couple of maps: one “player safe” (and which is quite beautiful) and the other for the GM with all the secret locations marked for easy reference. I made a scan of the player map for use in Roll20, but sadly it didn’t render in anywhere near the quality I’d hoped for.

There’s some gamesmaster’s references printed on sturdy card which don’t have to be separated from the main book, and a sheet of good quality handouts. I always remember, in later years, that feeling of disappointment I’d get after buying an RPG adventure only to find that the handouts were part of the main book, and would therefore have to be photocopied. Thinking back to how good those found in Shadows were always made me feel slightly short changed.

The book itself also came with a pull out “Gazeteer of Bögenhafen” which was invaluable for the GM – both in terms of describing the city, but also if you wanted to use it as a reoccurring setting (providing things hadn’t got too apocalyptic of course…).

The art work is a particular highlight. From the eerie cover, to the moody interior pieces, Shadows really set the bar high for my expectations from future RPG products on what quality art should look like. There’s plenty of books nowadays that use computers to create their illustrations that don’t come close to the atmosphere Shadows creates.

It’s not all roses though; one thing I found on rereading this book last year was something that my younger eyes probably didn’t pick up on – namely that it is a complete mess of organisation. Looking at the various sections in the book, and knowing the content, I’d expect them to be laid out something like:

  • Introduction
  • A guide to the city (information on city structure, politics, key locations and individuals)
  • The story so far… (IE “What to do if playing this as part of a campaign”)
  • A timeline of the adventure
  • Details of the adventure itself
  • Aftermath
  • Appendix of characters stats / profiles

Instead, what we get is more like:

  • Introduction
  • Rough timeline
  • Start of the city guide
  • Start of the adventure
  • The story so far…
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • Pull out section with a continuation of the city guide and stats for some but not all NPCs
  • A timeline of key events
  • Common knowledge in Bögenhafen
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • A guide to key locations and encounters
  • A separate guide to temples
  • Continuation of the adventure
  • Aftermath

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that it can be exhausting to use.

Here’s an example – and bear in mind that this is coming from someone who has run this plenty of times before. There’s a point in the scenario where the adventurers will probably end up coming to the attention of the authorities in the course of their investigations. As a result, the powers at be send one of their number to speak to them to offer reassurance that things aren’t as they think they are. Now, this is a key event in the scenario. It gives the players an important contact – one who becomes instrumental in the climax of the adventure. Think of it as heralding the opening of the second act – when the players have their suspicions confirmed, and are driven to dig deeper. Now, where to find this event? Well, thankfully there’s an Events section in the book, which lists various happenings that occur throughout the course of the adventurers’ time in the town, you’d assume it would be found there.

It’s not.

Ok, so maybe it’s not there, but it is centred around a key NPC so maybe it’s found in the NPCs’ section.

It’s not. Little side note here, the NPCs section lists details for only THREE of the main NPCs. The other ones have their stats and descriptions scattered throughout the book. Minor NPCs are on the Gamesmaster’s reference sheet.

Instead, you find the encounter buried in the “Key Locations” section. In addition to this, when you read the rough timeline at the beginning of the book, it is stated that this encounter happens as a consequence of the adventurers’ gradual investigation and enquiries. The exact wording is:

In the course of their enquiries, the adventurers are approached by [NPC]..

In other words, this is one of the pivotal story events. There are a lot of optional side encounters that the players can have, but this one is essential to the plot. Indeed, if you’ve run this more than once you’ll know just how crucial this encounter is! However, taken as written in the “Key Locations” section the encounter will only happen if the adventurers do one, very specific, thing. Unfortunately, if the adventurers don’t do this thing, it makes running the climax of the adventure really difficult, because without encountering the key individual, it is extremely unlikely that the players will ever end up anywhere near the finale.

As I said, I’ve run this plenty of times and was therefore aware of how to bring this event into play (I just couldn’t find the bloody thing!) but for a new GM this would be a real head scratcher, and could lead to a very unsatisfying conclusion. Either the GM would have to railroad things so that the players end up where they need to be – which would feel forced – or else inflict the consequences of failing to put the clues together. Now, some might think “let the chips fall where they may”, but without the information that the encounter provides it would be unlikely that the players would be in a position to appreciate what had just happened when the GM presses the red apocalypse button…

Imagine you’re one of the Avengers at the end of Infinity War (spoilers btw). You and your team have battled Thanos, but he’s managed to get his big, purple paws on the six gems and BOOM! He snaps his fingers and you watch in vain as half of existence is annihilated around you and, before you can do anything, he disappears. You realise what’s happened, it’s horrible, but you’re driven to think “Was that my fault? What can we do next? How can we UNDO this?”

Now, imagine the same film, except this time Thanos proceeds in such a way that the majority of the Avengers are not aware of what he’s up to. Perhaps he kills Hulk and Thor so they’re not able to warn anyone of his plan? Maybe he goes after the stones in a more subtle way? Regardless, a major clue is missed, and there the main characters are, carrying on with their day-to-day, and suddenly a load of people just turn to ash around them. Why did this happen? Who is behind it? Why didn’t I have a chance to do anything?

That’s a very long and convoluted way of explaining how the player characters would feel in Shadows if they miss this vital encounter that is obfuscated by how badly the book is organised! In the first example, they had the chance to stop the big bad, but failed. In the second instance they simply aren’t even aware of it but are punished in an over the top and confusing way regardless…

However, having a toddler organise the book aside, Shadows Over Bögenhafen remains one of my favourite adventures of any game system. Atmospheric, cerebral and logical, it’s the perfect break from treks around the wilderness slaying goblins. If you fancy something gritty, low-magic and dark, you could do a lot worse.

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.  


It’s not.  

And when portrayed correctly that, more than anything else in this setting, should frighten your players.

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.