Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1e Pt. VI; Like DnD but…

This chapter concerning the Old World’s Menagerie comes with a preface of like DnD but…, as do the two preceding it. Lets start with a general overview. I have not covered Bestiaries of appreciable size before so the format might be a bit rough. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Monsters in WHF 1e are statted similar to PCs. A guide for converting them from Warhammer Fantasy Battle is provided, allowing you to import creatures directly from your Army books, which is fucking awesome. An easy upgrade format is also provided, allowing you to make champions and heroes (i.e elite mobs) for the various humanoid races described within the book.

The first thing one realizes upon reading through the entries is how big a role the Cool stat is likely to play in many games. A large percentage of the monsters in the bestiary causes Fear in creatures below 10 feet (i.e you). If you fail a Fear check (i.e Cool test) when confronting such a creature you are paralyzed with fear for the rest of the round, repeat until you succeed. Any creature over 10 feet high causes Fear, as do many if not all of the most formidable monsters. You can be an absolute stone-cold slayer of men but if your cool score is low you will whimper in the face of these horrors. Nice.

Besides Fear, monsters are equipped with the full arsenal of special abilities found in any RPG. Cause infected wounds, poison, gaze attacks (which may be averted at a great cost to hit chance and increased vulnerability), constriction, breath weapon attacks, regeneration, the ability to cause various diseases and so the list goes on. Some monsters, like trolls and giants, are quite formidable but suffer from stupidity,  a vulnerability that allows them to be tricked and makes them unable to direct their actions effectively. Ghouls, for example, will drop whatever it is they are doing to consume the corpses of the recently slain.

The Bestiary is divided into several sections. The Humanoid section covers the more well-known varieties of orcs, goblins, ogres, trolls, giants and orcs that we all know and love, as well as your humans, elves, dwarves and halflings. I like the way the game uses short descriptive passages to give some identity to these well-worn tropes of the fantasy roleplaying genre. Goblins are cowardly and sadistic murderers. Ogres are stupid and obsessed with eating. Giants were once the dominant species within the old world but have been driven back and have degenerated into stupid, clumsy alcoholic savages. Trolls are even more stupid and have stomach acid so potent cutting one open can ruin your armor and cause crippling injuries. Orcs are constantly infighting, the most powerful of them being the Black Orcs, the end-product of a centuries long process of darwinian cannibalism. Even the Lizardmen and their Troglodyte servants make an appearance, virtually indistinguishable from their DnDish Counterparts.

The tropes are familiar but given a bit more of an edge, oscillating between grim and at times farcically silly, occassionally combining the two. It helps to make each monstrous race more then just a collection of hit points with slightly different stats for you to murder in search of gold or sorcerous artifacts. The demihumans are similarly well done: Elves are foppish decadents, the High Elves having grown so hedonistic that actually doing work is considered a great shame. Dwarves are a dying but proud race, obsessed with the accumulation of wealth and gradually driven from their strongholds by goblin incursions. The animosity between Elves and Dwarves is explained by a great misunderstanding leading to an epic conflict in ages past and the Dwarves hold them responsible for their current predicament still to this day. Halflings are comically parochial and would have been exterminated a long time ago had they not been under the protection of the Empire (making them a perfect juxtaposition to the overall very grim and warlike tone of the Old World). Gnomes are included but their presence is superfluous, again, like Dnd.

Some new faces make their appearance; The Fimir are bizarre, cyclopean monstrosities that attack only at night or under the cover of sorcerous fog and require human females for procreation. Bands of hideously mutated Beastmen serve as the footsoldiers of the forces of Chaos, led by black-armoured human champions of the Dark Gods. Minotaurs are not a seperate race, but merely giant, bloodthirsty beastmen with the heads of bulls. And of course we have the Skaven; arguably the coolest of the major races in Warhammer Fantasy, Skaven are vast hordes of ravenous ratmen that vastly outnumber mankind and live in secret in a vast network of caverns and tunnels stretching out under the Old World. They are given only a short description in this version of the game, which is a shame since Skaven lore is awesome. Still, hordes of humanoid rats that came into being by gnawing on mutagenic space rock is something anyone with wealth and taste should want in their game.

The Animals and Monsters section is most reminiscent of the old Monstrous Manual. All the classics make their appearance here: Harpies, Chimiras, Hydras, Griffons, steam-breathing dragon turtles, manticores and Pegasi. Giant intelligent Owls, Eagles and the dreaded Bog Octopus are a nice shout out to Lotr. Most of these monsters are insanely deadly and should not be tackled by the inexperienced (i.e your) party. I appreciate it that some of these beasties have rules for domestication, provided your character has the Animal Training skill and about 14 months worth of spare time. Then there are the more silly monsters that one could only reasonably expect to encounter in Dungeons. Giant Amoebae. The Chameleoleech (essentially a mimic). Various lethal forms of Mould (though annoying and often deadly, they never reach quite the level of insane lethality the brown mould did in Dnd, thank god). The coin-eating goldworm! The electricity generating Sunworm. Carnivorous marsh worms. No game would be complete without Dragons, although in this game they are more akin to vicious gold-obsessed animals then the intelligent, spell-using shitlords of DnD.

