In preparation of an upcoming review of a certain Warhammer Fantasy Inspired Retroclone named after the german word for a two-handed sword that came out on kickstarter recently I would propose a look at the old game is no more then wise, to see what made it tick what sucked and what did not. I have a more then passing familiarity with Warhammer Fantasy, though my heart always went out to Warhammer 40k, having run Dark Heresy for more then 3 years and having played it quite a bit. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was where it all began.
To cover in depth the extremely detailed and grimdark fantasy world of Warhammer and the many changes it went through with each iteration is beyond the scope of this review, nevertheless a small overview is warranted:
The World of Warhammer Fantasy is broadly based on Medieval Europe with some Tolkien/Moorcock thrown in and centred around the Empire, very obviously based on the Holy Roman Empire. Everything is suitably gritty; The world is mostly ignorant and illiterate, travel is rare and dangerous, cities are disease-filled warrens of crime and corruption, superstition and religious fanaticism are rife, the Authorities are tyrannical, incompetent and corrupt, Sorcery is profane and dangerous and the world is threatened from without and within by a hideous corrosive force known as CHAOS. And there are dwarves (going extinct) and elves (going extinct) and halflings (fat, greedy, useless tossers) oh my. Unusually for a fantasy world, gunpowder exists and is extremely effective.
In this part we shall cover character creation. This game came out in
1995 1986 LIKE I HAD CLEARLY KNOWN ALL ALONG which one can immediately spot by virtue of its lack of streamlining which is so cleverly hidden that only a genius, nay, a modern day Sherlock Holmes crossbred with Mr. Spock could detect it. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a very comprehensive and detailed game, often more focused on versimilitude then game-balance and as opposed to something like AD&D the game gives you the mechanical tools to do just about anything from the get-go. A drawback is that this game was made before streamlining became a thing, thus you are left with a great deal of stats and skills that would later be streamlined into a more manageable number.
Characteristics are of course generated randomly, praise, by a base number + the result of multiple d10s (for percentage based skills) or by a base number + the result of a D3 (for attributes that give a flat bonus or value such as movement or strength). The first thing to set it apart from it’s Gygaxian counterpart is that Movement in WhF is an ability and thus some humans will be faster then other humans. The other abilities are as follows:
Strength plays a huge role in determining melee damage, and Toughness plays a role in resisting damage as well as poisons or diseases. Wounds are like your hit points only you get considerably less of them, Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill are percentage based skills that determine your chance to hit with melee and ranged weaponry respectively, Initiative is yet another Percentage based skill that determines Turn Order (and things like evading traps or dodging blows), Dexterity is a percentage based skill that is used in a variety of actions (many of them involving the picking of pockets, the palming of objects, the clandestine opening of locks and other activities habitually performed by those of ill-repute), Attacks determines the base number of attacks of your character and is always 1 for starting characters, social interaction is moderated by the Leadership and Fellowship skills, Intelligence determines your ability in the majority of available skills, Willpower is good for resisting magical shit and doing magical shit and Cool determines how well you resist fear and have your shit together.
Your average starting character would thus look like this:
Jeager von Saufmarchen
M 3 WS 34 BS 38 S 2 T 3 W 6 I 29 A 1 Dex 33 Ld 32 Int 30 Cl 30 Wp 35 Fel 36
Only with more stats hovering below 30 since I don’t trust that wizards diceroller one bit. Before you actually do any of this you must select your RACE which determines the starting value of many of these attributes. Unlike something like 3.5e, Warhammer Fantasy does not give a fuck whether something is balanced if logic would dictate that something is better then something else. In keeping with this method, Elves and Dwarves have better characteristics then Humans, broadly speaking. For those with a fondness for the portrayal of dewey-eyed, curly-haired rapscallions with hairy feet, the Halfling race is available. It is up to the humble GM to ensure that the differences in ability do not unbalance or distrupt the flow of play, though it should be noted the game recommends everyone starts out as humans.
Curiously enough, Alignment exists and is determined by race the first time you play (suggesting it is mutable in the future). It is a fairly simple take as far as alignment systems go. Player characters are either Neutral or Good depending on their race (only elf PCs are good) and NPCs have additional alignments in the form of Evil, Law and Chaos.
Another mechanic that set WHF apart was its use of Fate Points, an damn near irreplaceable currency that may be used to avoid death or serious injury, functioning somewhat like Extra Lives in a game where ressurection magic does NOT EXIST. If you would otherwise get yourself murdered, you can permanently reduce your fate points by 1 and thus escape death…this time. Humanity is on the ascent and all other races are on the wane, thus explaining why they get the most fate points. In general, each race gets between 1 and 4 (Elves only get 1-2 and humans get 2-4 for example).
Character class is handled in a very interesting manner: There are 4 archetypes that you can usually qualify for if you have a single or at most 2 stats above 30. Warrior, Ranger, Rogue and Academic (it is possible but unlikely your character will be unsuitable for all classes, in which case I guess you have to reroll him).
These are very broad character archetypes that determine starting equipment, the type of profession you came from, and your random skills. Note that Academicans are not WIZARDS and only a very small sub-set of Academicans will start the game with anything resembling magical ability or even the ability to detect magic.