Do I even go into the normal animal section? Dire Wolves, stags, boars and bears make their appearance, as do Giant Beetles, swarms of mundane pests (nice to see Warhammer had swarm rules before DnD did, chumps!) and the War Dog (as well as the domestic dog). The format is terse, a good thing. Different varieties of the same creature are given a single stat block, with any differences in stats being described in a sentence, maximum two sentences, which saves space while retaining information density.

The descriptions of these various beasties are okay, and each is perfectly suitable for use in a fantasy game of heroic adventure and grim peril, though nothing really stands out with one exception.  The Zoat, a strange reptillian centaur creatures with druidic powers that lives and protects forests, rumoured to be the oldest race in the world is pretty cool. Unfortunately they would soon vanish from the canon. Many of the greek mythology-derived monstrosities are blamed on the mutating influence of Chaos, but this feels like a cop-out information.

The Undead make their appearance of course. Skeletons and Zombies serve solely as minions and require the guidance of a powerful necromancer or unique undead creature to prevent them from disintegrating. Ghouls are the result of men feeding on the bodies of the dead. The Vampire section is exactly like the one we all know and love, complete with a Bela Lugosi look-alike art (though the mechanism by which they can only regain magic points by feeding and require magic points to animate each night is more properly codified then in DnD). Liches are undead necromancers with a transfixing gaze attack, only without the phylactery ability that made them cool in Dnd 😦 And what heroic fantasy game would be complete without flammable mummies with a rotting disease attack? The closest thing to innovation here is the existence of the Carrion, a giant undead vulture that may be ridden by evildoers.

The incorporeal undead also show up, though the hated level drain attacks are thankfully omitted. Ghosts can merely frighten, having no power to affect the corporeal world, while Wraiths and Wights drain strength from the bodies of men, albeit temporarily. You know the deal. The appearance of the Marshlight, which hypnotizes men to lead them into perilous locations is a nice touch.

Elementals make their appearance and if you encounter one on the wrong side of the battlefield You Are Fucked. They can use an Elementalist spell per round at no point cost and while damaging them causes them to lose potency, anyone who stands against one of these mindless agents of elemental beatdown is going to get his shit ruined.

The Demons section is disappointing but there are some new contenders. Next to the, ahem, unstoppable Baalruhk (gee whiz), most demons are only described per category and in very general terms, with further details being forthcoming in later supplements. Fuck you Hogshead! We are eventually dripfed some nice unique demons. The hideous Mabrothrax, a walking anthrax epidemic with 10 attacks per round, 59 wounds and it causes THE BLACK PLAGUE if you come within 10 feet of it. The Mardagg, essentially the Grim Reaper beholden to the Blood God. And curiously, a single servant of the powers of law, the Vydiagg, an avatar of life created by the powers of Life that has a 10% chance of appearing if anyone summons the Mardagg. Demons are terrifying and horrifically powerful and will require large amounts of soft, warm, disposable bodies between themselves and even high level characters to ever take on without a TPK.
Overall, this section is the most disappointing because DESCRIBED IN FUTURE SUPPLEMENTS is a shitbag move. Better to just describe the demons of Khorne or give us a single cool servant of each of the powers of Chaos and do the rest later. Anything but these generic placeholder demons.

What more is there to say? Some of the creatures are nice and innovative and the bestiary is perfectly serviceable for what it sets out to do, which is give you shit your PCs can kill. It feels like housebrand, british DnD. Some of the silly monsters like the Goldworm would not be out of place in the Fiend Folio. As an alternative to Dnd, this suffices, and there is enough variation in the strength of the creatures to make the Bestiary useful at all levels.
It is perfectly fine, and some of the unique creatures are kind of neat, but overall there is little to set this Bestiary apart from other fantasy games, most notably DnD. Later editions of the game, as well as future supplements, would flesh out the Old World more so as to differentiate it from the generic fantasy collective unconscious from which all fantasy games are spun. The Humanoid section is definitely the strongest section of the book I should say, and insight into the behavior of these various lumpy monstrosities is given in but a few sentences, as god intended.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1e Pt. VI; Like DnD but…

  1. “Gnomes are included but their presence, as it was in Dnd, is essentially superfluous and adds little.”

    The otherwise superb Apocrypha Now is blighted by a superfluous chapter on Gnome PCs, of all things.
    I did ONCE let someone play one. ONCE. In my youth. Before I knew better.

    “though the mechanism by which they can only regain magic points by feeding and require magic points to animate each night is more defined then in ye olden times”

    It also sounds suspiciously like… I can’t put my finger on it. Points. Feeding. Nightly cost of rising from your grave to afflict the living.
    … It’ll come to me.

    “The hideous Mabrothrax, a walking anthrax epidemic with 10 attacks per round, 59 wounds and it causes THE BLACK PLAGUE if you come within 10 feet of it.”

    Heh. Used that one in a high school game to force one of those Sadistic Choices on a group who could save their afflicted members from Nurgle’s Rot OR use the resource in question to banish the Mabrothrax before it farted the world to death. They chose… well.

    While we’re talking about this: I’m sure the prosecution will have observed that the Mabrothrax and Vardagg are not, in fact, Citadel Miniatures, and the defence believes this explains the curious case of the shitbags in the night-time.

    Without wanting to get all white-knight-for-Hogshead or descend too far into gamer Talmudism, the production history of the Chaos range and related rules is an ass and a half. According to GW’s Rick Priestley, Slaves to Darkness was slated for a second edition WFB release, along with the attendant range of Warhammer ‘daemons’, but then a little thing called Rogue Trader came along, also a bunch of recently-fired RPG devs who brought their work on another system (begins with P I think) into the first, GW-produced edition of WFRP.

    Since Bryan Ansell wanted the Chaos books to be good for all his games, this allegedly slowed down development of the ‘daemon’ range and meant the ideas just weren’t finished in time for WFRP or Rogue Trader’s core books. Factor in the Malal copyright brouhaha on top and you can see why the presentation of Chaos in these volumes is a bit… sparse and wonky. We would be well into third edition WFB before the work was done and Slaves arrived; near the end by the time The Lost and Damned completed the range. Not long afterwards, the Bastard Prince Tom Kirby decreed that WFRP was unperson, about which time Hogshead was formed to reprint and complete the range (eventually delivering Realms of Sorcery, decades down the line!).

    (This may turn out to be horse cobblers but! now that I’ve said it, an Oldhammer person will be summoned by my aggressive disrespect for the Facts and supply the true story in between trying to sell us miniatures on the pretext that owning things for thirty years entitles you to make twenty times what the creators were paid for their labour.)

    “It feels like offbrand, british DnD.”

    Considering this is how GW got their start I would expect nothing less.

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    1. Von!

      [Gnomes]

      Gnomes are even less usefull and distinct here then they are in DnD. They at least threw the “jolly pranksters using illusion magic” in there to make them distinct from dwarves. Here they are essentially off-brand Dwarves. The Budd Light of Dwarvenkind if you will.

      [Nosferatu the Deception]

      You will burn in the square of Altdorf for your heretical proclamations.

      [Marbothrax & Miniatures trivia]

      Consider yourself guilty of providing useful commentary. Don’t let it happen again.

      @Bigby

      [Fimir]

      Formorians are a pretty good bet. Removing the Fimir’s neccesity to breed with human beings makes them less scary and hideous and Grimdark. In the current set-up, the two species are forced into constant antagonism yet the Fimir cannot survive without constantly seeking out human settlements. If you remove the human female breeding aspect they’d be more like Ants and their reasons for fighting mankind would be less distinct from that of the other five hundred species of hostile humanoid the Warhammer World has to offer.

      [Zoats]

      Not really sci-fi but…I can’t put my finger on it. Science Fantasy maybe, or some weird, off-brand sword-and-planet type of pulpy fantasy. I concur it is a shame they dissapeared, even though I understand the reason (NO MINATURES NO MONAYYYY).

      [Skaven]

      There is something uniquely captivating about Skaven as opposed to Orcs or Lizardmen or something. Endless hordes burrowing in vast tunnel-systems underneath the earth, cowardly, always hungry, possessed of a disturbing rat-like ingenuity, total disregard for the lives of themselves and others, wage war as a means of population control etc.

      [Tolkinian derivation]

      I agree in part. I feel a complete deviation from the Tolkinian mould would have made the world too alien for many people to get into properly, but the good stuff is usually the Chaos stuff and the medievally stuff, and later editions would further distinguish themselves from the Professor and The High Bearded One, to mostly good effect (see also grumbling about the current Age of Sigmar Battleworld tossfiddle).

      [Carrion]

      Possible, but I have not read RotK so I cannot comment. (T’is on my list damnit).