Next up you can determine his starting age, which is not only a purely cosmetic decision but also a risk/reward mechanic. Each broad character class starts out with d4 random skills (nonhuman races tend to have mandatory skills like mining for Dwarves which will automatically take up a slot) modified by a number. You can opt between playing a young character or an old character. Young characters tend not to have a bonus or a very large bonus on starting skills. Old characters, depending on the age, can either have a larger bonus or a penalty (once senility sets in).
So for example for humans your starting age is either 6d6 or 6d10. If you roll underneath 16 you must reroll and add the result to your previous roll. Humans get extra skill bonuses between the ages of 21 – 50 and skill penalties if they are older then 60. So you want to have a seasoned veteran but not a doddering incontinent old bastard. Nice.
Starting skills are OF COURSE, random and determined by your class, by rolling several times on the d100 table. Some skills will not be available to some races or only available to certain races.
To illustrate this process further, let us continue on with Jaeger von Saufmarchen. Jaeger will be a spry lad and thus we shall roll 6d6, making him 20 years old and thus granting him no bonus skills. After taking a look at his stats we decide that he would do well as a Ranger. We roll d4 for starting skills, modified by zero, and get 1. Jaeger has 1 starting skill, we roll on the Ranger skill and get Drive Cart. Very promising indeed!
Each different character class gets starting equipment, generally a knife, some starting Golden Crowns, travelling gear and some additional gear like a backpack, a weapon and a cooking pot depending on the class. Starting GP is always 3d6 gold crows. Jaeger begins the game well equipped and in possesion of 13 crowns, a Fortune!
Last and most importantly is to determine the career your character occupied before making the big step and choosing the illustrious path of Adventure! Each class has its own random table and the game recommends that, especially for starting characters, occupation is selected randomly! And what a grand assortment it is. Each class has between 14-17 starting occupations, each with a selection of skills, starting equipment and occasionally the odd special rule. Some skills like the Entertainer or Thief, can be further subdivided into different specialities. In keeping with the general feel of Warhammer Fantasy, fortune plays a very large role in the process and the occupations are NOT BALANCED AT ALL. You have as much chance starting out as a former Bounty Hunter or Dwarven Troll-Slayer, well-trained and heavily armed as you have as a Pedlar, Herbalist, Rat-catcher (actually a pretty good occupation, however ignoble) or a Servant.
Some of these are amazing. The Agitator with his backpack of Pamphlets and his talent for rabble-rousing. The Protagonist who is hired to pick fights with people. The Grave-robber, the Circus-Strongman.
The occupations offer an astonishingly diverse number of backgrounds and cover a great many professions within the Old World, thus ensuring that each new party will feel diverse and new as well as fleshing out the Grim and Perilous World of Warhammer Fantasy. A point that needs to be adressed is that all these occupations are fairly street-level, meaning your characters are not super-heroes when they begin. You might be an unusually tough Pit-Fighter or even a Noble or a Wizard’s Apprentice, but you are by no means a match for a Knight of Sigmar, a Witchfinder or a Wizard. You are street-level punks that chose the profession of adventurer in search of something better, or, more commonly, to escape a dire fate.
Some of the starting skills are really fucking cool and very rare. For example, a Fire-eater has an extra attack that involves drinking alcohol and spitting fire. The Circus Strongman gains extra Strength but needs to spend 150% on food or lose this bonus until his diet is resumed for a month. And of course, the noble Ratcatcher starts the game in the possesion of a small but Vicious Dog.
Anyway Jaeger rolls on the ranger chart and fate decides he started out as a Toll-keeper, a very perilous profession in the violent and bandit-ridden lands of the Empire. He starts out with the Evaluate and Haggle skills, giving him a +10% chance to perform those tasks respectively, as well as a Mail Shirt, Crossbow and Shield. Nice.
Each profession has a so-called Advance Scheme that lists different values under different attributes, as well as a number of exit careers (which will be covered in a later part of the series). Since each starting character gets a free advance from this scheme, we select BS +10. And Jaeger is ready to begin his career.
Name: Jaeger von Saufmarchen
Career class: Ranger
Current Career: Toll-Keeper
M 3 WS 34 BS 38 (48) S 2 T 3 W 6 I 29 A 1 Dex 33 Ld 32 Int 30 Cl 30 Wp 35 Fel 36
Skills: Drive Cart, Evaluate, Haggle.
Equipment: Mail Shirt, Crossbow and Ammunition, Handaxe, Shield, Suit of Good worn travel clothing (tatty hat, cloak, thick leather boots). Leatherback w. 2 blankets, cutlery, tinderbox and small cooking pot. Flask of water. Small knife in sheath. 13 Crowns.
And we are off!
Skills are very broad and diverse, covering an astonishing variety of actions. They are also rather confusing. In later games skills would be divided into skills/feats or skills/Talents to avoid further confusion. Some skills are very specific, like Surgery, and allow you to perform actions that would otherwise be impossible. Some skills merely improve your chance of success in performing a certain task (i.e Haggle gives you +10% to Bargain actions), some give you an ability or improve one of your attributes. In general actions involve rolling under the relevant attribute on a d100.
Thus far, Warhammer Fantasy offers an astonishingly varied if unwieldy approach to character creation, ensuring that, even with the inevitable repeated character deaths, characters will rarely feel the same. A good game gives you the tools to make each character feel unique and embedded in the fictional world and at this it succeeds brilliantly.
Join me next time when we discuss rules. Grimdark Adventure Awaits!