      [Campaigning]

      Man, Orcs are almost never the correct answer, there is always something cooler. If you are playing Dark Heresy you should use Chaos or Tyranids, and in Fantasy you should use Beastmen, Skaven, Chaos or fucking human bandits. I completely agree with keeping the campaign humanocentric for the most part, that seems to be in the spirit of the game, with nonhumans being objects of either incredulity, fear, awe or dread.
      Warhammer Demons are some of the best demons I have seen portrayed in popular fantasy tossfiddle.

      [2e Elfy]

      Book of Elves was a tragedy, but the core rulebooks were pretty much neutral (mayhaps a bit too many magical items made by the elves).

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  2. The Fimir are clearly based on the Formorians of Irish legendry. It’s funny how they seem to have disappeared from the canon early on with no trace, especially given the amount of page space they have in the original book. Besides being squicky, the whole ‘must breed with human females’ thing is kinda hackneyed, but it seems to have been a trend in UK gaming (I’m looking at YOU, White Dwarf cyclops)… I’d probably just make the powerful female sorceresses into a ‘queen’ with multiple drone offspring (less squicky, but just as hackneyed).

    I like Zoats- it’s as if a sci-fi alien somehow ended up in Fantasyland. I especially dig their rune-inscribed mace/maul weapons. These critters also should have received more love from GDW, but they pretty much disappeared as well… probably found enough Deuterium for the fusion reactor of their saucer.

    Skaven, a great concept, they really lend a dark Leiberian atmosphere to the game, very ‘Swords of Lankhmar’. As a New Yorker, I really don’t mind rats (Pizza Rat is just a fellow resident, trying to provide for its family), but I know a lot of people who are really freaked out by them (on the job, one individual hired to be one of my subordinates couldn’t last a night because he was afraid of rats, spiders, and the dark- three strikes, baby, you’re out). WHFRP really lends itself to a great ‘urban paranoia’ campaign, too bad that rat catchers don’t have as many advances as assassins or templars.

    As you can probably tell, I think WHFRP excels when it ventures out of the D&D/Tolkien bubble. That being said, I like the fluff about ogres being obsessed with eating, and the fact that they aren’t out of place in human armies. I like the trolls’ digestive acid attack- a bit of originality amidst the Andersonian/D&D portrayal. The beastmen are pretty much Runequest’s broos… while I like them, I prefer the mutants which get more detail in ‘The Enemy Within’. I like the idea of innocent weirdos fighting both persecution from their mundane neighbors and exploitation by the Chaotic forces which they may be driven to join. Oh, and the ‘carrion’ seems to me to be based on the Witch King’s mount in RotK.

    Yeah, I think that WHFRP is at its best when the orks and goblins take a backseat. As far as daemons go, I prefer Lovecraftian Chaos weirdos to something more ‘traditional’. Bhaalruhks, indeed. I’d probably run a 90% humanocentric campaign, but the fluff seems to be overly ‘dwarfy’, much like 2E AD&D was much too ‘elfy’ for my tastes.

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    1. They disappeared because they didn’t sell. They didn’t sell because their rules in WFB made them out to be tough line infantry but they were sculpted, based and priced as monsters, i.e. in the tactical niche of trolls and ogres, where they didn’t have the stats to compete. Retroactive outrage at reptilian rape monsters be damned. The spice truly flows from whether or not a model works in the wargame.

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  3. WHFRP up to Death on the Reik and Dragon Warriors both struck me as superior in imagination to any of the TSR D&D adventure material but inferior in the basic abstraction of game rules which in the end is all you need if you can create your own world. However in the end scenario IMO is more important than rules particularly as there is nothing stopping anyone from absorbing rule concepts from Gygax.

    I can’t imagine Death on the Reik or the DW scenarios played with D&D characters and rules and so I conclude you have to decide which is more important to you as a DM the adventure or the rules. Start with one and create the other. I hate to say it because i respect Gygax above other gamers but I believe the best path is to create scenarios first, like WHFRP & DW, and to follow with your own ruleset.

    It is safe to say though that the WHFRP & DW rules independent from those great settings are weak. And the Gygax D&D rules lean you heavily towards the classic D&D modules. No easy solution here that I have seen.

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    1. [Imagination]

      Aye, but part of DnD’s succes might lie in its somewhat amorphous hodge-pogey nature, making it easier to homebrew your own campaign and requiring less time for muggles to get aquainted with the game. The superficial nature of many of its elements allows for easy interaction, with additional depth being an optional element at the GM’s discretion.

      [Scenario’s first]

      If it’s a choice between two systems then I should say it’s playstyle is upstream from adventure is upstream from campaign is upstream from setting is upstream from system. The system is ultimately just a tool to allow you to play a game of make-pretend. Thus we are in agreement.

      [(final) Solution]

      Aye. The quest for a universal system is a hopeless endaevour, the elfgame equivalent of the Search for the North-West Passage.

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